Saints Their Watch Are Keeping: Or, Why I Am Encouraged About the PCA going into 2023

I have been asked to offer my thoughts as to why I, as a self-described “confessionalist” at the more conservative end of the spectrum of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), am encouraged by the state of the PCA. And, indeed, I am encouraged and I am happy to offer some reflections on the matter.

A few caveats before I begin:

1) I understand that some brothers may take umbrage at the use of “confessional” to describe men at the more conservative end of things as all elders (teaching and ruling) in the PCA vow to uphold our confessional standards when they assume the ordained office. Our second ordination vow from our Book of Church Order (21-5; 24-6) reads thusly:

Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?

In that sense, yes, all our office-bearers are confessional. But, for the sake utilizing necessary labels in order to understand the inside-baseball dynamics of the PCA, I will utilize the popularly-employed denominators of “confessional” vis-à-vis “missional.”

2) No church or denomination is without her flaws, issues, and pockets of unhealthiness. This article aims to offer a general impression, not an exhaustive analysis. Are there areas of concern that I would describe as spiritually unhealthy and warranting correction? Yes, but that is an article for another day.

And so, in that general sense, as I observe several consistent trends, I am encouraged by the health and state of the denomination. The PCA remains a fundamentally sound and faithful communion in which I am happy to labor and in which I hope to see further improvement—steady, and, yes, gentle reformation.

Small-Scale Faithfulness

One reason for my encouragement is the number of younger men who are taking up calls in small churches or solo pastorates. This is purely anecdotal and I do not have hard data or statistics at hand to consult, but for the past year or two, I keep learning of young men, many freshly out of seminary, who are happily taking the call to small congregations in rural or small-town environments, eager to shoulder the load of all the necessary pastoral responsibilities, and are committed to remaining in their calls for ten, twenty years or more. The men to whom I have spoken are committed to rolling up their sleeves—and in some cases doing the hard work of revitalizing a congregation—and loving and serving the people to whom the Lord has entrusted them.

Now, this might strike some readers as an unremarkable thing, that these men are just doing their duty and do not deserve praise—“it’s just the ways of things” and a recent seminary grad should expect his first call to be in a small-town pulpit where he puts in a few years before he works his way up to a larger ministry venue, climbing the corporate-ecclesial ladder so to speak.

Leaving that ladder-climbing mentality (which is both lamentable and pervasive) aside for a moment, I must say that these men who happily and willingly take on smaller-size callings encourage me because, at least when I was in seminary, the conventional wisdom was that an MDiv graduate should plan on taking a call as an associate or an assistant minister (probably relegated to youth or college ministry and likely within a medium- to large-size church, or perhaps in a campus ministry environment) and that he should expect to do that for 3–5 years before moving on to take another call. He should expect this kind of trajectory because, honestly, he was not ready to be the main pastor/solo pastor of a local church straight out of seminary and such service in his early years would serve to make him more ecclesiastically marketable. No one would have put it quite so crassly, but that was the typical expectation as it was communicated.

None of this is meant to disparage those brothers serving in larger congregations or those small legions of assistant or associate ministers faithfully laboring away within the necessary and embedded structures of a larger staff in order to serve the needs of their unique congregations. Not for a moment is this intended to denigrate those many faithful and hard-working campus ministers who are putting tireless and faithful hours into their callings. After all, we are those who happily embrace the doctrine of God’s providence. As our Shorter Catechism puts it, “God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.” There are no accidents in God’s economy, and if a man is called to labor in a larger congregation, it is because the Lord has placed him there.

At the same time (and maybe this is simply reflective of my own personal fears and foibles), I find it heartening when men, relatively fresh out of seminary, are cheerfully willing to roll up their sleeves and take on the challenging, weighty task of shepherding a small, ordinary, often unflashy congregation in an ordinary, unremarkable, out-of-the way locale, usually pastoring in a solo capacity. That is not to presume that there are not faithful ruling elders co-shepherding right along with him (there often are), but such a prospect is not without its challenges and can seem positively daunting. To take on the lion’s share of the preaching, teaching, planning, administrating, bulletin preparation, visitation, funerals, weddings, counseling, moderating the session, etc. with no “support staff” to help shoulder the load is no small thing.

Every man goes through the necessary preparation of studies and presbytery-supervised internships which are meant to prepare a man for the labors of his future pastoral calling (and hopefully expose him to wide swaths of necessary duties and aspects of the call), but nothing can really prepare a man for the experience of going at it “for real” without the proverbial training wheels.

A younger generation of men are stepping up to the challenge, heeding the call, and seeking, by the grace of God, to meet the need of the church in their own day. Many men are taking the “risk” (but what is truly the honor) of shepherding God’s people in situations that others might be inclined to shy away from. I daresay that none of us should adopt a “bigger and better” corporate mentality (with the expectation of eventual “promotion” when it comes to ministry of Christ’s church); we should be content with what the Lord gives us and trust that the Lord has us precisely where He wants us.

And at the same time, the Lord had high praise for those who were faithful stewards over “a little” (Luke 19:17) and cautions us through His prophet against “despising the day of small things” (Zech 4:10). Well done, brothers. You are an immense encouragement to me.

Greater Parity and Participation

A second, and briefer, observation that brings me encouragement regarding our current state is the increased parity and participation that I see, at all levels of the denomination, from teaching and especially ruling elders.

Now, there has been talk amongst the brothers in the denomination that some do not care for the mentality that we need more ruling elder participation if it comes with the assumption that we need biblically-minded ruling elders in order to keep the less-biblically-minded teaching elders in check. That may be a debate worth having, but let us set that discussion aside for another day.

Simply put, I am persuaded that greater involvement across the whole of the denomination at every level of the denomination is a good thing: more voices, more perspectives, more insight, more wisdom. There is wisdom and perspective that ruling elders bring to bear in a situation that is different than teaching elders, and vice versa. Both are needed in order to foster a truly healthy denominational life.

Again, while I do not have any hard data or statistics to back up my impressions, in general, I get the feel that many ruling elders and teaching elders, who were previously not as engaged in the work of presbytery (and particularly in the General Assembly) have been making the (often sacrificial) effort to be present and to participate in the important work, committees, deliberation, and votes of our courts. If we believe that the Lord does indeed providentially “speak” through the voice of his church, then this is encouraging.

Further Cross-Denominational Interaction

Those who know me know that I am reticent to over-psychologize matters or to shoe-horn every situation into the realm of the therapeutic. As in any relationship dynamic, however, disagreements are going to happen and we—having all taken vows to minister and labor in the bounds of our beloved PCA—will have to do something when we are at odds with one another and find a way to labor faithfully in our ecclesiastical home.

Two things strike me as simultaneously true:

1) Nothing fruitful will come of simply shouting at each other or speaking past one another.

2) At the same time, it is good for disagreements to actually be articulated and highlighted. It is unhealthy and disingenuous for folks to hear or see disagreements and to wave them away under the guise of “we are all in basic agreement or unity” or to pretend they are not there. If there is a proverbial elephant in the room, it ought to be brought up. Noting, describing, and acknowledging the disagreements on issues within the life of the PCA must be done. Yes, it may be true that there was never monolithic unity in the life of the denomination from the get-go, but we do no one any favors if we do not get the issues “on the table” for consideration and see if some kind of appropriate ecclesiastical accord can be achieved.

If the status quo is unhealthy or needs addressing or amending, we must be able to determine what the status quo is. That will entail, to some extent, expressing our disagreements.

Now, some of us are probably guilty of saying something verbally unfortunate or posting something online in an unguarded moment. But on the whole, I am seeing cooler heads prevail and brothers (who might be at ideological odds with each other) still able to hash out discussions and articulate differences in a respectful way. I hope that an article like this serves in such a capacity.

One notes occasions such as the very well-attended debate between Pastors David Cassidy and David Strain at the 2021 General Assembly wherein these two men expressed rather different opinions regarding confessional subscription.

For the past several years, I have bumped into brothers at the Twin Lakes Fellowship (where I am an annual attendee) or a Gospel Reformation Network conference (an organization where I serve on the General Council), and some of these men would be rather at odds with the ideological principles expressed by either the TLF or the GRN. And that is perfectly fine. In fact, I would say that it is a good thing that they are there. It is good that we visit one another in each other’s “camps” to hear opinions and convictions, expressed on their own terms, and not to be content with mere caricatures. While men from opposing sides may still leave an event ultimately unpersuaded of the opposing view, nevertheless, I think that this kind of cross-denominational engagement is worthwhile. Time and financial resources may prohibit us from attending all kinds of different gatherings, but such effort might be worth our efforts.

Even the exchanges that I see on social media can be helpful and illuminating. To be fair, there is no shortage of unhelpful discourse that occurs online. But it is out there—sometimes even on Twitter! One thinks of the recent back-and-forth exchange of articles between Pastor Christopher Hutchinson and Pastor Matthew Adams (both of whom I know personally and count as friends) where they discussed, debated, and disagreed, regarding the practice of who should be permitted to read Holy Scripture in public worship. The exchange (to my mind) was both frank and respectful.

I cannot speak for anyone else, but for my part, I am not so much interested in forcing men away from our denomination (unless blatant heresy or unrepentant sinfulness require it) but rather to persuade, and, yes, in some instances, to dissuade. There are various men in the denomination whose convictions I disagree with, and I would like to dissuade them of what I think are erroneous views and would like to persuade them of better views. Calm contention is not to be feared. To disagree is not to despise. As noted above, I believe that the denomination is in need of reformation, but I hope that it can be a godly and gentle reformation—not a vitriolic rampage.

(There are issues surrounding Revoice and the recent departure of Memorial PCA and Teaching Elder Greg Johnson that loom large in the minds of many. There is probably a discussion to be had as to whether discipline should have been exercised and what the lack thereof says about the PCA’s health but, alas, we shall also reserve that important discussion for another day.)

And if some efforts at reformation are successful and official denominational positions change, it may be that brothers of certain convictions cannot abide and must part company. Maybe, at the end of the day, on certain issues there is no common ground to be found. Perhaps we find simple, plain disagreement regarding the issue at hand and no halfway point at which to meet. So be it. But the discussions need to be had and are worth having. I think that we should contend for our views, and that we should do so vigorously.

But at the same time, I am convinced that we can contend without being contentious. I am also persuaded that the vast majority of my brothers in the PCA believe this as well. And so because of that, I look forward to continuing to labor, to strive for matters of biblical conviction, and to see what the Lord will do in the years ahead within my beloved, ecclesiastical home.

©Sean Morris. All Rights Reserved.


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  • Sean Morris
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    Sean was educated at Grove City College, Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), and the University of Glasgow (Scotland). He is an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, and serves as a minister at the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, TN. He also serves as the Academic Dean of the Blue Ridge Institute for Theological Education. He is currently pursuing his PhD in Historical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Sean lives in Oak Ridge with his wife, Sarah, along with their children and useless beagle.

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One comment

  1. The author states: “ Are there areas of concern that I would describe as spiritually unhealthy and warranting correction? Yes, but that is an article for another day.” The inference is that these things are minor when compared to all the good things he believes are happening in the PCA. Just today I read an article that as of January 25 only 30 of 51 presbyteries have voted to ratify Overture 15 which is below the 2/3 majority threshold needed. This represents over half of the presbyteries already having voted. A lot of people see this as a bellwether vote for the PCA.

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