As an EPC pastor who just attended the 2011 PCA General Assembly in Virginia Beach, I’d like to speak in praise of the PCA.
I came into the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) out of a Baptistic, independent church background. I love the EPC. It has been a blessing to me and my family. Both on the presbytery level (with many friendships) and the national General Assembly level, the EPC has added strength to the local church I pastored and enabled us to be faithful to the Great Commission. It has modeled both grace and truth in its corporate witness. It is a great group to be part of.
However, in my new role as seminary president, I am one of the few individuals who gets to go to several denominations’ general assemblies, including the PCA and the EPC. I get to speak with its leaders, attend the main sessions, interact with pastors and sit through workshops.
With this unique vantage point, one thing that strikes me is how easily caricatures build up about each other that are sometimes not grounded in reality. We have our opinion of what we think the others are like, and often, these opinions are furthered by hearsay more than genuine contact. We then lump all the PCUSA churches together, or all the OPC churches together, or all the EPC churches together, or all the PCA churches together, and too often quickly write them off. Already, in the short time I’ve been in my new position at RTS, I’ve heard this done to everyone of these groups!
Now granted, there are real differences between Presbyterian groups, and sometimes these are serious differences. That is why the PCA (www.pcanet.org) left the “mainline” in 1973. The PCA was originally formed of southern churches, but now has a much broader base. Today the PCA is the largest conservative reformed denomination in the English speaking world.
The EPC (www.epc.org) was formed by a group of mainly northern churches that left the “mainline” in 1981. The EPC has also grown beyond its original locale. It too is planting churches. But we have also received a significant number of churches from both the PCA and the PCUSA.
Both the PCA and the EPC left the “mainline” Presbyterian body, the PCUSA, over serious doctrinal and social issues—the authority and inspiration of the Bible, the deity of Christ, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, evangelism, and issues like abortion, homosexuality, and radical politics. Both groups had a desire to get back to the basics of the Christian faith through Scripture and our Reformed heritage.
Back to my words of appreciation for the PCA. There are several things that really impress me. First, I am impressed by their commitment to the truthfulness of the Bible. Take this recent General Assembly as an example. They had a conference that wove in and out of the whole GA on the nature, use and truthfulness of Scripture with a focus on: God and human language, how we understand inerrancy, challenges to the traditional canon, etc.. I am thankful that the PCA contends for the faith on this issue and does not just assume everything is okay. Because it is not. In this decade, all the major doctrines we hold are being challenged. And unless we help our people understand these challenges and expose them to our best minds, we will lose ground and our churches will drift. So I was impressed by the intellectual and theological seriousness of the PCA given the current cultural climate we live in.
Second, I am impressed with the way the PCA and its leaders have highlighted the centrality of the gospel. Not only is the gospel the big story that ties the entire Bible together, but its message of grace through Christ is central to the beginning, the middle and the end of the Christian life. It must shape us in everything we do. The PCA’s emphasis on the prominence of the gospel has reverberated way beyond PCA churches. Other groups have picked up on this gospel driven focus as well (one thinks of the Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel, etc..). It has affected countless churches in positive ways. The EPC has benefited from this too.
Third, the PCA is not apologetic for being confessional. They have reminded us of the great treasures we have in the Reformed confessions, but especially the Westminster Confession and its catechisms. While sometimes, some PCA leaders confuse us by seeming to place every doctrine on the level of “essentials,” and seemingly lose a sense of proportion, they have nevertheless reminded us how important our Reformed confessions are in an age when Evangelical Christianity is drifting. The more Evangelicalism moves from its earlier Protestant heritage, the more it is letting the surrounding culture define church life. And I, like others in the PCA, believe that Evangelicalism needs the influence of gospel driven, Bible grounded, Reformed churches in order to preserve its identity.
Fourth, the PCA has shown a strong commitment to outreach. Given what I have said above, this might surprise some of my EPC friends. The PCA has been aggressive in church planting through its MNA (Mission to North America). Its campus outreach through Reformed University Fellowship, (RUF—one of its best kept secrets), has brought a lot of solid Christian depth to university students. I can speak to this personally, as my own son was discipled and blessed by an RUF chapter on his campus.
Of course, I know the PCA has its diverse elements, just like we do. Last year, Tim Keller did an entire workshop on three different tendencies within the PCA—the “doctrinalist, pietist, and cuturalist” branches. However, he said that this diversity creates both tension and the opportunity to balance each other out.
I also know that the PCA has its weakness and depravity, just like the EPC and every other denominational franchise. This should not surprise any of us. Hey….we are Calvinists! We’re up front about desperately needing a savior!
There are immense challenges facing each of our denominations at this time. American culture is becoming more pluralistic, more post-Christian, and in some cases anti-Christian. What does it mean to be a church and a faithful witness and presence in this new setting? We have to figure this out. Also, as we watch the growth of the global church, we will have to figure out how to meaningfully partner with others Christians all over the world. Each of us face the challenge of an aggressive secularism and an aggressive Islam. Yet these immense challenges, are also fantastic opportunities to represent Christ in our time. To do this well, I suspect that in the coming days we will need each other more than ever.