The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) just completed its 49th General Assembly (GA) in Birmingham, Alabama, and as I did last year, I offer up my readout and analysis of what transpired for those who are interested. I recognize that most people do not follow the ins and outs of presbytery or GA too closely and in my experience I have found that when I talk with my fellow congregants about these things the foremost questions I hear are “Are we staying orthodox?” and “Are we likely to split?” So, in anticipation of those questions, I would say that coming out of this year’s General Assembly I believe we are still orthodox, and I do not think that we are likely to split at this time. We are grappling with some serious issues and while working things through presbyterian courts is a slow, arduous process, my sense is that this GA was productive toward conservative ends.
The Sexuality Issue—The Main Issue
As has been the case for the last few years, the issue of Same Sex Attraction (SSA) is probably the most serious one facing the PCA. Will the PCA tolerate Side B Gay Christianity, which historically has been inevitably the door to accepting Side A Gay Christianity? To define terms, “Side A” and “Side B” are two sides of a debate among Christians who identify as same sex attracted. Both sides accept the notion of sexual orientation as being a largely unchangeable aspect of personal identity but differ in the implications they draw from this.
- Side A holds that same-sex attraction is innate, immutable, not sinful, and indeed, is how God made them. To hold this view, one has to dismiss 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. No one in the PCA holds this view.
- Side B 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 saying it is and others saying that it is not sinful but “of sin” (i.e., it is something that is the result of the fall, like disease, but not a moral category). It accepts God’s plan for sex is heterosexual monogamous marriage, and its adherents advocate for celibacy, believing that their orientation cannot change.
- 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 that 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 (i.e., any renewal of our hearts or relief from sinful urges) in this area of a believer’s life. The emphasis on celibacy apart from reliance on the Holy Spirit also leads to a kind of works righteousness. So, although Side B does not reject biblical orthodoxy explicitly in the way that Side A does, it does undermine biblical orthodoxy albeit subtly. At its root, this is a Gospel issue.
- The biblically orthodox position, by contrast, is that same-sex attraction is a sin, it is not innate in a person and it is not immutable. In other words, God did not make people same-sex attracted, and they can change through faith in Christ and the inward work of the Holy Spirit in mortifying sins. Therefore, 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.
This Year’s Efforts to Address the Sexuality Issue
Last year’s GA passed two resolutions (Overtures 2021-23 and 2021-37) that addressed the homosexuality issue as it related to ministerial qualifications and examination. Overture 23 would have changed the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO) to add language that would disqualify from ministry men who (1) identified themselves by their sin as homosexual or SSA, (2) denied the sinfulness of fallen desires and the reality of progressive sanctification, and (3) failed to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over sin and temptation. Overture 37 would have required presbyteries to examine candidates for ministerial or ruling office on these areas. Because they involved changes to the BCO, which has constitutional status in the PCA, these resolutions had to be voted on by two-thirds of all the presbyteries. They narrowly failed to pass the two-thirds bar. This year, Overtures 29 and 31 aim at covering the same ground, but to improve their chances of passage in the presbyteries, they tried to address criticisms that last year’s overtures were too focused on sexuality issues; both of the current Overtures have been reworded to drop explicit reference to any particular sin.
Overture 29 would add a new paragraph, 16-4, to the BCO’s chapter on “Church Orders—The Doctrine of Vocation,” which as amended reads
Officers in the Presbyterian Church in American must be above reproach in their walk and Christlike in their character. While officer bearers will see spiritual perfection only in glory, they will continue in this life to confess and to mortify remaining sins in light of God’s work of progressive sanctification. Therefore, to be qualified for office, they must affirm the sinfulness of fallen desires, the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, and be committed to the pursuit of Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions.
Some criticism was lodged against Overture 23 last year—the predecessor resolution to this year’s Overture 29—that this should be opposed because the proposed addition was not in the right place in the BCO, but I do not think that criticism is valid. If inward calling, good conscience, the manifest approbation of God’s people, the concurrence of a lawful court of the church (16-1), and appropriate giftedness (16-2) are necessary qualifications for ministry, then so too is one’s character. Indeed, godliness is listed in this chapter as well (16-3). Therefore, the proposed new paragraph (16-4) follows naturally.
Overture 31 parallels last year’s Overture 37 in requiring that presbyteries should examine candidates for Gospel ministry (i.e., Teaching Elders) and sessions should examine candidates for Ruling Elders and Deacons for their character, particularly with regard to potentially notorious concerns. Last year’s Overture 37 spelled out a range of notorious concerns, whereas this year’s Overture 31 does not. Like with last year’s Overture 37, the examination requirement uses the same language for ministers, elders, and deacons, and places it as new sub-paragraphs in BCO 21-4 and 24-1.
In the examination of the candidate’s personal character, the presbytery shall give specific attention to potential notorious concerns. Careful attention must be given to his practical struggle against sins 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, when confessing sins and sinful temptations publicly, the candidate must exercise great care not to diminish the seriousness of those sins in the eyes of the congregation, as though they were matters of little consequence, but rather should testify to the work of the Holy Spirit in his progress in holiness (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
Most all presbyteries, at least to some degree, examine the candidate’s character, but this is not formally enshrined in the BCO in the way that requirements for doctrinal fidelity are. This resolution would rectify that omission and provide a baseline expectation across presbyteries as to key areas to focus in on, while still allowing latitude into how to conduct such inquiries. Examining the character of men for ministry and church office is necessary, and experience has shown that the PCA is more likely to bring discipline against men for their personal conduct than for their teaching. While such examination may disqualify some men from office, I think that for others who are still qualified for office it may well have the positive effect of identifying areas of struggle so that encouragement, support, accountability can be brought to bear early on, and problems are not allowed to fester in silence.
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of this year’s GA regarded Overture 15. Overture 15, as amended, would add a new paragraph (7-4) to the BCO’s chapter, “Church Officers—General Classifications” to state that
Men who describe themselves as homosexual, even those who describe themselves as homosexual and claim to practice celibacy by refraining from homosexual conduct, are disqualified from holding office in the Presbyterian Church in America.
The Overture Committee, which reviews, debates, amends, and makes recommendations on all the overtures for the consideration of the General Assembly, originally recommended that this overture be answered through the acceptance of Overture 29. A minority on the Overtures Committee made the recommendation that the Overture be approved outright, as amended. This ended up carrying the day on the floor of General Assembly, especially after PCA elder statesman and respected theologian O. Palmer Robertson made an impassioned speech saying that the PCA needed to make a clear, strong statement opposing homosexuality. The Overture passed by 54.41% to 45.59%.
Where We Are At Now on This Issue
It would be useful at this point to take a step back for a moment to assess how this fits in to what the denomination has done on the sexuality issue over the past few years. In 2018, the GA elevated Chapter 59 of the BCO on “The Solemnization of Marriage” to have full constitutional authority and stipulated that PCA ministers can only perform marriages between a man and woman. This was to give clear guidance to PCA military chaplains and others, given the legalization of same sex marriage following the US Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision. In 2019, the GA commended the Nashville Statement, drafted by the evangelical Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, to be a biblically faithful statement on sexuality; this included a section denying that homosexuality and transgenderism are consistent with God’s purposes. The 2019 GA also authorized the creation of a study committee on human sexuality which produced a thoroughly researched, carefully nuanced, and well-received report in 2021 which has become the PCA’s definitive statement on the topic. The Overtures last year and this year on character qualifications and examinations, culminating with Overture 15, are aimed at applying these standards to ministers and officer candidates. So, on the official record, the PCA has come out strongly in favor of the orthodox formulation of biblical sexuality morality, and that should be encouraging. At the same time, there is an open question as to how willing the PCA actually is to enforce on its ministers in practice what it is willing to assert in principle. This question centers on the case of TE Greg Johnson, the pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, which hosted the 2018 Revoice conference advocating Side B Gay Christianity.
Space and complexity preclude a review of the multiple cases surrounding Greg Johnson. Johnson not only had his church host the Revoice conference in 2018, but he has endorsed subsequent Revoice conferences, has come out as SSA, and his personal statements about the PCA and sexuality both online and in a book published in 2021 have only fueled the controversy. In 2020 his presbytery, Missouri Presbytery, investigated him and his church for sponsoring the 2018 Revoice conference, but, while finding errors of judgment, chose not to indict him for as being incompatible with the PCA’s standards. Given his subsequent statements, other presbyteries have petitioned for the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC, i.e., the PCA’s Supreme Court) assume original jurisdiction over him (Overtures 2021-2 and 2021-25 last year and 36 and 37 this year). Exercising the procedures for exerting original jurisdiction has highlighted issues with those provisions in the BCO, thereby prompting calls for revisions (Overtures 8 and 9). In addition, the SJC’s handling of the Johnson-related cases that has come to it has raised questions as well. In hearing one case on appeal, the SJC took the unusual step of re-opening the case record (originally deemed complete), deleting several hundred pages of material deemed extraneous, and then entering new information into the record regarding Johnson’s responses to 25 questions put to him by the SJC. That prompted questions at this year’s GA to the Committee on Constitutional Business—the body that examines the minutes of the SJC–on why that decision was made. Frustration with SJC was behind Overture 14, which aimed to greatly expand the SJC’s composition but ultimately failed. Controversy around Johnson no doubt contributed to the desire of many commissioners at this year’s GA to pass such a definitive statement against homosexuality they did in Overture 15. There are no signs this controversy will abate anytime soon.
Looking forward, while Overture 15 does have the benefit of clarity, I expect it will run into headwinds in the presbyteries. One thing I have observed about the debate within the PCA on this issue is that the non-conservative side has tended to eschew clarity and definitiveness in favor of generalities and nuance. To be sure, I want to characterize their position fairly, but I find it hard to do so because it is difficult for me to discern what that position exactly is. In the debates over last year’s Overtures 23 and 37, no one that I ever saw or am aware of made a case for Side B Gay Christianity; the objections raised were either technical ones about the appropriateness of the changes to the BCO or concerns about how definitive statements might be perceived within the denomination or by the surrounding culture. Either way, it seems to me that these are more surface objections, incongruous with the insistence with which they were being put forth. That suggests to me that the root concerns were still unstated.
Similarly, this year three overtures (33, 34, and 35) were proposed by the non-conservative side addressing the sexuality issue and matter of character qualifications. All three were fairly similar in approach, basically requiring only that candidates study last year’s Ad Interim Report on Human Sexuality and biblical teaching on the subject, that everyone pray for wisdom in navigating cultural contexts wisely, refrain from using certain terms as litmus tests and be temperate in public and private discourse on the matter. All these recommendations are anodyne and do not address how to deal with the issue if a minister or candidate were to embrace Side B Gay Christianity explicitly. GA did not debate these Overtures because the Overtures Committee sidestepped the issue by addressing them with reference to Overture 29. So, a key thing to watch for in the coming months is whether the non-conservative side will be satisfied with the removal of explicit references to sexuality in Overtures 29 and 31 or whether it will continue raise process-oriented and/or perception objections. If they do continue to make such objections, then I think that will be indicative of more fundamental concerns that heretofore have not been clearly articulated, possibly to include more latent sympathy for Side B Gay Christianity than has been stated openly.
Most of rest of the business of this year’s GA involved proposed changes to judicial procedures or administrative issues that probably will not be of interest to most congregants in the pews. While these are in one sense “boring,” one thing that I have come to appreciate more and more about the presbyterian form of church government and about the PCA in particular is the existence of and commitment to due process. The church is made up of courts and while they are not perfect, they are an important check against the arbitrary exercise of ecclesiastical power. This is not to be taken for granted. Christianity Today’s excellent podcast series last year on the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill highlights the kind of problems that can arise when there are no checks on pastoral leadership.
In terms of other issues that came up, a few are worth noting.
First, the Study (Ad Interim) Committee Report on Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault officially delivered its report to this year’s GA. The report is lengthy (over 200 pages) and so I have not had time to read through it all yet. A cursory review, however, suggests that it has a lot of good pastoral advice on how to handle cases of domestic assault, sexual and leadership abuse, and probably will be good reference in the years to come.
Second, the GA passed Overture 13, which petitioned the Federal Government to end abortion, and coincidentally on the following day the US Supreme Court officially released its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization which overturned Roe v. Wade. The PCA last made a statement on abortion in 1986 and providentially the PCA is again on the record in favor of life as the U.S. begins a new phase politically on this issue. The GA also considered, but rejected, an overture condemning political violence (Overture 26). I had opposed this overture for reasons that I want to discuss at greater length in another blog post, but the timeliness of the issue was not lost on anyone given that pro-choice activists were promising a “Night of Rage” to protest the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs. Those of us flying back to the Washington D.C. area were wondering what we would face upon our return.
Lastly, this year’s GA voted to withdraw from the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Looking back over the events of GA, I am coming to think this may be more symbolically significant about where the PCA is at than the actual substance of the matter.
The NAE was formed in 1942 as a lobbying organization in Washington D.C. for a range of evangelical denominations. The PCA joined it in 1986, but in recent years the NAE has moved more toward the Left in its positions, including on issues of sexual orientation, gender identity, environmentalism and social justice. Some of these positions actually contradict the PCA’s confessional standards. The PCA’s Interchurch Relations Committee (IRC) argued that participation in the NAE allows the PCA to have influence within the organization and with the other denominations who are a part of the NAE, but IRC appeared hard-pressed to describe any benefits beyond that or point to examples of where the denomination has actually exerted influence in the NAE. The PCA is large enough at this point that it does not need the NAE to represent it in Washington, as it can speak for itself and has on numerous occasions. Leaving the NAE would save the PCA money in membership fees, and individual churches who still wanted to be a part of the organization could still do so at individualized rates.
All of that said, overtures have been presented in the past to withdraw from NAE but were consistently voted down, so this year’s decision does mark a real turning point. After the vote, last GA’s Moderator, L. Roy Taylor, lodged a formal protest against the decision to withdraw—his first ever in the PCA—which drew several signatories. Taylor had been Chairman of the NAE’s board for 14 years, so this issue was personal to him. I support the decision to leave the NAE and disagree with Taylor, but I respect Taylor as an honorable man who has long and faithfully served the PCA. Besides his personal connections to the NAE, he represents that generation of PCA elders who aspired for the PCA to have an influential role in American society. I think the promise of influence has been largely unrealized and, indeed, is probably unrealizable given that we are now living in a world that is demonstrably hostile to Christianity. Thus, I do wonder if the vote on the NAE may reflect a generational transition as well, from the PCA’s earlier aspirations to be a more broadly evangelical denomination to one that is more self-consciously and faithfully Reformed. That I think is the challenge before this up-and-coming generation of PCA elders, of which I include myself.