My Take on What Has Gone Wrong in the Presbyterian Church in America

FORGET NONE OF HIS BENEFITS

volume 18, number 30, July 25, 2019

“. . . my children are desolate because the enemy has prevailed.” -Lamentations 1:16

My Take on What Has Gone Wrong in the Presbyterian Church in America

Jeremiah the prophet writes the above words after the horrific exile of the people of Judah to Babylon. He and the other prophets had long warned the people of impending doom and the necessity of repentance but they refused prophetic overtures. So Jeremiah laments over the present, dreadful situation in which they found themselves. The children of the land were desolate, destitute, forsaken. Why? Because the enemy had prevailed. It seems to me that the enemy is prevailing in the PCA. By this I do not mean the Teaching or Ruling Elders in the PCA. I am referring to our common enemy, the evil one himself, the one who is a liar, a murderer, and deceiver, the dragon, the serpent of old who is called the devil.

The PCA began in December, 1973 in the historical context of New Side, Old School Presbyterianism. During the Great Awakening of 1735 and following, a controversy arose between Presbyterians in Colonial America. On the one hand there were what came to be called the Old Side Presbyterians, and on the other the New Side Presbyterians. The Old Side leaders were suspicious of the revival and supernaturalism. They outwardly held to the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) but did not approve of the fire and brimstone preaching of the men they called “enthusiasts”. They were insulted that these preachers were calling nice, Presbyterian church members to faith and repentance, even those who had been baptized as infants. The Old Side Presbyterians also had their issues on denying, to a lesser or greater degree, the free offer of the gospel and they spoke little of the doctrine of regeneration.[1] Their’s was a more formal, rigid religion. 

New Side Presbyterians, on the other hand, held to the doctrinal purity in the Westminster Confession of Faith and believed in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit who could bring instant conviction of sin and conversion through regeneration. They championed, “You must be born again.” Their foremost leader was Gilbert Tennent, who in March, 1740 preached a controversial sermon, “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry.” This sermon was a major cause of the division. New Side preachers believed in the supernatural convicting and converting ministry of the Holy Spirit. They preached in the open air and were itinerant, going from town to town to preach Christ crucified. Jonathan Edwards, a Congregationalist, and George Whitefield, an Anglican, both supported Tennent and the New Side Presbyterians. Tennent raised the issue of unconverted men in the Presbyterian ministry and the dangers this wrought within the church. 

The PCA also began as an Old School denomination. Another controversy arose in the 1830’s within Presbyterianism concerning the New Haven theology (which was at best Semipelagian)[2] along with the new measures of Charles Finney (1792-1875). Northern Presbyterians like Asahel Nettleton and Charles Hodge joined Southern Presbyterians like James Henley Thornwell, Daniel Baker, Benjamin Palmer, John Girardeau, and R.L. Dabney to say that the Westminster Confession of Faithaccurately expresses the doctrine of man and salvation, that man is totally unable to be saved apart from the convicting and regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. Practically this meant that Old School Presbyterian evangelists like Nettleton and Baker resisted the manipulation and altar calls of Finney and the New School Presbyterians. They still, however, fervently preached Christ and urged people everywhere to repent and call on the name of the Lord to be saved. The PCA was born out of a culture of revival (New Side) and doctrinally faithful (Old School) Presbyterianism.

Therefore, the PCA began as a denomination firmly committed to the Great Commission and the Reformed faith. We had very faithful and fervent evangelists in the early years, men like Bill Hill, Ben Wilkinson, Arnie Maves, Frank Barker, Kennedy Smartt, and D. James Kennedy, all of whom saw many people come to faith in Christ in their ministries. We embraced Evangelism Explosion and the discipleship of believers which stressed spiritual disciplines like scripture memory, daily devotional times including lengthy times in personal prayer, weekly prayer meetings at our churches, and personal evangelism. For our small size, we were sending out more missionaries than any other denomination in the world and those missionaries were evangelizing, discipling, and planting churches. We were on mission. We were not missional.[3] Almost exclusively we embraced the (WCF’s) clear statement of literal six day creation, and the idea of women elders or deacons was not on the table for discussion. Reformed University Ministries (RUM), later changed to Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) was, in my mind, the most effective and dynamic ministry in the PCA. And in reaction to the “top down”, centralized government of the mother denomination from which the PCA came, the PCUS, we had decentralized offices for our permanent committees. Mission to the World was in Atlanta. Mission to the U.S. (MUS), later changed to Mission to North American (MNA), was in Jackson, Mississippi, Christian Education and Publications was in Montgomery, Alabama, and Administration was in Columbus, Georgia. However by the late 1970’s or so all the permanent committee offices were in Atlanta and over several years greater and greater authority was usurped by the Permanent Committees. We have become a top down, rather than a grass roots denomination. 

Not unlike the Federal government, the growing bureaucracy in the PCA is easily recognizable by taking a look at the original Book of Church Order (BCO). It was paper thin compared to the one we have today. Over the last forty years, through one amendment after another, the (BCO) has become unwieldy. We have become lost in an avalanche of motions, pronouncements, study committees, and finely nuanced positions on everything from women in the military, to four acceptable views of creation, women in ministry, the essence of the gospel in the Federal Vision controversy, and now the issue of homosexual pastors in the PCA. 

Two of our major turning points were Joining and Receiving (J&R) in 1983 and Good Faith Subscription (GFS) in 2002. (J&R) brought into the PCA the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod RPCES which gave us Covenant College and Covenant Seminary. The RPCES had connections with the New School Presbyterians of the Nineteenth century and this is evidenced in their allowance of women deacons and old earth views of creation. A liberalizing element came into the PCA in 1983 which began to chip away at our New Side, Old School origin. This departure from our beginning was accelerated with Good Faith Subscription (GFS) at the Birmingham General Assembly in 2002. The controversy was over strict subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) which allowed for very few exceptions to the (WCF), and (GFS) which was New School and allowed more exceptions. This practically has resulted in some of our Presbyteries being very strict and allowing nothing more than possibly taking a morning run before church or eating out after church on the one hand; while other Presbyteries allow many exceptions like believing in the ordination of women deacons (though not publicly teaching that position), the framework hypothesis on creation, and same-sex attraction of PCA Ruling and Teaching Elders. 

Where has this all led us at this present time? We now have a denomination I scarcely recognize. We have a very clear and ever increasing progressive element in the PCA which has embraced in varying degrees social justice, critical race theory, Intersectionalism, homosexuality, and the failure of a Presbytery to discipline a Teaching Elder who has publicly admitted he is a homosexual. We now have a denomination which gave this Teaching Elder a round of applause on the floor of the General Assembly for his impassioned speech against acceptance of the Nashville Statement. This same General Assembly brought a charge of intemperance on a Teaching Elder who straightforwardly and gently, while citing one Bible reference after another, made his case for the passage of an overture which sought to clarify the issue of same-sex attraction. 

Some have suggested these differences are merely regional in nature. That is, the Teaching and Ruling Elders in the larger metropolitan areas in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest are more liberal because they have seen the need to contextualize the gospel while those in the south and “flyover country” are more conservative because their places of ministry are still more conservative. This is nonsense. I know men in the Northeast who are very conservative, New Side and Old School, and I know men in the south and midwest who are liberal or progressive on these issues.   

The PCA is in the throes of death because of the homosexual issue. Too strong a statement? I don’t think so. The homosexual agenda, social justice, and the other issues plaguing us are symptomatic of something deeper. And what is that? We generally do not preach the full gospel. We tend to preach a “justification only” gospel, akin to Lutheranism. I go into much more detail on this issue in a post dated June 14, 2018.[4] Simply put, we rarely hear preachers or lay people stress the doctrine of regeneration (Ezekiel 36:25-27, John 3:3, 1 Corinthians 6:11, Titus 3:5,6, 1 Peter 1:3,4). To go further, we seldom hear pastors stress the necessity of holiness, self-denial, surrender, putting off the old man and putting on the new man, putting to death the deeds of the body, and walking by the Spirit (Romans 6:12,13, Ephesians 4:22-24, 1 Peter 1:13-16, Hebrews 12:14-17, 2 Corinthians 7:1, Galatians 5:16-18). It seems to me then, that the only explanation for the growing acceptance of the homosexual agenda in the PCA is accommodation to the world, coupled with a lack of confidence in the transforming work of regenerating grace which happens when a person is delivered from the domain of darkness and placed into the kingdom of Christ. He becomes a new creation. The old has passed away and the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17). He then has everything he needs for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3,4). He can have victory over sin in his life. The present “lament” and “sacrifice” of homosexuals who choose not to act on their sin is pitiful. It is an affront to the gospel of grace. There is no power in this movement. There is no victory in this. There is only sadness for these people. Christ came to save and transform sinners and He does so everyday. 

There has already begun a slow trickle of pastors and churches leaving the PCA and this will no doubt speed up in the months ahead. I remember reading many years ago a quote from Francis Schaeffer. He was asked, “When is the right time to leave a denomination?” Schaeffer’s response, “When the courts no longer work.” Sadly, I fear that time has come. I, along with some forty other Teaching and Ruling Elders in the PCA, filed a complaint against Memorial Presbyterian Church, St. Louis last fall, citing their hosting of the Revoice Conference which we showed from actual quotes of what was said there, to be a largely heretical gathering. The Session of Memorial PCA referred this to Missouri Presbytery which basically exonerated the church of any wrongdoing. 

No doubt some within the PCA will bring charges against the pastor for his admission of homosexuality on the floor of the General Assembly. At best he seems to have been disingenuous when he took his ordination vows because he did not say then that he was a homosexual which is out of accord with our church standards (Larger Catechism Q and A 139).[5] At worst, he seems to have been lying about his identity. So, a complaint will be filed against either the pastor or Missouri Presbytery which will eventually make its way to the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) of the PCA. Since the vote to approve the Nashville Statement was only 60/40, should this not tell us that the progressive or liberal element in the PCA is larger than many would care to admit, especially among the Teaching Elders (pastors)? With this in mind, I simply ask this question, do you really believe the (SJC) will have the courage to go against Missouri Presbytery? This would cause a massive split in the PCA and the major players in the PCA certainly do not want that to happen. 

I really hope the PCA can handle these issues quickly, justly, and Biblically. Nothing would please me more than to see my beloved denomination get it together and get back to our roots.

I remember Dr. Elmer Dortzbach, one of my professors at RTS Jackson many years ago, in speaking also on the issue of when to leave a denomination. He said that this is like women whose husbands are serial adulterers. Some women have a greater degree of tolerance for infidelity than others. One may stay in a failing marriage longer than another, hoping and working for reconciliation, while another wife cannot bear the humiliation of infidelity any longer. Neither are wrong. Each has her own pain tolerance level. Like a formerly unfaithful husband who brings forth fruits of repentance and once again gains his former wife’s confidence and is reunited with his wife in marriage; perhaps the PCA will put away our folly and come back to our origin as a faithful, Biblical, and confessional denomination committed to the Great Commission and the Reformed Faith. Nothing would please me more.  

Next week I hope to show how we can extract ourselves from this mess. 

________________________

1. For example, they wondered how the New Side preachers could expect a drunkard or prostitute to come to Christ without first getting their lives in order. They believed that one must get rid of their sin first and then the Spirit could do His saving work. They also were more justification only in their preaching while rarely speaking of regeneration.
2. Semipelagianism was a compromise between Pelagianism which taught, on the one hand, that man has the complete ability in his own strength to come to saving faith in Christ, and Augustine, on the other, who taught man’s total inability to come to faith, that such a work is only possible by the Holy Spirit drawing and regenerating the unbeliever. In Semipelagianism man is not altogether spiritually dead and thus incapable of calling on the name of the Lord to be saved. Rather he has the vestiges of free will left in him which must be appealed to by the evangelist. Thus the evangelist can and should make use of every tool in his tool box to appeal to man’s will, since by the sinner’s own will he can decide or not decide for Christ.  
3. For more detail, I take up this issue of mission versus missional at <Fnohb.home.blog> April 20, 2017.
4. <www.Fnohb.home.blog> June 14, 2018.
5. The sins forbidden in the seventh commandment . . . are adultery, fornication, rape, incest, sodomy, and all unnatural lusts. . .  

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