…that for the PCA to allow its ministers to teach their own doctrine alongside of its official doctrine would be to lay the groundwork of its own destruction as a confessional denomination, the assertion of multiple doctrines serving to engender confusion and to allow the official position on many matters to be crowded out by the alternatives. For now, it is enough to see that this is another dubious attempt to shift the blame for the denomination’s present troubles away from that faction which is anxious to keep in step with the culture and to lay it at the feet of others who dare object to the said faction’s methods and desires.
Dr. David Cassidy, pastor of Spanish River Presbyterian in Florida, recently wrote an essay, “PCA at the Crossroads”, in which he denies there are any problems with disunity in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) save those caused by some people raising false alarms about “theological declension.” He denies that there are any progressives in the PCA and regards any suggestions to the contrary as slanderous. He exults in the PCA’s diversity of practice and asserts that good faith subscription is essential to the denomination’s continued effectiveness. In his first section he says:
Looking back, men like Kennedy Smartt, Frank Barker, Francis Schaeffer, James Kennedy . . . and many others were not only deeply Reformed but also broadly evangelical, and resistant to fundamentalist impulses.
Lay aside the dubious name dropping and note that claim that such men were “resistant to fundamentalist impulses.” Fundamentalism is a bête noire of progressives, and disparaging it is nearly the first thing that Cassidy does – yet he assures us that neither he nor anyone else in the PCA is progressive, this progressive rhetoric notwithstanding.
Regarding progressivism, Cassidy writes:
Using that word about fellow PCA ministers is an abuse of the language and little more than Humpty Dumpty verbicide.
And then continues, after a mistaken literary allusion:
This is all part of a wider project to redefine what “conservative” and “subscription” mean in order to reset the boundaries of what is allowable in PCA.
Note that Cassidy does what he accuses others of doing by redefining a word for polemic use. He thinks it unfair for others to call his faction progressives, but he is glad to intimate his opponents have “fundamentalist impulses.”
What Cassidy objects to is progressive being used in an absolute sense to describe both people who deny orthodox teaching as well as people like him. I concur that it is improper to use progressive to refer to a contemporary school of heterodoxy, and that it is further unfair, having done so, to then also use it to refer to PCA pastors such as Cassidy. The proper term for “Progressive Christianity” is heresy, there being nothing either progressive or truly Christian about it, the terms for its proponents, such things as false teachers or apostates. I do not accuse Cassidy of being that, which would indeed be slanderous. But I do say that he is a progressive in another sense.
Here’s why. Rather than describing one’s doctrine, comparative terms like conservative and progressive are best used to describe one’s disposition or impulses as they relate to those of others. A conservative is one who wants to do things now as they have been done in the past. That may be good or bad, depending on what he wishes to conserve. A progressive is one who wishes to keep abreast of change, and who wishes to alter things in order to influence the people with whom he deals. That may be good or bad, depending upon what is influencing him, whom he wishes to influence, and what changes he wants to make to do so. And, of course, one may be both, conservative about some matters and progressive about others, and each to a greater or lesser extent. Now I say that Cassidy and many others are progressive because their disposition is to look at society and to ponder whether our present practices might be hindering us from reaching its various constituent groups. I do not doubt his sincerity or good intentions, but I do say he is taking his cues from society at large and from his contemplations upon the PCA’s relation to it rather than from scripture alone.
Regarding Cassidy’s progressivism, one sees it in what he emphasizes. Contemporary society is obsessed with race, and he mentions it multiple times. He decries “the fertile soil of criticism for all who seek to address the very valid issue of how we bring the unchanging Gospel to an increasingly hostile secularized society and how we address racism in the Church.” In such a phrase he suggests that addressing racism is as urgently needed as evangelism – as if racism in the church is anywhere near as prevalent or severe as the rampant unbelief of our wider society. He further says that:
Racism has been a sinful reality in the church for years and it is an insufficient response to simply decry critical theory without adequately listening to and addressing the real concerns of minority communities in the church.
And again, caricaturing a hypothetical strict subscription PCA:
It could disparage other ethnicities and insist that anyone pointing out that such a practice is problematic is probably a Marxist.
Elsewhere he says he was “shocked” and “deeply grieved” when someone issued “a disdainful critique of ‘Korean Style Praying’ as being unbiblical.” Disdain is arrogant condescension, and if that is a fair description of what happened, such a tone was indeed wrong; but I do not concur that “these kinds of comments … must be rejected” with the vehemence he displays, for I can certainly see why someone would regard such a style of prayer as unscriptural in light of I Corinthians 14:26-40. Cassidy tacitly assumes the propriety of such prayer, and with it the impropriety of criticizing it in whatever manner (“maybe we should all be at the feet of our Korean brothers and sisters to learn how to pray”).
As for Cassidy’s deep concern with race matters as shown in such examples, I ask: is it a coincidence that a matter that weighs so heavily with Cassidy is also one with which our society is obsessed? Is it a coincidence that the anonymous agency heads’ “Statement on Heinous Killings” appeared in the middle of the George Floyd upheaval and that it used the language of many unbelieving political activists? I think not. Such a preoccupation with a contemporary social/political issue is a result of trying to keep abreast of cultural developments and looking to them to set one’s agenda and form one’s thinking – in short, the progressive temperament in action.
I said earlier that Cassidy does what he accuses others of doing in the case of polemic claims, and he does so in another matter as well. He accuses others of attempting “to redefine what ‘conservative’ and ‘subscription’ mean in order to reset the boundaries of what is allowable in the PCA,” and says this about the alleged attempt:
It is always done in nameless ways because naming names would open the door to the refutation of the false claims and remove the weapon of fear from the arsenal of those who want to stir people up and lead them deeper into a “Truly Reformed” cul-de-sac, something the PCA was never designed to be.
At no point in his 2,800-word essay does Cassidy name a single opponent, nor does he name the faction which he opposes: the closest he gets is implying somewhat his opponents’ position (strict subscription), and, in the statement above, their self-conception (“Truly Reformed”) – and yet he says it is his opponents who don’t name names. But note further that this man who accuses unnamed others of conspiring to redefine the meaning of subscription actually does that very thing himself. He writes:
Some argue for the right of Presbyteries to forbid a man to teach an exception that they’ve already judged to be an allowable exception. In my view, this is de facto strict subscription and it not only dangerously exalts the standards to the place where a minister’s conscience is needlessly bound by the action of Presbytery but also wrongly exalts the authority of Presbytery over the denomination as a whole.
Nothing in the Book of Church Order (BCO) either regards a minister as having any right to teach his exceptions or denies a presbytery the authority to forbid teaching exceptions. Past attempts to establish the right to teach exceptions, such as New Jersey Presbytery’s Overture 6 at the 31st General Assembly, have not been adopted. What Cassidy seeks to recast as “de facto strict subscription” is really good faith subscription as it is actually provided for by the BCO (21-4).
When he regards this as dangerously “exalting the standards” and binding consciences he is proceeding from a theory of polity that is not Presbyterian but Independent. Everyone who is in the PCA is bound by its government. One who regards his own conscience as a higher teaching authority than the presbytery or the denomination is doing the very thing that Presbyterian government – including an authoritative confession which one must subscribe – is intended to guard against. It is of the essence of the Presbyterian system that each individual presbyter is subordinate to the presbytery as a whole, and that what authority is in the church is distributed among a plurality of elders but may only be exercised by the relevant body of which they are a part (session, presbytery, general assembly) acting in unison as a corporate entity. When a man accepts ordination he swears to “approve of the form of government and discipline” of the PCA and to “promise subjection to [his] brethren” (21-5, Qs. 3-4). Inherent in doing so is surrendering somewhat his own freedom, including that of conscience, in the interest of good order and peace in service to the church.
Judging by what Cassidy says elsewhere (“I suspect the Westminster Divines themselves and our forefathers in the Reformation would be appalled… by this practice”), he might say this leaves us in the position of Rome by making the church instead of Christ (speaking through Scripture) the sole lord of the conscience. It is not so. No one is either obligated or entitled to ministry in the PCA, and by accepting ordination he freely accepts its conditions, including what is entailed in submitting to the discipline and government of the church as expressed in its courts and standards. Unlike with Rome, one is free to go elsewhere anytime he wishes, and there are many other denominations in which Cassidy could labor whose views of polity align more nearly with his own. Also, he retains the right to lobby the church courts for a change that would make his exception into an accepted article, or which would otherwise allow it to be taught. There are means of redress for his complaint, and he has simply to use them rather than to rely upon arguments that proceed upon un-Presbyterian theories of polity.
Time will fail to consider more fully his other arguments, other elements of Presbyterian doctrine touching upon the relation of conscience to church government and the role of the church as the mediating agency through which Christ confers teaching authority and by which he governs its use, as well as the question of what the “good faith” in good faith subscription should entail (BCO 21.4e; 21-5, Q.2.). It would fail also to note that a denomination is only as good as its ministers and that a house divided against itself cannot stand (Matt. 12:25): i.e., that for the PCA to allow its ministers to teach their own doctrine alongside of its official doctrine would be to lay the groundwork of its own destruction as a confessional denomination, the assertion of multiple doctrines serving to engender confusion and to allow the official position on many matters to be crowded out by the alternatives. For now, it is enough to see that this is another dubious attempt to shift the blame for the denomination’s present troubles away from that faction which is anxious to keep in step with the culture and to lay it at the feet of others who dare object to the said faction’s methods and desires.
Tom Hervey is a member of Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Simpsonville, S.C.
 This is so only in secondary or minor matters. A church that would require heresy to be taught or that would restrict the gospel is ipso facto a false church and has no authority, each minister being then bound to follow his conscience as guided by scripture rather than the direction of the apostate church.