Reflections on the State of PCA Polity

The stated polity of the PCA is intentionally "grassroots," that is "bottom-up" rather than "top-down."

In the PCA’s Book of Church Order 29-1 this claim is made: “The Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, together with the formularies of government, discipline, and worship are accepted by the Presbyterian Church in America as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation to both faith and practice”


After years of observing the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), a biblically disturbing trend has become apparent: Accommodating denominational bureaucracy is becoming the focus of the high court, the General Assembly.

By denominational bureaucracy I mean the denomination’s permanent agencies and permanent committees, their budgets, and their supporting staffs.

The high court is being put in reactive mode by a denominational bureaucracy which, increasingly, sets both the tone and substance for deliberations at the General Assembly.

This is problematic biblically; the Scriptures do not present this way of governing the church of Jesus Christ.

But it is even more difficult for Presbyterianism, which holds to governance by plurality of elders, graded courts, and elders and deacons chosen by the people they serve.

Add to this, the stated polity of the PCA which is intentionally “grassroots,” that is “bottom-up” rather than “top-down.”

While there are reasonable differences that can be drawn from Scripture as to forms of church government, church polity (governance) is derived from doctrine (Scripture). Therefore, it is not essentially a matter of pragmatism or imagination. Rather, it is a matter of the Word of God.

I heard one brother during debate at this year’s Overtures Committee state that the Westminster Standards are a doctrinal statement but the Book of Church Order (BCO) is not. But the BCO presents itself as a doctrinal expression of polity, laying out biblical principles explicitly and implicitly in its Preface, Preliminary Principles, and throughout. For example, in BCO 29-1 this claim is made: “The Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, together with the formularies of government, discipline, and worship are accepted by the Presbyterian Church in America as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation to both faith and practice” (bold emphasis added).

The BCO describes and limits the role of denominational agencies, BCO 14.1.7, 8:

7. The Assembly’s committees are to serve and not to direct any Church judicatories. They are not to establish policy, but rather execute policy established by the General Assembly.
8. The committees serve the Church through the duties assigned by the General Assembly.

In 2009 and 2010, the Cooperative Ministries Council (CMC), begun in 2007 just a few years before, engaged in a wide-ranging (and expensive) study that included doctrine, polity, spending on denominational agencies, and associations with other churches. The study even noted “male leadership of PCA” under its “Global Challenges” section.

From there, the 2010 General Assembly was put in a position of dealing with a series of wide-ranging and complicated proposals, some stated in vague generalities. Some were substantially re-written at the last minute. In the end, some proposals were adopted on sharply divided votes.

Yet, only one of the proposals was sent to the presbyteries for their advice and consent. That proposal, to require individual churches to make payments to the denominational agency, the Administrative Committee (AC) in order to attend GA, was defeated by a wide margin by the presbyteries.

The proposal for major, strategic change within the denomination did not originate from the presbyteries or the General Assembly. Other than the one proposal, the presbyteries were never asked for advice and consent. Nor were there specific requests for the strategic proposals made to the General Assembly through the normal GA study committee process.

This has happened, in similar fashion now, ever since.

Last year, for example, a study committee on “The Role of Women in the Ministry of the Church” originated from within the denominational bureaucracy and then worked its way to dominate the focus of that General Assembly. And this happened despite the fact the GA had repeatedly rejected proposals for study committees on this topic in recent years.

This year, the same apparatus is being used to promote all sorts of disparate opinions, but especially including ordaining women to office in the church (remember, the same apparatus called having male qualification to office a “global challenge” a few years earlier).

The problem, of course, is that strategic decisions are major matters that are the province of the lower courts, NOT of denominational bureaucracy.

More and more, those choosing the programs for GA are often connected to the denominational bureaucracy, i.e., the paid staff of the various committees and agencies. Fewer and fewer ruling elders, who volunteer their time governing local churches, are even making the effort to attend General Assembly.

Instead of the General Assembly, through oversight of the plurality of elders, determining the direction for the committees and agencies, with their staff then implementing these approved programs, the process is now  reversed: the denominational agencies present their agenda, their opinions, make proposals, which are sometimes long, complicated, and vague, and then they expect the GA to approve them.

The point here is not to question the competency or motives of those in these denominational positions, but only to note that since about 2007 with the beginning of the CMC, the General Assembly has been put in an increasingly reactive and almost defensive posture vis-à-vis its denominational bureaucracy.

R.C. Sproul in his series, What is Reformed Theology? explains the difference between formal and material causes. In describing the Reformation, he explained the formal cause was sola scriptura. That is, Scripture alone is the final authority for Christian life and practice. The material cause, the event that sparked it, was Martin Luther posting 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg.

In a similar manner, the PCA is at a crossroads now.

The formal cause is the authority of Scripture. The material cause may be the major re-direction of church resources from teaching the Word and shepherding the flock to the denominational bureaucracy proposing its ideas for institutional strategic planning.

Will the denomination be run in accordance with Presbyterian government and the biblical doctrines that underlie them? Or will it be run by pragmatism and the worldliness and mere opinion that underlie these? Will it be Presbyterian in name only?

Will the PCA be a denomination with an unambiguously clear and godly heritage committed to Reformed theology and Presbyterian polity even as it faces a world adverse to it, or will it choose to capitulate to pragmatism and the trappings of bureaucratic process? May God reform it and keep it toward the former, for His honor, and His glory.

Scott Truax is a member of Shiloh Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Raleigh, N.C.


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