As the Coordinator of Christian Education and Publications and as one who was involved in the development of the Presbyterian Church in America, I am often asked, “What is distinctive about the PCA? Why did you leave the mainline denomination to form a smaller one?” There are multitudes of denominations of all stripes. That’s nothing new (although denominationalism is basically a modern, Western phenomenon). There are numerous Presbyterian denominations, some older and even one or two younger than the PCA.
Why the PCA? What is distinctive about it? It is good to ask these questions periodically to remind ourselves where we came from and how our past impacts our present and future. During my years of serving the church, I have seen that the PCA has meant somewhat different things to different people. Two articles published on pcanews.com last year reflected two somewhat different perspectives of the PCA. Yet I believe that there are five areas that distinguish the PCA. As I describe them I do not want simply to major on the past, as though it were isolated from the present. We can make an idol of the past and miss the present, just as easily as we can idolize the present moment and forget the past.
In abbreviated form, the distinctives are these: The PCA is first and foremost committed to the triune God revealed in the Bible, and committed to the Bible as the “only rule of faith and life.” Second, the PCA is a confessional church. Its basic beliefs are reflected in those doctrines set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Third, the PCA is a connectional church, as implied by the word “Presbyterian.” Not only are individual Christians added to the church, the body of Christ, but also each church is connected with other similar churches. Fourth, the PCA takes seriously the idea of the parity of elders. Governance in the Presbyterian system is shared, not hierarchical. And, fifth, the PCA has intentionally taken the great commission of our Lord most seriously. There are other things that are unique about the PCA, but these are the five that primarily answer the questions above. Let’s consider them more fully.
The Authority of Scripture
First, the PCA recognizes the authority of the Bible. That authority is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, which we believe to be the inspired and inerrant Word of God. We take the Bible seriously. There is no equivocation on the concept that the Bible is the authoritative and revealed will of God for his people. We believe that it contains special revealed truth about the Triune God that we will not find in any other source. It tells us what God wants us to know and to believe. (WCF, I).
Because truth matters and is more than subjective opinion, God selected and led “holy men” of old to write the Word of God. The Bible is true because it is God’s Word and it is God’s Word because it is true. Attempts to undermine the Bible’s authority are always before the church-our enemy sees to that. Nonetheless, we can be pleased to be a part of a church that takes the Bible seriously. As a matter of historical fact, we are the first Presbyterian denomination to require teaching and ruling elders and deacons to affirm by a vow that they believe the Bible to be the inerrant and inspired Word of God. (Book of Church Order, 24-5). It is not simply men’s words about God, but God speaking through his Spirit. We believe that the Holy Spirit who inspired the authors to write these words works in people’s lives to open their minds and hearts to God’s truth revealed in the Bible.
Though we do not believe that the Bible contains all of God’s truth (he has written another book-general revelation), we believe the Bible is our standard for faith and life (WCF I, 2). It is the plumb line by which we judge all matters of religion and life. Because the Bible is God’s book, we say without hesitation that anything that contradicts the Bible (properly interpreted) is wrong. God’s Word is true.
The authority of Scripture was important to the PCA in 1973 but does it matter today?Yes, and perhaps more so as postmodernism emphasizes that truth is relative or is whatever you want it to be. In a recent interview on C-Span, a well-known Harvard law professor said you cannot know what is right, you can only know what is wrong. But we can know what is right because the Bible tells us. People continually testify to how God uses the Bible to change their lives, to shine his light in the darkness, or help them develop a worldview that enables them to see reality as it is. Lives are being transformed by its truth. Gratefully, the PCA has made the Bible its foundation and does not hesitate to teach that to all five generations.
A Confessional Commitment
Second, the PCA is a confessional church. Its system of doctrine is set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms written in the 1640s. This Confession connects us with the churches down through the years that have embraced that system of doctrine. Church officers are required to submit to the Westminster Standards and to believe that the system of doctrine they contain best reflects in summary form what the Bible teaches.
Of course, only the Bible is infallible and the confessional Standards must not be elevated to the same level. They can be, and have been, changed at certain points. This is one of the strengths of the Confession: it teaches in the first chapter that the final authority in matters of faith and life is the Bible.Alister McGrath made a point about the historic creeds of Christendom which I would apply to our confessional statements: while they unify us around certain understandings of biblical teaching on key topics, they can also encourage a more serious study of the Bible. Like the ancient creeds, we believe that the Westminster Standards give us a summary of some of the main tenets of the Christian faith. They do not address every biblical doctrine, and were written to deal with certain topics at a particular point in history, and are subject to the higher authority of Scripture. Nonetheless, they draw us, within the reformed, Calvinistic family, together with a common doctrinal understanding.
There is genuine commitment to our confessional Standards within the PCA, though there are different degrees of commitment and understanding. Some believe that the Confession is the system with all of its parts essential to the whole. Others believe it contains the system of doctrine and not each part is essential to that system. That diversity is not unique to the PCA but reflects historic Presbyterianism as well. B.B. Warfield and J. Gresham Machen are two familiar examples.
What has maintained the PCA’s high level of commitment to those Standards has been the agreement that it is not up to the individual officers to determine what is essential to the system, but rather it is a collective judgment made by the courts to whom the officers are accountable.Our confessional commitment was important to the PCA in 1973, but does it matter today?Yes, it still matters that the PCA is committed to those confessional Standards. Even considering the different levels of commitment and understanding of the Standards, the history of the PCA’s actions reveal the consistency of our doctrinal commitment. The actions of the church courts and the preaching and teaching of the word reflect that confessional commitment. While the PCA continues to reflect the different views stated above, we are distinguished by our commitment to those Standards.
This commitment may matter more today as postmodernism continues to sweep through our culture suggesting that beliefs are merely individual matters and choices and that no one can insist that others believe just like they do. Each person becomes his or her own standard; hence, the Bible is privately interpreted and the church’s doctrinal system is disregarded. People are free to believe and interpret those beliefs in their own way. In this context, our confessional Standards become a good unifying check and balance. They keep us in touch with the church that has gone before us in history.
Third, the PCA is a connectional church. Not only are we joined together by a common faith and doctrinal understanding, but also by a common view of the church. We believe that churches do not exist independently of each other. They are joined together with churches that share a common faith and doctrinal commitment. Presbyterianism not only indicates a particular style or form of government but also a connectional approach.
Connectionalism was important to the PCA in 1973, but does it matter today?Yes, and even more so because we have been reminded of the need to see ourselves as part of something larger than ourselves. Coming out of the influence of modernity with its emphasis on privatization and individualism, the PCA seeks to reflect its connection with the Church universal throughout the ages. Plus we continue to see the need to come together and help each other better understand God’s truth. Whether it is demonstrated by a presbytery-wide men’s retreat, a mercy ministry conference for four thousand women, or a summer camp for young people, our connectionalism allows us to benefit from each other’s strengths and offset each other’s weaknesses, and it reminds us that we are a part of a larger whole.
Parity of Elders
Fourth, the PCA believes in the parity of elders. Churches are led and overseen not only by the ordained clergy but by ordained laymen as well. One of the great doctrines that resurfaced with the Protestant Reformation was the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. As the Apostle Paul stated, “there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus….” Our entry into God’s presence does not require any human hierarchical priesthood. Christ has invited us as individuals to come. However, the keys of the kingdom, referred to by Jesus in Matthew 16, were given to the elders of the church.
The PCA recognizes that there are two types of elders: teaching elders and ruling elders. Both have equal authority in overseeing and shepherding the Church. Though the PCA gave the concept a unique interpretation by requiring that an equal number of ruling and teaching elders serve on its standing committees, the idea of equal authority was present from the beginning. One of the concerns that led to the formation of the PCA was that the Presbyterian system of governance as practiced in the mainline church was becoming increasingly hierarchical in its practice.
Parity of elders was important in to the PCA in 1973, but does it matter today? Once again the answer is yes. A problem has developed that could threaten this principle of parity and the grassroots nature of the PCA. Fewer ruling elders are participating in the General Assembly and presbytery sessions. That has caused a larger number of clergy to speak and rule at those levels. With postmodernism’s challenge to authority and the strong reaction of the younger generations against what they perceive as authoritarian leaders who lord over people, the concept of parity and the priesthood of all believers is necessary to keep the laity involved in oversight of the church and ministry.
The Great Commission
Fifth, the PCA began with a strong commitment to the Great Commission-to evangelism at home and abroad, and to education and discipleship. The PCA has always demonstrated an aggressive evangelism and church growth strategy, and an educational and world missions and emphasis. At a recent weekend conference, I heard a testimony about a church where 80 percent of the members had become Christians in the last ten years. While most of the PCA’s growth has been from what we call transfer growth, we must continue to emphasize a strong evangelistic concern. Much of the growth that has come from evangelism, has been a result of personal evangelistic efforts.
The Great Commission was important to the PCA in 1973, but does it matter today?Again, a resounding yes. We must reflect a concern for the lost and for discipling those who profess faith in Christ. In a culture permeated by change, instability, and ambiguity, we must confidently declare the hope offered in the gospel. We must be able to give a reason for what we believe. We cannot afford to loose this distinctive lest we fail to challenge those without faith in Christ to believe in him and his Gospel.
There are definite demonstrations of unity in these five distinctives. Yet the PCA is a diverse denomination. Some are more focused on world missions, while others are committed to church growth and evangelism. Others have demonstrated a high level of commitment to discipling members in the Christian faith. Some have held to a broader or more universal view of the church while others have been more restrictive. Some have supported parachurch ministries, while others have questioned the validity of ministries not under the governance of the courts.
There have also been diverse understandings of certain specifics not essential to the life and health of the church. For example, in the recent debates over the “days of creation” the unifying point was commitment to the historical account of creation recorded in Scripture. The debates never questioned the authority of the Scriptures. The point of diversity was how to interpret the “days.” Worship is another example. When the PCA was organized, part three of the Book of Church Order relating to worship was written to reflect our unifying commitment to follow the Bible in the implementation of corporate worship, and freedom in practice which gave rise to a diversity of forms of worship. The role of women in church ministry has been another area where there is a unifying principle that ordination to office is for qualified men; however, there is diversity in the way PCA churches involve women in that ministry.
A strong commitment to and unity on these five distinctives, combined with flexibility on second level issues of polity implementation, has and will hold the PCA together and keep the church moving forward and growing. In Book Four of the Institutes of the Christian Religion Calvin reminds us that not all doctrines are of equal importance, and he gives examples of those that are and are not essential. That is the key to maintaining our integrity and commitment to that which God led us to establish in 1973, to maintain in 2001, and to grow in the 21st century.
Some have recently claimed that the church has begun to emphasize one or two of its distinctives at the expense of the others, and in some isolated incidents that may be true. Some have focused on a part rather than the whole. But when we evaluate the PCA at large, the five distinctives continue to define who we are. We must work to maintain that wholeness. We do not want to turn off or turn away the rising generations to which we were committed when we formed the PCA. Communicating a legalistic hard line view of Christianity, which is impossible to maintain, is the surest way I know to lose the rising generations that God has called us to disciple. I believe our greatest challenge at this moment in history is to demonstrate a commitment to our distinctives and a willingness to give one another room for diversity.