So Now the Covenanters are the Standard?

At the Shiloh Institute this week I (mmmeeeeEEEEE) played around with the question of center and periphery in conservative Reformed Protestantism in the United States. For some (not at the conference), the PCA is in the mainstream. One explanation is its size — it outflanks all of the other communions that belong to NAPARC. Another is that the PCA has anywhere between six and a dozen celebrity pastors (with none having the star power of TKNY). Another is that New Calvinism is popular and the PCA is in tune with that immature and attention-deficit-disordered (read young and restless) brand of Calvinism. Related is the Gospel Coalition factor. By virtue of encouraging and defending New Calvinism, PCA officers have seats at the table of a website parachurch endeavor that is seemingly big, popular, and influential.

If you want to put the OPC at the center of conservative or confessional Calvinism, you need to ignore the numbers and pay attention to history and language. The OPC has been around longer than the PCA. In 1937 the OPC coughed up a big wing of the PCA — the RPCES portion of the Bible Presbyterian Synod — that in turn equipped the PCA with its educational institutions, Covenant College and Covenant Theological Seminary. The OPC continues to draw upon the Reformed past as it attempts to understand God’s word. The variety of views on creation, the presence of two-kingdom theology, and the recent report on the doctrine of republication all indicate ways in which the OPC keeps alive expressions of Reformed Protestantism older and in many cases more substantial than twentieth-century conservative Presbyterianism.

As for language, English is the OPC’s native tongue, which means the OPC has never had to think of itself explicitly as an ethnic communion. And it is ethnicity in part that hurts the URC’s chances for defining the center and periphery in American Calvinism.

That leaves communions like the RPCNA (Covenanters) and ARPC (Seceders), both of Scottish extraction, on the margins of contemporary American Calvinism. They may be bigger or smaller than the other churches, but their histories are different from the OPC, PCA, and URC. All of the latter communions started in opposition to liberalism within an older denomination. The RPCNA and ARP don’t have the same dynamics and so don’t resonate as well with other NAPARC members.

But having said all that, shut my mouth. Now we hear from a PCA source that the RPCNA is at the center of contemporary Reformed church life:

The reason I know this is because the most Confessional denomination in NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council) is the RPCNA (Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America). The RPCNA is the most historically confessional church in this council (which the PCA is a member), and yet, those who are claiming to be the confessionalists in the PCA, would not join with this, the most confessional denomination. Why? It is because they ordain women to the office of deacon. Yes, that is right. The most confessional of all the denominations in NAPARC ordains women to the office of deacon. They have practiced this since 1888, and have done so because it was studied, and found to be biblical. They have kept their strong confessional nature all this time, while still ordaining woman to be deacons.

Those in the PCA who are claiming the moniker of Confessional, taking it from anyone else who doesn’t agree with them on the issue of women’s roles, should in fact stop being so disingenuous. Instead of confessional they are more closely identified as Old School Southern Presbyterians, which is fine. But, please stop using Confessional like you have something that no one else does. It’s disingenuous and you are making a non-confessional issue, the defining issue.

Speaking of disingenuousness, does Jon Price really want to embrace the National Covenant (1581) to which the RPCNA still swears allegiance, as ground zero of Presbyterian confessionalism? And is he ready to put away the hymnal and the swaybabes?

Hey now.

At least the PCA is not the PCUSA (at least until Michelle Higgins gets her way):

Followers of Jesus Christ know that no person can claim divine favor through personal merit, but only by the grace of God. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) acknowledges that actions we and our members have taken over the years have at times led God’s beloved children who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning to feel that they stand outside the grace of God and are unwelcome in the PC(USA). We deeply regret that, due to human failings, any person might find cause to doubt being loved by God. We affirm the God-given dignity and worth of every human being, and renew our commitment to ‘welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed [us], for the glory of God.’ [Romans 15:7]

Presbyterian Borderlands

Thanks to 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.

Then a couple of comments about Keller:

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.

To Ask and Tell, or Not to Ask and Tell: This is the Contradiction

Rabbi Bret is baaaaaaack from vacation (apparently) and he didn’t waste anytime piling on his favorite virus – the infectious disease known as Radical 2K. He reports that the URCNA Synod has decided to send a letter to the U.S. Armed Services official, drafted by the Presbyterian and Reformed Joint Commission on Chaplains and Miltary Personnel (PRJC), that petitions the Pentagon to to hold the line on the current military policy – “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

In the current state of affairs, the various branches of the military do not inquire about the sexual orientation of personnel. But if the Obama administration has its way, “don’t ask, don’t tell” will cease and instead gays and lesbians will be able to come out of the closet. According to the PJRC letter, such a change of policy might force conservative Protestant chaplains to resign because their teaching and preaching of God’s word, especially on homosexuality, will open them to the charge of discrimination. The new policy might even force chaplains those passages in Scripture where God condemns homosexuality.

Bret interprets this URCNA decision as a major smack down of two-kingdom theology.

Despite the ongoing assault against Biblical Christianity from Westminster West Seminary and it’s specious Radical Two Kingdom Theology the URCNA rightly voted to weigh in on a “common realm” issue with an almost unanimous vote to resist, by way of appeal, the US Military’s overturning of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Apparently the Synodical body was not persuaded by the R2Kt ratiocination and argumentation that the Church has no business speaking beyond the realm of the Church. With this vote there can be no doubt that the URCNA has implicitly rejected, root and branch, the foreign theology now commonly referred to as “R2K.”

One would have thought that after a well-deserved break from pastoral duties and service at Synod the good rabbi would not be so quick to hyperventilate about the meaning of this news. I can think of any number of better indications than this letter that the URC has repudiated 2k. Do the formation of a study committee or an actual report with recommendations against 2k come to mind? But if this gets Bret through the night without having to use his inhaler, so be it.

At the same time, Bret may want to regroup and consider that the policy that PRC now favors – “don’t ask, don’t tell” – was precisely the one they opposed back when President Clinton introduced it during his first weeks in office. Maybe Bret was running for Senate or doing something time consuming like that, but Reformed communions like the OPC and PCA both sent letters in 1993 informing the president of the Bible’s teaching about homosexuality. These communications were supposed to provide the official cover for Reformed and Presbyterian chaplains whose consciences might be violated by openly gay soldiers and officers taking up duties under their charge. In a contest between church and state, supposedly, the chaplains could now appeal to the explicit teaching of their own communions.

What is important to remember, though, is that these letters, also hatched by the Presbyterian and Reformed chaplains, came in reaction to the policy that the PRJC now supports. In which case, in the name of biblical Christianity, the PRJC has reversed course and determined that “don’t ask, don’t tell” is just fine and that Obama will damage the military and the nation if he tinkers with allowing gays now in the closet, to come out.

So the question for Bret and supporters of the PRJC is this: is this what healthy 1k looks like? Can the church really change its mind about the policies the Bible requires? Or is it simply the case that the Bible opposes whatever a Democratic president proposes? (Could a GOP Study Bible be in the offing?)

Even more troubling is the propensity for the chaplains from Reformed communions to manifest their opposition to homosexuality to the exclusion of other sins that the Bible also condemns. I wonder why PRJC doesn’t instruct the president about the idolatry of Mormon worship or the blasphemy of the Roman Catholic Mass? Surely there are Mormons and Roman Catholics out of the closet in the military. Some of them are likely chaplains. Does PRJC think that Clinton and Obama understand the regulative principle of worship but need help with the seventh commandment? Or is it that PRJC thinks sexual sins are more eggregious than false worship?

It could be a tough call since the Westminster Standards allow that not all sins are equally offensive. But if sexual sins are more objectionable than liturgical infidelity (you’d have trouble proving that from Israel’s experience), then why not go after porn in the military, or divorce, or adultery among heteros? I personally don’t buy the logic – on display in spades in American Beauty – that the biggest homophobes are really gay. But if PRJC wanted to avoid that sort of canard from the Hollywood left, why not send a letter or two to the president about stealing and lying?

Mind you, I understand at least some of the difficulties that gay rights create for our society and the Armed Services. Rabbi Bret is well within his duties as a citizen to register his concerns. But I sure wish he’d get his facts straight (no pun intended) about biblical teaching and the PRJC’s flip-flop on don’t ask, don’t tell.