Exploring Evangelicalism: The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)

An Interview of Dr. Bryan Chapell by Ed Stetzer published in Stetzer’s “The Exchange,” a Christianity Today blog, as part of a series titled Exploring Evangelicalism

October 16, 2015

This is the fourth in a series of posts I have done over the last few months in which I interview leaders of a variety of evangelical movements. Within the umbrella of evangelicalism, people believe differently about the Holy Spirit, baptism, ordinances, soteriology, worship styles, and all sorts of other aspects of church life. . . . Today, we're highlighting The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) with an interview with Dr. Bryan Chapell. Bryan is the Senior Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church and the former Chancellor of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, the denominational seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America.

Ed Stetzer:  What are some of the distinctives that make you different than other Evangelical groups?

Bryan Chapell:  For those who just want a quick scan of Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) distinctions, here’s the skinny:

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 (more on this below).

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. The concepts of divine sovereignty and human responsibility are both needed for us to honor God rightly in the struggles and calling of our life. We affirm both concepts in a simple a commitment honestly to embrace what Scripture plainly says.

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 PCA continues to grow at a healthy rate, though growth has slowed in recent years as our nation secularizes.

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. Every task is an opportunity for worship, and for leading others to recognition of the Lord of all. As Abraham Kuyper taught, “There is not one square inch of this world over which Jesus does not stand and declare, ‘This is mine.’”

This “Reformed” view of the world necessarily means that we view our worship and doctrine as life-embracing, not life-escaping. Here’s a quick checklist [in no intended order other than what rises to my mind from recent discussions] for those wanting to know how our biblical concerns affect our stance on a variety of hot-buttons in today’s world – and in Evangelical culture:

We believe Scripture…

- teaches that only men should be elected to the ordained offices of the church;

- attributes equal dignity to men and women in family relations that require men to head their homes as Christ selflessly loved and sacrificed himself for good of the church; and, that require women to support their husbands in the way that the church fully expresses her gifts in submission to the mission of Christ.

- opposes homosexual practice and same-sex marriage, while extending respect and Christ’s love toward all, especially those who seek Him, regardless of their struggles;

- supports Pro-Life positions;

- demands care for the poor, outcast and oppressed throughout our nation and world;

- encourages adoption of those in need;

- requires all Christians to recognize, advocate and defend the inherent dignity of all made in God’s image regardless of age, race, background, nationality, or capability;

- commands creation care;

- teaches biblical discipline as a means of reclaiming the wayward, defending the honor of Christ, and maintaining the testimony of the church;

- requires faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone for salvation;

- gives the Great Commission as a charge for us to join our Savior in his mission for the world.

- allows divorce only for reasons of unfaithfulness and irremedial desertion (though defining these in our complex and conflicted culture has been difficult).

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.

Because our covenantal understanding of Scripture contextualizes our understanding of the role of the church, the nature of the sacraments, the character of the family, and the nature of history, we do not accept a Dispensational framework of biblical history or eschatology. But, with regard to other standard views of Christ’s return (Historic Premillennial, Post-millennial, Amillennial), we allow eschatological liberty.

We have no official ecumenical relationships with organizations or churches that reject biblical inerrancy.

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 nonTrinitarian 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.

The reason that PCA members are represented in the leadership of evangelical organizations around the world, in proportions far exceeding what would seem reasonable due to our actual denomination’s size, is that those who know our distinctives trust our resolute commitment to an informed and orthodox theology. The PCA has been trusted for its theological thoughtfulness and commitment since its founding.

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.

As a consequence of past associations, the PCA struggles with attracting racially diverse leadership even as our church strives for racial reconciliation. Our leaders are unquestionably committed to honor Scripture in this regard and to amend the racism of our history, even though we are still repenting for our past and are often clumsy in how we express present commitments. Roughly 15 percent of the PCA is Korean, but other racial and ethnic groups are tiny percentages of the whole. This is particularly disconcerting for rising generations of pastors and members of PCA, who are typically strong advocates for racial, ethnic and demographic diversity in our churches in order that the church body of Revelation 5 would be more apparent in us. Some of our nation’s most active, articulate and zealous advocates for diversity, justice and mercy are PCA leaders.

One of the results of the open embrace of the present PCA is that our churches have become a haven for bi-racial couples, who may not find as warm a welcome in either partner’s originating and mono-cultural worship home. Our churches also are diversifying quickly through our children, who are committed to providing ministry to all their friends and co-workers and, also, are adopting children without regard to race in order to provide dignity and life to all made in God’s image.

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).

God was still blessing families through his covenant, as the Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 3, “We are blessed along with faithful Abraham … and are children of promise.” But now God has changed the sign of the covenant to show what Christ accomplished for the people of faith. That’s why the Apostle Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, “the promise is for you and for your children…,” and New Testament baptisms after Christ’s resurrection were regularly of entire households.

Baptism itself does not save or guarantee salvation, but is the visible sign of God’s pledge (reflecting the “seal” language of the New Testament, as in John 6:27, Rom. 4:11, 2 Tim. 2:19) to save young or old, as their spiritual understanding matures enough to put their faith in him. God’s pledge to be faithful to his Word is a comfort to Presbyterian families in a time of cultural erosion and family degradation. His pledge also issues a charge to Presbyterian parents to be faithful in rearing our children so that they may know in the forming fiber of their being the nature of the Savior in whom they must believe for their salvation. So, as we dedicate our children to the Lord in baptism, we also pray for Him to keep us faithful in the family relations that will help our children know the Savior in whom they must trust.

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.

My ultimate affiliation with the PCA ultimately hinged on this church’s willingness to be ruled by Scripture. I had the dual blessings of being raised with the simple understanding that the Bible is true, and being so taught by men and women too intelligent not to address sophisticated challenges to that understanding. As a consequence, I was not sorely tempted in high school or college by arguments against the trustworthiness of Scripture. I had already seen that those who pick and choose their way through teachings of the Bible ultimately create a book reflective of their own thought rather than revelatory of God’s. They inevitably were manipulated by the human perspectives in vogue rather than led by God’s Word.

As a result of these experiences and observations, I recognized that the veracity of the Word was a combination of the credibility of its reasonable interpretation and the willingness of the hearer to submit to its authority. As a believer, I wanted to be guided by God’s Word, and I recognized in the Bible-believing Presbyterians of the PCA a similar desire with a willingness to address the hard questions about the Bible. These dual commitments won my respect, and ultimately my loyalty.

I was particularly impressed that these Presbyterians were careful to formulate their doctrines based on the teaching of Scripture (rather than on church tradition), and at the same time were willing to say that the only infallible rule of faith and practice was the Bible rather than their formulations. They were willing to be informed by their history, but ruled only by Scripture. That struck me as both intelligent and humble.

Finally, this church’s compulsion to tell others the message of salvation -- even if it required personal repentance and sacrifice on the church’s part – struck me as marvelously true to the character, care and mission of Christ.

I have now been a leader in this church long enough to know many, if not most, of her wrinkles and warts. She is too regional, too white, too contentious, too affluent, too intellectual, too lots of stuff, but – she truly desires to bless the Lord, honor his Word and reach the lost. That’s not a perfect church but this side of heaven, it’s not a bad place to hang your hat and serve the King.