Is the PCA Doomed?

While our Constitution does not require the candidate’s affirmation of every statement and/or proposition of doctrine in our Confession of Faith and Catechisms, it is the right and responsibility of the Presbytery to determine if the candidate is out of accord with any of the fundamentals of these doctrinal standards and, as a consequence, may not be able in good faith sincerely to receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures (cf. BCO 21-5, Q.2; 24-6, Q.2).

Therefore, in examining a candidate for ordination, the Presbytery shall inquire not only into the candidate’s knowledge and views in the areas specified above, but also shall require the candidate to state the specific instances in which he may differ with the Confession of Faith and Catechisms in any of their statements and/or propositions. The court may grant an exception to any difference of doctrine only if in the court’s judgment the candidate’s declared difference is not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion. (PCA, Book of Church Order, 21-4).

My dear friend, HRA board member, and HB contributor Brad Isbell makes an interesting argument in a recent essay on the Presbycast Substack. He makes a two-part argument. First, he argues,

J. Gresham Machen was doomed from the start in the Northern church. A virus was inserted into the PCUSA’S denominational source code going back to the mid-late 19th century at least. Add to the doctrinal defects the denomination’s stranglehold on the property of local congregations and you have an inevitable outcome…unless the bad guys leave and take the hit. And how often does this happen?

He continues by quoting D. G. Hart and John Muether on Old School-New School Reunion and the Reunion of 1903. Brad asks,

That reunion was of the previously divided stick-in-the-mud Old Schoolers and go-go, revivalist New Schoolers. The question must be asked: Are the divides in the PCA of today just a repeat (or rhyming soundalike) of the Old School-New School contradictions?

He notes that Machen and Warfield disagreed on the proposed 1903 revisions to the (Westminster) Confession of Faith and concludes,

We can only speculate as to how he might view the de facto revisions of the PCA’s confession and catechisms due to the allowances of “good faith subscription.” One thing is for sure—despite the challenges of the day, PCA confessionalists stand on much firmer ground and have far better prospects than did Machen in the first three and half decades of the 20th century. Let us learn…and live.

It is speculation but it does not seem much of a stretch to think that Machen would have taken a rather dim view of the PCA’s decision to adopt a “Good Faith” approach to confessional subscription in 2002.

First, the very language of the BCO, on this point, as revised in 2002, contains ambiguous language. For example, the PCA says that candidates for ministry are not required to affirm “every statement or proposition” of the Standards, but rather it is the job of each presbytery to determine whether a candidate is “out of accord with any of the fundamentals of these doctrinal standards….” Who determines what is fundamental? Why are there non-fundamental truths in the Standards confessed by the church? Do all the presbyteries agree as to what are and are not fundamental to the Confession and Catechisms of the PCA? If not, how will the PCA avoid having as many confessions as there are presbyteries in the PCA? Predictably, it has not. In some presbyteries, a certain view of creation or the Christian Sabbath is regarded as “fundamental” while in other presbyteries, a candidate holding the very same view is regarded with suspicion.

Second, the very language of “good faith” subscription is, as David Strain has observed, “not especially helpful…since it nowhere appears in our Book of Church Order (BCO).” Further, according to Strain, only some candidates are regarded as subscribing in “good faith:” those who take exceptions. Those who do not are regarded with suspicion. He explains,

It is a mark of real spiritual division and doctrinal declension when a brother, who declares no differences with our stated doctrinal position, is being treated as suspect, and elders are rising to try to catch him out by finding undeclared exceptions that even he did not know he had! So much, at this point, for the practice of Good Faith Subscription!

He adds that it is odd that those who do not take exception are viewed with suspicion since the PCA as a church takes no exceptions. “Our Standards are presented to the world as the complete and official statement of our doctrine. This is what we teach. To agree with them wholly and without exception is surely only to say what we ought, ordinarily, to expect every elder to say, “I stand with the PCA.”

Third, there are essentially two ways to subscribe a confession:

  1. Quia, i.e., because it is biblical.
  2. Quatenus, i.e., insofar as it is biblical.

The original Reformation approach to confessional subscription was quia (because it is biblical). Sola Scriptura, which the churches confess(ed) in their confessional documents meant, in part, that the church had no authority to impose upon her members anything that Scripture itself does not impose. Gradually, however, the quatenus approach took hold in some quarters. It became especially popular among American Presbyterians. Among those who take this approach, are “strict” and “loose” subscriptionists, i.e., those who hold to more of the Standards and those who hold less. “Good faith” is on the loose end of the “insofar as” spectrum. For my part, in Recovering the Reformed Confession I tried to make a case for quia subscription.

“Good faith” is necessarily and unavoidably a subjective approach to a constitutional document. Imagine a candidate for a judicial appointment coming before a Senate committee who said that he held to the “fundamentals” of the United States Constitution but that he took exception to some language and sections. Would you trust that judge to protect your constitutionally guaranteed liberties? Is it not in the nature of a constitutional document to serve as an agreement between parties by which and under which they agree to live together? If a body is not sure what parts of the constitutional document are binding at any given time, by what are they being governed? One wonders why they do not simply write a document with which they can all agree. I argued for this position in RRC.

Is the PCA doomed? Only the Lord knows the future but to the degree “good faith” subscription creates an unwritten list of fundamentals within the Confession, which varies from presbytery to presbytery, then it is hard to see how the PCA will continue being a confessionally Reformed denomination. So long as the list of non-negotiable doctrines and practices is more extensive (not even co-extensive) among a majority of presbyteries, the PCA may reasonably expected to continue along some sort of confessional path. Because, however, confessional orthodoxy is subject to a majority vote in each presbytery, should the balance tip toward a shorter list of required doctrines and practices, the PCA will slide first into latitudinarian evangelicalism and then, finally, into the theological and practical liberalism. History tells us that much.

That outcome is not inevitable, however. Brad argues that PCA confessionalists are on firmer ground than their counterparts in the early 20th century. This is true but only marginally so. He nods to the difficulties entailed by “good faith” subscription, but I think “good faith” subscription is a potentially fatal disease that requires more than a nod. Now is the time for the PCA to choose to do the hard thing here by facing squarely the mistake it made in 2002 and by changing course 180 degrees. In the two decades since that decision, the trajectory of the “good faith” regime seems reasonably clear. Winsomeness and inclusivity may be good for church growth but to those virtues the PCA needs to add resolve and stoutness if she is to survive the cultural (and consequently theological and practical) storms that will batter the P&R churches in the coming decades.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. It is now nearly impossible to travel from one presbytery to another or even one church to another without noticing substantial differences. With such diversity one feels like he is visiting different denominations instead of the same one. If the membership majority holds to a full subscription to the WCF, where does that leave them?

  2. One might think the Decalogue to be a “fundamental of our system of doctrine”. However, there are at least two Sessions in our Presbytery, consisting of 19 congregations, who display renderings of the God-Man by various forms of media during their worship services. This is sub “good faith”. These men are not only allowed to take an exception to the standards and agree to refrain from teaching that exception, these men flaunt their exceptions. Seems like other Presbyteries might have something to say about my Presbytery not having its house in order. But wait, we wouldn’t want to rock the “grass roots” boat too much. The “grass roots” beginnings of the PCA set the standard that the Presbytery rules the day. Missouri Presbytery has taken quite a lashing by the “Cons” in the PCA but in reality, it is only behaving the way it was designed to. Do whatever we want and just try to stop us. Not defending. Just sayin’.

    • Several years ago, I think at the GA in Atlanta, the GA did rule that a Presbytery was out of bounds by having a worship service with a picture of Jesus on the cover. So we are on record at the level of our hightest court that this is impermissible.

      • Tom,

        This is good, and good to know. Thank you.

        Question: would a session be disciplined by their Presbytery for installing an image of Christ, publishing, the same in the bulletin, using an image in a PowerPoint during a worship service or for showing a “Jesus“ film?

      • What is interesting is that it took a floor vote to adopt the dissenting opinion of the minority of the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records to support Calvery Presbytery in their disciplinary case of a Teaching Elder who was teaching his exception to the use of images of the God-Man for “educational” purposes in 2021. Seems as though some Presbytery would step up and help those in our Presbytery who would hold to a historical interpretation of the use of images.

  3. Dr. Clark: You concluded: “ Winsomeness and inclusivity may be good for church growth but to those virtues the PCA needs to add resolve and stoutness if she is to survive the cultural (and consequently theological and practical) storms that will batter the P&R churches in the coming decades.” If the strategy of “winsomness and inclusivity” were occurring at the same time there was measurable PCA membership growth some might conclude that they had a case. However, if at you look at PCA’s own statistics for the last five years, the most favorable reading would be zero growth with arguable indications of a decline. During the PCA’s period of greatest growth I believe people were leaving evangelical churches and coming to the PCA because they were curious about the distinctiveness of Reformed theology. Now the PCA is busy erasing that distinctiveness for a form of evangelical-lite. If our leadership keeps watering down their version of the Reformed faith then they absolutely will be doomed to a Frankenstein-like creation of Mainline and Evangelical “Christianity”.

  4. Tom, that was 2017 in Greensboro. It was the citation of a presbytery Review of Presbytery Records for having a 2CV on their meeting’s worship bulletin. An RPR citation is a one-time thing, not binding case law.

  5. Tom, that was 2017 in Greensboro. It was the citation of a presbytery by Review of Presbytery Records for having a 2CV on their meeting’s worship bulletin. An RPR citation is a one-time thing, not binding case law.

    • Brad, thanks for the correction.

      We have proven that my memory is faulty; but I was there at Greensboro and I’m almost sure I remember that the whole GA had to vote on RPR’s citation–as I’m almost sure I remember voting against images of Christ. Is that consistent with what you remember?

  6. Mr. Hervey has done a sound job of summarizing the issue, see Aquila Report link, also including the link to the applicable statistics. I have included both below. Of not is the overall flat-to-loss in growth, especially among families, which indicating winsome is not winning the day, nor is evangelical accommodation doing much to evangelize. A sound Reformed Church that is unapologetic for its adherence to its standard is what honors God. Always has, always will. Compromise is not a solution, it is pollution. But it is noteworthy to see where the growth is: ecclesiastical personages, both ordained and those seeking to be ordained. The PCA is the place to be it would seem, if you are clergy. All men of good will should study this and consider what it might mean, and where it might lead.

  7. Through the missionary work of late Jack Miller in Philly and the entire missions board of PCA to support Reformed church in Uganda (First Presbyterian Church through Rev,Dr Keefa Ssempangi , my life was transformed totally when I was picked from the trash Can on the street of Kampala and taken to the Children orphanage home that was 100% supported by PCA , I have seen the goodness of standing on Biblical scriptures in all areas of life .my prayer is that the PCA Elders will open their ears to hear from God through his Holy Spirit to hold firmly the Biblical standards that are mentioned in WCF.Reformed faith is under attack globally.

  8. I seem to recall a blog post here awhile back that covered the PCA’s background, i.e., which communion it split from in order to form a new one and what the circumstances were that caused the schism. But I can’t find it.

Comments are closed.