PCA’s General Assembly does not condemn, or even mention, the Federal Vision

Reports about the Presbyterian Church in America’s 2016 General Assembly focus on the issues of racial reconciliation and the ordination of women deacons and some sundry other matters. I am contemplating writing an analysis of the PCA’s decision to appoint a study committee to look into the ordination of women deacons in the near future. For now I offer interested readers links here, here, and here. But today I write about a more serious problem, which is THE most serious problem the PCA faces, the Federal Vision (FV). The FV, more than the movement to ordain women into church office, is a direct assault on the gospel of Jesus Christ. For years now the PCA has tolerated and officially exonerated proponents of the FV. Some of the men have taught the FV for over 10 years in the PCA and yet have not been disciplined for their heresy. There are some in the PCA who claim to be enemies of the FV. But, year after year, nothing is done in the ecclesiastical courts to address the issue. Thus, the main takeaway from the PCA’s 2016 general assembly is that the denomination continues to provide a safe-haven for the Federal Vision.

Peter Leithart, perhaps once the most notorious advocate of the FV in the PCA (he asked the denomination to examine his theology and won exoneration at the General Assembly level) no longer resides in the denomination. He has sauntered over to the openly FV CERC. But several FV men remain at home in the PCA with virtually uninterrupted tranquility.

Oh, in the past, some of these men faced charges for their heresy and struggled through the turmoil of being examined by ecclesiastical courts. But in the end they were all exonerated. Jeff Meyers (exonerated by the Missouri Presbytery) and Greg Lawrence (exonerated by the Siouxlands Presbytery) are the primary examples of such men.

Others have openly stated their positions, either espousing Federal Vision theology or defending those who teach it (which is just as condemnable), have never faced any serious threat to their standing in the denomination. Joshua Moon defended Greg Lawrence, Rob Rayburn defended Peter Leithart, and Mark Horn defended and works closely with Jeff Meyers. To my knowledge none of these men have repudiated their false doctrines or faced any ecclesiastical censure for them—peace and quiet is all they know in the PCA. 

There is a “conservative” wing in the PCA that expresses some criticism of PCA’s tolerance of various errors. This conservative wing of the PCA, if Rick Philips may be viewed as one of its representatives, wants to hold on to long-held beliefs and practices. But there is a willingness to have unity and peace with those who reject these long-held beliefs and practices. Philips does not want the denomination to impose changes from the top down (see the article linked to his name). That would be detrimental for the unity of the PCA according to Philips. The fact that there are two different views on certain issues, one that harmonizes with scripture and the Reformed Confessions and one that contradicts Scripture and the Reformed Confessions, apparently does mean for Philips the unity has already been destroyed. These conservatives seem content with life in the PCA as long as new views (women’s ordination, Federal Vision) are not imposed on them. This must be the explanation, at least in part, for why there is no effort to censure those who promote unorthodox ideas on the PCA.

The PCA needs, but apparently does not have many, Confessionalists—men who confess, teach, and defend the Reformed Confessions. It needs men who will maintain the confessions as the standard of truth and orthodoxy and insist adherence to the standard. It needs men who will insist on adherence to the standard by means of discipline. As long as the PCA allows people within its fellowship to contradict the confessions without facing consequences, then the conclusion must be that the denomination is no longer as a whole substantially confessional.

That 2016 will pass without anything being done in the PCA to deal with the Federal Vision raises a very serious question for the Reformed churches of North America—how long can fellowship be maintained with the PCA? This is a very pressing question for NAPARC, the most “conservative” council of Reformed churches in North America. In 1995 the CRC, then a member of NAPARC, approved women in office. In 1997 NAPARC expelled the CRC from its membership. The FV more directly attacks the gospel than the ordination of women, yet the PCA remains a member of NAPARC, despite many more than two years of providing cover for gospel-denying heresy. The PCA’s membership in NAPARC contradicts the council’s desire and claim to be a council of confessionally committed denominations.

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This post was written by Rev. Clayton Spronk, pastor of Faith Protestant Reformed Church in Jenison, Michigan.

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Why the PCA is a Safe-Haven for the Federal Vision Heresy

Dewey Roberts provides an explanation for why the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) has failed to discipline Peter Leithart. Roberts is convinced that the Federal Vision is a heretical movement. Peter Leithart, a pastor in the PCA, publicly identifies himself with the Federal Vision movement. Therefore Roberts openly charges Leithart with “departure from the Westminster Confession of Faith (The PCA’s main confessional standard).” For the sake of God’s glory, the purity of the PCA, and the soul of Peter Leithart, Roberts involved himself in taking the proper ecclesiastical steps to attempt to correct Leithart and to condemn the Federal Vision. Roberts served as a prosecutor against Leithart in a 2013 in a case known as “Hedman vs. Pacific Northwest Presbytery.”

The trial did not end the way Roberts thought it should. The decision of the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), the PCA’s highest ecclesiastical court, writes Roberts, “had the effect of exonerating Leithart and his views regarding Federal Vision…” So Peter Leithart and other adherents to the Federal Vision enjoy safe-haven in the PCA. Not that all is peaceful and tranquil in the PCA ocean. On the contrary the waves of controversy and schism are raging. Officially Peter Leithart and others with him in the Federal Vision camp are in good standing in the PCA. But many of their colleagues believe Leithart and his clan are heretics and openly identify them as such. What a deplorable situation! Open warfare is taking place in the PCA!

Roberts believes that the PCA is losing the war because, at least in the Leithart case, the denomination has chosen to play politics rather than to address the un-Reformed teachings of the Federal Vision. Or as Roberts puts it, “Polity Trumped Theology.”

The SJC refused to enter into the content and arguments of the Leithart case.  According to Roberts the SJC took the position that higher courts must “defer to the decisions of lower courts where the right procedure has been used.” The SJC made a ruling about the polity of the lower courts, but it refused to enter into the theology involved in the case. This is why Roberts says polity trumped theology.

But this doesn’t mean Roberts believes that the SJC did in fact properly follow the PCA’s Church Order. He pointed the SJC to an article in the PCA’s Church Order that ascribes to the “higher court…the power and obligation of judicial review, which cannot be satisfied by always deferring to the findings of a lower court.” The article requires the SJC to “interpret and apply the Constitution of the Church according to its best abilities and understanding regardless of the opinion of the lower court.” The Westminster Confession of Faith is part of the PCA’s Constitution. According to Roberts, the Church Order placed a twofold duty on the SJC in the Leithart case, (1) to make sure the lower courts followed proper procedures and (2) to “review and [make] confessional determinations.” The SJC fulfilled the first requirement and ignored the second. Roberts writes, “In the Leithart case, either FV is in accord with the Westminster Confession of Faith or it is not.” But the SJC made no ruling about Leithart’s teachings in comparison to the WCF. In other words the “polity police” pretended that there is no church orderly way to deal with false doctrine.

I find no fault with Roberts’ conclusion that polity trumped theology in the Leithart case. After the decision was announced, I read lengthy discussions online where those who supported the decision steadfastly refused to discuss Leithart’s teachings and insisted on focusing on “the process.” It was obvious to me that they were more interested in polity than in doctrine.

However I do not believe that an overemphasis on polity and an underemphasis on doctrine is really at the root of why the PCA is providing safe-haven for the Federal Vision. The reality is that in the PCA there is either an appalling lack of concern about the Federal Vision or an even more appalling mass of silent supporters for the movement (or a combination of both).

Those who openly supported the decision of the SJC that used procedural grounds to uphold the decisions of lower courts to exonerate Peter Leithart do not want anyone to think that they approve of his theology. But when questioned about their judgment of Leithart’s theology they respond with deafening silence. That silence was heard on the internet in the immediate aftermath of the decision. They defended the decision on procedural grounds. They argued the decision did not exonerate the theology of Leithart and the Federal Vision. So it was almost expected that they would voice their condemnation of the Federal Vision but…they never did. Their silence is even more deafening in the ecclesiastical courts. Where are these experts on proper procedure? If they know how to do things properly to ensure that the Federal Vision will be condemned, why do they not bring charges against Leithart and the others in the PCA who share his heretical views? They have not lacked for time and opportunity. Leithart and his party of heretics have walked in the open in the PCA with their views for years now. The only plausible conclusion is that they lack the conviction needed to root the Federal Vision out of the denomination.

That the PCA’s problems are deeper than a focus on polity in the Leithart case has not escaped Roberts’ attention. He writes, “it is my contention that . . . Hedman’s complaint was not really lost in March, 2013; it was lost long before then. It was lost in 2007.” Roberts’ mention of 2007 is intriguing. It is the year that the General Assembly treated a controversial report on the Federal Vision. Roberts indeed has that report in mind when he speaks of 2007. He writes,

On the day the General Assembly was scheduled to vote on the Report of the Ad-Interim Study Committee on Federal Vision, New Perspective, and Auburn Avenue Theologies, a fellow minister told me that the GA would not decide the issue that day. He said that there were a lot of “big guns” that were going to oppose the report and it would not be settled at or by that Assembly. Well, the Ad-Interim Report was adopted, but those “big guns” had been maneuvering behind the scenes for several years to make the Federal Vision a non-issue.

I am not sure that Roberts meant to offer a devastating criticism of the adoption of the 2007 report. He seems to be focusing only on the fact that there was a movement to protect the Federal Vision going back to 2007 and even before. Nevertheless, his statement exposes the PCA’s folly in adopting the report. The statement demonstrates that the hope of many that adopting the report would give the PCA the tool it needed to exterminate the Federal Vision was nothing but a vain wish. It also demonstrates that the critics were right who contended that the adopting an anti-Federal Vision report was the wrong thing to do when there were Federal Vision heretics who needed to be disciplined. In 2007 the PCA acted like a farmer who determines that instead of taking steps to kill the dangerous weeds in his field that he will write a paper that identifies and condemns them. And if six years later (when the Leithart case was tried) the farmer still has not taken the steps to eradicate the weeds the only conclusion to be drawn is that he is a foolish farmer who wants the weeds to stay in his fields.

The PCA’s fixation on polity is indeed a serious problem. But it is only a symptom of the deeper problem that many of the “guns” in the PCA, big and little, lack the commitment to the Reformed Confessions that is required for warfare against the Federal Vision. This does not mean that they are cowards who won’t fight and fire their guns. They are fighting. Viciously and tenaciously. By wicked means. To keep the Federal Vision in the PCA. And to silence those who oppose the heresy. Men of courage and boldness are needed to wage warfare against such enemies. Sadly, it may be too late for the PCA.

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This post was written by Rev. Clayton Spronk, pastor of Faith Protestant Reformed Church in Jenison, Michigan.

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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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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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