Principles Versus Coalitions

            There was an article in ByFaith Magazine recently by Dr. Roy Taylor, “The PCA, Facing the Future,” in which he asked the question: “Will we maintain our coalition?” I did not read the article and do not know the answer Taylor gave, but here is my answer to his question. No, no denomination based on a coalition can long maintain its tenuous standing. Why do I say that? Because of what a coalition is. Here is how Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines a coalition: “a temporary alliance of distinct parties, persons, or states for joint action.” A coalition is necessarily temporary. A coalition is necessarily composed of people who disagree with one another on many issues. A coalition is cobbled together for “joint action” concerning a greater issue. Whether that greater issue is resolved or unresolved, the coalition will necessarily fall apart at some point. Denominations based on coalitions will necessarily fail. We know of at least one coalition in the PCA—the secretive National Partnership. The answer to the National Partnership is not to form other coalitions—more conservative coalitions—to combat progressive or liberal coalitions. Coalitions destroy denominations. Christian denominations must be based on principles—Scriptural principles—not coalitions. There must be a clear understanding that on essentials unity is required. Instead, coalitions often permit liberty on essentials in order to achieve a supposed greater goal which is their Achilles heel. Also, coalitions often fail to maintain charity in all things.

            The history of the church proves that it is principles—not coalitions—that hold denominations together. When those Scriptural principles are neglected or destroyed, then denominations will fail no matter how many coalitions there are. Here is what Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). The only way that Christians can be of the same mind and the same judgment with one another is to be agreed about what are the essentials of the faith. Those essentials become the principles of that church or denomination. Coalitions are an admission that there are differences concerning the essentials, but that certain persons or parties will work together for a supposed greater good. Paul’s counsel is to first be of “the same mind and the same judgment.” Only then, can the Church of the Lord Jesus truly move forward.

            At the time of the Protestant Reformation, there were many coalitions within the Church of Rome. Despite Rome’s pretense to unity, there still are many such divisive coalitions within her communion. The Reformers left Rome and started reformed churches based on Scriptural principles with justification by faith alone as the cardinal truth. The Reformation was a return to Scripture and the essential principles or doctrines given therein. The Puritan movement in Great Britain was also a return to Scripture. It was based on principles over coalitions.

            The Presbyterian denominations in the US have thrived when they returned to Scriptural principles and have declined into liberalism whenever coalitions have dominated. We see this contrast of principles versus coalitions in the split of the Presbyterian Church into the Old Light-New Light branches over the Great Awakening in the 1730’s and 1740’s. The New Lights were preaching the great doctrines of salvation known as reformed soteriology and the Holy Spirit was using that message to bring masses of formerly wicked sinners into the church. The Old Lights, on the other hand, gave lip service to the Westminster Confession of Faith, but did not preach the Scriptural truths thereof. When the Great Awakening began, there was great opposition to it on the part of the Old Lights. Then, in 1741, the Old Light ministers banded together in a coalition for the purpose of preventing the New Light ministers from being seated at the annual meeting of the Synod of Philadelphia and they succeeded in doing so. The New Light ministers tried for the next five years to be reconciled with the Old Light ministers to no avail. A coalition had broken the unity of the denomination and the leaders in that division, the Old Lights, were completely irreconcilable. Finally, in 1746, the New Lights started their own Synod, the Synod of New York, which the Lord greatly blessed over the next twelve years. Gilbert Tennent led the way for the reunion of the two branches in 1758 into one body which I feel was a great mistake. Here is why. The New Lights were united on both doctrine and the glorious work of the Holy Spirit, the Great Awakening, but the reunion was essentially a coalition. The reunion chose a coalition over principles. Therefore, it was a mistake. Before the ink had scarcely dried on the papers of reunion, the two sides were once again embroiled in a controversy called the ‘pamphlet war.’ Scurrilous pamphlets were written by anonymous Old Light ministers and others that castigated the New Light ministers as ignorant, uncultured, unsuccessful ministers who made fools of themselves through their lack of education. Of course, all these charges were false, but it points out that Scriptural principles must never be sacrificed on the altar of coalitions.

            The reunited Presbyterian Church became a mixed body which contained something of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. It was a body which tolerated unsoundness in the faith on the part of her ministers and that failing led to the second great division of the Presbyterian Church nearly a century later. In 1838, Presbyterians were divided into the Old School and New School branches. The Old School Presbyterians were the true offspring of the New Light Presbyterians, whereas the New School Presbyterians were the offshoot of the Old Lights. The Old Lights (1730’s) gave lip service to the Westminster Standards and the New School Presbyterians (1830’s) just ignored the Westminster Standards altogether. One led to the other. Both the New Light and the Old School Presbyterians held firmly to the Scriptures, the Westminster Standards, and the necessity of conversion through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Old School Presbyterians split from the New School over the matter of subscription. It was a matter of principle for the Old School ministers. Yet, they also made a mistake in reuniting with the New School branches after the Civil War. The Old School-New School split divided the Presbyterian Church into two branches. These two branches were further divided into four when the North and South split from one another during the Civil War. The devastation of the war caused both the Old School Presbyterian branches in the North and the South to reunite with the New School Presbyterians. So, principles were cast aside for the sake of expediency. The essential doctrines of the Scripture were thereby deemed less important than the expediency of forming an alliance—a coalition—to build up Presbyterianism more effectively. Those reunions would prove costly within forty to fifty years as they paved the way for the teaching of Modernism and Liberalism in various Presbyterian seminaries, even glorious old Princeton.

            The fall of the Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS) was certainly slower than the erosion of the orthodoxy in the PCUSA, but it was happening, nonetheless. I have read sermons of various PCUS ministers in the 1930’s and there was very little, if any, gospel message being preached by many of them. The coalition between the Old School and New School weakened Presbyterianism and paved the way for the entrance of Barthianism into both the PCUSA and the PCUS. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s even an ultra-conservative city such as Jackson, MS had a number of Presbyterian pulpits that were filled by Barthians and that heresy was preached throughout the state.

            When the PCA was started in 1973, there were a number of different parties that were joined together in the formation of it. Most of the founding fathers of the PCA were sincerely attempting to start a denomination that would be faithful to the reformed faith. Yet, there were some ministers who objected to many of the things about the PCUS, but they were also infected with mild cases of Barthianism. The slogan of the PCA is and always has been: True to the Scriptures, faithful to the Westminster Confession, and obedient to the Great Commission. That has often been more of a slogan than a reality for many people in the PCA. How can a denomination that permits same-sex attraction among its officers, sanctions critical race theory, and trumpets the social justice “gospel” claim to uphold that slogan? Where did the PCA go wrong? Well, for too many pastors and churches, the PCA has always been more of a coalition than a denomination based on principles of truth that are unchanged and unchanging. The foundation was cracked from the beginning. It was further cracked by the Joining and Receiving of the RPCES, by the permission of various views of creation; by good faith subscription; by the agreement in the stated clerk’s offices in 2012 to go hands off concerning the discipline of heresy; by the formation of the National Partnership; by various Presbytery decisions that have permitted the Federal Vision and other errors; by the moral declension of the denomination; and, by the steady erosion of the BCO through numerous overtures that have turned the General Assembly into a hierarchy. Those are the kinds of things that always result from coalitions. History proves it.

            David once asked, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”(Psalm 11:3). J. A. Alexander commented on this verse as follows:

The pillars or foundations are those of social order or society itself. These are said to be destroyed, when truth and righteousness prevail no longer, but the intercourse of men is governed by mere selfishness.[1]    

            Likewise, C. H. Spurgeon said:

The civil foundation of a nation or people, is their laws and constitutions. The order and power that’s among them, that’s the foundation of a people.[2]    

            A society, a nation, a church, a denomination can only last as long as it has righteous laws and a righteous constitution. When those laws and constitutions are destroyed, that society, whether spiritual or civil, will crumble. It might continue to have a name that it is alive, but it will be dead (Revelation 3:1). So, the question then becomes what are those principles on which a true church must be founded? James Bannerman, the nineteenth century Scottish theologian, answers that question for us:

But to the body of believers, not individually, but collectively, the Bible is also a communication from God, telling them of truths and doctrines, through the appreciation of which they may be fashioned into a spiritual society, with divinely authorized powers and ordinances and office-bearers,—and outward and public witness for God on earth, and an instrument for the edification of the people of God.[3]   

            It is just at this point that there is so much agreement mixed with so much confusion. Principles are often thrown away because people want to make room for coalitions composed of parties that differ on some of those principles. The Church must go right down the razor’s edge on this matter. There can be no compromise on those essential principles of Scripture. Yet, I see many today operating more by the spirit of a coalition than by the Scripture. When a denomination’s foundations are being destroyed, they try to form coalitions to salvage the ruins. When it is time to leave a heterodox denomination, they consider going into denominations that are already split into coalitions that deny essential truths of the Scripture. Coalitions are man-centered. Scriptural principles are God-centered. Coalitions divide. Scriptural principles unite. Coalitions do not last. God’s truth is unchanged and unchanging. Coalitions lead to the erosion of Scriptural truth. Fully subscribing to the Scriptures and the subordinate standards are safeguards against such erosion. The great need of the day is for denominations that will be indeed spiritual societies that are true to the Scriptures. We do not need political forces that will cobble together coalitions that will result in the same downgrade all over again. The Scripture is the great touchstone of all truth and it is sufficient to define everything necessary for the well-being of the Christian Church. Let others have their coalitions. We will hold to the Scripture. For us, principles triumph over coalitions.

Dewey Roberts, Pastor at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Destin, FL

[1] Joseph Addison Alexander, The Psalms Translated and Explained (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1975), 53.

[2] C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Volume 1a (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974), 136.

[3] James Bannerman, The Church of Christ: A treatise on the nature, powers, ordinances, discipline and government of the Christian Church, Volume I (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 1.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: