How “The Letter” Reads To An Outsider

Someone, probably an unofficial committee of some sort within the PCA, has published an open letter to others in the PCA.If you are interested in the PCA and the questions raised by the letter you should read it for yourself before proceeding.

Why should anyone outside the PCA be engaging this open letter? The Austrian diplomat, von Metternich is reported to have said, “When France sneezes Europe catches a cold.” The same could be said for the PCA and NAPARC. What happens in the PCA does not stay in the PCA. Thus, the rest of us have an interest in the trends in the PCA.  I have been observing the PCA for about 40 years and I have been teaching future and present PCA pastors, ruling elders, and laity since 1997.

Before I comment please note that I have included a number of sources on this and related question in the resources.

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The PCA General Assembly is later this month, June 28-July 2, 2021 in St Louis. There more than 1,000 teaching elders (pastors) and ruling elders will gather to fellowship, pray, and deliberate on a variety of issues facing the PCA. There are some pressing issues. The most obvious is the question of what the PCA will do about the influence of the Revoice or “Side-B” or “Gay Christianity” movement within its ranks. Under the surface, however, are even more fundamental issues going back to the adoption of so-called “Good Faith” subscription to the Westminster Standards and the 2010 Strategic Plan. On these see the resources below.

Summary

The open letter is presented as an attempt to encourage “others about the present and future of the Presbyterian Church in America and also to address and put to rest some assertions that are being spread about the PCA that we feel to be inaccurate and harmful.”

The authors remain anonymous. They assure the reader:

We are fellow believers who share concern over the moral state of society and culture. Like you, we share a desire for the Church to model biblical Christianity in the Reformed tradition—in the pews and in homes. We believe there to be no greater expression of the Christian faith. And like you, we are confessional. We wholeheartedly hold to the Standards of the Faith that our denomination has adopted as its constitution. We embrace our historic doctrinal underpinnings. We celebrate the church fathers who have gone before us.

They acknowledge that there are differences regarding “the expression of our Orthodoxy when it comes to worship” but assure the reader that they are “within the bounds of our polity and Scripture.” They affirm that the parties in the PCA “have far more in common than what would threaten to separate us.”

What are the grounds for optimism? “Churches are being planted.” Large numbers of members are entering the mission field. They argue “RUF is thriving, and our minority leaders are being championed in fundraising by the Unity Fund. They also appeal to a “healthy, biblical consciousness for” a range of social issues. The authors assert that the PCA is becoming what her founders intended.

The letter also characterizes the criticisms and critics of the “direction of the PCA.” It asserts that some are claiming “that there are PCA pastors who desire to ordain practicing homosexuals (emphasis original). They deny this and allege that such charges are an attempt to “to ignite alarm and enflame passions among brothers.” It is harshly critical of “[O]nline blogs, Facebook posts, online news agencies, and emails,” which they charge with being “modes of much attack, innuendo, and ridicule, with little or no personal interaction with those attacked and cited.”

The authors (and signatories) worry that the “‘Enter In’ ethic” of the PCA is being replaced by a “’Do Not Enter’ sign outside of the Church’s walls…” and the lack of charitable and biblical communication “run[s] the risk” of damaging “the nuanced work of individual local churches in their particular congregations, communities and contexts.” The authors ask for trust and affirm their commitment to the PCA’s scriptural and confessional standards regarding marriage.

The letter asserts that the PCA has not moved from its original view of confessional subscription, that “Good Faith” subscription (GFS) was adopted to “to put an end to such unfounded assertions” and to protect the PCA from “the kind of centralized control or hidden compromise that brought peril to the denomination the PCA left in 1973.” They deny that GFS is an “escape valve for Christians who refuse to be bound by confessional standards.”  They seem worried about elevating the Standards to the level of Scripture. The phrase “extra-biblical occurs a number of times.

Finally, the letter addresses modes of communication to address issues within the PCA, particularly the use of the Internet. They suggest that it signals a decline in trust in “local churches, Sessions, and presbyteries.” They worry about words picked apart, out of context and speaking in extremes. All these things damage trust within the church.

Analysis and Criticisms

  1. The authors ask for trust but do so through an anonymous letter. An anonymous letter asking for trust seems incongruous.
  2. The letter signals no awareness of the irony of publishing a letter on the Internet to complain about the use of the Internet to address issues within the PCA.
  3. The letter complains that the advocates of “Side-B” or “Gay Christianity” have been criticized but not contacted personally. Have the authors of the open letter personally contacted the critics?  This seems like an attempt to invoke Matthew 18 implicitly in order to silence public criticism of public teaching. If so, that is an abuse of Matthew 18.
  4. A minor point: The letter has an odd section regarding the nature and status of confessions, which section seems to suggest that there are not creedal statements in Scripture itself. The authors ask, “why don’t we have a record of those confessions?” To which I reply, we do. 1 Timothy 3:16 is my favorite example.
  5. Who in the PCA is publicly arguing that anyone in the PCA seeks to ordain practicing homosexuals? I have been watching this issue closely (see the resources below) and I have not seen it. The letter gives no evidence for their assertion. Again, without specifics, such an allegation will not engender trust. It seems like a large straw man. What is at issue in the PCA is whether one who self-identifies as a homosexual, who regards same-sex attraction as an immutable characteristic, who is celibate, is qualified to hold hold the office of Teaching Elder in the PCA.
  6. The letter’s repeated assertion that the authors and signatories are confessional is weakened by the very nature of GFS. The letter itself recognizes that there are widely diverging approaches to the Standards within the PCA. Thus, to say “we are confessional” is a relatively weak affirmation when there is no shared approach to the Standards. I leave it to others to judge their historical assertions regarding the founders of the PCA.
  7. The language used in the letter regarding worship is not a clarion affirmation of WCF 21.1. “Within the bounds of our polity and Scripture” is not the sort of language that will set at ease the hearts of those worried about the direction of worship within the PCA.
  8. Does anyone in the PCA doubt that churches are being planted and missions pursued? Is not the question: churches and missions of what sort?
  9. The letter takes fairly transparent aim at the Aquila Report but does not use the name of the site. This seems disingenuous and does little to engender trust. Why did not the letter provide any specific instances of the sorts of wrongs about which they are concerned?
  10. Finally, the authors are worried that the PCA may become exclusive rather than inclusive and, reading between the lines, that criticism of Side-B/Gay Christianity will hurt the local evangelism of the gay community. If this is what is meant, why is the letter so opaque and vague? Otherwise, it is difficult to imagine whom the PCA might be in danger of excluding. The letter wants the confessionalists to be biblical. Is Scripture this vague and indirect?

Were I a confessionalist within the PCA, this letter would bring me little comfort and encouragement. It suggests that the authors do not understand the concerns of their confessionalist brothers very well.

As I read and re-read the letter and as I listened to the Presbycast guys discuss it, it seems to me that it would be really useful for representatives of the various positions to meet somewhere to discuss their differences openly and honestly. If only there were a venue for such frank, gracious, and direct conversations.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

RESOURCES

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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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12 comments

  1. Thank you for your pithy assessment. As a Full Subscriptionist to the Confession and PCA member, this letter with the 500 + TE and RE signatories, convinced me that there is little hope for the PCA continuing as a Confessional Church. In a sense, this letter demonstrates that confessionalism may already dead as a true binding element for fellowship in the PCA. The view that a man can claim to hold a heinous sinful disposition, and claim that Christ will not remove it, is dangerously close to blasphemy. (Hebrews 7:25) Certainly such a man, and those supporting him, do not understand the Gospel nor the Confession. Or else, they don’t want to. Given the number of Dmins, Drs, and PhDs, I suspect the latter. Nuance is the enemy of Godliness in this case. Christ’s Church does not suffer from being too exclusive. Worldlings are crying out for Christ’s Church to stand for supernatural saving righteousness graciously provided by a loving creator – in the face of damnation and death. Both elements are the Gospel. Why must we go down this well trodden wide road to destruction again? Haven’t we done this enough?

  2. Even though our associate pastor (PCA) “shared” a likely critical response on his Facebook to this original open letter (is that what the author called it?); I refused to clickbate altogether because of the anonymity. You could not place an anonymous comment in the comment box at my elementary school library, and you cannot submit anonymous accusations to military ranks and expect it to float through proper channels; But here is this letter, reaching the proper channels. I have not read it. I will not. He (is it? Or an entity?) could have at least made it fun and used a nom de plume.

  3. Once again, it’s a good time to quote Charles Porterfield Krauth:

    “When error is admitted into the Church, it will be found that the stages of its progress are always three. It begins by asking toleration. Its friends say to the majority: You need not be afraid of us; we are few, and weak; only let us alone; we shall not disturb the faith of the others. The Church has her standards of doctrine; of course we shall never interfere with them; we only ask for ourselves to be spared interference with our private opinions. Indulged in this for a time, error goes on to assert equal rights. Truth and error are two balancing forces. The Church shall do nothing which looks like deciding between them; that would be partiality. It is bigotry to assert any superior right for the truth. We are to agree to differ, and any favoring of the truth, because it is truth, is partisanship. What the friends of truth and error hold in common is fundamental. Anything on which they differ is ipso facto non-essential. Anybody who makes account of such a thing is a disturber of the peace of the church. Truth and error are two co-ordinate powers, and the great secret of church-statesmanship is to preserve the balance between them. From this point error soon goes on to its natural end, which is to assert supremacy. Truth started with tolerating; it comes to be merely tolerated, and then only for a time. Error claims a preference for its judgments on all disputed points. It puts men into positions, not as at first in spite of their departure from the Church’s faith, but in consequence of it. Their recommendation is that they repudiate the faith, and position is given them to teach others to repudiate it, and to make them skillful in combating it.”

    Can there be any doubt about how things are proceeding within the PCA?

  4. The letter was signed by the National Partnership which overlaps with many on TGC council. It was a blast of squid ink possibly intended to pacify the greater percentage of REs who will attend GA this year. It riffed on some of the same themes as James Kessler’s letter to Dewey Roberts which declared the National Partnership’s victory for the soul of the denomination.

    Were I a confessionalist within the PCA, this letter would bring me little comfort and encouragement. It suggests that the authors do not understand the concerns of their confessionalist brothers very well.

    “Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?” Amos 3:3

  5. This is very helpful. Thank you.

    If you try to sign the letter, the page it sends you to lists Mike Khandjian as the “principal signer.” That is not the same as “author” so I still agree with your #1 but I mention it in case it’s helpful.

  6. I have never found that such open letters accomplish much – except elevate suspicions about who wrote it, their motivations, the identity of those referred to, etc, though it does highlight burning issues. Plus, I don’t like anonymous letters. I know pastors who will not even read anonymous letters. This one, however, is rather vague as RSC notes though if you are PCA you may have a good idea of the identify of a few. Finally, such attempts at unity, that could also rightly be described as divisive, being so close to the PCA GA this month, forebodes a fractured body. Very sad.

    • Hi Keith: The division is already there. I believe the purpose of this letter is to warn conservatives not to act rashly and leave the PCA when crucial votes go against them at the GA.

  7. Thanks so much for this response to The Letter. It’s timely and truly helpful!

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