When Denoms Disappoint: Setting Priorities (UPDATED)

RCAUPDATE Below 7/9/13

Original Post July 2, 2013

On June 20, 2013 the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, the mainline (liberal) and oldest Dutch Reformed denomination in the US removed the “conscience clause” from its Book of Church Order. That clause enabled conservatives in the RCA to dissent from the practice of ordaining females as ministers, elders, and deacons and yet to remain in the RCA. This clause had been in effect since 1980 as a means to preserving a measure of peace in the RCA over a contentious issue. Now, presumably, conservatives, who understand 1 Timothy 2 (and other passages) to limit special offices in the church to men who meet the biblical qualifications face a crisis: to split or stay?

This action of the General Synod did not surprise anyone who has paid attention to the history of Christianity in the modern period. Theological liberals typically begin by asking for tolerance for their views in the church. Then, once they gain positions of leadership and influence, they tend to be less tolerance of dissent. In this sense the adjective “liberal” is misleading and ironic. Historically, they’ve been anything but liberal, i.e., tolerant of dissent. So, following the pattern of the PCUSA before it, which unceremoniously bounced J. Gresham Machen from its ranks in 1936 through a sham ecclesiastical trial, the RCA is shutting down dissent.1 Over the last 25 years, the Christian Reformed Church, which split from the RCA in the 1850s, has followed the lead of the RCA. The two denominations have been moving toward union and the CRC has been preparing by bringing itself into conformity with the RCA on various matters (e.g., Heidelberg Catechism Q. 80) and even publishing radical articles in its denominational magazine. As the CRC and the RCA continue the path toward union, conservatives in the CRC are likely to face this issue either in the CRC or as a result of union with the RCA.

PCACloser to our NAPARC neighborhood, confessionalists in the PCA are wondering out loud what the handwriting on the wall says. Following a series of disappointing outcomes at the 41st PCA General Assembly, one confessional minister (Teaching Elder or TE in PCA terms) has suggested that he may not be in the PCA much longer. I’ve spoken with several very concerned ministers and ruling elders (REs in the PCA ) about their concern over the direction of the PCA.

Those disappointing outcomes include a refusal to address the ruling by the Standing Judicial Commission that effectively exonerated TE Peter Leithart, who openly advocates the Federal Vision doctrines. The PCA Book of Church Order (BCO) contains the following language:

34-5. Heresy and schism may be of such a nature as to warrant deposition; but errors ought to be carefully considered, whether they strike at the vitals of religion and are industriously spread, or whether they arise from the weakness of the human understanding and are not likely to do much injury.

The PCA General Assembly itself voted, in 2007, to say, in effect, that the FV doctrines do, in fact, “strike at the vitals of religion.” Nevertheless, in subsequent ecclesiastical trials and processes, none of the advocates of the FV have been found guilty of contradicting the teaching of Scripture as summarized in the Westminster Standards (the confession and catechisms of the PCA). This despite the fact that the very same Standing Judicial Commission, which has the authority of the General Assembly, had previously faulted Leithart’s presbytery for not finding a presumption of guilt and proceeding to trial. Things seem to have changed rather dramatically in the PCA since 2007. In this aspect, the picture has changed since I addressed it in January.

There are other concerns. This past GA seems to have decided that administering communion (paedocommunion) to infants is a tolerable exception to the Westminster Standards. Some, perhaps many, confessionalists in the PCA perceive that they are being pushed to margins and sometimes through parliamentary procedure. The PCA has a large and complex Book of Church Order (BCO) and some of its provisions are vague as church orders often are, in order to grant the body a measure of freedom when addressing difficult issues. When trust between the members of a deliberative body (e.g., General Assembly) breaks down, however, what once was liberty can become (or be perceived as) tyranny as minority views are ruled out of order. You can read some of these discussions here and here.

There is open talk in the PCA about whether a split is advisable. Some are calling for more dialogue (here and here) and patience. Some are calling for outside mediation. The moment, however, we begin to say to one another, “Now is not the time to talk about leaving” is the time to talk about leaving. No one says, “don’t talk about leaving” unless people are talking about leaving. No one calls for a mediator unless there is trouble.

The question was recently put to me this way: among the vows ministers take in the PCA, one is to uphold and defend the gospel and another is to submit to the brethren. The question is how to relate the two. Both are important but, I argue,  if we value them equally we shall enter into an endless loop. Whenever the gospel is corrupted (e.g., the Federal Vision) and someone complains about it, he can be told, “submit to the brethren.”

The only way out of the loop is to prioritize our ministerial and membership vows. Our first priority must be to the gospel (sola gratia and sola fide) and to the sole, unique, and primary authority of God’s Word (sola Scriptura). These are biblical and Reformation basics. These are the sine qua non (without which nothing) of a Protestant church. If we place submission to the brethren on an equal footing with our adherence to the Gospel, how shall we not become Romanists? To refuse to prioritize the Gospel and Scripture over submission to the brethren necessarily prioritizes the latter over the former two.

This is not a call to dispense with submission to the brethren. Let me be perfectly clear. Sola Scriptura without any idea of submission to the brethren is tending to Anabaptist individualism, it turns sola scriptura into biblicism, i.e., the attempt to read Scripture as if no one else has ever read it or to read it in insolation from the church.

There are other priorities that must be set too. Confession trumps church order. The latter is nothing but a tool to allow the church to do its proper work before the Lord. If a church order becomes so cumbersome and complex as to require canon lawyers, then we have lost a major Reformation battle. Remember, the Reformation inherited a highly complex canon law (the medieval Book of Church Order, if you will). Calvin addressed the problem of the authority of these documents in Institutes 4.10 in several sections (e.g., 1–5). He argued for the priority of the Word over church order. The latter must always serve the former and when it does not it must be discarded. That’s what they did. The Reformation church orders were typically quite brief (30–90 articles). The Church Order adopted by the Synod of Dort has 86 articles. They made small booklets. By contrast, the BCO makes a sizable volume.

There is too a tendency among ministers to look at presbytery (in Dutch and German churches, classis) and synod (or GA in presbyterian terms) the way we used to look at elections for class president in school. The temptation is to let the enthusiastic “go-getter” go get it. That’s a mistake, especially when presbytery and GA devolves its authority to committees and those committees become controlled by men who may be more latitudinarian (here, here, here, and here) about theology, piety, and practice. The consequence of leaving church business (beyond one’s congregation) to others may be that one may have to leave the church.

Now may or may not be the time to talk about leaving the PCA. That is for others to decide but it certainly is a time to set priorities and to decide on principles. If one prioritizes adherence to one’s denomination no matter what, then the outcome is predictable. For decades now conservatives in the PCUSA, and then in the CRC have drawn lines in the sand. Often, when those lines have been crossed, new lines are drawn. Eventually, there’s no more beach, only rocks and the incoming tide. In the CRC that tide will be the closing of  remaining conscience clauses. The recent actions of the RCA demonstrate that liberalism has a time limit. The clock is running.

Perhaps the clock has begun to tick in the PCA? It is unclear what, if any avenues of appeal or complaint remain to confessionalists in the PCA in the Leithart matter. The SJC meets again in October and there seems to be some hope of a reversal then. If there is none then those who prioritize submission to the brethren over fidelity to the gospel will find themselves living cheek by jowl with ministers who’ve been declared to be in good standing by the SJC,  whose distinctive doctrines (i.e., the FV) they find not only odious but that truly strike at the vitals of religion. In that case something necessarily must give way. If submission to the brethren trumps all, then one must find a way to say that the FV or paedocommunion is not really that serious. That is what happened in the PCUSA. Over time, those “conservatives” who stayed ceased being noticeably conservative. This is why “conservative” is not enough.

This is what happens to those who remain in borderline and mainline denominations. One can only resist for so long. Rebels, even though they think of themselves as rebels, begin to conform to their surroundings. This is why Paul says that bad company corrupts good morals. Context matters. Plausibility structures change our perception.2 That conservative scholar who takes a job at a mainline school, after a while, begins to sound like a mainliner. That “conservative” congregation that would never have considered a female minister in the 70s now thinks their female minister is just terrific.

An exhortation to the “winners” at this year’s GA: Be careful for what you wish. You may get it. Looking on from the outside, it seems to me that some thoughtful confessionalists are really upset about not only the outcome but also about the process. Secret email lists and decoder rings  are attractive but they are harmful. Political gerrymandering isn’t churchly. Of course I cannot tell if it has actually occurred but the perception that it has occurred and that it is unjust certainly exists. This raises (not begs) the question whether those who favor tolerating paedocommunion and the FV are willing in the PCA without their more confessionally-minded brethren.3

The answer to denominational disappointment is to begin setting one’s house in order. It does not mean leaving just yet but these things cannot be sorted out without the right priorities and principles:

  1. The Word of God and the Gospel
  2. The Confession of the Church
  3. The Church Order (submission to the brethren)

If Reformed folk reverse this order they stand to lose more than a denomination or two.

1. For more on what happened to Machen see N. B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir; D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith; Edwin J. Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict; J. G. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism.

2. This is a link to a Wikipedia entry. It was relatively sane at the time I linked to it. I take no responsibility for whatever silliness exists by the time you click on this link.

3. The expression “to beg the question” means to assume the conclusion in the premise. E.g., “When did you steal that car?” It does not mean “to raise” or “to ask the question” even though it is frequently abused that way.

UPDATE 7/9/13

Kevin DeYoung, an RCA minister, writes about the removal of the conscience clause:

What’s at stake? It’s hard to know for sure. Presently there are no quotas forcing churches to ordain women, but clearly removing the clauses spells trouble for complementarians. 1) Some conservative students are already blackballed for their views on women’s ordination. Removing constitutional protections makes their ordination process even more difficult. 2) Our ministerial vows make clear that we will conduct our work according to the Book of Church Order. Now that the BCO affirms women’s ordination (which it has for years) without an explicit allowance for those who disagree (what just changed), it remains to be seen where complementarians can make their vows in good faith. 3) Ministers who refuse to participate in the ordination of women open themselves up to the possibility of discipline.

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  1. Thank you Dr Clark, I appreciate your words very much… the past couple years in the PCA have been very difficult for confessional men, especially in the upper left corner of the country. The next year will tell a lot for some of us, and our time for decision is nearly here. To your three priorities and principles, I find myself also asking “could you in good conscience apply for membership in the PCA today? Or ordination to church office?” Hmmm, perhaps our time for decision has already arrived.

  2. ” Nevertheless, in subsequent ecclesiastical trials and processes, none of the advocates of the FV have been found guilty of contradicting the teaching of Scripture as summarized in the Westminster Standards”

    This is a little misleading. Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church and their minister (where the current version of this nonsense started) left the PCA for the CREC. This was the result of proceedings against the views they were promoting. It basically took the SJC threatening to dissolve the Presbytery before that happened, though. I would also mention that there are those on the SJC who feel strongly against the FV, they just saw problems with the Liethart case. I’m sure that I and others could relate other things also, but my point is that, while there are certainly problems in the PCA, there is a bigger picture to look at.

    • Mark,

      I thought about that case. We can speculate as to what would have happened and it certainly seemed to be going as you suggest. Nevertheless, there have been, to my knowledge, three other cases in the PCA and none of them has resulted in a conviction. One case, in Missouri, featured a prominent federal visionist. The other, in the Pac NW, another very visible federal visionist who as much as dared the PCA to convict by signing the FV statement right after GA. I guess he won that bet. Then there was case in the Siouxlands. To fill out the record, there was a case in Illiana before the 2007 vote. I don’t know exactly what action the presbytery took but the FVist in that case also fled to the CREC.

      I’m not calling for a split. I’m just calling people to get their priorities right and not to get too comfortable. We are, after all, a wilderness people, an exodus people. We’re not in Canaan yet.

      What counsel do you have for those ministers who’ve taken sacred vows before Christ and who may find themselves, after October, serving in the same denomination as a minister who preaches a message the PCA has rejected as contrary to the gospel? What do those ministers tell themselves about being unequally yoked to gross error?

    • Sure. I was just pointing out that we shouldn’t judge by a few high profile cases that became very public (rightfully, I think) because of the stalling by the presbyteries involved. There are churches where this issue has never crossed their radar, and others where anyone with these views would be shown the door. You said:
      “What counsel do you have for those ministers who’ve taken sacred vows before Christ and who may find themselves, after October, serving in the same denomination as a minister who preaches a message the PCA has rejected as contrary to the gospel? What do those ministers tell themselves about being unequally yoked to gross error?”
      I would suggest that there have always been ministers in the PCA (and most any denomination) that have preached gross error, and there probably always will be. Isn’t this what we should assume in light of passages like 2 Peter 2:1, and similar ones found in most any of the Epistles? I think one of the problems in the PCA (and the American Church world in general) is the assumption that the leadership of the flock will be generally wolf free, contrary to Scripture. Unless you catch them with bloody fangs bared and howling at the moon, folks won’t even consider the possibility that there could be a wolf (and even then they will be reassured if they ask him and he tells them he really isn’t a wolf).

      • Mark,

        No one doubts that there have probably been more and less orthodox ministers in a given denomination/federation but it’s one thing to know that in theory and another for a judicatory to reverse course and exonerate a minister who has openly and notoriously defied the confession of the church. Remember, in 2010, the same SJC (with different personnel, as I understand it) rebuked the presbytery for not finding a presumption of guilt. That’s a different kettle of fish. Now, orthodox, confessional ministers aren’t speculating about the theoretical possibility of heterodox ministers. Now they are yoked, if you will, in the ministry with ministers who have publicly taught and advocated doctrines that strike at the vitals of religion, which GA itself recognized as doing so.

        Your response is, in effect, “get over it. We always have errant ministers in our midst” isn’t really satisfying.

        I take it that you would rather prioritize fidelity to the gospel and submission to the brethren differently than I’ve done?

        What lines in the sand do you think should be drawn?

    • No, I’m not saying get over it. I was trying to put it in context. I can’t fathom how the SJC could choose to basically wash their hands of the matter (that’s how I would sum up their decision). This is a doctrinal issue that strikes at the vitals of the Reformed faith, and it is essential to keep fighting on this issue. The bigger point I was trying to make is that these types of struggles should be expected in the church, and loosing one battle doesn’t necessarily mean that we surrender a large flock of sheep to the wolves. The liberals choose to organize secretly last year. There also seemed to be a lot of maneuvering at GA this year to steer issues their direction before things reached the floor, and through procedural points at GA. Is this a coincidence? I don’t know, but I think those of us that don’t want to see the PCA head in that direction have been put on notice either way. May shepherds step up to the fight and let us all pray that God will preserve this remnant of his church.

  3. Excellent and thoughful piece, Scott. I agree 100% with your suggested priorities – no surprise there.

    Two things give me hope. One is Gettysburg. On the 150th anniversary of the 2nd day of that great battle, I note that Lee thought he had defeated the Union by the evening of 2 July 1863. Everything from his point of view pointed in that direction starting days before. But the tomorrow of 150 years ago, 3 July 1863, showed that God had a different plan. I am not yet convinced that His providence has yet worked itself out in the PCA.

    Second, the Holy Spirit’s work in men’s hearts always provides hope. There definitely comes a time to leave an association that turns its back on the gospel – been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. Yet I hold out hope that the Holy Spirit will work in those of the mushy middle and sway them back to orthodox, Reformed confessionalism.

    I don’t hear the fat lady singing, but I do believe that she’s warming up. It remains to be seen if she takes the microphone.

  4. I believe if you follow the trail in these cases, a common denominator is Robert Rayburn. He has been very outspoken in defense of Leithart, specifically, and others more generally. He has fraternal relations with both ends of the political spectrum in the PCA; many conservative “TR” types believe this is much ado about nothing – and the real issues are 24-creation days, women’s ordination, and Reformed worship.

    • …”many conservative “TR” types believe this is much ado about nothing ”

      Ding ding ding! Bingo. I would add to that list of their “real issues”.. Culture Warrior endeavors. Many a “conservative” PCA leader would be more concerned with a member voting for Obama, or if they canceled their subscription to World Magazine, or did not believe they can “be the gospel” than they would if a member of the flock started buying into Federal Vision leanings. Why do you think the PCA is in real trouble, you expect it from theological liberals, it is the conservatives that have gone soft on key issues that is the real problem. In fact the whole “Do & Be the gospel” movement in the PCA is really in many ways just an outworking of FV in the pews.

      “It does not mean leaving just yet but these things cannot be sorted out without the right priorities and principles:”

      1.The Word of God and the Gospel
      2.The Confession of the Church
      3.The Church Order (submission to the brethren)

      I very much agree, but when even the “conservatives” are no longer vigilant towards doctrinal Reformed standards, when they see being a Culture Warrior as being of greatest importance, but FV issues as no biggie, one has to wonder how much of a priority these 3 principals are in the PCA.

      There is really not a home in the PCA for confessionalist, sorry to bring anybody down, but I think that it is true. The PCA is a great home for world mag/Schaeffer types or Be the gospel hipsters, they are so far both welcome. Meanwhile Modern Ref types are not real welcome.

      Note: I subscribe and enjoy World mag, don’t get me wrong…..just saying.

  5. It’s been such a weird confluence of principles at work in the PCA; you have Keller’s, for lack of a better word, reformed-lite doctrinal approach mixed with a hard charging, theonomy-lite, monocovenantalism from the FVers, topped off with Keller’s church growth strategy of winsomeness at all costs. So we get simultaneously a watering down of the importance of doctrine(Keller) with the added essential of being nice regardless the cost(Post modern-Keller), while the FVers are feverishly revising reformed doctrine(monocovenantalism, patriarchy, culture transformation, theonomy, romish even). That’s an unhappy horizon for confessionalists.

  6. Sean, which of those groups can the Confessionalists’ partner? We have to partner – else we become what we are today – irrelevant within the denomination! I submit that our priority and non-negotiable is the Gospel – at least Keller gets that right. What type of tent can the confessionalist flourish? It’s certainly not within a FV framework; unfortunately, many have formed alliances with this group in a quid pro quo arrangement – which is not the Gospel – but Reformed worship, creationism, and other tertiary cash cows of lesser importance.

    • Michael, I hate to be this cynical and it’s assuredly a sin when it comes to what God is bringing about, but I have a hard time taking my eyes off the money. Every time I look up it’s a Redeemer church controlling the purse strings and driving ‘policy’. Then you have to take note that in Keller’s New York presbytery, you’ve got high church FVers working without interference. So, whoever it is you partner with, it’s not likely to be Keller’s tribe.

  7. Hi Dr. Clark,
    About five years ago, Valley Presbyterian Church and her Session stood firm and would not ordain a member of their congregation that had FV tendencies. Even after paying for his seminary education. He said he had a calling elsewhere and he took that call. Thanks be to God!
    Our church split over the decision, and it took about five years to recover, yet recover we did. Their church remains stagnant.
    I tend to agree that a denominational split is coming down the pike, slowly, but coming all the same.
    Meanwhile, I am thankful to God that we have a local church that stood firm for the gospel, and protected their flock, and I pray “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done.”
    To make a comment regarding your church planting post….The San Fernando Valley needs more reformed churches planted here.


    • I wanted to be more precise about Valley’s support of the mentioned candidate….I am not sure exactly how much of his seminary education Valley supported financially.


  8. Dr. Clark,

    I have been confused over the PCA’s approach to paedocommunion. Perhaps you can clear this up for me.

    Both the PCA and the OPC had ministers who believed in paedocommunion back before there was a federal vision. In fact, in the OPC, the majority report of the study commission on the issue (NB: Which was rejected by the General Assembly) came out in favor of adopting covenant communion.

    The approach in both denominations seems to have been: Belief in paedocommunion is an acceptable exception to the Confession so long as (1) You don’t practice it; (2) You clearly distinguish your private views from what the church believes and practices; and (3) You teach credo-communion as the defined teaching of the church.

    Yet you write above: “There are other concerns. This past GA seems to have decided that administering communion (paedocommunion) to infants is a tolerable exception to the Westminster Standards.”

    Has the PCA actually allowed “administering communion to infants” or is it that they are allowing the private belief of a minister that communion should be administered to infants while he refrains from doing so?

    Thank you!


    • Hi David,

      My sense from the news is that things changed a little at the GA just past. According to ByFaith GA said two different things about two different cases. I’m having trouble following both the logic and the facts but it seems to be the case that the Pacific NW Presbytery’s decision to allow a man to hold and “communicate” paedocommunion to his congregation was permitted but Central Florida’s decision to do the same was not. Apparently it is permissible to hold paedocommunion and “communicate” that you hold it but you may not say that paedocommunion is “more biblical” than Reformed and confessional practice. Presumably everyone who holds paedocommunion in the PCA does so because he believes it is more biblical than Reformed practice.

      The GA committee said, re PNW Presbytery’s decision:

      c) We trust Presbytery’s assertion that no PNW church practices paedocommunion (defined as admitting a child to the Lord’s Table solely on the basis of his baptism).

      d) And we appreciate Presbytery’s willingness to cease using the potentially confusing phrase, “given full liberty to preach and teach,” with regard to confessional differences.

      So, no one in the PNW Presbytery can actually practice paedocommunion but that ministers are allowed to believe it and to “communicate” their views to their congregations:

      e) We trust Presbytery’s assertion that the candidate from the January 2010 ordination exam does not have liberty to “promote” this confessional difference in any church in the Presbytery. At the same time, we understand the minister is not entirely prohibited from communicating his view to his church, but if does, he would only do so as a humble minority communicating a view that our Church does not hold. This would include communicating it from the pulpit, assuming the manner, circumstances and frequency were appropriate as long as this is not construed as agitating for or lobbying.

      f) Finally, we concur with Presbytery’s observation that for nearly 25 years the PCA has existed with some Presbyteries allowing the minority paedocommunion view to be held within their fellowship, while clearly disallowing its practice

  9. Just FYI. I don’t think the PCA’s FV Study Committee report used the phrase “vitals of religion” for any of the 9 declarations. And it would be more accurate to say the PCA allows a Presbytery to ordain a man who holds the paedocommunion view but nobody is allowed to practice it.

    • Howie,
      The question GA asked the Committee to address is noted below:
      We recognize that many Federal Vision proponents affirm loyalty to the Westminster Standards and frequently appeal to the Standards when arguing their views. Nevertheless, the General Assembly has charged the committee “to determine whether these viewpoints and formulations [i.e., NPP and FV] are in conformity with the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards, whether they are hostile to or strike at the vitals of religion, and to present a declaration or statement regarding the issues raised by these viewpoints in light of our Confessional Standards.”

      The 9 Declarations are all “contrary to the Westminster Standards” and the Recommendations include the duty “to remind Sessions and Presbyteries…to condemn erroneous opinions which injure the purity or peace of the Church” (BCO 31-2; 13-9f).

      Can you honestly affirm that Recommendation has been fulfilled by PNWP and the SJC regarding the signatory of the Federal Vision, Dr. Peter Leithart?

    • Howie (if I may),

      The 34th PCA GA appointed an ad interim committee with the following mandate:

      to study the soteriology of the Federal Vision, New Perspective, and Auburn
      11 Avenue Theologies which are causing confusion among our churches.
      12 Further, to determine whether these viewpoints and formulations are in
      13 conformity with the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards,
      14 whether they are hostile to or strike at the vitals of religion, and to present a
      15 declaration or statement regarding the issues raised by these viewpoints in
      16 light of our Confessional Standards (M34GA, 34-57, III, pp. 229-30) (p. 2202; emphasis added—rsc).

      It was of the very essence of the committee’s work to determine the answer to that question.

      In the body the committee said,

      It is certainly possible to say more than our Confession does about
      11 biblical truth, but this should not necessitate a denial of the vitals of our faith (p. 2203).

      On p. 2203 the committee said:

      In offering these declarations, the committee fulfills the
      33 General Assembly’s direction “to present a declaration or statement regarding the issues
      34 raised by these viewpoints in light of our Confessional Standards” and “to determine
      35 whether these viewpoints and formulations are in conformity with the system of doctrine
      36 taught in the Westminster Standards [or] whether they are hostile to or strike at the vitals of
      37 religion.”

      p. 2204:

      The doctrine of election is vital to the whole doctrinal system set forth in the Westminster
      16 Standards.4

      p. 2208:

      nevertheless, the
      3 Confession never speaks as if all those who are in the covenant of grace broadly considered
      4 (the visible church) are recipients of the substance or saving benefits of the covenant of
      5 grace narrowly considered (the invisible church). This is a vital distinction, and so those
      6 who deny or confuse it, or who assert that all the benefits of the covenant of grace accrue to
      7 all who are baptized, do err and are out of accord with both the Scriptures and the
      8 Confession (LC 61; Rom. 9:6, 11:7).

      p. 2225:

      7 Nevertheless, the truly problematic claims of the Federal Vision proponents come when
      8 some suggest that “Christ’s active obedience” is not transferred to his people or that
      9 imputation is “redundant” because it is subsumed in “union with Christ.” Such claims
      10 contradict the position of the Westminster Standards and strike at the vitals of the system of
      11 doctrine contained there. Further, to strike language of “merit” from our theological
      12 vocabulary so that the claim is made that Christ’s merits are not imputed to his people
      13 contradicts the position of the Westminster Standards (WCF 17:2; LC 55; 174).

      p. 2235:

      1. The view that rejects the bi-covenantal structure of Scripture as represented in the
      7 Westminster Standards (i.e., views which do not merely take issue with the terminology,
      8 but the essence of the first/second covenant framework) is contrary to those Standards.
      10 2. The view that an individual is “elect” by virtue of his membership in the visible church;
      11 and that this “election” includes justification, adoption and sanctification; but that this
      12 individual could lose his “election” if he forsakes the visible church, is contrary to the
      13 Westminster Standards.
      15 3. The view that Christ does not stand as a representative head whose perfect obedience
      16 and satisfaction is imputed to individuals who believe in him is contrary to the
      17 Westminster Standards.
      19 4. The view that strikes the language of “merit” from our theological vocabulary so that the
      20 claim is made that Christ’s merits are not imputed to his people is contrary to the
      21 Westminster Standards.
      23 5. The view that “union with Christ” renders imputation redundant because it subsumes all
      24 of Christ’s benefits (including justification) under this doctrinal heading is contrary to
      25 the Westminster Standards.
      27 6. The view that water baptism effects a “covenantal union” with Christ through which
      28 each baptized person receives the saving benefits of Christ’s mediation, including
      29 regeneration, justification, and sanctification, thus creating a parallel soteriological
      30 system to the decretal system of the Westminster Standards, is contrary to the
      31 Westminster Standards.
      33 7. The view that one can be “united to Christ” and not receive all the benefits of Christ’s
      34 mediation, including perseverance, in that effectual union is contrary to the Westminster
      35 Standards.
      37 8. The view that some can receive saving benefits of Christ’s mediation, such as
      38 regeneration and justification, and yet not persevere in those benefits is contrary to the
      39 Westminster Standards.
      41 9. The view that justification is in any way based on our works, or that the so-called “final
      42 verdict of justification” is based on anything other than the perfect obedience and
      43 satisfaction of Christ received through faith alone, is contrary to the Westminster
      44 Standards.

      p. 2236, recommendations:

      14 3. That the General Assembly recommend the declarations in this report as a faithful
      15 exposition of the Westminster Standards, and further reminds those ruling and teaching
      16 elders whose views are out of accord with our Standards of their obligation to make
      17 known to their courts any differences in their views.
      19 4. That the General Assembly remind the Sessions and Presbyteries of the PCA that it is
      20 their duty “to exercise care over those subject to their authority” and “to condemn
      21 erroneous opinions which injure the purity or peace of the Church” (BCO 31-2; 13-9f).

      The evidence seems overwhelming that both the explicit and implicit intent of the committee was to say that the Federal Vision theology strikes at the vitals of religion. It was part of the committee’s mandate to determine an answer to that question. The committee characterized the FV theology as striking at the vitals of religion and offered the 9 Declarations as their summary response to the FV.

      Source document

  10. Dr. Clark – When you use the term “confessionalist” to refer to a person, how would you define it? Seems to me when it is used it usually means essentially the same thing as what people mean when they use the term “strict subscription.” Perhaps you might explain if, and how, the two terms differ.

  11. Re: Michael @ July 5 at 0900: In short, yes, without hesitation. (Also, see below.)

    Re: Dr. Clark @ July 5 at 0933: On the question of whether the PCA ever declared certain views as “striking at the vitals of religion” I’ll commend to your readers a document submitted by the defense in the Pacific NW trial. Perhaps it will clarify. And it’s worth noting, two members of the seven-man FV Study Committee (one of them was chairman) are on the SJC and in March voted in the 15-2 majority that declined to sustain the complaint against the acquittal by Pacific NW.

    Regarding the PCA and paedocommunion, I served on the GA’s Committee on Review of Presbytery Records for the last two years. I believe a good summary of the PCA history and current position can be found in the Revised Response submitted this year by Pacific NW Presbytery. This response was considered as being “satisfactory” by this year’s RPR Committee as well as this year’s Assembly in Greenville. It does not establish doctrinal precedent, but I expect the Greenville action will likely be considered in future years when reviewing Presbytery records.

    The Greenville GA citation of C. Florida Presbytery requiring a response next year involved a man who expressed a particularly worded paedocommunion view. In other words, I don’t think a man in a PCA ordination exam can just say: “I hold the paedocommunion view.” He needs to unpack that somewhat in his ordination exam. (And our Rules of Assembly Operation require Presbytery minutes to record the man’s expressed difference in his own words.) And if he holds something other than, or in addition to, what is generally considered to be the “standard” paedocommunion view (i.e., a child is admitted to the Supper on the very same basis he is admitted to the Font), then his Presbytery might end up being asked to clarify.

    Hope that helps.

    • Howie (if I may),

      I am unclear on the basis of your response whether you see the ad interim report as speaking to the question of “vitals of religion.”

    • Howie,
      Can you clarify the current composition of the SJC? This information is not available on the PCA website. I know the members of SCOTUS but can’t find the members of my own denominational judicatory.

      • Hi Michael,

        I too have been searching for this information. I suspect the only place to find it is in the minutes of GA. I do not know if these minutes are online.

  12. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks for this post. I think the way you put the decision facing PCA officers in terms of their ministerial vows is very helpful.

    One additional point that may serve to strengthen your argument that vow 6 (i.e. “Do you promise to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the Gospel and the purity and peace and unity of the Church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise unto you on that account?” [BCO 21-5]) takes priority over vow 4 (i.e. “Do you promise subjection to your brethren in the Lord?” [ibid.]) is the modifying prepositional phrase in vow 4 “in the Lord.” That phrase assumes the priority of vow 6. Subjection to the brethren is only ever to be given “in the Lord.” If the brethren to whom one has vowed to be subjected demonstrate that they are no longer thinking and acting “in the Lord,” then one must refuse to be subjected to them.

  13. Also, if I might enter into the paedocommunion discussion, when I was examined for ordination in Missouri Presbytery (MOP) back in January 2009, TE Jeffrey Meyers was the chair of the Credentials Committee. At that time Rev. Meyers told me that many MOP members, including himself, believed in paedocommunion. He also sent me an article he was working on at the time that argued for paedocommunion in light of 1 Cor. 11. This was my first brush with FV theology.

  14. Similarly, Peter Leithart serves on the Pacific Northwest Presbytery Candidates and Credentials Committee, and has for at least the past 13 or 14 years.

  15. Dr. Clark et al.,

    I found a Report of the SJC to the 40th GA of the PCA at pcahistory.org. Below are the members of the 2012 SJC – I’m assuming this list is current.

    TE Dominic A. Aquila,
    TE Jeffrey Hutchinson,
    RE E.C. Burnett,
    RE Terry L. Jones,
    RE Daniel Carrell,
    TE Brian Lee,
    TE Bryan Chapell,
    RE Thomas F. Leopard,
    TE David F. Coffin, Jr.,
    TE William R. Lyle,
    RE M. C. (Cub) Culbertson,
    TE Charles E. McGowan,
    RE Howie Donahoe,
    TE D. Steven Meyerhoff,
    RE Samuel J. (Sam) Duncan,
    RE Frederick J. Neikirk,
    TE Paul Fowler,
    RE Jeffrey Owen,
    TE Fred Greco,
    TE Danny Shuffield,
    TE Grover E. Gunn, III,
    RE Bruce Terrell,
    RE D. W. Haigler, Jr.,
    RE John B.White, Jr.,

    • Thanks Michael,

      This is a good start. Is the the slate after GA last year or before?

      I believe that some of these men are no longer serving on the SJC. It would be good to see who is on the committee now, since it is they who will address whatever is before them in October. I’m given to understand that there were nominations and elections at GA this year, which would have resulted in some changes.

  16. Additional members added at 2012 GA were TE Paul Kooistra and RE John Pickering.

    2013 additions were TE Fred Greco, Ray Cannata (replacing Dominic Aquila) and Grover Gunn and RE EJ Nusbaum

  17. The other aspect of knowing who our Supreme Court Justices are, is also knowing how they voted in particular cases. In addition to changing the “rules” such that it is expressly stated that the GA retains the right to hear specific cases at its own choosing as the TRUE highest court of the denomination, even after the SJC rules in a case (and outlining such a procedure), with commissions formed for “economic” reasons (efficient uses of time/resources to expedite the case load) it would be most interesting to know which men voted in which direction in the record of the case. That might even make men more circumspect in their rulings. Seems to me that this past GA has requested “permission” from the SJC to see if it is even possible for the GA to select a case of denominational interest for its broader GA-wide review. That seems like the tail wagging the dog to me. The GA COULD, if it so chose (via amendment), abolish the SJC. That’s never going to happen, but the point is all power of the SJC is derivative from the GA. The SJC is not the Judicial Branch of the PCA as the Supreme Court is the Judicial Branch of the U.S. Federal government. The GA, itself, is the highest court of the PCA. This seems to have morphed into a functional status in which the SJC has been made (or turned into), in function, a rough analogue of the Supreme Court. Granted Supreme Court justices are not elected, and normally juror’s votes are secret, but this is not criminal court, nor the Supreme Court. Personally I think a man serving in these offices should have his rationale arranged for deciding one way or another how he is going to vote, and be willing to sign a public declaration, putting his name to the document, and it being published, and he being willing to defend his decision. That would also affect how people vote and nominate folks for the SJC. Otherwise on what basis are these men being chosen for the office?

  18. Hello Howie, thank you, but is that considered part of the public record? As part of the “proposed” decision found at http://theaquilareport.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/SJC2012-05ProposedSJCDecision.pdf I see the numbers of how many voted or abstained, or were not qualified (?) elsewhere, and in this report of the Presbytery numbers, but no mention of who composed the SJC board, and who voted which direction. Also someone else earlier asked about GA minutes. Digitized PDF versions of many (not all) can be found at http://www.pcahistory.org/GA/. Perhaps that gets finalized after the GA adopts the reports at a later date, to include that information?

    • The votes of SJC judges, by name, are recorded in the decisions that are sent to the parties and filed with the GA. They would be in the annual SJC report as well as the GA minutes. They are not confidential in any way after a decision is filed.

    • Chris,

      You make some good points regarding transparency and accountability. You can find the cases from the SJC that were adjudicated from previous years at the aforementioned website with names of SJC members and their respective vote. I do not see the PNWP case. Maybe Mr. Donahoe can upload from his Dropbox.

  19. A copy of the SJC Decision in the complaint of Hedman v. Pacific NW can be found at

    Below are the votes as recorded in the decision and in the SJC report to the Greenville GA. There was a dissenting opinion filed, and two concurring opinions filed.

    Adopted: 15 concurring, 2 dissenting 1 disqualified, 1 recused, and 5 absent.
    TE Dominic A. Aquila, Dissent
    TE Howell Burkhalter, Absent
    RE E. C. Burnett III, Concur
    RE Daniel Carrell, Concur
    TE Bryan S. Chapell, Recused
    TE David F. Coffin Jr., Concur
    RE Marvin C. (Cub) Culbertson, Absent
    RE Howie Donahoe, Disqualified
    RE Samuel J. (Sam) Duncan, Concur
    TE Paul B. Fowler, Concur
    TE Fred Greco, Concur
    RE D. W. Haigler Jr., Dissent
    TE Paul Kooistra, Concur
    TE Brian Lee, Concur
    TE William R. Lyle, Absent
    TE Charles E. McGowan, Absent
    TE D. Steven Meyerhoff, Concur
    RE Frederick (Jay) Neikirk, Concur
    RE Jeffrey Owen, Concur
    RE John Pickering, Concur
    TE Danny Shuffield, Concur
    RE Bruce Terrell, Concur
    RE John B. White Jr., Concur
    RE Robert (Jack) Wilson, Absent

  20. Thank you Howie, that is encouraging to know (that the men’s votes and minority reports are public record). I thought I had read names signed to concurring and dissenting opinions in other trials in the GA minutes, but could not recall if that was post-SJC. So the commissioners at this years GA had that information at their hand that TE Aquilla was one of the men who dissented on the SJC when he was not re-elected to another term on the SJC, correct? I wonder if you know off the top of your head when his term expires then, and if he will be part of the SJC board who will consider what the GA asked them with regard to the constitutionality of the idea of the GA selecting specific SJC cases to hear as a GA (my understanding of some of the Presbytery overtures that were made, and how the GA referred back to the SJC to advise on this question). Thank you again for the clarifying information already offered. Trying to eschew some obfuscation here.

  21. RSC: thank you for your post. As I read and reflect on what you say and the interaction with it, it looks to me that there is a lack of consensus on how we are to go about defining what “confessional” means. An appeal to “history” can turn out to be equivocal in the discussion to the extent that some will identify with this generation while another will identify with an earlier or later one. Granted that, what do you suggest? If you’ve written elsewhere on it, don’t hesitate to let me know.

    • Hi Fowler,

      By “confessional” I mean it, as I indicated in RRC, in two senses. In the narrow sense it refers to our shared ecclesiastical confessions, which shapes our vocabulary and provides the categories through which we analyze problems and think about the theology, piety, and practice of the church. In the broader sense it refers to the original understanding of Reformed theology that shaped the confessions during the time they were written.

      So, properly, the adjective is not an appeal to history per se but to the living confession of the church’s shared understanding of the Scriptures.

  22. RSC: I’m with you. The phenomenon I sometimes see in intra-denominational discussions is that each party stakes a claim to being “confessional,” but they mean very different things by it. The discussion can’t and doesn’t advance until definitions are shared. Analogy: I’ve been in churches, as I’m sure you have, where the “Reformed” label was used for self-identification. Over time I came to understand that the “Reformed” label meant little more than “theologically conservative,” which may be a good thing (as far as it goes) but is of little value church-historically speaking.

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