Where Has the Presbyterian Church in America Gone Wrong?

The work of the ministry is committed to sessions and presbyteries and should be confined to those two courts in a truly grassroots denomination.

The PCA claims to be a grassroots denomination, and in many respects it is. Yet, it is also a hybrid between a grassroots denomination and a bureaucratic, hierarchical denomination. At the bottom, it is grassroots. At the top, the various committees and agencies of the General Assembly are woven together through the Administration Committee and the Committee on Cooperative Ministries into a top down form of government.


When the founding fathers of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) began to meet in 1972 to plan the Continuing Church, they were determined not to allow the committees and agencies of this new denomination assume the centralized power as the committees and agencies of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) did and which ruined that denomination. Thus, our founding fathers decided that the major committees must be located in different cities to prevent unhealthy collusion by the bureaucrats.

Mission to the US (as Mission to North America (MNA) was called then) was located in Jackson, Miss.; Christian Education and Publications CE&P) was located in Montgomery, Ala.; Mission to the World (MTW) was in Atlanta; and the Stated Clerk’s office was in Jackson, Miss. In the 1980s, after the Joining and Receiving with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES), the permanent committees and agencies of the PCA were moved to greater Atlanta area where they are located today.

In our modern age, distance would have been no problem for the PCA permanent committees and agencies to establish a commonly agreed upon agenda for the denomination. The internet, cell phones, and fax machines would make would have easily facilitated working together. However, the PCA made it much easier for the various permanent committees and agencies to cooperate.

Two of the PCA committees—Committee on Administration and Committee on Cooperative Ministries—are specifically dedicated to communicating the viewpoints of each of the permanent committees to one another. These two committees are composed of representatives from each of the permanent committees, plus the Coordinator or chief administrative officer of the permanent committees. The PCA permanent committees consist of the Committee on Discipleship Ministries, Covenant College, Covenant Seminary, Mission to North America, Mission to the World, the PCA Foundation, the PCA Retirement and Benefits, Reformed University Fellowship, and Ridge Haven Conference Center.

The Administrative Committee is composed of one member from each of the permanent committees, eleven members at-large elected by the General Assembly, plus the chief administrative officer of each of the permanent committees as advisory members (who can speak but not vote). The Committee on Cooperative Ministries is composed of a member from each of the permanent committees, the chief administrative officer of each permanent committee, plus the five most recent Moderators of the General Assembly (who serve as advisors without a vote for 6 years each). What this means is that the PCA now has two committees that are dedicated to doing the very thing that our founding fathers wanted to prevent.

One thing which we must state unequivocally is that there are many dedicated Christians in the PCA who are working on the Permanent Committees and striving every day to do the Lord’s will for their lives and for the denomination. That is without doubt. I thank God for such people and many of them are friends, while there are many others that I simply do not know. Anything that I write in this article concerning permanent committees at the General Assembly level is not directed at the numerous dedicated individuals who serve the denomination through those committees.

In recent days, I have been reading, The Collected Writings of James Henley ThornwellVolume 4: Ecclesiastical, once again. I have probably read that volume three times in the 45 years since I bought the four-volume set as a seminary student. Over the past year, I have increasingly come to the conviction that the problem in the PCA (and almost every other denomination, whether reformed or not) is the very existence of permanent committees at the General Assembly level—not where those committees are geographically located. Thornwell’s writings on ecclesiology have confirmed all my opinions. He had the same concerns about the Presbyterian Church in 1841. He wrote an article that was first published in the Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine called, “Argument Against Church-Boards.” Every minister, ruling elder, and church member of the PCA who is concerned about the problems in our denomination should read that article.

Thornwell takes the regulative principle (which is often quoted with respect to worship and, perhaps, doctrine) and shows that it governs polity also. The regulative principle teaches that the Church is to restrict itself in its worship, doctrine, and polity to those things which are clearly taught in Scripture or can be deduced by good and necessary inference. The opposite view is that the church can frame its views of worship and polity (and to a lesser degree, doctrine) to whatever is not condemned by Scripture. The regulative principle holds to Sola Scriptura in doctrine, worship, and polity.

The primary failure of the various Presbyterian denominations throughout church history is that almost none of them have worked out the regulative principle in all three areas of doctrine, worship, and polity. In all the concerns about the PCA at the present time, there is almost no one who is speaking to the issue of polity. Good church order is essential to the well-being of a denomination. Thornwell’s position is that General Assembly Boards or permanent committees of agencies are really functioning as church courts that are outside of the control of the denomination:

Independently of the fact that the Boards are ecclesiastical courts, possessing, to a considerable extent, co-ordinate jurisdiction with the Presbyteries themselves, their unconstitutionality will farther appear from the tendency of their practical working to introduce a system of virtual Prelacy. . . But the fact is unquestionable that the various officers of our Boards are invested with a control over their brethren, and a power in the Church, just as real and just as dangerous as the authority of a Prelate. They constitute a college of ecclesiastical functionaries who determine the character and shape the destinies of the Presbyterian Church in these United States of America.[1]

The PCA claims to be a grassroots denomination, and in many respects it is. Yet, it is also a hybrid between a grassroots denomination and a bureaucratic, hierarchical denomination. At the bottom, it is grassroots. At the top, the various committees and agencies of the General Assembly are woven together through the Administration Committee and the Committee on Cooperative Ministries into a top down form of government. This might seem like no real problem because almost every denomination functions the same way, but it concentrates power at the top to the detriment of the whole denomination. Power concentrated leads to power corrupted.

Here are a couple of examples of what I am intending to communicate. First, the permanent committees of the PCA General Assembly are not really committees in the strictest sense, but function as church courts. A committee cannot take final action on a matter but must have its recommendations approved by the court to which it belongs. For instance, a theological examination committee of a Presbytery might undertake preliminary examination of a licentiate applying for ordination, but the Presbytery must still examine the licentiate and then approve or disapprove his trials for ordination. Yet, BCO 14-1(14) gives to the theological examination of the General Assembly the very same authority to examine and approve officers that is given to church courts. In that respect, the General Assembly’s theological examination committee functions as a church court. And the theological examination committee is not even one of the 9 permanent committees and agencies of the PCA. This illustrates the principle that true Presbyterianism is set aside at the General Assembly level of the PCA due to a faulty view of church polity. BCO 3-2 says that:

Ecclesiastical power, which is spiritual, is twofold. The officers exercise it sometimes severally, as in preaching the Gospel, administering the Sacraments, reproving the erring, visiting the sick, and comforting the afflicted, which is the power of order; and they exercise it sometimes jointly in Church courts, after the form of judgment, which is the power of jurisdiction.

That definition of church power, with which I completely agree, establishes the point that whatever power the General Assembly’s theological examining committee exercises in examining and approving officers is not the power of order and can only be the power of jurisdiction which is to be exercised “jointly in Church courts.” But, the theological examinations committee of the General Assembly of the PCA is not supposed to be a church court. So, how does it take the actions of a church court and exercise the power of jurisdiction?

Second, Mission to the World (MTW) assesses, approves, commissions, and then sends missionaries to the mission field as soon as they raise their financial support. They do this as a committee empowered to do so by the General Assembly. They do not wait for the General Assembly (the court to which MTW is accountable) to approve of their recommendations—which is what committees in every other church court do. MTW acts as a court with all the power to proceed immediately. Thornwell responds to this type of situation as follows:

We can see no conceivable difference in principle between the right to settle Evangelists in foreign lands or to prescribe their fields of labour and the right to settle Pastors at home; and if one can be entrusted to the care of a Board, the other may be also. But if, as it will perhaps be universally conceded, a Presbytery cannot delegate the power of receiving calls to any other body, no more can it renounce the equally important functions growing out of its relations to the Evangelists connected with it. The general introduction of the principle of delegating the power of ecclesiastical courts to any other body whatever would produce nothing but confusion, misrule and mischief;. . . and yet upon this principle is founded the strange delusion that what we are doing by our Boards we are doing as a Church, in our “appropriate character,” or in our “ecclesiastical authority. [2] 

The argument of Thornwell is that no presbytery would delegate to a committee or a board the authority to examine, ordain, and approve a call of a minister to a particular church or field of labor. Such actions are the province of a court—the presbytery. But the PCA General Assembly has delegated such authority concerning foreign mission fields to a committee—the Committee on Mission to the World. We could multiply examples to prove the point of how other committees of the General Assembly of the PCA also function as church courts—not committees.

Of course, people are going to assert that all this is necessary—that the General Assembly must function in this manner. Au contraire.

The work of the ministry is committed to sessions and presbyteries and should be confined to those two courts in a truly grassroots denomination. General Assembly is simply incapable of carrying out the Great Commission in the manner that sessions and presbyteries can. General Assembly cannot spend the time examining officers, missionaries, RUF campus ministers, etc. on the floor of Assembly. As a result, General Assembly gives those responsibilities to committees which become de facto church courts in the exercise of their responsibilities. General Assembly cannot exercise the oversight and, if necessary, discipline of those that have been sent out to foreign fields. So, a committee takes over that area of responsibility and functions as a church court.

General Assembly works best when it focuses on legislative matters that effect the whole church and restricts itself to judicial matters that are appealed to her court. Otherwise, all the work of the ministry should flow from sessions and presbyteries who are capable of properly overseeing all aspects of it.

I remember when the campus ministries (now Reformed University Fellowship) were all under the three presbyteries in Mississippi. Then, you have the model of the session of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Ala., which started Campus Outreach on college campuses. This is the right model of fulfilling the Great Commission. My session first sent me out to engage in indigenous mission work in Russia 20 years ago and that work is still thriving.

Why cannot and should not that model still be the example for the fulfillment of the Great Commission? It was a church—the church at Antioch—that sent out the missionaries Paul and Barnabas. And when they returned from their first mission trip, they gave their report to that church. When questions arose about their missionary activity, a council convened in Jerusalem to discuss those matters. Yet, that council (i.e., General Assembly) did not take oversight of Paul and Barnabas. The council simply made a pronouncement concerning what to do about those who were coming to Christ from among the Gentiles and had not been circumcised. In other words, their action was legislative in nature and the work of fulfilling the Great Commission remained with the churches.

Some people would assert that Presbyterianism has failed. One of my professors at seminary often said that a chart of the many branches of Scottish Presbyterianism looked like a complex wiring diagram. It is true that the church has been rent asunder by heresies and dissensions times without number. But I want to assert that true Presbyterianism has scarcely been tried.

Presbyterianism, for many different reasons, has too often been mixed with varying degrees of hierarchical principles. Hierarchical Presbyterianism was forced on the Church of Scotland by King James I, who wanted all the churches in Great Britain to be Episcopal in worship and government. Later, the Patronage Act gave wealthy landowners the right to make decisions for the churches in Scotland. Scotland is the mother country of Presbyterianism, but it has scarcely existed there in its purest form.

In America, hierarchical Presbyterianism has been the dominant view. The New Light Presbyterians modeled true Presbyterianism from 1741 to 1758. Since that time, Presbyterianism has almost always been combined with elements of hierarchical church government.

The PCA needs to rise up and become a true grassroots denomination committed to Sola Scriptura in doctrine, worship, and polity. It will take great courage to make the necessary changes to become a truly scriptural Presbyterian denomination, but denominations that try to mix hierarchical elements into their polity—whether wittingly or unwittingly—simply do not remain evangelical for long. After nearly 2,000 years of the New Testament church, is it not time for a Presbyterian denomination that is reformed by Scripture in doctrine, worship, and polity?  The world awaits what will happen when the Church takes seriously the principle of Sola Scriptura.

Dr. Dewey Roberts is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of Cornerstone PCA in Destin, Fla.

[1] The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, Volume 4: Ecclesiastical (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 156.

[2] Ibid., 161. Here it is anyway.