Splinter, Split, or Stay in the Fight?

It is no secret that the Presbyterian Church in America is in turmoil. No one denies the existence of conflict and consternation. Though some consider the strife to be unjustified, even they do not believe the strife will soon cease or be easily resolved.

Let’s cut to the chase and say the quiet part out loud: There may come a time when the Presbyterian Church in America needs to split. But until that time comes it should not splinter.

Let’s consider the conflict, which is not altogether new and which has no single source. Presbyters with a historical bent may point to the diversity present in the PCA’s founding generation in 1973 and the decade that followed—a mixed multitude of seriously confessional Presbyterians, broad evangelicals, half-recovered quasi-Baptists, ill-taught presbyterian traditionalists, cultural conservatives troubled by the tumultuous 1960s, and Lost Cause Southerners. With such diversity of conviction, understanding, and affinity, is the current conflict any surprise? Having run this taxonomy by a diverse group of PCA folk, I am prepared to assert that the categories are largely correct; only the percentage distribution is in question.

Of course, the distinctions were (and are) not neat and tidy... there was a mixture within the mixture. And it’s impossible to understand and quantify individual Presbyterians who may not even have understood themselves. Nevertheless, many who love the PCA have spent a lot of time trying to describe the PCA in the interest of understanding, improving and preserving the denomination.

Retired pastor Tim Keller of Big Apple fame took a well-researched and thoughtful stab at explanatory categorization in 2010. Keller admitted at the outset that “This ‘big tent’ approach... sets the PCA up for conflict.” He largely employed and approved of church historian George Marsden’s “doctrinalist, pietistic and culturalist” breakdown. [1] Keller’s prescription for unity was maintaining a symbiotic balance between the three camps or “impulses”:

“The main way we could actually forge greater unity between ourselves is by letting some of the other branches' emphases and strengths color, flavor, and affect our own approaches to doing ministry.”

Keller penned his diagnostic in 2010, the year the contentious and quietly revolutionary Strategic Plan was approved by the PCA General Assembly. The plan had been years in the making and before some of its more controversial corners of verbiage were rounded off it called for theological “safe places” where edgy things could be discussed without fear and for “more seats at the table” for women, minorities, and internationals. This plan seemed to predict the PCA racial reconciliation and women-in-ministry reports and movements that came in the second decade of the 21st century. What the plan did not predict was a little parachurch conference and concept that rocked the PCA like nothing that had come before: Revoice and “Side B gay Christianity.” If balance between doctrinalists, pietists and culturalists was ever possible, the 2018 Revoice Conference (and its PCA connections) wrecked whatever near-equilibrium or peace that had been achieved.

It has been difficult for many ordinary PCA members and officers to understand why the Revoice/Side B movement has become a must-have or a must-tolerate issue for some in the PCA—mostly pastors of the “missional” or city church kind. According to the Keller-Marsden model, it could be that those who want to reach the culture of cities (often dominated by homosexual-friendly artists, politicians, and elites) see Revoice/Side B as not only helpful but essential. The doctrinalists find much in, well, the doctrine of the Bible and the Westminster Standards to make them wary of if not hostile to the innovations. The pietists love conversion stories and may even appreciate “new measures,” but many are still ambivalent about the propriety of same-sex-attracted officers in the PCA. Maybe it all seems a bit sudden, out of the blue. Or left field.  

In 2015 the current Stated Clerk (then pastor) Bryan Chapell used different words, but the three categories were essentially the same:

“The denomination, as a whole, is clearly divided between traditionalists, progressives, and neutrals. The traditionalists are highly committed to Confessional fidelity and are often worried about perceived doctrinal drift.

The progressives are frustrated by the perceived cultural isolation of the denomination and the lack of Gospel impact upon the larger culture.

The neutrals are happy (even proud) for the PCA’s biblical fidelity, are at a loss for why their churches are not growing, and perceive that the traditionalists and progressives fuss too much about too little.”

Chapell thought a sort of foxhole fellowship would develop as the slings and arrows of an outrageous culture were aimed more and more against the church:

“Increasingly it will become unacceptable in this culture to say that Jesus is our only hope. Yet saying this against ridicule, isolation, and persecution will drive us to our fundamentals, to each other, and to our God. This great battle is likely to help us work past our doctrinal differences as we join hearts and minds in the struggle to survive.”

Ironically, these words were published in May of 2015, just six weeks before the US Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision that found a fundamental right to marry for same-sex couples. A cultural conflict of skirmishing and slow attrition turned into total war. Into this environment came Revoice and Side B two years later, and the Strategic Plan’s seats at the table and safe places took on a whole new and (for some) intolerable significance.

Of course, it isn’t all about Revoice. The confessionalist, doctrinalist, or traditionalist side of the PCA has a list of concerns: The perceived failure of church discipline (including Federal Vision cases and two cases related to same-sex attraction), the growing phenomenon of female quasi officers, “good faith” subscription since 2002, Sonship-related sanctification issues since the 1990s, and the dizzying variety of worship “styles” and philosophies of ministry, right down to differences in the very conception of the church’s mission. In some sense Revoice and Side B gay Christianity simply serve as the mascot for an accumulation of issues, an emblem of a trajectory. The motivation of the missional or culturalist camp in today’s PCA may be to build bridges for outreach to “the culture,” but for many in the PCA the latest manifestation of this impulse is a bridge too far.

Does this seem overstated, histrionic, shrill? Well, in 2010 Tim Keller wrote, “Between seasons of controversy over a particular issue each branch seethes with quiet fear and anger about the others.” If that was so ten years ago, how much more so today? That some pastors, sessions, and churches talk of departing the PCA should surprise no one in 2021. A few churches do leave each year, but a few splinters are hardly missed from the PCA tree.

2021 is not 1971, when churches plotted to leave the old Presbyterian Church in the United States en masse. The old Southern church had been slouching towards actual theological liberalism for three decades. There is no similar theological trajectory in the PCA today. The problems are more of a practical and cultural nature, though Revoice and Side B gay Christianity have introduced an explosive new element that is explicitly doctrinal, and some PCA figures, like pastor Harry Reeder, have suggested that erroneous mission or methodology  (as typified by Revoice) will inevitably reshape the message and doctrine of the church.

The PCA can be recovered, reformed. Its condition is not that of the Northern mainline church in the 1920s or of the PCA’s Southern mother church in the middle of the 20th century.

Gresham Machen, who fought valiantly against liberalism and unbelief in the Northern church, wrote this about one of his last meetings with a dying B.B. Warfield in 1921:

“I expressed my hope that to end the present intolerable condition there might be a great split in the Church, in order to separate the Christians from the anti-Christian propagandists. ‘No,’ he said, ‘you can’t split rotten wood.’ His expectation seemed to be that the organized Church, dominated by naturalism, would become so cold and dead, that people would come to see that spiritual life could be found only outside of it, and that thus there might be a new beginning.”

The PCA is not rotten, not given over to unbelief. But the denomination, now almost 50 years old, has serious problems. And many within the PCA don’t want to wait until it's too late, and so they consider their options. Some churches will splinter off when they might have stayed in the fight to recover the PCA or else—as a last resort—split off with a great company of like-minded churches to form a healthy, continuing denomination.

Some feel that the confessionalist, doctrinalist, or traditionalist segment of the PCA has hardly put up a good fight, conceding much ground in the last 25 years to those with a different understanding of the nature and mission of the church, as well as a different regard for her confessional standards. Christ is not glorified by interminable warfare and strife, but neither is he pleased with those who quit the battle, not having resisted to the point of shedding their own blood.

Brad Isbell is a ruling elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, TN and board member of MORE in the PCA, an organization that encourages and supports ruling elder involvement in the courts of the church

Related Links

"Brothers, We Are Presbyterian" by Sarah Morris

"Grief, Confession, and Prayer for Peace" by Todd Pruitt

"Smells Like Party Spirit" by Brad Isbell

The Church: One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic by Richard Phillips, Philip Ryken, & Mark Dever

Presbytopia: What it means to be Presbyterian by Ken Golden 


[1] Some may ask how, out of the varied but conservative groups that formed the PCA, the missional-culturalist tendency emerged. One place to look is the ethos of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES) which joined the PCA in 1982, bringing with it Covenant College and Covenant Theological Seminary and a different philosophy of cultural engagement.