The 48th PCA General Assembly: A New Commissioner’s Readout

Part of the membership vows that we take—at least in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)—are to “support the Church in its worship and work” (Vow #4) and to “study its purity and peace” (Vow #5) and for that reason it is important to know what is going on in the denomination.  Indeed, we not only have a responsibility to do this, but a privilege of being able to have an influence on where the denomination goes; it is not up to the whim of a pope, a bishop, or a pastor.  A focal point for what is going on in the denomination is what happens at General Assembly (GA), which this year was held in St. Louis, Missouri from June 28th to July 2nd. I was able to attend this year as a newly minted Ruling Elder, and the readout that follows is based on presentations I gave to my church last month, which I am happy share more broadly with those who may be interested to foster greater awareness.

Even before the opening gavel, this was shaping up to be an important GA, since the PCA was not able to meet last year because of COVID and so had to make up two years’ worth of business in one year.  More significantly, however, for the past three years the PCA has been roiled by the issue of how to respond to same-sex attraction, stemming from the Revoice conference held in 2018 at Memorial Presbyterian Church, a PCA church in St. Louis.  More about that in a moment but suffice it to say that the Revoice issue raised the question for many as to whether the PCA would be faithful to historic biblical teaching on human sexuality.  This concern is probably what drove a large number of Teaching Elders (TEs – pastors) and Ruling Elder (REs) to attend: there were over 2,100 commissioners in attendance, which was an all-time high for the PCA and significantly more than the previous high of about 1,600 in 2019.

What is General Assembly?

As a Presbyterian Church, the PCA is connectional and has a graduated set of church courts.  All the Teaching and Ruling Elders of a local church comprise the “Session;” those of all the churches in a particular geographic region make up a Presbytery.  Each church in the PCA nationwide can send a Teaching Elder and at least two Ruling Elders to the General Assembly.  The General Assembly is the highest governing body in PCA.  The actual Assembly itself is part trade convention, part business meeting.  This year it was held in the America’s Center Convention Complex (this was the same complex, but a different area from where some US Olympic qualifying trials had been held the previous week).  GA provides a huge opportunity to connect or reconnect with people from across the denomination.  There are several alumni events associated with the major seminaries, such as RTS, Westminster or Greenville, and I personally got to meet up with people I knew from other churches, as well as attend the RTS alumni luncheon and the Westminster alumni dinner.  GA also had a large exhibition area where most major Reformed booksellers, a number of missions bodies, and several ministry support organizations had booths, along with some of the major standing committees within the PCA.  There were also a number of seminars held in the breakout rooms at the complex, geared mostly towards pastors.

In terms of business, the major committees met early in the week, before GA was officially convened on Tuesday evening.  Chief among these committees was the Overtures Committee.  This is the heart of the deliberative aspect of GA.  Each presbytery can nominate two commissioners (a RE and a TE) to the Overtures Committee, which evaluated, amended, or made recommendations on the 47 overtures (petitions) sent to GA from the presbyteries.  Their work continued through the week.  GA was opened with a worship service on Tuesday evening, with the outgoing moderate, Howie Donahue, giving a good sermon/meditation on the topic of Heaven.  This was followed by various administrative actions basically aimed at how GA would work, certain overviews on the state of the PCA, and so forth.  Beginning late on Tuesday evening and continuing until Thursday were presentations and recommended motions from different committees and organizations in the PCA.  Worship services (with sermons) were held Wednesday and Thursday evenings as well.  The musical styles varied from service to service.  While a handful overtures were addressed during the respective committee reports to the full Assembly, most were reserved for the Overtures Committee report which effectively did not begin until after the worship service on Thursday evening.  In my opinion, this was a flaw in the scheduling, as it crunched the time available to really discuss the issues that were of most concern to the attendees.  Nevertheless, we got through the entire docket and, bleary-eyed, wrapped up deliberations by 1:00 am on Friday morning.

The “Revoice” Controversy and Same-Sex Attraction

Much of what GA did on the issue of same-sex attraction (SSA) can be a little confusing if looked at outside of the context of the last few years, so before speaking this GA’s actions immediately, let me first provide some theological and historical context to help make thing more understandable.

Theologically, the biblically orthodox and historical position is that same-sex attraction is a sin, it is not innate in a person, and it is not immutable.  In other words, people are not born same-sex attracted and they can change through faith in Christ and through the inward work of the Holy Spirit in mortifying one’s sins.  Because of this, one should not claim as one’s identity to be “Same-Sex Attracted Christian” or a “Gay Christian.”  Our sin is not part of our identity; our identity is wholly in Christ and to claim otherwise is to denigrate our union with Christ.

Over the last couple of decades, some Christians with same-sex attraction have not accepted the biblically orthodox position and there has been a dialogue between them characterized by what they have termed “Side A” and “Side B” positions.

  • Side A holds that same-sex attraction is innate, immutable, and not sinful; indeed, adherents to Side A would claim that is how God made them. To hold this view, however, one has to downplay or reject the fact that every single reference in Scripture to homosexuality or same-sex attraction is characterized in morally negative terms.  Because this position considers same-sex attraction as innate, immutable, and not sinful, there is therefore no problem to identifying oneself as a “Gay Christian;” it is morally neutral in the same way as calling oneself a Black Christian or an Asian Christian.
  • Side B is a more complex.  It equivocates as to whether same-sex attraction is innate but accepts the idea that it is largely immutable and cannot be changed.  It equivocates as to whether it is sinful, with some adherents saying it is and others saying it is not sinful but rather, it is “of sin” (i.e., it is something that is the result of the fall, like disease, but not necessarily a moral category).  It accepts a Roman Catholic notion of concupiscence which holds that having wrong desires is not sinful, only acting upon those desires is.  This contradicts the Lord’s own teaching in Matt. 6:27-28.  It accepts the notion God’s plan for sex is heterosexual monogamous marriage, and its adherents advocate for celibacy and “spiritual friendships” among same sex attracted persons, believing that their orientation cannot or is highly unlikely to ever change.  Adherents of the Side B view believe that whether or not one self-identifies as a “Gay Christian” is a purely pragmatic personal decision.

The Side A position is logically consistent, but a clear rejection of Scriptural orthodoxy.  Nobody at this point in the PCA is advocating for a Side A position.  That said, the 2018 Revoice conference and successive Revoice conferences since then have been actively promoting Side B.  In my view, the Side B position is logically inconsistent and for that very reason is likely to shade over into Side A in time.

  • By accepting the idea that same-sex attraction is either sinful or “of sin” as well as being immutable, one implicitly says God is the author of sin, that Christ’s work on the cross does not make a difference in atoning for such sin, and that the inward work of the Holy Spirit cannot bring about any sanctification in this area of a believer’s life.  So, although it does not reject biblical orthodoxy explicitly in the way that Side A does, it undermines biblical orthodoxy to a significant degree.
  • By maintaining an emphasis on celibacy, Side B is in effect advocating a works righteousness; one must maintain celibacy on one’s own strength because the Holy Spirit cannot or will not bring about moral change within a person.  Moreover, existentially, it sets up a logical contradiction in a person’s life, to whit: “If God made me this way, then why did He command celibacy?”  From that question, one has to simply accept the command without question or else tend toward either denying the goodness of God or moving toward Side A.  In practice, individuals and churches that have embraced the Side B position almost invariably have moved to accept the Side A position within a few years, if they have not abandoned the faith outright.

The debate between Side A and Side B broke into the PCA in 2018 because of the Revoice conference that was held at Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis.  Revoice was a response by Side B advocates against the Nashville Statement, which was produced by the Coalition for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in 2017.  Article 7 of the Nashville Statement says:

WE AFFIRM that self-conception as male or female should be defined by God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption as revealed in Scripture. WE DENY that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.

Revoice’s mission statement, in contrast, purports

To support and encourage gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other same-sex attracted Christians—as well as those who love them—so that all in the Church might be empowered to live in gospel unity while observing the historic Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.

Memorial Presbyterian Church allowed Revoice to use its facility for the 2018 conference, although it did not come out and formally endorse the conference.  Nevertheless, the Senior Pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church, Greg Johnson, expressed support for that and subsequent Revoice conferences, and in May 2019 he published an article in Christianity Today stating that he is same sex attracted.  As an initial response to Revoice, the 2019 General Assembly affirmed the Nashville Statement as biblically faithful and commissioned a study committee to articulate the PCA’s own theological and pastoral approach to issues of human sexuality.  Concerns voiced across the denomination about whether the Revoice conference portended an acceptance or endorsement within the PCA of the Side B position prompted Missouri Presbytery to do its own investigation of Johnson and of Memorial Presbyterian Church handling of the matter; it published its findings in December 2019 (updated subsequently in January 2020).

  • Missouri Presbytery found that while Revoice speakers used terminology that was often imprecise and could lead to being misconstrued, as a whole there was not serious theological error.  It also found that while Johnson and Memorial Presbyterian Church could have done more to engage Revoice’s leadership and to qualify the teachings more than they had done, but they were not wrong in hosting Revoice in principle.
  • These findings led three presbyteries to petition the General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction over both Johnson and Missouri Presbytery, charging that Johnson has allowed the teaching of serious error and that Missouri Presbytery did not handle its investigation appropriately.  As a result of these overtures, under the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO), the matter has been turned over to the Standing Judicial Council (SJC), essentially the supreme court of the PCA.  The SJC is still investigating the case.

This background puts into context the overtures that came to this General Assembly.  Most significantly on this issue was Overture 38, which commend the Human Sexuality Report as “biblically faithful.”  This is the report that that the 2019 GA commissioned and has been publicly available for the past year.  This report goes a long way towards refuting the Side B position and affirming the biblically orthodox position, and its endorsement by the General Assembly is a key bulwark in the PCA standing faithfully to Christ on this issue.  The report contains twelve theological affirmations, each paralleled by pastoral guidance.  During GA, the report was officially presented through a joint video by Tim Keller and Kevin DeYoung, who were the lead authors of the report and who are respected by different constituencies within the PCA.  The video was little tedious—they read the preamble and each article, followed by discussion on what the article means—but it was effective in showing that there was not daylight between them on the historic, biblical position on sexuality.  The GA passed the Overture overwhelmingly.

A second major overture was Overture 23 was a motion to amend the BCO chapter 16 (“Church Orders – The Doctrine of Vocation”) by adding the following new paragraph:

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.

This passed by a vote of 1438 to 417.  This is aimed at office-bearers in the PCA (i.e., Teaching and Ruling Elders and deacons), from whom we expect a higher character.  The key things to note are: (1) one cannot accept an identity as a same-sex attracted man; (2) one cannot deny that same-sex attractions are sin; and (3) one cannot deny the notion that one can be sanctified to make progress in overcoming such sins and in resisting temptations.  This cuts to the heart of the Side B position.

The third key overture was Overture 37, which was a motion to amend BCO 21-4 and 24-1 by adding a paragraph “clarifying the moral requirements for church office.”  The BCO chapters referenced here regard the ordination and installation of minister (BCO 21) and elders and deacons (BCO 24).  The difference between Overtures 37 and 23 is that the latter is more specifically focused on examinations that must be done of ministerial and officer candidates.  The added language is as follows:

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.

Overture 37 was passed by the Assembly by a vote of 1130 to 692.  What Overture 23 phrased negatively, Overture 37 phrased positively and in a manner broader than simply about sexuality.  Nevertheless, this was probably the most debated resolution in General Assembly.  Both resolutions, because they involve changes to the BCO, are now remanded to the presbyteries for approval.  Changes to the BCO are essentially changes to the constitution of the PCA.  Therefore, there needs to be a 2/3 approval of all the presbyteries (about 58 or 59 presbyteries) and then a simple majority vote of approval at the next General Assembly to be formally adopted. 

This will probably be the most contentious issue in the coming year as these overtures go to the presbyteries for ratification.  I have heard arguments against them, both on the floor of GA and subsequently, and to be honest, I find them unpersuasive.  Some have argued, for example, that the language in Overtures 23 and 37 will deter men from acknowledging struggles with same sex attraction and cause young people to leave the church because they will see the PCA as “homophobic.”  That is certainly possible, but I think the concerns are exaggerated.  If the very fact of articulating biblical standards causes people to leave the church, then there is not much that can be done about that, since keeping silent about sin is too high a price to pay for keeping anyone in the church.  Moreover, the purpose of examining the character of officer candidates is precisely to get them to frankly acknowledge such notorious sins, insofar as they may exist, and to be able to give a credible testimony regarding how Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit has made a difference in their lives.  Indeed, a credible testimony about the work of Christ in overcoming such sins would strengthen the candidate’s ability to minister to others.  I fail to see how this will be a deterrent.

Some have argued that the examination requirements in Overture 37 are too vague and will impose an unnecessary burden on presbytery credentialing committees to sort out the criteria by which men are to be examined in terms of their character.  Certainly, credential committees will need to address specifics on a case-by-case basis, but the general principles articulated here seem to be exceedingly clear.  Lastly, some have asserted that approving Overtures 23 and 37 will actually ensconce Side B views within the PCA by not condemning them more explicitly.  This seems to me a completely bizarre argument, and I would not have mentioned it had it not been the fact that I have seen people actually put it forth.  I think that the Overtures as amended strike a reasonable balance between putting forth a clear standard while at the same time avoiding perfectionist demands.

Like the majority of commissioners, I supported these overtures.  In my judgment, with these three overtures, the PCA has laid out a clear, biblically orthodox position on human sexuality, has addressed the pastoral issues involved in ministering to the sexually broken, and has laid down a standard of conduct that it expects of its officers who may have been struggling themselves with such issues.  Overtures 23 and 37 also highlight that this is not simply a matter of biblical ethics but is fundamentally a Gospel issue.  If an officer candidate characterizes his identity by a sinful orientation, denies such desires to be sinful, denies that the work of Christ atones for such sins and requires repenting of them, and/or denies that the Holy Spirit can progressively sanctify one of such sins, then he really is asserting the deficiency of the Gospel.  It best not to ordain such a man to Gospel ministry.

Other Controversial Issues

Although the sexuality issues were the most contentious at this past GA, they were not the only issues that were controversial.  There were proposals for forming new study committees on biblical ethics in digital media, white supremacy, and critical race theory, all of which were voted down.  The Sexuality Study Committee report is a good example of what a study committee should do—examine Scripture, our confessional documents, and the issue in question to provide pastoral guidance to churches on how to address certain matter where there is a considerable debate within the denomination on what to do.  They are not intended to be position papers on trendy issues.  The PCA has had a number of study committees in the past several years and there is considerable fatigue toward study committees right now within the denomination.  Moreover, study committees are expensive, running about $15,000 per year for each year they operate.  A separate overture (17) to limit how many study committees could be funded in a given year passed with controversy.

The only other issue that engendered some debate were a bundle of three overtures (45, 46, and 48) responding to the attacks in Atlanta earlier this year against Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).  One of the Overtures went beyond standing in support of the AAPI community and condemning the violence of the shootings in Atlanta to imply that the PCA needed to examine itself for ways in which it might have contributed to attitudes of violence against the AAPI community.  This almost certainly would have been controversial.  The Overtures Committee recommended addressing the first two by reference to a statement the OC made toward the third:

The Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Racial and Ethic Reconciliation to the 46th General Assembly speaks clearly to both the reality of the Imago Dei in all people and to the sin of racism, particularly when it affirms: a) the vision of the redeemed in Revelation 7:9-11, where are all nations and ethnicities are fulfilled in Christ; b) the image of God reflected in all people; and (c) the image of Christ reflected in His body.

At the same time, we recognize the pain, and at times, violence, that the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community has experienced, particularly due to the events of the past year.  We express out grief together with our AAPI brothers and sisters over the pain and suffering that has occurred, whether this has happened due to unbiblical religious claims, racist pride, or any other cause.

We, finally, assure our AAPI brothers and sisters of our love and support, and of our desire to walk together in ways that reflect the commitments of the Racial Reconciliation Report.

This statement avoided affirming charges of indirect complicity on the part of the PCA in the violence against the AAPI community or a commitment to pursue social justice to rectify the issues that the AAPI community faces.  The resolution passed and the Assembly then had a time of prayer led by one of the Asian-American commissioners.

The “Boring” Issues

The issues surrounding Revoice and sexuality attraction were the ones garnering the most attention at this GA, but they were not the only things that GA discussed.  It is worth briefly touching on the less prominent matters discussed as well.  Overtures 1, 3 & 14, 5, 6 & 18, and 31 pertained to the nomination and ordination of pastors and officers and most involved proposed changes to the Book of Church Order (BCO) to clarify or correct certain process matters.  These were largely non-controversial.

  • Overture 1 was the only one submitted by Potomac Presbytery and would have required PCA chaplains to be accredited by the inter-denominational Presbyterian and Reformed Commission on Chaplains (PRCC).  This is currently optional and left up to individual presbyteries.  Doing this would strengthen the credentials of chaplains serving in the ministry, but it was voted down by the Assembly because it would undercut the deference to local presbyteries that has historically been part of the PCA.
  • Overtures 3 &14 involved changes to the Mission to the World (MTW) manual to bring it in line with current practice of not allowing women or unordained men serve in leadership positions with direct authority over ordained missionaries.  This received a much discussion, with the head of MTW actually arguing against the overtures, saying it was unnecessary, ambiguous and would complicate the MTW’s work by having GA involve itself directly in MTW’s operations.  These arguments were not convincing, however, given MTW’s existing policy and the fact that it is a standing committee of GA and thus subject to oversight.  GA approved the overture.

Several overtures (12, 19-22, 27-29, 33-35, 40 and 41) involved amendments to the BCO to improve the process for handling disciplinary cases.  These overtures are probably driven by efforts to ensure fairness to all sides in dealing with cases like spousal or sexual abuse.  The sophistication of the overtures was generally quite high and gave me encouragement regarding the seriousness with which people across the PCA are dealing with these matters.  The overwhelming majority of these overtures were either deferred to the next General Assembly or referred back to presbyteries for further work.  They were not controversial per se, but they were complicated, and the Overtures Committee wanted more time to work through them carefully.  A handful of overtures (9, 10, 15, 17, 24 & 39, and 26) regarded the regulation of meetings and General Assembly operations.  This was a mixed bag.

  • Two overtures (9, 10) raised the threshold for what would qualify as a minority report in Assembly actions.  The PCA is committed to allowing minority views to be expressed in reports, but it is trying to make them more germane to the topics they are addressing and need to represent a more substantial opinion than just that of a handful of individuals.
  • Two overtures (24 and 39) aimed to reduce the fees that Ruling Elders have to pay to go to GA.  The PCA was intended to be a grassroots denomination in which REs would help safeguard the orthodoxy of the church, but RE attendance at GA has been low for some time.  This overture was voted down, largely because the remedy does not address the real issues depressing RE attendance.
  • One overture (15) would have banned electronic communications regarding voting at GA.  This was aimed at addressing a concern some conservatives have that the progressives in the denomination are coordinating their voting at GA using their smart phones.  This was poorly worded, unenforceable and, for that reason, rightly voted down on the floor.
  • One overture (26) would change the BCO to allow for telecommunication meetings.  This was driven by the situation caused in the past year by COVID and passed without controversy.

What Does All This Stuff Mean for the “Peace and Purity” of the Denomination?

All agree that the largest GA ever for the PCA was also decidedly conservative.  In my view, the outcome has for the moment averted a split in the PCA.  Had the votes gone the other way during GA, it probably would have been the final straw for many conservatives and would probably have fueled sentiment leading to a split in the denomination.  That said, while the outcome was one that the conservatives welcomed, I do not have the sense that anyone on the conservative side is doing an end zone dance or thinks that the issues addressed have been definitively resolved.  In the coming year, we need to be in prayer for wisdom for the denomination as it wrestles through these and other issues.  This is likely to be a particularly contentious time and it remains to be seen how things will turn out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s