The PCA: A Connectional Church?

Is the PCA functionally a connectional church?

First, we can attend presbytery regularly (along with the allowed number of ruling elders [REs]). Then we give our congregation a report on the actions of presbytery. Did the presbytery take candidates under care? Did the presbytery license or ordain a man to ministry? Is the presbytery planting a church? Were decisions made at presbytery that will affect our congregation? It will benefit the congregation to know these things, to remind the congregation that they are connected to other congregations with similar goals.

 

At the congregational level, there is not much difference between a congregational church and a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) church. Congregational churches are often ruled by a board of elders, elected from among the members, which is also the case with Presbyterian churches. But, as far as church government goes, that is where the similarity ends. Presbyterians hold to the idea of a connectionalism through graded church courts. The “courts” language is unfortunate, as it gives a certain twist to the meaning of those bodies, and their purposes, that is not intended in the name. But that is a consideration for another post.

Unlike congregational churches, Presbyterian churches are partially defined by their identity as “connectional” churches, that is, congregations of the same denomination are vitally connected through the church courts. In the PCA, the session is the court of the congregation. The presbytery is the court of the churches in a defined area. The General Assembly (GA) is the court of the denomination as a whole. The difference between these courts and, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention and the SB Conventions in the various states is that decisions of the higher courts are determinative for the policies and practices of the lower courts. In other words, a decision by the presbytery affects all the congregations in the presbytery. A decision of the GA affects the presbyteries and the local congregations.

The question is whether the PCA is functionally a connectional church. My experience is limited both by time and area, in that I have been an ordained teaching elder (TE, minister) in the PCA for only a little over twenty-two years, and all that time I have served in Calvary Presbytery in the Upstate of South Carolina. But I was raised in the UPCUSA (now the PC[USA]) and served in various capacities in that denomination until I joined the PCA in 1981.

My experience there was not much different from what I have experienced in the PCA. And my experience tells me that most PCA congregations are functionally congregational. Unless the area is saturated with PCA churches, one local congregation is at most vaguely aware of other PCA churches. There seems to be little cooperative work among them. The existence of presbytery and GA is acknowledged, but the existence of those courts seems to be more theoretical than practical (at least in the minds of congregational members).

How do we, as TEs in the PCA, change that reality in order to make the church connectional in practice as well as in theory?

First, we can attend presbytery regularly (along with the allowed number of ruling elders [REs]). Then we give our congregation a report on the actions of presbytery. Did the presbytery take candidates under care? Did the presbytery license or ordain a man to ministry? Is the presbytery planting a church? Were decisions made at presbytery that will affect our congregation? It will benefit the congregation to know these things, to remind the congregation that they are connected to other congregations with similar goals.

Second, we can make the concerns of presbytery a regular element in our pastoral prayers and in the prayer lists that most churches make available to members.

Third, we can attend GA (with our allowed number of REs) and again inform the congregation about the actions of GA, particularly regarding things that will affect our congregation and/or the character of the denomination as a whole.

Fourth, we can make the concerns of GA a regular element in our pastoral prayers and in the prayer lists we make available to our members.

Fifth, we can make it a practice in church prayer meetings to pray regularly through the list of presbyteries. In this practice, it can be particularly helpful to contact the stated clerk of each presbytery to ask if there are particular concerns of that presbytery that we can pray for. Again, this keeps church members reminded that we are a vital part of a much larger national (and international) church.

Sixth, we can make it a practice in church prayer meetings to pray regularly through the list of the committees and agencies of the GA. These committees and agencies regularly publish newsletters that include prayer requests. Seventh, we can in our prayer meetings particularly pray for upcoming meetings of our own presbytery and the annual meeting of GA.

These practices can accomplish two things. First, they will regularly remind the congregational members in a tangible way that they are not alone in their gospel labors. Second, we are reminded by James that “the prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect” (James 5:16 CSB). Such prayers, along with the Word and the sacraments, are the very lifeblood of the church.

Benjamin Shaw is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. This article is used with permission.

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