A Letter to PCA Friends from England
I share this letter to brethren in the PCA with some trepidation. With Prov. 26:17 in mind it is arguably foolhardy to get involved in another denomination’s ecclesial debates — especially one on the other side of the Atlantic! However friends in the PCA have suggested it may be helpful to you if I share how things have played out in England over the past decade.
Why would you want to read about the recent history of English evangelicalism as you ponder important votes in the PCA?
In most matters, American culture leads the Western world. To be sure, any time my children get obsessed with some fad or new toy, I can bet my bottom pound (dollar?) that the toy or movement originated in the USA. However, in regard to the specific debates you today face in the PCA — Revoice, ‘Side B’ views on sexuality — England, rather than America, has led the way.
It was a good decade ago that evangelical leaders in England began speaking of their same sex attractions in public, and shortly after that a para-church organization was established that promotes the collection of views that you would identify as being of the ‘Side B’ family. The language of ‘Side B’ was not used over here back then, but the doctrine was the same. One reason English evangelicals got a jumpstart on Americans in this area is that the Christian scene here is shaped in a large measure by what happens in the Church of England. Since that Church is a state church, with deep ties to the secular establishment, it naturally reflects the culture’s views more speedily than those Churches that distance themselves from the secular establishment.
Back in 2010, I realized where the sexuality debates in the Church were headed. At that time people were talking about homosexuality, but I could see that the goalposts would rapidly shift, and that the challenge would in the future be how to respond to transgenderism. That is why back in 2010 I published one of the first books from a conservative on the intellectual background to our culture’s celebration of transgenderism (Plastic People, Latimer Press, 2010). I hope that goes some way towards reassuring you I have been following these debates closely and pondering where matters are headed.
I pray then that a letter from a supportive friend in England may be of help to you in the PCA. I can do what you cannot do — write with the benefit of hindsight. I can share to you observations of what has happened in England where to a great degree, Side B views on sexuality have carried the day in evangelical circles. Rarely in ecclesial debates can you have the benefit of hindsight. I hope it is of use to you now.
What has happened in English church circles as Side B views have been widely accepted and promoted?
Confessions Have Been Overwhelmed by Personal Stories
The Confession of the Church of England (The 39 Articles) is robustly Reformed, and was used in drafting the Westminster Confession. The Confessions of both the Church of England and the PCA reject the fundamental tenet of ‘Side B’ when they affirm that the desires for something sinful are themselves sinful, requiring repentance, mortification and the Spirit’s sanctifying power.
The 39 Articles used the word ‘concupiscence’ to make this point. Article 9 says, ‘The Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.’ The claim is that the Bible itself teaches that the desire for sinful things has the ‘nature of sin.’
The Westminster Confession did not use the word ‘concupiscence’ but expanded and elucidated its meaning. So WCF 6,5 teaches, ‘This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be through Christ pardoned and mortified, yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin.’
Looking back over the past decade in England, the striking thing is that the Confessional resources we have to hand have been largely set aside and ignored in favour of moving, emotive personal stories from people willing to interpret their experiences through lenses foreign to Scripture. Side B views cannot root themselves in your Confession — instead, they seek to carry the day with emotive stories and personal experience. In so doing they resonate with the culture of the day.
One result of this in England has been that very few ministers are able or willing to teach a classical Reformed view on the nature of temptation in the realm of homosexuality. Personal stories are so valued by people that the duties of teaching are delegated out to parachurch organizations that can send into your church somebody who speaks from their personal experience. You can guess what happens — they promote a Side B view, and that outlook is embedded ever deeper in churches.
The Power of God Has Been Downplayed
The conservative movement in the Church of England was arguably susceptible to Side B type views, because it had for decades prior to that downplayed the supernatural work of God in conversion. For a long time, we favoured evangelistic training rather than evangelism, talks about the Bible rather than preaching, calls to sign-up to a course rather than to place one’s faith in Christ. Reacting against the Charismatic Movement since the 1970s, we warned people against the Holy Spirit and tried to settle for courses, clear teaching, and well managed churches. All this gave the wider movement a shallow, non-supernatural view of conversion and the Christian life.
There are echoes of relevant debates in American Christianity, such as Warfield contending for supernaturalism, or Edwards arguing for the New Birth.
If English evangelicals were primed to downplay the supernatural power of God in conversion and the Christian life, the problem was exacerbated by acceptance of Side B views. As leaders began telling their stories of how they became Christians but did not experience any deep spiritual change in their desires or outlook in important areas of life. Churches were primed to accept their stories and self-diagnosis because few had awareness of the Bible’s teaching about the radical supernatural impact of being born again.
When I preach on Romans, I pointed out that the arena of the heart is where desires for same sex relationships are felt (Rom. 1:24). It is in this very same heart that the Spirit sheds abroad the love of God (Rom. 5:5). When the Spirit pours into our hearts the holy, sanctifying love of God, it cannot but be the case that new desires are felt. We are empowered to live out a new life. To be sure we do not live sinlessly — there is a battle and there are failures and struggles. But there is a genuine, supernatural and deep change.
Side B leaders who argue that their desires for same sex relationships are unchanged (or even good) find a ready audience for such teaching in England, because the supernatural work of the Spirit has so often been replaced with rationalism and organizational effort. One of the most widely respected resources from a conservative perspective in England when preaching Romans is a book which argues that Rom. 5:5 should be collapsed into Rom. 5:6. And so the work of the Spirit in v. 5 is merely your rational understanding that v6 is true. If you understand Christ died for you, then that is all you need.
That is a shallow view of conversion which downplays the supernatural power of the Spirit. I look back on the widespread acceptance of Side B views of sexuality and see, with regret, that in England this went hand in hand with a downplaying of the power of God in conversion. The supernatural new birth changes our desires on a deeper level than many here realized.
Ministers Have Raised Banners for Multiple Identities
English evangelicals have not really used the language of ‘Side B,’ but the collection of views it fosters have been around here for the past decade. One aspect which is readily identifiable on both sides of the Atlantic is the way Side B leaders end up raising banners for multiple identities beyond that of a Christian or gospel minister.
Various identities are spoken of — Gay Christian, same sex attracted believer, LGBT ally, and others. Some of the Side B leaders explicitly say ‘I am not accepting a same sex attracted identity.’ However, even by lending their names to the movements that promote Side B theology and pastoral care, they in effect raise a banner other than that of a mere Christian.
The fragmentation of identities and self-identification is of course another aspect of postmodern culture. And as evangelicals embrace naming their different identities they are making themselves more acceptable to the culture. The significance of this really hit me when I read the words of one of the gay bishops in the Church of England. He does not claim to be an evangelical, but the starkness of his words highlighted for me the problem of Side B leaders upholding an identity other than that of Christian.
A newspaper reported:
'Stressing that he did not want to become known as “the gay bishop”, he said he hoped that the impact of his openness would be “that we can say the bishop of Grantham is gay and is getting on with his life and ministry”. However, as a member of the C of E’s College of Bishops, which meets this month to discuss the next stage of the church’s discussions about sexuality, Chamberlain may come under pressure to be a representative for LGBT rights. “I will speak [at the meeting], and this part of me will be known. I hope I’ll be able to be a standard-bearer for all people as a gay man”' (The Guardian, 2 Sept. 2016).
Note how the quote simultaneously downplays the gay identity, but at the same times aspires to being a ‘gay standard bearer.’ This is the reality of how things play out in evangelical circles too. Ministers who adhere to Side B theology cannot help but uphold an identity that is set alongside their identity in Christ as gospel ministers. They may even say that they do not want to be known as ‘gay Christians’ or ‘same sex attracted believers,’ but the reality is that the theological convictions of Side B usher into one’s heart an identity that is set alongside a born again believer. There is no way to avoid this. The result in England was fragmentation into other identities even further removed from scriptural convictions.
'Side B' Leaders Began to Debate Where Lines Lie
In the early days of Side B views being promoted in England, we all thought that orthodox views were being promoted. I did too, for a short time. If you are reading this and are where I was ten years ago, you may be hopeful that the Side B view could perhaps form a bulwark against secular views infiltrating the church.
It is worth knowing what happened in England. The leaders who promoted Side B began to debate among themselves. They published various blogs and articles and gave talks around churches where they began debating among themselves where the lines of outward expression lie. They broadly speaking agreed that their desires for intimacy and relationship where good — just that they should not be acted upon in a physical way. But what would then be permissible? Some contended for covenanted relationships, others for hand holding or ‘spiritual friendships’. Many supported the idea of accountability groups between those who struggled with the same temptations. Numbers of ministers who struggle with homosexuality met with others outside their church structures to pray and support one another, in effect setting up secret structures of care that their congregations and fellow elders did not have any input to.
In other areas of ethics, conservatives would have seen that these debates and practices flew in the face of normal Reformed praxis and ecclesiology. But the power of personal story and the alliance with the cultural norms overcame most. Be aware that accepting Side B did not end the sexuality debates in England — it merely advanced the ethical confusion and fragmentation of evangelicalism.
Side B leaders began to change sides
Sadly, I can look back on a decade of Side B views being commended in England and recall a number of Side B evangelicals who changed sides from rejecting homosexual activity to living in active same sex relationships. I have met privately with several who for years held to a Side B view, but are today in active homosexual relationships.
You need to be aware that is the trajectory. Many Side B proponents argue for using the language of the liberals in order to win them over. Many Side B proponents wrote books and articles criticizing evangelical churches for what they perceived to be their failures and sins in not accepting their outlook. Evangelical churches were challenged to review themselves on how welcoming of Side B outlooks they would be and warned that failure to do so would lead to suicides among gay teenagers or failure in mission to the next generation.
It should come as no surprise that from such a situation, it was easy for numbers of Side B leaders to change sides and either begin living out a lifestyle they previously opposed, or begin teaching against the ethical views they once held.
The doctrinal outlook of Side B is such that it functions as a gateway for some, over time, to change sides and advance the Side A outlook. We have seen this in England, and I expect you will see the same in the PCA if this trend is not clearly and firmly resisted.
I hope that what I have shared with you, looking back on a decade of these debates in England, is of help. I think the history of these matters in England strongly suggests my PCA brethren would be wise to support Overtures 23 and 37. And I pray, as a friend from across the Atlantic, you are able to so do.
With love in Christ from England,
Rev. Dr. Peter Sanlon
Minister and Author
"Courageous Christian Sexuality" by William Boekestein
"Identifying Our Identity" by Jared Nelson
Revoiced Spirituality by Jonathan Master
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman