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.”