an our Old Life Tennessee correspondent I came across a recent conversation about evangelicals in the Presbyterian world (including mainline and sideline denominations). First, the post about the state of so-called conservatives in the PCUSA:
I am in the ordination track for the Presbytery of Charlotte. And if that were not enough, I attend a PCUSA seminary, and I work at the seminary. Needless to say, I have an invested interest in the controversies plaguing the Presbyterian Church (USA). It pains me beyond words to see our denomination complete its long trajectory of cultural pandering and shameless accommodation.
A few weeks ago, the session (elders) of our church voted unanimously to be dismissed from the PCUSA. The Sunday after the vote, each elder gave his or her perspective on the decision, resulting in a remarkably diverse enumeration of grievances. I know from talking with the pastoral staff and some of the elders that this was not an easy decision. It was soaked in prayer, especially in the immediate weeks prior to the vote. There was no triumphalism in their statements, yet a confidence that God will continue to be faithful in the journey ahead. The elders were especially intent on making it clear that we are not morally superior to the PCUSA, for we are all equally dependent upon God’s grace. The congregation still needs to vote, but I expect wide support for the elders’ decision. Like most of the recent dismissals, we are planning to enter the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO).
Naturally, I am in the middle of all this as a seminarian. I have told the session that where the church goes, I will go. Thus, I will likely transfer into the ordination process of ECO.
In our area, the most significant dismissal to ECO has been First Presbyterian Church, Greenville (SC), which is about 3,100 members. I know that we are supposed to be pious and not focus on numbers, but it is a significant fact that the average ECO congregation is over 500 members, with FPC-Greenville and FPC-Colorado Springs as the largest. As well, there have been significant departures to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), notably First Presbyterian Church in Orlando, which is nearly 4,000 members. By contrast, the average PCUSA congregation is just shy of 100 members. I know, numbers aren’t everything, we shouldn’t focus on numbers, and so on. I understand the sentiment, but when you are looking at a demographic catastrophe in membership loss, numbers are actually pretty damn important. So, what are some of the denominational numbers?
Then an intervention from a PCA reader:
I am a member and officer in a PCA church, and have studied at Reformed Seminary in Charlotte, fwiw.
I would classify the PCA like this: a denomination that requires its officers to strictly subscribe to the Westminster Standards and largely rejects Neo Orthodoxy and most higher critical Biblical hermeneutics. It is largely aspiring to be an Old School Presbyterian denomination. In terms of practice, it is more New School than the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, though virtually identical to the Associate Reformed Presbyterian (ARP).
While someone like Tim Keller, for instance, may seem more moderate, I disagree that he is more Gordon than Westminster Philly, especially since he studied and has taught at Westminster Philly. He still strictly subscribes to the Westminster Confession, for instance. A Keller / Redeemer model is more of a majority of the PCA these days than older, Southern models. In many ways, what comes out of Redeemer New York is doctrinally more conservative than many, older Southern churches.
I’m confused by what you mean by the PCA being more fundamentalist. Do you mean in a Charles Hodge / Gresham Machen way? Or a cultural fundamentalism?
Honestly, I would say that many AMiA guys would be friendly to the PCA, especially since they have some of their students at Reformed Seminary.
Intinction was really a very minor thing. The big doctrinal discussion in PCA circles these days was over Federal Vision.
I remain very saddened over the mess going on in many PC USA circles, and am glad more congregations are leaving that denomination.
Keller is respected, indeed, and several of the guys like his model for ministry. At the same time, I’ve heard more than one complaint about his friendliness toward Francis Collins and other theistic evolutionists and his own progressive Creationism views. This is the huge debate, as you are likely aware, within evangelicalism and certainly on the Charlotte campus of RTS. A number of key faculty members were very hostile to any hint of evolutionary science and rather suspicious of progressive Creationism. The favored model on campus, by far, was/is Young Earth with a handful of Old Earth guys. The other complaint about Keller is his views on women deacons, including certain charges against him for being duplicitous in having women functioning in these roles.
Keller represents the prior generation of Reformed evangelicals, like Meredith Kline and Roger Nicole, who both taught at Gordon (and the latter also at RTS-Orlando). Roger Nicole would never even remotely have a shot today at RTS-Charlotte because of his views on women in ministry, and Kline’s framework hypothesis would be that “slippery slope” that everyone fears. These two issues — science and women in ministry — are by far the dominant ones at RTS and the like-minded young guys who follow Al Mohler, John Piper, and the same round of conference speakers. Federal Vision is still discussed, but with far less passion.
In general, the trend at conservative Reformed seminaries — like WTS and RTS, plus SBTS for the Baptists — has been an increasing shift toward the right (i.e., even further right!). When I tell people that the PCA and RTS is more conservative today than in the 70′s and 80′s, they say, “Oh, yeah, definitely.” I’m a pretty conservative guy, and in most settings I’m the most conservative guy in the room. At RTS, I was by far the most liberal guy!
I do hear you that in some PCA circles there is some fear that that some segments have doubled down, just to prove how conservative they are. And I have experienced it personally, and have seen what amounts to party splits over secondary issues, standing in proxy for major ones. For instance, you’ll see guys at places like a Greenville Seminary embrace a real scholasticism.
I think if you could take a poll among TE’s in the PCA, I still think the majority would be more like a Keller or Frame. I think the “we are conservative to prove a point about it” are loud though and probably seem more representative than what their real numbers might suggest.
I’m personally more a Kline / Framework guy, and I understand the history that in the PCA, a ministerial candidate holding something like Kline’s views were quite acceptable a generation ago – and are getting rejected in certain Presbyteries, and end up going to the EPC.
The take away seems to be that evangelical Presbyterians are caught between confessionalists and liberals — they want to be Reformed but moderately so. Because pietist evangelicals share more affinities with liberals (as in, we’re not going to be pains in the arses about doctrine or worship or polity), they wind up thinking more about size and influence (think neo-Calvinism) than about what their Reformed heritage might tell them (not to mention that old-fashioned idea that the Bible teaches Reformed doctrine, Presbyterian polity, and Reformed worship). Hence the appeal of Tim Keller.
That’s not to say that small is beautiful and that the entire mother
load lode of Geneva, Amsterdam, or Edinburgh resides in the RPCNA, OPC, or URC. But the discussions in these small communions are different from the ones among conservatives in larger denominations like the PCA, where apparently size does matter, closer to the border of the mainline denomination. Indeed, it seems to me that TR’s in the PCA would never countenance the OPC or RPCNA because these are pea-sized denominations. Again, the appeal of Tim Keller.