There is what PCA RE Brad Isbell calls a “quiet crisis” in the PCA. PCA TE Jon Payne says “the future doesn’t look good for the PCA.” The presenting issue just now is so-called “Side B” or “Gay Christianity.” On this see the resources below. The subterranean issue, the geologic plates on which the other issues are resting, however, is the PCA’s relations to its own confessional standards. Just a little over three years ago, PCA TE Ben Shaw, observed the consequences of the PCA’s 2002 decision to adopt “good faith” subscription to the Standards:
Since that time, it has become common for candidates to express differences from the standards in three areas: creation, Sabbath observance, and visible representations of Christ. These stated differences have become so common that it seems it is almost expected for candidates to express those differences. (Whether candidates have actually studied the issues involved or have consulted any works defending the confessional statements is another matter.) Those differences are also commonly allowed as exceptions by presbyteries under category (c) above: The difference is “more than semantic, but not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine.”
I would put the first of the three issues a little differently than Shaw, as I explained in Recovering the Reformed Confession. Nevertheless, the substance of his point remains. Candidates for the pastoral ministry in the PCA routinely dissent from the Standards on the Reformed interpretation of the second commandment, which says:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments (as quoted in Westminster Shorter Catechism 49).
Whereas the Divines did not expressly say that “in the space of six day” means six twenty-four hour periods, they did expressly articulate the Reformed understanding of the second commandment:
Q. 50. What is required in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment requireth the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his word.
Q. 51. What is forbidden in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment forbiddeth the worshiping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his word.
Q. 52. What are the reasons annexed to the second commandment?
A. The reasons annexed to the second commandment are, God’s sovereignty over us, his propriety in us, and the zeal he hath to his own worship.
The Divines were articulating the rule of worship as understood by all the Reformed churches in Europe and in Scotland. We worship God only as he has commanded. When it comes to worship, the Anglican and Lutheran traditions ask, “is it forbidden?” The Reformed ask, “is it commanded” These are distinct approaches.
With the ancient Christian church and all the Reformed churches, the Divines rejected representations of God the Son incarnate. My impression is that a good number of candidates for the ministry in the PCA simply have not been taught the ancient Christian and Reformed view of images of Christ. Some of them have been taught, as I was taught by one of my professors, that the ancient Christian and Reformed view of images denies the humanity of Christ. Of course, I now such a claim to be risible but seminary students depend on their professors to give them a solid baseline. In some cases, however, PCA candidates have not been taught the Chalcedonian view of the two natures of Christ. As Heinrich Bullinger said in the Second Helvetic Confession (ch. 4), God the Son did not become incarnate to make work for carvers and artists. The humanity represented by any artist is not actually Christ’s humanity. It is nothing but the artist’s imagination. Further, inasmuch as the deity cannot be represented in art, the artist has separated the deity from the humanity. Images of Christ are Nestorian.
The Divines were equally clear about the fourth commandment:
Q. 57. Which is the fourth commandment?
A. The fourth commandment is, Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
Q. 58. What is required in the fourth commandment?
A. The fourth commandment requireth the keeping holy to God such set times as he hath appointed in his word; expressly one whole day in seven, to be a holy sabbath to himself.
Q. 59. Which day of the seven hath God appointed to be the weekly sabbath?
A. From the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, God appointed the seventh day of the week to be the weekly sabbath; and the first day of the week ever since, to continue to the end of the world, which is the Christian sabbath.
Q. 60. How is the sabbath to be sanctified?
A. The sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.
Q. 61. What is forbidden in the fourth commandment?
A. The fourth commandment forbiddeth the omission or careless performance of the duties required, and the profaning the day by idleness, or doing that which is in itself sinful, or by unnecessary thoughts, words or works, about our worldly employments or recreations.
Q. 62. What are the reasons annexed to the fourth commandment?
A. The reasons annexed to the fourth commandment are, God’s allowing us six days of the week for our own employments, his challenging a special propriety in the seventh, his own example, and his blessing the sabbath day.
Again, the Divines were not saying anything that was not widely held among the Reformed at the time. Ostensibly, the issue is the recreation clauses in WSC 60 and 61 but I submit that the real issue is that candidates do not understand or accept the premise of the Reformed view of the fourth commandment in WSC 59: that the Christian sabbath is grounded both in creation (nature) and in redemption (grace). I doubt that most of those who dissent from the WSC on the Sabbath understand the Sabbath to be a creational institution. I suppose that they think of the Sabbath as something that is essentially Mosaic and largely abolished by the New Testament. Thus, they chafe at what they see to be an over-scrupulous approach to the Christian sabbath by the Divines.
There is good reason to think also that, as I argued in RRC, the loss of the Sabbath is closely connected to the loss, in the PCA, of the confessional doctrine of the “due use of ordinary means.” How so? In the same period since the PCA has adopted “good faith” subscription to the Standards, she has also widely abandoned the second service. At first, ending the second service was justified on the grounds that congregations were going to move to small groups. No one has explained how a small-group Bible Study is a means of grace but let us press on. How are those small groups holding up after 19 years? Are they still going or have they been replaced by trips to the mall and the beach?
The tectonic problem here has always been the “insofar as” (quatenus) approach to confessional subscription. The PCA’s “good faith” approach is not new. It first appeared in the 18th century in Presbyterian churches that have long since entirely abandoned the confession. This is the problem with defining subscription by “strict” and “loose.” Both are species of the “insofar as” (the candidate judges the confession to be biblical) approach. Both are essentially subjective.
Thus, in some PCA presbyteries, in order to be ordained, it is necessary to hold to six twenty-four day creation and this despite the fact that the Standards do not say “six twenty-four hour days” but “in the space of six days.” In other presbyteries, as Shaw observes, is it is almost expected that candidates will dissent from the Standards on images and the Christian sabbath. There are as many confessions as there are presbyteries. The list of those things that count as the “vitals of religion” grows shorter each year.
Should we be surprised that Side-B/Gay Christianity is being debated in the PCA? The Standards are quite clear about the Presbyterian understanding of human sexuality. Westminster Larger Catechism 139 knows nothing of celibate “Gay Christianity:”
Q. 139. What are the sins forbidden in the seventh commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the seventh commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are, adultery, fornication, rape, incest, sodomy, and all unnatural lusts; all unclean imaginations, thoughts, purposes, and affections; all corrupt or filthy communications, or listening thereunto; wanton looks, impudent or light behavior, immodest apparel; prohibiting of lawful, and dispensing with unlawful marriages; allowing, tolerating, keeping of stews [brothel], and resorting to them; entangling vows of single life, undue delay of marriage; having more wives or husbands than one at the same time; unjust divorce, or desertion; idleness, gluttony, drunkenness, unchaste company; lascivious songs, books, pictures, dancings, stage plays; and all other provocations to, or acts of uncleanness, either in ourselves or others.
Side B/Gay Christianity says that some Christians are endowed by nature with those “unnatural lusts” etc and that those lusts, imaginations, thoughts, and affections are immutable and must be tolerated and, at Revoice, even celebrated. The Revoice approach to human sexuality is flatly contrary to that of the Standards yet, in at least one presbytery, it is tolerated while condemned in others. Can we really still doubt that there are, in effect, multiple confessions in the PCA?
Do the defenders of “good faith” subscription genuinely doubt that we we cannot produce an even longer list? What about the Federal Vision? Surely the doctrines of baptism, justification, salvation, and the practice of holy communion touch “the vitals of religion” and yet I know of only one advocate of the Federal Vision who has been disciplined by a PCA presbytery (before the theology, piety, and practice was known as “the Federal Vision”). There have, to my knowledge, been three trials of Federal Vision advocates and no conviction.
The history of the “Good Faith” approach to confessional subscription is not promising. The history of the Modern church tells us that it is they who dissent from the Standards, who have mastered the machinery of the church and the Book of Church Order, who get to stay and those who still believe the Standards who are exiled. I have spent my entire ministry among exiled folk, first in the RCUS and later in the URCNA. Both are separating, continuing denominations who lost property, resources, and status for the sake of fidelity to the Reformed confession.
Dr. James McHenry recorded a conversation between a certain “Mrs Powell of Philadelphia” and Benjamin Franklin, which is supposed to have occurred on or about 17 September, 1787:
“A lady asked Dr Franklin, Well Doctor what have got a republic or a monarchy? A republic replied the Doctor if you can keep it.” 1
As all of us in NAPARC have an interest in the well-being of the PCA we may hope and pray that that our brothers and sisters find a way to reverse the trends and keep the church.
©R. Scott Clark
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- Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).
- Three Vital Questions For the PCA In 2021
- Can The PCA’s “Big Tent” Hold?
- Jon Payne: The PCA Is In Trouble
- A Quiet Crisis In The PCA?
- Payne: The PCA Is At A Crossroads
- Office Hours: With Jon Payne On Discipleship And Revoice
- Office Hours: Jon Payne On The Gospel Reformation Network
- Missing Mandate And Better Metrics: Understanding the 2017 PCA General Assembly
- David Hall: Whither The PCA At 40: Anyone For A Janus Birthday In December?
- A Confessional Alternative to the PCA’s Strategic Plan From the NW Georgia Presbytery (Updated)
- The PCA’s Strategic Plan was so “sleep”
- The PCA’s 2010 Strategic Plan
- Julius Kim discusses the history of “latitudinarianism” here (beginning at 22:15).
- On Precisionism and Latitudinarianism (Again)
- Exacting Subscription Opposed By Latitudinarians And Heretics
- In John’s Latitudinarian Garage
- The Narcissism of Evangelical Latitudinarianism
- Resources On LGBTQ And Revoice
- Resources On Images Of Christ
- Are There Two Distinct Reformed Views Of The Sabbath?
- Resources on the Christian Sabbath (Updated)
- Resources On The Federal Vision Theology
- The Leithart Verdict Is In: The News is Not Good for Orthodoxy
- Just In Time For Reformation Day: The Return Of The Federal Visionists (And Their Allies)
- Heidelcast 53: The Story Of The Meyers Case And State Of The FV Controversy (Pt 1)
- Heidelcast 54: The Story Of The Meyers Case (Pt 2)
1. “Papers of Dr. James McHenry on the Federal Convention of 1787.” The American Historical Review 11, no. 3 (1906), 618. Accessed June 3, 2021. doi:10.2307/1836024. NB: the quotation is correct. Punctuation conventions in the late 18th century differed from ours.