It is very easy to conclude that a spiritual cancer has been in the body too long and that there does not appear to be anything that those who are committed to God’s Word can do. We have tried and we have failed. Certainly, God can do something to heal the cancer, if He chooses. But the future of the denomination outside a miraculous intervention is bleak.
In May of 2000 I was attending a Reformed pastor’s conference in Ohio when it was announced that Dr. James Montgomery Boice had just been diagnosed with stage four cancer. It had only just been detected but by that time the cancer was beyond anything the doctors could do to stop its destructive spread. Dr. Boice preached his last sermon shortly after and within a few months of this announcement at the conference he was gone from this world.
The story might have had a different ending had the Lord in His providence made the cancer known at a stage at which something could have been done by doctors. But by the time the cancer was discovered, it was simply too late. The devastation worked by the cancer in his body had gone too long untreated.
This could be a kind of analogy of the state of things in the Presbyterian Church in America. It is very easy to conclude that a spiritual cancer has been in the body too long and that there does not appear to be anything that those who are committed to God’s Word can do. We have tried and we have failed. Certainly, God can do something to heal the cancer, if He chooses. But the future of the denomination outside a miraculous intervention is bleak.
And I have to be honest, in thinking through all that has gone on in the past three years in the PCA, and especially in light of the past few months, this is the question that I have asked myself. What are we to do?
I do not know the answer. But if we are to face the problem head on, we have to be honest about the current state of the church – about the problems that exist. And as I have considered this, I see three major problems.
First, we made a major tactical error in giving the General Assembly’s power as a judicial court to the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC).
One of the significant aspects of Presbyterian government is that there are three courts of elders. Sessions of churches, presbyteries, and General Assembly each function as a court, or at least they originally did. And it is a good system. The next highest court can always be appealed to when there has been a failure or perceived failure of the lower court to render the biblically correct decision. This provides a check on lower courts that begin to move toward liberal views of Scripture, or that begin to tolerate or accept immoral behavior among their members. Ultimately, the General Assembly would have the last say in doctrinal and moral issues.
But in 1988, the elders of the PCA turned this power of judgment over to 24 elders. And in so doing, set up the seemingly impossible situation in which we find ourselves today. Had the overtures from Central Georgia, Savannah River, and Southeast Alabama requesting the assumption of original jurisdiction been considered directly by the General Assembly itself, TE Greg Johnson may have been charged for holding views regarding same-sex attraction that were alleged to be contrary to the Westminster Standards. It is conceivable that the PCA would not be in the circumstances we find ourselves today.
I was not in the denomination when the Standing Judicial Commission was created (I was in the Presbyterian Church, USA [PCUSA] at the time, watching it crumble), though I am sure the arguments for establishing the SJC centered around practicality, efficiency, and logistics. But whatever the reasons, it was done, and despite the fact that the Book of Church Order (BCO) says that the General Assembly is the highest court, that is, unfortunately, not precisely the case. The highest judicial court is a group of 24 elders that act, think, and judge for the rest of us. There is the perception among some that the SJC is sadly out of line with the majority of PCA elders.
It could be argued that this has left us with a kind of episcopal/presbyterian hybrid, rather than a pure presbyterian system of government. And that is, unfortunately, more conducive to a liberal trajectory than a conservative one.
I personally think that the BCO needs to be amended back to the pre-1988 version as a necessary grassroots “check and balance” on those who would seek to change policy by judicial fiat rather than by action of the General Assembly. The question is, can this past revision of the BCO be reversed? Or would slightly over one third of the elders who voted against the proposed amendments 23 and 37 prevent any movement to restore the GA to the highest court in every respect?
Second, we did not have the foresight to amend the BCO to exclude current false doctrines or false teachers when it would have been easily achievable.
The proposed amendments 23 and 37 recently defeated by vote of the presbyteries, could have with some insight been easily passed years ago, but they were not introduced. Some might argue that men like TE Johnson and those espousing “Side B” views could not have been anticipated earlier, but that just isn’t correct. The argument for ordaining “gay-but-celibate ministers” has been around since at least the 1980’s in other denominations that were becoming increasingly liberal. Nevertheless, the elders of the PCA (conservative as they were) did not anticipate that this heresy could or would infiltrate the PCA. But it did. And, sadly, now that it has reared its ugly head, the numbers of those espousing the heresy, and the presbyteries following this, even though not a majority, appear to have become too many to overcome.
Finally, there appear to be among some PCA’s elders a loss of commitment to the biblical doctrines as expressed in The Westminster Confession of Faith.
By far the chief problem, when it comes down to absolute basics, is that many in the PCA appear no longer to be convinced that the Westminster Confession of Faith is an a clear exposition of biblical doctrine.
There appear to be some who do not view regeneration as taught in the Confession, as evidenced by their teachings on “Side B” theology. They argue, in spite of Scripture to the contrary, and in spite of historical and contemporary examples, that God cannot change someone’s sexual orientation. TE Johnson make this as clear in his December 21, 2021 USA Today article. But this expression is a denial of the Confessional doctrine of regeneration, or at least a serious denigrating of it. Either way it is not orthodox.
Moreover, there are elders in the PCA who appear to have softened in their views of homosexuality in general. We have elders who would not go so far as to perform a “gay wedding,” but they would have no problem attending a “gay wedding” (as a part of affirming the persons without affirming the practice). But no one among the Reformers or Westminster Puritans, or any number of other men committed to Scripture in the past would ever have countenanced such an inconsistency. In fact, had any such accommodation been suggested in the Old Testament church, or any part of the church through the first part of the 20th century, the one who attempted to justify it would have been subject to discipline by the assembly. The idea of a “homosexual marriage” would have been so alien to God’s people from the beginning that they would not have been able to justify it on any kind of biblical grounds. It would have been to them like someone attempting to justify attending a ceremony in which a pagan friend was offering a child to Molech, just to “support” his pagan friend, or to “love him while not loving the sin.” That would rightfully have been considered a total accommodation to the perverse practice. And yet when it comes to “gay marriages” we have PCA elders who cannot see that they are doing the same thing. And the problem is that they just don’t see this sin as detestable anymore. That reflects a dangerously low view of biblical ethics.
Others, whether they know it or not, have adopted the theology of Charles Finney. This is why there is so much compromise when it comes to evangelism and apologetics. Too many in the denomination (despite what they may say) believe that we are the ones who convince people to become Christians. That has led them to conclude that our accommodation to culture, or alignment with the world’s academic community, or winsomeness, or non-offensiveness is necessary for us to draw people to Christ. If we just push the right buttons, we can convince people to turn to Christ. Some will not say explicitly that this is what they believe, but it has become their philosophy. Not surprisingly, TE Johnson actually espouses this theology publicly, as evidenced in his most recent book. But some in the PCA, whether they state it in clear terms or not, have espoused this man-centered approach to evangelism.
I would further argue that we actually have theological liberals in our denomination. One conservative fellow minister in the PCA in a recent article stated that “there are no theological liberals in the PCA,” but I respectfully disagree with that statement.
There are serious liberals in our denomination. They applauded an elder who got up and made an emotional speech devoid of any Scripture, and the next day voted to censure an elder “for intemperate speech” who simply read Romans chapter 1. They did not like the implications of that biblical text. They wanted to avoid it. And that is exactly what liberalism does. In fact, that is where all liberalism begins, downplaying if not rejecting, Scripture.
But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Other elders in the denomination, and some prominent ones, reject what the Scriptures (and the Westminster Confession of Faith) clearly teach about creation, holding instead parts of the theory of evolution. And this is a serious problem. This is exactly what the liberals in all denominations (including the PCUS) believed. Creation ex nihilo by the Word of God is fundamental to the biblical system.
It all comes down to one’s view of Scripture. And there are some in the PCA whose views of Scripture simply do not line up with orthodoxy. The “theology” of some in the PCA is more culturally or personality driven. Their emphasis follows the world’s view of racism, justice, equality, and, as is becoming clearer, sexuality. And wasn’t this exactly the problem with the liberals within the PCUS so many years ago – and the PCUSA now?
It may be true that no one in the PCA identifies as a liberal. They may not see themselves as that. But the proof is seen in the doctrines they reject. In a previous article on sexuality, I referred to progressives within the PCA. One teaching elder in my own presbytery, who claims to be progressive, responded to the article by denying that there are any progressives in the denomination. That surprised me initially, but in retrospect it makes sense. Progressives, at least in the early stages of their personal evolution, do not want to be identified as such. But that does not change the fact that they actually are progressive.
That is the state of the PCA as I see it. Does this mean that nothing can be done? That I cannot say for sure. Certainly, God can change hearts and minds. None of us doubt that. So we pray. But God also expects those who believe His Word to take serious action. Perhaps one biblical example will make the point.
In Joshua 7-8 recounts the defeat of Israel’s army by the men of the small city of Ai. They had just seen Jericho collapse by God’s power, but here God had allowed them to fail. Not surprisingly, Joshua fell on his knees and prayed for hours. And what was God’s response? “Get up! Why have you fallen on your face? Israel has sinned.” That was followed by God telling Joshua, “I will be with you no more” if you do not root out the evil (or evil person) from the camp. Prayer is obviously good. But praying leads to action when there is sin that needs to be rooted out.
That is where we are today in the PCA. Decisive action is needed. What that action will be is a matter for serious consideration by all elders in the PCA who are committed to the Scriptures. What would God have us to do?
David Martin is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of Dayspring PCA in Forsyth, Ga.