Is the PCA Traditional or Progressive?

Pastor Bob O'Bannon

There has been much talk lately in our denomination (PCA — Presbyterian Church in America) about its current state of health as a result of an article written by former Covenant Seminary President Bryan Chapell titled, “The State of the PCA.” The article is actually a “slightly edited” version of an address that Chapell is giving at the PCA’s General Assembly in Chattanooga this week.

In the article, Chapell divides the PCA into three broad categories: traditionalists, progressives and neutrals. The traditionalists are very concerned about faithfulness to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the “cultural erosion” that is apparent in our nation; the progressives are concerned that the PCA is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the point that we are“culturally impotent;” the neutrals are in the middle, frustrated by the feuding that goes on between the traditionalists and progressives. Chapell notes that the differences are acute enough that his own children will probably struggle to stay in the PCA in the future if things don’t change.

Perhaps it makes me a “neutral,” but I see difficulties with both the traditionalists and the progressives. There are traditionalists who are responsible for creating what Chapell calls a “litigious culture” in our denomination — a spirit whereby some PCA leaders are “focused on what others in our ranks are doing or not doing” and more than willing to start a long squabble over the issue. This idea is backed up by a 2012 By Faith survey that found that 70 percent of PCA leaders and members think there is too much “debating and backbiting” in the denomination.

An example of this might be the debate that erupted in 2013 over the issue of “intinction,” a practice where the bread is dipped into the cup during the Lord’s Supper. The sacraments are important, so this is not a trivial issue, but, as Chapell says, it is dwarfed by larger issues facing the church today, such as gender issues and, in particular, pluralism. According to Chapell, “nothing comes close to that issue (pluralism) in being a challenge to our church’s future.”

For me personally, if I have an afternoon free to read up on some important issue, I will choose something related to pluralism over something related to intinction any day. Does that make me a progressive? I don’t know. Before coming to a conclusion on that question, I would just ask that you read my recent blogs on Presbyterianism and confessionalism.

The difficulty I find with the progressives is their assumption that the church must constantly be making itself presentable to the world, as if animosity from an unbelieving culture is a sign that we’re doing something wrong. Sometimes the progressive wing of the church reminds me of that insecure kid in 1980s high school who wears a mullet in a desperate attempt to look cool, but he never quite succeeds.

Richard Phillips is much more traditional than I am, but I agree with him when, in his response to Chapell’s article, he says, “We are not trying to win the culture, but rather to be used by God to save needy sinners from the grips of a hell-bound pagan society.” I just don’t think there’s any way to do that and receive applause from the world at the same time.

What I find quite encouraging about the PCA is that both traditionalists and progressives have, so far, been able to co-exist. And there is no reasons why that shouldn’t be able to continue if the commonly used inflammatory stereotypes can be eliminated: Traditionalist are not cold legalists who are stuck in the past,  and progressives are not a bunch of liberals in Presbyterian clothing. (Let me be clear that I am talking about the progressives who are ordained and in good standing within the PCA, not progressives outside of our denomination who might be considerably more liberal in their views.) At the same time, I am concerned about what will happen to the traditionalist if the progressives aren’t around to keep them in check, and I am concerned what will happen to the progressives if the traditionalists aren’t around to keep them in check.

So please, let’s not split up the PCA. We do not need yet another Presbyterian spin-off denomination. to explain to visitors and inquirers. In Chapell’s words, we instead need to avoid becoming “increasingly insensitive to how much we need one another to maintain a voice for Christ in an increasingly pluralistic culture.”