A Clear Message from the 48th General Assembly of the PCA
The 48th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America was held in St. Louis last week (June 29-July 1) and so far, the dust has not yet settled. Having missed a year because of the COVID crisis many of us were eager to address issues which had been causing controversy in our denomination since the first Revoice conference in the summer of 2018 (hosted by Memorial PCA in St. Louis).
The importance of two overtures especially helps to explain the record attendance of commissioners. The final number of commissioners registered was over 2,100. To put that in perspective, the previous high was just over 1,600. Bottom line, we were there to vote on a few very specific matters.
The incursion of Revoice theology into the PCA has caused great division and confusion in our churches. We have been told to accept as an “orientation” what God’s Word calls “contrary to nature” and “dishonorable passions” (Romans 1:26-27). Some of our own Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders have made and continue to make the claim that homosexual desires are akin to blindness; a disability not a moral problem. Please understand that such a claim represents a bold contradiction to the witness of God’s Word. In equating dishonorable passions to a physical disability, they deny that homosexual attractions are sinful in and of themselves.
We are told that those who experience but do not physically act upon their unnatural affections are “brave” and “self-denying” for abstaining from sin. But are “brave” and “courageous” the right words to describe abstinence from abominable sin? Would we describe the man who does not commit adultery as courageous for not doing so? Mortifying sin is not courageous; it is the duty we owe our King.
We are told by some pastors in the PCA that those with unnatural affections will almost certainly not experience a change in those affections. Indeed, the belief that those enslaved by unnatural desires for the same sex can actually see those desires changed by the sanctifying power of God’s grace was described as “Wesleyan” and “Keswick” spirituality. We were told that any expectation that God’s sanctifying grace can re-order a sinful affection was “not Reformed.” Such a claim reflects, at best, a lack of understanding concerning what the Bible and our confessions actually teach about sanctification.
The weak and ineffectual doctrine of sanctification taught within the “Side B homosexual” and Revoice camps leaves no real hope for the one struggling with unnatural desires. We’ve been told by one of our pastors that “Jesus didn’t make me straight.” We’ve been told that the homosexual “orientation” will not or is highly likely not to change. And rather than lament such a sorry state, we’ve even been told that there will be “queer treasures” in the new creation. Is this what now passes in the PCA for a biblical and Reformed doctrine of sanctification? Does the gospel offer no hope for these men, other than life-long celibacy and childlessness?
There are implications for ordained office as well. For the first time the PCA has ordained men who identify themselves as gay, with the understanding that this “orientation” is in and of itself not a sin to be mortified but only the lusts or actions that may spring from that “orientation.” This sort of linguistic and doctrinal gymnastics is what happens when contemporary therapeutic categories shape our interpretation of Scripture.
Enter Overtures 23 and 37. After much debate both overtures passed in Overtures Committee with strong majorities and were passed on the floor of the Assembly with similarly overwhelming majorities. The Overtures are as follows:
Overture 23 is a motion to amend the Book of Church Order (BCO) 16 by adding the following clause:
16-4 Officers in the Presbyterian Church in America must be above reproach in their walk and Christlike in their character. Those who profess an identity (such as, but not limited to, “gay Christian,” “same sex attracted Christian,” “homosexual Christian,” or like terms) that undermines or contradicts their identity as new creations in Christ, either by denying the sinfulness of fallen desires (such as, but not limited to, same sex attraction), or by denying the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, or by failing to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions are not qualified for ordained office.
Overture 23 was passed by the Assembly by a vote of 1438 to 417.
Overture 37 is a motion to amend BCO 21-4 and 24-1 by “clarifying the moral requirements for church office.”
Therefore be it resolved that, for the examination of Teaching Elders, BCO 21-4 be amended to add a new sub-paragraph 21-4.e, as follows, with the subsequent sub paragraphs [21-4.e-h] re-lettered [to be 21-4.f-i] (addition underlined):
- In the examination of the candidate’s personal character, the presbytery shall give specific attention to potentially notorious concerns, such as but not limited to relational sins, sexual immorality (including homosexuality, child sexual abuse, fornication, and pornography), addictions, abusive behavior, racism, and financial mismanagement. Careful attention must be given to his practical struggle against sinful actions, as well as to persistent sinful desires. The candidate must give clear testimony of reliance upon his union with Christ and the benefits thereof by the Holy Spirit, depending on this work of grace to make progress over sin (Psalm 103:2-5, Romans 8:29) and to bear fruit (Psalm 1:3; Gal. 5:22-23). While imperfection will remain, he must not be known by reputation or self-profession according to his remaining sinfulness, but rather by the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 6:9-11). In order to maintain discretion and protect the honor of the pastoral office, Presbyteries are encouraged to appoint a committee to conduct detailed examinations of these matters and to give prayerful support to candidates
Be it further resolved that, for the examination of Ruling Elders and Deacons, BCO 24-1 be amended by the addition of a second paragraph (addition underlined):
24-1. Every church shall elect persons to the office of ruling elders and deacon in the following manner: At such times as determined by the Session, communicant members of the congregation may submit names to the Session, keeping in mind that each prospective officer should be an active male member who meets the qualifications set forth in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. After the close of the nomination period nominees for the office of ruling elder and/or deacon shall receive instruction in the qualifications and work of the office. Each nominee shall then be examined in:
- his Christian experience, especially his personal character and family management (based on the qualifications set out in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9),
- his knowledge of Bible content,
- his knowledge of the system of doctrine, government, discipline contained in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America (BCO Preface III, The Constitution Defined),
- the duties of the office to which he has been nominated, and
- his willingness to give assent to the questions required for ordination (BCO 24-6).
In the examination of each nominee’s personal 1 character, the Session shall give specific attention to potentially notorious concerns, such as but not limited to relational sins, sexual immorality (including homosexuality, child sexual abuse, fornication, and pornography), addictions, abusive behavior, racism, and financial mismanagement. Careful at tent ion must be given to his practical struggle against sinful actions, as well as to persistent sinful desires. Each nominee must give clear testimony of reliance upon his union with Christ and the benefits thereof by the Holy Spirit, depending upon this work of grace to make progress over sin (Psalm 103:2-5; Romans 8:29) and to bear fruit (Psalm 1:3; Gal. 5:22-23). While imperfection will remain, he must not be known by reputation or self-profession according to his remaining sinfulness, but rather by the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 6:9-14 11). In order to maintain discretion and protect the honor of church office, Sessions are encouraged to appoint a committee to conduct detailed examinations into these matters and to give prayerful support to nominees.
If there are candidates eligible for the election, the Session shall report to the congregation those eligible, giving at least thirty (30) days prior notice of the time and place of a congregational meeting for the elections.
If one-fourth (1/4) of the persons entitled to vote shall at any time request the Session to call a congregational meeting for the purpose of electing additional officers, it shall be the duty of the Session to call such a meeting on the above procedure. The number of officers to be elected shall be determined by the congregation after hearing the Session’s recommendation.
Overture 37 was passed by the Assembly by a vote of 1130 to 692.
Keep in mind that the passing of Overtures 23 and 37 are only first steps. In order to amend the Book of Church Order they must next be passed by two-thirds of our presbyteries, and then passed by a majority vote at next year’s General Assembly in Birmingham.
In the weeks and months ahead you will no doubt be hearing a lot of criticisms of Overtures 23 and 37. Indeed, the vitriol displayed on social media by the critics of the overtures has been swift and furious. It’s understandable. Those who opposed 23 and 37, while making up a clear minority in the PCA, are passionate in their opposition.
I believe the following insights from a member of the Overtures Committee are quite helpful in answering the critics of Overtures 23 and 37. Perhaps those critics will carefully consider these words and entertain the possibility that the large majorities by which those overtures passed reflects common-sense biblical wisdom:
I wanted to post my own extended thoughts about the nature of Overtures 23 and 37 and the regular notes about elders noting that the Church was targeting a specific group of people.
First of all, we might imagine a modern presbuteros (elder) at Nicea rising up during the proceedings and objecting that the council present was only considering one particular sin and that we need to be careful not to simply target people who deny the Trinity because there are many other sins being committed in the Church.
The Church has historically been forced to meet and talk specifically to controversy in the Church not because the Scriptures changed but because men were using the Scriptures to teach error. Arius believed the Church was violating scripture and the Council *targeted* people like Arius with a word like homoousias. They knew that men who believed like him would refuse to say that specific word because it would mean they believed Jesus was God. In other words, they used a word to draw boundaries.
Let’s recap a little history.
Many men rightly pointed out that we’ve had people who mortify the lust of SSA for many years within the PCA. What doesn’t occur to them is that this is the first time this has come up as a controversy.
Because nobody, prior to a few years ago was saying and platforming that SSA is like the man born blind. No Presbytery was judging, until a few years ago, that an illicit desire is not sin itself until one actually lusts for it. Nobody, until years ago was not only adopting Roman Catholic views on sin but promoting conferences within our Churches that outsourced sanctification about a particular lust to a conference of notionally Reformed and other semi-Pelagian (including Roman Catholic) views on sanctification.
No minister who was mortifying his lust previously stood up and said that the Church is wrong to encourage Christians not to identify as homosexuals.
In other words, the thing that changed was a controversy and controversy demands a response. It doesn’t demand a generic response.
Nobody was saying it was OK to be inhospitable. Nobody was arguing that being racist isn’t sinful until you act on it.
If people ask why it seems we are targeting SSA, it is because there are some who, by their words, have denied that it is lust that is corruption that is flesh.
We do not need statements that God loves SSA people because we have always believes that God loves sinners who are, by nature, objects of wrath. We believe the Gospel is for sinners and that the Good News is that all our sin is dealt with both in terms of guilt as well as power.
It is the false teaching that remains that needs to be rooted out that places certain lusts and sinners in a bubble all their own that imagines that when we’re addressing sinners in general and one of the aspects of the sinful corruption is brought up that they don’t see themselves as the Scriptures see them.
So the second answer to why they feel targeted is the false teaching that they are sui generis. They are not unicorns. They are not unique. They are sinners and we need to double down on our doctrine of sin and sanctification.
There are many ministers who are mortify their SSA lust and have done so for years. They understand it is lust and they understand they are MEN. They don’t stand apart from other men and tell others that they are unicorns. They are men who go to those who are spiritual to confess and receive help with their struggles (Gal 6:1). They don’t parade themselves as standing outside sinners united to Christ but within the assembly of those are daily putting the old man to death and putting on Christ.
Thus, as a Christian Church, we only recognize those who stand in solidarity with us as sinners in Christ and not those who continue to confound or dissemble as teachers who will be held to account for letting little ones stumble and convincing them that flesh is not flesh and sin is not sin but some third thing that is neither simply a man nor woman but some other I know not what in a confused culture.