Could A Split Be Good for the PCA?


Could a split the best thing for the PCA? I know this is a question that won’t get me elected moderator, but maybe it’s one that more leaders in the PCA should be considering.

While immediately many people will begin rummaging for reasons why the answer to my question is, “no”, let me do three things. First let me suggest what kind of partitioning I have in mind. Second, let us look at some of the problems that we have in our current form. Finally we can consider some of the benefits of an intentional split.
What kind of partitioning are we talking about? Well let’s consider that there are several large tribes in the PCA, some smaller or larger than others. It it easy to compose several equally fitting ways to partition the denomination (culture, location, philosophy of ministry), but instead of doing that, lets simply talk about three or four similarly sized partitions.

An intentional partitioning would recognize and allow the competing identities we see in the PCA to grow along each side each other, rather than bite against each other.

Division rightfully leaves a bad taste in our mouths, and too often it has been done with great sadness. But what I am proposing is not a, “purge the evil from your midst” attitude. It’s not even an, “I’m going to take my ball and go home” attitude. What I’m suggesting is a peaceful and equitable separation, that emphasizes cooperation and support afterward, rather than shouts of, “good riddance.” What I’m suggesting is a family of brothers moving into their own homes, while staying in the same town. We are not talking about a divorce.


First it seems obvious that our current structure and theological positions are not likely to move very much. A line here, a sentence there, but that’s about it. Many people are happy where the lines have landed, but many others seem to be frustrated by this stalemate. Some are even frustrated enough to say things like:
“conservatives clearly cannot affect [change] in any meaningful way.”1

the reality seems to be that no one group in the PCA is able to shake the tree hard enough to knock the others out.

Others are frustrated enough to simply slip away from the denomination. Each year the match goes back and forth. Each side is both optimistic and stifled. The same men who cheer the defeat of one overture, hang their heads low at the adoption of the next. This pattern repeats itself time and time again, and the reality seems to be that no one group in the PCA is able to shake the tree hard enough to knock the others out.


Paradoxically this stalemate seems to cause more tension and fear around assemblies. Will this be the year that things come crashing down? Will this be the year that I am pushed outside the bounds of the PCA? Will this be the year that the other side win? This kind of thing shouldn’t be celebrated, but must it be ignored? An intentional split along theological or philosophical lines would free us from the strife and finger-pointing we currently see in the domination.

The second reason to consider an intentional partitioning of the denomination has to do with the identity of the PCA. In truth, the PCA has no national identity. Depending on where you are in the country and with whom you’re talking, the PCA will be honored or shamed to some degree or another. The PCA has a muddled reputation, and this problems extends into the Kingdom as well. Some Christians I’ve talked to think the PCA is a cantankerous group of grumps. Others think we are a bunch of watered-down wimps.

Two competing solutions have been offered to this problem: Either we move toward a stronger central leadership, or towards a stronger shared culture. In truth, I’d imagine that if we were able to decide on one, either would work just fine. The problem is that to decided on either would betray some part of what has made us the PCA. To embrace a stronger central office, would be to reject our emphasis on being a bottom up movement.

To insist on a uniform culture in our churches, in terms of worship and philosophy of ministry, would be to reject our emphasis on being a national Presbyterian church. A forced uniformity would be a rejection of the full history of our denomination (After all the PCA is made up of the old PCUS, the old United Presbyterians, the Bible Presbyterians, the Covenanters, and even those curious Independent Presbyterians, to name a few). An intentional partitioning would recognize and allow the competing identities we see in the PCA to grow along each side each other, rather than fighting with each other.

The third reason that we might consider a peaceful division, is because it seems that we are/or have outgrown our structural connections. In our current undelegated structures, maybe we are just too large of an organization to work effectively.
We’ve decided year after year not to shorten our assemblies, we’ve decide that we all want a vote. I’ve yet to met anyone who really loved the idea of an Overtures Committee. At best it is a compromise, a tourniquet that has keep us alive the last few years. It’s not hard to imagine that at some point even the Overtures committee will bloat beyond its usefulness, and become too big to work as it was intended.

Now many will say, “no we just fixed this…we just amended x to correct a new problem that we noticed.” But there we have the meta-problem. Each year we stretch and stretch our system, and each year it becomes a little harder to follow what we do and why we do it at General Assembly. In its current printing, the Book of Church Order (from the Preliminary Principles to the end of the Rules of Discipline) is 101 pages long, the Rules of Assembly Operation (Not including the SJC Manual) is 56 pages.

Organizational surgery seems much easier to perform on young patients, at some point we all just get set in our ways.

Put another way: over one third of everything that we have to say about the organization of our denomination deals with what we do at General Assembly (an event that from start to finish is four or five days long). Perhaps the solution is not to add another rule to correct the last loophole we have found. Instead of increasing our national structure past its breaking point, we should consider if there is a way to create two or three smaller organizations that don’t need a perpetual policy machine to keep them going.

Potential Benefits

While it might be against most logic, a breaking up of the PCA into its component parts, might be a catalyst for greater cooperation and unity within the presbyterian tradition. Several years ago I had the chance to hear Dr. Taylor speak about his service on the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council. NAPARC is an ecumenical organization which brings together similar conservative Presbyterian churches. In his report he mentioned the fact that the PCA was larger than all the other members of NAPARC combined, and that our size seemed to hinder discussions of mergers or cooperation. The fact that we so outnumbered any other group made it hard for any of them to consider a deeper relationship with us.

We might also consider the Evangelical Presbyterians, a younger denomination (but one closer in to our size) that shares many of our commitments. They have a slightly more open position in a few areas, but their commitments are very similar to our own.

For most of us it is easier to look back…

Part of the problem is that presently the PCA is so large that it has decided that it will invite other denominations to join with us, and be received, but that we will not merge with others to form a new organization. If instead of one larger theologically conservative Presbyterian church we were three such smaller groups, it might make it possible for us to better cooperate with many other denominations. What I’m suggesting is that maybe for the sake of framing a larger church we first need to do some demo.

This might also give us a much need opportunity to reassess how we have interacted with other ethnic and cultural groups in America. Right now the dominant cultural paradigm of the PCA is a White South Suburban perspective. Maybe such a shake up would produce a healthier inclusion of Black Christians, Asian Christian, Latino Christian etc.

The Second potential benefit of a partitioning is the chance for local church leaders to assess their hopes for the church at large. Quite honestly, I believe that many of the problems of the PCA come down to ostrich-itis. Local church leaders are unsettled with certain things going on in the PCA (shifts to the right or to the left), but many shrug their shoulders and give up. They see the stalemate. So, they simply give up participating at a denominational level.

A break up of the denominational continent would forces churches to ask, “who should we be? What do we want our denomination to be know for?” For most of us it is easier to look back and say, “this is what we were about”, rather to look forward and say this is what we want to be about.

Each of the new denominations would look slightly different and it would give local churches the chance to say who do we best fit with, and whom do we best partner with in our local ministry.

A final benefit of a partitioning would the opportunity to refine and simplify our denominational organization. As I mentioned above, it is hard to participate in the General Assembly, and each year it seems to get harder. Additionally there seem to be dozens of competing organizations connected to and supported by parts of the denomination, all with overlapping administrative costs. As I said before, as a denomination, we seem to be stuck with what we have. Many men from newly formed presbyteries have expressed the benefits of being able to reevaluate things which were simply assumed as the status quo in their previous presbyteries. Organizational surgery seems much easier to perform on young patients, at some point we all just get set in our ways.

I know that the idea of an intentional division might seem radical or unnecessary, but consider this: If we knew of a 40 year old church that was fairly healthy but in need of some redirection, we might encourage them to consider sending out members to form a new church, or even, more radical–we might challenge them replanting as a whole. This wouldn’t magically happen, it would take intentionality to avoid sinful pride, or selfishness, but it is possible. It would necessitate long seasons of prayer, and it would take equally long seasons of gracious and honest discussions about the details of such a move. These would be hard conversation, but the outcome could potentially be multiple healthier congregations each dedicated to the work of the kingdom.

All I am proposing is that we consider a similar solution at a denominational level.

  1. “07-03-2010, 07:44 PM
    Puritanboard title: “New Yahoo Group for PCA Conservatives”
    Dear Brothers,
    I have created a new Yahoo Group for Conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) Teaching and Ruling Elders concerned about the leftward drift in the denomination. The group is designed for discussing whether we should remain in the denomination, leave for another denomination, or form a new denomination.
    Please note that if you join this group, you MUST introduce yourself and tell us which congregation or institution you are affiliated with.
    Please also note that this group is NOT for discussing or making plans for the future of the PCA, as conservatives clearly cannot affect that in any meaningful way. It is merely for discussing our future and that of our congregations.
    To join, please go to pcaconservatives : PCA Conservatives
    or send an email to:
    Your Servant in Christ,
    Andy [Webb]” 

  • Robert Murphy

    This seems totally non-sensical to me.  I think the problems we have as a denomination are exactly the right kind of problems to have.  Your column sounds like a counselor who urges a troubled couple to separate for the good of the marriage.  Now, if some one cheated, then time apart can be good for a time.  But a bumpy marriage only gets worse when takes it upon him or her self to move out.  We should celebrate the diversity we have.
    As for being too big, that’s just dumb.  There are more presbyterians in 10 African countries each individually than there are in the PCA.  No one needs to have a “goal” for the PCA that dominates their time as a pastor.  I’m a member of presbytery and that’s enough for me.

    • Ethan

       “As for being too big, that’s just dumb.”

      This doesn’t add anything to the argument.

      “There are more presbyterians in 10 African countries each individually than there are in the PCA.”

      So all Christians throughout the world should do things exactly the same way? What works in Africa works in America?

      I’m not sure a split is in order, but this article is certainly something worth reflecting on and praying over.

    • Robert Murphy

      I believe I was addressing Sam’s point. “maybe we are just too large of an organization to work effectively.”  There are far larger organization with presbyterian ecclesiology that work effectively.  Sam has failed to make the case that the P.C.A. is too large to function well.  The a fortiori argument against him still stands.

    • Ethan

       “There are far larger organization with presbyterian ecclesiology that work effectively.”

      I’m not saying a large Presbyterian denomination can’t work. I’m simply saying that Africa has an entirely different culture that may allow for cooperation on a larger scale.

    • Robert Murphy

      Maybe I’m just too much of a “Christ Transforming Culture” kind of guy…

    • sdesocio

      Robert, I’m not saying that there cannot be large presbyterian churches. I’m suggesting that our current organizational details were not meant to be employed in such a large church. 

    • sdesocio

      You might think my suggestion is a divorce, but as I said above I think we need to frame this in a different way.

    • C. Brian Prentiss

      Robert, if we were to throw a party for the diversity in our congregation, it would be a really short one. The PCA is a fraction of a speck in Christendom. We’re Liechtenstein. 

    • Robert Murphy

      The solution is not to segregate ourselves off even more, into homogenous units.

    • Dcassidy

      We’re Liechtenstein and we think we’re France. No wait….OK, maybe we’re Lichtenstein and we think we’re Scotland. 

    • Jesse Gidley

      The marriage counselor analogy is a good one.  If someone spoke to their spouse the way we often talk to each other over theology / organizational conflict, the counselor would say we are being verbally abusive at best.  It’s like telling your spouse that if she doesn’t like the way things work in your marriage, maybe she should leave. It’s a good tactic if you never want to change yourself. But the whole analogy breaks down because members of a denomination are not married to each other, but they collectively are married to Christ, along with all Catholics, Protestants, & (insert organization) who are resting in Christ for salvation (the invisible church).

      Christ’s prayer for His bride (church) is that she be one as he is One (Jn 17:21).  He is one with the Father and the Spirit.  Different persons, one God.  So it makes sense that His bride be many different groups/organizations, but unified with one purpose – the growth of her husband’s kingdom.  Maybe we wouldn’t choose the situation, but here we are.

      I have not been to GA, but the impression I get from reading By Faith, etc. is that we spend more time making rules to force others in our midst to look more like ourselves than we do on finding ways to bring those not like ourselves into our husband’s household.  On a fundamental level, we, like our culture, have confused unity / diversity with uniformity, contrary to I Cor. 12.

      Should the PCA peacefully split?  I don’t know; it’s a hard question, but one worth asking.  Sam’s goal appears to be greater unity in the church at large (which seems quite biblical to me).  The controversy is around how to do that.  

      The PCA is not The Church.  It is a part, a hand, a foot, what have you. Would we be willing to give the skin off of our part of our body to be grafted into another hurting part, or vice versa, for the good of Christ’s body as a whole?  Or are we content to scoff at the liver for failing while ignoring the stage 5 cancer in our part of the body?  God grafted Gentile branches into the olive tree of Israel, so stranger things have happened.  Ultimately, God the master surgeon will have to operate if we have any chance of survival.  Will we agree to the risky surgery, or in our pride will we refuse to admit the severity of our situation?  I’m not saying a split is the only option, but a band-aid won’t cut it.  Paraphrasing Sam, there are other treatments available, but we are not taking any of them either, and in the meantime our condition worsens.

      Before any progress is possible, we will need to think of ourselves (our own positions, convictions etc.) and the PCA less, and Christ & His body more.  Will we be all things to all people and follow Christ’s example of becoming like us in all things, sin excepted?  Or will we continue to force people (unbelievers & brothers alike) to come to Christ on our terms?

  • Ken Pierce

    Sam, I don’t think so.  It would leave a lot of churches and pastors on tenterhooks.  For instance, I probably qualify as part of the confessional, right of center party, but I love Tim Keller and want to be connected with him and his church.  churches and pastors could be put at odds.  Moreover, it’s naive to think this would solve problems –every new denomination would discover that it, too, was subject to the same tensions as the old –as Tim has eloquently argued.

    The truth is, we need to learn how to get along.  And, sometimes people are going to flake off the left or the right.  Sometimes, we will be outdone with one another.  And structure will always need reform.  This is a fallen world, we’re a fallen church led by fallen men, after all

  • Howard Griffith

    Are you serious?

    • C. Brian Prentiss

      Howard, do you really think he wrote this whole thing out as a joke? 

    • Inclement Nimbus

       I am not sure Howard thought at all. The flippant three word response is a clear indicator

  • Don Hilton

    Every Saturday morning I meet with a group of Gideons – to pray and look forward to placing the Word of God into peoples’ hands.  This organization is made up with member from a wide range of deoniminations and the common thread is that all believe that the Bible IS the word of God.  All humans requrie salvation  – and that salvation is only avaialable through the finsihed work on the Cross.  When I first met with this group two things struck me: 

    First – what a strange group!  Penticostals talking about blessings in an excited way that I, a Presbyterian could never understand. Lutherans and Episcopalians talking in their own “dialect” of faith.  And I was hard pressed to understand much of what was going on in the room.  And there were others. ALL commited to spreading the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. 

    Second – such will be the kingdom of heaven!  How do I know?  To be a Gideon, amoung the requirements you must affirm that you acknoledge that you are a sinner, that you accept the work of Jesus Christ for you salvation – there is no other means of salvation.  You acknowledge the triune God and the supremecy of the scriptures.  I may not have picked the exact words, but I think that you might begin to wonder how this group can not be PCA. 

    I look at the contrast between what I see going on between some in the PCA and what is going on the Gideons.  In the PCA there are some studying the peace and purity of the demonination that it will be so pure that sinners will not be allowed.  I strongly reccoment that people who are conserneda bout these divistions go visit other churches – Baptist, Methodist, PCUSA, and so on.  Select ones that are evangelical.  And see what our Brothers and sisters in Christ are doing.  As you look around – you will find that the level of things that are dividing the PCA are getting to be wether we will divide the demonimation over having a center aisle in the church or not – and again on how wide it will be! 

    When I open the gosples and read the words of Jesus, there are times where I see that He is strict with the rules and interpretation of Scripture — but I also see times where I have to check to see if He can be quoted as telling some folks “Get a life!!” 

    There are some things that we need to value in the demonimation – let’s not get to the level of computing the number of grains of wheat that can be rolled between the fingers on the Sabath before a commandment is broken.

    • Don Hilton

      In dashing off what I posted, I missed adding one of my points:

      The contrast I see with the Gideons – they are outside the walls of any specific church and in the business of focusing on reaching the world with the gospel.  Now, a denomination probably can not be as doctrinally undefined as the Gideons. But the point is a matter of looking to include others in the work of the gospel rather than finding ways to make more rules on how to proscribe anything that differs.

      Coming from another denomination, years ago, I was surpised to find the book open in the laps of Presbyterians at Bible Study was one of th Westminster documents.  (A better book to open to understand the Bible than the Bible, you know!) and now we seem to be having to pick between which group does a better interpretation of the Westminster Standard?!! 

      Can a denomination be large and work together?  Y’all ever hear of the Southern Baptist Convention?  They seem to do a pretty good job of working together.  And to be blunt – I’ve seen more commitment to denominational connection in Southern Baptist churches than I have seen in some of the PCA churches I’ve been in.  The PCA has been working hard for years to not be the PCUS (or PCUSA).  It’s time to get over it and focus on being the PCA.

      It’s about time to open that Bible!  It would be intersting to see of the various groups that Jesus addresses – who do we most look like? 

  • Aroundtheworldbooks

    You say the PCA is made up of many groups including the Covenanters as if that group came into the PCA holus bolus.  There are some Covenanters who have moved into the PCA, no doubt, but your wording is quite misleading.  The Covenanters are still in the Reformed Presbyterian Church which traces its roots unbroken back to the Reformation in Scotland.  Still feisty as ever, we have not changed much  (including sticking to the regulative principle of worship and the mediatorial kingship of Christ over all including nations).  Maybe rather than splintering again, your branch of the Presbyterian church might look to what it really stands on and for.  Will you split over structure?  Come on, you’re presbyterian: that structure would not be so difficult if your mindset was to build on the apostolic past rather than create yourselves anew when life as the one Body of Christ gets tough.  Will you split over style?  If so, you probably do have a systemic problem.  Again, look to the Scriptures and the apostles and the historic creeds for direction in getting back in line, for help in strengthening unity in the Church, not just the PCA, but Christ’s one bride.  Do you really think separating on the basis of ethnicity or region comports with the Church being one, made up of peoples of every tribe and tongue and covering the whole globe?  There had better be diversity in every congregation that calls itself Christian, let alone the larger units of the Church.  I am not in the PCA, (though I do have relatives and friends who are), so you might dismiss my rants as outside Robert’s Rules, but  the rules we ought to be worrying about precede and preempt Robert’s Rules.  We all need to examine ourselves, individually and corporately, and that reexamination needs to be radical.  Who are we and why do we do what we do?  I will pray that the PCA’s season of self-examination bears good fruit.

    • sdesocio

      You are correct there are still covenanters around, in fact that is my family background, but you’ll notice that the since coming to America the majority of Covenanters have joined with other Presbyterians. Take a look here.

  • David Gilleran

    “Trade and Switch” was suggested years ago. No one wanted to do it.

    • sdesocio

      I’d be very interested in hear more about what this entailed.

    • David Gilleran

       Sam, it was after the second try with J&R with the OPC. The idea was ( I do not like to use these terms but there is nothing better) that the more conservative churches would go to the OPC and the more progressive churches would go to the EPC. We have seen some churches leave for the EPC but not many. There are have been few go to the OPC. It would have also allowed churches in the OPC/EPC to come into the PCA. It was to be a realignment of sorts but it never got off the ground. Everyone at the time was content to be where they were.That is the way I remember it.

  • Jack Brooks

    Here is another idea: How about all parties learn the discipline of leaving each alone?

    • Don Hilton

      Or, how about all parties learn to embrace each other, despite differences.  We’re going to have to do that in the Kingdom of Heaven!  This is why I brought up that other denomination earlier – it not the theology about church, it is the attitute that seems to be a major factor.  Starting from the premmise that they are all in it together – they seem to figure out how to set asside minor differences and (mostly) make it work. 

    • Jack Brooks

      I’m referring to this peculiar  itch that Reformed purists seem to feel for creating a monolith, when the WCF itself says that the visible church remains a mixture of truth and error, tares and wheat, until Jesus comes back. If every difference of opinion or practice is heresy, then the PCA purists are acting like indy-Baptist fundamentalists. Carl MacIntyre lives on. “Embracing” is right, based on Eohesians 4:1-4; “not attacking” is me thinking of the warning of Galatians 5:15.

    • Don Hilton

      Ah, how often I’ve heard the discussion of the Pharisees
      (which cannot be allowed to be leaders in a proper congregation, and even shunned for their adherance to lists of rules and failure to love).  And to avoid being a Pharasee, there is this short list of 60 or 100 correct rules… 
      (And it is not just a PCA thing.)

  • Mike Mihok

    Wonderful photographs Sam.  Where was the winter photo taken?

    On the topic of your post I wonder what makes you think the component parts
    of the PCA could be so neatly divided.  Do you really think most sessions
    are in agreement about what part of the PCA they should belong to?  Not to
    mention the communing members.

    • sdesocio

      I wish I could claim credit, but they are from flickr.

  • Bill Smith

    Seems to me what this really would mean is that Presbyterianism as denomination/movement/historically rooted institution in the United States would shot. Tjhat may well be what the reality is already.

  • Cameron Shaffer

    Some interesting thoughts Sam, thanks for sharing them. The two fundamental problems you mentioned don’t seem to be insurmountable outside of a split. I don’t think it would take too much action (relatively) to clean up the bureaucracy of the BCO, but even if that were not the case, I don’t think bureaucratic issues are legitimate grounds for splitting the body of Christ.  

    The other issue is the tension between the different churches/pastors along the theological and cultural spectrum. The issue isn’t, as Jack Brooks said in the comments, the need to leave everyone alone. It’s that there is a lack of love between the contending factions. The unity of the church is stressed because of the lack of graciousness and the proliferation of mistrust between our leaders. The doctrinal issues are just the battlefields selected for that tension. Splitting up, even if amicably, does not solve the underlying issue and leaves Christ’s church even more formally divided than before. 

    I don’t think splitting will solve our demographic or ecumenical issues. Splitting into two or three denominations so that other, current denominations are more likely to merge with the PCA (or the post-PCA denominations) seems backward to me. Demographically, I live in Texas, and I can tell you that the ethnic diversity issue is not because of the Deep South locus of the denomination. Splitting up will not attract more minorities to Presbyterianism. 

    Thanks for the thoughts Sam. If you have any follow up comments I would love to hear them. It’s good to see Vintage73 is no longer sleeping.

    • sdesocio

      Cameron, I think you are right, but so far it seems that every subtle change that is suggested (and this happens at least twice a year) is shot down. Something like this would have to be seen as a sending rather than an angry split. 

    • Ken Pierce

      Sam our denomination is all of 40. The RCA is 400, the pcusa is 225 or so. All who have responded seem to be saying similar things and counseling patience. There is always wrangling politics and infighting. It’s all of us. We can’t assign blame. Living together is supposed to be tough. That’s sanctifying.

    • sdesocio

      Ken, I’d have to disagree with you there. Jed’s comments below seem to line up with history a bit more. Denominations, even the seemingly old ones are constantly in a state of flux. A name being around for 400 years I can believe that, but a unified church body…I’m not so sure. At best these are groups that split and came back together. I think I’d argue the PCUSA is at 31 years old. This was the rationale for the EPC church being able to go out while keeping fraternal ties with the mainline. I ask the question I ask not because I think the PCA is going to explode, but because I am not sure we haven’t already had our best years. 

    • Ken Pierce

      My point is that it’s naive to think that new connections wouldnt have the same sorts of issues. Few people get as dissatisfied with our communal life as I do (and not because I fear we are going liberal).  I love the ministry ethos of the epc but I know if ever I were called there I would soon encounter the same human nature i left behind –if only because it greets me in the mirror every morning.

      I guess the question is, does the pca get in the way of what you’re trying to do there in Pittsburgh?  (and I hope to visit you sometime, my sister in law speaks highly of you).  If so, how is it doing that?  Is it the intinction issue?  Frankly, I abominate the idea of dictating in the BCO how people do or don’t take the Lord’s Supper, and think it may become an ecclesiological Talmud if we go down that road.  Or, is it more a constraining ethos?  I really would like to know, because I do value your thoughts.

      I guess we’re looking at different metrics on the age of denominations.  No question they’ve split and reunited numerous times (I am really curious, though, how the RCA is not 400 years old.  It never had a split, only a schism of a group who had recently emigrated, but were already separated in the Netherlands).  My simple point is that 4 decades is far too short a sample to throw up hands and go home.

      One of my favorite books is “Life Together” by Bonhoeffer.  I don’t think we do that so well.  We don’t talk across lines.  We have affinity groups of guys who get together and discuss.  There are guys I admire and want to be connected to that are very different than I am (Ray Cannata comes to mind).  But, I am glad for that diversity –taht makes some of my fellow confessionalists very nervous, but my confessionalism seems to write me out of discussions of guys that are broader.  It’s a lonely place to be.  Why should it be that way?  Is Christ divided?  Was Paul crucified for you?

      But I digress.  Sam, I hate that you’re feeling this way. I’d love some face time next time I’m in Pittsburgh if you’re up for that.

  • Jedidiah Slaboda

    All of these big questions and the defenses of our answers assume a lot about the existence of denominations in our contemporary culture. Denominations as they exist in the U.S. are a young experiment in ecclesiology (inaccurate comment by one person here that the RCA is 400 years old, notwithstanding) and the cultural environment for testing them has dramatically changed over time. Some things that need to be acknowledged: the demise of the Mainline has been greatly exaggerated by Evangelicals, especially those who used those claims to justify their decisions to form new bodies. The visions of mass exoduses and rapid decline have never materialized; the heyday of denominational loyalty appears to be ending in the US, putting all us in a new situation; smaller inter-denominational and intra-denominational networks seem to represent more activity than the denominations themselves and may be providing the missional and relational benefits once provided by denominations (which are often beleaguered by internal strife and outdated structures). In that landscape, it is hard to know why the PCA or any denomination will or should survive in its present form.

    • C. Brian Prentiss

      Jed, our comments passed on the net, but I completely agree and you’ve said it better than I could have. The stories that the old guard tells about the glory days of the PCA simply aren’t compelling any longer. People need a bigger, more biblical reason than a denomination to stick around only to watch their backs and keep from being wounded by the very people who should be closest to them in the trenches.

    • Ken Pierce

      Jed how is my comment inaccurate? Just to state that and offer no substantiation is uncharitable. I know the history of the denomination of my youth fairly well and would like to correct if I’m wrong.

    • Jedidiah Slaboda

      Ken, the RCA did not incorporate as a church independent of the Dutch mother church until the 19th century. Yes, there are a few North American congregations that trace their roots back to the 17th century. Yes the RCA lrightfully traces its roots to these colonial churches. But we aren’t talking baout national churches. We are talking about denominations in a post-establishment era.My comments were about denominationalism as an ecclesiological system in the United States which is relatively young and which was birthed because of a totally unique opportunity–freedom of religion in the US. The colonial system doesn’t really fit into that system as the colonial churches were in many colonies established churches by the mother country.

    • Ken Pierce

      Well, that would seem to substantiate my point rather than argue against it –it’s even older, then.  My simple point was not to repristinate the past, let alone bring it forward into our cultural moment.  My only point is that often we get fed up because we are not patient enough.  I was 30 once, and horribly impatient with my congregation and the PCA.  I’m 40 plus now, and I guess I’ve gotten more tolerant of that for which I don’t necessarily care.

      So, if the point isn’t to maintain denominations, we certainly ought to maintain connections.  It is hard to distinguish the two in my mind.  

      I think that, as the PCA found, we would think (whoever the “we” is) that we left all our fights behind, only to find out we took the fight with us.  If you want more historical illustration of that, look at the OPC, which immediately broke into infighting and suffered a substantial split early on.  Tim Keller is right –shear off any of the 3 legs of the stool, and it will eventually grow back.  I think Jack Miller is the poster boy for this.  He saw an OPC devoid of heart (oversimplified, I know), and sought to bring it back.  

      I do not like that my fellow doctrinalists would try to run off culturalists (or in the case of Tim Keller, a self-described pietist (though obviously with culturalist sympathies).  And I know these terms are simplifications too.

      So, maybe a more productive question than the one Sam asked would be, “If we could do this over, how would it look different?”  That’s a discussion I would enjoy and find profitable (not that this one isn’t).

    • sdesocio

      Ken, Ill give in regarding the RCA, but the PCUSA is not 200 years old.

    • Ken Pierce

      BTW, the RCA itself claims it had broken ties with the NHK as of 1764, at least according to its website.  What’s your source?  As an historian, I’m a geek for facts like this.

    • Ken Pierce

      Sam, we’re looking at different things.  The PCUSA was chartered in 1789.  It has had organizational unity since that time, even with the various splits (Old School/New School), PCCSA, etc.  The UPC was a different entity, incorporated into it in the 1950’s.  Of course we know what happened in 1983.  But, I am not sure at all how this serves your point.

      I would far rather have seen what you had to say on issues of substance.

  • C. Brian Prentiss

    Sam, thanks for taking the time to write this out. I know that you love the PCA and therefore I don’t think your post is some hasty, disaffected grumble. 

    Anyone who says, “you must be kidding” or “this is non-sensical” simply isn’t paying attention. No one should be so quick to dismiss your semi-proposal, because in many ways, I think it’s already happening. 

    It’s not nearly as coordinated as what you semi-propose above, but if trends and anecdotes are any indication, 10 years from now we’ll likely see a much and smaller PCA made up mostly of the “broad middle”, probably those that I think Tim Keller labels as “pietists.” 

    The doctrinalists are leaving from the “right” and the culturalists from the “left”, and nothing the PCA is considering, or likely to consider in the near future is going to slow that trend. Every GA the doctrinialists and the culturalists are more disaffected and the pietist middle is shrinking and not “up for” the types of reforms necessary to keep the denomination relavent and healthy.

    As an aside, and in my view, a contributing factor, Denominations are more and more seen as simply practical arrangements, certainly far less than “the church.” Planters and urban pastors are more and more affiliating with denominations that help to foster and support their LOCAL mission, or at least don’t do anything to detract from it. 

    The PCA’s national strategy is ill-defined and the national committee’s simply don’t resource local works very well. I can’t think of any church-planter worth his salt who’s looking to MNA for leadership or support. The best one can hope is that being connected with the PCA won’t be a hinderance to local ministry. Additionally, the PCA “brand” makes ministry in post-christendom places more difficult. So, with an atrophied connection to the national entity, and with more and more people suffering bruising assaults from persons who aren’t even in the Presbytery, many are holding their denominational credentials loosely.

    So, I can understand why people wouldn’t like your idea, or think of another one that might make more sense, but the status quo isn’t sustainable. 

    • Bobby


      Why is it that you refer to those to the so-called left of the pietists as “culturalists”?  Do you mean to suggest that “culturalists” know in some deep-down way that the pietists are right, and that they are just too enamored with cultural relevance to admit is?  I can say wholeheartedly that this is not the case.  I reject inerrancy because I think it’s inconsistent with our Reformed confessions and simply wrong at certain points.  I reject revivalism (and the pietism that goes with it) because I think that experimental Calvinism is an unhelpful and overly individualistic addition to pre-Puritan Reformed theology.  I reject the pietistic blurring of politics and religion because I believe that the church, as a spiritual institution, ought to stay out of politics unless the state is interfering with its ability to administer word and sacrament.  It’s not that I secretly think that the World Magazine types are right, but have decided to live a lie so that I can preserve my standing among the cultural elite.  No.  I think that the World Magazine types are dead wrong, and that they are harming the entire denomination by attempting to recast Reformed theology in the image of white suburban Atlanta.

    • Ken Pierce

      Bobby, Brian is just using the short-hand that Tim Keller and Bryan Chapell have used to describe the makeup of the PCA.  Like all generalizations they are inherently flawed and ought not to be pushed too far, but they are useful for purposes of discussion.  I don’t think there’s any moral freight to any of the terms –I think we need to be pious, cultural and doctrinal, myself, but some inevitably will reverberate more with one than another.

    • Ethan

       Bobby, you lost me at “I reject inerrancy.”

      And for more on culturalists, look up Keller’s article “Why I Love the PCA”.

    • Bobby

      I think that Lindsell and the Chicago Statement are at least partly inconsistent with the WCF, particularly with respect to Scripture’s insufficiency.  This has led to a kind of biblicism and a rejection of natural reasoning that is foreign to the theology of the early Reformers and the Westminster Divines.  For example, I doubt that any of the Westminster Divines would have concurred with the “biblical worldview epistemology” that is constantly pandered by the PCA mainstream, and that is particularly featured in the denomination’s unofficial flagship publication, World Magazine.  B.B. Warfield probably couldn’t even be ordained today in many PCA presbyteries south of DC.

  • Bobby

    This strikes me as something worthy of consideration.  I principally live and work in the DC area, but still maintain a home in a mid-sized (1 mln) city in the Southeast.  When worship at “home” in the Southeast, I attend an conservative PCUSA church.  When I worship in the DC area, I attend a PCA church in northern Virginia.  Ironically, I see little differences between the two churches.  Yet by historical accident, they’re not in the same denomination.

    I’ve attended a number of PCA churches in the Southeast, and can’t imaging calling any of them home.  They’re basically Southern Baptist churches for folks who don’t want to hang out with blue-collar people anymore.  They have largely broken continuity with the mainline ethos of the old PCUS, and have become not much more than a cultural artifact of the white, suburban New South.  If I ever revealed that I voted for the President (twice), I would probably be excommunicated, and carried out of the church on a rail.

    But as a Southern mainline Presbyterian, I feel quite at home in a DC-area PCA church.  But because I can say the Nicene Creed and believe it, I would not be so welcome in a DC-area mainline Presbyterian church.

    • Mixon

      Thank you for sharing your experience. 

  • David Gilleran

    As one who was around when the PCA was formed, I would remind everyone that a key part of the formation of the PCA was that at anytime a church was dissatisfied with the PCA, they could leave with their property. For example Joe Morecraft and the church which he pastored left the PCA over Theonomy. Cedar Springs and John Wood left over women elders. The PCA was set up for churches who felt that they could no longer stay to leave without splitting the church as a whole. I would remind everyone of the last paragraph of BCO 25-11 which says the following: Particular churches need remain in association with any court of this
    body only so long as they themselves so desire. The relationship is
    voluntary, based upon mutual love and confidence, and is in no sense to be
    maintained by the exercise of any force or coercion whatsoever. A particular
    church may withdraw from any court of this body at any time for reasons
    which seem to it sufficient.

  • Andy Webb

    Dear Sam, I’m mystified as to why you used a three year old quote of mine from the Puritanboard as your only outside source. I’d shrug it off, but I found out about it when I started receiving hate-mail and requests to join a mostly defunct yahoo group.

    Your Servant in Christ,

    Andy Webb

    • sdesocio

      Andy, I do apologize that you were the only footnote. I thought it was important to note that this tension exists for a wide group of people, I think there is an awareness of some churches leaving to join the RCA or EPC, but I think less realize this is a concern from many vantage points.

    • Andy Webb

       One of my concerns is also that everyone now wants to join the group, and we haven’t been discussing anything on it for years. I don’t know what titillating material people expect to find, but it was just “what do we now?” with all the conservatives basically saying “wait and see.” Most of them are more optimistic than I am, expecting that things will get better for Fundamentalist types. I expect them to continue to get worse because I believe our denomination basically follows the general drift of American evangelicalism, and evangelicalism follows the lead of the culture. But in terms of the denomination, at this point my philosophy is best summed up by Otis Redding:

      “Look like nothing’s gonna change
      Everything still remains the same
      I can’t do what ten people tell me to do
      So I guess I’ll remain the same, yes

      Sittin’ here resting my bones
      And this loneliness won’t leave me alone
      It’s two thousand miles I roamed
      Just to make this dock my home

      Now, I’m just gonna sit at the dock of the bay
      Watching the tide roll away
      Oooo-wee, sittin’ on the dock of the bay
      Wastin’ time”

  • John Bugay

    Sam, I’ve responded here.

    • sdesocio

      John I read your response, and honestly Im a bit taken back, Ill try to see how I might respond to such accusations. 

    • sdesocio

      John after talking with a few wiser folks, Ive decided that Im not going to write a response to your statements.

  • Justin Woodall


    Thanks for “waking Vintage ’73 back up”. And for doing it in such a provocative way.

    From the outset, the single greatest element of your suggestion is the burden it would put on local sessions to have long discussions about their identity and affinity. Anytime elders have to sit down and pray through difficult issues, it is a good thing. That an your aesthetics are always well done.

    That being said, as much as I agree with you about, I disagree with this particular idea for a couple of reasons. First the sort of “hive off” model works great for a church, whose infrastructure is exponentially simpler than a national body. I know the idea would be to streamline what you call “organizational bloat”, but some of it is just the (wise!) bureaucracy inherent to Presbyterianism. Perhaps I’ll put it another way. Our presbyteries are much smaller than GA, but often suffer some of the same problems. While a denominational “hive off” may create more homogenous groups, it will not likely cut down on “bloat”. Part of the wisdom in the plurality of elders is in the slowness it creates. Perhaps if we renamed GA as “Entmoot” we would have better expectations.

    It seems like the real difficulty the PCA has is not with the rank and file, but those on the sides of the bell curve. The rank and file of the PCA seems to be content with the status quo, or at least content enough to sit home every June. It seems like the greatest discontent is generated by a small number with great voices. These small pockets of dissatisfaction exist on all sides of the spectrum. (Our problem is not as simple as a liberal/conservative distinction. It is certainly not just a confessional/non-confessional problem as some have suggested. The differences in our body are complex and multifaceted. To reduce them as some others are doing is not helpful.) The PCA is not that big of a place and the PCA blogosphere is even smaller. I wonder if there is as much frustration as we think.

    Finally, something I read this week struck me. In fact I read it the day before you posted this and I was stunned by the relationship. I was reading Mouw’s new book on Kuyper and he wrote a couple of chapters on Kuyper’s view of “many-ness”. The gist of the idea was that humans reflect the image of God in their many-ness. No one person reflects the whole image of God on his or her own. Kuyper went on to apply this idea to ecclesiology. No one church or even family of churches is, on her own, the body of Christ. The same is true for the PCA. No one faction, interest group, or affinity group completely represents the body of Christ, or the word Presbyterian for that matter.

    Related, but only tangentially, have you ever read the essay, Machen’s Warrior Children? It is pretty helpful in assessing things like this. You can read it here:

    He summarizes things well in this paragraph:

    Machen died of pneumonia in 1937, disappointed that his new denomination
    was already showing signs of division. Machen’s children were
    theological battlers, and, when the battle against liberalism in the
    PCUSA appeared to be over, they found other theological battles to
    fight. Up to the present time, these and other battles have continued
    within the movement, and, in my judgment, that is the story of
    conservative evangelical Reformed theology in twentieth-century America.

  • Joe Holland

    Sam, thanks for your post. Your love for the PCA is very evident in what you wrote despite your recommendation that we at least consider an amicable split. And I also appreciate David’s reminder that the PCA preserves for her churches the right to come into or leave the denomination based on conscience. My thought’s on it are a whole lot less thought out. I just haven’t shed enough tears over some of the rancor in the PCA. If I were thinking of leaving or advocating a split I would want it to be through my own tears and sorrow. I don’t have those which makes me think my scruples and angst have more to do with my own pride and territorial spirit than the next guy’s. So for now, I want to focus on those, at least until the tears come.

  • DCassidy

    Sam, thank you for taking the time to write and for making a bold suggestion. Nevertheless, rather than separating as you suggest I would commend an approach that honors the gifts each of our ‘tribes’ brings to the whole, putting on a coat of many colors – one that takes time to weave as well. The PCA is changing as its new churches spread into parts of the country where it had not enjoyed much of a presence in past decades. These new plants are nourished by the soil in which they reside while also growing to provide food and shelter for the area – there’s a mutually beneficial relationship. This also means that the beauty and grace already evident in these new places and settings, contributing to the flourishing of the new works, can in time offer service to more established congregations and regions as well. Not everyone can receive others who disagree on issues regarded as supreme (which in fact may or may not be so), but since so many obviously can and do, let’s strive further and deepen these connections through various networks. 

    One suggestion not often mentioned but which might prove helpful is simply to change our name. Thinking especially of our friends in Canada, not to mention our increasingly diverse ecclesiastical culture, might it not be better to be called the North American Presbyterian Church? Just a thought – a more inclusive name might engender a more inclusive attitude for us all. 

    Thanks again, and may the Lord bless your work in Pittsburgh. 

    David C

  • Ben

    The idea of a peaceable and friendly split seems naive to me. Nonetheless, as the tone becomes more rancorous and the camps more polarized, the realist in me sees a split as the inevitable outcome. 

    And I don’t see it as a necessarily bad thing. I’m enough of a confederate to believe that our union is not inviolable. Thus I think the marriage analogy is flawed: one’s covenant with one’s spouse is lifelong, for better or for worse. The relationship is sacrosanct. I – nor you -never made such vows to my denomination. 

    Work for the peace and purity of the denomination – most definitely! But how many abuses and usurpations is one expected to bear?

    Thanks for bringing up the discussion, Sam.

  • aslan777

    Oh no… here we go again, cooking up a batch our favorite Presbyterian meal… Split Pea Soup.

  • Steven A Mitchell

    Count me among those, like Ken, who value the diversity of the PCA. Not only am I a confessional type who wants to be connected to Tim Keller and his church, I am actually a member of his church. There are quite a few things that Redeemer does with which I disagree; talk to any number of my friends in the church, and they’ll confirm my identity as a confessional curmudgeon. In that sense, I’m something of a stranger in a strange land.

    Yet not only do I stay at Redeemer despite my differences, I would say I love Redeemer. Perhaps I love it primarily because it’s the local church in which God has placed me, and because I have historically had such a strong personal attachment to the local churches I’ve been a part of. For example, I don’t know if I would feel the same way about other churches in the ‘Keller wing’ of the PCA. But I do know that I wouldn’t want to be in a denomination that actively pushed them out or that seceded from their midst. They are a vibrant part of the orthodox Reformed community. I value a multitude of voices in this sense, even when I strongly disagree with them.

    • sdesocio

      Steve I think thats great to hear.

  • David

    As a young man who is about to pursue seminary education, believes he is called to pastoral ministry, and feels most closely at home within the PCA (but has never actually had the opportunity to attend a PCA church), can you give some examples about the main things that are being fought over within the PCA? I have tried to find out what the denominational issues are, but have only found a few things on the blogosphere.