Whither The PCA?

Jake Meador has published an essay arguing the “conversations”—a euphemism for debates that should be retired immediately—in the PCA surrounding same-sex attracted, celibate ministers (the so-called “Side B” approach to homosexuality) “should begin to move on to newer, better frames…”. He calls the PCA and others to “form stronger church communities,” that are more welcoming to singles in order to recover the traditional Christian sexual ethic, including an appreciation for celibate singles. He calls on same-sex attracted Christians to to appreciate and learn from the Christian tradition on sexuality and theorizes “we’re all basically going to either end up burnt out or forming more intensive Bruderhof Lite type Christian communities.” If you guessed that the Bruderhof communities are German-American Anabaptist versions of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, you guessed correctly. These are quasi-monastic, communal societies (which include families rather than only single, celibate Christians) which include the Anabaptist practice of having all things in common. 

He complains that the “conversation” in the PCA over Side B is “stuck” because it is polarized by 5% on the left wing and by 10% on the right wing. He gives no example of the “left” (his language) in the PCA but he names the Gospel Reformation Network as an example of the “right” in the PCA. The reader cannot help but notice the absence of the National Partnership in his left-right taxonomy. 

According to Meador, the remaining 85% in the blessed middle of the PCA should use the PCA GA Committee’s Ad Interim Report (2020) on Human Sexuality and the ACNA Bishops’ Statement as the road map to the way forward. That way also includes ignoring the “right” (i.e., the GRN) and the left (the National Partnership?) and focusing on the local church, thereby rebuilding trust.

The Good, The Bad, And The Absent

His call for the church to be more intentional toward and inclusive of Christian singles is well taken. In reaction to the sexual revolutions in the modern and post-modern West, the conservative Presbyterian and Reformed (P&R) denominations have tended to become a refuge for the nuclear family. This is understandable but the focus in P&R congregations on “the family” tends to make singles a third wheel. One does not hear very often about the virtues of being single yet Paul rather strongly advocates the single life for Christians (1 Cor 7:17–40). Singleness is a gift not a curse. Singles are free to serve the church and the kingdom in a way, as Paul says, that the married are not.

It is true that the Christian life is lived in the local church. Laity and ruling elders ought to be principally connected to the local church. It is the session that oversees their spiritual well being and the minister who visits them in hospital, preaches the gospel, and administers to them the holy sacraments. However valuable magazines (e.g., Mere Orthodoxy and the Heidelblog) are, they are not the church. At their best, they are aids to the church and nothing more.

Some of what Meador supposes is simply wrong. Is a Bruderhof communal existence a viable option for Reformed Christians? In Belgic Confession art. 36, as revised by the United Reformed Churches in North America, the Reformed churches confess: “we denounce the Anabaptists, other anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings.” It is true that the Bruderhof communities are voluntary, which distinguishes them from some of the original Anabaptist communities, but it is also true that the Reformed churches reject the community of goods as envisioned by the Anabaptists and we reject also the view of nature and grace which drives their view of community. For the Anabaptists, as for most American evangelicals, grace (in this case eschatology) wipes out nature. In short, they have an over-realized eschatology. It is that which drives separatism. 

What Dreher and Meador are envisioning, in the wake of the collapse of Christendom, is not life after Christendom but a retreat into micro-Christendoms. It is true that the monastic movements emerged in Egypt fairly early in the history of the church (third century), but it also true that the monastic movements, for all the good they did in preserving and transmitting knowledge, were a cul-de-sac from which the Reformation rescued us. In classical Protestant terms, a “Lutheran nun” is an oxymoron. 

Against the Anabaptists, the Reformed orthodox formally affirmed the Thomistic maxim that grace perfects nature, it does not destroy it. To be sure, it seems to me that that meant something rather different from what Thomas (because of the influence of Pseudo Dionysius and Albert the Great) meant by it. Nevertheless, the Reformed rejected the Anabaptist view of nature and grace. We also rejected the Anabaptist quasi-monastic retreat into communities (however attractive such a thing might seem at times). Most of the early Christians lived in the midst of the pagans. This much is clearly indicated in Ad Diognetum (c. AD 150), ch. 5:

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. (2) For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric life-style. (3) This teaching of theirs has not been discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious men, nor do they promote any human doctrine, as some do. (4) But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. (5) They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. (6) They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. (7) They share their food but not their wives. (8) They are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” (9) They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. (10) They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. (11) They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. (12) They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life. (13) They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. (14) They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. (15) They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. (16) When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life. (17) By the Jews they are assaulted as foreigners, and by the Greeks they are persecuted, yet those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility (Michael W. Holmes, ed. The Apostolic Fathers: English Translations, Baker).

Beyond the implied view of nature and grace, Meador neglects the fact that, in P&R churches, the local congregation is part of a regional church (Presbytery) and the national church (General Assembly). What happens at presbytery (e.g., the Missouri Presbytery’s refusal to discipline Greg Johnson or Jeff Meyers—on these cases see the resources below) and General Assembly ultimately affects the local congregation. Consider those “conservative” PCUSA congregations who remained in the PCUSA in the 1920s and 30s. How conservative are they today? History tells us that it was not possible for individual congregations to remain conservative in a denomination that had practically given up the standards.

The most objectionable aspect of Meador’s analysis, however, is the “frame” (his word) in which he casts the current debates. He makes the GRN into the bad guys and gives a pass to the formerly secret and highly political National Partnership. 

It may be that 85% of the PCA is in middle with Meador but it may not be. One might wonder where Meador would have positioned himself in the PCUSA controversy of the 1920s and 30s. J. Gresham Machen was certainly regarded by the evangelical moderates (e.g., Charles Erdman) as part of the noisy 10% on the right. When what became the Orthodox Presbyterian Church split from the PCUSA, they were but a fraction of the mainline body. Who was right in 1929 or 1936? Machen, the Mainline, or the Moderates? History has rather clearly vindicated Machen. The moderates were swallowed up or bought off. The mainliners have become everything that Machen warned about and more.

Finally, regular readers of this space might be able to guess what is missing from Meador’s analysis. However valuable the PCA’s Ad Interim report on human sexuality might be, not a single teaching elder (minister) in the PCA has sworn to uphold and defend it. No one even has to take an exception to it at presbytery. As valuable as it is intrinsically, it has no formal authority as an ecclesiastical document. Whatever moral and teaching force it has, ultimately it is nothing but pious advice. We know this from the fate of the GA committee report on the Federal Vision. That was a fine piece of work, but did it lead to the actual conviction of any federal visionists in the PCA? Did it cause federal vision advocates to leave the PCA? The statement on sexuality by the bishops of the Anglican Communion of North America has its virtues but it it is even more remote from the PCA. 

There are documents, however, to which the PCA is obligated theologically and practically, which do serve as a disciplinary standard. Every minister swears the following regarding the Westminster Standards (confession and catechisms): “I do sincerely receive and subscribe to the above obligation as a just and true exhibition of my faith and principles, and do resolve to exercise my ministry in conformity thereunto” (BCO, 13-7). 

When a minister subscribes the Westminster Standards, he subscribes the very same traditional Christian sexual ethic that Meador commends. Every minister and ruling elder is bound to that ethic and to its doctrine of humanity (theological anthropology) and to its doctrine of sanctification. What is in question is whether those who advocate or who want to tolerate the Side-B approach to sexuality in the PCA actually understand and believe what the PCA confesses?

Indeed, one of the most basic issues facing the PCA is the status of her confession of the Word. Since 2002, when the PCA adopted the “good faith” approach to subscribing the Standards, she took a significant step toward marginalizing the very thing that  is intended to address the issues that she and all churches face: the standards.

The way forward for the PCA (and any other P&R church) is not to lose its soul, i.e., its confession, but to embrace that confession. I dearly wish that every P&R minister and teaching elder would ready D. G. Hart’s, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism (2004). In it Hart explained what actually happened to the mainline churches. They did not “go liberal.” They became broadly evangelical. There were outstanding liberals in the mainline, but the people who made the difference in the direction of the mainline churches was not the liberals but the broad evangelicals who were indifferent to the role of the confession in the life of the church.

There is no reason to repeat the mistakes of the past and no reason to expect that if the PCA does the same things, for the same reasons to expect a different outcome.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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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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14 comments

  1. I can’t help but think that Dreher (and by extension Meador) have an idealized view of monasticism. Even more, what they are intending won’t be traditional monasticism, either. They might need to read John Cassian so they know what they are getting into. My antennae go up whenever Christians start talking about “communal living.”

    Even more odd, the same people who (rightly) warn against abusive church settings want to go to a communal model which invites all these abuses.

    • For Dreher, like almost all EO converts, an idealized view of monasticism is built into the orthodox cake. It’s one of the big draws of the EO religion for many converts. When I was EO, I had been to a few monasteries with some of my fellow former-EO’s, and every time a trip to a monastery was announced, it was greeted with the same giddy excitement from the converts that one sees in your typical American normie when he finds out he’s going to Disneyland.

      In their minds, monasteries are literally sanctified space. That any sort of abuses that you mention could occur there are simply impossible in their minds (despite what happened at Platina, which, sadly, no EO I know are aware of).

  2. Meador references an article in By Faith online magazine by Tim Keller. Two quotes from that article that I believe are prime examples of gaslighting are: “First, as far as I know, there is not one PCA court – not one session – presbytery, or agency – that has ever endorsed Side B Christianity.” “Conclusion: It is not true that the PCA is in imminent danger of becoming a progressive, mainline Protestant church.” If that isn’t gaslighting then I am actually losing my mind.

  3. I think there is a bit of a misread of Dreher here. This may be the fault of The Benedict Option, but he has responded to this critique numerous times and has effectively (at least in my mind) addressed it.

    His approach is better described as an expression of “localism” rather than “monastic retreat”. He envisions intentional communities that are fully invested in their local community. To be sure, if so, then his examples aren’t that great (Bruderhof, and a RCC work in Italy). Nevertheless, he says he is drawn to them because they’re intentional communities that engage their neighbors, not withdrawn communities.

    It may be that if he studied the Celtic monastic movement, he might find better examples of salt-n-light localism. Only speaking anecdotally, as I’ve not seen particular research supporting this opinion.

    • Reed,

      I appreciate this but I think, for Dreher, localism is a sub-species of monasticism. I might be wrong but to speak of The Benedict Option sends a very specific message. He’s not Wendell Berry. Localism is great. Monasticism, however, whether of the Anabaptist variety or the Medieval variety, carries with it a specific view of Christ and culture/nature and grace.

  4. The author asks the question, “How can we form stronger church communities that provide easy on-ramps for unmarrieds to join church life…” as if this is something that has never before been pondered and already been answered. Years ago, back in the 1980’s, I can attest to one very successful “Singles Group” at a PCA church. It is where I met my wife. And yes, while there were more than a few couples that met there and were married, it was by no means a “dating club”. This was a true ministry of the church that provided fellowship and growth to single people in the area. In addition to the fellowship activities, we had weekly Bible studies where the associate pastor who led the Singles ministry would teach through various books of the Bible. Of course, when the various passages dealt with sexual topics, they were discussed, but no more or less emphasis was given to them based on the fact that we were single. And certainly, no thought was given to whether or not anyone in the group may have had any same-sex attractions. The author of the article gets in totally backward when he states “who we can and should be listening to and learning from” anyone who has these attractions. What is there to learn other than how to help these individuals? Instead, I get the sense that the author is saying that we have something to gain in that somehow we will be better for having gleaned whatever knowledge this imparts to us. Further, while he tries to make the case that he is somehow in the middle ground, it seems rather clear that he sees nothing wrong with the proposition Johnson and others make that same-sex attraction is an immutable characteristic outside of nor needing of God’s grace (i.e. born that way). To me, that places him solidly on the “left” side, as he characterizes it.

  5. I’m open for correction here, but as I read the latest volley of articles from those associated with the more “progressive” camp, the new theme seems to revolve around the proposition “Let’s move on.” My (admittedly subjective) reaction is not too sanguine. It’s as if the Side-B proponents (and their various sympathizers and enablers) have announced, “Okay, you’ve made your points, and some [unidentified] outliers weren’t very wise in what they wrote. But that’s over now, and it’s time to move on.”

    FWIW.

    • Brad: The “progressives” have had their early victories. What better time to declare the fight over and move on? They’ve sown the wind and now they are beginning to reap the whirlwind and they are seeing that this is one issue where their opponents aren’t going to go away quietly.

  6. Like Mr. Aitken, I was in FV circles for a time. I remember the celebration of the acquittals of Pastors Meyers and Leithart by Missouri Presbytery and Pacific Northest Presbytery, respectively.

    The passage of time often clarifies things. One minister in the Pacific Northest Presbytery wrote a disturbingly weak and noncommittal response to the Obergefell decision. Dr. Leithart, at least in the past, endorsed Wesley Hill’s work. He may have wised up since then. I’ve lost track.

    And then of course, you have the whole sorry affair of Revoice and the failure of Missouri Presbytery to love Greg Johnson and those tempted to same sex attraction. Very sad. When challenged on Revoice, Pr. Meyers has been ugly and vindictive.

    I believe in Presbyterian government, but there is always a danger of good ole boyism. Non aggression pacts. I will overlook your quasi Lutheranism if you overlook my violations of the Seventh commandment. Slowly, it dawned on me that this is likely the real reason Leithart and Meyers were acquitted.

    If you read Leithart’s book, Priesthood of the Plebs, he tells you his intent is to bring evangelicals into the ecumenical movement of the 20th century. Unfortunately, that means more than clerical collars, the church calendar and albs and stoles. The ecumenical movement also tended to go along with mainline decadence on Christian morals and the truth and authority of Scripture. Both went together hand in hand. There’s only so much time in a day. An overemphasis on ceremony and liturgical minutiae causes personal piety and lively religion to suffer. As it was in JC Ryle’s day and the Puritans’ day and in the days of Jewish Church, so it is with us. It really is what your cringe dispy Boomer parents told you.

    To conclude, broad evangelicalism has its problems, but I think the people to keep your eye on are the ceremonialists. I say this as a repenting cermenonialist who has been watching the Emergent and emergent adjacent scene for a decade plus. And Meador and his crew. Rod Dreher. Crunchy paleos.

    I still love a well crafted liturgy, and I have a higher view of the Church and sacraments than the average Joe. But we have to keep things in the proper balance. Our Reformed confessions help us do this. Ignore them, undermine them and lie about following them to your peril.

  7. I agree that there is a bit of a misunderstanding of Dreher. I have only read a few chapters of The Benedict Option, but have heard Dreher respond to these same criticisms in several different interviews. His perspective is explained also a bit more in Live Not By Lies (which I have read). It is much more of a localism than an actual monasticism. He is talking about living in communities not communes. I have heard interviews where he has specifically mentioned that he is talking about places like Sioux Center, IA, or Moscow, ID (whatever your personal thoughts are about those places, and he doesn’t particularly like Doug Wilson) where there are many christians of like mind, living in neighborhoods that are not exclusive to the lost, but rather where they can be around to take care of each other and watch out for each other while being salt. Very much more like the “idillic” rural communities of yore. A situation where you are able to support each other in business by patronizing the business, not owning it in a communal way. Where, if there were to arise a situation like some of my friends in Australia or NZ have recently experienced, (being locked out of the economy because of tyranny) you would have like minded Christians for neighbors who would be there to encourage you spiritually and care for you materially. It sounds very much more to me like being the “City on a Hill”, than the monastery behind walls. He regularly explains it as living like the underground church in Eastern Europe, where the church had to draw together and support each other or be wiped out. Which I believe is his view/fear on where we are headed.
    I would also agree with Bob, that those two comments in the article by Tim Keller were “problematic/ignorant” at best.

    • Jonathan,

      I appreciate this qualification. I’ve seen him say the same thing. Orange City is one thing and Moscow, ID another. I submit that Wilson has intentionally attempted to set up not exactly a commune but it is a sort of refuge (or, as Crawford Gribben has noted, a redoubt) from or against “the world.” In that is quasi-monastic or a form of withdrawal. This gets to my point about these intentionally formed communities as little christendoms, which gets me back to Ad diognetum.

      Our withdrawal, if you will, is in the Kingdom, on the Lord’s Day, but not as a culture. On the Christian Sabbath we withdraw from culture, for the day but on Monday we return to it. We’re not seeking to “take over” but to co-exist with the pagans (yes, I know “co-exist” is a loaded phrase but I only mean “to live alongside with”).

      I do think, however, that we Christians need to be intentional about forming a community in the church as church. We are meant to care for one another and not to depend on “the world” to do it for us.

      I take the correction well, however. Thanks.

    • Also keep in mind that that the kind of “communities” into which we may have to enter eventually are not like the underground associations that took place in Eastern Europe or even in the persecuted ancient church, but are available to us even today as “virtual communities.” This blog site is, in fact, one of those. As long as we are not too restricted from where we can go and what we can access on the Web we can continue to meet in such a manner. Does this meet all of the requirements of a true church? Emphatically, no (e.g., the proper use of the sacraments). But it would be better than what the alternative may come to be – doing nothing.

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