Facts and Myths for the PCA on Racial Reconciliation

Posted by Bob Mattes

The PCA will consider a host of overtures at the 44th General Assembly that purport to deal with racial/ethnic reconciliation, although most merely parrot Overture 4.  I believe that all but a couple of the reconciliation overtures are seriously flawed. I hope to briefly explain a few of the issues.

Let me make clear up front that racism is sin. Exegesis that states or implies that ALL men do not equally bear God’s image is wrong and self-serving, not God honoring. Not loving ALL of our brothers and sisters in Christ as John admonished in his first letter is sin. Let’s get that off the table up front.

The Ninth Commandment

Westminster Larger Catechism Q/A 144 says that the 9th Commandment requires in part:

A. The duties required in the ninth commandment are, the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor, as well as our own; appearing and standing for the truth; and from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever…and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requireth…studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.

I contend that in regard to the duties required by the 9th Commandment in the WLC Q/A 144, all overtures requiring the PCA as a whole through “covenantal and generational involvement” to repent of events related to or following the Civil Rights Movement causes the PCA as a whole, presbyteries, and the bulk of the current PCA particular churches and members to violate many, most, or all of the above excerpted requirements in regard to their own history and sins, depending on individual circumstances. And while anecdotes and stories are interesting and tug nicely at the emotional cords, it is hard data that should inform all decisions and votes.

The PCA did not exist during the Civil Rights era to which many overtures refer, commonly pegged as 1954-19681. The PCA’s first constitutional assembly was in December of 1973. How can the PCA confess and repent of something that happened before its founding? How could the PCA as a whole be complicit in something that happened before it existed? Individual churches in existence during the Civil Rights era that later joined the PCA may or may not have something of which to repent, but not the PCA as a whole as called for by these overtures. To do so would fail to tell and uphold the truth, maintain the good name of the PCA, or practice what is true, at the least.

According to Dr. Sean Lucas’ book on the history of the PCA2, the PCA was explicitly created to be open to all races and ethnicities3. There were no organizational, polity, or policy barriers raised to prevent reconciliation4. That’s not to say that individual churches could not or did not raise such barriers, and we know that some certainly did so, but such was not and is not the PCA’s either informal or formal policy. In fact, Dr. Lucas points out that there was a significant contingent of younger pastors who joined the PCA that actively opposing segregation5. Many proposed overtures appear to do these men, their congregations, and the overall design of the PCA a serious injustice.

Further, the PCA had 260 congregations with around 41,000 communicants at the initial founding in December of 19736. Many of those early officers and communicants have gone to glory. By God’s grace, the PCA has grown to 1,534 churches with over 370,000 communicants as of the 44th GA7. In 1973, the PCA was primarily a regional denomination. Today, by God’s grace, the PCA has spread throughout the entire country. The bottom line is that – without passing any judgement whatsoever – the PCA of today is quite literally not the PCA of 1973, and even that PCA did not exist during the Civil Rights era. Even if all the original communicants were still with us, they would constitute just 11% of the current PCA. Just 11%. These are hard facts.

The PCA membership today is significantly different than at its founding. For example, God graciously placed my church, and indeed my presbytery, in an ethnically diverse community. Our membership literally spans the globe. Our annual Lessons and Carols service features readings in Urdu, Lingala, Spanish, Mandarin, Dutch, German, and others as well as English. We have first and second generation legal immigrants from around the world who and whose ancestors had nothing to do with the 60’s Civil Rights issues in this country. To ask them to confess and repent as a church of such issues amounts to asking them to bear false witness to their and their families’ history and sins, and fail to preserve their good names or the truth.

Corporate Repentance and the Continuing Church

While there are a few examples of corporate repentance in the Old Testament, recall that only a tiny fraction of Israelites remained faithful to God at those times, 7,000 out of at least several million in Elijah’s case. That’s clearly not the case in the PCA according to our own statistics.

Yet even in the Old Testament just prior to the Exile, when faithfulness was at an all-time low in Israel, God deals directly with so-called “sins of the fathers” in Ezekiel 18 and Jeremiah 31. The issue in those passages bear similarity to the bulk of the proposed overtures. From Ezekiel 18:

The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.

God’s sums up His admonition, which covers all of Ezekiel 18, with His declaration in Ezekiel 18:20:

The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son.

In Jeremiah as well, God clearly states that each man will be judged for his own sin, not for those who came before. That’s black and white Scripture, not anecdotes or convenient interpretation. I believe that these passages negate the corporate and/or covenantal argument as applied in most of the overtures.

We are a “continuing church” in regards to Reformed doctrine, missions, and church government as TE Jack Williamson made clear at the first General Assembly8, but God makes it clear that sins are individual unless that sin is encoded in our governing documents and/or policies, which demonstrably isn’t the case in the PCA. Anyone who sins against their brother or sister is violating our constitution and should be challenged, and if appropriate, brought up on charges in accordance with BCO procedures. That negates any “institutional racism” by policy or construct. To say that the PCA as a “continuing church” bears the sins of those from which it separated says more than most would want. That would make us liable for the sins of rejecting the authority of Scripture, which led the old church to a host of fatal theological errors. Does the PCA bear the guilt of those sins as well? Where do we draw that entirely arbitrary line? Who gets to decide?

One advantage, of course, of the corporate approach is that it diffuses the responsibility away from individuals and courts who actually did sin. Just like the old saying “Be a team player, it diffuses the blame.” If we blame everyone, practicality speaking, we blame no one. It takes courage to hold individuals, sessions, and presbyteries specifically accountable, but it’s easy to make broad pronouncements that make us feel good but ultimately hold no one accountable. That’s exactly what the bulk of the reconciliation overtures do.

Burden of Proof

I was blessed through my military service to live and travel across our great country, worshiping with many congregations. Although trained through 30 years of military leadership to spot and address these kinds of racial and ethnic issues, I’ve not seen widespread evidence of a systemic or institutional racial or ethnic problem in the PCA. The burden of proof – not personal anecdotes or catchy liberal buzzwords – falls on those making these accusations – the 9th Commandment demands it – but I haven’t see any hard data offered. It is easy to make broad-brush claims, but where is the evidence of wide-spread racism in the PCA? Any argument using statistical demographics must be accompanied by evidence of malfeasance at their root as opposed to cultural or sociological patterns unrelated to wrongdoing by anyone in the PCA. Sociology can not usually be boiled down to a few numbers.

Though there may be some individuals and churches now in the PCA who have something along these lines of which to confess and repent during their previous membership in other denominations prior to the PCA (I’ll mention one shining example later), they are a very small minority in the current PCA as the numbers clearly show. Even if ALL the founding officers and congregants of the 1973 PCA were still in the 2016 PCA, which we know isn’t the case as many have gone to glory, and if ALL of them required such repentance, and we also know isn’t the case, they would only make up only 11 percent of the current denomination. Should an entire denomination repent of the sins that something much less than 11 percent of their members MAY have committed before the denomination even existed? That doesn’t make sense to me, nor does it agree with God’s explicit commands in Ezekiel and Jeremiah.

I know that there continue to be racial/ethnic issues in isolated cases in the PCA, just as there are in society at large. Those involved must repent of these sins and rely on Christ alone for the forgiveness of their sins, as do we all. That’s what the disciplinary processes coded in the BCO should be used to address where necessary, as it was in Western Carolina Presbytery a few years back. The process was painful for the faithful, but it worked. But, it hardly seems appropriate for an entire denomination to repent for the sins of a relatively few – at most way less than 11%. Again, God’s commands in Jeremiah and Ezekiel relative to the sins of the fathers clearly argues against this.

Back to the Ninth Commandment

The 9th Commandment issues come clearly into focus when using set theory and logic to examine the overall situation. Every communicant member of the PCA falls under the shepherding of their session, their local court. Every PCA session is wholly contained within the set of its presbytery. Similarly, all presbyteries are collectively and wholly contained within the set of the PCA. Think of this as a set of concentric circles with the individual communicant in the smallest inside circle, wholly contained in the larger session circle, itself wholly contained in the presbytery circle, and the largest PCA circle wholly containing the presbytery circle. So, when the PCA as a whole confesses and repents, as most of the overtures require, the entire set of the PCA includes successively every presbytery, every session, and every communicant member. When the PCA repents of anything, that carries through to the every communicant in the pews, which causes them to violate the 9th Commandment when they have not sinned in that way. It’s logically a package deal.

Where do we go from here?

Albert Einstein is famously quoted as observing that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome. The PCA passed overtures and personal resolutions in 20029, and a pastoral letter in 200410 at the GA level, a 2002 paper in Potomac and Chesapeake Presbyteries, and others as well. Yet, there we were in 2015 and here now in 2016 proposing to do the same thing. Such overtures are not binding, but considered deliverances of the Assembly, to be given due and serious consideration in the denomination according to BCO 14-7. How did that work out in 2002 and 2004? Apparently not so well since here we are again.

The PCA needs a different approach, which Potomac Presbytery has proposed in Overture 45. We believe that it is time to break the cycle of overtures and resolutions based on emotional anecdotes and generalities – called information-free decision making by my boss – and approach the subject of racial and ethnic reconciliation in a deliberative manner to garner specific facts and issues to be resolved, resulting in specific actions to be taken as we saw in Western Carolina. Like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the PCA must address specific sins with specific measures which presbyteries and sessions may implement without ambiguity. The Civil Rights Act didn’t just say “Stop that,” it addressed specific wrongs with specific, implementable solutions. That’s exactly what Potomac’s overture recommends that the PCA do.

After all, how can we solve problems if we cannot state specific, identifiable, perhaps quantifiable issues that must be addressed? How can we learn about those specific problems if we do not take the time to ferret out the details and perform something like a root cause analysis? And how can we reach a final resolution and put these issues behind us if we don’t propose specific, implementable solutions? How can we know what success looks like unless we make the effort to define a measurable and achievable desired end state? The answer to all these questions is that we cannot, as recent PCA history demonstrates.

Specific Recommendations

Potomac Presbytery has put forth an alternative overture which corrects the defects in most of the other related overtures to the 44th General Assembly. Potomac’s Overture 45 asks for specific, concrete actions to affect lasting change, something that most of the overtures lack. I say this with an eye firmly on the peace and purity of the PCA, basing my position on Scripture, hard data, verifiable history, and logic, while seeking analytical rigor. I encourage the commissioners to the 44th General Assembly to perfect and approve Overture 45.

At the same time, I also encourage the commissioners to approve Overture 53, as it puts forth specific, concrete actions to be taken in accordance with our polity to hold those guilty of racial/ethnic sins accountable. The men of the First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, MS, set the bar by taking concrete action to repent of specific past actions of the church and deal directly with specific issues in specific past session minutes. This leading by setting the example by taking concrete steps to repent of specific past actions, is also true of First Presbyterian Church, Montgomery, AL, and Independent Presbyterian Church, Memphis TN11. Every church court and individual who so sinned must do the same.

The commissioners of the 44th General Assembly should reject any and all overtures that purport to address racial/ethnic reconciliation, yet do not hold anyone or any church court accountable under BCO procedures. Let us not repeat the errors of the past by passing feel-good overtures that diffuse the blame, sounding pious but accomplishing nothing. Otherwise, we’ll be back here in 10 years doing the same thing all over again. It will be déjà vu all over again.

Posted by Bob Mattes

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African-American_Civil_Rights_Movement_(1954–68). Accessed Dec 13, 2015

2 Lucas, Sean M., For a Continuing Church, The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2015

3 Lucas, p.296

4 Lucas, pp. 307-308

5 Lucas, pp 323-324

6 PCA Administrative Committee website, http://www.pcanet.org/history/. Accessed Dec 13, 2015

7 Administrative Committee Report for the 44th General Assembly of the PCA, p. 253

8 Lucas, p. 313, Derived from Jack Williamson’s opening sermon at the first PCA GA: “We have committed ourselves to be the rebirth and continuation of a Presbyterian Church loyal to the Scripture, the Reformed faith, and committed to the spiritual mission of the Church as Christ commanded in the Great Commission.”

9 PCA Historical Center, http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/race.html. Accessed Dec 13, 2015

10 Ibid, http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/racism.pdf. Accessed Dec 13, 2015

11 Haynes, Stephen R., The Last Segregated Hour, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp.228-245.

Douglas Bond hit it out of the park in Grace Works!

Posted by Bob Mattes

Bottom line up front: Take a little of your Christmas cash and buy this book, then read it cover to cover. The gospel is under attack on many fronts, even from those with advanced degrees who claim to be Reformed. Mr. Bond sets record straight in the modern battle over the gospel of grace.

I have to admit my skepticism when I first received a copy of Douglas Bond‘s Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn’t). In this day and age, we see the free use of euphemisms like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is anything but democratic or accountable to the people. The history of the Church records power and sovereignty of God in preserving Christ’s bride, but it also contains the record of heretics and their heresies that claimed to be true to the Scriptures whilst gutting the gospel of grace.

Douglas Bond’s book, though, remains true to its title and will prove to be a great blessing to the modern Reformed church if widely read. Mr. Bond serves as a ruling elder (RE) in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and writes as one with first-hand experience with the errors that he corrects in his book. Given the presbytery in which he serves, I have no doubt of what he sees on a regular basis. Overall, RE Bond displays an excellent knowledge of both church history and current controversies over the gospel.

Grace Works! provides an easy read. RE Bond broke the book into seven parts, each with several short chapters that end with discussion questions. Thus, the book would make an excellent Sunday school or small group resource. RE Bond wrote Grace Works! for real people in real pews, easily digestible yet powerful in its defense of the gospel of grace. You won’t find any clever, human “cutting-edge” theology here, just the matchless gospel of Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

RE Bond starts the book by appealing to history to show that any church can lose the gospel, and very quickly. He cites Calvin and Screwtape, C.S. Lewis’ demon from The Screwtape Letters, to illustrate Satan’s scheme for undermining the gospel down through the ages and even today. The strategy never changes because people never change. RE Bond doesn’t speculate or pontificate, he cites specific examples from church history of the slide into apostasy, of which there are no shortages. The worst of it lies in the fact that when a denomination slides into apostasy, it puts the orthodox on trial, not the heretics.

RE Bond hits the nail on the head on page 30 early in the book:

In our hatred of strife and controversy and in our love of peace and unity, we Christians sometimes play the ostrich. We hope controversy and gospel attack will just go away; we bury our heads in the sand and pretend that it won’t happen to us.

Those of us in the PCA have seen this time and again. I saw a popular teaching elder who started a secret political party in the PCA turn around and publicly declare as “cowards” 29 ordained church officers who together took a public stand against serious gospel error. The sizeable audience apparently missed the blatant hypocrisy displayed, but then it wouldn’t be polite to question a popular teaching elder, would it? The orthodox make easy targets because they just won’t change or compromise the gospel of Christ. How intolerant are the orthodox!

RE Bond goes on to lay the groundwork by clearly explaining the gospel from Scripture and the Reformed confessions. The gospel presents the matchless grace of God freely given to all those who will trust in Christ alone for their salvation. Salvation by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone – how simple! Yet, sinful human beings prefer to obtain their salvation the way Smith Barney claimed they made their money, the old fashioned way – by earning it.

Then in creeps the mixing of works into justification, replacing  or “augmenting” grace with some form of legalism. RE Bond does a great job of tackling the errors and consequences of legalism. He adroitly covers the order of salvation (ordo salutis), the confusing of justification and sanctification, the Scriptural use of law and gospel, the proper place of faith and works, and the correct rules for Biblical interpretation – the analogy of faith.

In Part 6 of Grace Works!, RE Bond then deals with current errors creeping into the conservative Reformed denominations, including the mythical “objective covenant”, confusion on the sacraments, and final justification. He does so without naming names, although anyone who has been paying attention to the last 20 years or so can easily fill in the blanks. RE Bond clearly demonstrates the corrosiveness of those who take an oath that the Confessions contain the doctrines taught in Holy Scripture, yet write and teach against those same Confessions and doctrines. He also cautions against the “fine print,” where officers espouse orthodoxy but then caveat with fine print that guts the orthodox statement. I’ve seen this myself during Internet debates and even in church trials. As RE Bond quotes from various sources on page 222:

The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away.

RE Bond encourages us, citing the apostle Paul, to be Bereans. Don’t accept the clever words or “cutting-edge” theology of PhD holding teaching elders at face value. Dig into the Scriptures and the Confessions to see if they are right. Paul commands us to do no less. We’ve seen several prominent examples in the PCA of officers denying errors at trial that they later lead and teach openly in seminary-like settings after their acquittal. The Enemy stands proud of such tolerance.

Grace Works! closes by encouraging readers to catechize their children, to actively teach them what Scripture teaches about the gospel of grace. If we don’t, apostasy is just a generation away. RE Bond lastly encourages us to stand in unity on the gospel and the law of Christ, the means of grace rightly understood and administered, and in our Reformed Confessions without small-print caveats. Only then will our denominations remain orthodox for the next generation and those to come.

Your church officers need to read Grace Works! Your congregation needs to read it. And not just read it, but stand for the gospel of grace and teach it to your congregations, your children, and you children’s children.

Full disclosure: Bob received a courtesy copy of this book from P&R for review.

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

A tale of two letters

Posted by Bob Mattes

The Founding

On 7 Dec 1973, a new denomination sent A Message to All Churches of Jesus Christ Througout the World from the General Assembly of the National Presbyterian Church. The NPC changed names to the Presbyterian Church in America shortly thereafter. The PCA had split from the liberal-and-becoming-worse PCUS. The Message to All Churches laid out the reasons for the split (similar to the U.S. Declaration of Independence) and served as a notice of the new denomination’s beliefs. At the top of the list stood the inerrancy of the Scriptures, and their role as “the only infallible and all-sufficient rule for faith and practice.”

Against the big-tent liberalism of the PCUS, our founders wrote:

We declare also that we believe the system of doctrine found in God’s Word to be the system known as the Reformed Faith. We are committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. It is our conviction that the Reformed faith is not sectarian, but an authentic and valid expression of Biblical Christianity. [my bold]

Note the “without reservation” adherence to the Westminster Standards. There was no “good-faith” subscription in view there. The PCA has already headed down the PCUS road on this issue. More on that later.

On the subject of theological error and church discipline, our founders wrote:

Views and practices that undermine and supplant the system of doctrine or polity of a confessional Church ought never to be tolerated. A Church that will not exercise discipline will not long be able to maintain pure doctrine or godly practice.

When a denomination will not exercise discipline and its courts have become heterodox or disposed to tolerate error, the minority finds itself in the anomalous position of being submissive to a tolerant and erring majority.

Anyone watching the two most recent cases against blatant teachers of the Federal Vision errors (pdf file), both of whom are now fellows at the latest incarnation of an attempted Federal Vision seminary, knows that the PCA has already started down the PCUS road in that regard. The PCA has become a tribal congregationalist denomination where particular errors find toleration in specific presbyteries that remain unaccountable to the denomination as a whole.

Please read that open message as it provides an anchor for the PCA as it considers its future. As the philosopher Santayana wisely observed: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The PCA is showing that it is not immune from that wisdom.

The Revision

A small group of 18 teaching elders who were around during the founding of the PCA in 1973 recently signed a letter (pdf file) to the new generation. I want to be clear up front that I respect these 18 elders for their sacrifices for, and contributions to, the church of Jesus Christ over many years. Nothing that follows is meant to reflect negatively on that respect. Nonetheless, my respect for them does not negate my critical thinking on the matters that they publicly present.

Early in the letter, the 18 signers endorse “good-faith subscription”:

Several years ago, after lengthy discussion, we affirmed “good faith” subscription which was a declaration of our commitment to love and respect each other and affirm doctrinal orthodoxy without becoming too broad or too narrow in the way we embrace our confessional standards.

So, since our 1973 founding, the PCA has “progressed” from “committed without reservation” to our Standards, to a “good faith subscription” approach that has opened the PCA’s door to paedocommunion, intinction, female pseudo-officers, Federal Vision, theistic evolution (e.g., Biologos), et al, all of which depart from the Scriptures and the Standards.

After observing that some think that the PCA is too strict and narrow while others think that the PCA is too broad, the 18 opine that:

…these differences of opinion reflect a healthy breadth of views and perspectives that produces an ever present need for love and mutual respect. It does, however, present the PCA with the need for our leadership to always be searching for the center so that unity might be maintained and our mission might be accomplished.

With all due respect to the 18 signers of this letter, that argument represents a significant departure from the vision laid out by the bulk of our founders in the Message to all Churches in 1973.

Keep in mind that only 18 men who were present at our founding signed this letter. Although many founders have gone to be with the Lord, many remain and did not sign the letter. Dr. Morton Smith comes immediately to mind for one. As our first Stated Clerk he had his finger on the pulse of the initial direction of the PCA. Dr. Smith’s How Thy Gold Has Become Din provided a PCA manifesto in the months leading up to the separation. Please read Dr. Morton’s address at the link.


While I do not believe that the positions from the new letter accurately reflect the consensus of the bulk of elders who founded the PCA in 1973, and hope that I have demonstrated this from original documents, I do believe that the letter agrees well with the more recent Original Vision Network started by TEs Paul Kooistra and Larry Hoop. While I appreciate the contributions that these men have made to PCA missions, their network steers us back to the PCUS “big tent.” For instance, they revised our founders’ words in the Message to All Churches to a vision that would now have us believe that our founders wanted:

a denomination committed to a broadly Reformed theological position, steering clear of both a formless evangelicalism with sketchy theological commitments and a narrow sectarianism that could consume our energies building a theological fortress;

Please go back and read the Message to All Churches and see if you can find a vision for a “broadly Reformed theological position.” Go ahead, I’ll wait. Back? Couldn’t find it? That’s because “committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms” doesn’t describe a “broadly Reformed theological position.” The latter represents a slide back to towards the old PCUS “big tent.” If the founders had really wanted a big tent, they would have stayed in the PCUS committed “to love and respect each other.” Instead, our founders left an apostate denomination that trampled on both the Scriptures and the Standards.


The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics – the chief weapons buyer for the U.S. Department of Defense – has a great sign on his door. It reads: “In God we trust, all others bring data.” The point being that opinions are nice, but we need to see the data on which one based those opinions.

So, when I read the letter by the 18 elders, the first thing that I did was hunt up the original Message to All Churches and read it to see if the two documents were consistent. That’s what everyone should do whenever any assertion is made from history. History is best learned from original sources, not commentators decades or centuries later.

In this case, the recent letter by the 18 elders seems more in line with the revisionist and euphemistically-named Original Vision Network than the bulk of the PCA founders’ intent in 1973. The original vision is readily available for all to read in the Message to All Churches and Dr. Smith’s How Thy Gold Has Become Din. Please take the time to acquaint yourselves with these documents if you have not already done so.

In closing, I again want to be clear that I respect these 18 elders for their contributions to the church of Jesus Christ over many years. That said, I am not prone to hero worship, so although their work and sacrifices earn them a hearing by other elders like myself and the denomination at large, it does not earn them automatic agreement without the original historical context being considered. In this case, I find that the original documentation does not support their thesis.

Posted by Bob Mattes

Part 2 of the interview with one of the prosecutors in Meyers’ Federal Vision Trial

Posted by Bob Mattes

Dr. R. Scott Clark has posted Part 2 of his excellent interview of TE M. Jay Bennett on the TE Meyers’ Federal Vision trial. In case you missed Part 1, you can find it here. As you might expect, the two flow together.

Part 2 delves a bit more into the unseemly manoeuvring by TE Meyers and his friends in Missouri Presbytery (MOP) to limit the prosecution’s ability to function in accordance with the PCA Book of Church Order. The actions explained by TE Bennett severely hampered the prosecution, whilst providing easy avenues for the defense to “run out the clock”. The transcripts make the tactics obvious even after the fact. Given the magnitude of the issues at stake, the prosecution should have been given both adequate time to prepare and present its case. It was not.

I commented in this post about my involvement as a prosecution witness in the case. In light of TE Bennett’s comments on his cross-examination of TE Meyers, I need to point out that I was not present for that cross because I had to catch my flight home. So, I want to make it clear that my previous post should take nothing away from TE Bennett’s observations about his cross-examination of TE Meyers.

So, where does all this leave us in the PCA? Certainly, there are presbyteries like Missouri, Pacific Northwest, Siouxlands, and perhaps a few others in which faithful officers cannot recommend churches to inquirers without personally knowing individual pastors who are orthodox and confessional. It also means that transferees from said presbyteries must be carefully examined in detail for their views. We saw that with Lusk when he tried to transfer to Evangel Presbytery a few years ago, and Leithart most recently. Though Leithart has not yet been examined, his work out of bounds teaching Federal Vision doctrine in Evangel’s geographic area has been rejected in accordance with the BCO. Faithful presbyteries must be on the watch and guard their flocks from FV wolves.

Dr. Clark’s excellent post on the parallels between Federal Visionists today and Arminians in the Reformed church centuries ago captures this watchfulness issue well. While the Federal Visionists deny on one hand that they hold aberrant views, they openly teach them outside of the view of the PCA courts. Although Meyers, Leithart, et al, remain “in good standing” in the PCA just as James Arminius did in the Dutch church in his day, they would not and should not be welcome in many if not most pulpits in the PCA or should they be permitted to spread their poison at General Assembly seminars. If confessional elders would not invite Arminius or Pelagius into their pulpits, then how could they in faithfulness to their vows invite a Federal Visionist? They cannot.

Confessional, orthodox Reformed elders in the PCA must stay diligent and informed in these trying times until we can change the BCO to correct these recent travesties. In the meantime, although we cannot at this moment directly treat the cancer in some presbyteries, we can and must contain the disease.

Posted by Bob Mattes

Great interview with one of the prosecutors in Meyers’ Federal Vision Trial

Posted by Bob Mattes

Dr. R. Scott Clark, church historian, pastor, and Westminster Seminary California professor, interviewed Rev. M. Jay Bennett for the Heidelcast. Jay was the lead prosecutor for the TE Jeff Meyers’ Federal Vision trial in Missouri Presbytery. The interview comes in two parts, with the second part slated for next week. In the first part that’s posted now, Dr. Clark covers Teaching Elder Bennett’s background, a bit of Federal Vision (FV) background, and the timeline leading up to the Meyers trial. The latter provides some insight into how the discipline process in the PCA proceeds. As usual, Dr. Clark conducts an informative and engaging interview which I highly recommend. Scott and Jay discuss a few anomalies in the case history, but so far haven’t mentioned the big one in my opinion.

In the trial record of case, on page 872, you see that Missouri Presbytery (MOP) was basically pushing TE Bennett out of the presbytery, which would, of course, make him unable to complain against the decision in the Meyers case. In the end, MOP succeeded and the PCA Standing Judicial Commission apparently let MOP get away with this ploy without even reading the record of the case. The bigger story is that MOP had kept men like TE Mark Horne, another Federal Visionist like Meyers, without call for over 3 years. Yet, TE Bennett, who opposes the unreformed FV, was being bounced almost immediately. The politics is pretty clear when looking at the bigger picture.

To be totally up front, I signed the original letter of concern mentioned in the interview and was a witness for the prosecution in the Meyers case, flying to St. Louis on my own nickle (i.e., at no cost to MOP) for the trial. I worked with Jay on my testimony, and found him a fair, honorable, and confessional teaching elder who deeply loves the Reformed Faith and understood the unconfessional nuances in the Federal Vision. The PCA owes TE Bennett a great debt of gratitude for standing firmly for the gospel in the face of overwhelming opposition.

Don’t miss part 1 of the interview, and check back next week for part 2. And you could benefit greatly by following Dr. Clark’s Heidelblog as many of us do.

I would be remiss without adding that Jeff Meyers, after being acquitted by MOP, now teaches with all the FV heavyweights at an FV school. I couldn’t make this stuff up.

Posted by Bob Mattes

Unjust Weights and the 41st PCA General Assembly

By Bob Mattes

You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin:I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. – Lev 19:36

Unequal weights and unequal measures
are both alike an abomination to the LORD. – Pro 20:10

Unequal weights are an abomination to the LORD,
and false scales are not good. – Pro 20:23

The 41st PCA General Assembly was quite a spectacle. The bulk of the business flowed routinely, and later quickly as we recovered from being over one-half of a day behind at one point. A few issues tied up the commissioners for an inordinate amount of time to cause the schedule digressions. I will only discuss two of these issues in this post. Probably more in a follow-on.

Two particular issues of contention follow from violation of the Scripture quotes above, and I’ll explain how. I’ve written before about the National Partnership, a secret (sorry, confidential) political party started last year in the PCA. I wrote my thoughts on that abomination here, where along with TE Kenneth Pierce I called it sinful. TE Andy Webb’s thoughts can be found here. The pleas of many against this sinful, secret political party went unheeded, and the poison flower bloomed during this GA.

It started in earnest during the PCA Nominations Committee meeting before the GA as documented at the Aquila Report. I also verified the events independently. Part of the plan, which came to the GA floor along with the Nomination Committee report, was to have the moderator change the voting order for some candidates on the fly from that historically used.

The proposed change to the order of voting for candidates for the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) had one purpose – to defeat a candidate that the National Partnership conspired to replace by carefully arranging candidates and changing the voting order on the fly. They did not win the voting change they desired, but we debated it for a long time. The committee never provided any substantial reason for the change, which seems strange, especially given the length of the debate. I argued on the floor against any arbitrary changes in voting procedure which robbed presbyteries of predictable expectations when nominating candidates to the Assembly. That position eventually prevailed.

The fact that the National Partnership’s Chicago-style politics failed to hold sway doesn’t remove the odiousness of their attempt to fix voting outcomes by changing the rules on the fly. Such political maneuvering has no place in the body of Christ.

The second issue arose from the Overtures Committee (OC). Chapter 15 of the Rules of Assembly Order (RAO) clearly state that the OC makes their recommendations to the General Assembly (RAO 15-8 and 15-8a). The plain meaning as used elsewhere in the BCO and RAO holds that the “General Assembly” means the entire collection of commissioners.

On two overtures, one each concerning the Leithart and Meyers Federal Vision trials, the OC violated RAO 15-8 and 15-8a by making what amounted to a point of order directly to the moderator, thereby bypassing the Assembly. The moderator took the point of order well. I challenged the chair over that deviation from the RAO both times, but did not prevail. When challenging the chair, one can only state the underlying rules, not argue the case. My challenge failed on both attempts, largely I believe because a majority of the roughly 1,200 commissioners largely did not understand that their right to debate and even their votes were being stolen by a handful of commissioners in a slick political maneuver for which I cannot find a PCA precedent.

This Chicago-style approach has been the hallmark of liberals/progressives in the PCUS, PCUSA, and now PC(USA) as TE Reed DePace pointed out. It’s how they avoided meaningful debates and votes, thereby bypassed orthodox church officers to bring about women elders, homosexual elders, etc. Eventually, the orthodox officers and members started leaving, providing the liberals a Pyrrhic victory as their formerly God-honoring denomination became more and more apostate.

Acts 15 provides significant guidance on how to conduct our Assembly, from which I believe that our BCO and RAO largely take their cues. The apostles and early believers debated openly until everyone was heard. No secret political parties, no bypassing debate, no stolen votes. The just treatment instruction of Lev 19:36 was honored.

There are no Scriptures that directly address voting itself. That just wasn’t a feature of the ancient world. However, the idea of ensuring just treatment is enshrined throughout. The Scriptures at the top of this post show God declaring the use of unjust balances and weights an abomination. The use of unjust weights destroyed trust in the underlying economic system of trade upon which the ancient world depended. These abominations cheated people out of their rightful due. They stole the buyer’s God-granted capital.

Similarly, taking away PCA commissioners’ ability to debate and vote on issues in accordance with our RAO procedures destroys their trust in the underlying ecclesiastical system. Attempting to fix a vote’s outcome by changing voting order on the fly similarly erodes that same trust. Like unjust weights and balances, unjust political maneuvering should not be named amongst God’s people. Supporting and voting within established rules must be accepted and supported by all officers of God’s church. If one feels that the rules should be changed, then honestly and openly submit the appropriate overtures upon which we can all debate and vote. Chicago-style politics robs commissioners of their debate and votes, just like unjust balances and weights robbed buyers in the ancient world – through deceit.

So, I’m encouraging all who participated in the secret schemes of the National Partnership – and anyone else – to defraud GA commissioners of their ability to debate and vote in accordance with RAO practices and procedures to repent of their sin. Repent of cheating your brothers in a way that parallels that which God calls an abomination – an epithet reserved for the most egregious sins in God’s eyes. Mere participants should repent to their brothers, REs their sessions, and TEs to their presbyteries as appropriate. The leaders of these movements – they know who they are and so do we – should have the courage to repent publicly.

The original National Partnership invitation email contained this observation” “One thing that has made the PCA a healthy denomination is the willingness to be ruled by Scripture.” Time, then, to eschew Chicago-style political maneuvering, pony up to what Scripture describes as an abomination and repent, or be named amongst the hypocrites.

By Bob Mattes

General comments on the TE Meyers trial

Posted by Bob Mattes

My intent was to write a series of posts about the trial once the Missouri Presbytery (MOP) released the trial transcripts. Providentially, I haven’t had time to follow-up in a timely manner. Also, the discussion on the previous post announcing the record release has proven fruitful and that took time.

When I was preparing to travel to St. Louis as a witness for the prosecution, I did not expect to be well received. MOP had already given a pass to TE Meyers several times, and I had no expectation that a trial would turn out any differently. I certainly didn’t go expecting to win a popularity contest.

In fact, I fully expected and was fully prepared to be “Keistered”. I coined that term to commemorate TE Lane Keister, owner of this blog, and the shameful treatment to which he was subjected in the Pacific Northwest Presbytery trial of TE Peter Leithart. Frankly, Lane was treated like a pagan invader rather than an ordained officer of the church. Shameful doesn’t really cover that travesty.

With that background, I am pleased to thank the bulk of the elders of Missouri Presbytery for their gracious reception. A number of elders readily extended the right hand of fellowship. I met a number of wonderful men, and was invited to break bread and share interesting conversation with a dear fellow elder. I’m not saying that they were happy for my reason for being there, but they overcame that unpleasant circumstance to show the love of Christ.

I would be remiss if I did not note the wonderful food prepared by the ladies of the church to support the trial. Well done and much appreciated.

Missouri Presbytery conducted the trial itself in an exemplary manner. Although I think that the time-limit rules, the rush to trial, and a few other pre-trial issues hurt the cause of seeking the truth (more on that in another post), I found the actual trial execution both fair and impartial. Moderator TE Bob Stuart, parliamentarian Steve Estock, clerk Dave Stain, etc., all performed their duties evenhandedly, showing no discernible deference.

The defense team, REs David Yates and Jon Barlow, also treated me with respect. Although I question the appropriateness of some of the defense tactics used in an ecclesiastic setting, at no time did they treat me with anything approaching disrespect. I very much appreciate that. Both defenders extended the right hand of fellowship, and I did the same to TE Meyers.

I also want to say how nice it was to see Dr. Will Barker, who testified for the defense. We see each other from time to time around the PCA, but not often – certainly not often enough. He and I had a delightful conversation while waiting to testify and then later during a break. I wish that we had opportunity to do that more often, and under more pleasant circumstances.

Overall, although I disagree with the inevitable outcome, I appreciate the godly decorum which pervaded the trial. It proved quite unlike the Leithart trial or even the last Wilkins examination, and I am personally grateful for that.

So Missouri Presbytery, thank you for your kind reception and gracious fellowship. May God continue to bless you and your ministries in the gospel.

Posted by Bob Mattes

TE Jeffrey Meyers trial transcripts available

Posted by Bob Mattes

The transcripts for TE Jeffrey Meyers trial in Missouri Presbytery, PCA, can be downloaded from this link. There’s a lot of reading there. I haven’t been through the transcripts yet. I’ll obviously have more to say as time goes on.

Denise Sproul is at home with the Lord

Posted by Bob Mattes

Ligonier’s site has a brief statement posted here.

I’ve been following this situation for a while on R.C. Jr.’s blog and praying. For those that don’t know, Denise, Dr. R.C. Sproul, Jr.’s dear wife and mother of their children, was diagnosed with leukemia and underwent extensive treatment. It seemed back in April that she might beat the disease. However, earlier this month the situation wasn’t looking good. I used R.C., Jr.’s post, Terminal, in my Sunday school class just last week as an example of how we can face extreme adversity in life by the power of the Spirit and with full confidence in our Father’s plan for us. R.C. Jr. closed that post with this paragraph:

It is a good and proper thing that I should, and you as well if you are willing, pray that God would make Denise well, that He would allow us to grow old together. It is, however, a better thing to pray that I would be a faithful husband to my love, and a faithful father to the children He has blessed us with. It is less important that He believe me and my conviction, that the kingdom would be better with her here. It is more important that I believe Him and His promise that the gates of hell will not prevail (Matthew 16:18), and that He who has begun a good work in us will complete it until the day of Christ Jesus (Ephesians 6:10). This train is bound for glory.

R.C. Jr. has commented on this blog from time to time. He and his entire family need our prayers as they travel a very difficult road in the coming days, weeks, and months. May our faithful God grant them all His peace and strength for the journey.

Posted by Bob Mattes

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