Exit Theology – Leaving the PCA?

When is the proper time for a church to withdraw from a Presbytery or a denomination?

The PCA was created in the context of ecclesiastical powers inherent in the hierarchical structure of the old Presbyterian Church in the United States (the “Southern Presbyterian Church”).  Ownership of property became a major issue.  Some churches lost their property.  Thus, the PCA created the provision that any church could leave the denomination at any time (with its property) with a simple majority vote of the congregation.  No questions asked.  No need to seek advice from other churches or Presbytery.  You can just leave!

 

Another church in my Presbytery just quietly left the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).  When it left the PCA, it left our Presbytery too.  No warning — no prior notification!  Just a letter saying they were gone.  As a teaching elder in Westminster Presbytery for 45 years, it hurts. We are not a divided Presbytery.  We are exceptionally unified. It’s a little like divorce and a spouse leaving without notice.  You get up one day and your covenant partner is gone. But you have to go on.

I’ve been in a similar situation before.  In the late 90’s the General Assembly considered a petition of Westminster Presbytery as a whole to leave the PCA. It was denied by a close vote. Some individual churches and ministers left anyway and created their own denominations.  These denominations have continued to split to the point that I can’t even recognize their names anymore.

The PCA was created in the context of ecclesiastical powers inherent in the hierarchical structure of the old Presbyterian Church in the United States (aka the “Southern Presbyterian Church”).  Ownership of property became a major issue.  Some churches lost their property.  Thus, the PCA created the provision that any church could leave the denomination at any time, with its property, with a simple majority vote of the congregation.  No questions asked.  No need to seek advice from other churches or Presbytery.  You can just leave!

In my opinion, the PCA ecclesiastically is basically a congregational or quasi-Baptist denomination.  Yes, we are connected, but that connection means very little in reality.  I think the provision for unilateral exit was an over-reaction to the past abuse in the late 1960s and early 1970s from our previous denomination.  It was mostly a pragmatic and economic provision, and there was little if any biblical basis whatsoever for total the provision of unilateral withdrawal without even prior communication with the Presbytery.

At minimum, a consultation with the Presbytery before unilateral action should have been added to the Book of Church Order.  In my opinion, unilateral action is a reflection of American individualism more than biblical theology. Sometimes we confuse the two.

My point here is not to analyze the condition of the PCA and the direction of its theological drift.  My point is only to encourage sessions and churches to at least talk to others outside of their own fellowship before they act.  Other respectful men do have different ideas on when to leave a denomination and it should behoove each session to seek advice.

I’ve really seen no written exit-theology on when to leave a Presbytery or a denomination.  There is no popular book that deals with the issue from a biblical perspective, at least not that I am aware. I have always taken the position that I believe was represented by both Martin Luther and J. Gresham Machen: Don’t leave until they kick you out.  In my mind, this perspective comes from a high view of the visible church and not quite such a high view of the invisible church.

It’s a sad day for me, but by God’s grace I will go on.

Larry E. Ball is a retired minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is now a CPA. He lives in Kingsport, Tennessee.