Dear Bryan: Replying to "The State of the PCA"

Rick Phillips

This week a letter titled The State of the PCA was published by Bryan Chapell in By Faith, the denominational magazine of the PCA.  This public letter is another of the many takes in recent years on our denomination from the perspective of a senior statesman with progressive leanings.  Few readers will disagree with Bryan's mapping of the three main factions in the PCA.  As a committed confessionalist, I find however that this letter does not shed as much light as its author may have hoped.  In the spirit of increasing understanding and of sincere communication, I offer this public letter of response with a prayer for a charitable reading not only by Bryan personally but by all those whose perspective may be different from mine.


Dear Bryan,

Like so many others, I read with interest your open letter on The State of the PCA.  I am heartened by your hope that our common engagement with a post-Christian culture may bring us together.  However, I have to admit that your letter actually increases my sense that our divisions are likely to be more pronounced in the emerging environment.  In saying this, I am reflecting primarily on the assumptions that seem evident in your perspective, at least as I try to understand them.   Taking your open letter as a sincere attempt to communicate into the PCA's current state, please receive this response as a sincere attempt to communicate back as a representative of the confessionalist wing.  In doing this, I would highlight a few assumptions which I think mark our significant differences.

The first assumption that I see involves your sense that the two sides adequately understand one another.  Reading your letter, however, persuades me that progressives fundamentally misunderstand confessionalists (which may suggest  that confessionalists don't understand progressives well either).  Let me try to be brief in pointing out ways in which you seem fundamentally to misunderstand us: 

1) We are not traditionalists and never identify ourselves this way.  Unless, by tradition, you mean the faith of our fathers and the great confessional and ministerial heritage of the Reformed churches.  But I travel pretty widely in confessional circles and never hear anything about "tradition."  This seems to be a way to marginalize us as having a regressive attitude.  In fact, we are zealous activists, seeking to reform what seems to us the accommodationist tradition of broad evangelicalism. 

2)  We are not identified by an over-50 age group.  On the one hand, I note that the progressives seem to be led by an over-60 group of men with impressive credentials and achievements which merit respect.  On the other hand, confessionalists are encouraged by an influx of younger ministers who are drawn to an historic Reformed vision of the church and of ministry.  Many of our most thoughtful voices are well under 50!  And when I attend events like the TGC National Convention, I do not at all feel like an outsider but interact with huge numbers of non-presbyterians who are drawn to a confessional vision. 

3) Whatever made you think that our heroes include Jerry Fallwell, Pat Robertson, Jim Dobson and Chuck Colson (or even Francis Schaeffer)?  Our heroes are John Calvin, John Knox, J. Gresham Machen, Geerhardus Vos, and, of course, Carl Trueman.  While many confessional Christians believe that we need faithfully to fulfill our civic duties as Christians, so that we tend to oppose pagan political agendas, our vision for the church is an ordinary means of grace vision rather that of culture war.  We want to preach through Deuteronomy, not the US Constitution. 

4) Curiously, you seem to associate the 20th century culture warrior leaders with our party, when we actually associate them with your party.  After all, few Christians were more effective culture-engagers than Jim Kennedy was.  The difference between that group and the progressives today is mainly one of context.  For all his great virtues and achievements (and they were many), the reason Kennedy seems less relevant today was because he was so in tune with the spirit and culture of his day.  This is the very approach we are seeking to avoid. 

5) Confessionalists do not assume that we are part of a dominant Christian culture in society.  I did not learn that when I was converted in downtown Philadelphia in 1990 and we do not think this in Greenville, SC today. 

6). You seem to believe that our churches are stagnant and decreasing.  I'm not sure where you get this information.  Most of my fellow confessional pastors are raising money to increase our seating capacity and we are planting confessional churches in urban areas.  I wonder if this is a gratuitous assumption on your part, because it does not square with my experience in confessional circles. 

There may be other ways in which progressives wrongly assume that they understand confessionalists, but these six issues in your letter make me wish you really understood us, because I do not recognize the people you are describing.

In addition to doubting your assumption that you understand our side, I was also struck by your assumption regarding generational conflict.  Your letter seems to take it for granted that younger ministers (and older ministers' children) will want to chart a new direction from the generation that went before them.  Now, I am tempted to say that you do not really seem to believe this, since you and many others of the over-60 group are in fact leading the progressive charge (as a simple glance at the General Assembly platform will reveal year after year).  More basically, however, where in the Bible are younger church leaders taught a general suspicion towards their elders in the faith and an urge to rebel against them?  Is this not an example of the progressive wing drawing its assumptions from the culture rather than the Scriptures?  If you believe there is a generational rift, wouldn't your biblical response be to reprove disrespect among the young even as you urge appreciation by those who are older (following Paul's example in Tit. 2:1-8, 1 Tim. 5:1-2, and also Hebrews 13:7-8).  Your emphasis on a generational rift comes across as a strategy more than an observation, and I would urge you to take a more clearly biblical and less sociological approach to this issue.  (To the younger ministers, I would also point out that you soon will be older.  Why, just the other day I was one of the young turks.  Now I'm a has-been traditionalist!  When did that happen?)

Bryan, another issue in which it seems that your assumption is drawn from the culture rather than the Scripture is your emphasis on gender and sex-diversity engagement with the culture.  Both sides are agreed that we are blessed with the joyful calling of spreading the good news of God's grace in Christ to sinners of all kinds.  But where does this language of "winning a Gospel hearing" from a rebellious culture come from?  Of course, we also want to help a broken society and we look on them with tears, which is why we want to give them clear truth from God's Word.  We also want to exhibit a living witness of grace that will adorn our verbal witness to grace.  But where in the Scriptures do we find this strategy of seeking permission to declare God's saving truth?  It doesn't come from the prophets.  It doesn't come from the apostle Paul, who was literally apoplectic (Acts 17:16) when he bluntly confronted the idolatry of Athens and preached the resurrection of Christ on Mars Hill (and, no, simply quoting Epimenides does not mean that Paul was engaged in cultural accommodation.  They ran him out of town, after all). 

Confessionalists note with concern the different strategies taken by progressives today regarding homosexuality versus our past strategy concerning sins like racism.  One of the better moments in the PCA took place when our denomination boldly repudiated and rebuked racism, without seeking permission or giving apology, an action in which you and I were actively joined.  On that occasion, no one complained that we were alienating the racists by speaking so forthrightly from Scripture.  So why is that charge made when we seek to speak biblically regarding homosexuality and other sexual perversions?  Is it because while racism is reviled by the culture, homosexuality is celebrated by the culture?  Do we, then, only confront boldly those sins which the culture also hates, while accommodating those that it loves?  Why would we do this?  Where does this assumption come from that we must blur the Bible's anathema of sexual perversion and concede ground as an initial stage in our witness to homosexuals? 

"But we are being culturally isolated!" progressives respond!  Our answer is that we are indeed, just as the Chinese Christians were culturally isolated under Maoism and as the early Christians were culturally isolated as they were marched into the Coliseum to be fed to the lions.  Both of those groups ended up doing pretty well.  Now, we do lament this isolation, mainly because we earnestly expect that we will soon be fed to the lions, so to speak, or at least excluded to cultural gulags.  What we do not understand is why cultural persecution is a cause for cultural accommodation, as if Christ had anything to fear from Caesar or the cultural elites.  The confessionalist concern is whether we will stand with our fellow courageous Christians who are being slaughtered around the world because they will not bend the knee to an imperious pagan culture and with the saints of the early church as they were urged by Christ in Revelation, or whether we will cringe before the powers of cultural elitism in the media, government, and entertainment structures.  A statement like this may come across as religious arrogance, and for this we are sorry, but we simply want to join the ranks of those who conquered "by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony," not loving our lives even to death (Rev. 12:11).  We want this not because we have embraced a traditionalist martyr complex but because we sincerely believe that this is the best way both to love God and to love the world.

This is not at all to say that Christian courage and reliance on divine grace are the exclusive province of the confessional wing of our church.  We know that this valor is shared in all factions of the PCA.  What we do not understand is how this leads to a strategy of cultural engagement in which the assumptions of a spiritually rebellious culture are embraced as an evangelistic starting point.  This is the final assumption that I read in your letter and which I would like to question.  When confessionalists hear that gender accommodation, positive engagement over homosexuality, and the acceptance of the secularist theory of evolution are necessary to our cultural success (you didn't mention this, but it is a looming issue in our division), we scour our Bibles in vain to discover valid precedents.  In the spirit of Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:1-6, we admit that we have no confidence in sociological leverage but rely completely on the supernatural blessing of a merciful and sovereign God on the ordinary means of grace he has given to his Church.  We hear and read as progressives lament that the means of grace are not sufficient and that we must make God's Word effectual by means of sociological strategy.  This grieves our hearts, because though we may be misunderstanding you (and forgive us if we are), what we are hearing is that God himself is not sufficient to protect, grow, and use his church for the advancement of his kingdom.  We believe that God is not "culturally impotent" and we therefore believe that a rigorously biblical witness will be effective in true cultural engagement.  In this respect, it is we who do not expect to be the dominant cultural party in society.  We are not trying to win the culture, but rather to be used by God to save needy sinners from the grips of a hell-bound pagan society (see Rev. 18).  Is this traditionalism?  If so, it is the great tradition of the Reformed churches, which believe that the Word of God has the power of God to do the work of God, because of the grace of God in Christ for the world.

This letter is offered as a sincere effort at communication across our factional boundaries.  The factions exist pretty much as you lay them out, even if we confessionalists feel greatly misunderstood.  I prayerfully hope that you are right in saying that our common enemy will draw us together.  My fear is that the very thing which divides us is our approach to this common enemy, so that it is perhaps more likely that we will pull apart.  In any case, we remain joined in Christ through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, we are brothers and sisters in the Lord, and we are sinner/saints saved by grace alone.  So whether the coming years see us able to work more closely together or pulled farther apart in terms of ministry strategy, it is essential that we love one another and seek venues in which our personal and pastoral understanding may be increased.  I take your letter as a step in that direction and I ask you to receive mine in the same spirit.