Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Fixing the Weak Link in the PCA

The Presbyterian Church in America is a confessional denomination.  Exceptions to our confessions (The Westminster Standards) are common among ministers in the PCA.  Currently, presbyteries have latitude to decide what exceptions are acceptable and which exceptions are not.  The problem, of course, is that an element of subjectivity has been inserted into the discussion which is difficult to shake.  This problem comes in the form of the phrase "vitals of religion."  Below are the two crucial places in the Book of Church Order where the phrase occurs.
The court may grant an exception to any difference of doctrine only if in the court’s judgment the candidate’s declared difference is not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion. (21-4)

Heresy and schism may be of such a nature as to warrant deposition; but errors ought to be carefully considered, whether they strike at the vitals of religion and are industriously spread, or whether they arise from the weakness of the human understanding and are not likely to do much injury. (34-5)
Various presbyteries currently define this phrase differently, if at all.  For some, denying 24-hour creation strikes at the "vitals of religion."  For some, (evidently in the PNWP) paedocommunion does not strike at the "vitals of religion," while other presbyteries would strongly disagree.  The  subjective nature of this concept of "vitals" is, in our view, the fault line which will eventually be the cause of the PCA's split.

If one searches the Book of Church Order for a definition of "vitals of religion," they will come up empty-handed.  Hence, for many, giving communion to non-communing members is not only contrary to the Westminster Standards, but strikes at the vitals of religion, while others would beg to differ.  A solution can be avoided for some time, but what will eventually happen is a denomination where Presbyteries are united denominationally who hold mutually different ideas of what the "vitals of religion" actually are.  We are aware that this is already the case.  Further, this in essence creates an undefined confession within our confession. This is problematic because our new confession is unstated and undefined.

One solution is strict subscription.  In this view, candidates are not permitted exceptions.

Another solution is to continue as we are, watching the split spread from one end of the denomination to the other.

We propose a third way - a series of solutions that might help remedy the current situation:
  1. Amend the BCO with a definition of "vitals of religion."
  2. In this section, outline a uniform denomination-wide list of allowable exceptions.  Currently, this is at the discretion of each Presbytery.
  3. When exceptions are taken, these should be "bound exceptions," meaning that the person taking the exceptions is not allowed to teach or in anyway inculcate anything contrary to the our Standards. 
  4. Amending the standards.  For example, many people take exception with the WCF in 7.4, which says that, "This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament." It seems possible to argue that perhaps a change to the section needs to be made so that exceptions, such as these, are rarer and more meaningful.
We should state, for the record, that we like the Standards the way they are.  That being said, many would have to agree with us that if the vast majority take an exception somewhere, that really does become the de facto norm.

If the notion of "vitals of religion" is not dealt with now, then what do we do in 30 years when it might be argued that women being ordained into the ministry of the PCA does not strike at the "vitals of religion"?  Without a clear definition of this phrase (or its removal), it is difficult to see how an issue like this can be dealt with.  We owe it to future generations of the PCA to deal with these questions now and to make the hard calls before the situation is completely out of our hands.


  1. Tea Party people won't like this, takes power away from Presbyteries. What about those presbyteries that don't allow exceptions, you are proposing that they now have to allow exceptions?

  2. Are there any presbyteries in the PCA that allow zero exceptions? [For example, the one used in point 4 above.]

  3. I'm not sure, but it takes away the right of a presbytery to do this if it so chooses.

    Ah the days when we could go back to being strict subscriptionists like the Independents, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Erastians who dwelt together to make the Standards. :)

  4. Strict subscription is not a bad idea, but this is an okay solution, I think, if you want to hold the union together.

  5. I disagree. Biblically, union/unity is based on one thing: Truth.

    Historically in Presbyterianism, union is based on adherence to the Standards (truth). When the church begins to break away from them, the church becomes a big tent, people get upset with each other, church splits. It only gets worse, the conservatives leave for greener pastures, the 'liberals' become apostate.

  6. I don't disagree with you. I'm not a big-tent man, myself. I actually favor strict subscription, if for no other reason than it avoids all of the problems being addressed here. But this proposal is meant to be a step towards a more Westminsterian PCA without triggering a complete exodus by vast majorities of the denomination (which is coming if something isn't done).

    Andrew, if you favor strict subscription and want a smaller denomination, then what keeps you from joining the OPC?

  7. Why would you think I'd go to the OPC? They aren't much better (they have their own problems). I am not being forced to do something in the PCA. The PCA or my presbytery is not binding my conscience on anything. I believe the PCA is still part of Christ's Church.

  8. Besides, the PCA would never agree to what constitutes an allowable exception and what isn't.

  9. Well, the majority could come up with something. I agree with you, however, in the sense that they'd never collectively come up with something that they all agree with.

  10. We would do well to remember that the Westminster Standards themselves were not agree upon in all the parts by all the delegates.

  11. Yet they were agreed upon in whole and they were not just presbyterians. That's the sad state of Presbyterianism today. We should be able to agree on this document.

    Adam, I believe the majority already came up with something at the strong hand of PPLN.

  12. I'm not totally sure what PPLN is...

  13. Much to learn pad-won. Google search: ppln pca presbyterian news.

    That presbyterian news source is good PCA info.


Before posting please read our Comment Policy here.

Think hard about this: the world is watching!