"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Staying PCA: A Confessional's Counterpoint to Webb's 5 Reasons.

Recently, PCA pastor Andy Webb posted “5 Reasons it might be time to leave the PCA” over at his blog “Building Old School Churches.” [http://biblebased.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/5-reasons-it-might-be-time-to-leave-the-pca/] and it has been republished at Aquila Report at:  http://theaquilareport.com/5-reasons-it-might-be-time-to-leave-the-presbyterian-church-in-america/
  The issues Webb wrestles with are many I have wrestled with in my admittedly shorter time in the PCA. And as I have wrestled, I have written. Thus, I have a respect for Andy Webb and his perspective and this does not intend to be a debate, but merely a counterpoint – another perspective on the issues that he raises here and why I come to different conclusions.
This article is partly working through these issues for myself, but also to any friends I have that are PCA and looking over fences to "greener pastures." Below, I offer a brief interaction with each point, as well as some positive points about the PCA.  Before you jump, let me attempt to dissuade you from jumping ship.
I do so as one who is a Confessional Pastor in the PCA. I took no exceptions to the Confession, meaning: I am an exegetical 6 ordinary day Creationist, I believe in an historical Adam who probably didn’t have a belly button, and my favorite self-identifier is the same as Derek Thomas’ self-appellation: a plain vanilla Calvinist. I believe in applying the Regulative Principle, and in the ordinary means of grace. I am amillenial and neither a Theonomist/Reconstructionist nor a full throated Two Kingdoms (or R2K or whatever) guy. If you want to know what I believe about doctrine open up the Confession. There it is.
So I am one that would be a possible sympathizer with Webb’s document, and his trajectory. However, at this time: I am not. Not because I am never against leaving, but because the reasons cited do not rise to the level of leaving and writing the proverbial “Ichabod” above the PCA’s door post. [1 Samuel 4:21]
I will interact with Webb’s points in reverse order:

  1. A Failure to Stand against Moral Compromise
This point seems vague enough that specific instances need to be cited to illustrate, and the specific instance cited is questionable. Of those close to the RUF Vanderbuilt situation, it appears the structure of RUF actually was not affected by the decision of the University. Other campus groups, which are actually less strong in their ecclesiology and do not use an ordained minister were effected in their student leadership, whereas RUF does not rely on student leadership. This fifth point seems to suggest that RUF should have given up local ministry to “make a statement” or stand in solidarity with other campus ministries. That's a judgment call, but the more I read about this situation, the more I am comfortable with RUF's decision here, and men I respect who worked with the details were also comfortable not abandoning the local ministry on this campus in order to make a statement.

  1. Failure to Maintain the Teaching of Scripture Regarding Six-Day Creation
I classify myself as an “exegetical Six-Day Creationist” and am glad that the Creation Study Report of the PCA took a decisive stand against theistic evolution. The Study report did not, however, disallow various “Old Earth creation” stances, for instance Day-Age, Analogical Days, and Framework perspectives. In this area, the PCA followed, in large part, the approach of the OPC.
I would merely say this is not a “make or break” issue for me. The PCA has rejected theistic evolution both by declaration and in discipline cases before the Standing Judicial Commission. Leaving a denomination over this issue (allowing Young and Old Earth Creation) would need to mean that to have an Old Earth perspective so perverts the Scriptures in interpretation to the point that it effectively rejects the Scriptures as plainly true (in a similar way that ignoring Paul’s instruction on women being teachers in the church in 1 Timothy 2 would). Although interpretation of Old Earth Creationism runs into several interpretative problems (death before the fall, etc), most will acknowledge these as unresolved matters, as the PCA position paper does.
This area, it may be also noted, is one that a particular presbytery may enforce as narrow as Young Earth only or as broad as the position paper. If you don’t think Old Earth ministers should be ordained, stop voting for them at presbytery. Argue against it at presbytery. Ask the presbytery to adopt a position paper. On many issues, we should stop thinking upper level first, and focus on our local areas of influence. Think Global, Act Local.
Note: If this is a make or break issue for you, you will also have to pass up as a home the Orthodox Presbyterian Church which has a similar approach and latitude on this issue.

  1. Failure to Safeguard the Sacraments
The practice of paedocommunion and intinction is disallowed by our Standards. However, both sides in each of these areas have falsely believed the arena for taking care of these infractions is to have the General Assembly talk a lot about it. If a minister knows of these practices taking place in their presbytery, they ought to go to those pastors and sessions first, gives some time for reformation and if it does not occur begin discipline at the presbytery level. This needs to start happening rather than having this discussion at General Assembly.
 I believe this being cited in this article reveals a confusion over process in the PCA. Some presbyteries have allowed paedocommunion as a conscience objection (the pastor personally believes it should be practiced), but not to be practiced by that pastor. Now, I see this as unwise and would not vote for someone taking exception in this area. Yet, if it is practiced in your presbytery by a church, see the previous paragraph. And if you want to see this exception no longer taken as an exception, vote against candidates who have it as an exception and encourage others to do so as well.

  1. Anarchy in Worship
Worship practices except for the Lord's Supper and Baptism are not dictated in the PCA’s Constitution. The “Directory of Worship” is not constitutionally enforceable in the PCA's Constitution and this has been the case as far as I can tell since the founding of the PCA. I agree with those that say this is quite unfortunate, although to rectify this, it would also take a revision of the “Directory of Worship” since it seems to easily have things stuck in it for years because no one reads or follows it anyway. Instead, each congregation is allowed great deference in their worship, which can look anything from traditional Confessionally Reformed, to Anglican, to Contemporary, to whatever.
Yet, this has always been the case in the PCA and those getting in the PCA knew this on the outset. In the PCA, the case for ordering worship is made by persuasion and Scripture, but not enforceable by discipline. This being the case, RPW types (such as myself) need to do two things: 1) Worship God in such a manner within this principle 2) Write and persuade others to do the same, not as a matter of preference but conviction. Perhaps a 3rd could be added in attempting to bring to constitutional enforcement the directory of worship.
Yet, again, we all knew in entering the PCA that worship is not a constitutional matter in the PCA, and thus this would be a reason for never becoming PCA rather than leaving. This is not an area that has changed, but has never been present. Semper Reformata. Let us reform it rather than abandon it.

  1. A Failure to Exercise Discipline.
This is the one area that causes me more pause and internal conflict. I was involved in the early process of brainstorming a response to the horrendous Leithart decision (I have no qualms calling that, since the decision was a travesty of ecclesial justice, theology and simple logic). Let me say further, and make no qualms even as I say this about something written by men I otherwise respect: The 5 page decision in the Leithart trial is an embarrassment to the PCA , Reformed theology, and all ministers in the PCA. [I recommend the dissent in the case to understand the errors of the decision] It needs to be repented of, and our process needs to be changed to make sure this does not happen again.
Yet, the question is this: now that the PCA has failed to discipline Leithart (and lets be fair: at least 3 other alleged Federal Visionists, 2 of these 4 cases being men who have signed the FV Joint Declaration): Does this case of failure to discipline mean that the PCA has lost the “Third Mark” of the Church in discipline?
Let me ask this about another instance: Did the OPC cease to be an expression of the visible church when it failed to discipline Norman Shepherd who taught the same doctrines as Leithart (in a more proto-FV form)? [Some details are different, but at the presbytery level, Shepherd was acquitted and transferred out of the OPC to the CRC later]
Also, does the PCA through the presbytery of Illiana get any redeeming marks for disciplining Burke Shade, who was in some ways the first PCA Federal Visionist, even with the expert testimony of Peter Leithart and Jeff Meyers defending him? Does Illiana protecting the doctrine of justification and baptism give any counterweight to Pacific Northwest, Missouri Presbytery and others failing to do so? My question is: has discipline died, or has it failed in these circumstances?
Yet, if it has failed, what is the alternative? It is as if one cancer treatment failed and we call for euthanasia. Perhaps the right course of action is
1)      Correcting procedures.
2)      Protecting our presbyteries (in examinations or like Evangel Presbytery refusing to let Federal Visionist Peter Leithartminister with approval in their presbytery borders).
3)      Writing and teaching persuasively against these doctrines.

                In all, of the 5 points, at least 3 I would also name as real problems within the PCA. Yet, is the diagnosis that the patient is
1)      well with a few minor problems,
2)      sick with major problems,
3)      perhaps terminally ill without intervention, or
4)      Dead?
I am alarmed enough especially by Reason 1: Failure to Discipline to sympathize with the diagnosis of a sick PCA (either option 2 or 3), but certainly not option 4. At least not yet.
The article about “5 reasons It may be Time to Leave the PCA” fails to convince on the particular reasons, but also fails to convince for me in providing principles to judge when to leave, or to acknowledge the positives of membership in the PCA.
I am happy to be in the PCA not merely because it’s not bad enough to leave, but because the PCA has positive qualities that attract me to it, and I find being within the PCA aids rather than hinders my ministry in connectional help, helpful oversight, and positive theology to offer a confused, sinful and dying world.
Let me offer then 10 brief positive Reasons that it may NOT be time to leave the PCA:

10 Brief Reasons that it may NOT be time to leave the PCA.

1.       The PCA is a largely faithful, Reformed, evangelizing denomination
Through PCA churches I have seen outreach, evangelism and a seriousness about the bible and theology. This is true in churches throughout the denomination. There are many encouraging things happening in the PCA, and we shouldn’t let the negative aspects discourage us from celebrating the work of missionaries, church planters, and faithful ministers and laypeople across the PCA.
2.       The grassroots nature of the PCA protects faithful congregations through every wind of new doctrine and fad.
Because the PCA in practice works from the ground up, with great latitude given to congregations, this curse can also be a blessing. Throughout fads and waves and winds of new doctrine, a local congregation can function in faithfulness until that wind passes.
The most important relationship of the local congregation, then, becomes not the relationship of the church to the General Assembly, but to the presbytery. This is truly the measure of whether one should stay or go. Is your church protected by faithful men at the presbytery level? Do you trust them in potential discipline cases? Will they reject unorthodox men heading towards your pulpit when you leave? If the answer to these questions is yes, known from years of relationships, then it very well not be time to risk a bad presbytery in a “good denomination” versus a good presbytery in a “bad denomination.”

3.       The PCA is much healthier than the PCUS it left in 1973.
The issues facing churches in the PCUS was a breakdown of fidelity to the Scriptures. This manifested itself in the debate over women’s ordination. This is a problem facing congregations even today in the RCA, CRC, and the EPC. Perhaps seeing other struggles in other denominations may put our debates over intinction and worship in perspective. Not to lessen the importance of fidelity to Scripture and God in all areas of life, but some areas must be admitted to be more black and white than others, and some issues are a matter of interpretation, and others over believing the bible. Are our issues over interpretation or over the authority of the Bible? I think more often than not, it is the former (interpretation), which is actually encouraging. I will take the controversies in the PCA over the controversies in the RCA or PCUSA or even the EPC any day of the week.

4.       The PCA has not sanctioned heresy or immorality
Although discipline has failed and will fail in a few instances, the PCA as a body does not endorse in position papers or generally accept: heretical views of the gospel, homosexuality, women’s ordination, fornication, errant views of the inerrancy of Scripture, or other gross errors.

5.       Non-confessionals burnout too.
Ligon Duncan’s chapter in “Risking the Truth,” ends with this advice for combatting error in the church: “We must out-live, out-rejoice, out-love, out-preach, out-serve and out-die the false teachers and errorists.” [Risking the Truth. Pg 202] The longer I see these debates, the more I grow to see this advice as supremely wise. What do you think of when you think of a conservative Presbyterian? Is it a loving, rejoicing, persevering, effective preaching, service oriented and boldly life giving person? If not, why not?
Yet, if we look around the PCA, less-than-confessional pastors often do not last long, in my observations. Conservatives are not the only ones who bolt a denomination, despite the common complaint: “We are always the ones that leave.” Quite a few pastors have left for the less restrictive EPC lately. Some have left the ministry. Those with really bad theology, as I have noticed, cannot help but have their heterodoxy produce immorality, and a few have left over moral reasons/failures.
It is not immediate, it is not sexy, but outlasting heterodox agitators may be one of the best ways to affect faithfulness in the PCA.    

6.       Liberals may not be as liberal as you think
Every progressive PCA Teaching Elder I have met would be too conservative to be ordained in the PCUSA.  Many “progressives” have ordinary means services like the conservatives. The theological range in the PCA is much smaller than some would imagine, and one should talk with those you may label as liberal to discover: What do we really disagree about? Perhaps it is like the Charles Hodge versus the New Schoolers: His problem was not so much with what they confessed but what they tolerated. Thus, perhaps the major conversation that needs to happen, one-on-one, is the necessity of discipline, and discipline as an act of love (Hebrews 12:5-6), and the lack of discipline as hate and violence against sheep and shepherds.  A major problem in the PCA may be a low view of discipline, which instruction and conviction in this one area could do much towards the health of the denomination.

7.       Leaving would make the PCA less healthy.
This should be obvious, and Andy Webb said as much in this earlier article: http://theaquilareport.com/an-open-letter-to-james-kessler-and-the-leaders-of-the-national-partnership/

8.       Lack of good alternatives
As a northerner and confessionalist, I find myself with great affinity for the OPC, but several of reasons Andy Webb cites would preclude joining the OPC, the next biggest conservative Presbyterian denomination, including creation and discipline issues. The other alternatives are either extremely small, premillennial, fundamentalist, exclusive psalmity or a capella, or have their own unique problems, or some combination of the above. That is, unless one is exclusive psalmody, there are few alternatives outside the PCA and OPC for a confessionalist to go, and if your reasons are problems within the OPC, then do you start a new denomination?

9.       Starting a new denomination is hard and expensive.
Study the history RIGHT AFTER the split of the PCA and the OPC from the mainlines. Note how many agencies worked to create momentum, publish books, publish curriculum, host meetings and general assembly and travel expenses, etc. This is not to say new denominations may not be necessary at certain times in history (i.e. the OPC and PCA thought so), but is this such a time?
Not to mention other questions with the founding of a new denomination: What new boundaries or mechanisms would stop trends that happen in the PCA? Would you be welcome in the new denomination another person wants? New denominations are necessarily strict in some areas and not in others. Who decides this time? Can you tolerate someone with other convictions in a new denomination in what you sing, how you interpret the OT law, or how certain elements of worship are done?

10.   Is leaving the easy way out?
Are the problems in the PCA worth leaving over, or are they worth attempting to be good churchmen and fixing over the period of years of not merely voting in GA, but working locally, taking in interns, faithful shepherding your congregation and working towards renewal and repentance and growth in your own local church and presbytery? Do we find it easier to write “Ichabod” above the PCA than to do the work of reformation and local ministry?

If you are leaving, I think there may be no better resource for thinking through this than Kevin DeYoung. He is a minister facing many of these questions at present and gives good counsel about principles, grace in leaving and warmth in deciding:

For an individual member:

For a denomination:
I’d recommend listening to this, especially when DeYoung talks about life int he RCA or when the other minster talks about leaving the Episcopal church:

All this is not to say that I aim to keep my head down and ignore these issues. I aim to go to every presbytery meeting possible and every General Assembly I can attend. I intend to make good and honest relationships with as many people in the denomination as possible and talk about being a confessional church. I intend to listen as well as speak about my positions, and read and keep learning. I intend to ask questions of ministerial candidates dealing with FV, creation, and their will to discipline.
 At the end of reading “Risking the Truth” by Martin Downes  about doctrinal controversies in the church, (an invaluable resource to any PCA minister) my conviction was this: It is better to be involved, dialogue, and work towards good ends rather than agitating to leave the denomination. The PCA is not at, or even extremely close to, a point where I am wanting to leave. This is not to predict the future that such a time may come in 5, 10, 20 or even 50 years. But that time is not now.
The PCA has the gospel, practices the two Christ-ordained Sacraments, and exercises discipline, though like all churches, ebbs and flows between “more or less pure” as the confession puts it. The PCA is my home, and it will take more than cited to make me leave. Now, if I get evicted…that’s another story…

Respectfully with much love in Christ,

Pastor Jared Nelson
New Life Presbyterian
Hopewell Township, PA

[update: Andy Webb has clarified a few of his points, I add them here without comment: http://biblebased.wordpress.com/2014/05/14/clarifying-addendum-to-5-reasons-it-might-be-time-to-leave-the-pca/  ]