Tribal Congregationalism and future of the PCA

Posted by Bob Mattes

I have used the term “tribal congregationalism” several times in recent blog posts and comments. I stated the basic definition most succinctly in this post as:

The PCA [Presbyterian Church in America] has become a tribal congregationalist denomination where particular errors find toleration in specific presbyteries that remain unaccountable to the denomination as a whole.

I have been asked to expand upon that definition, hence this post.

Amongst the important elements of good leadership are empowerment and accountability. Empowerment includes the idea of delegation, wherein I assign a task or function to a person or group. When empowered, that person or group then has the tools and authority to accomplish the assigned task or function, along with clear expectations and desired outcomes.

With empowerment must also come accountability to the leader who assigned the task or function. Accountability can include things like deadlines, progress reports, specific intermediate goals, etc., as well as the actual final outcome. A good leader delegates tasks and functions, empowers those assigned to those tasks and functions with the tools and authorities necessary, provides clear expectations and desired outcomes, and holds the empowered accountable for the results.

We see these principles generally at work in the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO). We have three levels of church courts, each with specific tasks and functions assigned, specific expectations, and each empowered to carry out their tasks and functions as delineated in the BCO (BCO 1-1, 1-5, 3-2, 10-1, 10-2, 11-4). Through review and control (BCO 11-4, Chapter 40), each court is held accountable to the broader courts. That is, sessions are held accountable to presbyteries through the review of their minutes and general knowledge of their activities. Presbyteries, in turn, are held accountable via the same tools to the General Assembly. That’s Presbyterianism 101.

When that process breaks down, we have processes for church discipline (BCO Chapters 29 to 40). Individual courts hold their members accountable through investigations, counseling and, as a last resort, trials. Each court’s execution of the discipline process is reviewed by the next broader court for their fidelity to our Constitution – the Westminster Standards together with the BCO. That’s Presbyterianism 102.

Unfortunately, while the theory is sound, the execution is found lacking in the PCA these days. We created an outlier judicial commission, the SJC, which as constructed differs from the actual church courts (BCO 15-3) in that it is not directly accountable to the General Assembly (which created it) for its specific actions or decisions (BCO 15-5). Therefore, the three court structure, the courts being one (BCO 11-3), is broken in the PCA because of an unaccountable judicial commission (BCO Preliminary Principle 7).

The breakdown of the above basic leadership elements and processes that implement them has been manifest in recent decisions in the PCA. The Committee for the Review of Presbytery Records rightly called out a specific presbytery’s decision accepting officers who hold to paedocommunion (the unbiblical serving of communion to infants and toddlers in violation of 1 Cor 11:27-29; WCF 29, WSC 96, 97; WLC 168-177) to the General Assembly, but the latter decided not to hold that presbytery accountable. The General Assembly permitted, by inaction, officers that practice of intinction, which also violates the Scriptural model for communion (Mt 26:26-28; Lk 22:17-20; 1 Cor 11:23-29) as well as the Westminster Standards (WCF 29.3; WLC 169) and the BCO (58-5). The SJC gave a pass to the teaching and practice of Federal Vision errors by church officers in the Leithart and Meyers cases by choosing to decide those cases based on technicalities rather than directly addressing the underlying heresies (Mt 23:22-24).

Perhaps just as bad, progressive political parties now operate freely but in secret in the PCA, outside of any accountability to the church courts. The National Partnership and Original Vision Network seek to turn the PCA into a “broadly Reformed” denomination without defining “broadly Reformed.” Given their tolerance of intinction, paedocommunion, female deacons, etc., I think that we can guess which way they lean. I sincerely believe that the word “confessional” is used as an byword in their secret emails and meetings. Secret hearts and sorry tales will never help love grow.

The net result of this lack of accountability for officers and presbyteries tolerating, holding, teaching, and/or practicing serious errors has been the creation of a system which I call “tribal congregationalism.”

The tribes refer to presbyteries that tolerate officers holding, practicing and/or teaching specific errors within their boundaries. I witnessed first hand that seminary graduates know which presbyteries are likely to accept their paedocommunion views, for example, and in which presbyteries to avoid even attempting ordination. Federal Visionists have a very good idea of which presbyteries they shouldn’t bother transferring into (Leithart obviously isn’t as smart as some folks think he is). And so on with intinction, theistic evolution, female deacons, etc. Each erroneous officer or candidate seeks out safety in his applicable tribe. Some tribes overlap or tolerate multiple errors, others do not. Safe conversations seek out supporting tribes.

The congregationalism part of the term comes from the lack of accountability outside the tribe. We nod and wink at specific presbyteries that tolerate officers who practice or teach Federal Vision, paedocommunion, intinction, female deacons, theistic evolution, et al. A majority of the commissioners at General Assembly have apparently consistently desired to avoid offending or judging deviant officers. Net result = no accountability. Specific errors thrive within the bounds of each tribe without accountability to the denomination at large. That’s what I call tribal congregationalism, and ultimately it will destroy the PCA.

Sound too drastic? Consider PCA congregants who travel or transfer around the country, which describes many in our mobile society. I have seen families bring their little toddlers up for communion, only to be refused by faithful officers who take the Scriptures seriously. Even when reached out to after the service, these families rarely return to a PCA church in a faithful presbytery, usually winding up in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC). On the flip side, I get emails from families traveling or moving to questionable presbyteries, wanting to know which churches are faithful to our Constitution, and hence to the Scriptures since PCA officers swear that our Standards contains the system of doctrine taught in holy Scripture. Sadly, sometimes I point them to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) or Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) or other more consistent denominations because I cannot name a faithful PCA church in their area of interest. The PCA is sowing division and confusion in the wind, and will reap the whirlwind (Hos 8:7).

I hear, especially from young officers, that the PCA must reach out to and welcome the diverse cultures in our country, because we won’t survive if we don’t do so. I agree. You won’t find a more diverse cultural settings than the greater Washington D.C. area in which God planted the church in which I am honored to serve. I see first-hand every week that the gospel of Jesus Christ knows no cultural boundaries. People around the world share one overarching characteristic – they are all sinners in need of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, with the Scriptures as the only inerrant and infallible rule for faith and practice. That sentence is the most missional statement that you’ll ever see outside of Scripture itself.

That welcoming of sinners from diverse national, ethnic, economic, etc., backgrounds won’t break the PCA. Rather, by God’s grace that people-diversity will strengthen His Church. What WILL break the PCA is the diversity of theology and worship beyond the bounds of our Constitution and the regulative principle, both firmly based on Scripture, now found and growing in the PCA.

The empowerment and mutual accountability of Presbyterianism is fundamentally incompatible with tribal congregationalism. So, I’ll say it again: The PCA is sowing confusion in the wind, and will reap the whirlwind. We need to decide if the PCA will follow the church in Sardis (Rev 3:1-6) or the church in Philadelphia (Rev 3:7-13) and act now on that decision. May God give us the wisdom to take after that faithful church in Revelation 3:7-13.

Posted by Bob Mattes


  1. greenbaggins said,

    May 23, 2014 at 9:08 am

    Good stuff, Bob.

  2. Reed Here said,

    May 23, 2014 at 10:08 am

    Can’t make it to GA this year. Hope folks will read and consider your wise concerns Bob.

    As I’m wrapping up a year long sermon-series on the Minor Kings (1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles) I am persuaded that defects in how we worship are more deadly than we want to admit. For the most part, the community right before the Babylonian exile still called on Yahweh, but in name only. All their forms of worship had devolved into rank paganism, yet they still called themselves after the name of Yahweh (e.g., look simply at the names of the last four kings).

    I’m not arguing for one “sound” or even for one “style” in worship vs. another. (Depends on what one means by “style”; some mean nothing more than how we arrange the circumstances of worship, a biblically appropriate approach). I am however more and more persuaded that we:

    > Either over-load the regulative principle (only do things EXACTLY the way a prior generation did things; i.e., confusion of elements and circumstances),
    > Or effectively gut the regulative principle (an “in name only” agreement with the RP; i.e., a stripping down of the elements to almost nil).

    The first error is dangerous because it helps to “prove” the second error. The second error is deadly because it doesn’t even recognize that God’s “neither right nor left” command is still in effect (Dt 5:32, et. al.). I am startled to the degree that defects in how we express worship to God yield defects in our understanding of God. Is it possible that such defects are turning us into idolaters like the Ancient Judeans? Might we end up worshiping a Messiah more of our own construct than what He reveals Himself to be?

  3. May 23, 2014 at 10:32 am

    Wise thoughts, Reed. In my mind, defective worship as you lay it out always results from Man exalting himself in some form of idolatry above his Creator. Rather than the truth of Genesis when God created man in His image, idolaters create a god in their own image and worship that idol in ways that please and/or entertain themselves.

  4. Reed Here said,

    May 23, 2014 at 10:56 am

    Thx Bob. Makes me think about Andy Webb’s Session’s recent five reasons for considering leaving the PCA. It is easy to look at their concerns with worship and relegate that to the bottom of the list, or even move it off this list and to the bottom of a “100 Things About the PCA I Don’t Care For” list.

    Instead, I’m wondering whether this reason shouldn’t be at the top of the list. My own experience of coming into reformed faith and practice showed me that most folks don’t really understand the RP they fight for or dismiss.

    How you worship shapes what you worship. Plain and simple.

    There is a cascade effect in the first table of the 10 C’s. Eventually defects higher up yield a deadly defect in the first commandment; we may call Him the Trinity, but it is not the God of the Bible we are in practice worshiping. We can expect our kids to follow suit with the path of our idolatry, and our descendants ending up back in slavery in the dominion of Satan.

  5. May 23, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    How you worship shapes what you worship. Plain and simple.

    Well said!

  6. May 23, 2014 at 8:26 pm

    Very well stated, Bob. I’ve had a similar thought before. PCA folks can say, “Wherever you are theologically, we have a presbytery for you!”

  7. May 23, 2014 at 10:19 pm

    “Wherever you are theologically, we have a presbytery for you!”

    Good one, Richard! Maybe put that on a bumper sticker for GA?

  8. Andrew Duggan said,

    May 24, 2014 at 10:01 am

    Whenever the RPW comes up it needs to be pointed out that contemporary Presbyterians need to remember their own history vis-a-vis the RPW. Even in America up until the 1st Great Awakening all Presbyterians were exclusive Psalmody. During that time (and accelerated in the 2nd Great Awakening) they listened to the idea that Psalms did not express true Christian experience and so they replaced Christ’s Psalms with their own praise songs, but still called themselves RPW. They substituted counterfeits for the Psalms, and said they had done nothing wrong. And just like God warned in Exodus 20:5 he did exactly what he said he would do over the course of 3 to 4 generations. He progressively let them go, until by the early 1900’s they were denying the resurrection and the virgin birth (at least in the north). Presbyterians left the path of following Christ with their whole heart soul, mind and strength and now wonder why they suffer with all these problems in their churches, and are looking for any cause rather than to admit even the possibility that our worship might not be righteous.

    Jeroboam really didn’t do anything all that controversial in setting up the calves at Dan and Bethel. For most of the people it was no big deal. They could even say while they didn’t really prefer the calves, they could still worship Jehovah there. The calves just reminds us of the sacrifices needed to be right with God. It’s so much closer than Jerusalem, and the Temple at Jerusalem has only been there for about 30 years. For the first 480 years since the Exodus there was no “fixed” place. Considering how Solomon turned out, whose to say that is the exclusive place where we should sacrifice to God.

    Presbyterians have had their mini reformations, but like the Israelites of old, unable to depart from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat that made Israel to sin, the one thing we can’t get past is departing from the sins of Isaac Watts that made the church to sin. I suspect that the reason why Israel never departed from the sin of Jeroboam was because they weren’t convinced that it was sinful. After all the man of God that prophesied against those places healed Jeroboam of his leprous arm, if Jeroboam was really that bad, would he have healed him? Plus that man of God wasn’t perfect. He disobeyed God himself, so that casts doubt that God objects to these places of worship.

    Does anyone really think that Christ himself would lay aside the hymnal that he himself prepared for his church through the inspiration of his Holy Spirit? Really? Of course nearly every one does because you’ve laid Christ’s hymnal aside for one you like better.

    The lyrics of the songs we sing are not circumstances, but entirely elemental. I agree to return to the Psalms out of emulating past generations would be the wrong reason. A return the the Psalms should be for the reason of Repentance. So even though the church is as good as burned down, we can sing from the close of Psalm 80 “It is burned with fire, it is cut down: they perish at the rebuke of thy countenance. Let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand, upon the son of man whom thou madest strong for thyself. So will not we go back from thee: quicken us, and we will call upon thy name. Turn us again, O Lord God of hosts, cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved.”

    But why change. We are unconvinced that its sinful.

  9. tominaz said,

    May 24, 2014 at 11:46 am

    It seems to me that part of the Partnership and Vision folks agenda is power – power of the purse, power of size, power of control.
    In my mind those who seek to re-image the PCA already have other venues where they might fit -CRC, EPC, Sovereign Grace, Acts 29, CREC and even back to the PCUSA.

    I believe the Monday night meeting prior to GA :An Evening of Confessional Concern & Prayer will be an important event. I hope many will attend.

  10. May 24, 2014 at 3:50 pm

    Certainly agree on the power trip. There’s really no other motivation behind secret political parties. I hope to make the prayer time. It depends on Overture’s schedule.

  11. Bobby said,

    May 27, 2014 at 9:54 pm

    I do wonder what the road ahead looks like for the PCA. The situation is somewhat precarious, as there just aren’t that many congregants who agree with the denomination’s official positions on certain issues.

    I’ve spent the past 5-6 years in two separate urban PCA congregations. One had about 500 members; the other, about 200. In both cases, the pastors bent over backwards to hide the church’s denomination. In the larger church, half of the people in my small-group Bible study believed they were attending a mainline Presbyterian church. In urban churches, there’s also a major divide on social issues. My current church (the smaller of the two) recently did an informal study to get the congregation’s pulse on hot-button issues. As it turned out, about 90% believed that the church should ordain women elders and that remarriage is acceptable after divorce, about 75% supported civil same-sex marriage, about 60% believed that premarital sex is not a sin, and about 40% believed that gay sex is not a sin.

    American Christianity is fairly polarized. You have liberal churches that may or may not even believe in the Resurrection, and you have churches like the PCA. There’s not a lot in between. So, if you’re a socially progressive Christian who at least holds to the ecumenical creeds, you can’t really find a church that lines up with your beliefs. Most such people will opt for orthodoxy over social issues. So, a fair number of them end up in PCA churches. And they are content to stay, as long as the preaching sticks to a fairly basic gospel message and steers clear of things like homosexuality, divorce, premarital sex, etc.

    I doubt that the folks who comment here pastor churches like what I’m describing. But I’m fairly confident that this describes a fair number of the PCA’s largest churches. In my current presbytery, I can only think of one church where the congregation isn’t significantly more socially liberal than the pastor. But for “tribal congregationalism,” these churches would pull up their stakes and leave. These churches’ affiliation with the PCA is purely pragmatic. If the PCA sought to become a confessional denomination, these churches would be gone tomorrow.

  12. May 27, 2014 at 10:09 pm


    One wise pastor once said that we should never be afraid to let people leave for the right reasons. On the other hand, most of the discussions here concern the views, teachings, and actions of church officers. It is the duty of the church officers to offer the unbridled gospel, bringing their congregations along gently to the total impact of the gospel upon society. Those who will not do so, and/or who do not take God at His word, we do not need. On the last day, the Lord will deny those who deny Him here and now. Let he who has ears hear.

  13. Bobby said,

    May 28, 2014 at 9:37 am


    That’s more or less my point: These churches are functionally congregational churches. The pastor is nothing but a figurehead. Besides, your model seems to assume a situation where the pastor is able to lead in this way. In the churches I’m describing, the congregants are educated professionals who generally know what they believe and why they believe it. They firmly believe that they are right and that the PCA is wrong.

    In that sense, I do think the PCA is trying to have its cake and eat it too. It doesn’t want to lose numbers and influence. If it followed the course generally prescribed here, the denomination would likely lose many of its churches in urbanized parts of the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast. Still, it wants to maintain an official platform that’s much more conservative than a number of its churches.

    We can’t simultaneously be Old School Presbyterians and Fuller-style Presbyterians. In trying to be all things to all people, I fear that we end up looking duplicitous. I think it would be far more honest of us to start working toward an amicable divorce.

    At the end of the day, same-sex marriage will probably push the two groups apart. Within 3-4 years, I suspect that the Fuller-style evangelicals, especially those under 45, are going to want to be in churches where their pastors can perform same-sex marriages. Tribal congregationalism isn’t going to be enough to hold us together.

  14. May 28, 2014 at 11:24 am

    Bobby – A chaplain that I worked with years ago had a nice piece of wisdom on his wall. The needlepoint read “Jesus said “Feed my sheep,” not “count my sheep.” I agree that numbers growth provides the overriding objective of the “broadly reformed” goal advocates in the PCA. The goal should be to serve as faithful witnesses to the gospel and evangelizers to sinners in a dying age. That requires standing against sin in the culture, not accommodating it as we see so often now. We don’t make the church popular by looking like the culture, we make it useless.

  15. Roger said,

    May 28, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    “We don’t make the church popular by looking like the culture, we make it useless.”


  16. Dave Sarafolean said,

    May 28, 2014 at 4:19 pm

    Bobby @ #11

    It is interesting to hear about your current and former pastors “bending over backwards to hide the church’s denomination.” My elders and I feel the same way but for opposite reasons – the PCA is too loose on many issues.

    The turning point for us was the issue of byFaith when Dr. Bryan Chapell complained how the PCA got it wrong with regard to deaconesses. Though byFaith sent us quite a few free copies of the magazine to distribute to our members they never saw the light of day. Ever since we have been fairly reticent to sell our congregation on the PCA brand. I don’t think that my church is alone in this matter.

  17. Bobby said,

    May 30, 2014 at 9:34 am


    I agree that we’re too in love with numerical growth to do what’s right.

    I’m coming at this from the perspective of a Fuller-style Presbyterian. So, we probably disagree on things like gender roles, and the like. Still, I think we would agree that the current situation is duplicitous.

    Just take the gender-role issue as an example. If the PCA truly holds to gender complementarity, then the practices in individual churches ought to match the denomination’s official position. But the PCA has any number of churches where the de facto session is a mixed-gender “vision committee” and the de jure session does nothing besides represent the church at Presbytery meetings (if that). My current presbytery has its meetings in the middle of the day on weekdays, so it’s rare that a single ruling elder even attends.

    I don’t think the current arrangement benefits anyone. In order to obtain growth, we have: (1) taken on a number of former fundamentalists, who are still very conservative on a number of secondary issues; and (2) taken on a number of mainliners who hold to a basic Nicene orthodoxy but who are fairly moderate, if not liberal, on a number of secondary issues. I’m in the second category. Still, I think those of us in both categories have been sold something of a false bill of goods.

    I’m not sure that the gospel is at stake regarding any of these secondary issues. Still, denominations are pragmatic institutions; as such, Christians who have very different opinions on certain secondary issues cannot easily function together in a single denomination. I think we’d all be better off if we just came to admit that and started working toward an amicable separation.

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