Tuesday, May 7, 2013

This is the PCA

(I'm waving the white flag. This blog has, at least for now, morphed into one concerned mostly about the denomination I serve. For my tens of readers who look here for other things I understand the glazed look in your eyes.)

Al Baker gets high marks for entering the discussion about the state of the Presbyterian Church in America. His recent assessment of where the denomination is and what to do about it identifies genuine issues. The effort is game and solutions offered are sincere. I think it misses the mark with both its overstatement (“saving” the PCA?) and slight generational bias. Bill Smith’s take on it is, I think, fair. I confess to being increasingly pessimistic that the conversation we need about the PCA will take place. Mind you, there will be endless talk about it. But not much conversation. At least not the kind we need. And I’m increasingly convinced the reason is because we’re starting at the wrong point. A few months back I was at a gathering of denominational leadership. Not the secret kind. A regular meeting of Permanent Committee chairmen and Coordinators. My role as chair of the Permanent Committee on Reformed University Ministries got me in the room. The time was encouraging and thoughtful. There was much to be thankful for. Near the end of the meeting discussion turned to increasing the interest of “young pastors” in the work of General Assembly. It’s important to note that in my mid 50’s I was one of the youngest men in the room. Most of the talk centered on the need to retool the schedule of General Assembly to provide the kind of experience young pastors would prefer. Up to that point I had not said much. I started talking. My point? It is a mistake to think changes to the General Assembly schedule would have any bearing at all on how it is perceived. A better approach would be a brutally honest awareness of deeply entrenched patterns of denominational habits that were established during our formative years. I think I came off (now here’s a shock) a bit, well, forward. But even counting that it was clear the people I was addressing had little interest in what I was talking about. Young pastors? I’m on record as being, on balance, a fan. But as much as I like them evidence indicates they have little avidity in taking a serious look at the context of the PCA’s formation and how that has made us, in so many ways, what we are. I can’t be too harsh on them. I doubt I would have any interest in it at their age either. So we have one generation where it’s hard to take a detached look at how the PCA came into existence. And one that for a lot of reasons can’t be bothered. And that is a pity. Historian Shelby Foote insisted that a clear understanding of the Civil War was the basis for understanding the United States. "The Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we have become, good and bad things." Invoking the Civil War in any talk about the PCA is, in so many ways, leading with the chin, but Foote's point is a larger one. Understanding ourselves is tricky when events that really do define us are unexamined or misunderstood. With the PCA it is especially difficult due to our (really) short institutional history. A certain clarity is gained with the passing of time. The emotional complexity of struggles still in living memory of so many tend to muddle the process of self-awareness. I don’t think it’s even possible at this point to construct a reliable historical narrative of the PCA that’s not enmeshed with the soft-focus of hagiography or the reductionism of shilling for a current ecclesial agenda (“We stand for what our founding fathers stood for!”). This doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It’s just harder and we have to go about it differently. 

I think there is a good place to start. I'm not sure how many will care or take the effort needed. But here goes. In 1977 Roland Barnes compiled a series of articles as part of a denominational history class at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Roland is Senior (and organizing) Pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Statesboro, Georgia where he has served for 32 years. They were taken from the Presbyterian Journal (more about the Journal later). Two were added later. One each from the Presbyterian Guardian and The Banner of Truth. Several years ago he made copies and gave one to me while I was serving as RUF Campus Minister just down the road at Savannah College of Art & Design. When I read them I knew it was a unique snapshot of the Presbyterian Church in America and its beginnings. And, given more than a cursory look, a vital clue to so much of what we are now, and what we struggle with. Events that “defined us as what we are and..opened us to being what we became, good and bad things."

Roland has kindly given me permission to reproduce and share them. There are two links below this post. One is an online flipbook of this collection. The other to download a pdf copy. Before you click on them, please consider the following.

The articles date from February 17, 1971 to January 20, 1978 and record events from about three years before the PCA was established up to the fifth General Assembly. The Presbyterian Journal was founded in 1942 as the Southern Presbyterian Journal to be an independent voice "to challenge the assumptions and activities of the liberals and to return the [Southern Presbyterian] denomination to its biblical moorings.” It ceased publication in 1987. By 1971 the Journal was one of the principle voices calling for a “Continuing Presbyterian Church” out of the Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS). There were others but none matched the Journal for its reach and influence.

So this is not a dispassionate account of events. It is not an historical narrative. To those far removed from these events it may seem demoded, strange and perhaps a little embarrassing. To some who lived through it, this may seem like replaying the best years of their lives. And that is our problem. And why it will take some work to see how these documents reveal so much about us. Good and bad.

Over the next several weeks I’ll be posting some thoughts about how these events and even the way they’re described are essential in understanding where we are as a church.

If you look at these pages and begin to smirk, wipe it off your face. If you look at these and just see the glory days, you're not seeing it honestly enough. Try again. If we can manage to arrive at some shared agreement of how God worked through men, to paraphrase John Newton, who were men of great faith to a great Savior who where themselves great sinners...maybe we can have the conversation we need.



PDF Download (100 mb)


  1. Interesting to see how various groups of Presbyterians relate their history: http://www.layman.org/the_pcusa_2012_how_we_got_here_-6/

  2. Tom - I guess Im thick but I dont quite get the thrust of your argument?

    1. At this point not really an argument. Just trying to make the case that we have little awareness of what shaped us. The current doomsday talk in the PCA is inflated by one side lacking empathy, patience and understanding. Another group is largely unable to see the deep baggage they brought in with them. I'll be making some arguments in the coming weeks.

  3. Can I just mention that you're better off than the ARP?

  4. Dear Tom:

    I hope that it's all right for me to mention my book, The History of the Presbyterian Church in America: The Silver Anniversary Edition. It's available via CE/P Bookstore, or directly from me (with autograph, if requested).

    Frank J. Smith, Ph.D., D.D.
    First ministerial candidate of the PCA
    President, Young American Leaders Association Missionary Training School, Los Angeles, California
    Instructor of Biblical Studies, Belhaven University--Atlanta, Atlanta, Georgia
    Pastor, Northminster Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA), Suwanee, Georgia

  5. I'd add to Frank's suggestion two books:

    (1) To God All Praise and Glory: The Presbyterian Church in America 1973-1998, by Paul G. Settle. A short but perceptive read, all the way through the old Vision Forum and Identity Statement controversies.

    (2) How is the Gold Become Dim: The Decline of the Presbyterian Church US As Reflected in Its Assembly Actions, by Morton H. Smith. The study commissioned by the Steering Committee of the Continuing Church movement from which the PCA was formed. The perceptive reader will see that everything old is new again, and whither these mistakes can lead.

    Mark Rooze

  6. Tom, this is a wholesome contribution for your peers, thank you.

    I was given a hard copy of this collection a few years back. Reading it a couple of times (yeah, geek me) changed some of my expectations about "being PCA".

    Hard copy is more congenial to most folks than newsprint-xeroxed-scanned-pixilated. They are well worth the read, even if that means printing the whole thing.

    Ben Inman

  7. Tom,
    I was there from the beginning, at the founding Presbytery meeting in Boca Raton in 73, 18 years in two PCA Presbyteries, and a western church planter/revitalizer....which did me in. I thank God for the PCA, still observe and read of her life, but am equally thankful to no longer be part of it, and to find life outside of denominational boundaries. Thanks for the thoughtful update.

    Pastor Don Hendricks