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.

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  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”.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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…

  9. Dr, Clark I agree that confessional vv non-confessional is the way to look at most of this, if not all of it.

    May I inject an outsider’s viewpoint? Outsider in that I am an Australian who used to be a member of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, which is quite similar to the PCA in America. I am now attending a Lutheran church. But my theology is according to the London Confession.

    I am an advocate for victims of domestic abuse and co-lead a blog which addresses domestic abuse from a Christian perspective.

    We have many readers at our blog who have been gravely hurt by PCA churches when they tried to get the church to discipline their abusive spouse who professed Christianity but whose actions behind closed doors were the very opposite. The PCA is by no means the only denomination that has mistreated and misjudged victims of abuse, but it seems to pretty loom large, from my observations. And I’m not tarring every local PCA, but noting the trend overall.

    If the PCA were to become more serious about its confessional standards and its adherence to its BCO, part of that ought to entail being serious about enacting biblical discipline with right judgement and justice: either by a step by step process as in Matthew 18:15-17, or summarily as in 1 Cor. 5:9-13, depending on the heinousness of the sin.

    We know of cases in the PCA where victims of domestic abuse brought their case to the Session and then the Presbytery and were brushed off, maligned, and the abuser exonerated. So many in the PCA do not even know of the (unfortunately non-binding) ruling which the PCA General Assembly made nearly two decades ago, namely: that abuse IS grounds for divorce under 1 Cor. 7:15.

    I submit that any reformation of the PCA needs to get to grips with domestic abuse and need to make that ruling a binding ruling on all its churches. That would go some way to making the PCA a denomination which we could respect. And there would need to also be retrospective justice for all the victims of domestic abuse who have been mistreated by PCA sessions and Presbyteries.

    Do I ask for the moon? Maybe, But should I ask for less, if I am a true follower of our Lord who loves not just mercy but justice, and who calls His church to uphold the rights of the widow and the fatherless. . . . And victims of domestic abuse are in most cases women and children bereft of a husband/father just as widows and orphans are. Whatever ‘husband’ they have is more like an anti-husband. And their marriages are the satanic inversion of what marriage should be like, because the abuser makes it so.

    • Hi Barbara,

      In case it is encouraging, I think the PCA General Assembly just adopted a statement on sexual abuse.

      I can’t speak for the PCA of course, but in my experience consistories (sessions) have taken such allegations seriously. I agree, however, that consistories/sessions face a range of issues for which they may not be prepared. With all such things it will take education and prayer. I wouldn’t indict an entire denomination for the failure of a few.

      Sessions/consistories are fallible and composed of sinners. This is why Reformed/Presbyterian churches have courts/assemblies for appeal and complain. In the case that someone reports abuse to a session/consistory and that body fails to address it appropriately, a member should appeal or complain against the consistory/session to the classis/presbytery. I have seen this process work, even when the first two bodies failed the final assembly addressed the problem very well.

      This is an issue where we all need to grow.

      Thanks for the stimulus to do that.

      Grace and peace.

  10. Thanks Dr Clark, for your response to my comment. I do not indict the whole PCA denomination and when I said above “. . . That would go some way to making the PCA a denomination which we could respect,” I should have said “to making the PCA a denomination that we could have more respect for,” — because I do not maintain that all the PCA is getting this wrong. Please accept my apologies for not being more careful in my wording.

    I agree that education and prayer is needed so the church can better address domestic abuse. We, that is Ps Jeff Crippen and myself, are trying to provide that kind of education at our blog and in our books, because it is a topic that has not been sufficiently covered in most seminary courses.

    On the appeals process in Presbyterian churches, I know of one very grave case where a victim appealed to her Presbytery and was given no justice. I say grave because the victim was receiving death threats from the abuser, but the Session and the Presbytery still did not believe she had been abused or that her husband needed to be disciplined. So while I’m very glad to hear that you know of cases which have been handled well, I feel it my duty to talk about the cases that have been mishandled — not to damn all the church, but to provoke Christians to realise they may need to equip themselves with better understanding.

    Also, not saying this applies to you or the cases you know personally, Dr Clark, but we know of cases where the church leaders SAY they handled a case well, but when we talk to the victim/survivor their account is pretty different. So, meaning no disrespect, I would caution leaders to be careful about making claims that they have delivered justice unless the victim/survivor concurs fully with that perspective.

    Our policy is always to prioritise the voices of the victims.

    And in case anyone is dubious because they think victims exaggerate or lie or are opportunistic and manipulative, we have material on our blog to help people learn how to distinguish between the language of genuine victims versus the language of perpetrators posing as victims. See the tag ‘language of abusers’ at the blog

    Thanks for giving me a voice on your blog, Dr Clark. Blessings to you.

  11. Dr Clark
    I’m aware that the PCA GA has an Overture before it which proposes some resolutions about child sexual abuse. But I did not know it has been passsed. If you can give me a link to its being passed, I’d appreciate it.

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