Thinking of Moving from the PCA to the EPC?
The “Everything-Goes Presbyterian Church.” Plenty of pastors in the EPC have heard our church described that way. The EPC has a well deserved reputation for charity, for not splintering over non-essential issues, for valuing relationships over litigiousness. For that reason the EPC has become a refuge for many. I count myself among them. At the same time, this relaxed and charitable posture has been perceived as lackadaisical, that the EPC is the denomination you join if you want to be presbyterian and evangelical but still do whatever you want.
I expect that in the next few years the EPC will start receiving an increasing number of requests to join us from disaffected PCA congregations. Within the PCA there are a number of debates raging over what dissatisfied congregations may view as secondary issues which demand liberty. The allure of the EPC to these congregations is as an apparent landing place where they can now freely practice what is contested or banned in their current church.
My own Reformed ministry began in a PCA church before I headed to the EPC, and I retain a love for the PCA. The EPC is a more relaxed church than the PCA, but we are not in reality an “everything-goes” church. Below are a few areas that disgruntled PCAers should be aware of the EPC’s actual stands.
1. The EPC is a confessional church. All of our officers, like in the PCA, vow to sincerely adopt the Westminster Confessions and Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine found in the scriptures. The EPC’s confessionalism is well known for presbyterian churches considering a new denominational home. But the implications need to be teased out. Like in the PCA, the Westminster Standards are the subordinate doctrinal standards of the church. “The Essentials of Our Faith” is often used as a shorthand for our essential doctrines, but it is not that in actuality. The Westminster Standards are. Which means the Westminster Standards restrict doctrine and practice in the EPC in the same way they restrict doctrine and practice in the PCA.
Now, the EPC is on the whole more relaxed than the PCA when it comes to confessional interpretation and latitude. However, every interpretation of the Standards present in PCA congregations is also present in the EPC. And sometimes the EPC is theologically less nuanced than the PCA, which leads to less flexibility. For example, unlike the PCA, the EPC has not formally ruled on acceptable interpretations of the days of creation in Genesis. That means there is a greater diversity in the EPC on what is allowable, and that diversity sometimes manifests as presbyteries and denominational committees teaching that “in the space of six days” is to be understood as a literal, 24-hour, 6-day week. In these cases, alternative views (e.g. framework, day-age, analogical days, etc.) are treated as exceptions to the Standards that have to be approved by presbyteries by a vote rather than belonging to the range of acceptable interpretations.
EPC presbyteries more freely allows exceptions than the PCA, but any exception to our doctrine can be denied without the EPC violating its doctrine or ethos. And exceptions are denied: everything does not go in the EPC. The EPC is not the home for a doctrinal free-for-all and the Westminster Standards are not mere guides or pious advice: They are the doctrinal standard to which our officers are held and our church practice conforms.
2. The regulative principle of worship is the standard for worship in the EPC. Here are a smattering of quotes from the Westminster Standards to make this point.
“The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men…and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God…common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.” (WCF 1.6)
“But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.” (WCF. 21.1)
“The duties required in the second commandment are, the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his word…The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself…corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense whatsoever.” (WLC 108-109)
The church is to only worship God as he has commanded in his word and is not to add or subtract from his prescriptions in that worship. And “public worship, performed more or less purely” (WCF 25.4), measured by these standards, is one of the marks of the true church. This is just as true in the EPC as in the PCA.
Unlike in the PCA, the EPC’s Book of Worship is fully constitutional and binding. BoW 2.1 reads “The acceptable way of worshiping God corporately is established by God Himself. Proper corporate worship is defined and outlined in God’s revealed will and is to be followed in giving glory to Him.” WCF 21.3-6 (along with WLC 108-109) lists out the proper elements of worship and the principles that guide the circumstances of worship that are to be ordered by the light of nature according to the general rules of scripture. This is to be followed in our church’s practice.
The EPC has just as great diversity in worship practices as the PCA, if not greater. The regulative principle is not highly valued (and sometimes explicitly devalued) in our denomination. Yet it remains our church’s doctrine and is not a non-essential.
3. The public reading of God’s word is connected to ordination. It’s common in PCA circles to hear the assertion that women can do in worship whatever non-ordained men can do. The instinct is good, to ensure that women are not treated as second-class members. One of the flashpoints in the PCA then is whether non-ordained men, or any women, can publicly read scripture in worship. WLC 156 is the relevant confessional text, with the Westminster Directory of Public Worship and historic proof texts typically used for context. Clearly what is intended by the Westminster Standards is that there is a connection between ordination (cf. WLC 158) and the public reading of scripture. The impulse to affirm women in church is good; the instinct to maximize congregational leadership in worship is not.
The EPC’s BoW 2-5.C states that the scriptures should ordinarily be read by the pastor, though someone else may been invited to do so. WLC 156 provides a limiting principle (not all are permitted) to the pastor’s discretion (someone else who has been invited). That limiting principle is the same for the other areas of worship (public prayer, preaching) that are normally reserved for the office of Teaching Elder but where flexibility is allowed. That principle is that those who may atypically administer God’s word in preaching to a congregation (e.g. visiting pastors, associate and assistant pastors, candidates for ministry, Ruling Elders) are those who may publicly read scripture.
Don’t turn our confession into a wax nose to fit your agenda. If you want scripture read in church by women, then ordain them. That’s allowed in the EPC.
4. The ordination of women is a non-essential. This is the only practice in the EPC constitutionally defined as a non-essential. Every PCAer considering joining the EPC knows this. But sometimes PCA transferals, who were previously required to believe in male-only ordination, swiftly discover that they now think all offices of the church should be open to women, and that to deny women ordination is sexist. It’s like being a cage-stage Calvinist, just with women’s ordination. So this is a reminder: the ordination of women is a non-essential. It’s a subject that lies outside the EPC’s Westminsterian system of doctrine. There are lots of complimentarian EPC pastors and churches. And we practice our differences in non-essentials with charity.
5. Images of God, including images of Christ who is the Eternal Son, violate the 2nd commandment. The point being made should be familiar. The PCA and EPC hold to the same doctrine, which states that the second commandment forbids the sins of “making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever.” Without a doubt the EPC is more…tolerant than the PCA about interpretations and deviations on this. But this remains the church’s doctrine, and an individual pastor taking an exception to it does not free a local congregation from being bound by it.
6. Intinction is aberrant and irregular at best and is contrary to Westminsterian confessionalism. I am well aware of the tensions in the PCA about intinction, including the failed attempt to out-right ban the practice. Yet again, the PCA and the EPC share the same doctrine, and so the debate of whether eating wine-soaked bread constitutes drinking the cup after Christ’s command (it doesn’t) and meets confessional muster (it doesn’t) is the same. Unlike the PCA, the EPC has not had a church-wide debate on the topic. Yet, like with the days of creation, that means that different EPC presbyteries may be more restrictive on intinction than in the PCA. There was an EPC General Assembly some years ago when intinction was practiced. The reaction was negative. Since then, the approach of the EPC on this issue has been to emphasize charity: no one who approves of intinction disapproves of the traditional means of distribution. Many who disapprove of intinction cannot in good conscience partake of the sacrament by intinction. Why erect barriers to Christian fellowship? It is in that spirit that intinction, though still present in some quarters, has steadily fallen out of disuse in the EPC.
7. The EPC is not a Side B, same-sex attracted affirming denomination. This is obviously a very charged and complicated subject. I have written before on the issue as it relates to Westminsterian theology (in depth here and here, with brief summaries here and here). This is an area where the EPC has actually staked out a position: A gay identity (persistent, erotic, same-sex attraction) is a result of the fall into sin and should be mortified, not celebrated. Our pastoral letter on the subject says “In some cases, after receiving wisdom from godly counselors, it could be helpful for some Christians to make known publicly their ongoing, largely fruitful struggle with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria (emphasis added).” To publicly identify as same-sex attracted, and being unwilling to mortify that identity (in addition to refusing to yield to that attraction), is contrary to God’s word and our confessional standards. To classify any persistent temptation to sin, which is exactly what same-sex attraction is, as constitutive to someone’s being and identity, rather than something to be rejected in mortification and repentance, is contrary to God’s word and our confessional standards.
It can be appropriate to identify as same-sex attracted in order to characterize the nature of a besetting temptation and corruption. It can be appropriate to identify as same-sex attracted in order to describe your fight against that identity since it is sinful and contrary to God’s purposes.
8. Missional engagement never means supporting or advertising sinful behavior. Sometimes the PCA’s confessionalism is seen as overly restrictive to fruitful mission. For example, how should a church use its resources to engage its non-Christian neighbors? Does sponsoring a Boy Scout troop go too far? What about allowing uncouth and unrestrained non-Christians to join the church softball league? Using a church stage to host community plays which promote sinful displays and behavior? These all require wisdom. Yet, God’s word provides guidance, and our confessional system articulates that well.
Specifically, WLC 99 asks “What rules are to be observed for the right understanding of the Ten Commandments?” (i.e. how do we wisely and faithfully apply and obey God’s law?) It has eight answers, but the seventh is particularly relevant: “Since the provisions of the law apply not only to us but to everyone else, we must try to help others keep those provisions, in the context of our own position in life and theirs (modern language version).”
Are we encouraging sin? Supporting it? Would the withdrawal of our support mean the sinful practice would cease in that time and place? To put a fine point on it: Using church resources to promote sin is wrong, even if the motivation is to maintain a faithful presence among non-Christians. To use church resources to support organizations who will use that support to promote sin is wrong. The church’s witness is compromised when it platforms sin. And presbyteries have the right to direct congregations to cease using the church’s resources for the platforming of sin. The church has a loving duty to assist in others in keeping the law according to our position; using our position to facilitate sin is sin.
Except for areas #5 and #7, all of the defenses for those points are based on the Westminster Standards. And perhaps that should provide an indicator regarding the direction of the Church. For while we rightly denounce images of God or images of Christ as violating the 2nd Commandment, we seem lax in letting some confessional standards become canon for whether we should accept or reject a practice or belief. The Scriptures should be our only canon for life and faith. For just as images of God or Christ should not serve as substitutes for the pictures that the Scripture paint of God and Christ, no given set of confessional standards should substitute for the Scriptures. Here, I am writing as a former member of the OPC.
Therefore, perhaps we need to tone down what it means to be confessional. Here we might want to consider whether our favorite set of confessional standards are to us what the traditions of the Pharisees were to the Pharisees as described in Mark 7.
Regarding area #2, I would move that to being a non-essential seeing that Jesus participated in festivals that were not prescribed by the Old Testament. In addition, the expansion of God’s people to all believing non-Jews seems to all but prohibit the regulative principle in worship as does Paul’s Gospel for and approach to the Gentiles.
I agree with what is written in areas #4 and #5. And I would move intinction (area #6), which I had to look up to understand, to be a non-essential. That we take the bread and juice or wine with the preaching of the Gospel is at the heart of Communion.
Area #7 is a very complicated subject and needs clarification. I don’t think that all who struggle with SSA are celebrating their gay identity by identifying as gay. Here I would ask whether we should identify with the Publican from the parable of the two men praying (Luke 18:9-14) only once in our Christian life. So I agree with the 2nd paragraph under area #7.
Area #8 is far more complicated than we might suppose. For should the Church support the worship of false gods in society? If not, then we must work to remove the Establishment Clause in the 1st Amendment. We need to distinguish what we can support in society from what we can support in the Church.