Almost 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.