That Is Not My Kind of Presbyterian

Dear Church Family,

As a chaplain in the army, among our other duties, we took turns giving “in-briefings” to soldiers, newly arrived on post. We were to give a brief overview of the services provided by chaplains on our particular post. After giving one such briefing, a sergeant approached me afterward and said, “I heard you say that you were a Presbyterian minister. I’m Presbyterian, as well. In fact, my wife is an elder in the Presbyterian church.” Thus ensued a conversation in which I had to explain the differences between my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and his denomination, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA).

This is just one example of the many conversations I have had with people where I have had to explain the differences between these two denominations. I find that I often feel like the Lutheran minister from this satirical video as he tries to explain the difference between the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA): “That is not my kind of Presbyterian.” Watch the video and you’ll see what I mean.

The differences between the PCA and the PCUSA continue to be a point of necessary clarification. The New York Times reported last week that the PCUSA gave final approval to amending its constitution to include same-sex marriage in its definition of marriage. According to this change, the PCUSA now defines marriage not as being between a man and woman, but between “two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” I suppose we should be pleased that this statement gives a nod to ‘tradition;’ however, it’s only a nod. And apparently, what the Bible teaches doesn’t come into play either.

The Difference Between the PCA and the PCUSA

Unfortunately, many people simply lump all Presbyterians together in their faith and practice, but this is most certainly not the case. So, if you find yourself trying to explain the differences, let me point you to a good resource that will be of some help. Two years ago, Andrew Webb (a minister in the PCA) wrote a brief summary of some of the differences between the PCA and the PCUSA: “13 Differences Between the PCA and the PCUSA.”

Some of the differences that Webb points to (e.g., the ordination of women, pro-abortion stance, and approval of same-sex marriage) are readily apparent and easy to see. And, these easily seen differences are often the reasons that members of PCUSA congregations leave the denomination. But here’s the thing. These readily apparent differences are simply the effects of some of the more substantive differences from which they stem. As David French wrote concerning the recent news that the PCUSA has redefined marriage, “I’m trying not to stifle a yawn. It’s all so predictable and familiar.”

That is to say, it is no surprise that the PCUSA has continued to change and overturn the teaching of Scripture and the traditional (!) positions of the Christian faith. I say that it is no surprise because of two other, more substantive differences that Webb points out in his list of “13 differences” – Biblical Inerrancy & Infallibility and Confessionalism.

(1) Biblical Inerrancy & Infallibility

Long before the PCUSA adopted the ordination of women, promoted abortion, and allowed for same-sex marriage, it had abandoned the Scriptures as the inerrant and infallible Word of God. In 1923, J. Gresham Machen, a minister in the PCUSA who went on to found the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, wrote Christianity and Liberalism in which he delineated the problems with liberalism as it was manifesting itself in his denomination. Machen dealt with several issues, but one of them was the view of Scripture: “The modern liberal rejects not only the doctrine of plenary inspiration, but even such respect for the Bible as would be proper over against any ordinarily trustworthy book.” (p 65) According to Machen, “Christianity is founded on the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.” (p 67)

Later in the 20th century, the liberalism that had affected the northern Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), began to affect the southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS), as well. The PCA has its roots in the southern Presbyterian Church, which eventually joined with the northern PCUSA in 1983; however, prior to this joining the PCA broke away from the southern denomination for many of the same reasons that Machen dealt with earlier in the northern Presbyterian church. Seeing the movement toward liberalism and the imminent joining with the PCUSA, the PCA “separated from the Presbyterian Church in the United States (Southern) in opposition to the long-developing theological liberalism which denied the deity of Jesus Christ and the inerrancy and authority of Scripture.”

So, one of the reasons for the theological drift toward liberalism on the part of the PCUSA is a minimizing, or outright denial, of the inerrancy and infallibility of the Scriptures. Let us not think, however, that the doctrine of Scripture is not under attack today. The doctrine of the infallibility and inerrancy of the Scriptures is not just a problem in the mainline denominations, but affects evangelical churches, as well. Consider the recent remarks of Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Community Church, one of the largest ‘evangelical’ churches in America: “The foundation of our faith is not the Scripture; the foundation of our faith is not the infallibility of the Bible. The foundation of our faith is something that happened in history.”

Trying to distinguish between history and the Bible in an attempt to make God’s Word more palatable to the modern age is the beginning of the end for Christian faith and practice. History has shown – and the Bible itself attests – that it will always lead to liberalism and apostasy. As Machen wrote, “‘Christ died’ – that is history; ‘Christ died for our sins’ – that is doctrine. Without these two elements, joined in absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity.” (p 23) Doctrine is based in history, and both are revealed in the Scriptures.

(2) Confessionalism

As Webb points out in his “13 differences,” another difference between the PCA and the PCUSA is adherence to a confession of faith. The PCA holds its officers (ministers, elders, and deacons) accountable by enforcing adherence to the Westminster Standards as a summary of the doctrines taught in Scripture. The PCUSA, on the other hand, has a “Book of Confessions” which are self-contradictory, and are viewed as general guidelines or suggestions. One view is “confessional” (PCA) and the other view “non-confessional” (PCUSA). [I’ve previously summarized the main points of Carl Trueman’s book The Creedal Imperative in which he argues that creeds and confessions are necessary, useful and helpful in the church, and a biblical imperative; so, I won’t rehash the importance of confessionalism. But, again, I recommend the book!]

Too often, we tend to speak of views and churches as being either conservative or liberal. Perhaps these categories were helpful in the past, but as R. Scott Clark points out, “the distinction between ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ is inadequate.” In the same article, Clark describes how the move from confessional churches to liberal churches has an intermediate step: non-confessional, broad evangelicalism. “The truth is that the PCUSA, the CRC, and before them, the RCA went broadly evangelical before they went liberal. Again, to conserve that process is not enough. In God’s ordinary providence, rust will do what rust will do.”

This is the problem with the ‘fix’ that many churches in the PCUSA are attempting by leaving the PCUSA to go to perhaps a more conservative, but still non-confessional denomination such as the Evangelical Covenant Order (ECO). The move is simply a stopgap that may hold the conservative line on not allowing for same-sex marriage (for now), but without a strong confessional standard to which churches and ministers are held accountable, it simply resets the clock on the eventual move toward liberalism and apostasy.

Conclusion

We ought to weep over the PCUSA’s recent acceptance of same-sex marriage. At the same time, we need to recognize that this most recent approval of unrighteous behavior by condoning and allowing for same-sex marriage is simply a symptom of denying the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture and the move away from confessionalism.

There are many differences between the PCA and PCUSA. Some are more readily apparent (labelling sinful behavior as righteousness, Romans 1:32). Yet, beneath the surface lies more foundational differences with respect to authority (the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible and confessionalism). When someone asks you about the differences between the PCA and the PCUSA, understanding these foundational and consequential differences will help you to give a substantive reason for saying, “That is not my kind of Presbyterian.”

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch