SJC of the PNP (PCA) Rules Leithart's Views Orthodox?

That’s all Presbyterian code for the Standing Judicial Committee of the Pacific Northwest Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. The news comes from Jason Stellman. The SJC had two reports before them concerning the doctrine taught by Peter Leithart, a minister who labors, with permission, outside the bounds of the PCA but who is under their oversight. The Presbytery accepted the majority report and has, through the SJC, denied an appeal. One imagines that the next court to hear this case will be the General Assembly.

Of course it is disappointing that the Presbytery’s SJC did not uphold the appeal. It is near impossible to how one can square the public statements by Leithart with the action of the 2007 General Assembly. Either the PCA supports and requires its ministers and elders (in PCA speak that’s teaching elders and ruling elders) to support and teach the biblical, Protestant, evangelical faith confessed in the Westminster Standards or it does not.

I understand that some believe that there were some procedural and technical problems with the minority report. Fine. Where were those concerns during the process? Why isn’t the failure of the majority of the Presbytery and the majority report, and the SJC simply a failure of nerve to face up to the challenge presented to it by the Leithart’s plain contradiction of the Reformed faith? I admit that, when it comes to the gospel, when it comes to the basics of the Reformed and historic Protestant faith, I’m a little impatient. I admit that I think that the process should serve the truth, that the BCO (Book of Church Order) is a servant of the gospel and the Confession of Faith. I don’t think these are radical views.

I understand that, in our age, few men want to be perceived as “bad guys” for either publicly criticizing a fellow minister of the gospel or for deciding judicially that his views are out of accord with the standards, but this is a fairly open and shut case. Speaking as a minister to fellow ministers: our support for and defense of the faith cannot be merely theological and theoretical, it cannot be confined to our own pulpits and session meetings. We must be willing to do the work in the broader/higher (in presbyterian terms) assemblies and to stand up on the floor of those assemblies/courts and to say, “Brothers and fathers, with all due reverence, humility, and affection, this far and no farther.” The souls of Christ’s sheep are in peril. The future of our confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches remains uncertain. This is not the work for “other men who have the time.” This is your work and now is the time.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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26 comments

  1. This is a really shameful and scary turn for the PCA. I was sure they’d man up but this event just may be an indication that the sort of values that characterized America’s “Greatest Generation” are long gone and remembered only in books and movies.
    I wish WSC turned out more Mdiv’s yearly to sweep over the paling Reformed landscape.

  2. I wonder who you’re appealing to so kindly.
    Those who vindicated Leithart have already done the deed, they can’t undo it now. Why “encourage” them to do the right thing, when their choice was already made?

    Now is the time for renunciation and condemnation of these foolish cowards, and this is the work of fellow elders (such as yourself)… isn’t it?

    Perhaps you’ve received a lot of flack for being too undiplomatic in the past?
    Or… are you here appealing to the PCA GA commissioners & in general, to others who serve the church in her courts?

    • Baus,

      As I understand things, there are steps that remain.

      1. I think that some in the PNP can appeal the decision of the PNP SJC.

      2. Those who hear the appeal (whether GA SJC or GA itself) need to act rightly.

      3. There are other presbyteries, e.g. Missouri where work remains to be done.

      4. This issue remains alive, to some degree, within the URCs and the CanRCs. Recently, a CanRC OT professor endorsed Norman Shepherd’s latest book on justification. This is not a salutary step. We have (ministers and elders) work yet to do.

    • Smaller splits within presbyteries – possible. A wholesale split in the PCA – slim to none. Having spent the last 7 years in the North Texas Presbytery (one of the largest in the PCA), I can say that the majority of TEs and REs at the last GA were against the Federal Vision. Though I agree with this post that their stand against it has been rather weak-kneed, most PCA churches that embrace FV wholesale seem to end up splitting to the CRC. While there may end up being a few churches in a couple of presbyteries that head the Wilson/Leithart/Wilkins route, the majority of PCA churches seem to want to remain within the denomination. IMO, one of the major problems is what Dr. Clark alludes to – few at GA have the stones to stand up and throw down the confessional gauntlet. Lots of perceived love at the expense of truth.

  3. sdechert,

    Well, if there’s a lack of stones, then aren’t we describing 1930’s Presbyterian Church all over again? I’m not saying that the PCA would ever kick out a Machen. But if they’ll tolerate a Leithart, even if only because of a lack of stones, will they eventually tolerate a Fosdick for the same reason? Will they, in the end, tolerate everything but intolerance?

    E

    • Certainly a possibility. Greenbaggins (Rev. Lane Keister) and others of his ilk seem to think that the PCA is on the verge of finally kicking the FVers to the curb. One would hope that he’s right and all the rhetoric surrounding the PNWP might actually foment some action in the GA. Perhaps this case will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. If not, sad to say, then your scenario probably isn’t too far off the mark.

  4. Hmm…it would seem that the PCA is at a crossroads.

    Here’s to hoping they choose life.

    • Amen to that. Hope and pray.

      As a side note, one of the extraordinarily ironic things about this is that when the PCA and OPC discussed the possibility of merging into one denomination (c. 20 years ago), one of the reasons the PCA wouldn’t consider it was because of how the OPC had handled/was handling the justification controversy surrounding Norman Shepherd. One of the complaints I heard from some of the PCA old guard was that the OPC hadn’t moved in a “timely or decisive manner” to defend justification by faith alone. Makes one wonder . . .

      • Arguably, the PCA’s action at GA in ’07 was stronger than the action
        taken by the OPC against the FV. Even though the OPC wrote an
        excellent report, their polity necessarily limits the force of the
        report which means that it has little de iure force. It may
        have moral and pedagogical influence, but in the history of the OPC,
        reports have been ignored. How many folk had forgotten about Mr
        Murray’s work on the Free Offer?

        Correct me here if I’m wrong, but I’m given to understand that the PCA
        points on the FV/NPP have more judicial force than the OPC report.
        Further the SJC has dealt with Wilkins and the LA Presbytery.

        The OPC exonerated John Kinnaird. There is at least hope of appeal and
        further action re the PNP. What action is being taken against them? I
        think at least one currently serving minister was named in the OPC
        report. What action is being taken against him or other supporters of
        Shepherd/the FV in the OPC?

  5. The SJC that adjudicated the Wilkins case in the Louisiana Presbytery was called to review the examination procedure undertaken with Wilkins rather than the theology behind it. Though the SJC “admonished” the LP for procedural error, they adjudicated nothing from a confessional/theological standpoint. If I understand it correctly, Wilkins and the AA church left the Presbytery for the CREC before any judicial proceedings were ever initiated for theological (FV) reasons.

    As far as the GA approval of the ’07 report, said report was a study report from an ad interim committee. Though it was approved, the recommendations within are not (in my understanding of the BCO) binding as they would be coming from a judicial committee. Most of the TEs and REs I spoke with after GA made a decided point to refer to them as “recommendations.” While this sets the stage for future adjudication on a presbytery by presbytery basis, there is still a lack of teeth in the approval of the report (very similar to the OPC report as it’s been explained to me).

    As far as the OPC goes, my impression is that a lot of the elders think that the issue has been dealt with by their report and isn’t a big deal any more. IMHO, in this the PCA should (as you implicitly suggest) take note and ensure that they don’t go down that same road. Of course, the hope (at least my hope) is that something like the PNWP issue will finally push this thing center stage at the judicial level where the GA would then respond to your pastoral plea to stake out a decided position of confessional orthodoxy.

      • Scott, et al. BCO 14-7 gives us clear direction in this matter. We want to avoid saying that decisions of the court are on an equal plane with the Constitution, but we also want to avoid saying that they are nothing. Consequently, we have said that “Actions of the General Assembly…are to be given due and serious consideration by the Church and its lower courts when deliberating matters related to such action.” This actually does give the decisions teeth.

        Part of a complaint can include a failure to give due and serious consideration to such actions. However, if they did give serious consideration and disagreed with the decision of the Assembly, then you would have to argue on other grounds.

  6. A little off-topic:

    For a consideration of the differences between URC-style synodical rulings and those of Presbyterian General Assemblies, see the fascinating brief essay by G.I.Williamson: Which Is More Anti-Hierarchical?

    This should be a spring board for exploring the topic in dialog between our respective polities.

    • Thanks!

      This is an interesting paper. One of our students did a paper
      investigating the roots of the ‘higher v broader’ discussion. He came
      to similar conclusions – that there’s not a lot of substance to the
      claim that “broader” is profoundly different from “higher.”

      I appreciate GI’s history of the OPC/CRC negotiations. As I read it I
      wondered what might have been had the merger been consummated.

  7. Men, it’s discouraging to see how much zeal there is among us for opposing FV, but almost-complete silence about the denial of the Scriptural doctrine of sexuality practiced in tall and small steeple PCA churches around the country. FV presents a much smaller threat, numerically, to the souls God has charged us to guard within our churches and presbyteries, but lives and souls are destroyed right and left, year after year, through the sustained attack biblical anthropology and sexuality are suffering, decade after decade.

    The biblical and constitutional rebellion is as plain as the nose on the front of our faces.

    So, we’ve got the mortality stats, the Scriptural texts, constitutional clarity, the Church’s historical witness, and incontrovertible evidence of failure and denial within our ecclesiastical fellowship. But hey, who wants to stand with Doug Wilson when, instead, he can stand with Lig or Tim?

    We choose our battles and allies carefully.

    With love,

    But hey, let’s talk some more about FV. It’s so much

  8. Well Tim,

    While I agree with your concern for the authority of God’s Word and its perspicuity about women in office I cannot agree with your theological priorities. As much as I heartily oppose the ordination of females, getting the gospel right must take priority. The FV denies and corrupts the holy gospel. I realize that this is an anachronism, but makes the point: The Reformed theologian Alsted did not say, “women’s ordination is the article of the standing or falling of the church.” He said, “the doctrine of justification is the article of the standing or falling of the church.”

    The authority of Scripture and the defense of the gospel are complementary. I don’t have to choose between them but in setting my priorities, I’m going to focus on the gospel so that we’ll have a church in which qualified men may be ordained to preach and to fulfill the great commission.

    What have gained if we defend the historic view of ordination only to turn around to find that there’s no church in which to preach because we neglected the good news on the quite false premise that “we’re all fellow conservatives” or some such nonsense.

    Denying and corrupting the holy gospel is not “conservative,” at least not conservative of the gospel! It may be conservative of someone’s social philosophy but the church doesn’t exist to advance someone’s cultural agenda but to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, and to administer discipline.

    Leithart may be “right” on women’s ordination but that matter’s not a hill of beans if he denies or corrupts the gospel.

  9. And another thing.

    Why isn’t upholding the gospel part of upholding the inerrancy and authority and perspicuity of Scripture? According to the WCF, our doctrine of justification and our covenant theology are clearly taught in God’s authoritative, normative, infallible, inerrant Word.

    • It would definitely be THE Gospel, but I think I stuck my comment in the wrong place. I am not a scholar, but enjoy reading these blogs.

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