Introduction to the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)
Our History, Our Distinctives, and Our Divisions
Note: These are the lecture notes for the fourth class of an 8-week series that I am teaching at Harvest Community Church, called “What Does it Mean to be Presbyterian?” Links to the other class lecture notes may be found at the end of this post.
I am delighted to serve as a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. The PCA has been a faithful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ both here in the United States, and around the world. It was through the PCA that I was first exposed to Reformed theology and covenant theology, as summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Even before I could affirm everything that the PCA believers (especially infant baptism!), I remember thinking, “These people take the Bible seriously!”
Today, I have been privileged to have served as a pastor at Harvest Community Church (PCA) since 2015, and before as an assistant pastor at another PCA church from 2011. In that time, I have seen good times (baptisms, conversions, outreach, missions), and I have seen hard times (church discipline, apostasy, conflict, division). Some of these were at a small-scale, private level, and others are currently being hotly debated publicly within the denomination.
In this class, I want to offer a (very) brief summary of the history of the PCA in 1973, but then spend most of this lesson exploring some of the significant themes that shaped the identity of our denomination from its inception.
(Very) Brief History of the PCA
The PCA is the continuing church of the southern Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). The PCUS had split from the PCUSA in 1861 because of the Civil War.1 The PCUS does not exist independently any longer. In 1983, the PCUS merged back with the northern Presbyterian church (at the time, the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America—the UPCUSA), to re-form the PCUSA, which exists to this day.
There are a few notable distinctions in polity between northern Presbyterianism and southern Presbyterianism, especially as forged in the 19th century debates between James Henley Thornwell and Charles Hodge. Hart and Muether identify the questions of the parity of Teaching and Ruling Elders (especially as to whether Ruling Elders lay hands on Teaching Elders at ordination services) and whether missions organization may be overseen by boards, or whether commissions must be formed.2
Northern Presbyterians (following Hodge) hold to more of a three-office view, where ministers are distinguished from Ruling Elders, so that Ruling Elders may not lay hands on ministers at ordination. Southern Presbyterians (following Thornwell), on the other hand, hold to a two-office view, where Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders are two classes of one office, so that Ruling Elders do lay hands on Teaching Elders at ordination. Furthermore, Northern Presbyterians believed that boards (separate from presbyteries) could manage missions work, while Southern Presbyterians favored commissions (e.g., representative bodies who act as presbyteries).
Whereas the Orthodox Presbyterian Church formed in 1936 out of the PCUSA, the PCA formed in 1973 out of the PCUS. So, the OPC has inherited more of the northern Presbyterian perspective, so that missions and church plants are centrally funded through the denomination, and ministers are distinguished from Ruling Elders. The PCA, on the other hand, has inherited more of the southern Presbyterian perspective, so that missionaries and church planters are installed by commissions of presbyteries (although they raise their own support), and Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders operate with equality in the courts of the church.
Additionally, different issues shaped the formation of the OPC and the PCA. Whereas the PCUSA (and, hence, the conservatives who formed the OPC) faced the challenge of modernism, the PCUS (and, hence, the conservatives who formed the PCA) faced a slightly different set of challenges: the social gospel, evolution, and (Barthian) neo-orthodoxy.3
In the face of these challenges, three organizations of laymen rose up to combat the doctrinal declension in the PCUS: the Southern Presbyterian Journal (later, Presbyterian Journal) in 1942 under L. Nelson Bell (later, the father-in-law to Billy Graham), Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship (PEF) in 1964 under Bill Hill, and the Concerned Presbyterians in 1965 under Kenneth Keyes. Additionally, PCUS ministers formed the Presbyterian Churchman United in 1969, coordinated by John E. Richards.4
Ultimately, the Presbyterian Church in America (originally, the National Presbyterian Church) organized the first General Assembly at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL, on December 4–7, 1973. Ruling Elder W. Jack Williamson was elected as the first Moderator, and Teaching Elder Morton Smith was elected as the first Stated Clerk.5
While many significant things have happened since 1973, one of the most significant took place in 1982, during the joining and receiving of the Reformed Presbyterian Church (Evangelical Synod) into the PCA. The RPCES brought in a deep interest in the cultural implications of Reformed theology (especially through one of its more famous pastors, Francis Schaeffer), along with two educational institutions: Covenant College and Covenant Theological Seminary.6
In 1973, the PCA comprised 16 Presbyteries, 260 churches, and 41,232 members. In 2021, the PCA comprised 88 Presbyteries, 1928 churches, and 383,000 members.7
The PCA’s Threefold Vision and Identity
From the founding, the PCA’s motto has been: “Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, and Obedient to the Great Commission.” What an extraordinary vision for the church!
The PCA’s threefold vision is undoubtedly positive, and has been a source of unity within the denomination since the beginning. Nevertheless, the priorities expressed in that vision have been differently interpreted and implemented through the history of the PCA, leading to differences within the denomination that we are still wrestling with.
Let’s examine each of the three parts of this statement.
Faithful to the Scriptures
We seek to be, first, and foremost, faithful to the Scriptures. That is, the PCA recognizes the Scriptures alone are the only rule of faith, life, and practice (WCF 1.2; 31.3). We believe that “The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him” (WSC Q2). More than anything else, we strive to be faithful to Christ by preaching and teaching the Bible.
Of course, seeking to be “faithful to the Scriptures” requires a shared understanding of what the Scriptures teach. Within the PCA, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms express our understanding of the teaching of Scriptures. This point is articulated in a couple of different places in our constitutional documents. For example, the BCO describes our confessions as “standard expositions of the teaching of Scripture”:
…The Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, together with the formularies of government, discipline, and worship are accepted by the Presbyterian Church in America as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation to both faith and practice…. (BCO 29-1)
Most importantly, all officers take the following vows prior to ordination:
2. Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery/Session the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of your ordination vow? (BCO 21-5; 24-6)
Still, the denomination has debated what it means to “receive and adopt” our confessional statements since the beginning. The 1982 PCA Study Report on Confessional Subscription, for example, advocates a view of system subscription that acknowledges the doctrines in the Westminster Standards to be the “very doctrines of the Word.”
The 10th General Assembly (1982) of the PCA adopted the following definition:
Q. 1. Does the second ordination vow require the Presbyterian Church in America church officers to embrace as Bible truth each and every statement in our confessional standards?
A. When an officer of the Presbyterian Church in America subscribes to the Confessional Standards, he is declaring them to be the confession of his faith with reference to doctrine, worship, and government, recognizing that the Word of God written is the only infallible, inerrant, unamendable rule of faith and practice.8
While the PCA never amended the subscription vows for officers, the PCA did adopt constitutional amendments that permit officers to declare differences from the Standards (see BCO 21-4), and for those differences to be approved by the Presbytery. While there is wide unity on a number of confessional issues, there are a number of questions about what the PCA really does believe that the Scriptures teach on a few particular points.
Most notably, many officers in the PCA have declared theological differences from what the Westminster Standards teach about how the 2nd Commandment forbids making images of Jesus (WLC 109), and about how the 4th Commandment requires us to forsake worldly recreations (WCF 21.7–8; WLC 115–21). Officially, we confess these doctrines as biblical; however, there is a large debate about whether officers of the church may publicly teach and practice contrary to these doctrines.
So, while the PCA enjoys a great deal of unity in faithfulness to the Scriptures, there are a few important points on which the PCA does not entirely agree about what is Scriptural and what is not.
True to the Reformed Tradition
Second, we want to be true to the Reformed tradition. The PCA is not an attempt to clear away church history in a (misguided) attempt to get back to the early church. We take church history seriously, and we self-consciously stand in the Reformed tradition. The PCA is a “continuing church,” carrying on the tradition we received from Scotch/Irish Presbyterians before us, holding to the doctrinal standards articulated by the Westminster Assembly, from the Scottish Presbyterian tradition led by John Knox, which was influenced by the Genevan Reformation led by John Calvin, which followed on the heels of the German Reformation through Martin Luther, which reformed—but did not cast away—the catholic church that traces all the way back to our Lord Jesus himself. We are not attempting to create something new. We are always and only attempting to preserve what we have “received,”—that is, the gospel tradition that has been “delivered to [us] as of first importance, what [Paul] also received” (1 Cor. 15:1, 3).
The church may not add to Scripture; however, the church is constantly asking new questions (posed both from those inside and outside the church), which drives us back to the Scriptures. We are not gaining new revelation, but fresh insights from “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Our tradition is not something that stands above or even beside Scriptures, but is only the church’s history of attempts to wrestle with, and under the authority of, the Scriptures. This tradition is especially represented in our doctrine, our worship, and our polity.
Even so, the PCA has a longstanding debate about what kind of Reformed tradition to which we seek to be faithful. The PCA has sought to be as “big-tent” of a denomination as possible, where we welcome in as many people and churches as possible. In his history of the PCA, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, Sean Michael Lucas writes this:
It seems incontrovertible that the majority of the PCA founders desired to form a conservative mainline Presbyterian church. That is to say, their orientation was toward continuing the largely evangelical and evangelistic emphases of the southern church while upholding the inerrancy of the Bible and the truth of the [Westminster Confession of Faith]. So they did not intend to get bogged down in battles over details in the Reformed system of doctrine, nor did they desire to create litmus tests on doctrinal matters as the determining factor for shared ministries. Their instincts were to be evangelical Presbyterians—but evangelical Presbyterians who had the cultural influence that they had known as part of a mainline Protestant denomination.9
This is especially true in the various methods that the PCA has employed for ministry. Lucas especially ties the desire to be “big tent” to the evangelistic, missional impulse of the denomination. In this connection, he describes the eventual results that this vision has had for the PCA:
This evangelistic imperative, both domestically and internationally, has tended to keep the PCA in the middle of the Reformed tradition theologically. Undoubtedly, this centrist instinct has the added benefit of keeping as many people and churches as possible within the “big tent” of the PCA for the purpose of mission and witness. Yet the centrist instinct is itself a reflection of the founders’ intention: they envisioned a “Continuing Presbyterian Church,” a church that continued the mainline approach to evangelism, missions, and witness that they felt characterized the southern Presbyterian church at its best. In order to do this, the founders emphasized a Reformed evangelicalism that emphasized core truths, starting with inerrancy and flowing outward into the fixed points of orthodoxy and winsome Calvinism. Whenever difficult doctrinal matters came up to the General Assembly—whether theonomy, creation days, or confessional subscription—the PCA has tended toward solutions that move toward the center and keep as many people within the church as possible. That evangelical and evangelistic instinct is exactly what the founders intended: that the PCA would be a conservative mainline body representing evangelical Presbyterianism.10
As we saw in the previous section, this desire to “keep as many people within the church as possible” means that the church must live with some significant differences on fundamental questions about what the Scriptures actually teach. Particularly for those who believe that our Confessional Standards reflect the “very doctrines of the Word,” a rejection of images of Christ and faithful Sabbath-keeping are fundamental to the Reformed tradition.
A similar debate appears regarding worship. The PCA is unique among Reformed and Presbyterian churches in that we do not have an official, constitutional guidelines for our worship. While we have an extensive Directory for Worship, the PCA did not make the entire Directory constitutional, so that only a few chapters on the membership, the sacraments, and (recently) the nature of marriage are constitutional.
In practice, this means that the PCA has a wide variety of worship styles. Many see this kind of diversity in our practices as a strength. Again, however, some believe that the Regulative Principle of Worship as articulated in the Westminster Standards is not only Scriptural, but fundamental to the Reformed tradition of worship. This has led to an ongoing debate about where biblical worship ends and permissible diversity begins.
The roots of the PCA go deeply into Reformed theology and worship. Nevertheless, there are disagreements about what constitutes the fundamentals of the Reformed tradition, and therefore about what faithfulness to the Reformed tradition would require of us.
Obedient to the Great Commission
Finally, the PCA seeks to be obedient to the Great Commission. We long to make disciples of all nations, and the PCA has a rich history of sending missionaries around the globe, as well as investing in church planting closer to home. We do not merely want to win converts, but we want to make disciples by baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything that Jesus has commanded us (Matt. 28:18–20). By God’s grace, the PCA has grown steadily throughout our history.
While the PCA has a rich history of evangelism, church planting, and worldwide missions, there is another division within the PCA about how to go about doing this. Once again, those who believe that the Westminster Standards express the “very doctrines of the Word” believe in the spirituality of the church:
Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate. (WCF 31.4)
That is, the church should handle spiritual matters. We should proclaim the demands of God’s law, and we should announce the gospel of God’s grace toward us in Jesus Christ. We should make disciples, lead them in worship, and teach them to serve.
Many in the PCA, though, have a much stronger view of the church’s responsibility for cultural engagement. These leaders have advocated for the transformation of culture by the work of the church as the church in the spheres of business, government, and the arts. No one disagrees that individual Christians may (and should!) pursue work in these spheres, and even seek to improve these spheres as much as possible. To what degree, though, is this the mission of the church? Furthermore, what depth of societal transformation can we expect in this life?
To be sure, the Bible says much about the way that we ought to live our lives. There are, however, two major problems with the view that sees the transformation of culture as the mission of the church. The first problem has to do with a confusion and (in some cases) a corruption of the gospel itself. It shifts the church from preaching Christ’s gospel of salvation for individual sinners, to a gospel that seeks to reform society.
For example, there has been a significant emphasis on social justice. I am not suggesting that political and social initiatives should be off-limits for debate and discussion among Christians. I am, however, very concerned that we avoid suggesting that such initiatives are the proper mission of the church.
Sean Michael Lucas noted that one of the major intellectual problems in the PCUS that eventually drove conservatives to form the PCA was the social gospel. About the social gospel, he writes this:
The phrase [social gospel] described the effort to relate biblical principles to social needs and challenges raised by the industrialization and urbanization of the early twentieth century. But the Social Gospel came to represent a major shift in the way important theological categories were used. In short, the Social Gospel represented a movement away from individual to corporate categories for theology. Sin was defined in social and systemic terms—the oppressive social structures that kept people from achieving their potential. Salvation, likewise, was the removal of those structures in order to maximize human potentialities and make a more just world. Also, distinctive about the Social Gospel movement was a genuine embrace of the historical Jesus and his teaching as the norm for social action; “What would Jesus do?” was the question that Social Gospel promoters such as Charles Sheldon desired Christians to ask themselves. In particular, the question was what Jesus would do in order to realize the kingdom of God as an earthly reality, bringing social harmony in its wake. All natural and political processes that brought God’s kingdom to closer fulfillment were seen as the work of God’s Spirit; hence, the Social Gospel emphasized the immanence of God, going so far as to say that the spirit of the age was “the age of the Spirit.”11
Lucas wrote this in 2006, and in 2022, it is hard to avoid seeing the connections between the “Social Gospel” and the social justice movement for which some in the PCA are advocating today.
Second, the desire for the church to engage with culture, to influence culture, to transform culture, and/or to redeem culture has sometimes led the PCA to be influenced by the culture (rather than vice versa) in significant ways, especially in the area of sexual ethics. Most prominently, the PCA is in the middle of a very difficult struggle to clarify what exactly we believe about human sexuality.
On the positive side, the PCA released a tremendous report that is very clear about sexual ethics. This report was commended by the 2021 General Assembly by a nearly unanimous vote. From the Bible, our Confession, and this study report, we have clarity for dealing with sexual sins as sin, identifying even sinful affections as truly and properly sin (WCF 6.5; WLC 99.2), leading people to repent from such sin and to seek forgiveness and sanctification, and “encouraging them, as a part of the process of sanctification, to leave behind identification language rooted in sinful desires [e.g., ‘gay Christian’].”12
Nevertheless, rather than consistently dealing with sinful affections according to a spiritual framework of the mortification of sins and transformation through the sanctifying work of Christ, the PCA is divided over a (secular) psychological view of sexuality that sees sinful desires in this area as something that is largely fixed and unchanging. There is a vigorous debate, for example, about how much we can really expect from someone’s sanctification regarding the transformation of their sexual desires, even with such a clear statement as this in our PCA’s Study Report:
The goal is not just consistent fleeing from, and regular resistance to, temptation, but the diminishment and even the end of the occurrences of sinful desires through the reordering of the loves of one’s heart toward Christ. Through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, we can make substantial progress in the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord (Rom. 6:14-19; Heb. 12:14; 1 John 4:4; WCF 13.1).13
Once again, while the PCA is unified around a desire to make disciples of all nations, we are wrestling with a few difficult questions about how precisely to go about accomplishing that task.
The Future of the PCA
I love the PCA, and I am proud of our history; however, these last few years have brought about a number of painful struggles. I have, however, been encouraged by a number of positive developments within the denomination.
First, theological controversies may not always be fun, but they are always the way in which doctrine is clarified. This was true when the early church had to debate about whether circumcision was required for Gentiles to be saved (Acts 15:1). Once the matter was settled, the decision that came out of that debate strengthened the churches (Acts 15:31–32, 41; 16:5). When Arius troubled the church by saying that the Son was not God, the church clarified the Scriptural teaching of the Trinity and the full deity of the Son in the Nicene Creed—a creed we recite until this day. When Nestorianism and Eutychianism obscured the glory of Christ’s incarnation, the Council at Chalcedon gave us a formula that we still use to clarify our Christology. It was the doctrinal corruption of the Roman Catholic Church that led eventually to the creation of the Westminster Standards.
In sum, theological controversy leads to credal and confessional clarity. So also today, God is using these controversies to force us back to the Scriptures so that we may prayerfully clarify what God has actually spoken about these matters.
Second, and most importantly, Christ Jesus remains the King of his Church. He is still on his throne, and he is still executing “the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies” (WSC Q26). The gates of hell cannot prevail against Christ’s church, for Satan is bound so that Christ may plunder the nations to liberate his people from the tyranny of sin through his gospel.
For the glory of Christ and the good of his people, may the Lord bless the Presbyterian Church in America now and forevermore!
The original name of the PCUS was the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (1861–1865), and then the name changed to PCUS after the Civil War. D. G. Hart and John R. Muether, Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 222.
Hart and Muether, Seeking a Better Country, 140–41.
Sean Michael Lucas, On Being Presbyterian: Our Beliefs, Practices, and Stories (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006), 227–30.
For all these stories, see Lucas, On Being Presbyterian, 232–37.
Minutes of the First General Assembly of the National Presbyterian Church (December 4–7, 1973), 17. Accessed February 16, 2022. <https://www.pcahistory.org/pca/ga/1st_pcaga_1973.pdf>
Sean Michael Lucas, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015), 326.
“Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, 1973-[ongoing].” Accessed February 16, 2022. <https://www.pcahistory.org/pca/ga/index.html>
Minutes of the Tenth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (June 14–18, 1982), 103–04. Accessed February 15, 2022. <https://pcahistory.org/pca/ga/10th_pcaga_1982.pdf>
Lucas, For a Continuing Church, 318.
Lucas, For a Continuing Church, 320–21.
Lucas, On Being Presbyterian, 227–28.
“Report of the Ad-Interim Committee on Human Sexuality to the Forty-Eighth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (2019–2020),” 12, l. 17–18. Accessed on February 16, 2022. <https://pcaga.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/AIC-Report-to-48th-GA-5-28-20-1.pdf>