Honest Thoughts on the Open Letter
In anticipation of the 48th stated meeting of the PCA General Assembly in St. Louis, Missouri, an open letter titled, “Looking Forward—Together” was published on June 2nd, 2021 for the purpose “of encouraging others about the present and future of the Presbyterian Church in America and also to address and put to rest some assertions that are being spread about the PCA that we feel to be inaccurate and harmful.” The Open Letter (OL) has since garnered the support of more than 500 PCA teaching and ruling elders and has been the topic of much debate on social media.
While the desire for unity and mutual understanding among the signatories of the OL is commendable, and one that is shared by the present writer, the letter ultimately fails to accomplish and even undermines its stated purpose. In order to foster a “peaceful dialogue among people who share the confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior,” it is the aim of this post to provide context and clarity as there appears to be some confusion or misunderstanding surrounding the issues of homosexual practice, same-sex attraction (SSA), and fitness for ordination in the PCA. The remainder of this post will identify three weaknesses in the OL and provide brief commentary interspersed throughout. Care has been taken throughout not to assume motives but to assume the best of all those who composed and signed the OL. Please note that directly quoted material is in bold and that all underlines are my own.
The Issue of Charity
Be assured that our desire is not to vilify or attack those who disagree. We firmly believe that when offered respectfully, our internal challenges and those who disagree with us make us stronger. We all know that Satan, “the accuser of the brethren” (Revelation 12:10) would have no greater joy than for us to be divided as a denomination over matters that we should debate charitably and truthfully in order for iron to sharpen iron!
Before addressing the issues of homosexuality and ordination in the PCA, the above paragraph expresses a desire not to vilify or to draw up lines of needless division. This, the writers rightly claim, requires, “charitable and truthful debate.” With that, all are in agreement. The Apostle Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians ought to ring true in our theological debates with our brothers in Christ, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29). Later the OL warns,
“If we do not find more ways of speaking charitably and biblically to one another in our national discussions, we run the risk of doing damage to the nuanced work of individual local churches in their particular congregations, communities and contexts.”
Once again, there is no disagreement on this point. However, in the paragraph immediately preceding the above quotation, the writers fail to extend the same charity to their interlocutors that they call on their interlocutors to extend to them:
“The ‘Enter In’ ethic modeled by our Savior, Jesus, should not be replaced by a “Do Not Enter” sign outside of the Church’s walls, making it difficult for people to believe that the gospel is good news—or that we believe in its power to transformed lives.”
To say that those who have publicly voiced their concern over the public teachings of Revoice and Side B Gay Christianity have replaced Christ’s “Enter In” with a “Do Not Enter” sign is far from charitable. For such an assertion to stick, it would seem to require concrete evidence. The OL, however, provides none.
Furthermore, the assertion that “full or strict subscription” means “accepting every sentence and premise of our Confession without question or qualification” is a caricature of those who fully subscribe to the Westminster Standards. Only the Word of God is to be accepted without question or qualification. Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith and practice, and those who do subscribe to the Westminster Standards without exception should not be charged with “elevating a human document to biblical status.” Though the Bible is our ultimate and final authority in all matters of religion, the Westminster Standards are a secondary authority to which we all must adhere. We have vowed to do so and mustn’t minimize that. Strict subscription does not necessitate that one accept the Standards “without question” or with an uncritical eye. In fact, confessional subscription necessitates just the opposite—it forces you to ask many questions. It requires that you be a Berean, that you diligently search the Scriptures and do the exegetical spadework to determine whether or not this system of doctrine is consistent with the teaching of holy scripture (Acts 17:11). To mischaracterize full subscription as “unquestioned” obeisance to the Standards is an oversimplification and lacks the kind of nuance to which the letter repeatedly calls us.
The Issue of the Straw Man
One of the leading concerns of the OL appears to be the use of “extreme examples” by the opposite side that “ignite alarm and enflame passions among brothers.” This desire to avoid “extremes” is a recurring theme throughout the letter:
“When we speak in extremes, in order to press a position, we hurt those we love, and do damage to our Witness…This letter is not meant to point fingers, because many of us have been guilty of the same sins. Many have lived out of our worst selves, out of fear. Many have let those on the farthest extremes to define who we are in the middle…Let’s stop this petty feuding. Let’s stop whittling everything down to extremes. Let’s stop and listen to one another… .”
Additionally, the OL laments how social media, blog posts, and digital communication have done damage to the reputations of those involved and how “frequently, ‘straw men’ are erected without proof.” This is indeed lamentable. Pigeonholing, broad brushing, and straw-manning do not add to but detract from substantive, profitable debate. Regardless of how strongly we disagree with a brother in Christ, we should observe the Golden Rule in all our interactions, whether personal or digital, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12). If we desire to be understood, we should make every effort to understand our brothers for what they are saying and not what we think they are saying.
However, despite the repeated calls to avoid setting up straw men and to avoid extremes, the OL’s focus on homosexual practice exclusively and failure to address the matter of same-sex attraction at all, functionally set up a straw man:
“In the past year you may have heard alarming reports regarding the direction of the PCA. You may have heard that there are PCA pastors who desire to ordain practicing homosexuals—This could not be further from the truth, and is an example of using extremes to ignite alarm and enflame passions among brothers.”
The OL says elsewhere,
“There are appropriate discussions and differences about what obedience and purity mean when they are assessed for ministry leaders, but we must be clear that no one in authority in the PCA is advocating ordination, or even approval, of those engaged in homosexual practice. Overstating our differences to arouse passions and fears of our constituencies does not help our church or honor our Lord.”
Though there may be a handful of those who wrongly claim that Revoice speakers and those who identify as Side-B Gay Christians are advocating for the ordination of practicing homosexuals, this erroneous “extreme” does not accurately represent the concern of the vast majority of those who are disturbed by the teachings of Revoice. The heart of the issue is not whether homosexual practice is sinful; the key issue is whether homosexual attraction is itself a sin and if the heinousness of this sin is such that it disqualifies a man from holding ordained office. The letter’s failure to mention the widespread concern surrounding SSA anywhere in the body of the letter gives the unsuspecting reader the impression that all those who have voiced their disagreement with Revoice are taking issue with a position that the other side does not maintain and are thereby guilty of slander and swinging to extremes. In this, the letter itself uses those “on the farthest extreme to define who we are in the middle.” It sets up a straw man. The concerns of those of us in the “middle” are not adequately captured by this letter. Though it is the sincere desire of the present writer to join with these brothers and move forward together, this can only happen if and when the concerns of those who are not on the farthest extremes are sufficiently understood and accurately represented in public discourse.
The Issue of Specificity
The third and final issue that surfaced at multiple points in the letter was a lack of specificity. Aside from failing to identify those who are saying that there are PCA pastors who desire to ordain practicing homosexuals, there was a good deal of ambiguity surrounding Good Faith Subscription (GFS):
“Ironically, those arguing against Good Faith Subscription are permitted the latitude within Good Faith Subscription to advocate a non-constitutional position according to their conscience. The latitude they expect to be given in so speaking is that which should be extended to others.”
Admittedly, I finished that paragraph asking myself, “What specific ‘non-constitutional’ positions are being advocated by those who argue against GFS? Would those who are arguing against GFS say their position is ‘non-constitutional’ or is this simply the opinion of the writers of the OL?” Additionally, citing the work and personal experience of only one founding member of the PCA (“he found only one or two advocating for a strict subscription denomination”) is not sufficient to establish that the PCA’s founders had a view on confessional subscription akin to that of GFS proponents today. Was this the case, why didn’t the PCA declare itself to be a GFS denomination long before 2002?
Finally, there are several places where the OL identifies promotors of the supposed “extremes” generally, but not specifically:
“This trust, anchored in our vows, based on God’s Word, compels actual people to confront actual people in person, and work through issues—not symbolically—not through the protective solitude of a computer screen—not through the filter of a conference—but in person.”
Wouldn’t it be more helpful to identify these individuals and conferences by name so that those brothers can speak to their intentions and clear up any confusion that has resulted from their public activity? Without more specificity, there is no concrete action that the reader can take which makes striving for peace and unity considerably more difficult.
While it is certainly true that face-to-face communication is to be preferred in theological debate, it is not always possible or necessary. Yes, Matthew 18 is a biblically prescribed mode of confronting a brother in the Lord, but so is 1 Timothy 5:20, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” The example of the Apostle Paul rebuking Peter for his scandalous public sin in Galatians 2 can also be, though not always, an appropriate response to public sin or error in the church. When statements like, “Under the flag of, ‘they said it publicly, so we can challenge them publicly,’ friends have been pitted against friends…” are made without any mention of those places in Scripture where that tact is commanded or exemplified, it gives the impression that those men who engage in public debate do so for less than biblical reasons. There is clear biblical precedent for dealing with public error in a public manner, and in the future, it would be helpful to cite the aforementioned Scripture references and not just Matthew 18. 1 Timothy and Galatians are biblical approaches, too.
In many respects, I agree with the writers and signers of the OL. I appreciate and share their desire for unity. We are in this together. We need to move forward as one. But, this forward motion cannot be one-sided or built upon misunderstandings on either side. My sincere hope is that this post will be but a small contribution to the furtherance of unity and truth within our beloved denomination. May the Lord bless us as we look forward to GA—together.
TE Stephen Spinnenweber
June 10, 2021
Stephen Spinnenweber is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, Florida.
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