PCA Will Investigate ‘Jesus Calling’ Book (2024)

The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) at its annual meeting on Thursday voted to investigate the Christian appropriateness of the best-selling book Jesus Calling by Sarah Young, who was part of the PCA and died in August last year at age 77. Young was one of the most-read evangelicals of the last 20 years.

Pastors in the denomination are concerned that Young’s use of the voice of Jesus in the book undermines the concept of sola Scriptura and might amount to heresy. The book was published in 2004, and criticisms of its theology from leaders in the denomination have already been widely circulated.

In addition to having a degree from the denomination’s Covenant Theological Seminary, Young was the wife of a PCA elder and missionary to Japan, Steve Young.

At the debate on the measure, the recent widower rose and spoke to the room of several thousand church leaders, asking the assembly to vote against the investigation.

“Her writings did not add to Scripture but explain it,” Steve Young said. “She would stand with Martin Luther and declare that her conscience was captive to the Word of God.”

He went on: “Sarah is a sister in Christ and wife who delighted in the law of the Lord, and on his law she meditated day and night. She was led to share her meditations with the world.”

Young herself said her devotions were meant to be read “with your Bible open.”

The measure passed by a relatively close vote, 947–834, with 20 abstentions. It directs two denominational committees to answer a set of questions on the book and to each issue a report.

The committees must look at the denominational agencies’ history with the book and must “assess the book’s appropriateness for Christians in general and PCA members and congregations in particular with special regard for its doctrine and method.”

One of the committee reports will come from Mission to the World (MTW), the denominational mission agency through which Sarah Young and her husband were missionaries. MTW’s report must “examine MTW’s relationship with the book, knowledge of its content, and any counsel given to the author” and “consider actions that MTW and the General Assembly should take in light of this study of the book and of the agency’s relationship to it.”

Those supporting the measure said the reports would be useful.

“This book in question is perhaps the best-selling book by any member of the PCA,” said pastor Zachary Groff, speaking in favor of the investigation.

Chuck Williams, another church leader, said he was concerned about anyone “claiming an immediate revelation from God.” (Young’s editors at Thomas Nelson said she was clear that she did not have “new revelations.”)

Those opposed to the measure thought it was an unusual undertaking for the denomination to investigate a book and thought it was inappropriate given the timing after her death.

A pastor from Tennessee, Daniel Wells, said he knew Young’s extended family.

“They are still grieving,” he said, urging a vote against the measure. “Romans 12:15 tells us to weep with those who weep. This overture would instead ask us to investigate this woman who has passed on.”

Church leader Jerid Krulish, speaking against the measure, noted that he was from Alaska, where people often consume a lot of fish.

“I know a fishing expedition when I see it,” he said to laughter in the room. “I find this to be disparaging and a waste of these committees’ time.”

Hymn writer Kevin Twit also rose to oppose the measure, saying that he hadn’t read the book but that John Newton’s hymn “Pensive, Doubting, Fearful Heart” also speaks using God’s voice, and he considers that not new revelation but a summary of ideas.

The original legislation (called an overture in the PCA) came from an individual, pastor Benjamin Inman. Most pieces of legislation come from a presbytery. The lack of support for the measure from a presbytery didn’t bode well for its chances at a denominational level.

But, this week, the denomination’s overture committee amended Inman’s legislation to be milder and more palatable to the assembly—removing his language condemning Young for publishing a book guilty of idolatry, for example—and recommended the gathered assembly vote yes on the amended version.

Inman’s original legislation called for the PCA to consider repenting for not disciplining Young for idolatry, though he acknowledged that “the author’s passing in August 2023 has carried her above the jurisdiction of the PCA.”

Steve Tipton, the chair of the committee that produced the amended legislation, said that the goal of the denominational report was not to condemn Young, although he said “we can all guess” what the denominational committees would say about the book’s appropriateness for Christians.

The PCA is a small denomination—with about 1,800 congregations to the Southern Baptist Convention’s 47,000—but it has broad intellectual influence, with authors like Young, Tim Keller, O. Alan Noble, Kevin DeYoung, and Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt. Jesus Calling sold more than 45 million copies.

Evangelical leaders have already criticized the book. Author Kathy Keller, wife of Tim Keller, said Jesus Calling undermined the sufficiency of Scripture. Blogger Tim Challies said the book was “unworthy of our attention.”

The PCA disagreed.

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