Three Vital Questions For the PCA In 2021

There are three great questions to be faced by the PCA in 2021:

1. Which will have priority, the desire to be a “National Presbyterian Church” (the original name for the PCA) or the desire to be confessionally faithful? The historical evidence from American Presbyterianism suggests that this is not a false choice. The desire to be a “national” church led the PCUSA to become broader and more inclusive theologically and practically. This desire to be “national” goes back at least as far as Charles Hodge (1797–1878), who took no exceptions from the standards but argued that, to be a truly “national” Presbyterian Church, it is necessary to set relatively low standards for fidelity to the standards.

2. Since the late 18th century American Presbyterians generally have been on less than solid footing relative to confessional subscription. The norm has been to assume the necessity of exceptions and then to limit or expand that list. The PCA theory and practice of “good faith” subscription, whereby each presbytery decides how much of the standards a ministerial candidate must affirm, positions them on the sloppy end of the spectrum, even by American Presbyterian standards. The question during every examination of a candidate for ministry becomes: how far may one cut into Reformed theology, piety, & practice before one strikes the “vitals of religion”? This very question necessarily pushes presbyteries to a lowest-common denominator in theology, piety, & practice.

3. A decade on, it seems clear the PCA Strategic Plan (2010; see the resources below) has had the effect of marginalizing confessionalists and empowering the broader, more latitudinarian wing (see resources below) of the PCA. Will the movements symbolized by the National Partnership et al win the PCA win the day or will the PCA, as Bob Mattes has written, merely “shed its confessional wing”?

©R. Scott Clark

Resources

  1. How To Subscribe To Heidelmedia
  2. How to support Heidelmedia: use the donate button below this post.
  3. Some of this is not original with me. Lee Johnson, pastor of St John’s RCUS (my home church) in Lincoln, Neb made some of these points (especially #3) in 2013.
  4. For more on confessional subscription, including Hodge’s views, see Recovering the Reformed Confession.
  5. Jon Payne: The PCA Is In Trouble
  6. A Quiet Crisis In The PCA?
  7. Payne: The PCA Is At A Crossroads
  8. Office Hours: With Jon Payne On Discipleship And Revoice
  9. Office Hours: Jon Payne On The Gospel Reformation Network
  10. Missing Mandate And Better Metrics: Understanding the 2017 PCA General Assembly
  11. David Hall: Whither The PCA At 40: Anyone For A Janus Birthday In December?
  12. A Confessional Alternative to the PCA’s Strategic Plan From the NW Georgia Presbytery (Updated)
  13. The PCA’s Strategic Plan was so “sleep”
  14. The PCA’s 2010 Strategic Plan
  15. Julius Kim discusses the history of “latitudinarianism” here (beginning at 22:15).
  16. On Precisionism and Latitudinarianism (Again)
  17. Exacting Subscription Opposed By Latitudinarians And Heretics
  18. In John’s Latitudinarian Garage
  19. The Narcissism of Evangelical Latitudinarianism
  20. The Heidelblog Resource Page

    Post authored by:

  • 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.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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13 comments

  1. In your three questions which each present an “either-or” possibility, it seems clear by now that the choice which will lead to a further downgrade of the denomination is the one which will be chosen by the TE majority of the General Assembly. The church courts have become ineffectual and those with grievances are now choosing leaving the PCA rather than engage in fights which could span generations with little prospect of success. All the individual churches own their own property (so far) which makes leaving much easier than compared to main-line Protestant denominations.

  2. One only needs to look at the Missouri Presbytery for examples. Whether it be Federal Vision or Revoice the results have been what is referred to in civilian courts as “jury nullification”. Yet it is these rogue presbyteries which produce controversies on a regular basis which is detrimental to the peace and purity of our denomination yet they remain unassailable. This is one example but wider problems exist such as Covenant Seminary which sets the agenda for the PCA and is not coincidentally located in the heart of the Missouri Presbytery. We also have a General Assembly which actively works to thwart greater participation by REs to the point that at the General Assembly TEs outnumber REs by at least 3 to 1. I find it impossible to see a “glass half full” scenario for the PCA’s future.

    • I agree that the Mo Pres handling of the FV and Revoice, for that matter, is frustrating and unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, that is a very small sample size don’t you think?

    • The “small sample size” of judicial problems generated by the Missouri Presbytery may be small numerically but I daresay not qualitatively. There appears to be no apparent mechanism for the General Assembly to deal with a presbytery like the Missouri Presbytery. My personal opinion (and not mine alone) is that the nexus of the denomination’s problems is the denomination’s only seminary, Covenant Seminary. It is enough of a problem that one of the presbyteries submitted an overture at the last General Assembly which advocated that the PCA sever ties with the seminary. Marshall noted what many believe is another major problem which is the consolidation of power in a denominational bureaucracy. He outlined a recent example where PCA agency heads issued on their own authority a “statement” about social justice. Covenant Seminary has done the same without the slightest admonition from the General Assembly. There have been numerous overtures presented imploring the General Assembly to take back power from the bureaucracy but all such overtures have failed. So you’ve got numerous systemic problems which when taken together almost surely insure the eventual decline of the PCA.

      • Bob,

        I agree that there are systemic issues but what I have not seen is the sort of vigorous action in the courts of the church to address these issues. There are a number of reasons for this, there of which I addressed in the post. Another, which is related, is the “live and let live” culture of the PCA.

      • Bob,

        There might be another split—the first has already occurred. The warning signs from the GRN wing seem fairly clear. The question is how strong is the “live and let live” lethargy + the desire to be “national”? How many sessions are genuinely concerned? How many are paying attention? Revoice will be addressed by a GA but the issues I highlighted in the post will remain. How all that will shake out I really do not know.

    • The General Assembly has already disposed of the Revoice matter the way a bureaucracy sweeps an issue under the rug: they appoint a committee to study it and report back to the General Assembly. However, this Committee didn’t wait for the approval of the General Assembly. They released their report on their own authority as if it were “the voice of the PCA”. Predictably the General Assembly said nothing about this usurpation of their authority. Here’s a link to the report: https://pcaga.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/AIC-Report-to-48th-GA-5-28-20-1.pdf

    • The Committee which studied human sexuality in theory is subordinate to the General assembly and was constituted to report first to the General Assembly. Instead they unilaterally published their report prior to any review by the General Assembly. I predict that their action will not be challenged because the Committee was a hand picked blue ribbon panel made up of some of the biggest names in the PCA among those of the liberal persuasion and as such they represent the mainstream of thought in the General Assembly if not the PCA. Therefore I predict that the ReVoice matter is officially closed and no further action will be taken regarding it.

  3. There is a fourth question which is no less vital, and in comparison to which the other three may yet prove comparatively minor: viz., will the revolutionary spirit of the age be the prime directing force in the PCA, to the neglect of our fidelity to Scripture? See, for example: https://byfaithonline.com/group-of-pca-coordinators-and-presidents-issues-statement-on-heinous-killings/

    That linked statement tacitly assumes that the mainstream perspective on the events related is accurate and fair, and further adopts secular/leftist rhetoric with a terrible ease (“We repent of a negligent and willful failure to account for our unearned privilege or to surface the unconscious biases that move us to protect our comfort rather than risk speaking against racial injustice”) that rivals some of the statements of denominations such as the PCUSA or UCC.

    The answer to prejudice is that given in the clear testimony of Scripture, that God shows no partiality and that the unity of the church in Christ erases all other forms of identity, making them useless rubbish in comparison. To the extent that Presbyterians have sinned against members of certain groups it has been because they did not adhere to scripture’s ethos of love for neighbor, not because we have failed to adopt a secular perspective or a secular theory of racial identity.

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