Is the PCA Big Enough?

The death of R. C. Sproul and the occasion of The New Yorker publishing Tim Keller provide the opportunity for further reflections on ecclesiology and parachurch agencies. For instance, Keller’s article in The New Yorker includes this byline:

Timothy Keller is the founder and Pastor Emeritus of the Redeemer Presbyterian Churches of New York City.

And here is how Christianity Today began its death notice for Sproul:

Late PCA leader influenced generations of Christians by filling the gap “between Sunday school and seminary.”

Both men belong/belonged to the PCA. But no one identified either man in his professional life with the PCA. Keller is his own church-planting guru with Redeemer City-to-City as the vehicle for funding church start ups in big cities around the world. Sproul made Ligonier Ministries his brand. Both are hugely successful authors who are/were known more for books than denominational affiliation. Neither man found it possible to work within the confines of denominational mechanisms. Could Keller have somehow made his church planting operation part of the PCA’s Mission to the World? (And what if Keller decided to put Crossway Publishing on his back and allow them to publish his New York Times bestsellers? Or, what if Keller became the face of the Gospel Coalition and transferred his energies from Redeemer’s many operations into the Gospel Coalition’s many operations?) Imagine what that might do for the PCA’s name recognition. Or could Sproul have operated Ligonier as an arm of the PCA’s Discipleship Ministries (the equivalent of the OPC’s Committee on Christian Education)? The answer is yes. But that affirmative would have changed significantly the shape of what Keller and Sproul accomplished as expositors of God’s word and teachers of doctrine.

This is not meant as a criticism of either man. The intention here is simply to note the real limitations of denominations. Everyone faces them. Denominations are clunky, procedural, deliberative, slow. Presbyterian denominations even more so. So to take a non-profit and move it under the umbrella of another non-profit is a dicey institutional maneuver. At the same time, becoming the head of a denomination’s church planting operations or its Christian education agency is to give up space for personal initiative and take a back seat to supervising committees and denominational procedures.

And yet, not everyone conducts work that duplicates that of a denominational agency or committee. In the case of a church historian, for instance, a denominational committee may publish books that cover institutional or theological history but they don’t produce books on the arts and sciences. In which case, an academic historian needs to find other publishing outlets for non-denominational writing. At the same time, writers and authors constantly face the temptation to create their own media company. Think Rush Limbaugh. Then imagine Rush having to cooperate and even submit to the guidance of the Republican Party. Not gonna happen. But when Rush wants to achieve a higher profile, does he work with his own website and editorial services or does he seek a trade press that knows the ropes of getting books into bookstores and handles distribution and invoices?

Which comes around then to a question bigger than celebrity, namely, entrepreneurialism. To what degree should pastors and theologians be in the business not only of creating ideas and arguments that encourage the faithful but also the start of organizations for promoting their own initiatives? The related question is whether denominations or church government is compatible with entrepreneurial pastors. Communions like the PCA, from the outside, look fairly capacious. If the OPC has the reputation for helicopter Presbyterianism — which is so far from reality — then the PCA is a Presbyterian version of a confederation of congregations like the URC or the SBC. It would seem to be a perfect place to allow for energetic and industrious pastors to work out their gifts and callings.

But the examples of Sproul and Ligonier, and Keller and Redeemer suggest otherwise. Not even as vigorous, missional, and hands-off a denomination as the PCA is capable of employing the talents of men like Sproul and Keller.

So either denominations have run their course of usefulness, or gifted ministers need to turn down their talents to settings conducive to a communion’s normal operations.


23 thoughts on “Is the PCA Big Enough?

  1. This is a right smart and insightful piece Daryl. This type of analysis is definitely your thing. (That’s not sarcasm by the way. I figured I still better clarify that.)


  2. “pastor… of the redeemer (prmumblymumblian) churche-S of nyc”
    sounds like he’s the Archbishop…
    of a certain diocese of…um…
    of unclear commitment
    just sayin’

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The tough thing for any organization is the transfer of power from regime to the next. Parachurch organizations have a poor track record of maintaining doctrinal fidelity (e.g., YMCA and the ChristianChildrenFund). The Holy Spirit move where He wishes, but he tells us in His word how he wants his church organized. He tells us to submit to our Elders (e.g., 1Pt 5:5, Heb 13:17, etc…). That’s hard to do when we move our ministries outside of the oversight of the church. I’m sure it’s a drag to have to submit to people who aren’t as visionary, brilliant, and entrepreneurial as oneself, but this seems to be what God would have us do. Of course, God can draw straight lines with crooked sticks, but it seems to me that we would be wise to think carefully about our ecclesiology.


  4. sdb says but it seems to me that we would be wise to think carefully about our ecclesiology.

    true, sdb
    “Ecclesiology investigates what the Bible teaches about the church both universal (all believers in Christ) and local (local gatherings of believers in Christ). Ecclesiology is essential for all Christians as it guides us toward a biblical understanding of how Christians relate to one another, to God, and to unbelievers. A firm understanding of ecclesiology benefits us personally as we learn how to help provide healthy church growth and honor God.”

    Deut 6: 4-9

    Attend at least weekly/ Attend seldom/never (from PEW study on religion)
    Jehovah’s Witness 85%, 11%
    Mormon 77%, 9%
    Evangelical Protestant 58%,12%
    Historically Black Protestant 53%, 10%
    Muslim 45%, 22%
    Catholic 39%, 20%
    Mainline Protestant 33%, 24%
    Orthodox Christian 31%, 15%
    Religious nones 4%, 72%


  5. The transition from Machen to Clowney, Logan, and Lilback was not under the authority of the OPC or the PCA. The move from Shepherd to Gaffin was not demand-driven by denominations but by donors, But the results have trickled down to the denominations’ ordination process
    mj–As far as Westminster is concerned, it was work being done by the church as the church. Approval (or lack thereof) of its documents isn’t necessarily required to make the process a church activity. It was in fact adopted by the Church of England (1648) entitled: “Articles of Christian Religion approved and passed by both Houses of Parliament after advice had with the Assembly of Divines.”


  6. Surely where and when Bob Godfrey and John Macarthur meet together, that is the church and those who don’t like it are sectarians, not catholic.

    Carl Truman—Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with being a brand – I work for one and, indeed, I am writing for one here and now; but – forget the contestable parachurch issue for a moment – brands should not be intruded into territory traditionally occupied in church life and public worship by ecumenical creeds.

    Carl Truman—The attempted exchange about Evangelicals and Catholics Together was respectful, honest, friendly, but frank. My own article was scarcely a paean of praise to the ECT process. Within hours of the first article being published, a tweet and a hostile blog post by a senior representative of another Reformed parachurch group based in Florida, followed by rumored behind-the-scenes shenanigans, were enough to get the series pulled (and then thankfully picked up by First Things….


  7. DGH – no one identified Keller as a member of the PCA? Didn’t PTS withdraw an award this year simply because he is a pastor in the PCA?

    Bruce and cw – Tim Keller founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Singular. After he stepped down as senior pastor in May of this year, the church divided into three particular churches: Redeemer East Side, Redeemer West Side, and Redeemer Downtown. Plural. So it is accurate to say he founded Redeemer Presbyterian Churches, even though it was a single church when he was the pastor.

    Maybe you didn’t know this fact about Redeemer, but given your obsession with all things TKNY, I find it hard believe you didn’t know. Which makes me wonder, are there WLC 145 issues involved? Namely “prejudicing the truth,” “perverting it to a wrong meaning,” “raising false rumors,” and “evil suspicion,” among others?


  8. Of course we knew that. The criticism would apply to any multi-site church, which Redeemer has been for a long time. Keller’s power and influence over many churches (in New York and elsewhere) has long been called bishop-like.


  9. Is a para church ministry the bride? Under whose accountability does a ministry operate. Does a ministry observe the means of grace? Is there para church discipline? Or did Christ say the gates of hell nwill not defeat Crossway?


  10. see? How we much unity we have to preserve, and energy we should reserve to speak against true disunity
    -No need for Mary mediation, no need for purgatory, no need to boast except just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord – LORD, You establish peace for us, since You have also performed for us all our works

    from Old Life @oldlife tweet articles this am:
    -“For we all live, daily, in the “gap” between the person I am and the person I was called to be at baptism. The quotidian effort to minimize that “gap,” which means cooperating with God’s grace, is the warp and woof of the spiritual life. “
    -“the Book of Revelation looks far more like a traditional Catholic Mass than the bare preaching rooms and long Bible lectures of the Protestants.”
    -“Pope Francis: the passing of the cardinal, whom I entrust to the maternal intercession of the Virgin Mary.””

    Hebrews 8: 1 Now the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, 2 a minister in the sanctuary and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man. 6 But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises.10 “FOR THIS IS THE COVENANT THAT I WILL MAKE WITH THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL AFTER THOSE DAYS, SAYS THE LORD: I WILL PUT MY LAWS INTO THEIR MINDS, AND I WILL WRITE THEM ON THEIR HEARTS.AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD,AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE.11 “AND THEY SHALL NOT TEACH EVERYONE HIS FELLOW CITIZEN, AND EVERYONE HIS BROTHER, SAYING, ‘KNOW THE LORD,’FOR ALL WILL KNOW ME, FROM THE LEAST TO THE GREATEST OF THEM.12 “FOR I WILL BE MERCIFUL TO THEIR INIQUITIES,AND I WILL REMEMBER THEIR SINS NO MORE.”13 When He said, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.

    Hebrews 9: 11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; 12 and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.15 For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. 24 For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; 27 And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, 28 so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.


  11. Where I live (suburbs of Pittsburgh) many of the local congregations of the PCA are clunkers. Not the denomination mind you, the local assemblies themselves. The hallmarks of these churches are committees that talk lots and do little, stagnant or poor pastoral leadership, lack of desire to really reach people outside their realm, and a misunderstanding of what the Kingdom of God is. Add to this a slow encroaching liberalism and wala, you have “old churches (PCA) never die, they just fade away.” This is one of the reasons I shepherd a mission congregation that is not in the PCA.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. DGH – you concluded, “So either denominations have run their course of usefulness, or gifted ministers need to turn down their talents to settings conducive to a communion’s normal operations.” Are these really the only two conclusions? Why not neither? why not recall 1 Cor. 1:26 (Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.) — the fair inference being that not many were, but some, and the rest of us need to do what we can. Consider Eph. 4:11-12 also (… he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers)
    re strictly.


  13. D.G.,
    Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. What would the PCA have to say to Keller and Sproul, when he was alive, to show that it does exercise oversight over them?


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