Exploring Evangelicalism: The Presbyterian Church in America
Ed Stetzer: What are some of the distinctives that make you different than other Evangelical groups?
Bryan Chapell: The PCA affirms the inerrancy of Scripture and places a high value on biblical preaching and worship. This is because we believe the Bible is our only infallible rule of faith and practice. By the design of the Holy Spirit, all that is necessary for a life of godliness are within its pages. The Bible was never intended to address every subject or science that we may confront in our world, but it does provide the standards for truth and life that we require to honor God in every situation.
While holding its Confessional standards secondary to the authority of Scripture, the PCA seeks to maintain its peace and purity by requiring ordained pastors and officers to subscribe to the theological doctrines detailed in the Westminster Standards (i.e., the Westminster Confession of Faith with its Larger and Shorter Catechisms).
Those standards also indicate that we believe churches should be in accountability relationships with one another, just as individual church members are. So we have regional presbyteries (gatherings of pastors and elders that seek to do ministry and mission together). Local churches are governed by elders and pastors elected by the local congregation. We practice the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, as the Scriptures instruct. We believe the Scriptures teach that baptism is for adult believers and their children. We do not practice infant baptism out of tradition and sentiment, but out of the understanding that God pledges his faithfulness in covenant relationships that are consistently taught in the Bible.
Our Reformation heritage is reflected in a “Reformed/Calvinistic” system of doctrine. The first thing most think of in this category is an emphasis on the sovereignty of God in salvation. We believe that a necessary implication of the Bible’s teaching about our all-knowing and all-powerful God is that he must elect and predestine those who will be saved. The Bible uses these terms and we accept them. We also affirm that God accomplishes our salvation without “doing violence” to our will.
Tomes have been written on how human responsibility and divine sovereignty co-exist, but our best theologians always maintain that there is mystery in God’s dealings with us. His ways are beyond our fathoming. He tells of his Sovereignty to assure us that he will do what is best for us, and he tells of our responsibility to ensure that we will seek him and encourage others to do the same.
Those who say that emphasizing of God’s sovereignty will destroy the church’s commitment to mission have little evidence in the PCA practice. Our missional commitments are reflected in our having the largest Presbyterian mission force in history, and also a very active and strong church planting movement.
The subject of sovereignty is not exhausted in discussions about salvation processes. Our Reformed commitments teach the sovereignty of God over “the whole of life.” The Lord of all creation is not confined by the walls of the church. That means that there is no sphere of life, no occupation, no recreation, no craft or art that is beyond the bounds of his concern or without obligation for his glory. We believe that the church does not do its work on Sunday, if it is not preparing its people for Monday – and every other day. All occupations and recreations need to be considered as opportunities for glorifying God. There are no secondary callings.
The PCA has a commitment to the “regulative principle” of Christian worship (i.e., only what God instructs in his Word should be practiced in corporate worship). But, because this principle results in rather general requirements about practices related to the Word, sacraments and prayer, worship styles vary greatly between local churches.
That’s the skinny. If you want a “fatter” version of Presbyterian distinctions, see my autobiographical description in “Why I am an Evangelical and a Presbyterian,” in Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity, eds. Anthony Chute, Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013).
ES: How does your history affect your practice?
BC: The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is the product of the 1982 coming together of this nation’s two largest Presbyterian denominations that were committed to the inerrancy of Scripture and the doctrinal standards of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Prior to the 1980’s, “mainline” Presbyterians in the United States were divided regionally for reasons dating back to the Civil War era. The Northern Presbyterians came to be known as the United Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Southern Presbyterians were known as the Presbyterian Church (US). When liberal and Neo-orthodox views of Scripture affected both mainline Presbyterian groups, theological conservatives withdrew in a variety of movements at a variety of times.
The largest of the Northern inerrantist groups was the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES), a product of separatist movements dating back to the 1920’s. The largest of the Southern inerrantist groups was the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), a product of separatist movements dating to the 1960’s that resulted in the 1973 birthing of the PCA.
These two inerrantist groups of Northern and Southern origins came together in a “joining and receiving” process in 1982 to form the enlarged Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). The two mainline groups also merged in 1983 to form the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA). The closeness of the names (PCA and PCUSA) perpetually creates confusion for those not familiar with the Presbyterian alphabet. The PCA is the inerrantist denomination that, according to its motto, seeks to remain “true to the Scriptures, the Reformed faith, and the Great Commission.” In rounded figures, the PCA has about 2000 churches, 400-thousand members, 4000 pastors, 600 full-time missionaries, and is second largest Presbyterian group in North America, behind the PCUSA – which is officially about four times larger in membership.
ES: What do many Evangelicals often misunderstand about your movement?
BC: The most common misunderstanding of the PCA is that “Presbyterian” automatically identifies a commitment to a “liberal” perspective – in both biblical and political terms. It is not unusual for pastors in our own churches to receive calls from members during the summertime, questioning how “our church” can be voting at its annual General Assembly to “approve homosexual marriage,” “divest from Israel,” “require women’s ordination,” “approve a non-Trinitarian understanding of God” and other such matters associated with mainline church activities.
As a consequence, most PCA pastors know to refer to an old, Goodrich Tire commercial that advises, “Look up in the sky. See that blimp. We are the other guys!” When concerned Evangelicals in and outside our churches identify us with the latest theological or sociological blimp blowing beyond historical orthodoxy, we are prepared to say, “We are the other guys” and that the biblical positions of historic Presbyterianism are our rock-solid, continuing commitments.
If such thoughtfulness and commitment are challenged in Evangelical circles, it is because of the second most common misunderstanding of the PCA – namely, that its dominant Southern roots automatically signal “racist” attitudes. This is harder for us to deal with because many churches from the PCA’s Southern roots clearly intended for our founding -- at least in part -- to be a means to maintain segregationist practices. We have publicly repented of this history at our national assemblies, and various movements for additional statements and practices of repentance continue.
A final misunderstanding that is common among Evangelicals who are likely to read this article relates to our baptism practices. We baptize infants. That does not mean that we reject “believers’” baptism or that we believe infants’ baptisms guarantees their salvation. We believe that all who profess faith in Jesus Christ should be baptized. So we certainly think that adults who come to faith should be baptized as an expression of their loyalty to the Savior.
We baptize the children of believers because we see Scripture teaching that baptism also was given by Christ to the church to express his loyalty to us. We do not baptize the children of believers merely out of sentiment or tradition. Throughout Biblical history, God promised to bless families through the covenant relationship he has with his people. God said to Abraham, “I will be a God to you and to your children.”
As a visible pledge of his commitment, God gave to Abraham a covenant sign to be administered to him and his children. The sign did not save (not all circumcised Jews were God’s elect), but indicated God’s promise to apply the benefits of his covenant to all who would put their faith in him. In the Old Testament, the covenant sign of circumcision indicated that God’s people were under a covenant that purified through the shedding of blood. But, after the blood of Christ was shed once for all, the covenant sign of circumcision was changed to water baptism to show how Christ’s shed blood washes away the sin of those who put their faith in Him (Col. 2:11-12).
ES: Why should Christians what to be like you?
BC: I presume this question means, “Why should other Christians want to be like me, regarding making the PCA my church home.” Beyond that I have no idea why anyone would want to be as short and balding as I. As to why I am PCA, I should start by saying that above any Presbyterian commitments are my evangelical convictions. I need to know that my church’s people believe Jesus is their Savior from sin and are living for Him before I will consider being a part of that church (Rom. 3:25-26;10:9).
It’s simple for me: the church is the body of Christ (Col. 1:24). If a group identifying itself as the church does not evidence his presence through humble dependence upon his means of grace (Word, sacraments and prayer) and faithful obedience to his commands, then Jesus isn’t really honored there and that gathering of people is not really a church. But, where Christ is loved and lived, then there really is a church, even if it may be different in expression from my tradition or preference (Eph. 4:4-6, 12, 16). No single church, or denomination, is the full expression of Christ’s body on earth (Eph. 1:22-23), but knowing that these Bible-believing Presbyterians evidenced Christ’s reality among them encouraged my initial associations.
This interview was abbreviated for this blog post. Click here to read Bryan's full responses to the questions.