The Rev. E.C. Case is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). He is pastor of two PCA congregations in Mississippi.
Memories of twenty years ago were evoked for many as approximately 150 people, most of them members of the Presbyterian Church in America, assembled at the Ebenezer Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC on March 23, for what was billed as “Concerned Presbyterian Day.” Dr. Morton H. Smith, Dean of the Faculty at the Greenville (SC) Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and former Stated Clerk of the PCA General Assembly, made direct reference to this twenty-year connection in his speech to those assembled. He recalled that it was almost exactly twenty years ago that he made a similar address to the Convocation of Sessions of Churches in the old Presbyterian Church in the United States -a convocation which led directly to the First General Assembly of the PCA (then known as the Continuing Presbyterian Church) in December, 1973.
On that former occasion Dr. Smith spoke to the issue of “How Is the Gold Become Dim” (Lam. 4:1) – a survey of the decline of the PCUS. With heavy heart Dr. Smith announced that he felt compelled to take the same topic for his address these twenty years later, only this time with reference to the decline of the PCA. The only hopeful note was that, whereas on that former occasion those who gathered had pretty much given up on effecting any change in the PCUS and were resigned to separation from their mother church, on the occasion of the Charlotte meeting there still remains a feeling that the cause of Reformed Truth and Presbyterian Order is not altogether lost in the PCA. Few of those assembled likely would be of a mind to move toward separation from the PCA any time soon.
The Charlotte meeting was called under the auspices of “Concerned Presbyterians”- another feature contributing to the twenty-year connection. One of the principal groups active in the movement leading to the formation of the PCA was called “Concerned Presbyterians.” The present group has no direct connection with the former, but the adoption of this name can only be viewed as a conscious attempt to arouse people to certain dangers that threaten the doctrinal and church political integrity of the PCA in ways similar to those which led to the decline of the PCUS. Many of those involved in the present movement are also associated with the Presbyterian Advocate, an independent magazine which addresses issues within the PCA; and Advocate Editor, Dr. David C. Lachmann, was the moderator of the Charlotte meeting.
In addition to Dr. Smith, addresses were heard from Dr. Stanley D. Wells, a Ruling Elder from Phoenix, AZ, and from Dr. Carl W. Bogue, Jr., Pastor of Faith PCA in Akron, OH. Dr. Wells, who has served on the Judicial Business and Christian Education Committees of the PCA General Assembly, as well as on the Standing Judicial Commission of the PCA, spoke on “Judicial Matters in the PCA.” Dr. Bogue’s topic was “Worship.” Following these addresses, Ruling Elder George R. Caler, of Faith PCA, Akron, OH, and a member of the committee that arranged the Charlotte meeting, read “A Declaration of Concern and A Call to the Presbyterian Church in America to Be True to Her Declaration.” This statement, which summarizes the concerns addressed in the speeches made at the Charlotte meeting, is in the form of a memorial to be placed before the Twenty-first General Assembly which will meet, D.V., in June, in Columbia, SC. Ruling and teaching Elders present at Charlotte were invited to sign this memorial and were encouraged to circulate it to obtain other signatures prior to the Assembly.
The memorial begins by recalling the “Message to All Churches of Jesus Christ Throughout the World,” which was adopted by the First General Assembly of the PCA (by then called the National Presbyterian Church). This message was a testimony, making the case for separation from the PCUS and setting forth what kind of Church was being brought into existence. In that “Message,” the new denomination affirmed its commitment to the authority of Scripture as “the inerrant Word of God . . . the only infallible and all-sufficient rule of faith and practice.” Moreover, it was asserted (in a quotation lifted from the “Address to All Churches” which had been adopted by the First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America in 1861) that the church “has no right to utter a single syllable upon any subject” except as the Lord “puts words in her mouth..”
As to the system of doctrine found in the Word of God, the new denomination affirmed this to be “the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms,” to which she declared herself to be “committed without reservation.” Also from the 1861 “Address” was lifted a section including the statement, “We are not ashamed to confess that we are intensely Presbyterian” – this by way of asserting the belief that Presbyterian Church Order is biblical Church Order “according to the pattern shown in the mount.” There was a particular concern, in connection with this, that the work of the church be done by the appointed courts of the church and not by agencies outside the church or erected by the church.
Perhaps the most significant statement in the whole document (the “Message to All Churches” – 1973) was this: “We declare that the ultimate purpose of the Church is to glorify God;” As pointed out by Dr. Smith in his address, this truth is affirmed also in other early deliverances of the PCA, so that while there is strong emphasis on evangelism and fulfilling the Great Commission, the end is never merely to “win souls” or organize churches, but rather to glorify God – to seek to meet what our Shorter Catechism (Q&A 1) asserts is “the chief end of man.” This emphasis, of course, has profound implications for the whole work of the church, and especially for worship – one of the principal concerns addressed at the Charlotte meeting. As Dr.Bogue pointed out, only that worship is God glorifying which is conducted on the basis of the regulative principle enshrined in the Westminster Standards on the basis of the clear teaching of the Word of God.
The problem in the PCA, and the reason for the Charlotte meeting, is that the PCA has come short of her initial declarations in all of these areas, and that not slightly or insignificantly but in ways that are alarming and ultimately destructive of the doctrinal and church political integrity of the denomination. Moreover, it is apparent that the PCA has come short of these declarations, not incidentally, but as the result of a conscious effort on the part of many in the church to move the PCA away from the strong emphasis of those earlier declarations.
It would be too great an imposition upon the reader to get into much detail relative to these matters, but a few examples may be in order to demonstrate that the concerns expressed at the Charlotte meeting are substantial.
In the area of the inerrancy and especially the sufficiency of Scripture, many of us in the PCA are alarmed at the willingness of some Presbyteries to receive and ordain men to the office of teaching Elder “who hold to the possibility of ‘new revelation’ from God through prophecy or other means” (Memorial, p. 2, para. A). By and large, the General Assembly, in handling judicial cases arising out of this practice, has sustained complaints against this sort of thing.’ However, these decisions affect only the particular court complained against; and, in one case, the same Assembly rendered opposing decisions in cases from two different Presbyteries – a confusing situation, to say the least. The problem, of course, is that Assembly decisions, made by majority vote, with no debate allowed, and with the possibility that some of the commissioners present for one vote may not be present for the other, are subject to all the problems of popular democracy. One does not have to sit in many Assembly meetings to realize this is no way to run a church.
In terms of worship, the PCA is, again, confusion. Unlike the PRC, in which those visiting in one or another congregation will find uniformity in worship, one never knows what one may run up on in a PCA church. The range runs from strict adherence to the regulative principle (even to the singing of Psalms only, unaccompanied by instrumental music) to charismatic- style services. A major controversy has erupted in recent years over the use of drama-and dance and such things as the substitution of movies, etc., for the preaching of the Word – i.e., entertainment in place of worship. Several protests have been entered at General Assembly meetings where, for several years now, commissioners (not to mention the Holy God) have been assaulted by the placing of more than one kind of “strange fire” upon the altar of worship services, so-called. Reliable reports indicate that things are even wilder in certain of the individual churches. Dr. Bogue, in his address, gave a devastating Scriptural rebuke to these practices.
Not much more needs to be said, really, about Presbyterian order than that it is a dead letter in the PCA. The committees of the General Assembly have become virtual boards. Worse than that, their work has been turned over, for all intents and purposes, to the staffs of these committees who, in effect, drive the work of the committees. The mission committees even dictate to the Presbyteries as to who is and is not an acceptable candidate for missionary service. The reports these committees make to the General Assembly are little more than public relations promotions, and any attempt seriously to debate policy on the floor of the Assembly is generally greeted with rebuke for being overly zealous for doctrinal purity, for not being “open” to the working of the Spirit, and with calls to “trust” the committees.
As far as judicial cases are concerned, these are now handled, on the Assembly level, by a Standing Judicial Commission which, in effect, acts, as a court above all courts in the church. Several articles in the Presbyterian Advocate have detailed abuses by this Commission which have led to the denial of due process to various parties in certain cases. Dr. Well’s condemnation of this procedure was withering. As one who has served on the Commission, he pointed out how the SJC has the power, and has in fact exercised that power, to deny justice to aggrieved parties by such tactics as changing the issue addressed in the case, denying or limiting access to the record of the case, and limiting debate. He sees it as being as corrupt and devilish as anything conceived in the bowels of the Vatican.
We have gone on for much too long and have not yet addressed the matter of doctrinal fidelity, which is currently being debated in the PCA in terms of the “strict” or “full” subscription versus the “loose” or “system” subscription view relative to the ordination vows taken by officebearers in the PCA. For a full and excellent treatment of this issue, we would commend the booklet by Dr. Morton Smith, Subscription to the Westminster Standards in the Presbyterian Church in America, which was reviewed by the Editor of the Standard Bearer a few issues back.
It remains only for us to make some concluding remarks concerning the Charlotte, meeting and the future of the PCA.
One would hope, of course, that this meeting will give rise to a movement which will be productive of an awakening in the PCA to the dangers posed by the current drift in the denomination. Whether this will, in fact, happen is problematic.
Those who seem determined to de-emphasize the distinctives of the Reformed Faith and Presbyterian Order are firmly in control of the committees and agencies of the PCA General Assembly. At the present time, dissatisfaction on the part of the church at large with their direction of the Assembly is not overwhelming. If every ruling and teaching Elder present in Charlotte signed the Memorial, they would still constitute but a small percentage of those eligible to sit and vote at General Assemblies. Nor is there the sort of dissatisfaction in the pew that there was 25 or 30 years ago, when people were fed up with out-and-out modernism in the pulpits and the wild-eyed socialist schemes of the bureaucrats in the denominational headquarters of the PCUS. Few in the pew, today, realize the importance of what happens beyond the local congregation.
In addition to this, there is the problem that many elders – ruling and teaching – are not willing to invest the time and effort necessary to study issues before the Church, nor are they willing to take the risk of -making a stand for the truth. Many who are eligible to attend Assemblies do not even consider attending. Many of those who do attend gripe and complain about the amount of time taken up by what passes for “debate” at the Assembly. Somehow, they do not think that debating points of doctrine and order is doing the work of the church. One wonders what they think ecclesiastical assemblies are supposed to do. They do not want to hear and deal with judicial cases, and yet we call our assemblies “courts.” They are, in their own way, as unfaithful to their calling as any heretical officebearer.
Finally, it should be pointed out that the situation in the PCA has not, as yet, come anywhere close to where we were in 1973 in the ECUS. We have not yet reached the point where men are openly tolerated in their denial of the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the deity of Christ, and so forth. No one who answers in the negative to the ordination vow regarding the receiving and adopting of the Westminster Standards is likely to be ordained in our Presbyteries. As the Memorial points out, the problem is not in the area of profession and confession so much as in the area of practical application. Dr. Smith, for example, was very careful to say, at the outset, that the PCA is not apostate. But it is of no small concern to many of us that, even if the issue should become one of open and professed opposition to the teaching of our Standards, it is still exceedingly difficult to stir people to action until the matter begins to affect them personally, in their local congregations. We saw this in the PCUS. The conservatives in the Christian Reformed Church could probably relate the same thing. This sort of “spiritual inertia” does not bode well for those who seek to recall the PCA to her foundational principles.
Those who met at Charlotte were specifically warned that we must not allow this movement to degenerate into a “party caucus” of the sort known to be operating in the PCA, comprised of those who think the current course of the denomination is just fine. Dr. Smith was particularly forceful in denouncing the substitution of power politics and political maneuvering in place of submission to the Scripture and the Constitution of the church as the voice of God in leading us to fidelity in practice as well as profession. No reformation of the church has ever been effected by adroit political posturing. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.” This must ever be the watchword of those who seek the reformation of the church.