Friday evening 92% of the most controversial congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America, Memorial Presbyterian Church, voted to leave the PCA. In their statement the congregation cited the criticism they have received since they first hosted the Revoice Conference in 2018, in which the so-called “Side B” (celibate) approach to same-sex attraction was vigorously advocated. Their senior minister, the Rev Dr Greg Johnson, has openly admitted his own (Side-B) same-sex attraction and has repeatedly indicated that he believes it is a permanent state for him and others with SSA. He has been strongly criticized for, among other things, re-writing the PCA’s doctrine of sanctification to accommodate his views. He has taken several very public and controversial positions in on these questions (e.g., what ought to be said to teens struggling same-sex attraction) in the media while taking a rather different tone and stance in his official communications with the denomination.
The Rev Dr Jon Payne, writing for the Gospel Coalition Network, describes the exit of Memorial Presbyterian Church, as a “needful departure.” He catalogues some of the reasons why confessionalists and conservatives in the PCA have been so concerned about Memorial Presbyterian Church.
The Rev Dr Dominic Aquila and the Rev Todd Pruitt appeared last night on the popular PCA-oriented podcast Presbycast with PCA RE (and HRA board member) Brad Isbell to discuss the development. Aquila stated that the departure of Memorial from the PCA will take about a month to complete but that the ministers of Memorial remain, for the time being, members of Missouri Presbytery in the PCA and under the presbytery’s jurisdiction. It is unclear how long the pastors will remain members of the presbytery. The congregation has not indicated whether it plans to pursue affiliation with another denomination or remain independent.
For more information about Memorial PCA, Johnson, Revoice, and the controversy over SSA in the PCA see the resources linked below.
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From a historical/ecclesial perspective: Do you think that it is better that they leave on their own, or that they be disciplined formally before leaving? Does their leaving make the issue an unfinished one since no discipline was applied? Without formal discipline their leaving means that their views are still valid by default in the PCA. Like the Federal Vision issue, this seems like further failure on the part of the PCA to exercise decisive discipline in the face of obvious error.
I think that Johnson should be disciplined but there is no reason to think that the presbytery will do now what they’ve hitherto refused to do.
The question in the title asks if the pastor(s) are to follow. Quoting from the PCA’s online website, By Faith: “ Memorial’s pastor, Greg Johnson, has indicated that he will be leaving with the congregation.” It appears that continued filings of action against Johnson and the Missouri Presbytery was sufficient discipline in itself. Hopefully it will serve as a warning to the next entity which wants to push the envelope. I knew Johnson would never repent of something that he did not consider sin. I have a feeling that some of his supporters in the presbytery were becoming weary of the struggle when Johnson kept adding insult to injury.
Thank you for the correction Bob. I have edited the headline. We used a question mark because Dr. Aquila suggested that it was uncertain what the ministers would do.
It was not, “sufficient discipline in itself.” Now a whole congregation is being lead astray by the hireling who should have had been defrocked 4 years ago.
Aaron: There was a concerted effort within the PCA not to discipline Johnson. The Missouri Presbytery protected him and the Standing Judicial Commission refused to assume original jurisdiction. Johnson’s congregation is not just a flock of wayward sheep. They voted 92% to leave the PCA. They are very much on his side. At this point their hands are not clean either. The congregation could have voted to remove Johnson and at every turn they did not.
Blaming the sheep for the failures of under shepherds is never a good option. It’s simple, the PCA failed this congregation 4 years ago. Now a little leaven has leavened the whole loaf.
Aaron: I’m not blaming the sheep for what their shepherd did. I believe they share the blame with specific other groups in the PCA for not doing anything about it when they could have theoretically. That assumes that they are not of the same mind as Johnson. I’m not willing to make that assumption. If you are not familiar with the Missouri Presbytery, it encompasses the St. Louis metro area almost exclusively. The St. Louis area and the Missouri Presbytery is quite progressive. Johnson’s Memorial Presbyterian was probably the most progressive church in the Presbytery because of its close proximity to Washington University. Memorial would fit very well as a PCUSA church. I doubt if they will align with the PCUSA because they would have to give up the property rights of their church to the denomination.
Curious: Isn’t Memorial Presb. the same church that introduced Dispensationalism into American Presbyterianism back in the Gilded Age?
I would start targeting seminaries to avoid. These things aren’t happening in a vacuum.
“He has been strongly criticized for, among other things, re-writing the PCA’s doctrine of sanctification to accommodate his views. He has taken several very public and controversial positions in on these questions (e.g., what ought to be said to teens struggling same-sex attraction) in the media while taking a rather different tone and stance in his official communications with the denomination.”
Christianity AND Liberalism – two different belief systems. Johnson is another culture warrior. His faith in Christ is taking a back seat. A case can be made that we are too preoccupied with identifying and marrying single men in the church. Let some be single. If there is wrestling with sinful (same sex) desires let that be a private matter for pastoral counseling. I do think the movement to get Christian men hitched is an error in emphasis that emboldens Revoice counter-movements, right or wrong….
“The Rev Dr Jon Payne…catalogues some of the reasons why confessionalists and conservatives in the PCA have been so concerned about Memorial Presbyterian Church.”
Not “conservatives”! There is no liberal or conservative in the context of a confessional church. That political language has to go away.
There are religious and social conservatives in the PCA who are not confessionalists. I used that distinction advisedly. There are such things as theological conservatives and theological liberals. That’s why Machen published Christianity and Liberalism in 1923.
Ok, I understand.
I guess the label of liberal is also unhelpful then. Non-confessionalists, even conservatives, are part of the problem as they only fuel the fires and may not be properly motivated. The fundamentalists of Machen’s day were conservative in some ways.
I think such terminology (liberal/conservative) is not helpful and divides lines in ways that aren’t relevant. Or at least shouldn’t be.
If your politics conflicts with your confession, where do you stand? What are the motivations? Probably a good way to screen one’s intentions.
….If this still even matters in the PCA.
“Memorial PCA to Leave Denomination. Pastor to Follow”
From where I sit it looks more like the Pastor is at the head of the procession.
Brad: Johnson and his session no doubt influenced the congregation but the congregation alone makes the decision to leave the denomination. With 92% of the congregation voting to leave, Johnson and the session aren’t exactly bringing the congregation along kicking and screaming. I think Johnson and his congregation are of one mind. I’d say they left arm in arm.
My pastor says that nothing in a Presbyterian church will go quickly. And so we have had 3 1/2 years of this imbroglio. I was on the floor of the GA in Dallas when Greg Johnson made his speech and started the whole thing off.
And even given the ponderous nature of Presbyterian decision-making, I’ve been disappointed in the repeated refusal of Missouri Presbytery and the SJC to do anything about it. So all in all, I am glad that they are leaving. This will resolve the big bleeding sore in the PCA. And I hope that others who want to push the envelope will take note.
Onward for the gospel, without distractions!
This article by PCA minister Tim LeCroy, a member of the Missouri Presbytery and adjunct professor at Covenant Seminary, may be relevant:
Key section: “It is a sad day because with their departure and the likely passage of overture 15, the PCA is no longer a safe place for same-sex attracted persons to honestly wrestle with their sin and calling to follow Jesus. Frankly, it is no longer a place for anyone to safely struggle with sin. In our effort to excise a benign lump we have nuked the entire body, doing grave damage to the hope of grace and the freedom of the gospel. And beware, PCA, of whom the far right of our denomination will turn toward next. Do you have women reading scripture or praying in church? Watch out! Do you have unordained women serving as deaconesses? Do you practice the church year or engage in other worship practices that do not adhere to a restrictive reading of the Regulative Principle? Does your church have an arts ministry? Do you believe in the existence of systematic racism or the need for social justice work in the church? Do you have any exceptions to the Westminster Standards? Beware! These are things they have signaled that they are coming after next. Where will it stop? If lies and twisting of our theology can be used to run one faithful church and minister out of the PCA, who’s to say it will stop there? Can the monster we’ve unleashed be put back in the cage?”
Most American conservatives in most American evangelical denominations regard homosexuality as a “red flag” issue. That’s not true about most of the other issues Rev. LeCroy cites. To give just one example, the PCA already has hundreds of churches with women deacons/deaconesses. Is anyone seriously arguing for the mass expulsion of most if not all of the PCA’s Korean churches and presbyteries? It seems patently obvious that the PCA decided decades ago that not all deviations from the church order are of equal significance.
Still, Rev. LeCroy has a valid point that the core of the issue is how confessional subscription is to be handled. The PCA decided decades ago that a certain level of disagreement with the confessions and the church order is tolerable, provided that people’s exceptions are formally disclosed and formally approved by the presbytery. That process has integrity. If someone disagrees with the doctrinal standards and discloses that disagreement and submits himself to the authority of his brothers in the Lord, it’s not as if he’s claiming to believe one thing while privately believing something else, and quietly teaching it while continuing to collect his paycheck and preach from his pulpit.
In a system where exceptions are allowed, it’s unavoidable that some sessions and some presbyteries will allow some exceptions that others disallow. Some presbyteries and sessions that tolerate some things will face tremendous public backlash even if the church courts don’t formally tell them to stop what they are doing.
Apparently Memorial Presbyterian went too far. What else is too far?
I get it that the PCA is not the OPC. Just as some in the PCA would be more comfortable in a denomination that ordains women and is broadly evangelical, and probably ought to transfer to the EPC or ECO or some other broadly evangelical denomination, there are probably some people in the PCA who ought to leave for the OPC, URC, or some more confessional denomination.
But asking questions like “Can the monster we’ve unleashed be put back in the cage?” and citing examples of things that not that long ago would be widely viewed as un-Reformed, seems to raise questions about whether Memorial Presbyterian is a symptom of bigger and broader problems in the PCA.
A return to history may be relevant. Rev. Fosdick was driven out of the Northern Presbyterians after his “Shall the Fundamentalists Win” sermon, and his supporters began Riverside Church which called him as its pastor. Sadly, the departure of one prominent dissenting voice didn’t end the Northern Presbyterian Church’s problems because his public promoters and quiet enablers continued to be members in good standing, not only of the New York City presbytery, but many others in the PC(USA).
It’s patently obvious that Dr. Greg Johnson is not another Harry Emerson Fosdick, and Memorial Presbyterian of St. Louis is not Riverside Church of New York City, and Covenant Seminary in St. Louis is not Union Theological Seminary in New York. The issues are different.
But the historical parallel is worth some attention.
One prominent presbytery can cause serious problems for an entire denomination if it tolerates practices that would be unacceptable in many other presbyteries.
Let’s just say, as a person who lives in Missouri, I know very well that the PCA’s reputation around here has not been helped by Memorial Presbyterian and the widespread publicity it has received for its actions. It used to be that I could say, “No, we’re not **THAT** kind of Presbyterian; we’re not in PC(USA).” Now I have to say, “No, we’re not in the PCA, we’re in the ARP, and we have reasons for not being in the PCA.”
Actions have consequences. The damage caused by Memorial Presbyterian and the Missouri Presbytery will last for a long time, even after Memorial Presbyterian and Dr. Greg Johnson complete their disaffiliation from the PCA.
A few weeks ago there was an article by Thomas Gibbs who is president of Covenant Theological Seminary. The gist of the article was “Can’t we all just get along?”. At the time I wondered aloud whether this was a signal that Overture 15 might actually be passing. Now we have Tim Lecroy declaring it a “sad” day because Overture 15 will “likely” pass. When Overture 15 passed at last year’s GA it was all but declared dead. He wonders if the “monster” that he and others have unleashed can be put back in the cage. I pray to God it can’t. They have sown the wind, now they are reaping the whirlwind. Johnson and Memorial Presbyterian have shown the way, perhaps the other non-confessionalists will consider following.
Any idea as to which denomination they’re most likely going to?
I have not heard.
Reading this comment section, as a woman who has been a member at many a PCA church, I am discouraged. The way you all are politicizing peoples’ convictions is disheartening. My issue with this denomination (that I do love) is that there seems to be very little loving like Jesus outside the bubble of head knowledge and conservative moral code. “Loving” in the PCA means staunchly defending your theology at whatever cost, who cares who is hurt, who cares how offended you are! Jesus did not hold session meetings discussing peoples’ doctrinal failures. He befriended people, lived life with them, and loved them. Simply. Church politics take the front seat in the PCA. Not loving, not listening, not holding space for anyone to ask questions about what they’ve been taught.
If the point of belonging to a church for you is to claim spiritual authority over a body of people, then great, you are doing it well. If it’s to love the world and let God use us in bringing His kingdom, then not so much. What life has ever been transformed by a rule and not by love?
And if you’re able to look down from that authority seat and scoff, “they are so wrong about this and they have no idea!” how do you know with such certainty that you are right?? We won’t be right about everything in the end. Hopefully the humility to admit that in this life could move the PCA’s leaders, systems, and members to love more radically, scandalously, and similarly to the One they follow.
I’m not looking down on anyone. What we published here contained almost no editorializing. It’s mostly a news report. I have editorialized rather pointed re Dr Johnson’s theology and practice. More than a little of he has said and written about sexuality and sanctification is contrary to God’s Word as confessed in the Westminster Standards. Those discrepancies have been (finally) recognized by his presbytery, to some degree, and they’ve been widely recognized by ministers, elders, and laity inside and outside of the PCA,
Let me ask you question: how closely have you read what the Westminster Standards, which is the official interpretation of God’s Word in the PCA, on sexuality and sanctification? If you study them closely, you may decide that you disagree with them but I think you’ll see that Dr Johnson also disagrees with them. Therein lies the problem. He is a minister (TE) in the PCA. He’s obligated to uphold and defend the Standards. It’s hard to say that would characterize his teaching on these issues.
Did you take a look at the resources linked below the article? There are lots of examples of where Johnson has contradicted the Scriptures as understood in the PCA. That’s not the PCA’s problem. That’s his problem.
Are you sure you want to appeal to our Lord? Did he not tell the woman at the well (John 4) that the man with whom she was living was not her husband? He did. Was that nice? No. Was it “judgmental”? No. He told the truth because he loved her.
I’m doing what I can to uphold what the Reformed understand to be the biblical teaching on creation (i.e., that there are creational norms to which all humans are obligated, including sexual norms, acc. to Paul in Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6), anthropology (human nature), redemption, and sanctification. That’s loving. We confess these things because we believe them to be true and because we believe that those truths lead to peace and order in families and in the church.
I’m sorry that you are hurt but affirming Dr Johnson’s theology on these issues (sexuality, anthropology, sanctification) will not be edifying for Memorial as a congregation. It will not lead to growth in godliness and to peace in the congregation. Indeed, his teaching has been quite disruptive to the peace and purity of the PCA thus far.
I’m a minister because I was called to it. Authority? You’ve never been a pastor! Mostly my exercise of “authority” is to listen to peoples troubles, to love them, and to point them to Christ. You must be thinking of someone else. You clearly don’t know anything about my life or ministry.
My intention was not to personally offend you, Scott. I’m sure you’re a lovely person with a lovely ministry. I am simply critiquing the PCA as a whole. It feels like these are the effects of a denomination that was built out of a reactionary place and whose main goal seems often to be “holding the line.”
Maybe I’m arguing a bigger picture issue here than the one present in this article. My prayer is that the PCA (and all churches everywhere, for that matter) might be able to step back and see the futility in their details that hinder one’s ability to hear, understand, and love their neighbor and therefore one’s love for God.
It is the divine calling of a presbytery to keep track of the teaching and behavior of the ministers of the presbytery. Dr Johnson knew that when he joined the PCA. He took vows not only to uphold and defend the Standards but also to submit to his brothers in the presbytery. The Missouri Presbytery has been extremely lenient with Johnson.
If you think the PCA is about “holding the line,” I suggest that you don’t know the PCA very well. As of this writing Dr Johnson has yet to face any actual discipline from Presbytery or the GA. The PCA, technically, has not “held the line” yet regarding Johnson. There have been a blizzard of overtures in re Side B and Dr J but I don’t know that any of them has been been adopted. No one has filed charges against Johnson even though he has, in my opinion, said things that easily warrant charges.
Indeed, one of the great weaknesses of the PCA is that there seems to be a general reluctance to charge anyone. His presbytery not only has not charged Dr J but they weren’t able to convict a minister in the presbytery of teaching the Federal Vision. The Pacific NW Presbytery was unable or unwilling to convict Pete Leithart, one of the leading Federal Visionists in the PCA at the time, of teaching the FV. The PCA is hardly a hard-nosed denomination.
These are serious issues. They need to be addressed by the assemblies and courts of the churches. It is not unloving to do that.
I’m a historian or at least I play one at work and the history of American Presbyterianism is that when churches take the approach you counsel, they cease to be recognizably Christian. The PCUSA did as you advise and they gave up any reasonable claim to being Presbyterian a long time ago and their status as any sort of Christian denomination is in serious doubt. In the last century, they are famous for defrocking a minister who actually believed the Scriptures as God’s Word and the Standards but they’ve done nothing to people teaching gross error within her pale.