Mere Presbyterianism
A Positive Way Forward for the PCA

During the Second World War, C.S. Lewis delivered a series of engaging addresses on BBC radio that served as a basic defense of the Christian Faith. The Oxford professor’s talks were later adapted into a book called Mere Christianity. It is a modern classic. The captivating title underscores Lewis’s attempt to furnish a plain case for Christianity that most Christian believers, regardless of tradition, could agree upon. Published during a turbulent period of history, when many were struggling with doubt and disillusionment, the timely volume benefited both skeptic and saint. The world, it seems, was ripe for Mere Christianity.

Recently, while reflecting upon Lewis’s classic apology, I wondered if the Presbyterian Church in America might be ripe for an appeal to Mere Presbyterianism; that is, a plain case for the recovery of basic tenets of Confessional Presbyterianism. Even the most casual observer recognizes that our almost half-century-old denomination is going through somewhat of an identity crisis. Indeed, fairly significant fault lines have formed as it concerns doctrine, worship, and mission. Maybe it’s time for our churches to carefully reconsider our Reformed and confessional roots. Perhaps we need to be reminded of that which should be foundational and unifying to a denomination that seeks to be “true to the Reformed Faith” and publicly avows the Westminster Standards as our system of doctrine. A widespread recovery of Mere Presbyterianism could potentially serve to heal division, cultivate unity, and restore confidence in the PCA’s future.1

At the 2010 PCA General Assembly in Nashville, TN, Tim Keller and Ligon Duncan engaged in a public discussion about the future of the PCA. They sought to answer the question, “Can the PCA hold together?” Keller described the DNA of the PCA as consisting of three main manifestations or “camps” of American Presbyterianism—  doctrinalists, pietists, and culturalists. He portrayed the doctrinalists as being mainly concerned with sound theology and confessional integrity. He described the pietists as being primarily focused on personal evangelism, conversion, and holiness. The culturalists were characterized as those who were chiefly attentive to transforming culture and society. Of course, all three of these camps were discussed as possessing a strong commitment to the gospel, the Westminster Standards, and the Great Commission.

Whether or not one agrees with Keller’s denominational nomenclatures is not the point here. His assessment is a reminder that the PCA is not, nor has ever been, a homogenous communion. Since our founding in December of 1973 we have had differing expressions of Reformed Presbyterianism within our ranks. Some have argued that this is what makes the PCA so compelling. Our differences help us to challenge and encourage one another in healthy ways.

For example, the more evangelistic pastors challenge the more doctrinally-focused pastors to be more faithful and creative in reaching the lost. Alternatively, the more doctrinally-focused pastors challenge the more evangelistic pastors to pay closer attention to their doctrine. Those who are especially attentive to personal and corporate piety will encourage and challenge those passionate about impacting the culture to not neglect their own souls and the souls of those whom God has placed under their care. On the other hand, those who place an accent on impacting culture will challenge and encourage those focused on piety to be aware of the many ways that the church can and should be salt and light in our communities. You get the picture. We need each other. We are the body of Christ.

If we, as presbyters, possess a deep humility and a willingness to learn from one another, our different emphases — within confessional bounds — will strengthen the whole, rather than tear it apart. I might not always be comfortable with the way my fellow presbyters apply the Reformed Faith (and vice versa). Nevertheless, with a spirit of charity and brotherly affection, I could happily serve out the remainder of my days in a denomination where there is a common, earnest, and sincere commitment to Mere Presbyterianism — a presbyterianism that is neither more narrow nor more broad than our Confessional standards permit.

The problem comes, of course, when PCA pastors, churches, and networks are not genuinely committed to Mere Presbyterianism. The problem arises when presbyters are more dedicated to progressivism, heterodoxy (think Federal Vision), or shallow forms of evangelicalism than to the Reformed Faith and Confession. Movements like these, especially the progressive tendency to negotiate biblical truth for cultural relevance (and acceptance), are outside the pale of Reformed orthodoxy. If individuals and groups like these do not exercise integrity and admit a departure from their ordination vows, division will ensue.

Without getting into the weeds of the strict vs. good faith subscription debate, I simply want to encourage my fellow PCA teaching and ruling elders to prioritize in our churches that which our Reformed Confession prioritizes, especially as it concerns the Gospel, worship, confessionalism, piety, and missions. To be clear, this call to Mere Presbyterianism is not an appeal for confessional or theological reductionism. On the contrary, it’s an earnest plea for confessional integrity.

In a follow-up article, I will briefly unpack each of these foundational aspects of Reformed and Confessional Presbyterianism, and I will attempt to explain why greater uniformity in these areas is essential to a bright and healthy future for the Presbyterian Church in America.