Can the Presbyterian Church in America be Turned Around?

Some thoughts on the PCA and its future.

The issues we face today with Revoice, social justice, and women officers are not the real problem. The real problem is that the PCA has slept while a bureaucratic, hierarchical denominational structure was erected that has now become like the tail wagging the dog. The General Assembly is supposed to serve the church. Instead, the church is now serving and feeding the General Assembly hierarchy.

 

The question facing those ministers and churches that are confessional and Scriptural within the Presbyterian Church in America is this: Can the denomination be turned around? There are many people who are concerned about this very issue and there are different responses to it. Some are determined to stay and fight until every last thing has been done to save the PCA. Others believe they already see the handwriting on the wall. They feel that it is only a matter of time before the PCA slides irrevocably into a progressive, bureaucratic, hierarchical denomination (if it has not already done so). If the PCA is to be reclaimed for evangelicalism, what must be done to accomplish that turn around?

The Revoice Conference

Few people reading this article need to be informed about the Revoice Conference held in July 2018 at Memorial Presbyterian Church (PCA) in St. Louis, MO, or that other such conferences have been held and are being planned. It is dumbfounding to many people that the PCA would even be having a debate over such an issue as homosexuality, same-sex attraction, and the LGBTQ movement. Yet, here we are.

The United Methodist Church voted in February to affirm biblical marriage of one man and one woman by a 53% to 47% margin. That has given renewed hope to some people that the Revoice Conference issue can be soundly defeated by the PCA General Assembly. Maybe so, maybe not. It is always a good thing to learn the right lessons from such votes—especially when they are votes in other denominations. The UMC was rescued by evangelical delegates from other parts of world, especially from Africa. The PCA may not be rescued in a similar manner.

In a March 19, 2019 article, “Final Thoughts On the United Methodist Church General Conference” by Rev. Sweat, we hear a different story than some people are deducing from that vote. The progressives and liberals in the UMC (who dominate that denomination in the US) are now more determined than ever to keep fighting for their false idea of progress. Moreover, Rev. Sweat contends that the vote will prove meaningless because no discipline of ministers will take place. Will lesbian and homosexual bishops be removed? Rev. Sweat says that they will remain in their positions and he gives several examples to prove his point. Furthermore, the American leaders of the UMC have rebelled against the vote in February and it now appears that denomination will be split into two or three factions.

What if the 2019 PCA General Assembly votes to recommend that presbyteries discipline the churches and pastors that have allowed the Revoice Conferences to take place with impunity? What if there is a warning that such presbyteries themselves could be disciplined if they fail to exercise their Scriptural responsibility? Will such actions by the General Assembly turn around the denomination? They are not likely to do so for the same reason that the overwhelming vote at the 2007 General Assembly to receive the Ad-Interim Committee report on the New Perspectives on Paul and the Federal Vision did not usher in a new wave of theological orthodoxy. Few people would say that the PCA is more orthodox today than it was in 2007. So, winning the vote on the issue of the Revoice Conference (or on women serving as ordained officers) will not necessarily be a signal that the PCA has been turned around; however, losing such a vote may well indicate that the denomination has gone too far to be recovered. A victory on this issue would do very little to stop the progressive trajectory of the PCA, but a loss would be a devasting body blow to the cause of truth in the denomination.

In an April 30, 2019 article, “PCA Host of Gay Christian Conference Mocks the Aquila report, Threatens to Start ‘Aqueerla Report’” by Jeff Maples, shows that this matter with the Revoice Conference is not a misunderstanding. As Maples asserts, “Right now, they joke, but tomorrow, they act—that’s how this works. Rest assured, the homosexual Mafia will not rest until sexual deviants are fully included in al areas of society, including the Church, and the idea that aberrant sexual orientations and lifestyles are abnormal, unnatural, and sinful is put to rest.”

To some people, Maples’ statement might seem a little overboard. Those people might want to think again. At an April 2019 PCA presbytery meeting, a report was developed in response to the question of whether or not a person struggling with same-sex attraction is a fit candidate for the ministry. In the discussion of this report, one teaching elder said that he would be willing to vote in favor of a non-practicing pedophile as a fit candidate for the ministry. After some pushback by others, he walked that statement back. Yet, that statement still gives us a window into the minds of those in the PCA who think that it is acceptable for a non-practicing same-sex attracted man to be ordained as a minister. Today, it is merely same-sex attraction that, supposedly, is not practiced. Tomorrow, it is openly gay ministers. Next week, it is any sexual deviancy, including pedophilia. That is how the progressive agenda works.

The Hypothetical Merger of the Evangelical Covenant Order and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church

There are some who have presented this possible merger as a hopeful sign for the PCA. The idea is that when or if such a merger takes place that the progressives in the PCA will leave the denomination to join the new denomination. Of course, that begs the question: If that is so, then why are not those same pastors and churches already leaving the denomination to join one or the other of those two denominations?

Minister friends who are in the EPC have told me that they cannot see such a merger between the ECO and the EPC ever taking place because the denominations are so very different. Yes, they both came out of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) and both allow women to be officers, but there are few other areas of agreement. Also, there are no formal discussions of such a merger at this point. So, this hypothetical merger offers no real hope at this time for the PCA to be turned around.

Even if such a merger between the ECO and the EPC did take place there would be no guarantee that a sizable majority of the progressives in the PCA would leave to join the new denomination. One thing I have observed over the years is that progressives and liberals would much rather stay in an evangelical denomination as fifth columnists than to leave it with a clear conscience. A clear conscience is the first thing that is sacrificed on the altar of progressive theology—which answers the great question: Why do not the progressives just leave and go into a progressive/liberal denomination or start their own denomination? Why? Because progressives do not have a conscience about such things. That is why. It does not bother them to be untrue to their ordination vows and to the theological confessions they have subscribed.

So, I would advise people not to pin their hopes of turning around the PCA on the pipe dream of getting the progressives to have a conscience. Some may leave, but many more will stay. Progressives are just like that. Additionally, many progressives serve churches that are more conservative than they are. Those congregations will most likely not want to leave the PCA for the ECO or the EPC. Thus, the progressives will just hunker down and continue to erode the doctrinal purity of the PCA.

Even if all the members of the National Partnership and all the progressives and all the defenders of LGBTQ and those who claim to same-sex attracted (SSA) could be cajoled or shamed or pushed out of the PCA where would that leave the denomination? Well, it would leave the Conservatives and Confessionals (the Cons of which I am one) hoping to get the squishy middle (which they used to shame the progressives) to now join arms with the “Cons.” No one should count on that happening.

An example is what happened with the Southern Baptists and the Founders Movement. The Founders (the Reformed wing of that denomination) were able to get the Arminians to join with them against the progressives of that denomination. Most of the progressives left. Now the Arminians in the Southern Baptist Convention view the Founders as a group which also needs to be ushered out.

The squishy middle of the PCA cannot be counted on in the upcoming battles for the heart and soul of the PCA and they certainly cannot be assumed to be long-term partners for the Cons of the denomination.

Reclaiming the Committees and Agencies

Another hope of many PCA pastors is to somehow regain control of the various committees and agencies of the PCA for the conservative cause. That is an admirable goal, but it may very well prove to be a pyrrhic victory if it is achieved. It might cost a great deal with little in return. What would result even if that happened? For one thing, the PCA would still be hampered by a polity which has been changed from a truly grassroots denomination via 45 years of overtures.

The result now is that the PCA General Assembly is most definitely hierarchical in nature. A committee of the GA operates by different rules of polity than does a committee of the session or presbytery. GA committees do more than recommend. They can take final action and only report to the Assembly what they have done.

The Standing Judicial Commission of the General Assembly does not need to have the highest court vote to approve its decision like a judicial commission of a session or presbytery. Rather, the SJC’s decision is final and does not need the approval of the court unless there is a minority report filed. Many examples could be given of how the PCA polity is now inherently conflicted and contradictory. Sessions and presbyteries operate by different rules than the General Assembly.

The GA’s SJC, therefore, could rule that a session or presbytery had acted unconstitutionally if the lower courts acted in the same way that the SJC does. Think about that for a moment. If a judicial commission of presbytery tried to take final action on a matter without having their report approved by the court, then a complaint could be made against that action. If that complaint ultimately made it to the SJC, then the SJC would cite the lower court’s judicial commission for violating the constitution. Yet, that hypothetical situation concerning a judicial commission of a presbytery is exactly how the SJC of the GA functions. They take final action and do not need to have their decision voted up or down by the highest court. So the SJC would find the actions of a lower court judicial commission to be unconstitutional for acting in the very same manner that the SJC is permitted to act by the BCO.

There are numerous overtures that have changed the PCA’s General Assembly into a hierarchy. I now wish that the PCA had never allowed any changes to its original BCO.  Can the multitudinous changes that have been made to the PCA BCO be rolled back so that the denomination can return to a truly grassroots denomination? I personally have no hope that will ever happen. There is no such precedent that any denomination has ever simplified its polity to my knowledge. Yet, unless the PCA returns to a grassroots denomination it will never be turned around in my opinion. Church history teaches that denominations become more progressive at breakneck speed when they implement a hierarchical polity.

But what if the PCA did roll back its polity and once again became a grassroots denomination in theory? Would the denomination then be turned around? Not unless the multi-million-dollar corporation known as PCA headquarters was dismantled. As long as the bureaucrats are still in place, the denomination cannot be turned around for the same reason that you cannot win an argument with an organization that buys ink by the barrel.

As I have written in other articles, I have many friends who work at the PCA headquarters and I know they get up every morning praying that the Lord would help them make a difference for the kingdom of God. The problem with the PCA headquarters is not the individuals who serve there; the problem is with the structure that allows such a headquarters to exist.

The New Testament does not envision a hierarchical structure that is so large and well-funded that it leaves the impression that the only way to do the work of the kingdom is through it. When the first General Synod of the early church met in Jerusalem (Acts 15), the work of implementing the decisions of that Synod was left to the churches and missionaries (commissioned and sent out by the church at Antioch). There was no hierarchical structure in Jerusalem. There were no corporate offices with hundreds of paid employees who implemented plans to be recommended and/or imposed on the lower courts. It was simply churches that were spreading the gospel through ordained missionaries. The “General Synod of Jerusalem” was a court that met together and acted together on a pressing theological question for the common good of the church.

Now here is the most important question: What is the PCA in its essence? Is it a well-funded, multi-million-dollar corporate headquarters, or is it the pastors and churches and members of the denomination? If you say, the former, then rejoice that you are already there and growing larger every day. But I will not rejoice with you. If you say the latter, then how will we ever turn the PCA around to become that grassroots denomination as envisioned by the New Testament as long as we dwell under the large shadow of the PCA headquarters?

The issues we face today with Revoice, social justice, and women officers are not the real problem. The real problem is that the PCA has slept while a bureaucratic, hierarchical denominational structure was erected that has now become like the tail wagging the dog. The General Assembly is supposed to serve the church. Instead, the church is now serving and feeding the General Assembly hierarchy.

I have been a member of the PCA since the day of its organization in 1973. I have been an ordained minister in the PCA for 43 years. It gives me no joy to see these issues with the PCA today. But the PCA is not my God anymore than the PCUS was when I joined it in 1971. Our allegiance is to Christ, the Head of the Church—not to an earthly denominational structure.

Dewey Roberts is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is the  Pastor of Cornerstone (PCA) in Destin, FL.

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