The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is my adopted home. I didn’t grow up Presbyteryian, but in God’s providence I found myself through a long series of little steps finding a home in the PCA. Most people, if they’ve heard of my denomination, either mistake it for the larger liberal/progressive PCUSA (the Presbyterian church that makes the evening news), or recognize it as the smaller conservative and evangelical Presbyterian denomination. There are many differences between the PCA and the PCUSA, which I will not rehash here. They are well documented on the web. But what is much less known is the history of the PCA—a church that was born in 1973 but has its roots in the old southern Presbyterian church (PCUS).
The story of my church’s roots is a fascinating tale of theological battles over orthodoxy, race relations entailing deep disagreements over segregation and integration, church politics and the hijacking of an historic confessional denomination, and the vision for a church to continue its stewardship of its witness to the inerrant Bible, the Reformed faith, the Great Commission. This story is now told in a scholarly yet readable book by pastor and professor Sean Michael Lucas called For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America.
According to the author’s telling, supplied by primary source documents such as newspapers, magazine and journal, and church court documents, the first hints of a divided church occurred near the end of the 19th century. Progressive theology began to get a foothold in the PCUS. Over the course of the next 70 or so years, confessional Presbyterians in the American south fought to root out a liberal theology at odds with the doctrinal standards of the denomination. For some, that is the only detail of the story that matters. But Lucas discerns sociological concerns at play as many southern conservatives failed to separate their desire for doctrinal fidelity with the racially segregated status quo. Hence the slow process that gave birth to the PCA played out on the same stage with the American Civil Rights movement. As with most of history, issues were complicated and orthodox men found themselves at odds on a number of controversial issues. At stake were forced segregation and integration, the question of whether to reform or withdraw from the PCUS, whether change should come rapidly or slowly, and discerning who was an ally or foe.
Most of the names were unfamiliar to me except for those who made the transition from the old church to the PCA at its founding in the early 1970s. But other more recognizable names that factor into the roots of the PCA’s history include:
- Billy Graham, the world-renowned evangelist
- L. Nelson Bell, founder of the conservative (Southern) Presbyterian Journal and father-in-law of Billy Graham
- D. James Kennedy, pastor of the flagship Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, FL
- J. Gresham Machen, founder of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church denomination and cautionary tale for the PCA founders
As with all good historians, Lucas seeks to be as objective as possible. He is a PCA minister and is sympathetic to the conservative cause its founders stood for. Yet Lucas also has an agenda in telling the story the way he does. In 2015 at the PCA’s General Assembly, he partnered with Ligon Duncan (president of Reformed Theological Seminary) to present a personal overture from the floor calling the denomination to repent of its racial sins of the 1960s civil rights era. Woven throughout his book is a thread of racial sin that many of the PCA’s founders and their Presbyterian forefathers committed in the name of Christ. It is one of the major themes of the book and demands a response. It remains to be seen how the PCA will deal corporately with the racial sins of its past, as the matter was referred to presbyteries and church sessions to consider and for the 2016 General Assembly.
So the sin of racism, particularly as it was committed against African-Americans in the South, is one aspect of the book. Many lessons can be drawn from this, some of which raise the thorny question of the propriety of “corporate confession and repentance.” The PCA is divided on the legitimacy of corporate repentance as a biblical category. I am sympathetic to the objections that Christians must only confess sins of which they have personally committed, and that it would be a sin for a person to confess particular sins that he personally did not commit. But I am not persuaded by these arguments. It seems to me that there are examples of corporate repentance in the Bible (e.g., Nehemiah, Daniel), and there are models of this in the Psalms (Pss 78, 106).
Some of the other lessons I learned from Lucas’s book?
- Theological Progressivism in the church is a cancer that cannot be tolerated because it is not content to coexist with other views. By its nature it is manipulative, power-hungry, and coercive. It has no end goal, so it continues to take over until it dominates, marginalizes, and eventually exterminates opposition. Theological progressives (liberals) may hold to many orthodox beliefs, but their inclusion of heterodoxy, heresy, and immorality in the name of tolerance eventually destroys orthodoxy in the fold.
- Reading and interpreting the Bible with only our subculture’s lenses is dangerous. The church in the American south was impoverished by its peculiar and provincial views on a just biblical society. Better to dialogue with other Christian cultures and subcultures, including the voices of past giants from history, to avoid being on the “wrong side of history.”
- Full historical disclosure is always a good thing. The PCA’s present discussions on racial sins of the past is a good thing. How dreadful if we denied or ignored our past! God is the Lord of truth. And the truth will always set us free.
- There are times to fight for reform within a church. Staying as a faithful witness is usually (nearly always!) God’s will. But there may come a time when to continue in faithfulness to God requires separation. And the separatists are not necessarily schismatic. History usually renders the verdict by weighing God’s subsequent blessings.
- The “good guys” do not always have pure motives (really, whose motives are pure!), and the “bad guys” do not always have everything wrong. I think history’s verdict as a whole is that God is blessing the PCA and judging the PCUSA. But I also thing history bears out that Martin Luther King Jr. was right that civil rights were overdue and forced integration was overall a good thing for race relations.
I’m sure there are many other lessons from a careful reading of For a Continuing Church. Theologians will profit from the history of our doctrinal controversies. Pastors and elders will draw lessons of faithfulness, vigilance, and congregational reconciliation. Students will learn what kinds of issues lead to church movements and the birth of new denominations. All Christians can discover the cost of discipleship when your church home is no longer a safe place to worship, fellowship, serve. If you can handle some ecclesiastical jargon that peppers the narrative (session, presbytery, synod, general assembly, committee, commission, overture, court, seminary, etc), and translate their equivalents to your own church context—if there is any similarity!—then the book will make sense.
In summary, this book will pay dividends for many different types of people who invest the time to read and digest it.