Out of the Frying Pan…
Five congregations in Illinois have completed the process of leaving the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and joining the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). I mentioned in an earlier report about the exit of these congregations from the RCA that I hoped they would explain the grounds for their action sometime in the future. Ben Kappers, lead pastor of the First PCA of Lansing, IL (formerly First RCA), explained why he and his congregation left the RCA in an article published on February 12, 2015 (before the March 1 publication of my previous report but after the date I turned in the report).
About leaving the RCA Pastor Kappers wrote,
As hard as it may be, it is time to leave. It’s necessary. It’s a matter of conscience. The Reformed Church in America has fundamentally changed in the past few years. The conscience clauses, which allowed complementarians to function in the RCA without fear of discrimination or formal charges, have been removed. The Belhar Confession, which contains theological statements we cannot affirm, was adopted as a fourth confession of the church. The RCA continues to neglect to discipline those who openly rebel against God’s design for human sexuality. While on paper the RCA’s position on sexuality is biblical, it seems to be inching ever closer to a “third way” approach to the issue where each congregation is permitted to determine for itself whether to conduct LGBT weddings. Many of the professors at our seminaries promote an “open and affirming” position; one of those professors has written a very popular book advocating for “full inclusion.”
But what ultimately requires us to leave the RCA is a lack of commitment to the inerrancy and authority of the Scriptures. While our confessions state, “Everything God reveals in his Word is true,” the doctrine of inerrancy is not only conspicuously absent from all official documents and affirmations, but openly rejected within the seminaries. Without a common, Spirit-wrought, foundational belief in the absolute perfection and authority of God’s Word there can be no true reform. This is why our consciences compel us to transfer. With sadness we have determined that it is time to stop pouring energy and resources into denominational strategies and reform efforts. We need to refocus on the proclamation of the gospel here in Lansing and around the world. The time has come to ensure that the First Church we hand off to our children stands firmly on the solid rock of Jesus Christ and his inerrant Word.1
The five congregations certainly had good reasons for leaving the RCA. But it is not accurate to paint the picture as if the denomination “fundamentally changed” only in the “past few years.” And the attitude that allows one to say it is possible to stay in a denomination even though the denomination officially approves of women’s ordination because there is a “conscience clause” that allows members to object to this position is simply wrong. Nevertheless, Pastor Kappers and his congregation had good reasons for leaving the RCA. The publication of these reasons is a call—a call to every member of the RCA who desires to remain faithful to the Word of God as it is confessed by the Reformed faith to come out of the RCA. A call and, therefore, a warning! God’s judgment has fallen on the RCA, as is evident from the serious sins that have taken root and are spreading throughout the denomination. It is time to flee the RCA. Now! But what about joining the PCA?
…And into the Fire?
In my previous report I criticized the decision of these former RCA congregations to join the PCA, writing, “the PCA has officially approved of the heresy of the Federal Vision, which denies the very heart of the gospel—justification by faith alone! And some years ago the PCA changed its requirements for subscription to its confessional standards, which has resulted in the PCA allowing people to hold numerous positions (even publicly) that are contrary to historic Reformed and Presbyterian doctrines.” On the day (Feb. 5) that I submitted that report, former PCA pastor Tony Phelps published an article explaining that these are substantially the reasons why he decided to leave the PCA.
In explaining how the PCA has departed from her official creeds, Phelps begins by pointing out that the PCA allows congregations to worship in ways that are contrary to the regulative principle of worship as spelled out in the Westminster Standards. About worship in the PCA Phelps writes,
Worship in some PCA churches may look broadly evangelical, even quasi-charismatic, but not distinctively and necessarily Reformed. In the name of being “missional,” some churches craft their worship in an effort to be “relevant” and reach a particular demographic niche. Practically, for them, the RPW has been reinterpreted as the “relevant principle of worship.” Other churches may adopt more “traditional” liturgy. Not because it is biblical, but also for pragmatic considerations, to reach or cater to another particular demographic. Some influenced by the Federal Vision movement may go in the higher church direction— using vestments and a more ceremonial liturgy— embracing an idiosyncratic worship that is not Reformed (nor Lutheran nor Anglican for that matter). Still other PCA churches seek to be intentionally Reformed (i.e., biblically regulated) in their worship.2
Phelps explains that the toleration of anti-biblical/ anti-confessional worship “bothered” him, but he did not leave the denomination because he “took comfort” that the PCA was committed to missions and “[held] to the Reformed faith (for the most part).” But developments in the PCA have led to him to write, “This comfort has been lost for me,” and to conclude that “the PCA as a whole is no longer meaningfully confessional.”
Phelps has concluded that the PCA does not hold to the Reformed faith because he believes that the PCA “as a whole” has exonerated Peter Leithart and Jeffrey Meyers. Phelps applauded the study committee report brought to the General Assembly of the PCA in 2007. The study committee, he writes, “did a fine job of pointing out where various FV teachings cannot be reconciled to Westminster.” But study committees and their reports “are not binding.” This became apparent in the trials of Leithart and Meyers who “were tried and exonerated by their respective presbyteries.” Furthermore, “Leithart’s exoneration was complained against—and yet the Standing Judicial Commission of the PCA’s General Assembly upheld that exoneration on procedural grounds.”
Phelps recognizes that the FV is a serious error. He writes, “the Gospel itself is directly undermined by the FV. Leithart’s formulation would be more at home in Rome than Westminster.”
Phelps conclusion is that “as a whole” the PCA tolerates “the anti-Reformed, Gospel-corrupting doctrines of the FV.” Likely some would object that the PCA General Assembly has not explicitly approved the FV. And some would likely object by pointing out that the Standing Judicial Commission of the General Assembly that approved Leithart’s exoneration argued that its decision was not to be construed as approving his theology. Phelps appeals to the PCA’s “Book of Church Order” in support of his conclusion that the PCA as a whole has exonerated Leithart and Meyers. “According to PCA polity,” he writes, “the actions of one court of the PCA are the actions of the whole church.” So he writes, “Make no mistake, the PCA exonerated Meyers and Leithart–not ‘that’ presbytery, or ‘that SJC.’”
There may be some debate about whether the PCA has decided “as a whole” to “accommodate” the FV. But to the shame of the PCA no one can argue with Phelps that “Leithart and Meyers remain ministers in good standing in the PCA” despite the fact that they openly teach the FV. So far the ecclesiastical assemblies in the PCA have given Leithart and Meyers the freedom to remain in the denomination and continue to teach their FV views. As of right now the PCA is a place of safe haven for the FV.
It is possible that the PCA’s General Assembly will one day condemn the views of Leithart and Meyers. But Phelps sees the decisions to exonerate Leithart and Meyers as part of a general negative trend. He writes, “Confessional men have lost every important battle over the years. They lost on Westminster’s language regarding creation ‘in the space of six days.’ They lost on confessional subscription. And…they lost on the FV.” Phelps believes that the “tune” of confessional men in the PCA has changed. “Ten plus years ago, they were fighting for the heritage and identity of the PCA as a confessional church.” But now the tune he hears is, “Well, as long as I am not hassled for my confessional commitments in the PCA, I see no reason to leave. At least I can be a testimony to confessional Presbyterianism. Besides, if the ‘conservatives’ leave, the PCA will slide into rank apostasy.” In response, Phelps rhetorically asks, “Isn’t that an admission that the PCA as a whole is not substantially confessional?”
At about the same time five congregations left the unfaithful RCA denomination for the PCA, Phelps left the PCA because of her unfaithfulness.
And the URC?
Phelps left the PCA for the United Reformed Church in North America (URCNA). Phelps writes, “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, Gospelcorrupting doctrines of the FV.”
It is striking that Phelps does not mention anything about the views of creation that are tolerated in the URCNA. In light of his criticism of the PCA’s toleration of anti-confessional views on creation, it seems safe to infer that he takes the position that the Reformed creeds teach that creation took place in the space of six literal (24 hour) days. In the URCNA he will find people who publicly oppose that Reformed teaching. It would be interesting to know if Phelps is “comfortable” with the different views of creation that the URCNA tolerates.
The URCNA is more committed to the Reformed confessions than the PCA, but there are two areas of departure that ought greatly concern Phelps and everyone else in the Reformed/Presbyterian church world. Over against the teaching of the Reformed confessions that God’s grace is sovereign and particular, the URCNA tolerates common grace, which teaches that there is a certain love of God for everyone, a love of God that does not sovereignly save all who are its object. And over against the teaching of the confessions that salvation is an unconditional work of God, the URCNA teaches that salvation, in the context of the covenant, is conditional. The reason that it is vitally important for the Reformed/Presbyterian church world to recognize that common grace and a conditional covenant are anticonfessional is that these teachings open the way to the Federal Vision.
The URCNA is not a safe haven for any men like Leithart or Meyers at this time. John Barach, equal to Leithart and Meyers in FV standing, left the URCNA, it is reported, because he could tell that he would not be welcome in the denomination too much longer if he continued to teach the FV. We still question why he was pressured but never disciplined. Perhaps Phelps is confident that, if in the future another man teaches the FV, the URCNA will discipline him. But he ought to know from his experience in the PCA that condemning FV “on paper” does not guarantee that those who teach the FV will actually be held accountable.
But Phelps ought to think about more than whether or not the URCNA will tolerate FV teachings. It does not bode well for the URCNA that she tolerates the teaching that God’s love and grace are wider than election. That may not exactly be the same thing as saying, as the FV does, that in the covenant God gives saving benefits to the reprobate. But it is easy to see how opening up God’s grace to the reprobate in so-called common grace leads to opening that grace up to the reprobate in the saving grace of the covenant. And the URCNA tolerates the conditional covenant view that is basis of the covenant view of the Federal Vision.
Although there is reason to criticize the decisions of former RCA congregations to join the PCA and to criticize Phelps for his decision to join the URC, there is also reason to celebrate what we seen happening in Reformed and Presbyterian churches. The Reformed confessions are being discussed. A need for commitment to those confessions is being affirmed. Even if the steps taken by Phelps and the RCA churches seem to be small steps, they do seem to be in the right direction. At least Phelps indicates that the FV is putting some steel into the backbones of Reformed and Presbyterian men who will not compromise with that doctrine. We could hope that the continued discussion of the confessions will lead more people to the discovery and conviction that the Reformed confessions teach the beautiful truths of particular grace and the unconditional covenant.
1 Pastor Kappers’ article appeared on theaquilareport.com/imbecoming-a-presbyterian-so-is-my-church. The petition of the 1st Lansing congregation to withdraw from the RCA can be found at http://benkappers.blogspot.com/2014/12/petition.html.
2 Tony Phelps, “Grateful and Grieved: My Goodbye to the PCA,” February 5, 2015, theaquilareport.com/grateful-and-grievedmy-goodbye-to-the-pca.