Why I Am Becoming Presbyterian: some reasons for changing from SBC to PCA

Amanda and I have recently decided to make the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) our denominational home for now. To most people, denominations are arbitrary. But, for me, who desires to teach the Bible vocationally, previously hoping to make the SBC my denominational support through seminary, this felt like a big decision. So, since I have talked about it with many of my friends, I wanted to, in blog format, express some of my reasoning for choosing the PCA.

Calvinism: You can be a Baptist and a Calvinist. I was. And, in fact, I first really learned about Calvinism from John Piper and Charles Spurgeon (both Baptists). But, I have found that to be a Baptist Calvinist is to be an embattled Calvinist. Anyone who follows the SBC at all will know what I am talking about. These issues shouldn’t divide us, and I definitely will not let the issue of Calvinism and non-Calvinism (which is really what most people mean when they say “Arminianist”) be an issue of contention with other believers. I have come to learn, however, that people who say the debate doesn’t matter tend not to be Calvinists. That is because Calvinism is more than just a belief about how people are saved. It becomes (at least, for me) a worldview. It affects the way that I think about worship, evangelism, family life, and the list goes on. So, it is important enough for me that I like to think that my direct co-laborers in future ministry would agree with me on that.

Covenantal Hermeneutics: The first Bible book-study that I ever did on my own was on the book of Romans. During that time, I learned a lot of things from Paul that I later discovered were categorized as “Covenant Theology.” If I could explain Covenant Theology in a sentence (I hope I’m not butchering this), I would say that it is the belief that what Christ inaugurated in the church is exactly what was promised to Israel through Abraham. So, there is not a plan for Israel and a plan for the church. It is one covenant and one people. So, even though I realize that the “covenant of grace” isn’t a term in Scripture, what most Covenant Theologians mean by it seems right to me.

The Means of Grace: Whether it was taught to me or not, I have nearly always come to church with an attitude of wanting to position my heart rightly to the Lord in order to access him in worship. For example, when we sing, I have tried to feel how I should feel about God. During communion, I was always taught to get my heart right with God before I approach the table. But how can my heart ever be clear of fault? Regarding proper baptism, there were a lot of issues that caused a good deal of anxiety. When is baptism proper? How do you know if someone is ready for baptism? Do you have to get re-baptized if you may not have been a Christian when you were? Can someone be a member of your church and take communion if they were not baptized as an adult? If not, would we not have accepted Augustine, Calvin, and Luther as members of our churches?

The Reformed tradition sees it differently, and I find it refreshing. They teach what they call “the means of grace.” What they mean by that is that we go to church, not to present something pleasing to God, but to be ministered to by God. The means of grace for the church are the preaching of the Scripture and the Sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper). In these, it is primarily God ministering to his people, not us blessing Him.

How is this different? I’ll give an example. When we sing at our PCA church, we start with a corporate confession of sins. We are acknowledging together that we do not rightly embody the truths that we are about to sing about. We need them. When we come to the Lord’s Table, we don’t come haphazardly, but we also know that we come as sinners, in needed of the grace represented at the table. When we baptize the infant of a believer, it isn’t because we think that child has a faith that merits baptism, it is because we acknowledge that this child is graciously born into a covenant family, where the truths represented in baptism will be offered to her or him.

Liturgical Uniformity: Originally, one of the main things that drew me to the SBC what its flexibility in secondary issues (issues that don’t determine orthodoxy). I never understood how someone could commit to a confession that was not Scripture and not hold it to the same level as Scripture.

There is something to be said though about being part of a tradition that has held strong for centuries. It is not that confessions are held to the level of Scripture. I see it as us saying, “Let’s be in agreement on this.”

I like that. I like reading from a confession that has dated itself as worthy. I like the idea of reading catechisms to my children to teach them about the foundational truths of the faith.

Authority: Baptists are Congregationalists, which means that all of the authority for the church is internal. In a Presbyterian model, there are overseers outside of the church. To be honest, I haven’t settled this debate in my mind. I do see the benefit of the Congregationalist model in that it can avoid corruption from the top down. I have also seen from experience, that it can lead to disorder.

It seems like the Presbyterian model compliments the biblical idea of church discipline, which functions in layers. If a there is sin in a relationship, it is addressed on a personal level. If it can’t be resolved on that level, more believers are involved. If that doesn’t help, the church is involved. But what if an entire church has a problem? The Presbyterian model seems like another helpful layer of accountability.

Rich Tradition: At this point, I don’t feel that I know enough to critique any tradition. But, if I wait until I know “enough” before acting, I will never hold any convictions. What I do know is that what I have learned so far form the Reformed Tradition has been greeted with a hardy “amen!” I could change my mind as I grow. I know that men and their traditions are not infallible. But, for now, I will drink from these wells.

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18 comments

  1. Josh,

    You seem to be in a similar transition mode as I was 3 years ago. I went from being a Calvinist Baptist to Presbyterian (OPC-member). Many of the questions you raised were my own. It took me a while to understand the importance of Covenant Theology and how neglecting the issues of Israel and the Church (there’s not two plans of salvation for each group) would hinder theological consistency.

    I have to say that I came to Presbyterianism kicking and screaming. I didn’t want to believe in baptizing babies and “Roman Catholic Communion.” After a few months of studying scriptures and reading multiple authors, I started to notice something that really changed my mind completely on the issues. I noticed that my study of Reformation-period philosophy explained a lot of Baptist beliefs, and it helped me get over the hill to the Presbyterian side.

    Here’s what I mean by Reformation-period philosophy; The Reformation and Enlightenment periods were riddled with individualistic humanist philosophy that led to the disintegration of monarchies. The French and American Revolutions were spawned from these philosophies, creating systems of government derived of the people rather than of the king. I’d even go so far to say that Anabaptism (which Baptists are a direct descendant, though many may disagree) began from the same philosophies. This individualism is what causes Baptists to adhere to Credo-baptism and replace infant baptism with infant dedication (an unbiblical practice). It’s also why Congregationalist-led church government resembles American democracy more than the elder-led Biblical examples.

    As I continued to study Covenant Theology and see how God works through the covenant community, then compare it to secular individualistic beliefs, I couldn’t help but notice the Baptist theology and ecclesiology had more in common with the latter. I’m not quite sure if you took secular philosophy into consideration, but it was the very thing that convinced me to subscribe to the Westminster Standards and reject the Calvinist Baptist beliefs.

    In Christ,
    Erick

    1. Erick,

      Thank you for the insight. When I was working through these issues, I did not do a lot of thinking about the philsophy behind it all. This is helpful.

      I have noticed the individualistic tendencies in Baptist thought, but I hadn’t made the connection in quite that way. One thing that did strike me very powerfully, which is along the same lines, is the emphasis on family and authority throughout all of the Bible. It seemed odd to me that God would care so much about family and authority in the OT, and then limit the entire covenant community only to individuals in the New Covenant. The only way that I found to reason this is through a dispensational reading. My study of Ephesians (esp. Eph. 2:11-23; 3:6) convinced me that Paul really wants to the church to see that what they are inheriting are one and the same with the promises given to Israel. I found the dispensational interpretations a bit of a stretch in that regard.

      Thanks again for the thoughts.

  2. Josh, I greatly appreciate your post. I am currently a Calvinist in the SBC, in a non-calvinist SBC church. Which, that can be difficult in and of itself. I haven’t accepted Reformed theology for very long, probably 3 or 4 years. I grew up in the SBC and always believed Calvinism to be the destruction of the church, without actually studying anything on it, just taking the Pastor’s implicit word on it. Anyways, I am definitely right there with you, when it comes to the struggles of some Baptist beliefs. Like the idea of getting right before communion, come to the front to pray a prayer, preaching that is more focused on how we live rather than Christ, no one knowing that there is a thing called the Baptist Faith and Message, a trend towards me-centered theology, etc. etc. Don’t get me wrong, I love being able to serve where I am, I love my church, but I have definitely considered a transition on numerous occasions. The only thing that really hindered me in considering the Presbyterian church is infant baptism. I greatly appreciate what you said about it, because it does make sense, but do you have any recommendations on reading materials that would help me understand that to a much greatly detail? And, also Covenant Theology?

    @Erick, I have never studied Philosophy in the Reformation period, but that is very interesting. Do you have any recommendations for books to read about that and how it has effected the current Western church? Thanks!

    I don’t see a transition for my family and I right now, but my wife and I have one child and we are beginning to go through the New City Catechism and plan on teaching our child in that way as she grows, but I do have a concern that what she learns in our church now will constantly be different in some ways to what she will be taught at home.

    Thanks again!

    1. Ryan,

      Thank you so much for sharing. Honestly, I wouldn’t feel too pressured to rush to change denominations. Millard Erickson (a Baptist), in his systematic theology has a helpful chapter about denominations. One of the pieces of advice that he gives is not to be too quick about changing denominations, but to try to be an agent of reform from within. A mentor of mine gave similar advice. He said, “You may want to sit on this for about eight months.”

      That being said, one of the reasons that we were quicker to change was because of the stage of life that we are in. I am still a student and felt convinced enough that I wanted to affiliate myself in a denomination that I wanted to be an agent of mentorship into my development.

      Regarding infant baptism, I completely understand. It was the biggest stumbling block for me. So much so that I spend a good bit of my devotional time trying to understand the issue biblically. Thought I would consider myself a paedobaptist, I will admit that I still struggle with some things and find certain arguments for the baptist perspective persuasive. Especially from the Reformed Baptist perspective. Many of the guys from Southern Seminary have some good material on this.

      I would highly recommend two books, one from each perspective:

      From the Baptist Perspective, I would recommend “Believer Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant,” Edited by Shawn Wright and Thomas Schreiner (http://www.amazon.com/Believers-Baptism-Covenant-American-Commentary/dp/0805432493). These are the strongest arguments I have heard for the baptist view. I was convinced by them for some time. Stephen Wellum’s chapter is very important.

      From a Presbyterian/Reformed perspective: I would recommend “The Case of Covenantal Infant Baptism,” edited by Greg Strawbridge (http://www.amazon.com/The-Case-Covenantal-Infant-Baptism/dp/0875525547). I think Randy Booth’s and Doug Wilson’s cahpters are very important (I think both of them are smaller versions of books that each of them have written).

      I also was helped by the following articles:

      (Kevin DeYoung) http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2009/07/28/why-i-baptize-babies/

      (Denise Johnson) http://thirdmill.org/newfiles/den_johnson/TH.Johnson.Baptism.html

      (Francis Schaeffer) http://www.fivesolas.com/fs_bapt.htm

      (John Owen) http://www.covenantofgrace.com/owen_infant_baptism.htm

      (Meredith Kline) http://www.meredithkline.com/klines-works/by-oath-consigned/

      Regarding Covenant Theology, two good introductions are “Christ of the Covenants” by O. Palmer Robinson (http://www.amazon.com/The-Christ-Covenants-Palmer-Robertson/dp/0875524184) and “God of Promise” by Horton. However, I have found that even after reading these books, I didn’t quite understand covenant theology. It is a deep hermenuetic and it takes a lot of musing to comprehend. I am still learning.

      A good read of the Westminster Confessions is a good place to start as well.

  3. Josh- thanks for these thoughts. I feel like I’m feeling the tensions right now that you described. I’m a reformed baptist at an acts 29 church plant, but I go to reformed theological seminary and am pursuing vocational
    Ministry. What has that side of the journey looked like for you as you made this journey? Any advice for someone like me who is feeling the weight of these tensions, especially in considering where he can faithfully minister in the years to come?

    1. Regarding my experience so far, it is still a pretty new step for me. My wife and I go to a gospel-proclaiming PCA church, and have been very happy. We actually just completed our official transfer of membership. But, so far so good. I can say that I have felt rest in our decision. I have been seen a lot of validity in the Reformed tradition for some time and I am happy to now identify with it. No church is perfect though. The struggles never completely go away this side of glory.

      As far as advice goes, I can definitely relate to the tension. I learned a few things that come to mind:

      First, I became pretty obsessively perplexed for a while, and it led to anxiety in my heart. I would worry about making the wrong decision. I thought about it constantly. I felt like I couldn’t settle in my theological convictions. Part of that perplexity is necessary for any truth-seeker, but it can lead to unhealthy anxiety. I Eventually became convicted about that and had to give it up to the Lord.

      Study delligently, wrestle with the truth, but don’t let it become a hindrance to your gospel peace or your fellowship with your SBC brothers and sisters in Christ.

      Secondly, don’t be too hasty in your conclusion. These are complex issues. The more you read about it, the more you find that one’s interpretation on these matters often is far deeper than the issue at hand. They are hermuetical issues and take time to figure out. I would recommend some of the resources that I mentioned above to Ryan. But read good material from both sides of the issue, and let them sink in.

      Something that helped me is that I spent a period of time studying books on the matter and what I understood to be relevant passages of Scripture. I created a word document were I could just write out my thoughts and observations. I spent months doing this. It helped a lot. It’s one thing to think through something, it is another to have to write it out (making yourself reference Scripture). It forces you to think tangibly.

      Third, with whatever decision you make, maintain humility. These aren’t heresy issues. They are in-house debates. If you decide to go PCA, do so with humility. Remember, when talking with SBC friends how difficult it was for you to work through this. If you stay SBC, rest assured that you are among God’s people, and remember, when talking with your Presbyterian friends how your struggled through these issues.

      Fourth, talk about the issues as well. It is helpful if you can talk to mature people on both sides of the debate.

      I hope this helps. I am still learning myself.

  4. Ryan,

    Unfortunately, I do not have any specific books in mind that show a direct link of modernist philosophy and Baptist doctrine. I came to those conclusions through my own study. Throughout the course of Christian history, philosophies have directly impacted Christian thought because unorthodox teachers tend to synchronize the sacred with the secular. You see this behavior in contemporary teachings like the Emergent Church (Postmodernism), liberal teachings like higher criticism (Modernism) within all the denominations, and Purpose-Driven teachings (Existentialism).

    If I had to recommend some books to you, I would recommend books by Christian philosophers like Francis Schaeffer’s “How Should We Then Live?” and “Escape from Reason.” Both of those books show the philosophical progression of thought from St. Thomas Aquinas to the beginning of Post-Modernism. What is most fascinating about those books is to see Theology and Philosophy as once being king and queen of the sciences, fully complementing one another, then a divorce caused by individualistic thinkers like Descartes and David Hume. These thinkers opened the door for people to reject God in favor of human reason. The optimism of human reason over an “antiquated God” was the very spark of the Enlightenment period. And we as Christians know that human reason is only sufficient when it finds its source and authority in God’s Word.

    I also listened to Reformed Theological Seminary’s iTunesU courses on Christian History and also anything related to Western Thinking throughout Church history. Combine those books, the podcasts, and also reformed websites teachings on Christian and secular worldviews, and I came to see strong resemblances of individualistic human autonomy with the Anabaptist/Baptist roots.

    Some of the questions that Josh brought up in his original post were exactly the questions that I had. I also had other questions I was wrestling with as a Baptist that eventually led me to Presbyterianism, such as: 1) Why is the Baptist belief of Credobaptism not the dominant view, or even an alternative view, throughout Christian History? Were all the believers from the beginning of the church to the 1500’s wrong and we the Baptists finally got it right? 2) How does the Baptist view of the Lord’s Supper stay consistent with its views of the Doctrines of Grace, if we can only receive it when our lives are pure? (Josh made mention of this, but it’s one of highest importance) 3) How can a Baptist guarantee that infants weren’t part of the household in passages like Acts 10:24-48? If they aren’t 100% sure, then is it ok to avoid the practice of infant baptism simply because the Roman Catholic church (500 years after the first Christian churches were formed) polluted it? These questions and more eventually led me to Presbyterianism, and like I said before, the study of individualistic philosophy drove me the rest of the way.

    As for Covenant Theology; I like the books that Josh recommended, especially Horton’s (Michael Horton is my favorite Christian author/theologian), but the absolute best introduction to Covenant Theology that I’ve read is “Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored” by Zack Keele & Michael Brown. That books is written for the layperson, not the seminarian. The authors make a point of explaining this in their preface.

    In Christ,

    Erick

  5. Oh, I also would like to recommend David Hyde’s book “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” for an explanation of infant baptism, and Hyde’s book “Welcome to a Reformed Church” for an introduction to Reformed Ecclesiology and worship. I typically prefer meatier works for theology, but also love to read and recommend laymen books for those just getting started with Reformed beliefs and practices.

  6. I made the move from SBC to PCA just over a year ago. It’s been the best decision of my life. I’ve seen my wife and children flourish. I felt at home from the day I walked in the door. It’s good to worship with a clearly defined theological consistency that can only come from subscription to a confession. I know thatiI’ve found a church for life. I’ll never outgrow the PCA intellectually (something that did happen during my 5 years in the SBC) and I never have to worry about a new pastor changing the direction of the church.

    Welcome to the PCA brother.

  7. I’m in this awkward place where I do see children are members of the covenant, but still feel extremely uncomfortable about baptizing them. I will say that while I continue to fight tooth and nail against joining the dark side (lol), I thank God for Presbyterians. I read the Westminster Confession and Catechisms all the time. Absolutely love the Heidelberg Catechism. I think I related with every point you made here. A fear of mine is that one day I’ll wake up on the dark side and will be at odds theologically with my beloved, healthy, gospel-preaching baptist church. Gulp.

    1. Julian, I can relate so well with the way that you humorously put that. My post was to help me flesh out some thoughts and share with others who may be thinking through similar things, but, since you have been graced with a gospel-believing church, you can at least rest assured in that (praise God!). The rest are in-house issues and matter far less.

      1. I know you never claimed to be the expert, but since I’m here, I may as well get your thoughts. What should a person who becomes convinced of this position but attends a healthy, gospel-preaching Baptist church do? I’d hope you could remain there in silent disagreement, but I remember how that worked out for me when I tried to remain in my ultra charismatic church after becoming convinced of Calvinism.

      2. I will back that point up that I am definitely not the expert in this and I don’t have any experience in pastoral ministry, so there are many more qualified than me to answer that question. I can share some of the things that I thought through and some of the things that some more qualified than me did say. And, my thoughts have developed on it as time has gone by.

        Ultimately, I don’t know. It seems like it could be differnt for each person, depending on their situation. That is why I tried to make this post more personal than didactic. So, there is my unhelpful answer.

        I do think a few things are worth considering though.

        I think that Paul puts enough emphasis on community and enduring with one another (Eph. 4:2-6) that sticking with the church you have been committed to needs serious consideration, especially if it is a gospel-proclaiming church. Millard Erickson makes that point somewhere in his systematic theology about denominational differences. I read his arguments after I we made the switch and they definitely made me go back and reflect.

        I think it helps to weigh our decisions prayerfully in light of what we know God is doing in the church. What would most glorify God? What would best fit God’s goal of uniting all thing in Christ (Eph. 1:10) and fulfilling the Great Commission (Mat. 28:18-20)? Where can my family and I most be built up in Christ? Where will I be able to best contribute my gifts to the church? I think that those questions could be answered differently for each person.

        I heard Doug Wilson basically make this point once, coming from a Presbyterian perspective (I’m hoping to paraphrase him accurately). If you are moving to a town and there is a Jesus-loving baptist church and a Jesus-loving Presbyterian church, I would go to the Presbyterian church. If only the Baptist church was Jesus-loving, I would go to the baptist church (That’s moving to an area though, not leaving a church).

        So, if there is a good gospel-preaching, Jesus-loving, Presbyterian church nearby, where you may be able to serve Christ in your community in a way where you can more freely follow your convictions, I don’t think that you would be in the wrong for doing so; however, there could be very good reasons why you are where you are, and God may use you for the kingdom there as well. Because, no church is going to be perfect. You will always have to endure difficulties and dissagreements.

        If it helps, in our situation, we eventually decided that we were in a good position to make the switch because we were changing locations soon for seminary. So, we couldn’t stay involved in our current SBC church long anyway (A great church, by the way. We would have been happy staying there), and I wanted to be mentored by the PCA church in our area before the transition, because I wanted to be with the PCA through seminary.

      3. Also, I would recommend talking with your current pastor about your thoughts. And, if there is an oppurtunity, talk to a solid Presbyterian pastor in the area. That is what I did and it was really helpful.

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