The PCA’s Bright Future—Without a Bigger Tent
The PCA doesn’t want a bigger tent.
That was the clear message sent last week to the 48th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in St. Louis, Missouri by a record number of commissioners. It’s a message that has ignited joy and optimism among many presbyters and laypeople who are decidedly opposed to expanding the PCA’s “big tent” to include Side B gay celibate Christianity and other potentially menacing cultural ideologies. For many, it seems, the tent is big enough.
No Room for Unbiblical Cultural Creeds
Since its inception in 1973, the PCA has been home to numerous expressions of Reformed Presbyterianism. Anyone familiar with the history of the PCA recognizes this distinct feature of our denomination. Some expressions of Reformed Presbyterianism in the PCA are more broadly evangelical, while others are more narrowly Reformed. Some emphasize doctrinal purity over evangelism, while others emphasize the reverse. We all try to be faithful in both, while doing neither without fault. It’s how we’ve done it for close to fifty years. We challenge and learn from one another, even when we disagree on how best to interpret and apply our confessional standards. And for the peace and purity of the church, we’ve agreed that some things do not belong in the PCA, causing more than a few to act with integrity and find an ecclesiastical home elsewhere.
To be sure, plenty of debate has occurred within our PCA family over the years. Like all denominations, we’ve had our fair share of controversy. At times our disputations have been intense. For example, think of the debates on Good Faith Subscription, Federal Vision, the Strategic Plan, and the Insider Movement. Nevertheless, we’ve carefully worked through our issues—biblically, confessionally, ecclesiastically—and managed to move forward in relative solidarity. It’s what we are doing again in response to the emergence of two culturally driven ideologies within our churches and presbyteries; namely, Side B gay Christianity and Critical Race Theory (CRT).
Creating space for these unbiblical cultural creeds in the PCA will facilitate serious and irreparable damage and division. Therefore, they must be rejected. There is no room for compromise. The Assembly’s voting margins from last week foster hope that the PCA’s future plans do not include tent expansion. We mustn’t make room for Side B and CRT.
The Big Issue
In the early 2000’s my wife and I lived in Edinburgh, Scotland. Our charming flat was in the heart of the city, just off Princes Street, in the iconic Rock House on Calton Hill. We walked everywhere—to church, to university, to parks, to friends’ homes, and to the grocery store. It was lovely. A not-so-pleasant feature of our walks, however, was being regularly accosted by sellers of The Big Issue, a magazine that serves to fight poverty in the UK. Vendors refused to take no for an answer, and often voiced their frustration with colorful language. They were certainly passionate about promoting their Big Issue.
So what’s the PCA’s big issue?
Maintaining biblical fidelity, confessional integrity, and mission priority in an increasingly post-Christian culture.
That’s our big issue. But how do we—the PCA—stay true to our doctrine and mission without accommodating the culture, especially in the strong wake of the sexual and social-justice revolutions? How do we carry out our mission without over-contextualizing and changing our message? Answers to these questions divide us. Indeed, after countless exchanges over the years with brothers who identify with the ethos of the National Partnership, one common theme continues to surface. It’s that we, the PCA, mustn’t do anything to unnecessarily alienate the culture, lose a hearing with the lost, or be inhospitable to the sexually broken. This includes statements and overtures such as the Nashville Statement and this year’s Overture 23.
Overture 23 is a motion, passed by this year’s General Assembly, to amend the PCA Book of Church Order by adding the following to chapter 16:
16-4. Officers in the Presbyterian Church in America must be above reproach in their walk and Christlike in their character. Those who profess an identity (such as, but not limited to, “gay Christian,” “same sex attracted Christian,” “homosexual Christian,” or like terms) that undermines or contradicts their identity as new creations in Christ, either by denying the sinfulness of fallen desires (such as, but not limited to, same sex attraction), or by denying the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, or by failing to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions are not qualified for ordained office.
According to many of my brothers associated with the National Partnership, adopting statements and overtures like the Nashville Statement and Overture 23 burns bridges with the lost and deeply wounds the sexually broken. For many (most?) others in the PCA, however, they are critical tools of discipleship in an age of profound confusion and ecclesiastical compromise. They provide clarity for our churches, helping ordinary folks in the pew to stand firm while many choose to bow down to the idols of our culture. They tether our congregations to objective truth as the culture continues to drift into a sea of hyper-subjectivism.
The impulse to be outward-facing and welcoming to our fallen and broken world is a good one, a biblical one. But we must never accommodate error in our attempt to be winsome. This wasn’t the modus operandi of Jesus, the prophets, or the apostles. It mustn’t be ours either. It can never be repeated enough: We are called to speak the truth, with clarity and love. And if ever there was a time for the church to speak with clarity about sexual ethics, biblical justice, and qualifications for ordination, it is now. The future health and mission of the PCA depend on it.
PCA GA 2022 | Birmingham
Responses to last week’s Assembly among “conservatives” have been interesting. Some state that nothing has really changed, especially since ratifying Overtures 23 and 37 requires two-thirds of the presbyteries to approve them, along with a final vote at next summer’s General Assembly. Others assert that the PCA has decidedly rejected progressive Christianity. Both are wrong.
As mentioned above, there is much to be encouraged about from the 48th General Assembly in St. Louis. A strong message was voiced about who should serve on permanent committees, who should lead mission teams, what should be required of ordinands, and what should not be included under the PCA’s big tent. But there is still much work to be done in these and other areas. Therefore, in light of all that is before us, I want to warmly encourage you to do four things:
First, pray for the Presbyterian Church in America. Debate on Facebook and Twitter less, and pray more. Exchange the hours of quarrelsome bickering online for seasons of heartfelt prayer. Make prayer for the PCA a priority in your closet, living room, and sanctuary. Call upon the name of the Lord for the future health and ministry of our denomination. Our covenant God hears and answers prayer.
Second, make plans to attend the 49th PCA General Assembly in Birmingham, Alabama (June 21–24, 2022). Mark it on your calendar now. Seriously. Do it now. Make sure that your full allotment of voting elders is present. The future health of the Presbyterian Church in America depends, in part, on heavy participation of teaching and ruling elders in the courts of the church this coming year.
Third, find out the dates of your up-and-coming presbytery meetings and make plans to attend. Be sure that your session is aware of what is going on in the denomination and what votes are forthcoming. An informed PCA will be a healthier and more Reformed PCA.
Fourth, make plans to attend the “Meeting of Concerned PCA Teaching and Ruling Elders” on Saturday, September 25th from 9:00am–3:00pm. The one-day meeting at in Greenville, South Carolina will be a forum to consider the pressing issues facing the PCA. It will also be a time to pray, sing, hear from our leaders, and consider together positive strategies and practical ways to steer our beloved denomination in the direction of theological and confessional fidelity. We hope that you will mark your calendar today and make plans to attend. Please note that the meeting is limited to PCA teaching and ruling elders (more information, including registration, is forthcoming).
Fifth, engage opposing viewpoints with honor and brotherly love—both online and in person. Sadly, some signers of the “Open Letter” who advocated for peaceful unity in the PCA prior to (and at) the Assembly are now undermining it with divisive tweets and highly partisan emails. To be sure, we’ve all failed at times to speak well of one another in the midst of disagreement. Even so, perhaps this coming year we can all commit to theological engagement that is marked by humility and love. Some of my favorite interactions at this year’s Assembly were with dear brothers in Christ with whom I disagree on key issues facing the PCA. Despite our significant differences concerning those issues, let’s remember that we are brothers, not enemies.
The Gospel Reformation Network is joyfully anticipating a busy year ahead as we seek—along with many of you—to cultivate a warm-hearted, confessional Presbyterianism in our beloved PCA. Be on the lookout for future GRN initiatives, resources, and events, as together we humbly and prayerfully labor for the PCA’s bright future—without a bigger tent.
 There were 2,140 teaching and ruling elders (commissioners) at this year’s General Assembly. The previous record number of commissioners, 1,652, was in 2019.
 See Rosaria Butterfield’s article, “What is Wrong with Gay Christianity? What is Side A and Side B Anyway?“
 For more on this subject see my two-part GRN article entitled, “Mere Presbyterianism: A Positive Way Forward for the PCA.”
 The overture passed by a vote of 1438 to 417.