[Written by Dr. Chris Peters]
Blessed in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)
As our city of Birmingham prepares to host the General Assembly of the PCA, the annual gathering of pastors and elders, I’m thankful for our denomination. I have been an ordained “teaching elder” in the Presbyterian Church in America for almost 20 years. I’m definitely encouraged to see other Biblically focused denominations in our nation and around the world, and I know we in the PCA certainly have issues we regularly seek to work through, but I’ve been greatly blessed by those who have gone before me and by my brothers and sisters in the denomination currently.
Why be “denominational”?
Before talking about some reasons for my thankfulness, I probably should answer a question some may ask in our “non-denominational” era. While I understand the impetus for both pastors and church members to seek such an unaffiliated church, I have always felt I needed the accountability and the structure of a committed network of churches. At the end of the day, every “non-denominational” church must decide what it believes about debated biblical matters and church practices – who to baptize and when, what type of leadership structure, what theological framework, and so forth. Denominations at their best are simply groups of churches and church leaders who have agreement on these matters. I value both the agreed theological framework and the connectional life of the PCA. Furthermore, knowing my weakness and the ways I have seen other church leaders stumble, I’m concerned whenever I see pastors live outside of accountable networks of peers.
Lean Not On Your Own Understanding
One of the things I love about our particular affiliation is our consistent commitment to the Bible as the “only infallible rule for faith and practice.” In the 20 years I have been in the PCA, and for that matter, in the 27 years prior to that, I have seen that manmade culture blows wherever it will,usually with devastating consequences. Proverbs 3:5-6 provided a central message of conviction and encouragement for me in my conversion – “Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your path.” A central step of my coming to faith in Christ was realizing not just that I did things that were wrong to others, but that I offended God with the things I did and did not do, and that the very framework I had in my mind for living was prone to be out of alignment with the flourishing path of God’s revealed commands. As one both morally and mentally out of alignment, I was so thankful to realize God’s grace to me through the atoning work of Christ, and hopefully continue to grow in that gratitude every day.
Fruitful “Study Committee Reports”
In light of this, I’m regularly refreshed by a denomination where “Study Committees” assess pressing matters, seeking to acknowledge Him and follow his direction from a Biblical framework. We in the PCA can undoubtedly be too cognitive, and maybe to some seem overly precise, but as I read the Scriptures, God is quite interested in how His people and His church will live out His will. We should never prescribe where He has been silent, but we also should not fail to speak where He has done so if we hope to be a people of God who glorify Him as He has designed and as we seek to be salt and light in this needy world.
To that end, I would commend to anyone, the “Position Papers” as they were more commonly called in the past, or just “Study Committee Reports” as we seem to prefer to call them today, from over 4 decades of our history. You can see the list of them all here. These are non-binding but, when received by the General Assembly, certainly to be understood as a valid expression of denominational views at the time of publishing.
Presently our denomination is greatly focused on matters of sexuality, and specifically homosexuality. I am thankful for a denomination that proclaims God’s free grace to those who have repented of sexual sin (heterosexual or homosexual), and by faith alone have received the righteousness of Christ. I praise God, that although glorifying God with my own sexuality remains a daily journey of sanctification for me and I have a far from perfect track record, I can know God’s plan for fidelity in heart, mind and action. As a student of history, I know that we live in a very particular moment in a particular American societal framework, and that people in other times, and presently in other places were not perfect in their understanding of God’s design for sexual flourishing. Nevertheless, we have made decisions as churches and as a society going back to the 1960s and 70s, to ignore Jesus’s challenge to recognize the lustful look as adultery, to abandon the idea that God has a purpose in sexuality within a lifelong committed marriage of one man and one woman, and more recently to reject God’s design for sex to be an activity of a male and a female, rather than any other formulations. To any open to insight from the Lord on these matters, I would commend these Biblically based studies on the topic (2021 Report and 1980 Report), and also Kevin DeYoung’s book. Or for more general understanding of the comprehensive message of the Bible about sexuality, Paul David Tripp’s book. Whatever the outworking of this summer’s General Assembly on the specific matters before us, I’m glad for where we have planted our feet so far, as we speak the truth in love, pointing in all matters of sexuality to God’s good plan of flourishing, and warning about both the temporal and eternal impact of ignoring that plan.
Indeed, as I have considered the more recent study report on sexuality, it has reminded me of many other areas addressed by these helpful study reports, all of which give such rich grounding for the life of believers in an age where both truth and identity are re-invented annually, where down is up and up is down. If you are interested, here are some of those topics and why I’m thankful for the PCA caring enough to speak to them:
Nearly all the applications of Biblical truth to the matters of Christian living and impact as salt and light in our society, flow from the vital reality that we, as people, and our environment, the universe, are the handiwork of the Sovereign, Righteous, and Loving God. While we make room for varied perspectives on the length of those creation days, we robustly affirm that all is from God, was created of nothing, that humanity, male and female, is in God’s image, and that Adam and Eve were real people in a real place.
The PCA also clearly affirms there are two sexes, male and female, though not ignorant of the tiny percentage of people born with some deformity that confuses the physical distinction. The distinction between male and female is not something we define or “identify” for ourselves but is how God defines us, and can be seen across much of animal creation. Although across cultures and time, and allowing for a scope of distinctions in the particular individual manifestation of maleness or femaleness, the Bible prescribes human flourishing best achieved when we recognize the equal value of men and women, while at the same time acknowledging a different role each will generally play. Notably, in the church, men are called to loving wise leadership authority in the ordained role of elder, and the servant role of deacon, and in the household, men are called to the same, as they sacrificially shepherd their family, and their wife respects and follows his direction, in all matters Biblically sound. If we did not see the tremendous value and great blessing of holding strongly and vocally to a complementarian view in the past – over against merely egalitarian perspective of men’s and women’s roles at church and home – the current absurd confusion in our culture over such matters should help us desire clarity.
Although the PCA is a predominantly “Anglo” denomination, the fact that we are not “all white” or “all black” and also have always included a large number of Korean churches, and more recently a growing number of Latino congregations, means that based on raw percentages we are more ethnically diverse than most American denominations, even though we desire to more readily reflect the ethnic diversity of our nation. In addition to consistently affirming the image of God in all human beings, we have most recently aimed to repent of any sins of omission as well as commission regarding the Civil Rights Movement, while at the same time guarding against more contemporary views of race which seem likely to move us backward, as Thaddeus Williams seeks to address in his book Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth.
We recognize that “redefining” marriage is not merely an issue of the 21st century concerning homosexual partnerships, but that marriage as a life-long covenant relationship between one male and one female has been a target of the Enemy since our fall into sin. The Bible certainly offers valid reasons for which a marriage may be ended, and God is gracious to forgive any past decisions we may make. But the purpose of every married couple should be not only to remain in that bond, but also to live life both “face to face” and “arm and arm,” as sinners, but with purpose toward each other and the world. There are a variety of threats to the sanctity of marriage, including adultery and abandonment, as well as abuse and lack of forgiveness, but undoubtedly the proliferation of pornography, and media content laced with such imagery, has undercut the core intimate bond.
We have also aimed for our churches to adopt policies of child protection to make our churches as safe as reasonably possible for young ones. Although not yet adopted by our General Assembly, we will consider this year a full study report on this topic, as well as other forms of abuse, in general.
Last, but certainly not least, as we see the shifting waves of our society, I’m grateful we are a denomination seeking to uphold the sanctity of human life comprehensively – organizing women’s care centers, promoting chastity outside of marriage as God’s good design, advocating adoption as the right pathway in the case of mother/parents who are unable or undesiring to keep and raise their child, and working toward the end of abortion. Simultaneously we extend to men and women who have pursued abortion, the same free grace and forgiveness that Jesus offers to all, whatever choices any may make against His good commands, and we foster groups for abortion healing.
Many of these same topics are also addressed by articles found on The Gospel Coalition website in more contemporary and specific formulation. The site is not aligned with any particular denomination but seeks to share Biblical perspectives on matters for the church and culture.
For all the reasons and a host more, I’m thankful for the PCA, and all others of like-minded conviction on these vital matters. I’m hopeful, as we move forward, we will continue to “lean not on our own understanding” and “trust in the Lord” every step of the way.