The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is at a crossroads. Nobody likes it. Everyone recognizes it. It’s gut-wrenching, especially for seasoned PCA presbyters and longtime church members. The Open Letter, written by a plurality of anonymous PCA teaching and ruling elders and published on June 2, 2021, is further evidence of the division and strife that have been growing among us in recent years. To date over 600 PCA teaching and ruling elders have signed the letter, including former moderators and several ministers of prominent churches.
First of all, any impulse to foster peace and unity in the PCA is a good one, a biblical one (John 17; Rom. 15:5–6). I, too, long for Christian unity. Like the authors and signers of the Open Letter, I want to sincerely declare with the psalmist (regarding the PCA), “How good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” I want the sublime metaphor of Psalm 133 to be true of our denomination (both objectively and subjectively); that just as the “precious oil” was poured on Aaron’s head and ran down his beard and robes, so Spirit-wrought unity would run from our living head, Jesus Christ, down to His body, the Church. Isn’t this the Spirit-filled longing of every genuine disciple? If not, it certainly should be. It must be! But here’s the thing:
True unity is impossible apart from unity in the truth. Biblical fidelity and confessional integrity serve as the glue that holds the PCA together. Without it, we will eventually come apart.
Now, I recognize that no one is arguing against this glue. So-called conservatives and progressives (unfortunate labels—we are brothers in Christ!) both profess to uphold the Scriptures and our Reformed Confession. Nevertheless, it’s our different interpretations and applications of the Scriptures and Standards that divide us. It’s our disparate visions for the future health and extension of the PCA, especially in light of present cultural challenges, that separate us. It’s our divergent views of Christian mission and discipleship that foster division. The Open Letter alludes to these differences, appropriately highlighting worship and mission. The different ways we interpret and apply our Reformed Confession, however, do not make us enemies (though, sadly, we sometimes behave like they do). But if we are honest, they do foster more than a little discord in our presbyteries and churches.
Is there a way forward for the PCA? Yes! Is genuine unity possible? Yes, of course, it is! But unity must always be grounded in truth and held together by love.
At best, unity that marginalizes truth and forgets love is a superficial unity that has us wearing the same uniform but playing on different fields. At worst, a superficial unity will be the undoing of the PCA—a heartbreaking prospect. Incidentally, the Open Letter calls for unity while simultaneously dismissing the legitimate concerns of a large contingent of PCA elders and laity (e.g. Revoice doctrine, sanctification, Critical Race Theory). I deeply appreciate the authors’ appeal for peace and unity in our denomination as we head to the 48th General Assembly in St Louis. O Lord, may it be so! However, unity is impossible apart from unity in the truth. Unity cannot be accomplished merely by strong calls to unity for the sake of the church. The Doctor was right:
We must never start with the visible church or with an institution, but rather with the truth, which alone creates unity. — D. M. Lloyd-Jones
The following is a humble response to the Open Letter.
A mentor of mine once shared some helpful ministry advice. “Never read a critical letter without a name attached to it.” Now, I understand that there might be exceptions to this rule. In general, however, if someone doesn’t have the courage to own their letter, no one should feel obligated to read it or take it seriously.
The Open Letter is written by a mysterious “group of pastors and elders” who love the PCA. Okay, fair enough. The problem is that the letter is filled with strong assertions and opinions, and is having a widespread impact among PCA elders and congregations. Not that strong assertions, opinions, and the impact that they create are wrong. But wouldn’t we all agree that transparency is important? Whether it was three men or twenty, the authors of this Open Letter to the PCA should publicly own it, and not just sign their name to it with hundreds of other signatories from across the PCA.
One of the purposes of the Open Letter is to admonish those who are causing unnecessary and harmful division in the PCA. Ironically, the letter deepens the divide with its uncharitable assumptions, patronizing dismissiveness of real concerns, and its call for signatures. The signature page is in fact heightening suspicions and speculations in the PCA, and not decreasing them.
In our recent GRN Conference, “O Church, Arise,” we expressed genuine concerns over the influence of Revoice (Side B Gay Christianity), Social Justice, Critical Race Theory, and confessional integrity in our churches and presbyteries. Almost every orthodox denomination in America is, in some measure, experiencing the pressure and effects of present-day cultural revolutions (i.e., sexual revolution and CRT). However, instead of expressing sympathy towards the legitimate concerns of thousands around the PCA, the Open Letter highlights a slanderous claim that “there are PCA pastors who desire to ordain practicing homosexuals,” a claim that I’ve never heard. Not even once. Rather than give attention to the real pressing issues facing the PCA, the Open Letter regrettably diverts the reader’s attention to a Red Herring.
Theological controversy is wearisome. Even so, if a denomination wants to avoid doctrinal drift, it’s necessary. Those who decry controversy in the church are naive at best. Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions were forged amidst controversy. Church history is chalked full of controversy because doctrinal error and seductive heresies are like weeds in a garden. They’re always popping up in one form or another. In the age of blogs and social media the weeds of doctrinal error grow and spread faster than ever. Indeed, an online article, post, or tweet disseminating error, confusion, or falsehood can potentially be on hundreds or even thousands of screens in a short period of time. In many cases this makes public response prudent and imperative. It would appear from the Open Letter that the authors and signatories might disagree with me on this point, except for the fact that the letter is, well, public. They entered their letter into the fray of controversy. I’m not bothered by their desire to do so, just that they don’t want others to have the same privilege.
Public debate and online responses do not preclude private conversations and ecclesiastical processes. We need to talk to one another. But public responses are, at times, vital to exposing error, defending biblical truth, and encouraging the laity. The gathering of church courts are infrequent, and public responses are sometimes (but not all the time!) necessary. You may remember that Paul openly rebuked Peter. Indeed, for Peter’s visible hypocrisy, Paul publicly admonished him “before them all” (Gal. 2:11–14). Of course, publicly questioning or admonishing a brother must always be motivated by love and exercised with great patience and care. Late night social media spats are not conducive to measured dialogue on controversial issues facing the PCA. Perhaps that’s one thing we can all agree on!
A Word to the Authors and Signatories of the Open Letter
My fellow blood-bought brothers in Christ, I thank God for His grace in your lives, and am in agreement with much of what you’ve written and signed-off on in your Open Letter. I am genuinely grateful for your deep love for Christ, the PCA, and the watching world who needs Him as desperately as we do. Please receive this response to your letter in the spirit in which it is offered, without animus and from a heart of sincere love for you, for God, and for our denomination.
I truly believe that you want what is best for our denomination and for every presbyter, including myself. I, too, do not want to live with the regret of “missed opportunities” to cultivate a strong and unified PCA. Believe it or not, that is why we took time to host our recent GRN conference. Like you, we care deeply about the PCA. Like you, we love the PCA and long for strong and lasting unity in the truth. Dear brothers, I sincerely hope and pray that we can come to a united understanding and application of the truth.
The future of the PCA surely depends on it.