Where may we differ with one another? We may differ in the expression of our Orthodoxy when it comes to worship, while keeping within the bounds of our polity and Scripture. We may differ in how our local cultural perspectives impact our day-to-day practices, in order to be faithful to Christ’s mission and to make evident to all the integrity and power of God’s Word. But we have far more in common than what would threaten to separate us.
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Dear PCA Brothers and Friends,
With GA upon us, a group of pastors and elders felt compelled to write this public letter with hopes of encouraging others about the present and future of the Presbyterian Church in America and also to address and put to rest some assertions that are being spread about the PCA that we feel to be inaccurate and harmful.
Who are we? We are pastors and elders like you who have been in the denomination anywhere between a few years and the entire span of the life of the PCA. Like you, we are locals who minister to communities where the sin and sadness of a fallen world intersect with the good news of the gospel in the ministry of Jesus Christ expressed through the life of the local church. We are fellow believers who share concern over the moral state of society and culture. Like you, we share a desire for the Church to model biblical Christianity in the Reformed tradition—in the pews and in homes. We believe there to be no greater expression of the Christian faith. And like you, we are confessional. We wholeheartedly hold to the Standards of the Faith that our denomination has adopted as its constitution. We embrace our historic doctrinal underpinnings. We celebrate the church fathers who have gone before us.
Where may we differ with one another? We may differ in the expression of our Orthodoxy when it comes to worship, while keeping within the bounds of our polity and Scripture. We may differ in how our local cultural perspectives impact our day-to-day practices, in order to be faithful to Christ’s mission and to make evident to all the integrity and power of God’s Word.
But we have far more in common than what would threaten to separate us.
We believe that the future is bright for the PCA. Churches are being planted. Communities of increasing variety and number are being ministered to – we continued to plant churches through the pandemic. In droves, men and women are entering the Mission Field – we continue to support the largest number of full-time missionaries of any Presbyterian denomination in history. RUF is thriving, and our minority leaders are being championed in fundraising by the Unity Fund.
We are seeing a healthy, biblical consciousness for issues that were previously unaddressed in the denomination, including racial reconciliation, refugee care, domestic violence, the vital role of women in advancing the mission of the church, the gospel-centeredness of all Scripture, the importance of mercy ministries and crisis care in the advancement of Christ’s message of hope, and the precious power of God’s covenant care in a society of sexual and family brokenness. For example, without sacrificing our commitment to biblical integrity, the involvement of godly women has been sought for insight on difficult issues affecting children, churches, and families, as evidenced in the recent PCA study committees on the role of women and domestic violence. We did not sacrifice our commitment to biblical integrity, ecclesiastical polity, or gospel focus.
Truly, what our Founders envisioned for a denomination that winsomely embodies the gospel and passionately desires to see people come to faith in Christ, is being realized. While we have much to learn and do, we have even more to celebrate and look forward to – together.
Be assured that our desire is not to vilify or attack those who disagree. We firmly believe that when offered respectfully, our internal challenges and those who disagree with us make us stronger. We all know that Satan, “the accuser of the brethren”(Revelation 12:10) would have no greater joy than for us to be divided as a denomination over matters that we should debate charitably and truthfully in order for iron to sharpen iron! We believe that sharpening of one another to labor together for Christ requires that we also be honest about some perspectives being advanced in recent months that we believe are not healthy for our church or for Christ’s mission.
In the past year you may have heard alarming reports regarding the direction of the PCA.
You may have heard that there are PCA pastors who desire to ordain practicing homosexuals – This could not be further from the truth, and is an example of using extremes to ignite alarm and enflame passions among brothers. We agree that any unrepentant sinner or sinful lifestyle makes ordination not only impossible, but also reprehensible. We know of no pastors or elders in the PCA who in any way desire for practicing homosexuals to be ordained.
Article 8 of the Nashville Statement (commended by our General Assembly) states: “We affirm that people who experience sexual attraction for the same sex may live a rich and fruitful life pleasing to God through faith in Jesus Christ, as they, like all Christians walk in purity of life.”
If we truly believe this – and we do – and if we agree that there is “therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8), which we also do, then when a brother transparently acknowledges his struggle, but also affirms a commitment to an obedient and pure life, then we have to believe what we have commended, and celebrate such honesty. If we will not do this, then we invalidate every claim we make to the power of the gospel, and on a practical level, refute our confidence in the doctrine of Sanctification. There are appropriate discussions and differences about what obedience and purity mean when they are assessed for ministry leaders, but we must be clear that no one in authority in the PCA is advocating ordination, or even approval, of those engaged in homosexual practice. Overstating our differences to arouse the passions and fears of our constituencies does not help our church or honor our Lord.
Online blogs, Facebook posts, online news agencies, and emails have generally been the modes of much attack, innuendo, and ridicule, with little or no personal interaction with those attacked and cited. In the process, specific brothers in good standing have been labeled – and hurt, but even more frequently, “straw men” are erected without proof. These communications assert that large segments of our church are abandoning Scripture and our Confessional standards. Every sin does violence to God’s world and forsakes his Word, whether the sin of homosexuality, the sin of slander, the sin of compromise, or the sin of divisiveness.
If the sins of unbiblical practice and unconfessional belief that are currently being voiced with such vigor were true, we would agree that they should be opposed. We hear the concerns of our brothers and rarely disagree with the principles behind them. We believe that we desire the same commitment to Scripture and our Standards that they do! We disagree with digital and social media characterizations that turn suspicions into speculations that become accusations without proof – to achieve political ends within our church. Where compromise or sin is true and can be proven, we have sessions, presbyteries, and judicial processes to engage. We are wrong to presume that all of these are populated by brothers who are less committed to our faith than those ringing alarm bells in internet discussions and news agencies. Rather, we should be assuring one another. Like you, our hearts are grieved over the deceptions of the evil one in our society. We too are saddened by the disregard for human life, biblical sexuality, and covenant relationships that pervades our culture. But we are comforted by the fact that the gospel remains true, and that “the Grass withers, and the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8).
The “Enter In” ethic modeled by our Savior, Jesus, should not be replaced by a “Do Not Enter” sign outside of the Church’s walls, making it difficult for people to believe that the gospel is good news – or that we believe in its power to transform lives. Let us stand for biblical integrity, biblical sexuality, Covenant families, and God’s sovereignty, by conducting ourselves as the alternate society of peace and righteousness that is so desperately needed by, and strangely attractive to a lost and embattled world.
If we do not find more ways of speaking charitably and biblically to one another in our national discussions, we run the risk of doing damage to the nuanced work of individual local churches in their particular congregations, communities and contexts. Instead of raising and publishing suspicions about brothers we do not know in other regions and presbyteries, it is far healthier and more biblical to trust our churches and sessions to follow our Standards, to believe that they were acting in as good faith as we were, when they took their vows to uphold the Faith. If we can prove otherwise, then we have processes to adjudicate error. But until error is proven, restraint of suspicious expression is a key mark of true faithfulness.
This demands a level of trust that the Holy Spirit works beyond our immediate setting – that pastors will continue to preach “the gospel of God’s grace,” and “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:24, 27), and presbyteries and sessions will address sin and sins as they and their sessions see fit in their contexts.
This is not to say that our denomination does not stand in common solidarity on its core principles. It does! For example, the Presbyterian Church in America adheres to the scriptures, and the confessional standards that uphold the sanctity of marriage as being between one man and one woman (WCF XX14.1). We hold to this standard and others like it, knowing that they may antagonize an unbelieving world toward the Church that bears the message of the gospel. So, why do so? The answer is because we are united in our determination, with God’s help, and by His grace, never to waver from our biblical and Confessional convictions.
This is a good place to address adherence to our Confessional Standards – Some have alleged or implied that others in the PCA do not truly or firmly hold to the confessional standards. Along these lines, it has also been asserted that the PCA has wavered from its original founding as a “Full or Strict Subscription” denomination (accepting every sentence and premise of our Confession without question or qualification), but this too is untrue. The vast majority of our presbyteries and elders did not accept this assertion when it was made twenty years ago. We have always, even in our vows for ordination and installation, ‘sincerely received and adopted’ “the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures” (BCO 21-5, 24-6).
Good Faith Subscription (GFS) was formalized into our Constitution almost twenty years ago to put an end to such unfounded assertions. Two back-to-back General Assemblies and two-thirds of our presbyteries came to a previously and since-unprecedented level of unity to make this Constitutional formulation that allows for meaningful and biblical adherence to our Standards (acknowledging where the Bible allows good men to differ according to a very careful system of checks and balances, where every difference is recorded, approved by entire presbyteries, and submitted for examination to the General Assembly)! The adoption of GFS made recording confessional exceptions mandatory for presbyteries, and has been extraordinarily effective in strengthening our confessional commitments. Only rumor and regional suspicions assert otherwise.
The latitude that our denomination has allowed for, within the bounds of our orthodoxy, protects us from the kind of centralized control or hidden compromise that brought peril to the denomination the PCA left in 1973.
Kennedy Smartt, one of the PCA’s Founders, notes in his book, I Am Reminded, that when he polled a number of Founders back in the ’70s, he found only one or two advocating a strict subscription denomination. Most cared about orthodoxy, Sola Scriptura, gospel-orientation, and evangelism.*
It has been suggested by some that the apostles relied on confessions of the day, which may be true.
To this, perhaps a valid question to follow would be, “Why don’t we have a record of these confessions?” We can only surmise the answer to be that extra-biblical confessions have always been contextualized. We don’t have them because the only true and infallible enduring document of the Church is and should be the Word of God.
Good Faith Subscription is not an escape valve for Christians who refuse to be bound by confessional standards. It is a protective device for guarding against galvanizing what the scriptures don’t galvanize. And it allows us to maintain our adherence to the Westminster Standards in the spirit that all extra-biblical documents are intended to be held to, without elevating a human document to biblical status. That is why GFS was so overwhelmingly adopted into our Constitution for this Bible-believing church. GFS does not open the door to doctrinal erosion, it secures biblical fidelity.
Ironically, those arguing against Good Faith Subscription are permitted the latitude within Good Faith Subscription to advocate a non-constitutional position according to their conscience. The latitude they expect to be given in so speaking is that which should be extended to others. When good men honestly express such views within our system of doctrine, and with the approval of their presbyteries and the General Assembly, there is no danger to our church.
Consider the Following:
- Before the Internet connected everyone, and before online news agencies became conduits for agendas, we trusted local churches, Sessions, and presbyteries– We want to propose that we continue to see this as the most excellent way of caring for the Church, and to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
Yes, there will be inaccuracies, even heresy – not because we trust one another, but because God’s Word tells us that there will be. Demas will always be in the church (2 Timothy 4:10). There will always be wolves (Matthew 7, Acts 20). Some will slip between the cracks, because some men will be dishonest or lacking in care. Others will leave the ministry, even the Faith – but in His sovereignty, He knew all of this when He gave the Church the ultimate authority of Scripture to exercise His protective care over His Son’s Bride. We must trust that, though no human means will ever be sufficient to safeguard the Church from all error, our God is sufficient.
This trust is what keeps us faithful to one another, and to our God. This trust is the only holy thing that compels us to deal with one another as God’s Word clearly articulates. This trust, anchored in our vows, based on God’s Word, compels actual people to confront actual people in person, and work through issues – not symbolically – not through the protective solitude of a computer screen – not through the filter of a conference – but in person. It is incarnational Christianity, lived out in the life of the Church.
- When we pick apart words and statements, often out of context, we do damage to the fabric of our Witness– We are the better to not go there (and all of us have been guilty!), because to the watching world, we would no longer appear as a community that graciously holds forth truth, but one that is torn and divided – and this invalidates our proclamation. If we have far more that unites us than separates us, this should be our common cause for celebration, and in our proclamation of the gospel, it should be our message.
- When we speak in extremes, in order to press a position, we hurt those we love, and do damage to our Witness– We have been saddened to see friends under attack. Under the flag of, ‘they said it publicly, so we can challenge them publicly,’friends have been pitted against friends – with no attempts to contact one another personally! Strangers have attacked strangers behind the safe confines of computers, news agencies, and conferences. This proliferates fear and distrust.
Is this who we want to be? How can God be pleased with the PCA under such circumstances?
There will always be people who are all about power. The “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” is not easy – in fact, it is supernatural. But by God’s grace, Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer – “that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11) was intended for us every bit as much as for his friends, the disciples.
This letter is not meant to point fingers, because we have all been guilty of the same sins. We have all lived out of our worst selves, out of fear. We have all let those on the farthest extremes to define who we are in the middle. We have all allowed labels to define ourselves and others, rather than relationships. And we have all allowed public discourse to replace private, loving, dare we say, human, biblical dialogue as God designed for His people, the Church.
And perhaps this is the best place to land. We desire a peaceful dialogue among people who share the confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior. We desire to lock arms with one another in unified determination to “seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33) until heaven and earth are one. We desire to dwell together in peace with our brothers and sisters (Psalm 133), believing that our differences will never be enough to break “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3), and actually enable our mission to greater heights. We desire to be known more for our love for the Lord, for one another, and for our neighbor, than our votes, speeches, conferences, and assumptions.
And with this, we believe that we have an opportunity to do as Jesus has modeled – to enter into the world’s brokenness with the good news. All of us would agree that the world is more than violent, more than immoral, and more than hurting – it is lost. We are the Church in a sin-stained, hurting world, and what we need, along with God’s Spirit – is one another. Thank God that we have not been left to do this alone.
So, let’s join hands and lock arms. Let’s stop this petty feuding. Let’s stop whittling everything down to extremes. Let’s stop and listen to one another – before we take denomination-altering votes – before we “devour one another” (Galatians 5:15), before all of us regret the opportunities we missed, the people we hurt, and the rush-to-judgments we could have avoided.
We are in this together, and with Paul, we can believe that we are so safe in Christ, that we can be willing to be “accursed and cut off from Christ” that the world may know Him (Romans 9:3). We can extend every effort, honor every brother, and give all that is dear, because, frankly, in Jesus we already have everything.
May God bless you and yours.
June 2, 2021
* Kennedy Smartt, I Am Reminded, pp. 102-103