One challenge that confronts any long-established organization is safeguarding its core values and mission, especially when making a transition from one generation of leadership to the next. The PCA is no exception.

When the PCA was founded in 1973, enfolding some 260 churches and 41,000 members, leaders unanimously agreed on the importance of remaining true to the Scriptures, loyal to the Reformed Faith as defined by the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, and obedient to the Great Commission. With the denomination now in its fifth decade, a number of its founding fathers are encouraging the PCA’s new and emerging leaders to retain these same values.

To that end, Dr. Kennedy Smartt has written a letter titled, “As We See It Today — the Perspective of Some of the Founding Fathers.” The letter is signed by 18 members of the PCA’s “founding generation” and endorsed by other longtime teaching elders. It urges leaders to welcome differences of opinion and discourse on various issues, while affirming “the need for our leadership to always be searching for the center so that unity might be maintained and our mission might be accomplished.”

Smartt is a longtime PCA pastor and staff member, an appointee to the original committees that laid the groundwork for creating the PCA, and author of “I Am Reminded, which chronicles the denomination’s first 25 years. Having that background, he was chosen to draft the 985-word letter.

“Over the past several years,” he said, “veteran leaders have expressed concern about the course the denomination seems to be following, so the letter was composed as ‘a declaration of our commitment to love and respect each other and affirm doctrinal orthodoxy without becoming too broad or too narrow in the way we embrace our confessional standards.’”

The primary areas of concern are not theological or doctrinal, according to Smartt, but rather ones of approach and emphasis:

  • Bottom-up vs. top-down authority. “We founded this denomination to be bottom up – sessions to presbytery to General Assembly, but we’ve been drifting toward top-down leadership.”
  • Evangelism. “Gradually evangelism has been disappearing from the practice of many churches. We’re raising our children well, but not nearly as concerned about winning souls.”
  • Role of ruling elders. “Participation by ruling elders at General Assembly has been declining steadily. They are asked to give up personal time to attend, and many are determining it’s not worth it for them.”

Dr. Jim Baird is among the letter’s signers. At age 86, he quips, “Maybe I sound like a cranky old man,” but he doesn’t see this as an attempt to recapture the PCA’s bygone days. “Over the last 20 years we’ve lost a lot of the excitement, and there’s a diminished sense of love for one another,” he said, notably, at General Assembly.

Baird recalled Francis Schaeffer, the esteemed theologian, Presbyterian pastor, and author, addressing the second General Assembly in 1974. “His message was ‘Love One Another,’ and we all came away from there with tremendous enthusiasm and love for each other, along with a great willingness to cooperate” in advancing the cause of Christ.

He said the General Assembly’s overall tone has grown tedious, a reason lay leaders are increasingly reluctant to take part. “We have the same teaching elders going year after year, and now it’s become predominantly pastors, maybe two-thirds. Of the laymen who do attend, most won’t return. We should always have more ruling elders than teaching elders,” because for the local church to have a significant impact, pastors can’t do all the work.

“It used to be each of our General Assembly worship services was exciting; now it’s just business. Our yearly WIC conferences attract 5,000 women. Why can’t we have 5,000 to 10,000 men at each of our General Assemblies — our men’s meetings?

“We are living in a depressed world. We’re carrying the Lord’s Good News. Our worship services should be a celebration,” Baird stated.

Smartt and Baird have been close friends since the PCA’s inception, and he agreed with Baird’s assessment of recent General Assemblies. Lay leaders have become discouraged with wrangling over matters of parliamentary procedure, he said. “They don’t see it necessary for that kind of nitpicking — and I agree with them.”

At age 77, Dr. Charles McGowan is about 10 years younger than Smartt and Baird but shares their concerns. “I can’t be counted as one of the founders but was very much a part of the movement,” McGowan noted. A pastor for nearly 50 years, he now heads McGowan Search, working with pastoral search committees. He is “thrilled with the letter. I’ve even considered taking it to a group of my friends that are not among the founders and having them endorse the letter as well.

“It’s very important for the next generation of emerging leaders to clearly understand the history of the PCA and values by which it was founded, as well as some of the struggles the founders and denomination had early on. They need to be reminded of the faithfulness of God and how He has blessed the PCA from its start.”

During its 40-plus years, the PCA has experienced “a wonderful balance,” according to McGowan, linking theological orthodoxy with aggressive evangelism and outreach. Commitment to theological faithfulness remains, but “we’re not so focused on evangelism. We’re losing our commitment to reach out to a lost and dying world with the Gospel.”

Regarding the General Assembly, McGowan agreed that for many it has become discouraging. “We should want the General Assembly to be an uplifting, inspirational experience. Yes, we need to conduct business, but also should leave the Assembly encouraged by all God is doing in the world through the PCA.”

Leadership from the center was a recurring theme for Smartt, Baird, and McGowan. “In the PCA, we always need to see leadership from the center, not becoming so sectarian we go into a ditch or so progressive we become liberal,” McGowan commented.

“We need people on either end of the spectrum,” Smartt added, “to create the broad middle. If we don’t have some leaders who are extremely strong conservatively, as well as people on the other end, we’re not going to have the necessary tension to establish and maintain the broad middle that should be guiding the PCA.”

Signers and supporters of the letter don’t have grandiose expectations, Smartt said, other than “by reading and thinking about the letter, our ruling elders will get more interested in what’s going on in General Assembly and become more eager to participate in it. Our hope is to create a context for better understanding, giving more prayerful attention to what’s going on — spending more time praying, seeking the mind of the Holy Spirit, than we spend debating.”

Please read the letter here.



11 Responses to Founders to the Next Generation

  1. Mike Khandjian says:

    To our dear Founders, Thank You – for this letter, & for your passionate and grace-filled commitment to the Mission of God in the work of the Church in proclaiming Jesus & His Good News. Forgive me & us for whenever we have been diverted by the menial. Thank you for risking friendships & securities for the sake of the Gospel. Forgive me & us for ever putting self & fear above a whole-hearted, albeit messy passion as you have exhibited. Thank you for not waiting for perfection in your expression before engaging in this journey. Forgive us for when we reduce the Gospel to rules, particulars, rigid interpretations & technicalities. Thank you for loving the Gospel & us well. I pray we will reflect your graciousness & passion…

  2. Robert Cuminale says:

    We need to listen to these men, they are disappearing quickly now.
    I had the pleasure of one founder’s company for many years. Charles Wilson passed away a couple of years ago. I spent a lot of time with him as he fought cancer atop a heart condition he’d had for many years. He’d come to Charlotte to plant a church and never got to do it. But he was a supporter for many years of all the other plants who came to him for advice. His value was inestimable. His son Daniel is a Reformed pastor in New Zealand today.

  3. Bob Mattes says:

    What’s most interesting about this letter is who DIDN’T sign it. With respect to those few who did sign, the letter does not accurately reflect the PCA’s founding vision. The PCUS was already a “big tent”. If that goal were central, the signers would not have left. The PCA was a sacrificial move away from the “big tent” to a gospel-centered, truly confessional church. Good faith subscription moved the PCA back towards the PCUS roots and on a slope where we are now chipping at the confessionalism in the PCA. “Big tents” are structurally unsound, and the PCA has become a “tribal congregationalist” denomination, where particular errors gather in specific presbyteries unaccountable to the whole. That wasn’t the original PCA vision.

    • Ian Hard says:

      Hi Bob,
      Could you help by pointing out those that didn’t sign whose absence you find so telling? Often this is the problem that younger generations have in trusting and following your generation. You have a complaint but no explanation. What is heard by someone in my seat is a critique without explanation or attempt to bring others along. How is someone early in ministry not born during the start of the PCA supposed to readily identify absent parties, note their absence and be moved to action unless the preceding generations engage them?

      • Robert Mattes says:

        Ian – Dr. Morton Smith comes immediately to mind for one. As our first Stated Clerk he had his finger on the pulse of the initial direction of the PCA. In reading letters like this, one must also read the original documentation at the time of our founding. Whereas the handful of signers of the subject letter said that our leaders should seek the center, our founders as a whole had a different view: “We are committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.” Without reservation, not in good faith. This is in the 7 Dec 1973 Letter to All Churches announcing the PCA’s (actually NPC for a short time) formation. Further, they had choice words about discipline: (continued)

      • Robert Mattes says:

        About discipline, the 1973 letter had this warning: “Views and practices that undermine and supplant the system of doctrine or polity of a confessional Church ought never to be tolerated. A Church that will not exercise discipline will not long be able to maintain pure doctrine or godly practice.

        “When a denomination will not exercise discipline and its courts have become heterodox or disposed to tolerate error, the minority finds itself in the anomalous position of being submissive to a tolerant and erring majority.” Then there’s Dr. Morton Smith’s How Thy Gold Has Become Din which also provided a PCA manifesto at the time. It doesn’t sound to me like seeking a broad center dominated the bulk of our founders’ thinking in 1973.

  4. Jean Larroux says:

    Amen to our founders! The EPC declares, “In essentials…UNITY. In non-essentials…LIBERTY. In all things…CHARITY.” We (in the PCA) theorhetically embrace the sentiment behind that statement, but we engage in laborious polemics and posturing to have our camp’s views ratified as ESSENTIAL. Both ends of the spectrum are guilty of this posturing. The tolerant are intolerant of the intolerant. The intolerant are tolerant of no-one and our founders have boldly declared that BOTH inclinations are utterly intolerable. Heresy is schismatic and schism is heretical. Heresy-hunting by the left or the right in the name of purity and at the expense of peace accomplishes neither. Might we ask God himself to show us where WE are wrong? Psalm…

  5. Hunter Brewer says:

    In a day and age when Christianity is much maligned and the sea of lost souls seems to be deeper than ever, I wholeheartedly appreciate this letter and the encouragement of the founding fathers. I pray that our denomination will listen and move forward with an unmitigated and singular passion for the Gospel of Christ. I hope my generation will peaceably and winsomely demonstrate the grace of King Jesus, not only to each other, but a watching world. I pray that the Holy Spirit will enable us to seek first His Kingdom and not our own.

  6. Ron Swafford says:

    Bob also speaks for me. We were not founded on “good faith” subscription, but on “strict subscription,” although it was assumed, not written in stone. The current decline in civility may be traced to our setting good faith subscription in stone. We’ve almost always had a 60% to 40% split on serious issues. In recent years many of the 40% just stopped coming to GA, and many of our smaller churches simply can’t afford the lavish venues or the exorbitant cost just to register to vote. Thus the shrinking minority must speak louder to be heard – and still lose votes by more like 70% to 30% now. Check the registration stats and see that we are becoming a top down church, dominated by the larger churches and their agendas. It’s sad to…

  7. Mike Khandjian says:

    Friends – Thanks for your words. The problem with ‘strict subscription’ is that even the strictest of interpretations is prone to error and by definition must rely on grace and discretion. So in some way ‘strict subscription’ is impossible, and ultimately ALL interpretation is ‘good faith,’ even the most rigid, which is why I disagree, Ron – our Founders knew that pure subscription is not only impossible, but to presume it to be attainable would border on idolatry. So it seems to me that this is less a matter of subscription and more a matter of fear and distrust, and these only breed suspicion, and further open the door to abuse and contempt in the church. Either we trust one another or we don’t, and it is time for us to…