1) A Failure to Exercise Discipline: In 2007 several ministers who were known advocates of Federal Vision (FV) theology drew up and signed what they called, “A Joint Federal Vision Profession” in which they tried to make clear what advocates of the Federal Vision affirmed and denied regarding doctrines at the heart of the Christian faith. This profession was signed by ministers from the CREC (which has become well known as an FV friendly denomination) as well as several ministers from the PCA including Jeff Meyers, Mark Horne, Steve Wilkins, and Peter Leithart. The question of whether these ministers were FV advocates had never really been in question, but their signatures on the Profession certainly removed all question regarding their FV beliefs.
Later that year the 35th PCA General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to approve the recommendations of the ad interim study committee on “Federal Vision, New Perspective on Paul, and Auburn Avenue Theologies.” In so doing, the PCA condemned Federal Vision theology as contrary to the Westminster Standards and joined the rest of the NAPARC denominations in publicly declaring that at a number of critical points, including Justification and Sacraments, the Federal Vision was not Confessional, Reformed, or true to the teaching of the Scriptures. Peter Leithart and Steve Wilkins were both quoted in the PCA Ad Interim report as advocates of the Federal Vision and examples of people holding to the opinions being condemned in the report.
Following this declaration by the PCA, Peter Leithart sent a letter to his presbytery, Pacific Northwest (PNWP), in which he once again made public his FV beliefs and pointed out several points at which his theology was at odds with the report that the PCA GA had just adopted. He also published an article entitled “Against the PCA GA FV Report (twenty-four variations on a response)” in which he went into further detail regarding his FV beliefs and his strong disagreement with the positions adopted by the 35th General Assembly.
Despite these self-indicting actions, Leithart’s presbytery neglected to bring charges against him deciding that there was no reason to presume that he was teaching anything out of accord with the Westminster Standards. Following a complaint, the PCA Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) decided that PNWP had erred in not indicting Peter Leithart. They informed PNWP that they should proceed to trial against him, but declined to take up the case themselves, arguing that it should be done in Leithart’s presbytery. This resulted in the rather absurd and pointless exercise of a Presbytery that was convinced that Peter Leithart’s teaching was not out of accord with the Westminster Standards, and which had repeatedly said exactly that, having to conduct a trial. There was never any possibility that Leithart would be found anything but not guilty, and that is exactly what happened. When in 2013 the decision of PNWP was complained against, and a request was made of the SJC to take up original jurisdiction, the SJC declined to do so, interpreting the Book of Church Order in a way that made taking original jurisdiction from an erring Presbytery almost impossible. The SJCs decision effectively meant that if a Presbytery did not object to the FV teachings of one of its members, and made some token effort to investigate his teaching (thereby ‘acting’), there was nothing the broader denomination could do to enforce its own public declarations regarding the Federal Vision.
Something very similar, and even more disturbing, had happened in Missouri Presbytery (MOP) starting in 2010, when a Memorial signed by 29 PCA Elders asking Missouri Presbytery to take action against Jeffrey Meyers, another signatory of the “Joint Federal Vision Profession,” failed to bring about the desired effect. Yet again the presbytery first refused to indict, and instead chose to impugn the men who signed the memorial, actually accusing them of breaking the ninth commandment by pointing out the PUBLIC TEACHINGS of one of their members. After MOP refused to indict Meyers, a complaint to the SJC produced a decision that they should have indicted Meyers, but again the SJC refused to take up the trial themselves, and again a presbytery that had already repeatedly declared that its member was innocent held another “foregone conclusion” trial which again found their member innocent.
While the SJC had not declared the FV to be within the bounds of orthodoxy, their stubborn refusal to try FV proponents themselves effectively made FV proponents in FV-friendly presbyteries invulnerable to successful prosecution and made the PCA’s condemnation of the FV a paper tiger. Although the PCA had gone on record calling the FV contrary to the Confession, all attempts to actually discipline FV proponents since that declaration had failed after years of hard work on the part of men attempting to bring charges and successfully prosecute ministers whose FV views were well known.
One of the problems that accelerated the decline of the PCUSA and PCUS, was the creation of “rotten presbyteries” that created safe havens within those denominations for men who believed and taught errors and heresies. Possibly the most famous example of this phenomenon was the way in which New York Presbytery defended Charles Briggs, a pastor who taught Higher Critical theories and attacked the inerrancy of the bible. Despite overwhelming evidence, the presbytery repeatedly declared Briggs to be innocent, and when forced to try him by the denomination, acquitted him on two occasions. Historians agree that the time, energy, and difficulty involved in finally removing Briggs from the pastorate helped to persuade the denomination not to attempt to remove any more heretics from the ministry, and as a result there was little or nothing to stop the leaven of error spreading throughout the denomination. Tragically, the PCA seems to be following exactly the same pattern.
2) Anarchy in Worship: While the PCA is supposed to follow the teaching of chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) which states that we are not to do anything in worship that is not prescribed in the bible, in actual practice PCA churches ignore the RPW and do whatever they want to. This means that there is no uniformity in worship in PCA churches and one might find a PCA church whose worship seems positively Episcopalian, another whose worship resembles that of a Charismatic mega-church, another whose worship resembles that of the “Emergent Churches” and even a few that follow the Puritan RPW model. This creates huge problems when members of the PCA move and suddenly find that none of the PCA churches in their area have worship services that look remotely like the PCA worship to which they had become accustomed. In our case many PCA transplants who move to our city end up worshiping in charismatic churches instead of the two PCA churches in town because their former PCA churches had a charismatic worship style. Regardless, preference rather than the regulative principle is usually the determining factor in how a PCA church will order its worship and most churches in the PCA are likely to ignore every part of Chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession. This became painfully obvious during the recent intinction1 debate when the RPW, which should have determined the PCA’s answer to the problem, wasn’t even seriously considered. In addition to a lack of uniformity in worship, the PCA generally has a low view of the Lord’s Day and the Sabbath is more likely to be observed in the breach that in actual practice. Somehow we have imbibed an idea that couldn’t be more opposed to the theory of faith and practice set forth in the Westminster Standards, namely that in worship, diversity rather than uniformity is what we should be seeking to promote. The bible nowhere teaches this view of worship, and instead teaches us that a desire to do what seems good in our own eyes rather than what God has told us to do, is regarded as a sign that things are seriously wrong in the church.
3) A Failure to Safeguard the Sacraments: In 2012 an overture to the GA that year attempted to insert language into the BCO to prevent the practice of intinction noting that dipping the bread in communion into wine instead of taking the bread and the wine in two separate sacramental actions is not what we are directed to do in scripture. During the debate regarding this overture, it became clear that many PCA churches were already practicing intinction and they fought hard to keep their practice. Several PCA ministers saw the attempt to ban intinction as an attempt to impose the Regulative Principle and fought hard against it as an attempt to “norm” worship and eliminate diversity. At no point in the debate did we consider that the only sections of the Directory of Worship in the PCA BCO that have constitutional authority are the sections that deal with the sacraments, and that intinction failed to follow the guidelines established there and in the Westminster Standards. Ultimately, the anti-intinction amendment failed and intinction, which fails to administer the Lord’s Supper as Christ gave it to the church, was allowed to continue.
2012 was also a bad year for the sacraments in the PCA because it was also the year that the GA decided, during the Review of Presbytery Records, that paedocommunion2 was an acceptable exception to the teaching of the standards and that presbyteries did NOT need to explain to the GA why they had ordained men who believed in it. The practical effect of this is that the PCA is now freely ordaining men who believe in paedocommunion, the belief is spreading, and several PCA churches already practice de facto paedocommunion. Inevitably the practice of paedocommunion will become de jure once enough men who believe in it are ordained.
4) A Failure to Maintain the Teaching of Scripture Regarding Six-Day Creation: In 2000 the 28th PCA GA determined that there were four acceptable views of creation that her ministers could teach: Calendar Day, Day-Age, Framework, and Analogical Days. While this decision was confusing and contradictory (after all, Genesis 1-3 couldn’t possibly have four correct but contradictory interpretations!), one thing that everyone involved in the debate supposedly agreed on and affirmed was that THEISTIC EVOLUTION would never be an acceptable view of creation in the PCA. However, one of our Presbyteries, Metro New York (MNYP), and one of our best known Pastors, Tim Keller, of Redeemer PCA in Manhattan, have been promoting theistic evolution especially through Biologos, an organization that believes, “that the diversity and interrelation of all life on earth are best explained by the God-ordained process of evolution with common descent.” Several Biologos conferences have already been held at the Redeemer PCA church offices and Tim Keller himself was quoted in a Christianity Today article entitled, “Evangelical Evolutionists Meet in New York” as saying, “To develop a Biologos narrative is the job of pastors”.
In October of 2011, MNYP actually hosted a symposium entitled “Conversations Surrounding the Historicity of Adam” at the offices of Redeemer Presbyterian Church which invited three advocates of evolution who believed that the narrative in Genesis 1-3 was mythical and one creationist who believed that Adam was broadly historical, to explain their views to the presbytery. No representatives of the calendar day view were invited to address the presbyters.
Although these events were widely publicized, no attempt has been made at any level to discipline Tim Keller or to deal with the spread of theistic evolution in MNYP and the broader denomination. What we have learned is that the PCA’s 2000 compromise on creation was flawed from the outset and that it merely set the stage for Theistic Evolution to become an acceptable view in the PCA.
5) A Failure to Stand against Moral Compromise: When Vanderbilt University changed the requirements for Campus Religious Organizations, requiring that they either allow anyone regardless of their beliefs or sexual orientation to serve in the student leadership of that organization or leave the campus, only two evangelical religious groups on campus complied with the new policy. Unfortunately the PCA’s Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) was one of them and that decision was endorsed by RUF’s national coordinator, Rod Mays. Vanderbilt professor Carol Swain, the adviser of the Vanderbilt Christian Legal Society, publicly castigated RUF saying that RUF and the Baptist Collegiate Ministry, “betrayed their faith by complying with the university.” And that “It was a great disappointment that these two large groups did not stand with us.” Swain believes that the University might have backed down had these groups not agreed to comply. Predictably, both Rod Mays, the RUF coordinator, and Nashville Presbytery, which oversees the RUF campus minister at Vanderbilt have explanations for why they were willing to sign the documents such as their not wanting to damage the 23 year relationship between the University and RUF, but ultimately they sounded highly pragmatic, and none of them dealt with the idea that what they were being asked to consent to was evil, or that this was a situation when it was more important to say “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) and then take our stand with other evangelicals and be willing to suffer loss for the sake of Christ.
While disappointing, this decision shouldn’t surprise us, compromise has become the PCA’s preferred response to any controversy within the church (which is how we ended up with four acceptable positions on Creation instead of one), and we have been compromising for so long that it is now part of the character of our denomination. It seems clear that when it comes to the inevitable legal conflict between homosexual activism and the evangelical church, that the PCA’s preferred methodology will be to seek a compromise while claiming that we are doing so that we might not lose an opportunity to preach the gospel in the public square. Indeed, it is hard for us to imagine any issue over which the PCA would be willing to take a stand that might cause us to be called nasty things by the media. We do not seem to be willing to be tied to the stake and burned for anything related to the faith. Simply put, the PCA does not appear to have sufficient backbone to stand against the storm of persecution that will be blowing against the church in the 21st Century.
There are certainly other issues in the PCA to be concerned about, including our gradual drift towards egalitarianism, women officers, and loose views of divorce, but the above five strike the session of Providence PCA as the most serious problems.
Given the above, while there are still many faithful churches and even Presbyteries in the PCA, and while we love our denomination and desire to see her prosper, it seems clear to us that the PCA is no longer maintaining the three marks of the true church in their essential integrity and has entered into a period of prolonged theological declension.
Therefore, in order to safeguard the integrity of our congregation and maintain the kind of true biblical accountability and connectionalism prescribed in the New Testament, the session of Providence Presbyterian Church has decided to prayerfully begin the process of investigating other denominations to determine if we should affiliate with them. The session believes that this search should be conducted without haste and with due diligence and care. While we know we will never find a flawless denomination with which to join this side of heaven, it would be pointless and foolish for us to affiliate with a denomination with all or some of the same problems we have noted above. Above all, we should seek a Presbyterian and Reformed denomination that is self-consciously and deliberately theologically conservative, evangelistic, confessional, and committed to standing for the truth of the inerrant scriptures, even if that means they must do so contra mundum. We also need to make sure that any denomination that we join with respects laws rather than men and which will diligently exercise the biblical oversight that all congregations need this side of glory.
This paper will be presented to representatives of any prospective denominations we might consider affiliating with and they should be asked how they differ from the PCA at all the points outlined above and how they will seek to avoid the same decline that has affected the PCA.
1 Intinction is the practice of observing the Lord’s Supper by dipping the bread into the wine before consumption by the communicant. It is not found in the bible and was not practiced in the church until the fourth century at the very earliest.
2 Paedocommunion is the practice of giving the elements of the Lord’s Supper to infants and very young children who are not capable of the self-examination required in 1 Cor. 11:28.
Adopted by the Session of Providence PCA, Fayetteville at its stated meeting on May 10, 2014
NOTE: Before You Comment on this position paper, please read the Clarifying Addendum, which you will find here: