Westminster is a biblical, robust, and clear confession of the Reformed faith. Sadly, I fear that the PCA’s toleration of diverse practices which are not necessarily Reformed has now degenerated into a toleration of diverse doctrines which are in no way Reformed. The Federal Vision (FV) controversy has served to directly test the PCA’s confessional fidelity. Is the PCA confessional in a meaningful way – or not?
I am grateful for the PCA. I am also grieved by the confessional state of the PCA. This is my ambivalence as I say goodbye to the PCA, after nearly 12 years of pastoral ministry.
I am grateful for the focus on missions in the PCA – foreign missions, church planting, and campus ministry. When my family joined the PCA in 1997, Trinity Presbyterian in Providence, RI was a re-plant. When I was ordained to Gospel ministry in 2003, it was with a view to planting a daughter church of Trinity in Wakefield, RI. Christ Our Hope PCA was planted in 2004, and organized in 2009.
I am grateful for the families who have been part of Christ Our Hope PCA over the years. These were willing to forego programs and facilities to worship God, hear the Gospel, and receive the Lord’s Supper each Lord’s Day in a town recreation building. I am grateful for the three faithful elders the Lord provided to shepherd this little flock.
I have been privileged to serve in the Southern New England Presbytery – and to labor with fathers and brothers committed to planting new Gospel-preaching churches throughout the region, expanding campus ministry, and supporting foreign missions. I was privileged to serve on the Reformed University Ministries permanent committee, and get an overview of this remarkable, growing work of campus ministry. For these men and ministries, I am grateful.
I am grateful for the PCA. I am also grieved by the confessional state of the PCA. On paper the PCA is Reformed. Its church officers do not subscribe to a minimalist statement of faith, but to the Westminster Standards – a biblical, robust, and clear confession of the Reformed faith. Westminster confesses that God Himself has revealed the acceptable way of worshiping Him, as prescribed by Holy Scripture. This has been called the regulative principle of worship (RPW). As far as Westminster is concerned, there is a worship that is biblical, Reformed, Christ-mediated, and God-honoring. Historically, this produced a unity of worship, and even a remarkable degree of uniformity among Westminster subscribing churches.
In the PCA, this is not the case – and probably never was. In fact, many praise its diversity in worship practices as a virtue. Worship in some PCA churches may look broadly evangelical, even quasi-charismatic, but not distinctively and necessarily Reformed. In the name of being “missional,” some churches craft their worship in an effort to be “relevant” and reach a particular demographic niche. Practically, for them, the RPW has been reinterpreted as the “relevant principle of worship.” Other churches may adopt more “traditional” liturgy. Not because it is biblical, but also for pragmatic considerations, to reach or cater to another particular demographic. Some influenced by the Federal Vision movement may go in the higher church direction – using vestments and a more ceremonial liturgy – embracing an idiosyncratic worship that is not Reformed (nor Lutheran nor Anglican for that matter). Still other PCA churches seek to be intentionally Reformed (i.e., biblically regulated) in their worship. And so worship in the PCA is like Forrest Gump’s philosophy of life: it’s a “box-o’ chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get.” As far as I have seen, however, church officers who do not uphold Reformed worship do not take exception to what Westminster confesses about Reformed worship.
So in the PCA, Reformed faith does not consistently translate into Reformed practice, especially in worship. This bothered my conscience for some time. How can the PCA claim to subscribe to Westminster regarding worship and so often ignore what it confesses? Over the years, however, I took comfort from the PCA’s commitment to missions at home, overseas, and on campus. At least we preach and aim to propagate the Gospel, while we hold to the Reformed faith (for the most part). Recently, however, this comfort has been lost for me.
Again, Westminster is a biblical, robust, and clear confession of the Reformed faith. Sadly, I fear that the PCA’s toleration of diverse practices which are not necessarily Reformed has now degenerated into a toleration of diverse doctrines which are in no way Reformed. The Federal Vision (FV) controversy has served to directly test the PCA’s confessional fidelity. Is the PCA confessional in a meaningful way – or not?
At first, there was encouragement. A study committee was erected. They did a fine job of pointing out where various FV teachings cannot be reconciled to Westminster. They also charitably acknowledged that not everyone sympathetic to FV holds to all of its idiosyncratic mutations (the last two words are my characterization, not theirs!).
Study committees, however, are not binding – only advisory. It is up to PCA presbyteries to hold ministers accountable. Would they? Well, two of the most prominent FV proponents in the PCA, Jeffrey Meyers and Peter Leithart, were tried and exonerated by their respective presbyteries. Leithart’s exoneration was complained against – and yet the Standing Judicial Commission of the PCA’s General Assembly upheld that exoneration on procedural grounds.
Were these men exonerated because their FV teachings can be reconciled to Westminster? Let’s survey Westminster v. FVism to compare:
- Westminster is bi-covenantal – it confesses from Scripture the covenant of works (Law) and the covenant of grace (Gospel); FVists promote various degrees of “mono-covenantalism” and so confuse Law and Gospel.
- Westminster confesses the perseverance of the saints – those united to Christ will never be lost; FVists teach that all those who are baptized are united to Christ spiritually, but can fall away and lose their salvation if they don’t persevere in “covenant faithfulness.”
- Westminster confesses that the efficacy of baptism is not necessarily tied to the moment in which it is administered – the grace promised is given only to the elect in God’s appointed time; FVists teach that baptism is always efficacious when administered, and its gracious benefits are given to all the baptized, who can then lose those benefits. (At his presbytery trial, Leithart said he was essentially Lutheran in his view of baptism – which would indisputably contradict Westminster’s view on that matter; or so you’d think.)
- Westminster confesses that those who would partake of the Lord’s Supper in a worthy manner must discern the Lord’s body, be conscious of their faith to feed upon Him, etc; FVists commune infants and / or small children who cannot yet fulfill these biblical requirements.
- Westminster confesses a distinction between the visible church (all those who profess the true religion and their children) and the invisible church (the elect only); FVists deny this distinction.
- Westminster confesses the RPW; FVists tend to advocate a highly ceremonial liturgy, which includes the use of clerical vestments (albs & stoles) & an extensive liturgical calendar.
- Westminster confesses the imputation of Christ’s righteousness/obedience to the believer; FVists deny or demur on the imputation of Christ’s active obedience.
- Westminster confesses justification by faith alone; FVists undermine “faith alone” – and Leithart even goes so far as to say, “Covenant faithfulness [which includes works] is the way of salvation, for the doers of the law will be justified at the final judgment.”
The last point indicates how high the stakes are – the Gospel itself is directly undermined by the FV. Leithart’s formulation would be more at home in Rome than Westminster. And yet Leithart and Meyers remain ministers in good standing in the PCA. If either of them should leave to more honestly align themselves with a like-minded body (CREC comes to mind), that would hardly be a victory for confessional fidelity in the PCA. The fact remains: the PCA refused to discipline ministers who clearly contradict the Standards to which they subscribe. As a result, the PCA has tolerated their corruption of “the doctrine of the standing or falling church,” justification by faith alone. I say the “PCA” has done this, because it is a connectional denomination. According to PCA polity, the actions of one court of the PCA are the actions of the whole church (cf. BCO 11-4). Make no mistake, the PCA exonerated Meyers and Leithart – not “that” presbytery, or “that” SJC. And this grieves my conscience. If the PCA can flex Westminster to accommodate not only non-Reformed practice, but now the anti-Reformed, Gospel-corrupting doctrines of the FV, then the PCA as a whole is no longer meaningfully confessional.
Ultimately, though, my confessional concerns translate into pastoral concerns. Presbyters (elders) are supposed to protect the flock from potential wolves, especially those who would speak twisted things and cause the sheep spiritual harm. Because the PCA has failed to be meaningfully confessional, it has failed to be faithfully pastoral in protecting the flock.
Yes, there are still confessionally committed churches and officers in the PCA. I appreciate and respect these churches and men. But these are more the exception, not the rule. Yes, you can still be confessional in the PCA – but in my view, only if you accept an increasingly marginalized existence. Anecdotally, I have heard the rhetoric change among some of the confessional men in the PCA. Ten plus years ago, they were fighting for the heritage and identity of the PCA as a confessional church (although these matters of heritage and identity were disputed by others from the beginning). But in fact, sadly, these confessional men have lost every important battle over the years. They lost on Westminster’s language regarding creation “in the space of six days.” They lost on confessional subscription. And where the rubber (a solid study committee report) meets the road (actually holding errant ministers accountable to Westminster), the tires blew out. They lost on the FV.
So now, some of these men seem to have changed their tune. “Well, as long as I am not hassled for my confessional commitments in the PCA, I see no reason to leave. At least I can be a testimony to confessional Presbyterianism. Besides, if the ‘conservatives’ leave, the PCA will slide into rank apostasy.” Isn’t that an admission that the PCA as a whole is not substantially confessional? Maybe it never was. Maybe the PCA was founded by confessional men and not-so-confessional men – the latter being made up not only of “progressives” who trespass confessional boundaries, but also the moderates who tolerate them. Maybe the not-so-confessional men have been the majority report for some time now. Maybe that’s why “good faith” subscription won the day. Maybe that’s why Leithart and Meyers are A-OK in the PCA.
Why has it come to this in the PCA? Has zeal for missional relevance and success trumped confessional faithfulness? Is there a hubristic assumption that the denomination can have “influence” by its presence in the wider culture and/or evangelical community – but only if it’s not so precise about its doctrine? What kind of influence does the PCA hope to have? Is the PCA borrowing evangelical methodology to showcase a Reformed theology it’s not so sure about after all? Is the PCA embarrassed to hold ordained men accountable to its Standards because these men are appreciated outside of the denomination? Or maybe it’s good old fashioned fear of man: Are elders afraid to look a fellow presbyter in the eye and say, “What you teach is unbiblical, Gospel-subverting, anti-confessional, and pastorally harmful to the Church; for your sake and the sake of the flock, dear brother (charitably speaking), please repent”?
I am grateful for the PCA’s zeal for the Great Commission. However, my conscience is grieved about the confessional state of the PCA. Therefore I am leaving the PCA, to seek to minister the Gospel with a clear conscience in a confessionally robust Reformed context. By the grace and providence of God, I will serve as an interim minister at Covenant United Reformed Church in Colorado Springs, CO. If the Lord wills, this may lead to a regular call there. Of course, there are no perfect denominations or federations. But according to Westminster’s biblical doctrine of the visible church, there are “more pure” and “less pure” churches. In the URCNA, officers subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity because they agree with the Word of God. Reformed faith and practice are not divorced, but the former necessarily shapes the latter. Not only is the FV repudiated on paper, but I have confidence that the URCNA will not provide a safe haven for the anti-Reformed, Gospel-corrupting doctrines of the FV.
I still appreciate the PCA, and I will continue to pray for it. May Christ, the Head of His Church in heaven and on earth, grant us all a zeal not only to make disciples of all nations, but to do so by faithfully teaching them everything He has commanded – as we also contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. For my part, I am convinced this faith is most faithfully summarized in the Reformed confessions. I believe this faith is worth defending against those who would distort or deny it – especially to protect the flock of God from spiritual harm. Sadly, I am no longer persuaded that these confessional and pastoral convictions predominate in the PCA.
Tony Phelps until recently had served as a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America for twelve years; as of February 1, 2015 he is seeking to transfer to the United Reformed Church (URC) and is serving as the interim pastor of Covenant United Reformed Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado.