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