In this new series of posts, I will look at where the PCA has been in the past, and then seek to show where we are headed in the future. I will be taking as my baseline the volume of Position Papers edited by Paul Gilchrist. The volume covers the years 1973-1998.
The first entry is in some ways the most important. It is “A Message to All Churches of Jesus Christ Throughout the World From the General Assembly of the National Presbyterian Church.” For those who don’t know, the PCA was originally called the National Presbyterian Church, but quickly changed its name to the Presbyterian Church in America.
The first main point the letter makes is that separation had become necessary. This is not something they rejoiced over, but rather mourned (“with great sorrow and mourning,” p. 7).
Secondly, it says that the basis for the authority of the Church is nothing other than the Bible. A standard statement of the Bible’s inerrancy follows. The view of the Bible they had was fundamental to all the other issues (see p. 8).
Then the letter states something very important about change. Change comes gradually, and it should not be permitted: “Views and practices that undermine and supplant the system of doctrine or polity of a confessional Church ought never to be tolerated” (p. 8). Notice the accent on confessionalism. It is highlighted even more clearly on the following page: “We are committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms” (p. 9), and then again on p. 10 (quoting the earlier “Address to All Churches”): “We are not ashamed to confess that we are intensely Presbyterian.”
Since the changes came to the PCUS, and those changes were not disciplined, the letter states this: “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. In order to proclaim the truth and to practice the discipline which they believe obedience to Christ requires, it then becomes necessary for them to separate. This is the exercise of discipline in reverse. It is how we view our separation” (p. 8).
The last major point the letter makes is that the church must be faithful to the Great Commission if it can expect the Lord Jesus Christ to be present with her.
Some reflections on this letter are in order. The first thing that struck me was the very strong emphasis on confessional Presbyterianism. Indeed, it was because the PCUS was NOT being confessional that the PCA (then NPC) emphasized it so much. This contrasts sharply with some recent attempts to downplay the confessional moorings of our forefathers.
Secondly, the entire paragraph quoted from page 8 on discipline and tolerating error creeped me out a bit, since it feels like confessional Presbyterians in the PCA are in a very similar position. I wonder if the surviving fathers of our denomination could ever imagine that the same thing that happened then is happening now. I heard from someone a while back that even at the founding, someone had predicted that we would get about 40 good years, and lo and behold, a prophet!