What’s Happening in the PCA?
By Tim Keller

The New Narrative

The failure of Overtures 23 and 37 to receive approval of two-thirds of our presbyteries has given rise to many interpretations of “what this means about the state of the PCA.”  

I want to question one of the main ways of reading the results of the vote. That narrative goes something like this: 

“A majority of the presbyteries of the PCA are conservative. They don’t sympathize with Side B approaches to homosexuality (described below). But there is a significant minority of presbyteries that do. This is an extremely dangerous situation, because Side B always slides into Side A and the end of orthodox Christianity. We see where those Side B leaning presbyteries are and we know where the liberalism will begin developing, if it hasn’t already. Most of the PCA is sound, though.” 

This view divides the PCA into a majority of conservative people and presbyteries but also a minority of Side B leaning, social justice emphasizing progressives. 

There are considerable problems with this view. 

First, as far as I know, there is not one PCA court — not one session, presbytery, or agency — that has ever endorsed Side B Christianity. While there is no exact way to determine the meaning of this term, it is fair to characterize it like this:  People attracted to the same sex, though remaining celibate in obedience to the Bible, still can call themselves ‘gay Christians’ and see their attraction as a part of their identity which should be acknowledged like one’s race or nationality. If it is true that the presbyteries rejecting Overtures 23 and 37 were Side B leaning or sympathetic, you would expect to see at least some scattered sessions in those presbyteries which have come out and approved it. But I see none. If anyone can point to a session or presbytery that even expresses support for the Side B approach, please let me know. 

Second, the PCA’s Ad-Interim Committee on Human Sexuality considered this Side B view and clearly rejected it. That report was overwhelmingly commended as “biblically faithful” at the last General Assembly and approved without objection for distribution among our churches. If there were any who would have voted against it (and no such votes were registered), they are more likely to have been those who thought the report was not conservative enough, not those who wanted to broaden its standards. I don’t know of anyone who spoke or wrote against the ad-interim report because it rejected Side B and they wanted Side B affirmed. 

To characterize the institution of the PCA as being in danger of endorsing liberalism in general and Side B in particular is unsubstantiated and seriously misleading.

Third, in light of points #1 and #2, we can conclude further that the reasons for the ‘no’ votes by presbyters on the BCO amendments must have been based on matters other than an incipient liberalism.  Again, the reasons for votes against the overtures were extremely diverse. Yet after hearing many, many of them, I think the common uniting concern was that the overtures could do more harm than good. Some thought they would exclude some people unfairly while allowing others in who learn to master a new vocabulary. They saw the overtures as blunt instruments that could do damage to genuine, conservative Presbyterian believers. 

Other “nays” came from people who were sure there would be unintended consequences but were unsure of what they would be because of confusing wording or the institution of new investigational systems and standards in our presbyteries and churches. Still other negative votes were those of old-fashioned conservativism — ones that simply dislike change and saw the overtures as unnecessary. 

In every and any case, the ‘no-voting’ presbyteries cannot be proven to be more theologically liberal than the ‘yes-voting’ ones. In fact, some of the ‘no-voting’ presbyteries are those that trend toward our most conservative ranks. 

As far as I can tell and as for as our documented actions can affirm, an overwhelming super-majority of the PCA does not accept the biblical legitimacy of a Side B perspective. In a denomination of our size I’m sure there must be individuals — both lay and perhaps some ordained — who do. But to characterize the institution of the PCA as being in danger of endorsing liberalism in general and Side B in particular is unsubstantiated and seriously misleading. 

The Old Narrative

Well then, what is going on? I have a view that is possibly wrong but is my best guess right now. What is going on now is, with one significant difference (see below), what has been going on in our denomination almost from the beginning. 

The PCA has been divided between a minority of ministers who interpreted the Westminster Standards in stricter ways and a majority who interpreted them in broader ways. An example is the regulative principle of worship. The understanding of what actual worship practices are enjoined and forbidden differs widely in the denomination. This difference (which many in the stricter group bemoan) can’t be dealt with by “getting people to stick closer to the Confession.” I know few if any ministers who take an exception to the regulative principle of worship. It is the interpretation of it that is at issue. At several other points the differences are similarly matters of interpretation.  (For a deeper look at the differences, though this article is now dated in many ways, see “How Then Shall We Live Together: Subscription and the Future of the PCA.”) 

Any effort to give names to these groups makes one side look better than the other. Is one group “Confessional” and the other “Evangelical”? Is the one side “Doctrinalist” and the other side “Missional”?  I use these terms just to help readers get the gist of what I’m talking about and I’ll not use them again because I do not want the labels to rob anyone of proper respect or to brand them uncharitably. 

What is especially grievous about this division, however, is how each side came to deeply mistrust the other’s spiritual and theological maturity. We did not just disagree about worship, we mocked the alternative to our view. One group laughed at “happy clappy” shallowness while the other spoke of the stiff, formal services of the “frozen chosen.” The human heart wants to justify itself, and in the PCA we have often not been willing to chalk up our perennial differences to sincere but differing ways of reading the Confession and Bible. Rather, we’ve assumed that they stem from defects in character — we mistrust each other’s motives. The broad group thinks the strict one is legalistic in spirit, wanting to think of itself as ‘valiant for truth’, wanting to feel superior to everyone because they are stricter. The strict group thinks the broad one wants the love of the world, wants to be popular with the culture, and is in the process of selling out in order to be seen as relevant.

Are these group assessments fair? No. Paul’s statement that love “thinks no evil” does not mean we should be naïve about the reality of sin. But it must mean at the very least that believers should give each other the benefit of the doubt, as Scripture and our Confession require, rather than assuming the worst. In the PCA we have not done that, and it is worse than ever today. But in truth it has been going on for decades. I’ve seen and heard it and at times I have participated in it. I think this has sowed the seeds for what we see today. And what is that?

Polarization in the PCA Mirrors Polarization in the Culture

During the last five to six years, the entire nation has become more polarized politically and culturally. No matter your position, the alternative viewpoints to yours have become louder, stronger, and more extreme in society. Some are seeking to re-read the ‘strict’ and ‘broad’ groups as being the same as — and as connected to — the conservatives and progressives that are battling in the culture wars on the national stage. For example, many now want to name the broader PCA group ‘progressives’ and tie them to the activism of the secular Left. If a PCA church emphasizes helping the poor or disadvantaged, it may be said they are ‘into critical race theory.’ If they voted against Overtures 23 and 37 it may be said they are sympathetic to gay ideology. 

This effort to tie the old strict-broad division in the PCA to the culture wars of the country has not been without any effect.  Many folks who would not ordinarily vote or side with the stricter party did so on Overtures 23 and 37 at the 2021 GA. And I’ve even heard people within the ‘broad’ group call themselves ‘the progressives’. What matters of course is to be biblical and Reformed, not to position ourselves on some changing spectrum of political-cultural beliefs.  However, a minister who believes women should not be ordained elders, who believes in the inerrancy of Scripture, who believes in orthodox Reformed theology, who believes some people are predestined from all eternity to be damned, who believes people are going to hell if they don’t believe savingly in Jesus, who believes homosexual practice and desire are sin, who believes we are all descended from a real, specially created Adam and Eve — is not progressive by any fair use of the English language or by any understanding of cultural reality. 

(For the record, I have lived in Manhattan for 33 years and I heartily believe in all the above-mentioned positions. Nothing about being here has ever inclined me away from those commitments in the slightest. Living here may, however, give me a particularly clear picture of how thoroughly conservative the PCA really is from the standpoint of mainstream American culture.) 

Conclusion: It is not true that the PCA is in imminent danger of becoming a progressive, mainline Protestant church.  

I think the sooner we lay that new “narrative” to rest the better, and the sooner we can get back to our real work. We must seek the spiritual health, scriptural integrity, ministry effectiveness, and unity of the church. And we must do it together — in the face of our long-time differences on how we read and practice the Westminster Standards. 

How can we do that? 

  • First, we should acknowledge how much doctrinal unity we really have. We have a remarkable amount of consensus. There’s more than enough common ground doctrinally upon which to build a denomination. Are we willing to admit that? 
  • Second, we should acknowledge the complexity of the reasons of why we really differ. The reasons are temperamental, cultural, and historical as well as hermeneutical. 
  • Third, all revivals and renewals begin with repentance. We should stop judging one another’s motives so readily — the strict assuming the broad are worldly and the broad assuming the strict are legalistic. We must repent and forgive each other. 
  • Fourth, we need far more face-to-face conversations — not social media or internet debates. If we did, it would make a difference. For example, before we post our articles and thoughts online, we might be more likely to run them by brothers and friends in the other “camp” first (as I did this article).  

Certainly, the differences are not insignificant, but in my four decades in the PCA I have been encouraged over and over again about how General Assembly study committees have created consensus yet laid down the necessary theological boundaries. 

At my first General Assembly, in Jackson in 1975, we passed the “Pastoral Letter Concerning the Experience of the Holy Spirit in the Church Today” which was a model for the future. The letter laid down firm biblical guidelines — denying that the regenerate must also have a baptism of the Spirit to be equipped for ministry, denying tongues as a sign of the baptism of the Spirit, and urging against an inappropriate obsession with miracles. Yet the letter did not take a complete ‘cessationist’ view and urged “a spirit of forbearance among those holding differing views regarding the spiritual gifts.”  

The 2017 Report on Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church followed this same path, affirming all the restrictions on women in office, but allowing a diversity of practices with regard to areas where the Constitution doesn’t dictate. 

The 1999 Creation Study Report served the same function. 

In every case the reports did not add to the Constitution but reaffirmed it and allowed diversity within its stated guidelines and limitations. 

As a result, we have the PCA we have today — strong and large enough to have real tensions, yet united around a wonderfully rich and remarkably comprehensive Confession. It has taken almost 50 years to grow the PCA with its many strong institutions and organizations, let alone hundreds of churches. To preserve and steward all the gifts God has given the PCA, let us build on our common love of these wise and biblical confessional documents by speaking the truth in love to each other. 

Editor’s Note: ByFaith has previously posted four articles related to Overtures 23 and 37, two in favor of the proposals, written by Fred Greco and Jon Payne, and two opposed, written by David Coffin and Kyle Keating. We’re interested in thoughtful, factual feedback to this article. Please send your thoughts to editor@byfaithonline.com. 

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash.

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