The Presbyterian Church in America, of which the church my family attends and serves is a part, is an interesting denomination. Confessionally and historically its roots are in the old Southern Presbyterian tradition, which in turn derives from English and Scottish Presbyterianism. Its confessional standards are the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, ancient documents (at least by Protestant standards) which, while subservient to Holy Scripture, are regarded as faithfully summarizing and systematizing what the Bible teaches to be true. While the present denomination is just over forty years old, its founders regarded themselves as the rightful heirs of a proud Southern Presbyterianism when they broke away from the increasingly liberal Presbyterian Church in the United States (now part of the mainline Presbyterian Church U.S.A.). In fact, those early fathers of the PCA often referred to themselves as the “continuing church.”
With such a history, one might expect to find PCA churches filled with the descendants of old and proud families who were part of the PCUS and then the PCA for generations, and in a few churches one finds exactly that. Perhaps more often, though, one finds in the PCA, in addition to new converts to Christianity, people who grew up as Baptists (like myself), or Methodists, or even charismatics of various kinds. People that for one reason or another grew dissatisfied with the denominational tradition in which they were raised and have found in conservative Presbyterianism an intellectually and spiritually robust view of the Bible and its application to all of life, one that provides answers to the most difficult challenges of life and thought and at all times directs people to repent and believe the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.
At least, that’s what I sought, and that’s what I found. Having become a “five-point Calvinist” years before first joining a Presbyterian church, I observed and later studied the denomination’s history, confessions, government, and polity from a distance before becoming fully convinced of the rightness of its positions (paedobaptism was a particular sticking point, one about which I hope to write in the future), and then joining a Presbyterian church along with my family. For whatever reason, I somehow thought that everyone that came to the PCA from some other theological tradition must have done so after a years-long process of study, deliberation, and prayer, as I did. Silly me.
While there’s nothing wrong with choosing a church and denomination after years of prayerful study (I still like to think that there’s still something very right about it), most people just don’t do that. They choose a church because they like the preaching, or the ministry to children, or because they are converted through an outreach program of the church, or because a friend or family member invited them. Many—if not most—people who join our church have never read the Westminster Standards in their entirety, and a number of them may never do so. In short, most of the folks that come to our churches are just “regular Christians.” They look to Christ alone for salvation, they love and revere the Bible and seek to obey its teaching, and they seek to be faithful in supporting and serving the church. And that’s okay.
Ours is a day in which Calvinism has gained a level of notoriety in some circles that it hasn’t enjoyed in many years. Christians from non-Calvinist traditions (like me) who come to love this high view of God’s sovereignty, study its authors both past and present, and seek to promote that view in their churches and denominations often find that view unwelcome. While one should be charitable toward fellow believers and particularly church leaders who disagree on this matter, sometimes the best thing one can do to promote the “purity and peace” of the church is to depart for a church or denomination which holds those views.
However, don’t expect to find that “the grass is greener on the other side of the fence,” or at least not all of it. Having been a part of Calvinistic and confessional churches for about six years now, I can say that it has been a joy and a relief to worship and serve in a church and denomination where the matter of God’s sovereignty (both generally as well as regarding salvation specifically) is not debated or a source of division, where the ancient creeds and confessions of the church are valued and studied, and where the works of authors both ancient and modern regarding the deep things of God are read and discussed.
And yet, there is no perfect church, and no perfect denomination. In any church one finds real people with real problems. People who struggle with material needs as well as deep spiritual hurts. People who struggle with sin and unbelief and erroneous views of the Bible and desperately need to come to a real and saving faith in Jesus Christ. Regarding theological matters, while Calvinism is not debated in the PCA a number of other issues are, and the divisions are sometimes painful. Happily, our confessional standards and system of ecclesiastical courts provide a proper (if imperfect) forum for vigorous debate on these matters. Sadly, on “this side of heaven,” the church remains an imperfect entity, regardless of the denomination.
I’ve written this partly because I find it personally helpful to remember and reflect on these things, and partly because there may be someone out there who will read this one day; someone who is (or feels like) a lone Calvinist in a church or denomination that is not amenable to that view and is considering moving to a Calvinistic and confessional church or denomination, be it the PCA or other NAPARC church, or even a Reformed Baptist congregation. To that person I will say that I have no regrets about the path which led to my ultimately landing in the PCA, except that I wish I had handled my departure from a couple of churches better. Still, I hope that reader, if he does decide to pursue membership in such a church, will do so with his eyes open, realizing that there is no church in which all (or even most) of the members are “into” deep theological debates on obscure topics. Most folks neither want nor need a lecture on some minor point of systematic theology, but simply need someone to give them a “cup of cold water” (Matthew 10:42) in the name of Christ. Remember also that until Christ returns the church, regardless of theology or denomination, is yet imperfect, full of broken people with real sins and real problems.
While such problems will persist both in and out of the church until our Lord returns, in our Calvinistic and confessional churches one finds a robust theology which is best able to meet those problems “head-on” and address them in a fulsome and biblical way; one which is most compatible with the whole counsel of God. If that is what you are seeking, then I say “Come on. The grass isn’t *all* green, but much of it is, and it is a good place to be.”