Borrowing Brains: Trying to Figure Out the PCA

I don’t know a lot about the Presbyterian Church in America (or PCA), and I really don’t know what to make of it. The little bit of exposure I’ve had to the PCA has left me somewhat impressed. I appreciate the ministries of men like the late James Montgomery Boice, Lig Duncan, Phillip Graham Ryken, and R. C. Sproul (though Dr. Sproul’s relationship with the PCA is unclear to me). Each of them is known for strong theology and exegesis. Each promotes conservative worship styles—more conservative than most fundamentalists, in fact. And each is a strong proponent of complementarianism vs. egalitarianism. I wonder, though, if these “bright lights” have given me a view of the PCA that is too rosy (especially in view of posts like this and this), perhaps like someone trying to characterize the entire SBC by Mark Dever, all Reformed Baptists by Al Martin, or all fundamentalists by Mark Minnick. Probably so.

So what’s the PCA like? Do these men represent typical PCA churches and pastors, or even a large percentage? Are they on the far right of the denomination? What issues is the PCA dealing with internally? How broad is it doctrinally? Practically? I ask so I’ll understand more accurately, not to start a fight or to invite sniping. If you have some insight, please chime in.


12 Responses

  1. I think its fair to say that the PCA is a broadly evangelical Reformed denomination. It is part of the NAE and would perhaps be considered marginally better than the SBC when it comes to fundamentalist concerns. Some of that would simply be due to the fact that the PCA is only 36 years old.

    The bright lights you mention more or less represent the mainstream of PCA life, but there is a good bit more diversity in the PCA than one might imagine, although not as much as what you’d find in the SBC. As for Dr. Sproul’s status, I think he is still a PCA minister, but my understanding is that the church he pastors is an independent church.

    It may also surprise you that the Bayly’s would consider Boice and Ryken soft on the gender issue due to their support of deaconesses, which in more traditional PCA circles is seen as the camel’s nose under the tent–the first step in a continuum leading toward women elders. Deaconesses are officially barred by the PCA Book of Church Order, but some were grandfathered in as the result of a merger with another Presbyterian denomination in the early 80’s. (Tenth Pres. in Phila., which Boice had pastored (and D.G. Barnhouse before him) and Ryken now pastors had been part of the other denomination.) Some churches are now resorting to various tactics to evade the guidelines, something that the Baylys have chronicled in some detail. They are also apparently criticizing the likes of Dr. Duncan for being too “genteel” in their handling of the deaconess issue.

  2. I’ve met some of the PCA church planters in Philadelphia. There are some obvious doctrinal differences that would prevent me from planting a church with them. However they are solid on the gospel and have a passion to plant new churches.

  3. Chris,

    My observation of the PCA earns it a generally favorable rating, but not without some reservations.

    Although there are probably many reasons for caution, as there would be in any group of this size, my greatest concern, by way of personal observation, is that too many have adopted only slightly modified “Church Growth” techniques to increase their churches. Such men insist they are solid Calvinists, but their evangelistic methods smack of Arminianism. They don’t seem to recognize the connection between doctrine and practice. Like most Christians, they are way too much influenced by numbers and visible “success.” If it “works,” it must be right. We sign the Westminster Confession, but we evangelize like Billy Graham. What’s wrong with that?

    Of course, most Fundamental Baptists also evangelize like Billy Graham, so this would be a concern only to those, like myself, who find this problematic from a Biblical standpoint.

    Warm regards,
    Greg Barkman

  4. My brother forwarded me this post, and thought I would comment. I’ve been a Ruling Elder in the PCA for about a year now and have participated in a PCA church for about 4yrs. I’ve had the opportunity to interact with other churches in our presbytery as well as follow along the last few general assemblies of our denomination.

    You point out a few great teachers in the PCA and I would say there are many more who are very gifted at teaching, preaching, and communicating the gospel. There are a wide range of churches in the PCA. Attending one or two is hard to make generalisations about the denomination. You’ll find a wider range of worship styles for example than some other reformed denominations.

    There is an overall commitment to Scripture as the only rule for faith and practice. As well as a commitment to both revival and reformation (one without the other usually leads to something ugly). It’s a very conservative denomination. There are churches that have histories in other denominations that bring forth issues (grass roots structure) to their presbytery or general assembly. The request for a study on a position for a non-ordained deaconness (a la Phoebe), for example, was one of the issues brought up last year and this. They came from churches that had been in denominations prior that had a similar practice. Their requests were voted down, I’m not sure if those churches that requested it will stay in the PCA much longer. Because of the PCA’s short history there are still many leaders who saw first hand having to leave a denomination to form the PCA because of the lack of commitment to Biblical authority and the creeping in of liberal theology. There is a strong adversion to anything that seems along these lines today.

    Overall, the PCA is a healthy, growing reformed denomination. It’s by no means perfect, but there are structures in place that least keep some level of accountability to Scripture in place. And to borrow an expression, the presbyterian form of church government is the worst form of government, except for all the rest.

  5. Speaking of deaconesses in the PCA, this short post from Rick Phillips is very funny.

    (HT: Andy Naselli)

  6. While some of the churches in the PCA that have deaconnesses, like Tenth Pres in Philadelphia, were “grandfathered in” as a result of them coming in from the RPCES in the early 80’s, the real crux of the issue is that there are more recent church plants that have them. In some cases (most notably, Redeemer in NYC-pastored by Tim Keller) my understanding is that they’ve resorted to not ordaining deacons at all and “commissioning” them along with deaconnesses instead so as to not directly run afoul of the BCO.

  7. Keller and Redeemer NYC’s session were allowed to practice this because of the same grandfathering of the RPCES. PCA basically said when they were brought in around ’82 that their practices were not binding but to be respected. Their presbytery upheld the decision for them to practice non-ordained deaconness.

    The BCO is pretty clear about the role of ordained leadership, enough study has gone into it so far. Not sure why they want to give special names outside the BCO to make people feel more special for serving. Isn’t every Christian called to serve in their local church? Ordination is something set apart from this.

    Perhaps a better study should be commissioned within all biblical denominations of why their men aren’t stepping up into leadership positions in their own families as well as within the local church as mandated by Scripture.

  8. The PCA broke away from the liberal mainline Presbyterian denomination in the 70’s as I recall.

    My experience with the PCA goes back to the 90’s when I saw that some of the presbyteries (like the New England Presbytery) were less conservative than others and were definitely drifting “left.”. I sat in on a New England Presbytery meeting where they were questioning candidates for ordination. After hearing the candidates’ wishy-washy answers to some questions, I was surprised to see them approved for ordination.

    Being soldily reformed in theology, the PCA churches tend to have a refreshingly “higher” view of God than the average fundamental Bible church in my experience. Whereas the Bible churches would reverence the written Word, the reformed churches would exalt and worship the Sovereign God. That was exciting. The preaching tended to be excellent. I found them to be solid Calvinists with a great passion for witnessing. I also found that the folks in PCA churches tended to be serious students of the Word and reformed theology.

    Yet, I found the PCA folks typically soft on both ecclesiastical and personal separation; it did not seem to make sense given everything else. Nor was modesty a serious concern. I never found that, as a denomination, they had strong convictions on music styles. Hence the churches varied widely in worship style. I haven’t been in a PCA church in several years, but I expect that there are some excellent ones out there as well as some “weak” ones.

    If I was looking for a PCA-like church today, I would probably first look at the OPC churches which, last I knew, were typically more conservative.

  9. I’ve attended PCA churches for the past three years. The church I attended in Indiana had a teaching elder (pastor) who was ordained OPC but served in a PCA church by agreement. Doctrinally, there is almost no difference between OPC and PCA. OPC congregations do tend to be more conservative in some of the more visible practices, such as music and dress, but less in others (oddly enough, you’re probably more likely to find an ordained deaconess in the OPC). They have talked for years about consolidating, but history and a few minor differences (and some would say pride) keep them apart for now.

    PCAs, like probably most Presbyterians, are going to differ with Reformed Baptists on a few doctrinal issues (paedobaptism is one of the more obvious), and they tend to have less emphasis on line-drawing in personal practice. This results in them getting charged with being unconcerned about personal standards, since they don’t have the same “rules” about dress or music and don’t believe alcohol is biblically prohibited (though there are elders in my church who do not drink on principle). In my own experience with people in the PCA, though, the fact that standards are different or officially undefined has not meant a lack of concern for holiness–it just means individuals have to think and pray for themselves. Sometimes they come up with different conclusions on application, that’s all.

    I’m sure there are counter-examples out there, though.

    What I appreciate most about the PCA is the representative democracy within the denomination. There is accountability flowing both directions between and among congregations and presbyteries. And congregations work together. They trade preachers, share money to cover needs, join resources to start ministries, and yes, sometimes argue when needed. There is an appeals process in church discipline. There is debate and discussion at the general assembly level. All these are good things, IMO.

  10. Chris,

    I enjoy reading your blog from time to time. I think we we graduated together. have been in the PCA for 10 years. Am now a PCA Teaching Elder. Can answer specific questions.

    Dennis Bills

  11. I would agree with much that has been said here and I am very appreciative of the general tone and demeanor of the comments. As someone who found himself “a man without a country” some years back, the PCA has been a wonderful theological and ecclesiastical fit for me and my family. I have been on staff as a worship and music leader at a PCA church for six years and continue to grow in my understanding and appreciation of the denomination.

    One aspect of the denomination that has impressed me greatly, that has not been touched upon here, is the heart for missions that most of the PCA churches have. I grew up believing that Presbyterians didn’t care about evangelization, but I have found that nothing could be further from the truth. The evangelistic zeal and heart for the lost around the world is refreshing and palpable among the churches and leaders that I have been acquainted with.

    As someone who has been in fundamental circles and now in the PCA, I can perhaps speak to some of the issues that fundamentalists would have with the denomination. Aside from denominational theology and polity, certainly, as has been mentioned, separation and standards of conduct would be at the top of the list. My impression has been that the philosophy seems to be one of the primacy of the preaching of Christ and Him crucified (I am not implying that that priority doesn’t exist elsewhere). The emphasis is Who not How. As a result the application, for better or worse, is often left to the individual. There is no standardization of dress, conduct, music, etc… if not directly dealt with in the scriptures. I think congregations, by and large, are very different in these areas from one another and there is great diversity. My impression is that anything that could even remotely be deemed as “legalistic” in nature is not addressed from the pulpit (at least in the churches that I am familiar with).

    As a BJU trained church musician the attention to the worship of a sovereign God and excellence in all things were very appealing. I always leaned heavily Calvinistic and have not found it difficult to embrace covenant theology and Presbyterian polity.

    The Deaconess issue is an interesting hot button in the denomination at present. I do not think it is the slippery slope that some may fear and do not believe there is cause for the orthodoxy alarm to go off yet.

    There’s my two cents Chris.

  12. I’m trying to figure them out also.
    My husband is in seminary, and we are members of a conservative EPC church, which I love. But we are finding that many EPC churches are not as conservative as we would like, and have been looking at the PCA churches, and my husband is interning at one now. I think the PCA churches are so different that its hard to get a definite idea of where it is going as a whole. I am finding that in some areas the PCA church tends toward legalism, and it seems to be quickly leaving some of its conservative roots behind. The churches where we have attended in the south have women that are outspoken, immodestly dressed, and other churches have preschools all day from 9-3. Even in the most conservative churches I have been disappointed with the way the women dress and act, dropping their ministry off (children) while they go and volunteer or do lunch. I was hoping for more, more like-mindedness, more Biblical roles of women, more leadership from the men. As a woman these are the issues of the PCA that deeply affect me, but I can say that theologically, I believe the PCA to be one of the soundest churches I have attended. And perhaps this is why they are losing a grip on the family; its easier to know God on paper than it is to live the daily mundaneness of obedience. I don’t want this to be a negative reflection of PCA, I really believe this is where all churches are headed, but I would love to find a Presbyterian church that is taking a different route. Sadly though, I don’t think PCA is the one that will.

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