To Split or Stay?

When Is It Right to Leave?

PCAAlmost from the moment I came into contact with the PCA, in 1984, people were talking about whether the PCA should split. So it’s not entirely surprising that informal talk of splitting the PCA should still exist. Nevertheless, it was a little surprising to see a post by Sam DeSocio suggesting that the various groups in the PCA might benefit from a split.

You should read and consider the arguments for yourself.  From the outside it seems as if there probably are several groups within the PCA with distinct identities. Some of what distinguishes these groups is geography, some of it  is theological, and some is sociological. What is striking, however, is how prominent the word “philosophy” is in the post. We do speak of philosophy of ministry or philosophy of worship but those are colloquial ways of speaking that don’t have much warrant in Scripture or in the confession. There is a hierarchy of authority in Reformed and Presbyterian churches: Scripture->confession->church order. The perspicuous Word of God norms all. The church confesses an understanding of God’s Word in binding ecclesiastical documents and articulates certain principles of polity in the application of the Word to the daily life of the institutional church. Philosophies of ministry are interesting but they have no ecclesiastical standing. They aren’t primary, secondary, or even tertiary authorities. They are nothing more than potentially interesting (or tedious) theories.

What unites the Reformed and Presbyterian churches is not a philosophy of ministry but the Word of God as confessed by the churches. There’s no denying that real differences do develop in the life of a denomination but as these surface the first response should not be to divide but to re-form around God’s Word as confessed by the churches.

The Westminster Standards are still the confession of the PCA. With the adoption of a “good faith” approach to subscription (affirmation) of the confession, one might ask whether the standards function the same way in every presbytery or among the various identity groups within the PCA but they still summarize the PCA’s understanding of God’s Word, i.e., it’s theology, piety, and practice.

The way forward, as Daryl Hart has reminded us (see his reaction to the V73 post here), is to stop defining ourselves (speaking now of all the NAPARC denominations) by the categories “conservative” and “liberal.” Rather, we should analyze our denominations by the categories of “confessional” or “non-confessional.” That is what should determine the future coherence of the PCA and that is the proper ground for determining whether to stay or split. If confessional congregations determine that a denomination is not presently confessional or if groups that find themselves alienated from the confession and unable to subscribe honestly to the standards, if all churchly efforts have been exhausted, and that there is no reasonable expectation of a return to the confession (theology, piety, and practice) in future, then there are grounds for a division. Short of that, however, it seems premature to speaking of dividing a visible expression of Christ’s church.

In recent years, there have been ecclesiastical trials and other procedures in the PCA regarding the Federal Vision—with mostly disappointing outcomes—but there have not been heresy trials like the Briggs trial nor has the PCA become notorious for tolerating heterodoxy. Whatever tensions exist, grounds for divorce do not yet seem to exist.

Vintage73 is a clever, hip reference to the founding of the PCA. To be sure a denomination’s history is essential to its self-understanding and its maturity but let me suggest a bottle of win of an older vintage: 1648. The roots of any confessional Presbyterian church pre-date American Presbyterianism by about 80 years and the formation of the PCA by 325 years. The application and reception of the confession is local and unique and influenced by a denomination’s history but its ultimate identity is in God’s Word as confessed by the churches. If there is, in reality, no longer any unity of confession then division will become inevitable but that must only be determined judiciously and perhaps judicially and certainly not lightly.


  1. Determining whether churches are
    “Confessional and non-confessional”
    seems too simplistic. There are debates
    over the interpretation of the WCF are
    many so it would there’s a certain
    subjectivity as what someone “subscribes”

    • Matt,

      Yes, there are difficulties regarding subscription but they are not insuperable. There is a detailed discussion of them and their resolution in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

      Don’t you think it would be better for the churches to be discussing how we ought to relate to the thing we all confess rather than discussing philosophies of ministry to which we have no such obligation? Our ministers, elders, and (in some cases) members have taken vows to uphold the confession, not philosophies of ministry. If people have taken vows isn’t it worth figuring out to what and how we have done?

      My suggestion is that reject the “insofar as” (quatenus) approach that is widely assumed in American Presbyterianism and get back to the original “because” (quiz) approach. That is, we should subscribe (lit = “to write one’s name underneath”) the Standards “because they are biblical” rather than “insofar as.” It is the latter that creates the fundamental problem.

      If we cannot subscribe the Standards “because” then we need to have an honest discussion about what people no longer believe in the confession and consider seriously writing a confession that folk can confess. It is a bad idea to subscribe a document that one rejects in substance. That’s not good faith subscription. That’s the definitiion of bad faith subscription.

      I say that we know what the Standards intend to teach. What we need to decide is whether we still believe what they say.

  2. Dr. Clark, here, here! I think you pushing “philosophy of ministry” to the edge compared to the Confessions and church order is right on. I suspect that there is a much stronger unity there than what we might guess. However, aren’t some of the debates today are merely reflecting the struggles of Presbyterians and Reformed historically? Strict subscriptionism vs. broad subscriptionism? Jot and tittle subscriptionism vs. system of doctrine confessionalism? What exceptions are allowed and who decides? These questions have plagued American Presbyterians since the 18th century.

    Additionally, despite your effort to push philosophy of ministry to the side, one wonders how many of today’s divisive issues are actually Confessional. Certainly some aspects of the justification controversy, historical Adam, historical Fall. But 2K vs Kuyperianism? Eschatology? Other aspects of the origins debate? BT vs. ST? Music in worship? Even women’s ordination? Are these really confessional? General assemblies and synods seem to be willing to tackle non-confessional issues and make the part of the denominational animus without ever actually modifying the confession. Perhaps some of our divisions are a result of this.

  3. Dr. Clark, I read the original article the other day and it troubled me greatly. Is splitting off the answer for every disagreement? Seemed off from a biblically and ecclesiologically.

    Loved your quote from Daryl Hart “we should analyze our denominations by the categories of “confessional” or “non-confessional.” ”

    I’m relatively new to the PCA, and I’m still having a hard time understanding the PCA identity as a whole, seems easier to do that with denoms like the OPC. In our Presbytery my church would fall into the more traditional, confessional description, but we have one church in our presbyter that is very “relevant, YRR, and Acts 29 friendly” and doesn’t mention the westminster standards or it’s PCA affiliation on it’s website. I don’t mention this to throw stones but just to illustrate how the PCA does seem to have an identity problem and I can see how this can cause division. I know it’s a stumbling block for me as a confessionally reformed, westminster standards, BCO guy.

    Anyway, sorry for rambling, great post, great response to the original post!

    • Thanks Al!

      The PCA is complicated because it is composed of a variety of movements and identities. Ecclesiastically, it’s composed of churches that withdrew from the old PCUS (Southern Presbyterians) and then the RPCES joined. As the largest NAPARC body the PCA is the most complicated and the most like American evangelicalism.

      Wayne Sparkman keeps an archive online.

      Here’s Wayne’s blog.

      Frank Smith wrote a history some years back.

      Maybe starting with Hart and Muether’s history would be good.

  4. Thank you for the article, brother! Well said, and very encouraging. The answer is repentance, not separation. Starting with repenting for permitting perjured men to serve in the Lord’s house.

  5. I think Sam DeSocio is right about different philosophies in the PCA, hower misguided I think his article is in other ways. Here’s a short article which I think, based on my ten years in the PCA, is a concise example of the differing philosophies that come up on many issues- -Some of us see this as an obvious no, while the other side can’t fathom why we care about such “trivia”.

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  7. Dr. Clark,

    I’m did not expect sure that my article was going to receive such strong response from such varied individuals.

    To be fair the words “theology and theological” are found as often as “philosophy”.
    I decide on that term because, as some commentators have already noted, all ordained Elders in the PCA take vows in regard to their agreement with the WCF. (Sure we allow for exceptions, but so did the first Presbytery in 1788.)

    I was never aware that Philosophy of ministry was dangerous word. It certainly wasn’t at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary. One of their capstone classes focused on that very topic.
    Their understanding, and mine as well, is that a philosophy of ministry bringing together biblical and theological training, and confessional commitments to apply them to the work of the church.

    • Sam,

      Thanks for this. Okay, fair point, but theology is still not confession. The confession teaches doctrine but it also entails a certain piety and certain practices. I was assuming a distinction between “theology” and confession. Our confession has a status that “theology” does not. The confession is not a mini-systematic theology. We don’t relate to the confession the way we relate to a systematic theology.

      Philosophy isn’t a dangerous word but it’s not a word over which a visible manifestation of Christ’s church should be split. The only basis on which to divide is God’s Word as confessed by the churches. Philosophies of ministry come and go but God’s Word doesn’t change. The confession hasn’t changed for nearly 500 years. I don’t think the same way about ministry I did 25 years ago but I do confess the same faith. I like to think that I understand the confession more fully now than I did then and that, over the years, I’ve become more faithful to the confession (and to its spirit and intent) than I was 25 years ago. Fresh out of seminary I was ignorant about of lot of things. One way I’ve changed is that I don’t analyze issues by using the categories “conservative” and “liberal” as much. I try to use the church’s confession of the Word not just as a summary of theology but as a grid, a way of analyzing things, a way of seeing things, and a way of speaking.

      In other words, I’m not trying to synthesize someone else’s insights with the confession nor am I trying to graft onto the confession some foreign element but I’m trying to let the church’s confession of the Word lead me to a more biblical theology, piety, and practice.

      We have our own piety and practice. We don’t need to synthesize it with someone else’s.

      What the NAPARC churches need is not more splits but more Reformation.

  8. Scott,

    What’s curious about the discussion of “confessional” vs. “non-confessional” is the term that sprung up in the Peter Leithart trial – Generic Presbyterianism.

    That’s the term Leithhart’s defenders used against those who accused him of teaching contrary to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Such people assert that the PCA was founded to be a big tent – big enough to tolerate intinction and non-intinction, paedo-communion and non-paedo-communion, belief in the Covenant of Works and formulations that fall short of the Covenant of Works, Six Day Creation as well as Framework Hypothesis, Analogical View, etc. (along with many other matters). As you know Leithart was found not guilty largely on this basis.

    Some presbyteries are very confessional and in practice their churches are quite similar to the brethren in the OPC and URCNA. Other presbyteries practice ‘generic Presbyterianism’ and often what unites them is agreement on church-planting methodology (a philosophy of ministry). We also have church-planting networks that focus on particular regions or metropolitan areas. About the only thing they will not tolerate are “confessional” pastors and church planters who want to plant “confessional” churches.

    Should there be a split? I don’t know. Folks are aware of the tensions and are talking to one another. But how long can we go when every General Assembly reveals one or more presbyteries pushing the confessional envelope?

    • Hey Dave,

      That decision (PNWP) was quite puzzling. The logic seems clear:

      1. The PCA categorically rejects the FV
      2. Leithart teaches FV
      3. Ergo: The PCA rejects Leithart

      I don’t see how anyone can doubt the major or the minor. PL has made it very clear what he thinks. The trial transcripts that I saw were disturbing.

      Our (the Reformed) confession is clear. What is question is whether we’re going to deal honestly with what we confess.

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  10. Dr. Clark, thanks for the response, it’s been very helpful!

    “As the largest NAPARC body the PCA is the most complicated and the most like American evangelicalism.”

    I didn’t really understand the PCA before I posted, that shows in my earlier post, but this is a good start. Maybe I was expecting something that isn’t the reality…

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