You Reap What You Sow: The PCA’s Internal Difficulties and Membership Losses
Hopefully I am wrong on that point, but to pivot back from the hypothetical to the real, the fact remains that the PCA, like the broader church in America, is not flourishing at the moment and is beset with real problems. If we wish to receive God’s blessing, we shall have to rely on his strength (Jn. 15:5) and submit to his requirements. And that means, as I have said above, that we cannot allow serious public wrongdoing to go unpunished, lest we also incur his wrath
There are many frustrating characteristics about the modern world, one of which is the tendency for people to needlessly complicate things. Anyone who has worked for a large corporation will know what I mean. Suppose that department A has failed to meet its goals because one of its employees has become unreliable and been slack in completing his work. The obvious remedy would be for leadership to pull the slacker aside and tell him that his performance is unacceptable and must promptly improve, or else he will be replaced.
But that is not how most corporations work. Instead of dealing with the troublemaker directly, leadership will call an all-department meeting to discuss the problem, thus taking the productive employees away from their work, dodging the real issue, and putting the department even farther behind. The meeting itself will take any of a variety of forms. Probably it will be suggested that the failure is that of the whole department and everyone will have to hear a lecture about how they need to ‘prioritize’ and work harder to get done what needs accomplished. The people who are working diligently will resent being taken away from their work to get berated about someone else’s wrongdoing, their relations with leadership and the slacker will deteriorate, morale will plummet, and the department will be even farther from accomplishing its goals. The slacker will either a) be oblivious to the fact that all of this talk about working harder is meant for him; or b) realize it is meant for him but not care because he is a selfish, dishonest person who does not care about how his behavior affects others.
Another possibility is that the whole situation will be seized as an ‘opportunity’ for management to lobby for something they want like increased staffing, or else for them to spend much time talking about how department processes need to be improved to increase efficiency. At no point will the attention, authority, and power of leadership be brought to bear on the troublemaker. Anyone who dares to suggest the problem is with a particular person rather than the collective department or its processes, tools, etc. will be promptly silenced and chided for ‘rocking the boat,’ ‘not being a team player,’ or some other trite corporate jargon, and will be solemnly told to ‘be positive.’
That response, so common in the workplace, is essentially that of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) as regards her internal difficulties. For some time now there has been a tendency to normalize and make acceptable the experience of certain unmentionable sexual desires by failing to meaningfully combat them. The matter has been debated, discussed, studied, and investigated for almost five years now with an enormous quantity of words. Missouri Presbytery’s reports on Greg Johnson and Revoice contain about 145,000 words (combined), while the 2021 “Human Sexuality Report” is another 30,000 or so. For comparison, the New Testament is about 138,000 words in Greek.
Now I say that all of this excess of time and words has been in great measure an endeavor in dodging the essential issue. Whatever the merits of its formal content, as a method of responding to something that has unsettled the church it has been as tedious and misdirected as the typical corporate response mentioned above. It carefully skirted the root issue and did not hold the offender to account.
And its results have been the same as in a corporation. In the workplace the strained relationships, bad morale, and culture of no accountability for wrongdoing persist even if the original instigator eventually leaves the company. In our case the original instigator of the church’s severe disruption of peace and purity left voluntarily, but the disruption persists and threatens to fester for the foreseeable future in the form of factions, continued debates and overtures at the General Assembly and presbytery levels, and in a general atmosphere of wide-ranging public disagreement.
In the workplace the result of a persistently bad culture is that many employees tire of carrying more than their share of work and of seeing brazen laziness go unrestrained. Many of them reduce their own productivity in response, and many of them leave the company in search of a more disciplined work environment. Bad employees degrade and drive out good ones, in other words.
We seem to be witnessing a similar result. People are leaving the PCA in significant numbers, both as individuals and as churches. A review of the denomination’s most recent five-year summary shows as much when combined with external demographic data. In the 2018-2021 period the PCA baptized 31,070 people. Assuming, what is admittedly imperfect, that our death rate for those years was the same as the national age-adjusted death rate as reported in the CDC’s annual mortality briefs, we lost about 11,890 members to glory in that period. Thus, while our aggregate membership declined by 6,404 from 2018 to 2021, our actual membership loss was almost triple that, and there were about 19,180 people who theoretically should have been in our fold in 2021 who were not. Absent such a membership loss, our actual membership in 2021 would’ve been about 5.1% higher than it was.
I will not be so churlish as to suggest that all of this loss has been a protest against the PCA’s ineffectiveness in maintaining discipline, since there are obviously other possible causes and since there is no way of knowing for certain how much loss is due to what particular causes. Still, there is reason to think that much of that loss is due to people giving up on the denomination and dismissing it as hopelessly ineffective and compromised by worldliness. I have a fair bit of correspondence from people who have done so, and there are other things, including the denominational grapevine and testimonies published at this site, which indicate the same. Indeed, the top three most read Aquila Report stories of 2020 were about people leaving and the newly-forming, independent Vanguard Presbytery, which shows where the attention of at least one segment of the denomination’s membership is focused.
What then should be done in response? First, we must recognize that our current problems are attributable to specific people, not defects in our internal organizational arrangements. It will do precisely no good whatever to amend the Book of Church Order if presbyteries and churches can flaunt it with impunity by ‘creatively complying’ with it or appealing to its (imagined) ‘lack of clarity’ and tying any objections to their disobedience up in years of committee debates, studies, and reports, and in painstakingly slow judicial processes.
Wrongdoers must be confronted and exhorted to repentance, and if this fails the matter must be pursued further, including the institution of formal process against them. It is every elder’s sworn duty to combat serious error (BCO 21-5, 24-6) – such a thing is inherent in maintaining the purity and peace of the church. By serious error I do not mean differences of opinion regarding worship style, whether or not a church has a Sunday evening service, etc. I mean wrongdoing like was involved in some of the deeds of Memorial Presbyterian in St. Louis, like giving practical aid to things that promote such a destructive social phenomenon as sexual confusion, as well as things like slander, blasphemy, rebellion, and unholy public speech. Such egregious wrong must be opposed – a little leaven leavens the whole lump (Gal. 5:9) – or the PCA is certain to fall into apostasy. There seems to have been some of this one-on-one confrontation already, but there needs to be more of it, and we must not content ourselves was hoping that people who disagree concerning things like sexual morality will leave the denomination of their own volition.
Lastly, the time is right to slow our ordination of teaching elders. From 2018 to 2021 the denomination’s number of teaching elders, candidates, and licentiates increased by 208 (4.2%), 167 (31.1%), and 30 (15.6%), respectively, while our total number of churches only increased by 21 (1.3%), missions dropped by 37 (-10.4%), and membership decreased 6,404 (-1.7%). Maybe some of that is due to more teaching elders serving out of bounds in domestic or foreign missions, but a review of recent general assembly minutes did not suggest, insofar as they are able, that such a thing is to account for most of the difference. In any event, my correspondence from presbyteries that rejected overtures like 23 and 15 concerning fitness for office tells me that the failure was due to the opposition of teaching elders where many ruling elders were in favor. Should we then create more such officers when our membership is declining, our churches are increasing only slightly, and their seminary education seems to place them pretty reliably to the left of our ruling elders and membership?
If I am right that the inclinations of our leaders are essentially the same as those of leaders in corporate America, they would answer with an unequivocal ‘yes,’ and I suspect that I can anticipate their larger response. The loss of members and slow growth of churches just prove that we need to put all that much more effort into church planting. And as for the losses, they are probably largely due to COVID and will settle out in a year or two. Sure, some people have some exaggerated concerns owing to ‘gossip outlets’ and fundamentalist fear-mongering, and a few people have perhaps left on that account. But such people simply didn’t believe in the vision, had bad attitudes that negatively impacted the rest of us, and have plenty of other places they can go like the Bible Presbyterian Church and whatnot. All these lost people that we are winning with our beautiful orthodoxy and winsome, contextualized, nuanced, and culturally-competent missions will make up for the loss of the naysayers, so we should view all of this as an opportunity to invest more in our denominational agencies and programs, be even more ambitious in our missions goals, accelerate our diversity initiatives, and maybe even consider whether this proves that deaconesses and other practical and constitutional innovations are in order.
Hopefully I am wrong on that point, but to pivot back from the hypothetical to the real, the fact remains that the PCA, like the broader church in America, is not flourishing at the moment and is beset with real problems. If we wish to receive God’s blessing, we shall have to rely on his strength (Jn. 15:5) and submit to his requirements. And that means, as I have said above, that we cannot allow serious public wrongdoing to go unpunished, lest we also incur his wrath (1 Sam. 2:12-27; Rev. 2:14-16, 20-23). Especially is this the case with those who hold office and have sworn to maintain the church’s purity, for this word stands: “If you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin” (Deut. 23:21). If we will not be true to our vows and maintain our own standards in our own midst, I see no reason to think that he will bless us in our efforts to expand or plant new churches. It takes but a little sin to besmirch much righteousness (Ecc. 9:18). One man sparing what is devoted to destruction brought defeat to the whole nation of Israel (Josh. 7). One man’s census brought calamity on the whole of Israel (2 Sam. 24). And of course, a single act of rebellion plunged our whole race into ruin in Eden. And as I review our denomination’s state and deeds – again, see the last few paragraphs and links here – I think we have more to anger God than a little hidden contraband or an ill-advised census.
Tom Hervey is a member of Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church, Five Forks (Simpsonville), SC. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not of necessity reflect those of his church or its leadership or other members. He welcomes comments at the email address provided with his name.