A slim majority of respondents to an informal
 survey believes the PCA is generally healthy. At the same time, more than 70 percent say that PCA leaders don’t trust one another the way they should.

Two hundred and fifty-five people took the survey over a two week timeframe. One hundred and twenty identified themselves as teaching elders, 40 said they were ruling elders, and just over 50 indicated that they were members of PCA churches.

Many survey respondents were quick to note signs of denominational vitality: growing membership, young people coming into PCA churches, more expansive missions programs, a wider geographical presence, aggressive church planting, and faithfulness to the gospel and to our Confessional Standards.

But an overwhelming majority is alarmed by the “intramural debating and backbiting” they’ve seen in presbyteries and at General Assembly. Respondents cite a number of reasons for the discord, including worship practices, generational tension, and a perceived disconnect between the Atlanta-based agencies and local churches. But ultimately, the tension comes down to who’s orthodox and who’s not — and who decides.

 Too Narrow or Too Broad?

The survey, though unscientific, reveals that a number of PCA elders believe the denomination has relaxed its Confessional Standards. We’re not as strongly grounded in our Reformed confessions and commitments as we should be, one respondent says. In his view, this encourages experimentation. As a result, “We push at the edges of what’s acceptable in both doctrine and practice.”

This view makes many wary, leading a number of pastors to feel as though the bounds of acceptable thought — to say nothing of permissible practice — are growing “tighter by the day.” Several participants alluded to a “vocal minority” in the denomination who “are at the ready” to condemn those who don’t agree with their views or theological positions.

This punch/counterpunch tone permeates the survey. One man says we have too much theological diversity and sees that diversity at the heart of denominational strife. “Unity follows purity of doctrine,” he says, and we’ve allowed too many significant exceptions to our Standards.

But frustration smolders at both ends of this spectrum, with another elder contending that we value doctrinal minutiae over love, and that too many elders value doctrinal purity over Christ’s mission in the world.

One respondent claims that a group of PCA pastors has set aside our standards. When challenged, he says, they accuse their challenger of being intolerant and narrow-minded. Another notes that a different group of pastors insists on agreement on secondary and tertiary issues. This is unrealistic, he says, yet those who hold this view aren’t willing to have a healthy discussion about these issues.

Diversity Breeds Suspicion

One elder claims that the PCA is “not strictly confessional.” Consequently, there’s division and “too many groups within too big a tent.” Then comes a respondent who’s certain that “(o)ur presbyteries spend the bulk of their time examining men to look for small exceptions to the Westminster Confession of Faith.” When they find one, he says, it “launches” a predictable argument over whether this is the exception that must ultimately lead to liberalism. In this man’s opinion, most teaching elders are “justly afraid to share what’s really happening in their lives.” Such honesty, they fear, could lead to judicial charges.

One participant is certain that many PCA pastors strive to uphold the denomination’s motto: To be faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission. But during the denomination’s 40-year existence, he believes the PCA has fragmented, that some camps emphasize one part over the others. In the name of evangelism, he says, some have compromised our Reformed principles. Others are so focused on doctrinal purity — especially on nonessential matters — that evangelism is no more than an afterthought.

Other survey takers talked about how the PCA is fragmented “along lines of theological understanding and practice.” As a result, many sense a “culture of fear and mistrust,” which makes it hard to have honest discussions. Where one man says, “The PCA is too tolerant of non-Confessional views, such as theistic evolution, federal vision, and intinction.” Another quickly counters that [we have] presbyteries who seem to be more interested in regulating the life of the church rather than building it.

Shooting Ourselves in the Foot?

One pastor talked about the healthy examples he’d seen in the PCA, and how particular churches and pastors had illustrated for him what a “healthy, Reformed, catholic [universal], evangelical, and missional church” is supposed to look like. But it’s often these churches, he said, that are marginalized by others. It’s the pastors, churches, and presbyteries, he believes — the ones who most faithfully engage the Scriptures and the lost world — that are constantly “dragged through the parliamentary mud.” It’s disheartening, he says, and even shameful.

There’s another who, just as earnestly, believes we don’t hold each other accountable because we’re afraid we’ll be accused of being unloving or too sectarian. What we most need, in this man’s view, are clear boundaries for what is acceptable and what is not.

It seems as though we tend to fight about a new topic every few years, one respondent lamented. Another sensed an overly litigious spirit and an unhealthy suspicion of those who are different theologically. One participant believes most pastors and churches are healthy, but he couldn’t escape the feeling that “a small, vocal minority continues to breed a spirit … of fear and suspicion.”

There’s so much that’s encouraging, one respondent told the magazine, but he too perceived an “unmistakable climate of suspicion.” You see and feel it in presbytery and General Assembly, he said. Some are sure that the denomination is teetering on the brink of liberalism, while others fear that we’re becoming rigid and sectarian.

The Internet isn’t Helping

Many PCA pastors loathe what online communication has done in the PCA. It works against us, says a teaching elder who’s familiar with “the brutal, unkind words that are aired over blogs.” Many grieve “the way people rip into each other on blogs,” and several respondents alluded to “the extreme … segment of the church trying to push everyone else out.”

Several respondents were distressed by the number of men “who seem willing to condemn others” — to call them heterodox or heretical — by name and in public. This seems less than Christ-like, one man said, and less than Christ-honoring.

Some are certain that blogs create an atmosphere where there’s a dearth of “true theological dialog.” Instead, the pattern seems to be one of “mean-spirited ad hominem attacks … complete with charges of heresy, assumption of duplicity, and slander of character.”

Signs of Health Still Abound

Still, there’s plenty to be thankful for. Respondents pointed out that the PCA generally finds a balanced position because “we all hold to the Westminster Standards.” Many expressed an overriding sense that the denomination faithfully proclaims the gospel, that it is planting churches and has ministries — “like RUF” — that are growing “by leaps and bounds.” Our basic commitment to the Scripture and the proclamation of the gospel is strong, one respondent said, and despite our internal struggles, we remain faithful to our Standards.

Another closed his comments by noting that there are beautiful parts of the PCA, and that “our commitment to the Scriptures is the most important of these.”

About the author, Richard Doster

Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith. He is also the author of two novels, Safe at Home (March 2008) and Crossing the Lines (June 2009), both published by David C. Cook Publishers.

17 Responses to Leaders Alarmed by Intramural Debates

  1. guy webster says:

    Doctrinal purity disputes are only important if they point us more toward Christ. Most of the time they are gnat-straining, divisive and a pox on the body.

  2. Robert Byrne says:

    The survey question (Love pie chart) could have been framed differently. EVERYONE fails to love the way they should.

  3. It would be very beneficial to know what the doctrinal gnats are that some feel we are overly concerned about. What specific secondary and tertiary issues are we fighting over that we shouldn’t be fighting over?

  4. TE Frank Moser says:

    Was it really necessary to title such a piece “Trust Lacking Among PCA Leaders”?, however accurate it may be? It seems to me the average person reading such a BANNER could easily be led to jump to unjustified suspicions and/or conclusions concerning our leaders. Surely it has not been factually established that any, let alone all, of our leaders do not trust each other (and with respect to what particulars this lack of trust allegedly applies). And I believe it is tantamount to slander, and clearly defamatory, to headline this piece as a statement of FACT: i.e. TRUST IS LACKING AMONG PCA LEADERS, without clearly including in the headline that this is the opinion of whatever number of interviewees it may be. Granted you say, “Many alarmed by intramural debating”, but that does not appear in the subject field in my inbox.

    I am not advocating denial of problems if problems exist. I am appalled by the manner in which these things are reported–much the same was my reaction to the blazing cover on By Faith with regard to the reality of Adam and Eve. Am I overreacting? I submit I am not!

  5. j.collins says:

    a great deal of blood was shed to form the pca. those who shed blood are very sensative to shifts to the left. on the other hand, those who had no substantial ” skin in the game ” are less likely to understand that journeys off the reservation can lead to non christian activities and beliefs that result in the corruption of the faith.

    • Rod Culbertson says:

      Thumbs up j.collins. As one younger than the founders (in college in 1973) but who met many of them in the late 70’s and early 80’s, right after many had lost churches, pastorates, buildings, retirement and health benefits, as well as their reputations in some places, I could only honor them and ask, “would I have such courage?” My parents served the Navy in World War II and then married, resolved to give me so much opportunity as a child – it was handed to me if I would only be a proper steward of it. 20+ years later, these founders fought heavy theological and political battles in order to give following generations so many opportunities to proclaim the gospel in a Christ-centered, Biblically based, confessional denomination, if we will only be proper stewards of their vision and mission. I know what they fought for and they (those that are still living) see it slipping away. I hope it isn’t, but I am amazed at some of the recent issues we are now debating. Where will we be in 30 years, if I live to see it? I do want to be optimistic, but it is scary!

  6. Wayne Larson says:

    I think what the internet has done is to provide channels of communication that were not there before. We’ve always had people along all places of a continuum left and right. However this continuum was kept stable by the relative difficulty to communicate among like-minded folks. The internet (blogs, chatrooms, etc.) undid all that and polarization was inevitable.

  7. Tim McKeown says:

    Hats off to the responses from Rod Culbertson and j.collins who have reminded us of our history, founders, and foundations. I love and respect and salute those who paid a great price to bring my PCA into existence. These were, indeed, great and Godly men., But let us also remember that there was a historical context in which the PCA was established — one that distrusted denominational leadership so much that it refused to even let the PCA agencies and committees have offices in one city together. In fact — and I was present to observe it — it was quite a debate and a very major decision to decide to move them all to Atlanta and to put them all under on roof (at the first office building inside the perimeter). I think that many are now complaining about the very distrust “DNA” that was part of the desired foundation of the PCA and continues to rear its head in all the different ways noted in this survey! Can it be changed? Of course! With God everything is possible!

  8. Steven B Shuman says:

    Is a perceived disconnect or for that matter a real disconnect between the Atlanta-based agencies(although I have been under the impression since being ordained in 1978 that the PCA is led by grass-root committees and has very few agencies but I suppose that is another divisive disconnect) and the local churches(and I would also add that it is probably the smaller sized churches who experience the disconnect(perceived or real) more than our sister larger sized churches)…anyway, is the disconnect truly a matter of orthodoxy as the writer claims?

    Were I really upset about the findings of this “informal” survey, I would be asking about its demographics but I will leave that to the PCA Committee which oversees our denomination magazine.

    I do take issue with the respondant who lamented that we seem to be taking up new topics every few years. After almost 34 years in the PCA it seems to me that we refuse to finalize most matters and/ or topics that are introduced whether by way of overture or by way of judicial process. By the way, judicial process and debate surrounding overtures are, in my opinion, Scriptural, God-honoring, Kingdom-advancing and produce spiritual maturity in a way far superior than “informal” polls.

  9. Tom Cannon says:

    “The survey, which is unscientific” …

    …but you come to the banner conclusion “Trust Lacking Among PCA Leaders”.

    Not sure this was such a good idea.

  10. I’m grateful for the PCA. The conversations and struggles we’re having are healthy. These issues have always been and always will be valid concerns for the church on some level. The internet while opening up and publicizing conversations is simply presenting a new challenge but will not be going away. The internet also serves as a valuable means of advancing the truth of Christ’s kingdom. I trust that in addition to Christians being vigilent in policing the conversations we’re in, we have measures in place to deal with individual issues even as the church continues to look at how both to address the challenges and make best use of the new opportunities. A general article like this is perhaps not the best place to address the invididual issues mentioned but each deserves and will get its time in its proper place for handling and evalution.

  11. Morgan P. Yarbrough says:

    I too offer thumbs up to j.collins. This side of glory, succeeding generations seem to think that we’re smarter, more sophisticated, and more “enlightened” than earlier generations. We tend to think (in practice, if not actuality) that we are the first in whom the Holy Spirit has ever worked and testified to the Truth. Therefore, we seem to have this continuous desire to dilute the great creeds and confessions handed down to us by faithful Christians. The more we disregard the lessons of our church fathers (obviously developed in their minds and hearts by the testimony of the truth by the Spirit), diminish the Westminster Standards, and attempt to accommodate rather than change the culture through our faithful witness (all in the name of making the church more relevant, of course), the more the church of Christ suffers in its mission to make disciples for Him and the less relevant the church becomes.

    The distinctives of the PCA should not be evaluated on how accommodating we are to new reinterpretations of our Standards apart from Scripture, but rather on how faithful we are to Christ and Him crucified and obedience to living out of His commandments.

  12. John Hendrickson says:

    I believe there are two documents today which could nor would ever be created today: The U.S. Constitution and the Westminster Confession. As the latter is the cause of the discord referred to in the article, I will briefly say why so: The nature of the debate, especially from those concerned about nit picking, makes clear that very little of what is there could be agreed upon as essential and vital to a confession of what the church ought to believe as being contained in the Bible. As the zeitgeist of this age is that our opinion is paramount and if others differ then they must be wrong so that it makes it very hard to come to common agreement.

    Is Creation a dispensable doctrine? Is the Lord’s Supper of the adiaphora? Is the Sabbath an arbitrary construct with no bearing on God’s actions towards a people? If we are a confessional church and the WCF is what we profess to believe then how is it that defending it in its every part is nit picking and extremist? If there are aspects of the Confession which are considered secondary or tertiary importance then why retain them as part of it? Those who think commitment to the WCF in its entirety is a pick and choose matter ought to petition to have it revised so that which is the cause of this “unnecessary” attention may be expunged or made optional to confess to.

  13. Gabe Sylvia says:

    Historical amnesia is an expected symptom of youth I should think; retaining the lessons learned as data for the future is everyone’s job. From a younger man’s perspective, I’d rather that the fathers and their immediate followers not lose heart in passing the baton to the young; my youth means that I cannot see what my older fathers can. Sure, the young are stubborn and proud, but they are certain to inherit the reigns in due time. The dysfunctions of youthful living (and ministry) will remain without the investment of the older and wiser. A healthy future will remain out of reach if all sides (theological and generational) stand and point.

  14. Jerry Hasselbring says:

    I have been reading in Robert Davis Smart’s book, JONATHAN EDWARDS’S APOLOGETIC FOR THE GREAT AWAKENING, and came upon a sermon entitled “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry” by Gilbert Tennent, March 8, 1740, Nottingham, Pennsylvania (can be found online). Dr. Smart quotes George Whitefield in saying, “……never before heard such a searching sermon…….” This sermon from a different era may give insights into the PCA and this survey’s issues.

  15. Al Henderson says:

    Thank you for the article and the comments concerning it!
    I appreciate the zeal involved.

    We all seem to think we’ve got the correct position, don’t we?

    What seem to be lacking is the desire to actually follow the Standards
    and the wisdom (or humility?) to recognize our own pride in
    departing from them.

    And that is especially troubling because we all took ordination vows
    *we all* should be keeping… the essence of defending the faith once
    and for all delivered to the saints?

    Shouldn’t the questions be, where am I not in line with the Standards?
    and, how can I immediately get in line?

    And shouldn’t they be asked by those possible offenders of those
    identifying (accusing) it?

    Isn’t that the essence of repentance?

    Lots of work to do still and I really appreciate your willingness to engage
    in it!

    May God bless your efforts!

  16. Ernest Jennings says:

    One of the questions asked was whether PCA leaders loved one another the way they should. 60% said NO. I believe this is a valid question for all teaching and ruling elders to consider, regardless of the positions that have been defended in the responses I read. Most of the responses seemed to be defensive, rather than reflective as to whether any truth might be presenting itself, no matter how poorly some may feel it was presented. Maintaining the purity of doctrine of the PCA is vitally important, but if it is maintained without “bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” what have we profited? How do we claim the love of Christ for the lost, when we show no love to each…