The 41st General Assembly, Part 2 B: Do the Westminster Standards represent what the PCA believes?


Someone seeking a statement of what Presbyterians believe in our time can’t be blamed for running into some confusion. Looking at a spectrum, one side will have the Presbyterian Church(USA) with their Book of Confessions. Not only is the large number of confessions from different times and places in itself daunting, the mainline Presbyterian Church of today really has little regard for the older confessions. Let’s face it, even the Confession of 1967 grows old in PCUSA years.

The opposite side of Presbyterian definition shows up in smaller, staunchly conservative Presbyterian churches. These bodies are likely to see the Westminster Standards as a singular achievement in the history of the church. Even so, some small Presbyterian bodies will readily admit that confessional revision is necessary. Those churches that consider themselves American Presbyterian will have a revised Westminster, especially on the relation of church and state.

The Presbyterian Church in America is somewhere in between. The church contains men who cherish the Westminster Standards as an excellent summary of the Bible’s teaching. It also contains men who, while not theological liberals in the classic sense, declare the Westminster Standards passé. Dr. Robert Rayburn of Tacoma, WA is an example of this latter type. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Rayburn has taken such an active role in defending Federal Vision thinkers in the PCA and that he openly expresses deep dissatisfaction with the Westminster Standards. He has, in his defense testimony in the Meyers case, said the following:

So there’s all of that, but gentlemen,
we’re in a period of transition. Our 350-year run
with the Westminster Standards is coming to an end.
Nothing wrong with that. It’s inevitable. You got to
take — you got to accumulate the learning of the last
long period of time to get you incorporated into the
way in which you’re thinking about. That. [sic]

Meyer’s Trial Transcript, Part 2, pp. 103-104.

Dr. Rayburn isn’t content to wistfully foresee the eventual retirement of Westminster. Readers of his church’s newsletter “Words of Faith” would have recently received a series of articles by Dr. Rayburn thoroughly criticizing the Westminster Standards. It is important to look at the incoherence faced by a person desiring to know what Dr. Rayburn’s congregation believes. On the one hand one will find the Westminster Confession under “Doctrine” on the church website. On the other, you’ll have the pastor deprecating the Westminster Standards in the pulpit, in the newsletter and elsewhere.

Many PCAers adhere to “system subscription:” the idea that there is a “Confession” within the Westminster Confession; that office bearers are welcome to eclectically take or leave statements in their doctrinal standards; that office bearers can teach their congregations that the so-called Confession of Faith is the confession of a distant time and not our own. Such ideas are bound to have consequences. Of all the theories as to why the PCA is divided, the theory that makes sense to me is that its doctrinal standards are increasingly inoperative. This results naturally in doctrinal provincialism, litigiousness, and even anarchy. We’re talking more than an exception here and there, a scruple with this or that formulation; we’re talking a fundamental rejection. Is the best many PCA office holders can say for their confessional identity, “I was for Westminster before I was against it?”


3 Responses to “The 41st General Assembly, Part 2 B: Do the Westminster Standards represent what the PCA believes?”

  1. Greg Says:

    Good post!

    Here is a link to Rayburn’s 2005 “sermon” on paedocommunion:

    Two Excerpts:

    “Several considerations have recently led a number of men in Reformed and Presbyterian churches to call that longstanding practice of withholding the Lord’s Supper from covenant children into question. I was, some years ago, the chairman of the study committee appointed to consider the new arguments for paedocommunion being offered by Presbyterian Church in America men and I wrote the minority report for that study committee, the report defending paedocommunion. That was some 15 years ago now and at that time the church voted by a large majority to maintain its practice. Through the years since many more men have changed their minds on the question and, I suspect, the vote, if taken today, would be much closer than it was in the late 1980s.”

    “We do not practice paedocommunion here at Faith Presbyterian. We get as close to it as we can, the rules of our church being what they are, but a profession of faith is still required in the PCA for participation at the Lord’s Table. So, we take professions of faith much sooner than used to be the norm; and, happily, many, many other PCA churches are doing the same. And that is alright. If it takes some years, as it will, to convince the church that the practice of many centuries is in error, so be it. Our little children, having come to the table at five years of age or so, will not remember a time when they did not come, of a Lord’s Day, to eat the bread and drink the wine that Jesus Christ their Savior has provided for them by his body and blood. And in its own mysterious way, that Supper will, by the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit, do its work in nourishing their faith in Jesus Christ.”

    The minority report he references is from 1988 and can be found here:

    How is it he has remained a PCA teaching elder for 25 years teaching this view?

  2. locirari Says:

    Hi Greg. Thanks! I’d challenge the way advocates of paedocommunion frame the debate (incl. the way Dr. Rayburn does in the passage you quote).

    The Supper isn’t withheld from covenant children. Rather, ideally, each covenant child is encouraged to come to the table with understanding, in an organic way. The confessional position doesn’t impose anything beyond what is written. Instead, the solemn warnings of I Corinthians are applied to the whole church. Paedocommunionists who chafe under confessional practice may just err in a different way: hurrying children into communicant membership instead of skipping pre-communicant catechesis altogether.

  3. horace Says:

    Do Westminster Standards represent what the PCA believes? Perhaps in other presbyteries, but NOT in the Pacific Northwest. Even should the SJC do something different about the Leithart decision, which I doubt, you are still left with a NPP and FV presbytery that is largely out of conformance with the Standards. How many exceptions do you allow before the obvious is, well, obvious?
    (locirari, please email me)

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