The denomination in which I serve, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), is approaching the 50th anniversary of its founding. Through these years God has blessed this expression of His Church, and it has been a privilege for me to have been part of it. The sailing has not always been smooth. There have been some storms that have their genesis from both inside and outside of the church. We are not without our faults, our failures, or our sins. But through it all, I believe, the PCA has been well-tethered to the motto:
Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, and Obedient to the Great Commission
From its inception, the PCA has been somewhat of a “Big Tent” denomination, at least relatively speaking. Though not an especially large denomination, the tent is big enough in that it encompasses an array of churches holding to both the authority of Scripture and to the Reformed understanding of the Christian Faith. (The Great Commission part sometimes seems like it is generally and widely true, but the actuality, or the level of engagement, may be measured more on a church to church basis. That said, some may also reasonably suggest the same about the fidelity to the Reformed Tradition.) As with any Big Tent denomination – and perhaps especially so with any theologically “conservative” Big Tent – the PCA has had – and still has – its share of “camps” and conflicts. Through the years some from fringes of the church have departed for other denominations, or into independency; and they have done so because they respectively believe: 1) The PCA is too “liberal” and permissive, or 2) The PCA is too “conservative” and uptight. But the vast majority, like me, have found a home and felt at home, and the PCA continues to grow even as most other denominations are experiencing decline.
For a variety of reasons, the PCA has been engaged in some prolonged intense debates for the past few years – some sounding like new verses of old songs; others sounding like entirely new tunes. Some, with differing visions, are even aiming to chart a new course for the PCA. And while I listen to the discussions and the proposed directions, trying to both figure out where I fit in and where I believe our denomination should go, in my mind I am wondering if maybe our best future may be found by resurrecting discussions from our past.
In 1994 a group of church leaders, collectively known as the PCA Consensus Group, hosted an informal gathering at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. (PERSONAL NOTE: At the time I was in the first year of my pastoral ministry, serving a church outside of Chattanooga. Cedar Springs had been my home church, beginning my Sophomore year of college; it is the church where my wife had grown up; and it was the church that sent us out into pastoral ministry.) This informal gathering was widely attended by church leaders from throughout the PCA, with several hundred, if not even a thousand, in attendance. The purpose of this gathering would be for the PCA Consensus group to present and discuss, what I consider, a well-thought out statement of affirmations and denials, published in a document titled A Statement of Identity for the Presbyterian Church in America.
What I have posted below is the substance of that Statement, or rather the revised version, subsequently re-published in 1998. I post this because I believe many of these propositions are worthy of reconsideration at this time, in the PCA’s present discussions and debates.
~ W. Dennis Griffith
In December of 1973, the Presbyterian Church in America was born, with solid commitments to the authority of scripture, the lordship of Jesus Christ, the Reformed faith, the Great Commission, the Presbyterian form of government and the broader Christian church, with whom we have essential unity. We have enjoyed unusual blessing and growth from the hand of God. We thank God for His continued mercy and faithfulness. He has given us a very sound heritage from which to minister and grow.
We believe, however, that we have come to a crucial moment in our church’s life. We detect a growing cynicism and apathy about the higher courts in the church that can lead only to atrophy in this great work of God. It seems to us that the cynicism stems, at least in part, from a perennial struggle for control in our judicatories by various ideological parties. The majorities sometimes use raw political power and close their ears to minority voices, and the minorities sometimes refuse to accept defeat and use parliamentary loopholes to impede procedural progress. These skirmishes bring several damaging consequences: they direct our attention primarily to church politics rather than to church mission; they create an unnecessary adversarial climate; they preempt serious discussion and debate on profound theological, pastoral, and cultural issues; and they too often make us wish we had not attended a presbytery meeting or General Assembly. As a result, we are discovering that too many of our elders are ill-advisedly opting to absent themselves from active involvement in the higher courts rather than exercising their gifts for ministry. For the health and vitality of the Presbyterian Church in America, we feel compelled to address this problem.
We believe that a good part of our denominational struggle has to do with the following:
I. A lack of clarity and definition about our identity and our fundamental commitments (thus producing unnecessary and prolonged conflicts).
II. A lack of vision and focus regarding our mission (thus producing unnecessary confusion).
III. A cumbersome structure and process, which have caused us to place our focus on the administrative, programmatic, constitutional, and judicial aspects of our life together rather than the doxological, theological, edificafory and relational aspects of our communal life (thus unnecessarily trivializing our presbyteries and assemblies).
Attempts have been made in the past by various groups in the church to address some of the issues facing us, but for various reasons, the proposals have not been widely accepted by the church. Our solution is to present to the church a consensual statement-A Statement of Identity-in order to begin addressing the first concern (I) stated above. We believe this will provide a “center of gravity” for the church and a basis for future discussions on our vision and polity (numbers II and III). We also believe that a consensus on key issues regarding our identity will create an environment where allowable diversity will strengthen rather than weaken us. We want to learn to live successfully and fruitfully with the allowable diversity in the Reformed faith rather than eliminate it through political means. Our desire is to root this statement in the sacred scriptures, in the Reformed faith and in our great Presbyterian history, while also innovating in those areas of ministry where the Bible and the Westminster Standards allow and our times demand. In this way, the PCA can fulfill the true intent of the saying that “it is a Reformed church that is always reforming” according to scripture.
Our intent in publishing this statement of identity is to encourage open discussion and debate in the PCA. We do not intend to comprehensively define the PCA in this statement. We do seek to address issues which are both foundational to the church and, at least in part, frequently debated in the PCA. We hope that a healthy consensus on key issues will promote peace, purity, and progress within our denomination.
Therefore this statement includes the following issues:
- Our hermeneutical basis for covenant theology as opposed to some forms of dispensationalism and some other theological tendencies
- Our interpretation of the subscription vows
- The need for serious theological reflection in the PCA
- Our “decentralized model” of Presbyterian polity
- The need for a biblically balanced agenda for the church courts
- Our understanding of the regulative principle for worship
- Our approach to church discipline
- Our theology and philosophy of the mission of the church
It is in the spirit described above that this statement is commended to the elders of the PCA. While each of the signatories may not agree with every statement or the precise wording of every thought, we do believe that this statement represents the general thrust and desired priorities of the Presbyterian Church in America. We do not intend for readers to consider this document extra-constitutional, but ask them to receive and use it as a consensus of the Reformed faith and its implications for ministry. We trust that the principles we emphasize in this statement will give guidance to the PCA as it plans and engages in its ministry.
May the Lord bless the PCA, empowering it to serve as a faithful instrument to promote His glory in the church and in the world through the gospel.
I. – SCRIPTURE AND HERMENEUTICS
God has revealed His eternal power and divine nature in creation so that all fallen humanity is without excuse (Rom. 1:20), and He has in the last days spoken to us by His Son, Jesus Christ, who is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being (Heb. 1:2-3). For the more sure establishment and comfort of His church and the better preserving and propagating of the truth, God has seen fit to commit the revelation necessary for salvation wholly unto writing in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (WCF 1. 1-2), which principally teach what we are to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of us (WSC #3). Reformed belief begins with giving priority to the authority of God’s written Word over human reason and tradition, even when the latter are derived from the godliest of the saints and are proven helpful for the understanding of the truth.
The Nature and Authority of Scripture
1. We affirm that the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the written Word of God, inerrant in their original autographs and the only infallible rule of faith and practice (WCF I.4).
We deny that any writing or speech which is not part of the canon of the scripture is of such authority in the church of God as to bind the conscience (WCF I.3).
2. We affirm that the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men and private impressions are to be examined is the Holy Spirit speaking in the scripture (WCF I.10).
We deny that pronouncements of synods, councils, general assemblies, presbyteries, and godly individuals-all of which may err and many of which have erred-are to be made the rule of faith and practice (WCF XXXI.4).
3. We affirm that our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority of scripture is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts (WCF I.5).
We deny that the church is the source of scripture or of its authority, although we may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to a high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture (WCF I.5).
Important as it is for the PCA to be a confessional church whose doctrinal position is clear and forthright in this pluralistic age, the unique authority of the Bible must be emphasized. Scripture alone is the written Word of God. Although the Westminster Standards contain the system of doctrine taught in scripture, they must not be equated with scripture. As products of churchmen gathered in council, they are subject to amendment.
The Means of Interpreting Scripture
4. We affirm that the infallible rule of scripture is scripture itself; therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any part of scripture, it must be searched out and known by other passages that speak more clearly (WCF I.9).
We deny that scripture ever contradicts itself or that its parts do not perfectly agree (WCF 1.5).
5. We affirm that the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture (WCF I.6).
We deny that anything is at any time to be added to scripture, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men (WCF I.6).
6. We affirm that the inward illumination of the Spirit of God is necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word (WCF I.6).
We deny that scripture can be rightly interpreted and applied merely by unaided, fallen human reason. We also deny that the teachings of scripture are contrary to reason.
7. We affirm that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed (WCF I.6).
We deny that scripture gives specific instructions on every issue or every aspect of every issue.
The interpretation of scripture is the great challenge of our age and indeed of any age. The Westminster Divines acknowledged that “all things in scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all” (WCF I.7). We should, therefore, undertake the interpretation of the Word with prayer, patience, and humble willingness to hear and learn from one another and those who have gone before us, in our own culture or in other cultures. To the glory of God, scripture is itself sufficient for all things pertaining to our salvation, faith, and life. The Westminster Standards are valuable as interpretive guides for scripture; however, they make no claim to infallibility. Therefore, the church and human reason must always be subject to the Spirit’s speaking in and through the Word. For the fullest understanding, we must approach the Word with prayer for the illumination of the Holy Spirit.
The Relation of the Old and New Testaments
8. We affirm that there is one covenant of grace, binding together the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and that this one covenant of grace is a necessary hermeneutical framework for the proper interpretation of scripture.
We deny that the two testaments can be properly understood apart from belief in the one covenant of grace.
9. We affirm that there is only one way of salvation in both testaments: by grace, through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ (WCF VII.6).
We deny that, since the Fall, anyone can or ever could be saved by good works or the keeping of the law.
10. We affirm that the moral law does forever bind all persons, those who are justified and those who are not justified, to obedience to it (WCF XIX.5). Although all the Old Testament ceremonial laws are now abrogated under the New Testament (WCF XIX.3), Christ in the gospel does not in any way dissolve, but rather strengthens, our obligation to keep the moral low (WCF XIX.5).
We deny that the Christian is no longer obligated to obey the law of God.
11. We affirm that the various civil laws given by God to Old Testament Israel expired with that state as a judicial system; however, the general equity of those civil laws still reflects the eternal righteousness of our God and his abiding moral law (WCF XIX.4).
We deny that we are bound indiscriminately to all Old Testament law.
We believe most firmly in the unity of the covenant of grace. It is a matter of immense importance that we believe and obey the entire Bible, regarding it as the living Word of God. We also believe most firmly in the continuing authority of God’s law. That law is God’s precious gift, making the believer in Christ wise and showing him the path, through faith in Christ, to true happiness. We are greatly concerned about the rampant antinomianism in American evangelicalism (which at times may rear its head in our own church and should be confronted and repented of).
The precise construction of the relationship between the epoch preceding the incarnation and that introduced by Christ and the apostles is a matter of long-standing discussion in the Reformed tradition. Clearly there is both continuity and discontinuity between the epochs in the history of salvation. But in our view, neither the traditional form of dispensationalism nor theonomy (or Christian reconstructionism) represent the soundest interpretation of scripture. The former tends to deny the full unity between the Old and New Testaments. And the latter, in its clearest expressions, emphasizes the continuity of the Mosaic judicial law in exhaustive detail. We believe that the soundest interpretation of scripture is found in our confessional standards, to which we seek to adhere.
Following are some of the implications of our position on scripture and hermeneutics:
1 . The driving theme is that we seek to be a biblical church. This means not only that the church’s doctrine, life, worship, and government must be faithful to scripture by not departing from its norms, but that our teachings and practices must be fully informed and impelled by God’s Word.
2. Since scripture is its own interpreter, we and our people must be regularly exposed to the whole counsel of God. As important as other aspects of worship are (that is, our communication of reverence, adoration, love, and thanksgiving to God), even more important is God’s communication of His will to us through the reading and preaching of his Word.
3. Because we all need the illumination of the Holy Spirit for the right understanding and application of God’s Word, we should prayerfully seek the wisdom of those who have believed the Bible in the church’s past and of those who believe it today. This includes those who produced the Reformation and our Westminster Standards. Also, we should be ready to listen to those who receive the Bible as the only infallible rule of faith and practice, yet may understand some secondary points differently from us. God may use mutual discussion to bring us all to a deeper understanding of His Word.
4. The relationship between the Old and New Testaments being the most challenging hermeneutical issue (cf. John Calvin, Institutes, 11. x and xi), especially the relationship between law and gospel, we desire to be a gospel-driven church with a love for God’s law like that described in Psalm 119.
II – SUBSCRIPTION TO DOCTRINAL STANDARDS BY CHURCH OFFICERS
It is a joy and a privilege to belong to a confessional church. The act of subscription is an aid in guarding the Reformed faith and in uniting the church in the truth. Through it we devote ourselves to God, worshipping Him who has graciously revealed Himself to us in His Word.
A Commitment to Subscription
1. We affirm that subscription by PCA officers to the system of doctrine contained in our confessional standards is of vital importance to the health of the church.
We deny that men who deceive, mislead, or dissemble with respect to their adherence to the confession can serve effectively in the church.
2. We affirm that confessional subscription promotes the church’s orthodoxy, unifies the church, and provides a foundation for inter-church relations. And we further affirm that the primary purpose of confessional subscription by officers is to bring honor and glory to God, who must be known and worshipped on His own terms.
We deny that a Reformed church can promote orthodoxy, unity, or ecumenism apart from faithful adherence to a Reformed confession.
3. We affirm that the chief agent of orthodoxy, unity, ecumenism, and worship is the Holy Spirit Himself, who works through the Word of God.
We deny that subscription alone can preserve the orthodoxy or unity of the church, for this cannot be accomplished ultimately by human means.
We believe that the accurate interpretation and propagation of God’s Word is a solemn duty and that public teachers should be held publicly accountable for what they believe and say. When the truth is known and believed, it sets the captive free (John 8:33). But while subscription guards the faith and promotes the unity of the church, its primary purpose is to bring honor and glory to God on the grounds of His self-revelation. God has revealed Himself through His Son, and this revelation is propositionally recorded by divine act in both testaments of scripture. We must know, worship, and serve God on His terms.
We also believe there is a subtle danger in depending on the subscription process as the primary means of defending the orthodoxy and unity of our church. We cannot ultimately defend the church by human means, even subscription. Our battle is not with flesh and blood; our primary defense and offense must always be prayer that calls to and depends on the sovereign work of God’s Spirit.
The Meaning of Subscription
4. We affirm that the PCA is a subscriptionist church in which men who desire to be ordained must adopt the confession of the church, believing that it contains the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scriptures and assuming clearly objective vows.
We deny that our subscription vows have only subjective meaning or that their meaning is derived from, dictated by, or shaped by the interpretation or understanding of the subscriber.
5. We affirm that subscription must be concerned with both the precision and diversity of the Reformed faith. The objective nature of faith demands the former and the Semper Reformanda nature of the faith permits the latter.
We deny that our vows commit us to a position in which elders must profess to receive every detail of the propositional statements within the Confession. We further deny that men who are actively examining and trying to reform their faith according to scripture should be denied ordination and/or the privilege of ministering in the PCA due to exceptions they may have to our standards, provided that their exceptions do not bear on the system of doctrine contained therein and that they conscientiously lay them before their sessions or presbyteries for examination.
6. We affirm that the court of immediate jurisdiction has the primary right and responsibility to guard the church from any view that is inimical to the system of doctrine contained in the Confession of Faith.
We deny that the General Assembly should impose upon the presbyter or sessions any view of subscription alien to the PCA and Presbyterian history (as understood and articulated in this document) and contrary to the interests of a church always being reformed by its fidelity to scripture alone.
While some claim that the PCA was founded as a “strict subscription” church, the vast majority of those initially involved in the formation of the new church affirm that the question of “strict subscription” was never directly addressed when the church was formed. This may be a reason it is difficult to find a precise definition for “strict subscription.” Subscription issues, as they are now being debated, seem primarily to reflect current attitudinal differences within the PCA. They do not directly parallel concerns addressed in the PCA’s founding or in historical new school/old school debates.
The debate surrounding subscription most often revolves around the precision of faith. The subscription process should also be concerned with the “breadth” of faith. Semper Reformanda is part of our reformation heritage and, by definition, requires that the Reformed faith be represented by a greater breadth than any one camp can represent. Each presbytery is given the responsibility to examine a prospective teaching elder concerning his adherence to the Confession of Faith. Each session is responsible to examine its ruling elder candidates. Each court must be careful to see that the views of its examinees are not inimical to the Reformed system of doctrine taught in the scripture as systematized in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Each man being examined is reminded of his responsibility to present his exceptions to this system to his overseeing court. The court must then decide if a man’s exceptions contradict the clear teaching of scripture and if they are contrary to the system of Reformed doctrine taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith.
The term “strict” versus the implied term “loose” does not properly frame the issue before the PCA. The issue is whether a man’s subscription to the Westminster Standards, as containing the system of doctrine taught in scripture, is compatible with qualifications he may make with respect to statements in the standards not affecting that system. Historic, authentic Presbyterian subscription has always allowed for such qualifications in the interest of a clear conscience.
The second ordination vow, as taken in the PCA, clearly reflects this tradition. If an ordained PCA minister (or ruling elder) at any time finds himself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, he is morally obligated to make it known to his presbytery (or session). Notice that this obligation relates to any of the “fundamentals of this system,” not simply to any of the statements of the standards as such.
Even so strong a subscriptionist as James Henley Thornwell allowed for such a distinction. In the report entitled “Reasons for Separate Organization,” written for the newly-formed Southern Presbyterian Church, he makes this point:
A Protestant church, with an unchangeable creed, is an anomaly. Its very name is a confession of its liability to err; and that no provision should be made for correcting its errors seems not a little extravagant …. The Westminster Confession and Catechisms we cordially receive as the mind of the Spirit. We believe them to be faithful expositions of the Word of God. The great system which they teach never can be altered by those who love the Truth; but there are incidental statements, not affecting the plan of salvation and the doctrines of grace, about which our children may not be as well satisfied as ourselves. (The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell [ 1873 ], IV 442, emphasis added.)
Bona fide (good faith) subscription to the standards as setting forth the system of doctrine taught in the Bible is compatible with exceptions to what Thornwell called “incidental statements.” The proper method of handling matters which do not affect the plan of salvation, the doctrines of grace, or other matters essential to the system of doctrine contained in the Confession is to declare such concerns at the time of ordination (or later if the matter arises after ordination) in order that the proper court may pass judgment as to whether they are incidental or not.
If at any time a church court allows an exception, should the elder be allowed to teach his exception? This question should be left to the court of original jurisdiction. It may instruct the elder to remain silent concerning his position, depending on how inconsistent it deems an exception to our system of doctrine. On the other hand, if the court has already allowed the exception as one that is not dangerous to the church, we must be willing to listen to those who are working within our system and are trying to help us be more faithful to the Word of God. This will enable Semper Reformanda to work in our church.
III – THEOLOGICAL REFLECTION
While sound theology is not in itself a guarantee of a sound church, the church cannot be sound without it. Our constitutional documents, the historic Westminster Standards, represent the PCA’s confession of faith. These standards are the result of serious, godly, theological reflection. In developing these standards, the church built upon the great doctrinal developments of previous eras, particularly the Protestant Reformation. Based on the Bible, God’s inerrant Word, the Westminster Standards summarize the nature of God, His creation, and the plan of redemption. They therefore summarize what God requires Christians to believe and to practice.
Theological reflection for our denomination has not been completed by the work of the authors of the Westminster Standards. While those documents have a peculiar authority over our church, scripture mandates continued contemplation and examination of the revealed truth and its application to our life today. Teaching the Word is a central part of the church’s responsibility (Matt. 28:19; 1 Tim. 4:6, 11-16). We must know the scripture, which is able to make believers wise unto salvation. And we must apply to our lives the God-breathed Word, which is profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).
This means that theological reflection must bear on every aspect of life. We are concerned that the PCA is sometimes tempted to make decisions without laying down proper theological underpinnings. This may take the form of pragmatism, which uncritically utilizes methods that aim to produce a desired effect. It may take the form of traditionalism, which rejects sound application of scripture by arbitrarily imposing conventions from previous eras. Or it may take the form of pietism, which disdains careful theological work and good methodology in the name of spirituality. As we face a future laden with critical issues for our church, we can not allow ourselves to consider theology a luxury.
Theological Reflection as a Foundation for Ministry
1. We affirm that evangelism and missions must be determined by theologically sound principles (Matt. 10:16; Luke 24:44-47; John 2:22; 1 Tim. 3:2) and that each deliberative body of the church, as well as each denominational committee and agency, must continually engage in proper theological scrutiny of its goals and policies and encourage theological reflection on its ministries (II Cor. 1:1 2ff.).
We deny that simplistic acceptance or rejection of humanly devised methods advances the cause of the Kingdom (Phil. 3:15; Col. 3:16; 1 Thess. 5:19-22; 1 Cor. 14:29); we further deny that uncritical use of secular managerial techniques is compatible with the church’s mission (1 Thess. 2:3-6).
2. We affirm that the local church and the presbytery, as well as the General Assembly, need to sponsor and promote theological reflection according to their callings (Acts 15:19-21; Phil. 4:9; Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27).
We deny that hasty judicial process, careless pragmatism, or simple neglect are the primary ways to resolve theological issues in the church court (Gal. 6:1-2).
3. We affirm the need to support and encourage confessionally Reformed seminaries. They are a means to recognizing and training godly, mature leaders (I Tim. 1:10b-11, 18-19; 3:2, 6; 4:6,13; 2 Tim. 1:13-14; 3:10-17; Titus 1:9; 2:1 ).
We deny that the church’s mission can be adequately carried out without theologically well-trained leadership (2 Tim. 4:2).
Our denomination is committed to many kinds of ministries. The most prominent are represented by our committees and agencies. They include home and international missions, Christian education, seminary and undergraduate college education, financial stewardship, and ministry to the destitute and oppressed. In addition, each church and each presbytery feature various kinds of ministries, from evangelism to disaster relief and other mercy ministries. All of these require theological integrity. To achieve this theological integrity, constant reflection is required in order to ensure faithfulness to scripture. It is easy to ignore the advantages of living in the modern world. It is also easy to accommodate to methods and techniques without proper theological justification.
Theological Discourse within the Church
4. We affirm the need to distinguish between primary doctrinal issues which are essential to the faith, and secondary issues (I Tim. 1 :5-6, 3:9,1 6; 6:3; Phil. 3:15; 2 Pet. 2:1-3).
We deny the propriety of elevating every issue to the same level and causing division in our church over them (Maff. 23:23-24; 1 Tim. 1:4; 1 Cor. 4:6).
5. We affirm that doctrines such as the Trinity, the deity and lordship of Christ, the vicarious atonement, creation, the authority and sufficiency of the scriptures, justification by faith alone, and Christ’s Second Coming are essential to the church’s existence and to deny them is to commit schism (I Tim. 3:14-16). We also affirm that doctrines such as sovereign grace, the covenant, infant baptism, and connectional government are essential to the integrity of the Reformed church, and that to deny them is to commit schism within the leadership of the PCA (I John 1:1-3; 2:22-23; 4:1-6, 15).
We deny that our church can be truly biblical and Reformed without vigilantly defending these doctrines (I Tim. 4:6).
6. We affirm that such matters as worship styles; the areas of service for women in the church (which does not include eldership); specific strategic alliances; interchurch relations; the identity, nature, and use of spiritual gifts; and the organizational structure of church bodies are important issues. But these should not be treated as though the very foundation of Christ’s church at large, or the Reformed church in particular, were threatened by them (2 Tim. 3:5). We further affirm that the wise approach to resolving issues not threatening the very foundations of the church is to promote reflection, to listen and to be willing to change in a spirit of grace and forbearance (Eph. 5:1-2; Col. 3:1 2-16; 4:6).
We deny that rash or unnecessary recourse to process and adjudication on issues not striking at the vitals of the Reformed faith is healthy for the life of the local church, the presbytery, or the General Assembly (Matt. 18:15; Rom. 12:10; Go 1. 3:1 5; 5:2 2-2 3; 6:1 -2; 2 Tim. 3:5).
The Church of Jesus Christ will inevitably face issues that bring controversy. While that is to be expected when believers are zealous to obey their consciences, the process can be painful and dangerous to the church. The PCA is facing a number of questions today which have the potential for division. These include worship styles, the legitimate areas of service for women, strategic alliances in missions, specific grounds for divorce and remarriage, interchurch relations, and the structures of the church courts. The dynamics of approaching controversy must involve patient, careful study of God’s Word. Proper discipline indeed begins with the Word of God addressed to the interested parties. It then may have to advance to the stage of formal process. But it is crucial for our church to proceed in a spirit of grace and forbearance, even when the issues are of the utmost significance. It is also imperative that our church learn to distinguish between fundamental matters and peripheral ones. Certain issues indeed threaten the very essence of the gospel and must be approached with gravity. Others threaten the fundamentals of our Reformed heritage and require careful deliberation and discipline. But others, while important and sometimes reflective of deeper hermeneutical problems, are not as essential and must not be treated as though they were.
Theological Dialogue with the World
7. We affirm the need to draw upon the benefits of common grace in our culture and in other cultures. We further affirm the need to learn from Christians both inside and outside of our own tradition, whether in the present or in the past.
We deny that all cultural and theological developments are evil or that wisdom comes only from Reformed Christians (Lk. 1 6:8; Acts 1 7:28; 1 Cor. 5:1 ; Titus 1:1 2-13; Heb. I 1; Eph. 4:16).
8. We affirm the need to recognize the evils of our culture so that the church may know how to resist and speak against the temptations of our enemy (I John 4:1; 5:2 1).
We deny that the church should be captive to contemporary cultural and political movements rather than to arriving at the truth by proper reflection on the scriptures (Rom. 1 2:2; 1 Cor. 5:1 0; 10:23-26).
9. We affirm the need to scrutinize and engage the times in which we live, so that the church may function prophetically in the world (Dan. 1 ; I Chr. 1 2:32; Matt. 16:3).
We deny that the church should withdraw from its surrounding culture and ignore the urgent, public moral issues of the day (John 1 7:15; 1 Cor. 5:10).
The world is the place where God’s kingdom purposes are being carried out. The world’s cultures provide the arena for the church to accomplish her tasks. There are two aspects of culture which must be observed simultaneously. The first is positive. The cultural mandate given to our forefathers (Gen. 1:28-30) is a creation ordinance still operative. The world is to be subdued and enjoyed by human beings in general and by Christians in particular. There is a sense in which the world is good; its fullness belongs to the Lord. The second aspect of culture is negative. Culture has become fallen, a system which is hostile to God’s purposes. In this sense, the world is evil, and must be resisted. Faithful theological reflection helps us distinguish between these two aspects of the world, and is crucial if we are to “test everything, hold on to the good, avoid every kind of evil” (I Thess 5:21-22).
IV – CHURCH POLITY
The Presbyterian Church in America affirms the Presbyterian form of government as set forth in the PCA Book of Church Order as being in conformity with “the scriptural form of church government” (BCO 1-1). By this we mean that Jesus Christ, as King of the church, has given us offices through which He governs His church, according to His Word. We believe that these same officers-elders and deacons-should be elected by the people whom they serve and that the extent of their powers, although considerable, is only ministerial and declarative (BCO Preface II.7). God has also demonstrated in scripture how various churches are to be formally connected (BCO 11-4) in broader courts for the purpose of unified praise and fellowship, authoritative decree (Acts 16:4), mutual edification, theological deliberation, church discipline, appeals, ministries of compassion, and world evangelization.
While these things are generally accepted among us as a jus divinum, a divine law, there are many points of polity that are clearly left to the application of general biblical principles and Christian prudence. These include, among other things, the precise division of powers among the various courts of the church, the details of organizational structure, the procedures for conducting the business of the church, the exact measure of authority vested in particular offices, the methods for resolving differences, and the agenda for our meetings and assemblies.
The PCA is a particular Reformed church, living and serving in a particular culture and moment in history. There are aspects of our polity that are unique in Reformation church history (e.g., BCO 25-10,11). This is due, partially, to the fact that the American church/state relationship and the pluralistic nature of the American culture present unique demands and opportunities for the Reformed church. As a Reformed church, we are absolutely committed to the idea that if we are true to our profession, we shall remain faithful to the unchanging truths of God’s Word, that we shall honor our historic Presbyterian principles of church government as set forth in the PCA Book of Church Order, and that we shall always remain open to changing those aspects of our polity that are affected by our historical and cultural contexts. The structure and organization of a Reformed church, by the church’s very nature, must have a God-ward orientation and resolve to honor His revealed patterns over any cultural trends.
What follows embodies biblical truth, historic Presbyterianism, and the PCA’s commitment to our heritage.
Moral Authority and Voluntary Submission
1. We affirm that, under normal circumstances, it is incumbent upon every Christian to partake in the life of the church and to submit to the government and discipline of their particular church or denomination (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 5:1 7; Heb. 10:24,25; 1 3:1 7; 1 Peter 5:2-4). And we further affirm that it is God’s will that the individual member be submitted, not to his own will, but to the Head of the Body.
We deny that it is possible to be fully obedient to Christ without active membership in His church. We also deny that something as important as church membership is related primarily to human volunteerism rather than faithfulness to God.
2. We affirm that the church is of divine origin and that when the courts of a church rule in accord with God’s Word, the courts speak truly in the name of Jesus Christ and must be obeyed by those under their authority, just as they would obey Christ (BCO Preface 1; 11.2,3). We further affirm that, while church courts may err, church members should be diligent to honor those in authority over them and seek, in good conscience, to be submissive to their rulings.
We deny that any Christian has the biblical right to ignore or refuse to obey any biblical ruling of a court of elders to whom he has promised subjection.
3. We affirm that all local church, presbytery, and denominational membership is morally and spiritually imperative, even though entered into voluntarily. And we further affirm that all means of persuasion or correction by the church must be as authoritative and revealed, as they are ministerial and declarative, even in the exercise of church discipline (BCO Preface 11. 1).
We deny that a church, in any of her courts, can ever rightfully employ physical coercion or civil litigation among her members to accomplish her ends, other than to protect the church’s basic civil rights which she holds in common with the rest of society. To do so would be to assume the role of the civil magistrate.
It is a very dangerous thing for any Christian to neglect or to hold in contempt the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom has been given the keys of the Kingdom and the ordinances of God. When we speak of her ministry being only ministerial and declarative, we do not mean to imply that she has less power than the state. She has more power, but it is in a different realm than the state’s power, and is not to be vitiated by using means not suited to the church’s lofty ends. We clearly affirm the divine authority given to the church by God’s Word for our good, and we fervently resist all attempts to “democratize” the church or to create “autonomy” in local churches or presbyteries.
We also carefully and biblically circumscribe church authority and resist all forms of prelacy. We believe that the Presbyterian form of government conforms to the New Testament church more closely than any other.
One of the reforms effected by Calvin in the Reformation was the restoration of Presbyterian government to the church. But even within Presbyterianism, there were differing perspectives as to the details of the outworking of the principles of Presbyterian church government. Presbyterianism in America began with a more “decentralized,” or “regional,” model of governance than did European Presbyterianism. (In America, there were Presbyterians here before there were Presbyterian churches, churches before presbyteries, and presbyteries before synods; while in Scotland, the General Assembly created the presbyteries. This is also part of the reason for the regional character of American Presbyterianism.) The regional model was well-suited to the American experience with a disestablished church, but over the years it evolved into a more typically Scottish “centralized” model. At its founding in 1973, the PCA clearly reintroduced the “decentralized” model. This was reaffirmed by the Fourteenth General Assembly (1986) in its adoption of the proposals in the paper, “The Philosophical and Theological Basis for our PCA Structure.” In the past, we have chosen to be a “grassroots church” (BCO 14-2; RAO 1-5; 2-1(2); 3-1; 4-11, 12; 1 1-1) with much power delegated to the presbyteries and particular churches, rather than amassing all decision-making at the General Assembly level. We realize there may be noble intentions-i.e., efforts to preserve the orthodoxy of our church’s theology and discipline or to improve the efficiency of its operations-behind wanting to evolve into a centralized model of Presbyterianism. Nevertheless, we believe we should consciously strive to maintain our decentralized model of Presbyterianism on which our denomination was founded. It is a thoroughly biblical model and it continues to suit well our ecclesiastical and cultural contexts.
The PCA’s Presbyterianism ensures that no church court can usurp the powers reserved in our constitution for other church courts (BCO 114). No PCA higher court can “act for” a lower court in a “civil” function, nor can it resort to the civil court to enforce its decision against a lower church court. We further guarantee this model by insisting that only the local church has rights of ownership over its own local church property (BCO 25) and that a local church may withdraw from the PCA at any time by a vote of the congregation at a properly called meeting.
It must also be acknowledged that the denomination’s power, as great as it is, deals only with issues regarding theology, worship, and discipline, since the higher court’s power is only ministerial and declarative, moral and spiritual (BCO Preface 11-7, 8; 3-2; 34; 1 1-2).
Godly Leadership: A Necessity
4. We affirm, at every level of the church’s life, the continual need for godly leadership that is strong and faithful, decisive and consensual, truthful and loving. We further affirm the need for the church to accept, elect, replace, and deploy leaders for God’s work of evangelism, revival and reform, who will faithfully guard the flock and contend for the faith handed down to the church once and for all (I Tim. 5:17, Jude 3).
We deny that the church can effectively serve Christ if she irresponsibly opposes and criticizes her leaders privately and publicly. We further deny that the church can effectively serve Christ if she seeks to function like a democracy, with no recognized and empowered leadership.
5. We affirm that the power of Christ is vested in the entire Body and that ecclesiastical jurisdiction is exercised through the plurality of elders (Acts 8:1 7; 1 4:23; 20:17; Titus 1:5; BCO 3-1; 27-1; RAO 4-1 1).
We deny that the authority of Christ is vested in one individual or informal group of individuals; we further deny that anyone should lead, or continue to lead, if he does not serve the people of God or faithfully uphold biblical standards.
6. We affirm that individual presbyters who hold “minoriy opinions” should be careful to raise their opinions or objections in a respectful manner that maintains the peace and dignity of the church court and, further, that those individuals should humbly submit to, and seek to support, the majority view of the church court after closure on the issue (at least until a considerable time has elapsed or until new circumstances or a new consensus warrants revisiting the issue), unless it involves issues of moral conscience, in which case the formal procedures of protest, complaint, appeal, or disfellowshipping should be peaceably pursued (BCO 21-6; 24-6).
We deny that individual presbyters with a minority opinion should lose the rights belonging to any other presbyter, or be denied any aspect of due process; and we further deny that it is godly to abuse the parliamentary process for the purpose of impeding the procedural progress of a court.
7. We affirm that individual presbyters who hold “majority opinions” should be forbearing and careful that “minority opinions” are clearly heard and considered in the church court and that political methods are employed which contribute to harmony and inclusion.
We deny that parliamentary procedures should be used to stifle or cut off legitimate debate in church courts on substantive issues.
8. We affirm that opinions and decisions in the church courts ought always to be fashioned through prayer and reasoned, biblically-based persuasion (WCF 1.2, 6, 1 0; WLC 157, 182, 184, 185).
We deny that opinions of courts should be developed or propagated through political maneuvering.
Part of the genius of Presbyterianism is accountability to our brethren in the Lord. There is an unfortunate tendency of fallen human nature to seek power and to avoid accountability. The General Assembly must continue to guard our procedures and revise our system of accountability so that our committees and agencies do not become de facto para-church agencies. At the same time, however, with proper means of accountability in operation, we need to allow our leaders to lead. The coordinators and presidents and the permanent committee members whom the General Assembly elects should be able to exercise the leadership roles for which they have been chosen without unwarranted suspicion and criticism. The PCA is made up of people who are held together by what we believe and not by civil coercion. Because we are held together by a common confession, we can encourage one another in mutual love and trust. The PCA’s effectiveness will be seen in all of her courts and agencies when love and truth are properly practiced.
Unanimity on most issues that come before any court of the denomination is a rarity. When we use our BCO, RAO, and Robert’s Rules of Order we desire to ensure that the will of the majority is enacted while the rights of the minority are protected. Admittedly, the process can be frustrating to both the majority and minority. The majority on a given issue may be tempted to use its sheer strength of numbers to deny a fair debate of an issue that is of consequence to the minority. On the other hand, the minority may be tempted to use parliamentary procedure to prevent, stall, or reverse the will of the majority. Our present procedures give opportunities for the minority on an issue to make its position known, to seek to persuade the majority otherwise, and, in the event of losing a vote, to enter a respectful protest into the record. It is necessary for the purity and peace of the church that there be open, fair, and reasonable debate of issues before the General Assembly, presbyteries, and sessions and, after a deciding vote has been taken, that there be closure to the matter at hand.
Church Courts or Church Councils?
9. We affirm that our session, presbytery and General Assembly meetings should be viewed as church councils gathered as a family in Christ as well as deliberative bodies (I Cor. 12:14-26; Eph. 1:22; 2:19-20; Heb. 3:6,13; WCF XXV. 1).
We deny that our sessions, presbyteries, and General Assembly meetings should be adequately and fully described by the term “church courts.”
10. We affirm that when our church councils meet, it is proper and good to engage ourselves in worship, the study of God’s Word, prayer, mutual encouragement and love, and deliberation upon our vision and mission, as well as the fulfillment of our constitutional, administrative, judicial, and programmatic duties (Acts 2:42; 6:4; Eph. 5:18-20; Col. 3:15-16; Heb. 3:13; 10:24,25; 13:1-2).
We deny that the purpose of church councils should be limited to the fulfillment of only administrative and programmatic duties listed in BCO 12-5, 1 3-9, and 14-6.
11. We affirm that the church should be seeking God through the preaching of His Word and sustained prayer that He might grant us vision for the future mission and direction of the church. We further affirm that as gathered leaders, elders should spend time deliberating on the church’s future with informed, biblical optimism (the gates of hell cannot prevail against us) with every intent of facing the changing demands of the church and the world with the gospel of Christ (Mt. 6:1 0; 10:5-15; Acts. 15:36-4 1; 17:16ff; 18:18-23; WCF V.3,7; WLC 191).
We deny that it is necessarily presumptuous or untrusting of God’s providence to ask God for vision or to make plans for the future; we further deny that our task is only to react to past and present problems confronting us.
Our description of sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly as “church courts” tends to place the emphasis on judicial matters and rules of procedure rather than on worship, fellowship, and ministry. The one dynamic that keeps the church alive and vital is the Holy Spirit Himself. He alone will keep us spiritually-minded, tender-hearted, and vision-oriented. He alone will grant us wisdom to glean the lessons of history while also innovating for today and tomorrow. We believe, therefore, that the time has come to emphasize the most profound ministries of the Spirit-worship, fellowship, instruction, and mission-without neglecting the administrative work that also must be done under the Spirit’s guidance. We believe that this will also result in reducing the adversarial atmosphere that is frequently evident at many church courts and will thus increase our zeal to attend our sessions, presbyteries, and general assemblies.
V – WORSHIP
As Presbyterians, we are the grateful heirs of the Reformed tradition, which is clearly based on faith and practice of the Word of God alone. In particular, the Protestant reformers modified and sanctified the worship of God in their day to conform to the pattern of biblical and apostolic practice. In this respect, we believe our tradition still provides a model for true, spiritual worship. As we affirm our past, we are eager to live out these same principles in today’s world. In order to do this carefully and fruitfully, especially when there are differences of opinion in the church, we would always return to the first principle of our Reformation forefathers: Sola Scriptura, the Word of God alone.
Worship: The First Priority
1. We affirm that Christian worship is the priestly service (abodah, latreia) of the church in which we humble ourselves before the Almighty God as He is revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ (shacha, proskuneo). We do this by declaring His worth, confessing our sins and His lordship over us, hearing his Word attentively, and rendering to Him due honor and glory, according to His Word. We do all of these only by the power of the Holy Spirit and out of gratitude to God.
We deny that the chief end of worship is the mere satisfaction of human desires or that worship is to be conducted according to the dictates of human reason alone.
2. We affirm that worship is the very goal of salvation and therefore of all history (John 4:23; Rom. 15:8-11; I Peter 2:9; Rev. 5:13; 7:12), and that, as priestly service, it deserves our full attention, energy and participation. This priestly service is our highest joy.
We deny that worship is a peripheral or dispensable element of the Christian life, or that it serves simply as a preamble to the preaching of the Word. We further deny that God is glorified by worship passively experienced or grudgingly rendered.
3. We affirm that worship includes particular meetings of God’s people (1 Cor. 14:1-39; Heb. 10:25) as well as times of private and family devotions (Job 1:5; Dan. 6:10; Matt. 6:5-6).
We deny that it honors God to avoid worship of any of these levels.
4. We affirm also a broader sense of worship, which includes the whole of the Christian life offered as a living sacrifice to God (Rom. 12:1,2).
We deny that either “broad” or “narrow” worship without the other pleases God (Maft. 23:23-24; Heb. 10:25).
5. We affirm that worship which honors God will also edify believers (I Cor. 14:1-17, 26; WCF I.3, 8) and challenge unbelievers (1 Cor. 14:22-25).
We deny that seeking the glory of God in worship requires us to ignore therein the true spiritual needs of worshippers (e.g., evangelizing the lost or equipping the believer), or that it allows us to ignore our obligation to show the love of Christ to fellow worshippers (1 Cor. 11:17-34; John 13:35; James 2:1-4). We also deny that these legitimate purposes (edification and worship) may be implemented in ways which are inconsistent with the primary goal of pleasing God by adoring Him according to His revealed will.
Worship is not just one activity among others, but it is the very heart of the believer’s existence and of the body life of the church. Worship is the purpose for which God has saved us from sin (John 4:23; 1 Pet. 2:9). Because the praises of God in Christ will fill the new heavens and the new earth (Rev. 5:12-13), our present earthly worship is to be reverently joyful, hearty and exuberant, as well as humbly astonished and contrite in anticipation of that heavenly worship which we will enjoy forever. Worship is not only a duty, but it is also the highest and most joyful activity of our redeemed humanity.
In worship, we humble ourselves before God and serve Him, honoring Him as Lord and Savior. This is true both in the “narrow sense” of worship, in which we set aside certain times to meet with God (Heb.10:25), and in the “broad sense” in which all of life is a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1,2). Worship is therefore primarily “vertical” in focus: God-centered and Christ-centered, in and through the Holy Spirit. However, there is also a “horizontal” aspect of worship, for glorifying God summons us in worship to edify one another (1 Cor. 14:26).
Worship: The Regulative Principle
6. We affirm that since God has made us for Himself, He is better qualified than we are to define how worship, as our highest duty and deepest joy, is to be expressed. It is God alone who defines the content of worship He is to receive from men (Ex. 20:4-6; Deut. 12:30-32; Isa. 29:13; Maq. 15:8-9; Col. 2:23; WCF XXI. 1; WLC 108, 109).
We deny that human beings have liberty to devise elements of worship that God has not prescribed, to obligate others to participate in elements that God has not mandated in his Word, or not to allow others to perform elements He has clearly approved.
7. We affirm that biblical warrant is needed for any element to be included in worship. Elements are parts of worship defined by and prescribed in scripture. Therefore, we affirm that whatever is not commanded is forbidden and that God’s will is that He be worshipped only in ways He prescribes.
We deny that it is sufficient merely to assert that worship practices should not contradict the Bible, nor is it accurate to assert that whatever is not forbidden is permitted.
8. We affirm the sufficiency of scripture to define the worship that God desires and prescribes.
We deny that, while God commands the worship He desires, His commands can always be found in proof texts. Worship elements are drawn both explicitly from scripture and implicitly from what may, by good and necessary inference, be deduced from scripture (WCF I.6). We do not have a precise and exhaustive “list” of worship elements in scripture or in our constitutional documents. We must, therefore, exegete and analyze biblical texts and determine the relationship of Old Testament and New Testament passages, in order to discern what scripture says about worship that may not be explicit.
9. We affirm that there are also varying “circumstances” of worship that affect specific ways in which we express the elements of worship. Circumstances are those matters and actions attending the elements of worship which include (but are not limited to) the arrangements, order, proportion, and timing involved in the presentation and conduct of the elements (but which do not affect the normative and essential content of the elements). We also affirm that circumstances are defined by what is common to human actions and societies within a given culture. Such circumstances are ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence.
We deny that circumstances are described in scripture or in our confessional documents with the same normative force as elements but are in fact culturally diverse, though they ought always to be decided with full reverence to God alone, under the guidance of biblical principles, and with humble respect for the unity of the body of Christ.
10. We affirm that there are varying “expressions” of worship, which are a type of circumstance relating to matters, actions, and choices communicating the elements of worship which include (but are not limited to) the form, manner, phrasing, and style in which the elements are presented. Expressions include such things as the order of the elements, the specific words of sermons, the musical style, the forms of prayer, and the use of historical rubrics.
We also affirm that there are practices in worship that are not universally employed in the PCA and that remain somewhat controversial (e.g., use of musical instruments, vocalists, drama and dance, lifting or clapping of hands, regular use of women in liturgical leadership, use of kneelers, and use of various forms of art). We acknowledge that there is disagreement regarding (a) whether each of these practices is an “element” or an “expression/ circumstance,” and (b) whether, if a particular practice is best understood as an “element” of worship, it is approved by God in scripture for the church’s worship under the New Covenant.
We affirm that both questions merit open, respectful, reflective discussion and a searching of scripture; that cherished tradition, personal preference, and pragmatic innovation must be subordinated to a desire to offer worship pleasing to God; and that humble respect for the unity of the body calls upon us to seek to increase our unity in matters of biblical principle and to respect one another’s conscience in areas where scripture grants liberty.
We deny that the Reformed tradition of worship should never change or that it should change without careful reflection in the church; we further deny that, in the church’s reflection on worship practices, human taste or innovation may replace God’s revealed will as the criterion by which we determine what is acceptable in worship.
11. We affirm that scripture regulates circumstances and expressions in general, and sometimes in specific ways; but in many cases the specific decisions in these matters must be determined by “the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” (WFC I.6).
We deny either that we may make decisions regarding the circumstances or expressions of worship without consulting scripture or that we need specific scriptural warrant for every circumstance or expression.
12. We affirm that the freedom that the New Testament gives in arranging the elements and circumstances of worship and in expressing cultural diversity should be balanced with concerns for the unity of the worldwide church (Rom. 14:5-6; Col. 2:1 6; 3:1 2-1 7). This unity extends horizontally across the current generation of Christians throughout the world and also vertically across every age (and therefore back into biblical times). Sensitivity towards unity of form and style will also lessen the difficulty that believers experience when visiting other congregations or in relocating and transferring membership.
We deny that churches are so free in developing their own styles that they should ignore the practice of other churches, losing sight of the unity of the church at worship.
13. We affirm that the regulative principle sets us free from the “traditions of men” (Isa. 29:13; BCO 47-6).
We deny that the regulative principle should be used to promote an uncritical acceptance of tradition in worship, whether that tradition be Presbyterian or from some other branch of the church.
In worship we seek to honor God, and we cannot know what pleases Him in worship apart from His Word. Therefore our worship is limited to those “elements” that God’s Word prescribes. We may not invent or devise new elements of worship beyond what God has revealed (Isa. 29:13). However, that does not mean that we must find a scripture verse to tell us when we should meet, or whether to use pews or chairs, whether to use a piano or guitar, hymnals or overhead projectors. The detailed ways in which we carry out the biblical commands of worship are often varied by the dictates of “circumstances.” Sometimes scripture speaks concerning these variations, but in many cases we have no specific scriptural guidance and have to make decisions by our own God-given wisdom, in light of the broader principles of the Word.
Different churches may use varying “expressions” of the elements of worship, because of differences in situations, times, locations, cultures, historical backgrounds, or evangelistic opportunities. Some congregations believe that a regular, formal liturgy enables them better to concentrate on the worship of God. Others find a less formal, frequently varied style is more edifying in their local setting. We do have liberty in such matters. But that liberty should be exercised according to scriptural values. Even regarding our circumstantial decisions, we must ask what best glorifies God and what is most conducive to the edification of believers and to the witness of unbelievers (I Cor. 14:1-25).
Unfortunately, the regulative principle is sometimes illadvisedly used to force believers to worship according to older traditions, even traditions which for many are no longer understandable. This is ironic, for the regulative principle, both in scripture itself (Matt. 15:8-9) and during the Reformation, was used against religious traditionalism, to oppose it with the claims of scripture. Tradition is not to be despised, certainly. There are many values in it. We gratefully acknowledge what may be the Reformed tradition’s greatest value: that our ultimate standard is scripture and scripture alone. Regulation of worship by scripture alone puts all other tradition in its proper place: as a valuable resource, but not as a rule for faith.
VI – BIBLICAL DISCIPLINE
Ecclesiastical discipline practiced in accord with biblical principles and priorities is necessary for: the vindication of God’s glory, rule, and honor; the purity, witness, and influence of Christ’s church; and, the warning, correction, and restoration of offending members. Discipline practiced by Christ’s church must conform to God’s own glory and purposes. This means the purposes of proper discipline are never vindictive, vengeful, nor merely punitive. As its ultimate goals biblical discipline seeks repentance, reconciliation, remedy, and restoration (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:1-5; Gal. 6:1). Proper discipline requires courage and compassion since it actively engages the church in its responsibilities to reprove evil, to demonstrate righteousness, to promote justice, and to love mercy (Micah 6:8, Gal. 5:6-13).
1. We affirm that the church of Jesus Christ requires consistent and compassionate discipline, and that a church that (as a matter of policy) does not practice formal discipline dishonors God, imperils His church, and invites His judgment.
We deny that church discipline, when performed according to the Word of God and in the Spirit of Christ, is harsh or unloving (even though unbelievers, the uninformed and the unrepentant may so characterize it).
In order to ensure the fairness, order, and propriety of their disciplinary processes, Presbyterian churches organize their formal discipline procedures in accord with a judicial court model (1 Cor. 6:1-5; 14:40; 1 Tim. 5:19-21; for distinctions of formal discipline see BCO 27-1b). However, as necessary as these processes are to protect individual rights and ecclesiastical integrity, a church errs when it begins to characterize or distinguish its identity primarily in juridical terms (as much as it would err by identifying itself as an organization that does not discipline). When a church or denomination begins to think of itself as a “court system,” then it will inevitably become too open to securing organizational orthodoxy and member conformity by coercive means.
Biblical “discipline” is properly exercised when the church recognizes that in scripture the process (as well as the term itself) is most commonly affiliated with the analogy of parenting (e.g. Prov. 3:11-12; 13:24; Mt. 18:14-18; Heb. 12:5-1 1). Just as a child needs parental discipline to mature in character, so the children of God require discipline to mature in faithfulness. The parental model first reminds the church that discipline is to be administered prudently, compassionately, and without favoritism (Lev. 19:15; Eph. 6:4). In addition, the parental model cautions Christian leaders never to practice ecclesiastical discipline impatiently, imprudently, or mechanically (cf. Luke 6:27-31; Acts 16:3; Gal. 2:3; 2 Tim. 4:2; 1 Pet. 4:8).
No responsible parent (concerned for the well-being of a child) fails to exercise consistent discipline, but neither does a wise parent engage in a formal discipline process for every offense. Similarly, the church should exercise parental prudence in the administration of discipline (I Pet. 5:14; Heb. 5:2). The nature of the offense, the maturity of the offender, and the effects upon the larger church family, the witness of the church, and the glory of God must all be considered in determining whether to discipline formally, when to discipline, and the degree of discipline (Prov. 12:1, 16; 19:25; 2 1:1 1; Matt. 5:39; John 16:12; Acts 16:3; I Cor. 3:2; 2 Cor. 1:23-2:4; Col. 3:12-13; 2 Tim. 2:25; Philemon 8, 9; Jms. 5:19-20). Also consider Calvin, Institutes, IV, 12.8-13; BCO 312; 33-2,3; 34-5,6; 36-2; 38-3; The Standards of the RPCES, Book of Discipline, 111. 5-f; The Constitution of the RPCNA, Book of Discipline, 1.4). Were it not critical to weigh these matters, then scripture would not require church rule through elders with the discretion and prudence required to manage their own homes well (1 Tim. 3:4).
The dominant images of scripture used to describe the church (e.g. family, body, flock, temple) should remind believers that informal discipline (which includes faithful preaching of the Word, proper administration of the sacraments, the modeling of mature Christians, relational nurturing, pastoral warning, conversational correction, collective scrutiny of scripture, electoral processes, and many other forms of daily admonishment that are part of the body-life of a Christian community; see definition in BCO 27-1a) is the primary community corrective by which the Holy Spirit maintains the purity of the church (cf. Col. 3:16). Although a member’s unrepentant perseverance in flagrant or blatant sin normally compels the church to formal judicial action, Christian brothers and sisters should also understand that judicial procedure (analogous to a parent taking a child to court) is not the primary means by which God intends for the church to exercise its obligation for familial correction. Attitudes, actions, and instruction that drive local churches, presbyteries, or our assemblies too swiftly and frequently to ecclesiastical trials damage the harmony, work, witness, and advancement of Christ’s Kingdom as well as its purity (Lev. 19:16-18; Phil. 4:5; 2 Thes. 3:14-15; 2 Tim. 2:23-26; 4:2). A church zealous for purity glorifies God; churches lusting for court cases dishonor God (Rom. 12:17-21; Col. 3:12-15; Titus 3:9-1 1).
2. We affirm the need for consistent and orderly procedures for formal discipline.
We deny that the church should exercise discipline apart from the specific guidance of scripture and proper regard for our published standards, “The Rules of Discipline.”
3. We affirm that God designed the church’s discipline in such a way as to give elders discretion and flexibility in applying scripture’s wisdom to the personal complexities and situational specifics of fallen creatures.
We deny that formulaic or mechanical judgments should be regular means of applying biblical principles of discipline to varying situations and persons even where like sins may be involved.
4. We affirm that the healthy church will prefer, when possible, informal over formal discipline (and will prioritize personal warning and encouragement to holiness over judicial proceedings) when the former processes hold a reasonable and appropriate hope for correcting and/or addressing apparent sin.
We deny that church courts which prefer, for appropriate doxological purposes, to exercise informal discipline over formal judicial processes are lacking in discipline though the former may require much patience; we further deny that true bibliccil discipline is undermined by an occasional decision not to pursue a prosecutable matter in ecclesiastical courts for reasons which reflect proper and prudential prioritizing of biblical concerns.
5. We affirm the need for a graded system of courts in Presbyterian polity and, further, that the same standards of justice and mercy are incumbent upon each court.
We deny that the graded system of discipline present in our sessions, presbyteries, and general assemblies in any way lessens the church’s obligation at every level of authority to perceive and conduct itself lovingly and discreetly as the family of God.
We believe that biblical concerns about the health of the church’s focus, the spirit of its assemblies, the priorities of its mission, and the possible dissipation of its energies may serve as legitimate reasons for the delegation of discipline tasks to committees and commissions (examples serving for extension by Christian prudence: Ex. 18:17-26; cf. Acts 15:2, 22; 1 Cor. 6:4; 2 Cor. 1:23-2:10; 1 Tim. 1:3; Titus 1:5).
6. We affirm the use of commissions, when appropriate, for the exercise of church discipline. We further affirm that when a commission is so used, the right of an accused party to appeal a decision to the court appointing the commission must be carefully safeguarded (regarding matters in general at the sessional and presbytery levels, and regarding new evidence at the General Assembly level).
We deny that every member of a given court must hear and adjudicate every case in order for justice and mercy to be administered, given the nature of a commission and our representative form of government.
VII – MISSION
Jesus Christ is the Head of the church. He purchased His people with His blood and has bound them together in His church under His lordship. He determines and defines the church’s purpose as well as the general principles for accomplishing it. Our responsibility, as one branch of the church, is to follow Christ faithfully and to build His church in obedience to the Great Commission.
Theological Foundations for Mission
1. We affirm that the mission of the church, summarized, for example, in Maffhew 28:1 8-20, is the mission of the triune God calling His elect people unto Himself to redeem, rule, perfect, and protect them and, through them, to accomplish His purpose on earth.
We deny that the church’s mission is of human origin or design or primarily mon’s accomplishment through human effort.
2. We affirm that the Reformed faith compels us to engage in evangelism and in Christian education (discipleship) in obedience to the Great Commission.
We deny that the Reformed faith ever gives us the right to disregard or disobey the Great Commission, or that the Great Commission gives us the right to disregard the Reformed faith.
3. We affirm that since man by nature is sinful, condemned, and totally helpless to save himself, the redemptive message of Jesus Christ is the sinner’s only hope of salvation (Rom. 3:23; Eph. 2:1-3; Acts 4:12).
We deny that PCA congregations, presbyteries, or the General Assembly can be obedient to God without faithfully proclaiming the gospel locally, nationally, and to the ends of the earth.
4. We affirm that people of all races, cultures, and socioeconomic classes are created in the image of God, and that a church faithful to the gospel will seek to reach them and to assimilate them into the Body of Christ (Acts 10:9-48; 17:22-31); we further affirm that our effort to include the world’s diverse peoples in the church is a test of our faithfulness to the Great Commission (I Co. 9:1 9-24).
We deny that the church should seek to be any less diverse ethnically, culturally, or economically-than the world around us.
5. We affirm that while the church may delegate certain mission functions to other agencies, it remains God’s primary agent for the accomplishment of the Great Commission.
We deny that the church is at liberty to abdicate or to delegate to other agencies its ultimate responsibility for fulfilling the Great Commission.
The church’s mission is grounded in an objective, supernatural revelation. God has spoken authoritatively through scripture, which is His written Word. Jesus Christ is the final Word from God and reveals the fullness of God’s redemptive plan (Lk. 24:27, 4445; Heb. 1:1-2). Christianity, as a revealed religion, came into being by God’s design, not man’s.
One way the church glorifies God is by knowing and obeying His command to disciple the nations. God’s promise to Abraham that the nations would be blessed through him is fulfilled as the gospel is proclaimed to all peoples (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:8).
The scripture clearly teaches that all people are separated from God because of sin. God’s one and only plan to redeem sinners is through His Son, Jesus Christ. Through Christ’s substitutionary atonement and victorious resurrection, salvation is secured for the elect of all the nations. God’s plan includes the proclamation of this gospel through the agency of His church.
Principles of Mission Strategy
6. We affirm that the ultimate goal of the church’s mission is the glory of God, and, further, that He is glorified when local churches, presbyteries, and the General Assembly fulfill the Great Commission through the multiplication and edification of churches locally, regionally, notionally, and worldwide.
We deny that the ultimate mission of God is accomplished when only evangelism or only social ministries are carried out without resulting in the establishing and edifying of churches, locally, regionally, nationally, and worldwide.
7. We affirm that the church’s task of evangelism is to confront the lost with the gospel and further to build the church through the conversion of unbelievers and their families.
We deny that the church’s task of evangelism is merely to provide a gathering place for already Reformed Christians.
8. We affirm that the church’s task of discipline is to equip God’s people to know God and to make Him known, and, therefore, that the end of edification for every believer is holiness, meaning that all of life is lived under the lordship of Jesus Christ.
We deny that the church’s task of discipleship is merely to increase factual knowledge, to discover and develop personal spiritual gifts, to build relationships, or to train church workers.
9. We affirm that the gospel must be communicated in the language and culture of the hearer, using a multiplicity of methods, and that the church must constantly reform its methods, in light of scripture, to suit the context.
We deny that the ministry of the gospel is permanently encapsulated in any period of history, any one culture, or any set of methods.
10. We affirm that the Reformed faith should be made intelligible and applicable to all cultures and socioeconomic classes, which entails cultural and linguistic sensitivities and adaptations.
We deny that the Reformed faith is only understandable and relevant to “thinking” classes, or to the more educated people; we further deny that the Reformed faith should be cost today only in the language and culture of its great historical moments in previous centuries.
11. We affirm that since God created matter and spirit (Gen. 2:7) and redeems both body and spirit (I Thess. 5:23; 1 Cor. 1 5), the church in its mission must address both material and spiritual issues (Acts 6:1-7) and, like her Master, be migh@ in both word and deed (Luke 24:1 9).
We deny that poverty or other social pathologies and problems can be ignored by the church or that they can be resolved without the preaching of the gospel and the turning of souls to God (Eph. 2:1 2-1 8).
12. We affirm that biblical mission is usually most effective when done indigenously, and we further affirm that the training and empowering of indigenous leadership must be a central part of our mission strategy.
We deny that biblical mission can be done solely by expatriate missionaries. In order to be effective, we must learn to apply biblical revelation and redemption in the church’s context of ministry, i.e., in its geographical and cultural setting. Each generation of the church needs to assess the way in which it will minister the Word of life to its own generation. The form or shape of a ministry of a particular era may or may not be appropriate for another era.
An important distinction must be maintained: biblical truth is eternal and abiding; it does not change because its Author never changes. Yet its form of delivery, i.e., the manner and strategy used to present this truth, may change depending on the context of a particular ministry The church is to speak clearly to the culture in which it exists. If, for example, we compare Paul’s sermons delivered in Antioch and in Athens (Acts 13:16-41 and 17:22-33), we see that in Antioch the audience addressed was predominantly Jewish, and there were numerous references to Old Testament scriptures. That audience was familiar with scripture and could relate to the flow of Paul’s message. The audience in Athens, however, was unfamiliar with the Old Testament’s teachings and history To these people Paul presented Christ without quoting scripture, although he based what he said on special revelation. He preached Christ in both sermons. But each sermon was “packaged” differently, appropriate to the context of his audience.
A local church’s strategy also depends on its ministry location. If it is in an urban setting, its ministry, where possible, should reflect the peculiarities of that urban setting. If it is in a rural setting, its ministry should reflect the needs of that rural setting. The PCA has churches in a variety of settings. We should expect a wide diversity of ministry styles. The differences of style should not be interpreted to mean that one style of ministry is more biblical or credible than another. This is also true of the PCA’s ministry on foreign mission fields, as each mission field is different culturally and linguistically.
The Unique Strategy of the PCA
13. We affirm that the PCA is only one branch of Christ’s worldwide church and, as such, is spiritually connected to the larger church; and we, therefore, must cooperate and share responsibility with other true churches in fulfilling the Great Commission. We further affirm that the Reformed faith flourishes and spreads when we cooperate with and influence other evangelical Christians.
We deny that, simply on the basis of our distinctive theology, we should refuse to cooperate with other evangelical bodies who do not share all of our distinctives. We also deny that our connection to the broader church obliges us to cooperate irrespective of our convictions, purpose, and goals.
14. We affirm that the PCA’s unique role and strategy in any setting is conditioned by our theological perspective, the specific needs of the culture, the stage of the church’s development in a given culture, and the specialized gifts that the PCA can offer at any given moment.
We deny that our role should be uniform in every situation or limited to a single focus or specialty.
15. We affirm that, due to modern technology, changing political structures and global needs, and God’s providence in giving expertise to persons outside the PCA, we should be open to creative alliances with ministries that have similar biblical values.
We deny that the PCA has, on its own, all the ideas, expertise, gifts, and finances to accomplish God’s mission most effectively in any given place.
16. We affirm that biblical stewardship, wise planning, and potential impact strongly suggest that we focus most of our missional energies on the great urban population centers of the world. At the same time we affirm our commitment to start and strengthen churches of all sizes in all kinds of communities, locally, regionally, nationally, and worldwide.
We deny that decisions regarding the deployment of resources should have nothing to do with our best estimate of comparative potential impact for the Kingdom of God.
17. We affirm that biblical wisdom demands an openness and response to unexpected doors of opportunity, recognizing that God is the one who opens and closes doors of opportunity (politically and culturally), as well as individual hearts (Acts. 14:27; 16:6-1 0; Col. 4:3).
We deny that plans and strategies should not be dynamic (open to immediate change) or that our plans are the determining factors of God’s provisions and blessings.
In the PCA’s brief history, we have enjoyed remarkable growth in our MNA and MTW programs. We believe that one reason for this has been the unusual flexibility and cooperative spirit with which this Reformed ministry has been undertaken. We have distinctive theological commitments which we believe are gifts to the larger church and which we are eager to propagate around the world. We have distinctive abilities which we believe God would have us develop and deploy in missions. We also celebrate our membership in the world-wide, multifaceted church, and when we can cooperate without theological or strategic compromise, we believe we should join hands and work together, without consideration for who gets the credit. We believe that this strategic cooperation has been effective not only in our evangelistic efforts, but also in our desire to influence the broader church theologically The PCA continues to commit itself uncompromisingly to the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith and also to exploit all of the permissible means of our modern world to propagate the gospel. We want to stand ready to go any where, at any time, at any personal cost to advance the Kingdom of God.
Dr. Dominic A. Aquila
Dr. Frank M. Barker
Dr. William S. Barker
Mr. Mark Betz
Dr. James M. Boice
Mr. Raymond A. Cortese
Dr. D. Clair Davis
Dr. Charles Dunahoo
Rev. William Edgar
Dr. John M. Frame
Rev. George C. Fuller
Rev. John R. Hutchinson
Dr. Richard P. Kaufman
Dr. Timothy J. Keller
Dr. Paul D. Kooistra
Rev. Joseph A. LaCour
Mr. Tremper Longman
Dr. Donald J. MacNair
Rev. Dan G. McCartney
Rev. Randall P. Pope
Mr. Vern S. Poythress
Dr. Harry L. Reeder, III
Rev. Joseph F. Ryan
Dr. Shelton P. Sanford
Rev. Scott W. Smith
Dr. R. C. Sproul
Dr. Luder G. Whitlock
Rev. John M. Wood
Dr. P. Thomas Wood