The PCA Has Failed to be Meaningfully Confessional

The title of this post is a quotation from this article by Pastor Tony Phelps in which he explains why he left the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America). This is an important article because it exposes the ways the PCA has departed from the Reformed faith, and by doing so, highlights the issues that pose a serious threat to the confessional integrity of every Reformed denomination today. I encourage you to read the article to see what all of these significant issues are. My focus in today’s post, and the one I intend to write tomorrow, is on the one issue that is probably the single biggest threat to the Reformed church world today—the Federal Vision (FV). Not much is written about the FV these days. But it is alive and well. And it is more than a mere threat to infect Reformed denominations. In some cases, such as the PCA, the infection has become septic.

Throughout its history the PCA has had some status as a confessional denomination (committed to the Westminster Standards). Phelps writes, “On paper the PCA is Reformed.” An indication of the PCA’s status as a “conservative” denomination is that it is a member of the North American Alliance of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches (NAPARC). Phelps left the PCA because he is convinced the PCA “as a whole is no longer meaningfully confessional (emphasis mine).”

The Federal Vision and the PCA’s response to it looms large in Phelps’ conclusion that the denomination as a whole has departed from the Reformed Faith. Phelps’ explanation of the status of the FV in the PCA is helpful. It is well known that the PCA adopted a study committee report that condemns the FV. It is also well known that prominent ministers in the PCA such as Peter Leithart and Jeff Meyers openly identify themselves with the FV, and various ecclesiastical bodies have approved of their views by refusing to place them under censure.[1] But there is some question (in fact I was asked about this last week) about whether the FV has the official approval of the PCA as a whole. Or is it the case that some rogue men are teaching this heresy, but sooner or later one of the ecclesiastical bodies will likely catch up to them and take steps to squash the FV movement in the PCA. Phelps answers that question, convincingly making the case that the FV already enjoys the official stamp of denominational approval. He emphasizes the seriousness of the FV writing, “the Gospel itself is directly undermined by the FV.” Then he explains why the FV must be viewed as having the approval of the PCA:

Leithart’s formulation would be more at home in Rome than Westminster. And yet Leithart and Meyers remain ministers in good standing in the PCA. If either of them should leave to more honestly align themselves with a like-minded body (CREC comes to mind), that would hardly be a victory for confessional fidelity in the PCA. The fact remains: the PCA refused to discipline ministers who clearly contradict the Standards to which they subscribe. As a result, the PCA has tolerated their corruption of “the doctrine of the standing or falling church,” justification by faith alone. I say the “PCA” has done this, because it is a connectional denomination. According to PCA polity, the actions of one court of the PCA are the actions of the whole church (cf. BCO 11-4). Make no mistake, the PCA exonerated Meyers and Leithart—not “that” presbytery, or “that” SJC [Standing Judicial Commission]. And this grieves my conscience. If the PCA can flex Westminster to accommodate not only non-Reformed practice, but now the anti-Reformed, Gospel-corrupting doctrines of the FV, then the PCA as a whole is no longer meaningfully confessional.

There are two key points that Phelps makes here. One is that Leithart and Meyers have been declared to be ministers in good standing by minor (narrower) assemblies of the PCA. The second key point is that in the PCA these decisions are considered to be binding for the whole denomination. In addition to these two points there is a third that is the clincher, in my estimation, for concluding that the FV has the approval of the PCA as a denomination. Phelps mentions this third point earlier in the article. The PCA’s broadest assembly had opportunity to overturn the decisions of the narrower assemblies through its SJC. Instead the SJC (representing the General Assembly) upheld the decisions to exonerate Leithart and Meyers.[2] This means that the decisions to exonerate these men, having been challenged and upheld, must even more be viewed “as actions of the whole church.”

The FV is not a threat lurking outside the walls of the city. Nor is it merely in the city lurking in the shadows. The FV is in the palace and spread throughout the city. It won’t be long, if it hasn’t already happened, that it will take over the palace and rule the entire city of the PCA. Let every Reformed denomination take heed!

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[1] Phelps’ analysis is that “where the rubber (a solid study committee report) meets the road (actually holding errant ministers accountable to Westminster), the tires blew out.”

[2] The SJC did not treat the teachings of Leithart and Meyers, but on the basis of legal technicalities decided to uphold the decisions to exonerate them.  The SJC’s attempt not to take a position failed because by supporting the decisions to exonerate Leithart and Meyers the SJC gave approval for the FV to exist in the PCA. 

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