Jon Payne: The PCA Is In Trouble

A growing number of our ministers and churches are conforming to the world’s values, attitudes, and ideals, especially as it concerns homosexuality and the social gospel. The future doesn’t look good for the PCA. Frankly, the future looks pretty bad, and I’m not alone in my assessment. Far from it. A considerable number of respected leaders inside and outside the PCA have expressed similar sentiments. Indeed, many are asking, “What’s going on in the PCA?”

It doesn’t take a theologian or a church historian to recognize that many of our churches are headed in a wrong direction. The steady growth of theological progressivism is as obvious as it is troubling. Progressivism is a fast-moving slippery slope in the PCA, ultimately leading to the idolatrous mire of theological liberalism; yes, the kind of theological liberalism found in the remnants of the denomination that we left in 1973. Theological liberalism is where our current progressive trends will lead us if left unchecked in our church courts. It’s happened before, and we are fools to think that it cannot or will not happen again—even in our beloved PCA.[2]

Over the years I’ve listened to many senior saints from America and Scotland describe their (former) mainline denomination’s lamentable slide into theological liberalism. The stories sounded eerily familiar. They recounted how a pervasive and dominant cultural hermeneutic overshadowed the pulpits, and how a form of hyper-contextualization undermined the mission of the church. Plain biblical preaching, teaching, and discipleship were viewed as inadequate, out of touch, and irrelevant. The new paths of ministry replaced the old and worn paths. The primary question in the minds of ministers was not “What does the Bible say?”; but rather, “What will the people think?” Pastors were reluctant to speak forthrightly about controversial doctrine that could damage the church’s credibility in the culture. They were embarrassed by the Bible’s teaching on gender roles, ordination, human sexuality, abortion, and eternal damnation in hell. Is history repeating itself in the PCA? I hope not. But many are afraid that it is.

Unless the PCA—from her pulpits and courts—decides not to conform to unbiblical views on human sexuality, social justice, and critical theory[3], it will be impossible to avoid a denominational split. The inescapable fact is that confessional Presbyterianism and theological progressivism make terrible roommates. While they share many common beliefs and goals, living in the same household is not a long-term and viable option.

… How should PCA pastors, elders, and churches respond to rising tide of theological progressivism in the PCA? How should we respond, in particular, to the erroneous views of Side B gay, celibate Christianity?

The first thing we must do is pray. We must cry out to God for His Word and Spirit to foster biblical conviction in our hearts, and a modern Reformation in our churches. We must pray for a clear return to the old paths of gospel ministry and discipleship, even as cultural pressures increase. We must pray for stronger faith in the sufficiency of the gospel to transform our lives, and liberate us from any notions of a settled lifestyle of sin. We must pray for a renewed confidence in the ordinary means of grace—powerful preaching, faithful administration of the sacraments, and blood-earnest prayer—to mortify the sin that remains in our lives.

…Fourthly, and finally, teaching and ruling elders must get active in the church courts. We must be good churchmen. We must, for instance, be willing to do the unpleasant work of church discipline. Do we love our denomination enough to root out theological progressivism? It’s a question we should all be asking. Read more»

Jon Payne, “The PCA’s Very Slippery Slope: Progressivism, Theological Liberalism, & the Gay Pastor,” Gospel Reformation Network, December 14, 2020

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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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9 comments

  1. Liberals seem to lose all the battles but win all the wars. Rather than pack up their toys and go home when defeated, such as when the PCA approved the Nashville statement, they take the long view and persist. One even tweeted this strategy after the vote. Meanwhile, they are never honest with conservatives about their true intentions, duck direct questions and squirt ink , all the while improving their networks behind the scenes.

    Conservatives, on the other hand, are very good losers, lacking any stomach for a fight. They almost seem to value being good losers rather than shrewd winners as if there were some virtue to losing well when the opposite is true. As this pertains to their situation in the PCA, they either kick the liberals which will mean being not nice or leaving and starting another denomination where the pattern repeats. My question for nice conservative is, don’t you find starting from scratch exhausting?

  2. While I find the thesis of the essay valid, I find myself wrestling with priority. Of course reformed theology and liturgy is important, very important even, but is it more important than the Gospel itself?

    I attend a reformed congregational church in New England with a long and rich history dating back to the 18th century. Our pastor is ordained PCA and is serving out of bounds and I expect we would be seen as PCA by a visitor who didn’t know better. Our congregation is aging rapidly, and we have found it impossible to bring in younger families and children (I know, nothing is impossible for God).

    We have very active outreach programs and are generally seen as a positive influence in the community by the community. A very large portion of our budget goes to missions, and we have fervent prayer groups and bible studies. The Word is preached completely, but with grace and humility, and we are warm and welcoming to visitors. But nevertheless, we are seen as old-fashioned and even a bit stodgy, and few who visit return for more than a couple of weeks. While I don’t personally see reformed theology and a modern dynamic liturgy as being mutually exclusive, it is a difficult balance to navigate.

    Don’t take me wrong, I am in no way advocating for compromising our theology, and certainly not a proponent of advancing the so-called wisdom of modern culture, but I do wonder where the lines are between a cappella Psalm singing on one side and contemporary rock bands on the other. Are we to stand firm to a liturgical format that many young in the faith see as uninspiring? Are we to firmly hold to a tradition while watching our church wither and die? Admitting that God is in control of His church, do we still have a role and even a responsibility to tailor our “style” to reach our community with the Gospel? Is thinking such as I have expressed here part of the “slide to theological liberalism? All I’m crying out for is wisdom to understand where the lines are, and how we can maintain a fully reformed theology by modernizing only our style. For what it’s worth I have read and reread Rediscovering the Reformed Tradition, and have no desire to slip toward QIRE, just honestly questioning what might be working in other churches with similar experience.

    • Jerry,

      The expression “dynamic liturgy” is interesting. I assume by it you refer to contemporary worship. Properly understood, however, the dialogic liturgy, where God speaks and his people respond with his Word is dynamic. Singing praise choruses for 40 minutes with a praise band isn’t “dynamic” when the same choruses are sung, the same chord progressions are played, the same hands go up at the same time every Sunday.

      I don’t think Jon is calling for a capella Psalmody. I’m not arguing for exclusive Psalmody but only that Scripture is sufficient for public worship. It’s the one thing we can all sing without a doubt that we are repeating to God his own Word and that it is commanded by God. When we sing anything other than God’s Word we must always doubt whether God has authorized it. As to instruments, a capella worship was the practice of the church for the 1st 8 centuries. It was practice of the Reformed Churches in the Reformation. Has God really authorized their use in public worship? These are questions that ought to be considered seriously.

      What evidence is there that the Xers and Millennials really want what Boomers have given them (in re contemporary worship)? Do we really know that “young people” find historic Christian worship uninspiring or are guessing/assuming?

      What if they do? Here I go back to the Scriptures, as we must. What if Israel became tired of manna and quail? What if Israel clamored to go back to Egypt? What if some of the Corinthians wanted to do bizarre things in worship? God has spoken directly to these desires?

      I really doubt your premise that we’re talking about “style.” Let’s sing God’s Word with the best tunes, whether ancient or contemporary but what Jon is addressing isn’t just “style.” Further, style isn’t neutral. It contains a message.

      I appreciate your passion and concern. Where do we draw the lines? We draw them where God has drawn them. Our confessions help us to remember them. Our What our young people want from us is to see such passion, they want to see consistency. They want to see love. They want to see community. They want to see joy. They want to see hope and love.

    • JerryM: You are using worship styles as a straw man argument. Worship styles aren’t at the heart of why the PCA is in trouble and that is not what Jon Payne is arguing. If disputes over hymnody were our big problem, we would be frying much smaller fish. In fact, I know of no controversy in the PCA about worship styles. Maybe there should be but that isn’t an issue that threatens to tear the PCA apart.

  3. We need to remain part of Isaiah’s “faithful remnant”

    Has anyone done a word search to see how many times Isaiah uses the word remnant?

  4. What evidence is there that the Xers and Millennials really want what Boomers have given them (in re contemporary worship)? Do we really know that “young people” find historic Christian worship uninspiring or are guessing/assuming?

    These were my questions too. Both the Barna data and my experience show that very few Millennials know the Lord at all which is why our churches are gray. Millennials go to church in far fewer numbers than previous generations. To the extent that they do go, they tend to gather all at one hip local church rather than disperse among many. “Hip” and “church” do not belong in the same sentence (which is not an excuse for churches to be stodgy and unfriendly).

  5. I don’t understand at all, how such question (on abortions, homosexualism, etc.) can be raised in the church, – especially, if that church was called “Reformed”. This is pure antinomianism. And this kind of question is wrong in itself, see Ephesians 5:3. This people just never known the death of Christ in themselves.

    Such loud fallings of the visible churches is the reason, why I have some sympathy for consistent “avoidance of the world” principle in anabaptist style; or about that extreme individualism of some german spiritualists, mystics, and “schwärmers” of same era, who lives like spiritual Robinson Crusoe, and believes only in invisible Church (yes, I know, this both is not a Reformed way).

    [I apologize for my english, some words might sound weird, but I hope that readers can understand me].

  6. These problems represent a failure of apologetics, and the discourse I’ve seen so far doesn’t indicate the GRN leadership is cognizant of that reality. I hope they awaken to the need before it’s too late.

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