At a time when many Protestant denominations are concentrated in specific regions, the Presbyterian Church in America is one of the few truly national denominations.
We have roots in an old Southern Presbyterian denomination, and thus have a large presence in Trump country and throughout the Bible Belt. But in the 1980s, we merged with a smaller denomination of northern and Great Lakes churches called the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod. More recently, Tim Keller has inspired young church planters to move to urban hubs like New York, D.C., Boston, and Toronto. Similarly, the rise of the PCA’s campus ministry, Reformed University Fellowship, has produced a new generation of PCA ministers whose instincts and sympathies broadly align with those of the urban church planters. This geographical and cultural diversity creates a divide within the denomination. The old PCA of the southeast skews more conservative and even Trumpist. The PCA of the major cities and RUF skews more progressive (relative to the standards of a conservative denomination), and Never Trump or even pro-life Democrat.
Ideally, this diversity is a source of strength. But it also creates significant cultural divides—as seen last week at our 47th General Assembly in Dallas, Texas. The conservatives of the denomination wanted the PCA to endorse the Nashville Statement, a 2017 document published by the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, as “biblically faithful.” For the conservatives, an endorsement of the statement was a way to signal support for the evangelicals who authored and signed the statement (predominantly Southern Baptists). It was also thought to signal the PCA’s refusal to capitulate to the sexual revolution.
For the progressives, endorsing the statement was a meaningless gesture that would alienate many. Progressives particularly objected to Article 7 of the Nashville Statement, which condemned “a homosexual self-conception” without defining what exactly this meant. The Statement clearly critiqued the writings of Wesley Hill, Ron Belgau, Eve Tushnet, and other members of the Spiritual Friendship blog, and in an unfortunately sloppy and unhelpful way. In a 60/40 vote the PCA ended up endorsing the Statement, much to the frustration of some of the more progressive members of the communion.
This move is largely about conservative anxiety that the denomination is compromising with the spirit of the sexual revolution—and these concerns are not wholly unfounded. The PCA was born out of a break from the old southern mainline church over a number of issues, some of which concerned theological liberalism (though the racism of the old Southern Presbyterians was also a factor). The specter of Fred Harrell also colors these debates. Harrell is a former Keller protege who planted a church in San Francisco modeled after Redeemer Presbyterian. Eventually, Harrell left the PCA after he came to believe in ordaining women as pastors. More recently, his church has rejected traditional Christian teachings regarding sex ethics, particularly regarding homosexuality. This history informs the conservative fear about creeping progressivism.
Even so, endorsing the Nashville Statement was an odd move. The Statement itself is a jumble. It purports to be a broad account of Christian teachings on sexuality, but has nothing to say about divorce, contraception, or biomedical tech, and says very little about procreation as an essential good in Christian marriage. This makes the statement lopsided in its teachings about sexuality in ways that are evangelistically disastrous where the Keller-and-RUF wing of the PCA tends to be most active.
There are also procedural questions. The PCA has not endorsed similar statements in the past. We did not endorse the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy in the late ’70s, nor the older Danvers Statement in the late ’80s. There is little recorded evidence the assembly even acknowledged either statement, despite the denomination’s broad agreement with both. This is because it has generally been assumed that the denomination’s own confessional standards, the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Shorter and Longer Catechisms, render such documents redundant. Indeed, the endorsement of the Nashville Statement does not change anything within the PCA. Though the assembly endorsed the Nashville Statement as being “biblically faithful,” this does not make the statement constitutionally binding for any ordained officers in the PCA.
In the debate over this endorsement, the two sides of the denomination seemed to be talking past each other. Memorial Presbyterian Church minister Greg Johnson, who recently came out as a celibate gay Christian, highlighted how the Nashville Statement excludes celibate gay Christians and can open up old wounds for Christians like himself. Similarly, Belmont University RUF pastor Kevin Twit criticized the Nashville Statement because it did not apologize for the church’s past failures in its treatment of gays and lesbians. These criticisms revealed an odd privileging of “pastoral” concerns (issues of relationships, evangelism, and in-person counseling) over the “theological” concerns that animated the denomination’s right wing. These two kinds of concerns should not be separated, of course, but unfortunately in the PCA they often are. Kevin DeYoung made this point on the floor, noting that concerns about pastoral care are not at odds with concerns about theological clarity.
The left wing of the denomination needs to explicate the principles that stand behind their pastoral instincts on these matters. The right, meanwhile, needs to recognize that what they confuse for progressive drift is usually the more banal work of finding ways to present the faith to people with minimal knowledge of Christianity, or with some deep hostility to orthodoxy. (Questions regarding the exact nature of concupiscence further complicate the debate.)
Contrary to some hyperbolic claims, there is no serious movement in the PCA to reject historic teachings about sexuality. Those who dissented on Nashville did not do so because they are progressive on sexual ethics, but because of the procedural and pastoral issues cited above—as well as the lopsidedness of the statement itself. The work of contextualization is difficult, and sometimes the PCA’s left wing seems hesitant to speak plainly about historic Christian teachings. One hopes that the study committee commissioned by the assembly will help on this point.
The PCA has a vital role to play in American evangelicalism. We have planted churches in major urban hubs with more consistent success than most other denominations, but have also maintained a strong presence in middle America and the Bible Belt. This diversity doesn’t exist in most other Protestant denominations in the United States. We should hope that this strength of our communion does not undermine our fellowship through the evils of eroded trust and suspicion.
Jake Meador’s writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, Books & Culture, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.