Editor’s Note: Please read this article in conjunction with the book review of Young, Restless, Reformed by Collin Hansen and the review of Quitting Church by Julia Duin.
Recently, I was asked a very pointed question by a well known PCA teaching elder: Would you invest in the PCA?” What a question! My first response was: “I have invested my life in the PCA. As one of the original group that organized the PCA, plus having spent the major part of my life and ministry working at the denominational level, of course I have invested in the PCA.” But his question had more of a future thrust to it. “Would you invest in the PCA?” Realizing he was pressing for my thoughts about the present and future of the church, after thinking for a few minutes, I replied: Follow me carefully. I believe the denominational paradigm is valid. as long as it does not isolate us from believers in other settings. Having said that,1 think the PCA is the best option available to anyone wanting to identify with a biblically Reformed body of believers. I know of no better at this point, as long as those who are part of the denomination feel accountability within that model. But honestly, I am deeply challenged and concerned about the future of the PCA There seems to be a growing nonconfessional focus, even with our official ‘good faith’ or ‘loose subscription’ position to our standards, which creates some new and challenging problems.” Some people are embracing the doctrines of grace but not necessarily from our Reformed, confessional theology, which can and will work against the denominational paradigm.
Of course my teaching elder friend continued to press for further explanation. Having recently given my “state of the church” analysis to the Christian Education and Publications staff and committee, I began to elaborate on both my hopes and concerns for our PCA.
As I reminded my friend, and as you read my general response, please realize my history, background, and involvement in the PCA. As a minister in the Southern Presbyterian Church for several years, I was defrocked by that denomination when I announced my withdrawal and my commitment to being a part of organizing what became the PCA. I could handle that circumstance because I believe truth is real and truth matters, including integrity. I wanted to be part of a younger generation that would have a great love for Gods truth in all areas life; but as an idealist in that objective, I was realistic enough to know that we often pay a price for such an ideal.
From the beginning, the PCA has had things that have made it special; and I have had hopes that our denomination would set the tone for others to follow: It has been my positive experience to see the PCA grow from its small roots in mainly the southeastern part of the country to a church that has spread all over North America. It has been my privilege as well as delight to travel across the church working with local church leaders and teachers. Our church is blessed with some extraordinarily gifted men and women who love the Lord and desire to serve Him.
The PCA has not only had unity of commitment to the Sovereign Lord, His Word, and His church, reflected by a common confessional commitment, but it has had diversity within that framework. I explained further to my friend that while I have appreciated the unity/diversity of the PCA I can begin to see a shift in the balance toward theological diversity. Then I said that my thoughts are not intended to offend anyone but to merely give my description of our church.
I believe there are five sub-groups within the PCA. They represent both our unity and diversity. If you will, notice the following schematic, looking from left to right. Realize the names of the five groups are my humble effort to be descriptive and not evaluative at this point.
The first group I call the “Reformed fundamentalists.” Some have called these churches “‘TRs” or “truly Reformed.” They operate on the foundation and authority of God’s Word. They are confessional from a “strict subscription” position. They demonstrate a great love for the church, value the denominational paradigm and have no problem with the church’s foundational authority base in the Word of God. Although some have been accused of elevating the standards to an equal or higher plane than Scripture, I do not believe this is the case. Our ultimate allegiance is to the Word of God. Our confessional commitment merely expresses our commitment to the system of doctrine found in Scriptures.
The second group, the “Reformed evangelicals,” also has a strong commitment to God’ s Word accompanied by a love for and commitment to Reformed confessional theology, though in a less strict or “good faith” approach. This group has a great love for the church within the denominational model as well and takes our standards seriously, as “containing the system of doctrine” found in Scripture.
The third group, “the neo-Reformed,” has a high view of Scripture but in a somewhat more broadly eclectic manner regarding confessional boundaries. This group has a strong leaning to focus more on the local church and its ministry with less emphasis on the denominational paradigm, and thus has the tendency to act more independently. (A fuller description of this group is seen in the book review in this issue of Young, Restless, Reformed byColin Hansen.)
The fourth group, the “post-conservative evangelicals,” appreciates Scripture but may have a different perspective, or maybe even a new perspective, on Scripture. Those of us who were taught neo-orthodox theology in seminary see much similarity here regarding the Bible. This group tends to prefer few to no confessional boundaries; and theologically, they would be more broadly evangelical and generally embrace only a local church commitment. They would tend to make more of an antithesis between being Reformed and evangelical than the previous three groups.
The fifth group, the “emergent movement,” is only somewhat present at this time in the PCA, at least in a more sympathetic way than with groups one, two, and three. This group is intentionally non-traditional, non-confessional, and committed to embracing a Christianity placed within a postmodern paradigm that makes truth and authority subjective at best. It also questions the entire organized or institutionalized church model as we have known it, especially the denominational paradigm, which is generally viewed from this perspective as out of touch, authoritarian, or negative and judgmental.
The first three groups are strongly committed to the sovereignty of God, truth and authority, the doctrines of grace, love for the church, and faithfully preaching and teaching within and among those with a Calvinistic theology. Groups four and five adopt more of a non-foundational postmodern framework, which attempts to fit Christianity into it As a generalization, admitted by some who have already left this movement, the emergents desire to focus on a non-Calvinistic and non-traditional model which talks not about biblical, universal truth or institutional Christianity but rather conversations and relationships.
As my conversation continued with my friends, remarked that as you move from left to right on the the chart on the previous page, especially beyond groups one and two, the next three groups, while having a presence in the PCA, diminish in size considerably.
Here is what I have observed and experienced over the years. While groups one and two have learned how to work together, even with their differences, groups three, four, and, five tend to operate differently, Please understand, I believe groups four and five are only embryonically present in the PCA but could continue to grow if we move further away from our authority base, confessional boundaries, and the denominational model.
What happens in the next few years will be extremely important. While some remain committed to the denomination theologically, as well as ecclesiastically, others are not as intentional in reflecting that commitment. Consequently, we need to be extremely careful in what we teach, advocate, and promote in the PCA. We have been quick to advocate some potentially good things and also some things that could end up working against the very denominational paradigm that provides our framework, Here are two examples. While we appreciate and encourage the new concept of the church being missional (meaning that missions starts at home in our neighborhoods and then moves out into the entire world), when churches carry the concept to the extremes, many do not actively participate in the life of the denomination as a whole, Even now, some churches within the PCA are not supporting the whole work of the church. Presently, less than one half of PCA churches support the denominational committees and agencies. Though the PCA Book of Church Order 14.1 has adopted the organizing principle that it is the duty of each church to support the whole work of the church, this present situation works against the denominational model and the PCA has not satisfactorily addressed it. ]t is not enforced even though the principle is part of the PCA Constitution.
Another example is an emphasis on “movements” and “networks.” Men such as D. M. Lloyd Jones and John R.W. Stott have cautioned us in the past that movements have a history of pulling people and resources away from the local church, as well as the denomination; hence they ultimately work against the denominational paradigm. In practice the PCA has demonstrated more of a supportive posture to the movement concept and the results are challenging. The committees and agencies of the PCA have to work within a denominational paradigm but each has to raise its own funds. With the reality mentioned previously regarding the number of supporting churches, doing realistic budgets and funding assigned or approved programs becomes challenging, difficult, and sometimes impossible.
So to answer the question, “Would you invest in the PCA?” I would say yes. as long as we maintain our identity with theological integrity and honesty. As long as we are committed to the authority of God’s truth, especially revealed in His Word, within our confessional boundaries, preaching and teaching the doctrines of grace within the context of a biblically Reformed kingdom perspective. I would say yes as long as we continue to manage our unity/diversity and do not allow Satan to cause us to lose our uniqueness by tipping the scales either way. Diversity without unity is chaos. Unity without diversity is mere uniformity.
The PCA is a confessional church. That’s what its founding in 1973 was all about. Our confessional commitment is to the Westminster Standards. even though we have a high appreciation for other similar Reformed creeds and confessions. We do value continuing to do theology and being Reformed according to the Word in a way that communicates with people today There are many issues to which our standards do not speak because they were written at a specific time in history, but we are called on to give a biblical response to those issues today Within the PCA there is and should always be a freedom to speak to those issues from a biblical base that will keep us within our confessional boundaries. When we adopted our Constitutional Standards in 1973. we also adopted a process that allows us to study, rethink, and restate some things. always with the aim to be reforming according to God’s Word.
There is a basis of hope found in the very things that have brought us together. If we will stay the course, speak the truth in love, and come along side and minister to one another. including holding one another accountable with integrity and authenticity, there is hope. One of our unique challenges is trying to be a denomination with a large number of members who have never really seen a denominational paradigm in action, at least not in a positive way. Yet, the truth remains. We can accomplish more together than we can alone, especially with those with whom we share doctrinal affinity. That’s the biblical model: working together at all levels of the church.
Time will tell for the PCA if we are a solid investment. Presently, the clock is ticking. Lastly, I said to my friend, “Tell me what you heard me say lest i have not been clear in my response.”