The Status of the Federal Vision in the URCNA

Yesterday I posted this article about the decision of Pastor Tony Phelps to leave the PCA. His decision to leave (explained in this article) is based on his conclusion that the PCA “has failed to be meaningfully confessional.” He explains various ways the PCA has departed from the Westminster Standards, pointing out that the PCA’s failure to hold ministers who teach the Federal Vision accountable is especially grievous. Because the Federal Vision (FV) has the approval of the PCA “as a whole” Phelps has left the denomination. I promised to write another article in response to the article by Phelps. Today we look at the other side of the decision Phelps made to leave the PCA—his decision to join the United Reformed Churches of North America (URC). And we consider the status of the FV in the URC.

About his decision to leave the PCA and join the URC Phelps writes,

I am grateful for the PCA’s zeal for the Great Commission. However, my conscience is grieved about the confessional state of the PCA. Therefore I am leaving the PCA, to seek to minister the Gospel with a clear conscience in a confessionally robust Reformed context. By the grace and providence of God, I will serve as an interim minister at Covenant United Reformed Church in Colorado Springs, CO. If the Lord wills, this may lead to a regular call there. Of course, there are no perfect denominations or federations. But according to Westminster’s biblical doctrine of the visible church, there are “more pure” and “less pure” churches. In the URCNA, officers subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity because they agree with the Word of God. Reformed faith and practice are not divorced, but the former necessarily shapes the latter. Not only is the FV repudiated on paper, but I have confidence that the URCNA will not provide a safe haven for the anti-Reformed, Gospel-corrupting doctrines of the FV.

If Phelps said he joined the URC because it is more committed to the Reformed Confessions than the PCA, I would probably not be inclined to argue with him. But Phelps describes the URC as “confessionally robust,” indicating that there are no concerns about the URC’s commitment to the Reformed Faith. But Phelps actually ought to have some of the same concerns in the URC about confessional commitment as he had in the PCA.

Phelps states that those who adhere to the confessions in the PCA “lost on Westminster’s language regarding creation “in the space of six days.”” In the URC Phelps will find men who deny the truth that God created “in the space of six days.” It is true that the URC does not subscribe to the Westminster Standards, and that the confessions the URC subscribes to may not be as explicit about six 24-hour day creation.[1] But if Phelps is committed to the biblical truth of creation, he will find that he has left one denomination that tolerates its denial to join another that allows the same thing.

Phelps should also be concerned about the status of the FV in the URC. I will not delve into the URC’s failure to get at the root of the Federal Vision (FV) heresy, which is a conditional doctrine of the covenant. The URC cannot be viewed as having dealt sufficiently with the FV because it has not killed the heresy at its root. It should be a grave concern to Phelps that there are many in the URC who are disciples of Klaas Schilder and strongly committed to the conditional doctrine of the covenant that is the root of the FV heresy. For more on this I point the reader to this book.

Phelps notes that the URC, like the PCA, has repudiated the FV “on paper.” First of all, he ought to question whether that is even true in the URC. If he means that the URC has adopted a report that condemns the FV by name and pointedly condemns teachings of the FV, he is mistaken. An anti-FV report was submitted to the URC Synod of 2010, but it was not adopted by that Synod. The Synod adopted 15 affirmations, which simply restate points of doctrine found already in the confessions. Of course the confessions that the URC adheres to condemn the FV. In that sense the URC “on paper” condemns the FV just as much as the PCA does with its Westminster Standards. But the question is, will the URC do what the PCA failed to do and use the confessions to hold FV men accountable?

There is reason to be concerned about the URC holding FV men accountable. The URC does not currently have a Peter Leithart or Jeff Meyers or anyone else who is a known advocate of the FV. But the URC did have some proponents of the heresy in its ranks in the past, John Barach perhaps being the most notable example. It is true that Barach and the others did not stay in the URC and find, to use the words of Phelps, “a safe haven” in the URC. But these FV men never faced any discipline when they were in the URC, even though there was ample opportunity for them to be disciplined.

The URC cannot be said to approve of FV theology in the same way the PCA approves of it, since the URC has not exonerated any FV men. There are also indications that some men in the URC will seek to implement discipline if someone in the denomination would openly teach the FV in the future. But like the PCA the URC had opportunity to use its Confessions to hold FV men accountable and failed to do so. This should temper the confidence of Phelps that “the URC will not provide safe-haven for the anti-Reformed, Gospel-denying doctrines of the FV.”

So when it comes to the FV has Phelps left a denomination that has failed to be confessional, the PCA, only to join another denomination that has failed to be confessional? In answer to that it must said that both denominations have failed to implement the Reformed Confessions’ doctrine of unconditional salvation to root out the erroneous conditional doctrine of the covenant that is the root of the FV. It must also be said that neither denomination has held FV men accountable for their heresy when they had opportunity. However, the URC has not given its stamp of approval to the FV as a denomination by exonerating men who teach FV doctrines. Therefore, there is some hope that the URC will use its confessions to hold FV men accountable if they should appear in the denomination again in the future. Hopefully the URC has taken notes and will learn from the PCA’s failure to be, in Phelps words, “meaningfully confessional.”

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[1] The Belgic Confession Art. 16 requires that Genesis 1 be read as history, which means that it requires that days of the creation week be understood as normal, 24-hour days. 

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