Will the PCA Go Woke? - The American Conservative (2022)

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Will the PCA Go Woke?

The PCA's good-faith efforts to address historic racism are falling into wokeness and critical race theory. But there is still a way forward.

Will the PCA Go Woke? - The American Conservative (1)

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Miles Smith

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Is the Presbyterian Church in America—the largest ostensibly conservative Reformed denomination in the United States—going woke? Erick Erickson is a member of a PCA church and worries about that trend, even if he still sees the PCA as largely conservative.

Churches like the PCA that identify with largely non-credal and non-confessional Evangelicalism in the United States have been rent by increasing political, ideological, and, yes, theological division in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. Prominent teaching elders like Tim Keller have taken to Twitter and social media to warn against Christians seeing one party as more Christian than another. Keller also rhetorically equated policies to reduce poverty with policies to end abortion. “The Bible,” Keller explained, “tells me that abortion is a sin and great evil, but it doesn’t tell me the best way to decrease or end abortion in this country, nor which policies are most effective.”

Keller pastored in New York City for years and largely adopted the rhetorical and socio-political commitments of mid-century socio-cultural liberalism. Keller’s liberalism—if it can even be called that—is the same as Dwight Eisenhower’s. Neither man could ever be called Marxist, or “woke.” Keller’s theology, however, is more conservative than that of mid-century liberal Protestants, so much that it cost him an award—but not a speaking gig—at Princeton Seminary.

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Race in particular is the paradigm with which the PCA, and most low-church Protestant groups, seem most likely to bend toward perceived wokeness. In 2016 the PCA passedOverture 43 by which the denomination condemned and repented of “corporate and historical sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era, and continuing racial sins of ourselves and our fathers such as the segregation of worshipers by race” as well as “the exclusion of persons from Church membership on the basis of race; the exclusion of churches, or elders, from membership in the Presbyteries on the basis of race.” The assembled elders lamented past ministers who taught “that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages inter-racial marriage” as well as condemned those who participated in and defended white supremacist organizations. The language and the resolution were relatively innocuous, and not particularly woke.

The PCA was not founded until 1973 and many of the ministers most involved in the denomination’s liberalizing factions have little or no history with the historical Presbyterian Church. Duke Kwon and Greg Thompson, two PCA pastors at work on a book arguing for Christians to embrace racial reparations, are not representative of the rank and file pastors in the denomination. Thompson in particular has argued that the United States is the world’s longest-lasting white supremacist social order. White supremacy, he argued, was not about “Klan hoods [but] systems + structures that make things easy for people like me.” Thompson’s rhetoric is increasingly that which is associated with critical theory.

Thompson’s rhetoric defending critical race theory and the sometimes violent protest that followed the death of George Floyd also resorts to the heavily contrived notion of a unitary “American church” that has perpetuated white supremacy, and uncharitably obliterates men and women of goodwill in white churches who worked against Jim Crow and other forms of racism. Grace DC, a network of Presbyterian churches in the DC area where Thompson and Kwon serve, also used a creed written, according to the citation, in Honduras in 1980 as a part of something called the “Mass of the Marginalized People.”For people who claim to be redressing historical sins, they are remarkably incurious about who was confecting quasi-Catholic liturgies in Honduras around that time. Thompson, however, is not particularly representative of the PCA and doesn’t even serve as a head pastor in a church.

* * *

Perhaps the best criticism of the PCA might be that the efforts especially of young ministers—often from Evangelical and Fundamentalist backgrounds—at racial reconciliation,instead of being increasingly “woke”have been rhetorically vague and socio-intellectually contrived, and have led to certain forms of social and intellectual naïveté regarding the consequences of adopting modern taxonomies of social change. Much of the push for racial reconciliation, and the subsequent perception of wokeness, is not purposefully or even willfully Marxist or sentimentalist, but instead is an earnest desire for Evangelicals to have their moment in the sun and join the rest of liberal-capitalist American society’s consensus on racial justice.

Seen as Fundamentalist hangovers and accused of everything from quietism to theocracy to libertarianism to chauvinism to racism and hypocrisy, progress on race has given Evangelicals in the PCA a chance to address what George Will called “sixties envy.” Even Tim Keller fell victim to this tendency. When he visited Princeton in 2016, The Washington Post reported that “Keller criticized his own family more than his hosts, repeatedly citing evangelicals’ flaws.”

While a desire to separate from the excesses of Fundamentalism and to identify with the positive legacy of the Civil Rights movement and broader liberal-capitalist society is understandable and perhaps even noble, it can also seem unnatural for Evangelical Christians in 2020 to constantly harp on the failures of people with whom they have no connection who lived a half-century earlier. Ministers have rightly argued that the PCA is a continuation of the southern Presbyterian Church—the Presbyterian Church in the United States—and there is a case to be made that the PCA inherited the sins of the churches and even members who perpetrated racist actions.

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In his history of the PCA, For a Continuing Church,PCA pastor and historian Sean Michael Lucas has written on the need for the PCA to recognize its association with the PCUS and, by inference, its racism and failures in the Civil Rights Era. But even this seems ecclesiastically unusual and it should be treated cautiously. The PCA had barely forty thousand people at its founding. Fueled by the explosive growth of sunbelt cities, Rust Belt emigration, and the prosperity of the 1990s, the PCA now numbers 375,000 members. Many of the PCA’s ministers in 2016 were not Presbyterian, southern, or even alive in 1973.

While there are undoubtedly liberalizing and “woke” influences in some urban churches, many of the pastors who addressed race have not been woke, or even broadly liberal-conservatives of the midcentury stripe. J. Ligon Duncan III, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi, is thoroughly conservative on issues of theology and sexuality but has noted that race was a legitimate blind spot for even the best-intentioned of Presbyterians. Born and raised in South Carolina during the Civil Rights Era, Duncan understood that his generation could be both biblically faithful in many ways and yet perfectly capable of failing to see the deep racial problems in the United States.

When he became a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, he was not thinking about addressing race explicitly:“I covered abortion. I covered birth control. I covered gender, sexuality, marriage issues. It did not occur to me to cover racism.” Duncan explained that many Presbyterians did not set out “to live segregated lives. We’re not living segregated lives out of a conviction that we believe in white supremacy or that we’re against race-mixing. It just happened because of the way we live.” Through friendships with black pastors, Duncan learned to ask questions about race and ultimately to learn more about the experience of African Americans.

These are not the words of a raving Marxist, but of a well-intentioned conservative. Duncan’s goodwill, however, might have led to naïveté regarding the platforming of people who disagree with his own dispositions. He wrote the foreword to Woke Church, a book which calls for social change through means fundamentally at odds with historic Christian—both Protestant and Roman Catholic—understandings of the relationship of the church and the civil order.The PCA’s weakness has not been going “woke” but a socio-intellectual naivete—that typifies much of Evangelicalism—regarding the eventual ends of rhetorical concessions regarding social change.

Duncan heads Reformed Theological Seminary, a major training ground for PCA ministers. The scholars who head the largest campuses—Jackson, MS, Charlotte, NC, and Orlando, FL—all adhere to conservative Reformed theology. PCA minister Michael J. Kruger, president of the seminary’s Charlotte campus wrote a book explicitly warning about the dangers of Progressive Christianity. While RTS has made a priority of addressing the past racism in Presbyterian Churches, it, and the PCA at large, remain relatively conservative. Their stated reasons for addressing race remain rooted in Christian charity, rather than societal revolution. Ligon Duncan argued that by engaging black ministers, “You can see things you didn’t see before. You’re finally in a situation where you can start learning.” If the PCA learns the lessons of race under the guidance of men like Duncan, it will remain conservative and not meaningfully “woke.”

Miles Smith is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Hillsdale College. His main research interests are nineteenth century intellectual and religious history in the United States and in the Atlantic World. You can follow him on Twitter at @IVMiles.

FAQs

What is the most conservative Presbyterian denomination? ›

The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is the second-largest Presbyterian church body, behind the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the largest conservative Calvinist denomination in the United States. The PCA is Reformed in theology and presbyterian in government.

Is PCA liberal? ›

By and large, the PCA is a socially conservative denomination. Disagreements over the extent to which the denomination should try to influence political and social life abound. Some leaders stress a commitment to the supremacy of the spiritual mission of the church.

When did the PCA and Pcusa split? ›

In 1861, Presbyterians in the Southern United States split from the denomination because of disputes over slavery, politics, and theology precipitated by the American Civil War. They established the Presbyterian Church in the United States, often simply referred to as the "Southern Presbyterian Church".

Is the Presbyterian Church of America conservative? ›

Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), theologically conservative U.S. evangelical Presbyterian denomination founded in 1973.

What are the 2 Presbyterian denominations? ›

The Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) are the two largest Presbyterian denominations in the United States.

How do you leave the Presbyterian Church? ›

  1. Step One: Initial Contact and Dialogue. The first step is to inform the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery that the congregation is in such disagreement with the church that is considering leaving the PC (USA). ...
  2. Step Two: Congregation Request for Dismissal. ...
  3. Step Three: Congregation and Presbytery Vote.
30 Jul 2013

What is unique about Presbyterians? ›

Presbyterians are distinctive in two major ways. They adhere to a pattern of religious thought known as Reformed theology and a form of government that stresses the active, representational leadership of both ministers and church members. Theology is a way of thinking about God and God's relation to the world.

Are Presbyterians Calvinists? ›

In the United States today, one large denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, is unapologetically Calvinist. But in the last 30 years or so, Calvinists have gained prominence in other branches of Protestantism, and at churches that used to worry little about theology.

Does the Presbyterian Church believe in predestination? ›

A foundational document for Presbyterians, the "Westminster Confession of Faith," clearly asserts the doctrine of predestination. Some souls God has “elected” to receive the salvation available through Jesus Christ, but others are passed over.

What Bible version do Presbyterians use? ›

The King James Version (KJV) is the Bible translation that Presbyterians have used historically. However, in recent decades, many Presbyterians switched to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the English Standard Version (ESV), or the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible.

Do Presbyterians believe in speaking in tongues? ›

Presbyterians believe that certain spiritual gifts, like speaking in tongues, were only for the establishment of the Church in the first century and aren't operational for today. Sanctification refers to God's continual work in the lives of Christians, through the Spirit, after they are justified in Christ.

What makes Presbyterians different? ›

Characteristics. Presbyterians distinguish themselves from other denominations by doctrine, institutional organisation (or "church order") and worship; often using a "Book of Order" to regulate common practice and order. The origins of the Presbyterian churches are in Calvinism.

What is the difference between PCA and EPC? ›

The EPC's ethos (summarized in its motto) allows a greater degree of freedom in areas deemed to be non-essential to Reformed theology than the PCA, ARP and OPC. The EPC, like ECO and PCUSA, but unlike PCA or OPC, belongs to the World Communion of Reformed Churches.

What is the difference between Baptist and Presbyterian beliefs? ›

Baptists are those who believe that only those who have declared faith in Christ should be baptized. Presbyterians are those who believe that those who have declared faith in Christ as well as infants born into Christian families should be baptized.

What churches are similar to Presbyterian? ›

Episcopal/Anglican Reformed denominations
  • Reformed Episcopal Church - around 13,000 members - Orthodox, Episcopal/Anglican, Calvinistic.
  • Traditional Protestant Episcopal Church - Orthodox, Episcopal/Anglican.
  • Anglican Mission in the Americas.
  • Anglican Church in North America.
  • Reformed Anglican Church.

Why did the Presbyterian Church split from the Catholic church? ›

Many of the religious movements that originated during the Protestant Reformation were more democratic in organization. Like other Protestant denominations, the Presbyterians were opposed to the hierarchy and religious teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

Who is the founder of Presbyterian Church? ›

The Presbyterian Church established itself in the Cleveland area in 1807, among the earliest Protestant denominations, and developed rapidly. Presbyterianism originated in the 16th-century Protestant Reformation and the teachings of John Calvin of Switzerland and John Knox of Scotland.

Are Presbyterians progressive? ›

For the most part, PC(USA) Presbyterians, not unlike similar mainline traditions such as the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ, are fairly progressive on matters such as doctrine, environmental issues, sexual morality, and economic issues, though the denomination remains divided and conflicted on these ...

Who is the Holy Spirit Presbyterian? ›

The Holy Spirit is the giver of life.

“The bodies of the faithful are temples of the Holy Spirit which we truly believe will rise again at the Last Day…” (Helvetic, 5.235). “The Holy Spirit unites all believers to Christ, dwells in them as their Comforter and Sanctifier [….]

What is Presbyterian in simple terms? ›

(prɛzbɪtɪəriən ) Word forms: Presbyterians. adjective. Presbyterian means belonging or relating to a Protestant church that is governed by a body of official people all of equal rank.

Do Presbyterians believe in once saved always saved? ›

The Presbyterian Panel's "Religious and Demographic Profile of Presbyterians" found that 36 percent of members disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement: "Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved." Another 39 percent, or about two-fifths, agreed or strongly agreed with the statement.

Which church believes in predestination? ›

Roman Catholicism teaches the doctrine of predestination. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy.

Do Presbyterians believe in the Holy Spirit? ›

Do Presbyterians believe the Holy Spirit is God? Yes, Presbyterians believe the Holy Spirit is fully God.

Is the Reformed Presbyterian Church Liberal? ›

The Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly (RPCGA) is a Presbyterian church body and conservative denomination in the United States established in 1991.

What do Associate Reformed Presbyterians believe? ›

Basic beliefs

The Holy Scriptures as the basis for our faith and activity. Unity with other believers in Christ. Total stewardship of life, including tithing of time, talents, and money. Loving and caring for one another and for other people.

What branch of Christianity is Presbyterian? ›

The Presbyterian Church is a Protestant Christian religious denomination that was founded in the 1500s. Control of the Church is divided between the clergy and the congregants. Many of the religious movements that originated during the Protestant Reformation were more democratic in organization.

What are Presbyterian beliefs? ›

Presbyterian theology typically emphasizes the sovereignty of God, the authority of the Scriptures, and the necessity of grace through faith in Christ. Presbyterian church government was ensured in Scotland by the Acts of Union in 1707, which created the Kingdom of Great Britain.

What's the difference between presbyterian and Reformed presbyterian? ›

Reformed is the term identifying churches regarded as essentially Calvinistic in doctrine. The term presbyterian designates a collegial type of church government by pastors and by lay leaders called elders, or presbyters, from the New Testament term presbyteroi.

Is the Reformed Church of America conservative? ›

The Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) is a Protestant Christian denomination in the United States. The present RCUS is a conservative, Calvinist denomination.

Are Reformed churches conservative? ›

The Christian Reformed Church is a conservative body that maintains an orthodox interpretation of its doctrinal standards, the Heidelberg Catechism (1562), the Belgic Confession (1561), and the canons of Dort (1618–19). The theology and polity are Calvinist.

Are all Presbyterians Calvinist? ›

In the United States today, one large denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, is unapologetically Calvinist. But in the last 30 years or so, Calvinists have gained prominence in other branches of Protestantism, and at churches that used to worry little about theology.

What are the differences between Presbyterian and Baptist? ›

Baptists are those who believe that only those who have declared faith in Christ should be baptized. Presbyterians are those who believe that those who have declared faith in Christ as well as infants born into Christian families should be baptized.

What is unique about Presbyterians? ›

Presbyterians are distinctive in two major ways. They adhere to a pattern of religious thought known as Reformed theology and a form of government that stresses the active, representational leadership of both ministers and church members. Theology is a way of thinking about God and God's relation to the world.

What version of the Bible do Presbyterians use? ›

The King James Version (KJV) is the Bible translation that Presbyterians have used historically. However, in recent decades, many Presbyterians switched to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the English Standard Version (ESV), or the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible.

How do you leave the Presbyterian Church? ›

  1. Step One: Initial Contact and Dialogue. The first step is to inform the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery that the congregation is in such disagreement with the church that is considering leaving the PC (USA). ...
  2. Step Two: Congregation Request for Dismissal. ...
  3. Step Three: Congregation and Presbytery Vote.
30 Jul 2013

Do Presbyterians believe in once saved always saved? ›

The Presbyterian Panel's "Religious and Demographic Profile of Presbyterians" found that 36 percent of members disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement: "Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved." Another 39 percent, or about two-fifths, agreed or strongly agreed with the statement.

What makes Presbyterians different from other Christians? ›

Theologically, presbyterianism has a high emphasis on the sovereignty of God in all things, including human salvation, a high regard for the authority of Scripture, and an emphasis on the necessity of personal conversion by grace through faith in Christ Jesus alone.

What do Presbyterians believe happens after death? ›

Presbyterians commonly believe that when a person dies they will either be rewarded with eternal life in Heaven or punished with eternal life in Hell, based on the goodness of the life they led.

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