The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is one year older than I am. At 49, I have to confess the prospect of turning 50 doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm. Nevertheless, despite the declining capacities my older friends gleefully tell me to expect as I cross that dreaded threshold, the PCA at 50 shows every sign of continued vigor and spiritual vitality.
As the PCA ages, there are definite threats to the unity, worship, and witness of the denomination, and faithful churchmen will not allow the excellencies that adorn the PCA to blind them to those dangers. But at a time when our society is polarized and fractured, and cynicism and negativity dominate much of our public discourse, we need to carve out space for gratitude (and even qualified optimism) as we reflect on five decades of faithfulness to the gospel in the PCA.
Let me highlight four things I see in the PCA for which I give thanks.
1. Unwavering Faithfulness
I’m grateful to God for the PCA’s continued faithfulness to its confessional foundations. Yes, there’s some diversity of opinion among elders and deacons in the PCA, but it’s typically on a relatively small number of doctrinal issues.
Sessions (the Presbyterian name for elder boards, serving in local congregations) and presbyteries (representing the PCA congregations in a given region) are required to weigh carefully whether an elder or deacon candidate’s stated differences with the Westminster Standards represent a departure from those doctrinal standards of sufficient gravity to bar him from office. While some leeway is permissible, the PCA continues to affirm the Standards without exception or qualification as the confession of its faith and the sense in which it understands the Bible.
We need to carve out space for gratitude (and even qualified optimism) as we reflect on five decades of faithfulness.
Other presbyterian denominations have felt the need to amend the Standards to reflect the changing times and their changing convictions, but the PCA continues to find remarkable utility in our Confession and Catechisms. The Westminster Standards’ resilience as an expression of the PCA’s theological conscience can be seen clearly in the study committee reports produced on a host of pressing subjects over the years.
While these are typically the fruit of considerable debate within the PCA, their findings represent solid biblical and confessional conclusions that have steered the PCA in continued paths of faithfulness. Whether it’s the Federal Vision controversy, the Insider Movement, the role of women in ministry, or the urgent questions facing the church surrounding human sexuality, when doctrinal debates call for a denominational response, the PCA, again and again, finds in its confessional standards a source of biblically faithful and remarkably prescient wisdom.
If we seek an explanation of the PCA’s continued growth, church planting efforts, pastoral formation, missionary labor, and service to the wider evangelical movement in America and around the world, we must look first to our stable confessional moorings.
2. Connection of Churches
I love the connectionalism of the PCA. Part of the genius of presbyterian polity is the interconnectedness of our congregations, who submit to one another and cooperate in a shared mission and mutual accountability. Partly in reaction to abuses in the mainline denomination from which they emerged in 1973, the PCA has carefully avoided a centralized power structure. We’re generally allergic to top-down control imposed on congregations.
The members of each congregation elect their own ministers, elders, and deacons; property belongs to the congregation, not the denomination; and a congregation can leave the denomination at any time for any reason the church’s members deem wise. But for all its aversion to central control, the PCA hasn’t disintegrated into a loose federation of independent churches. The essential elements of presbyterian government are prized and practiced. Sessions exercise pastoral oversight over the members of the local church, presbyteries over the churches within their bounds, and the General Assembly over the church at a national level.
We continue to confess that local churches are bound together and are responsible to and for one another. Though the PCA is far from perfect in this, it remains true that presbyteries and the General Assembly provide much-needed checks on the dangers of ecclesiastical tyranny and pastoral abuse. Standards for ordination are upheld across the denomination, and pastors have formal structures of support and appeal beyond the leadership of the local churches they serve. Our connectionalism is a precious gift.
3. Evangelistic Outlook
I’m grateful for the ongoing drive in the PCA for evangelism and church planting. While growth has slowed in recent years, the PCA still bucks the general pattern of numerical decline seen in other evangelical denominations in today’s America. Membership in the PCA grew to 390,319 last year—an increase of 11,930. In 1974, 200 congregations founded the PCA. Now, after 50 years, the denomination has grown to just shy of 2,000 congregations (including 305 mission churches).
There’s a spectrum of philosophy of ministry in the PCA, and there are important differences of conviction on the nature and limits of contextualization, styles of worship, and to what extent the church should speak prophetically and counterculturally.
Nevertheless, all parties in the denomination affirm their deep and urgent commitments to church planting and global mission. Our outreach ministries continue to grow. Reformed University Fellowship, which reaches thousands of students on American college campuses; Mission to North America, which facilitates domestic church planting; and Mission to the World, which sends missionaries around the globe all work hard to fulfill the Great Commission.
4. Future Generation
A new generation of leaders is emerging. The 50th anniversary of the PCA was bittersweet. Just before the celebrations at the General Assembly, Tim Keller, Harry Reeder, and Stephen Smallman all went to their eternal rewards. These men were leaders whose ministries extended well beyond the denomination’s bounds. They were fathers in the faith to many, and the PCA owes them an incalculable debt.
We continue to confess that local churches are bound together and are responsible to and for one another.
The second generation in the PCA has now largely handed the baton of leadership to a new generation. As I assess the PCA, I’m grateful for thoughtful brothers who care deeply about the church and its polity, confession, and testimony and who are resolved to engage in denominational debate with dignity, charity, and conviction.
I see rising scholars, preachers and authors, and churchmen and missionaries who have the best interests of the gospel cause at heart, who love our confession of faith, and who are passionate about the glory of Christ in the salvation of the lost. I’m excited about the ways God will use them for the extension of his kingdom.
No doubt, the PCA at 50 still has a long way to go as we strive to be “faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission,” as our motto says. There are differences of opinion among us on the nature of the church’s mission. We still must learn how best to welcome, reflect, and celebrate the rich diversity of ethnicity, culture, and experience found in the communities we seek to reach for Christ. Like other evangelicals, we’re struggling to respond effectively to growing biblical illiteracy, pragmatism, progressivism, and Christian nationalism.
But, on the cusp of 50 myself, I rejoice over the PCA at 50: a confessional, connectional, missional church with whom Christ, the King and Head of the church, is far from finished.
The Gospel Coalition