I have spent my entire Christian life as a Southern Baptist. When I was a teenager, caring friends invited me to a Southern Baptist Church. I heard the Gospel of God’s saving provision of his sinless Son. I heard the truth of Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and I received the Lord and believed in his name. I then became a youth intern and children’s minister at an FBC, worked my way up to assistant manager at Lifeway Christian Store, and did a semester of study at Criswell College. I was Baptist with a capital “B”, and I was Southern Baptist to be more precise.
But then something happened. I was challenged. I began to read widely and converse with people of different backgrounds. My monolithic-Christian world began to be infiltrated by infidels bearing challenges. Wesleyans, Bible Churchers, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Anglicans; Calvinists, Molinists, and Arminians; Charismatics and Cessasionists; 5-pointers, 4-pointers, 3-pointers, and Free Throws all converged to assault me with an overdose of perspective. Of greater effect than these assaults was the fact that I had become enamored with the Scriptures. I was spending more time than ever studying and praying, and this caused me to question what I truly believed. I had become rather familiar with what Southern Baptist doctrine was, but I was finally to the point of needing to decide whether I believed these doctrines or just indiscriminately received them. As I studied and came to systematize many of my seemingly random beliefs and struggles, I began to feel like a man with no home. But, to my relief and delight, confessionalism in the form of conservative Presbyterianism offered my family a home.
What would lead a family to leave an SBC congregation and unite with a church in the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America)? What distinguishes a PCA (not to be confused with the PCUSA) church from an SBC church in such a manner that it warrants the always-painful and inherently-risky effort of leaving one body to unite to another? Some key differences between the SBC and the PCA can be summarized under the headings of doctrine and practice.
The PCA is a denomination that affirms the Doctrines of Grace and the sovereignty of God. The SBC has a long and tumultuous history with “Calvinism”, which in SBC-language is simply an affirmation of the Doctrines of Grace (TULIP). Many SBC churches find themselves battling over these doctrines and end up either excommunicating (“Why don’t you go try this church?”) or silencing (“You can believe that…just don’t talk about it.”) those who affirm them. In the PCA, these doctrines are not seen as blasphemies or dirty little secrets. The doctrines of God’s sovereign grace are truths in which we can rejoice. These doctrines are unapologetically and openly proclaimed. Preaching and prayer is in the active voice. People do not “get saved.” God saves sinners. Prayers are made for God to perform the miracle of raising the spiritually dead to eternal life and granting them repentance and faith to believe and receive the Lord Jesus. While it is possible to embrace these doctrines in the SBC, it proves exceedingly difficult to sit and hear truths you adore be actively attacked or passively dismissed.
The PCA is a confessional church. This means “that Presbyterian churches summarize their beliefs in confessions of faith,” and “require their pastors, ruling elders, and deacons to subscribe to the WestminsterStandards.” (Lucas, On Being Presbyterian) As a Southern Baptist, I was always troubled by the fact that we had no overarching, binding documents. I would appeal to Scripture only to be rebuked by a “that’s just your interpretation.” I would appeal to the Baptist Faith and Message, but any appeal to that document would require 1) someone to know about it, and 2) it to have some sort of authority. I longed for the stability offered by uniform (to a degree) interpretation. While there is still some variation and even some deviation found within a confessional body, what the church believes and teaches is not left to the whim and caprice of individuals or “autonomous” local bodies.
The PCA is a denomination that is covenantal and sacramental. PCA churches understand the story of God as revealed in the Scriptures to be one, continuous, unfolding story. There are no parenthetical ages or times of gross discord. The PCA has a sacramental understanding of what the SBC would refer to as ordinances. The Lord’s Supper is more than simply a memorial; it is a covenantal meal in which we receive the grace of God by feasting spiritually on the body and blood of the Lamb of God. Reformed Presbyterianism avoids the error of Rome (and, to a lesser degree, Luther) on one end and Zwingli on the other by recognizing the actual, spiritual presence of Christ in the Supper. PCA churches find precedent for their position, among other places, in the words of Paul to the Corinthians. Paul writes, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”(1 Cor 10:16)
In the same way, baptism is a sign and seal of God’s promises to believers. It is not seen as an “outward expression of an inward change” or a “first step of obedience.” It is also not seen as an act that grants salvation in any way or in any sense, contrary to Rome, Wittenburg, and (to a degree) Auburn Avenue. Baptism is seen as the sign of the new covenant, given to believers and their children as a testimony of God's covenant faithfulness. It is a symbol of God's promise to his people, not our promise to him. (WCF 28)
Practice demonstrates belief. This is true of people, and it is also true of churches. Practices and traditions are not random. They are based on an understanding of the Scriptures and of God as revealed in them. When I began to look at the practical implications of my theology, there was much with which to deal. If I believed that the worship service was for God, then he should be the one to direct it. If I believed that the Scriptures were sufficient to teach me how to live a life that was pleasing to God, including how to worship him, then the Scriptures should direct how we approach him in corporate worship. The PCA holds to the regulative principle of worship, though this seems to be an issue on a spectrum. Basically, this principle is that God directs the worship of him and he does so by his word.
The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all . . . the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible re presentation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy scripture.(WCF:Edinburgh Edition, page 111)
One issue that always concerned me in my time in the SBC was the idea of “autonomy” in the local body. To me, this always seemed to be an overreaction to the ecclesiastical abuses of Rome and left churches in precarious situations. Many SBC churches operate under a sole-elder setup. That coupled with an autonomous-local-body mindset seemed ripe for spiritual abuse, moral failure, and theological error. PCA churches are ruled by a plurality of elders that submit, essentially, to a plurality of churches.
The PCA maintains the historic polity of Presbyterian governance set forth in The Book of Church Order, namely rule by presbyters (or elders) and the graded assemblies or courts. These courts are the session, governing the local church; the presbytery, for regional matters; and the general assembly, at the national level. It has taken seriously the position of the parity of elders, making a distinction between the two classes of elders, teaching and ruling. It has self-consciously taken a more democratic position (rule from the grass roots up) on presbyterian governance in contrast to a more prelatical form (rule from the top assemblies down).(http://www.pcanet.org/history/)
It is hard to be a rogue PCA church; although I am sure it can be done. If a pastor is in error, he is corrected by his brothers who are serving the local body with him. If not, then there are other brothers in other local bodies who can hold him and that entire church accountable. Greater accountability inevitably leads to greater spiritual health and greater maturity.
My brother moved to Alabama a while back. He went there because he believed doing so would be the best for him. He went there to go to school and be with the woman to whom he would eventually be married. He didn’t leave his family in Texas because he hated his family or despised the state. My brother and I used to share a room, and then we found ourselves not even sharing a state. But we did not cease to be brothers when the U-Haul crossed the state line. In fact, petty conflict and simmering angst were actually relieved by the distance and the new direction. My family leaving the SBC for the PCA should not be seen as a severing of the tie that binds. Southern Baptists are my brothers and sisters in Christ, and I will always have an affection for that denomination for the mighty works that God has done through it, not the least of which to me is being the vessel through which I heard the Gospel and believed. It is time for my family and me to move on, but that in no way diminishes how thankful we remain, and will remain, for the believers who have taught us, loved us, and discipled us for so many years, and it does not negate the fact that we will one day be united beyond divisions to worship our Lord together, forever.