A Response to David Coffin Concerning Overtures 23 and 37—Part Three

A Response to David Coffin Concerning Overtures 23 and 37—Part Three

And so the end result of it all is that we find a member of our high court saying that more harm will be done by barring self-professed homosexuals from office than by allowing it to them, and doing his utmost to plead their case in the guise of speaking as a disinterested ecclesiastical judge. Let the reader ponder that, weep, and pray earnestly to God that he opens our eyes and grants us repentance.

In the previous installments (Part One and Part Two) we considered David Coffin’s arguments against Overtures 23 and 37 to the Presbyterian Church in America’s Book of Church Order (BCO). Now we conclude by responding to his final arguments against Overture 37 (O37). In this section we find Coffin objecting to the requirement that “in an examination for office, with respect to personal character, the court is directed to give ‘specific attention to potentially notorious concerns.’” He says “the phrase ‘potentially notorious concerns’ is problematic for a rule to give guidance to an examination” and that it is “a peculiar requirement, as it is hard to see how potential notoriety is a relevant concern in this context.” Why is it odd to consider how a man’s character and reputation might be perceived by others, both within the church and without (1 Tim. 3:2, 7; Titus 1:6-7)?

Coffin says that “what follows is a parade of horribles, beginning with ‘relational sins.’ I must confess that I haven’t a clue what ‘relational sins’ refers to.” The section of O37 that Coffin is referencing is meant to modify BCO 21-4e. Compare BCO 21-5, Q. 7:

Do you engage to be faithful and diligent in the exercise of all your duties as a Christian and a minister of the Gospel, whether personal or relational, private or public; and to endeavor by the grace of God to adorn the profession of the Gospel in your manner of life, and to walk with exemplary piety before the flock of which God shall make you overseer? (emphasis added)

It is reasonable to conclude that “relational” has the same meaning in O37 when it is attached to “sins” as it does in the current BCO 21-5 when it describes a minister’s duties. If relational duties are those that touch upon how an elder relates to his church, presbytery, etc., then it follows that relational sins are ones in which an elder does not stand in a right relation to the various people and courts to which he is bound by oath and possession of office. One might be forgiven for thinking that Coffin, as an officer who has answered BCO 21-5’s ordination questions, and, yet more, as an SJC member, ought to understand the meaning of the term.

He continues by objecting to O37’s parenthetical elaboration of “sexual immorality” with such examples as fornication and pornography use, asking “why these, and not other forms of sexual sin?” and “what is the standard for inclusion?” He objects to such a list, saying that “when you have a list, as part of a rule, the question provoked is always, what of the matters left out?” He admits the overture’s mitigation (“such as, but not limited to”), but thinks it insufficient:

Whenever one puts such a list in a rule, the question is always, are there other concerns or not? And if there are other concerns, why are these more important than the ones left out? Do these have some special significance that others do not have? Such language introduces significant uncertainty as how the rule is to be interpreted.

In this objection the TE Coffin ‘misses the forest for the trees.’ His objection fails to recognize the important fact that a list can be intended to give an idea of what is meant without trying to be a complete catalogue. The use of non-exhaustive lists is an accepted type of legislative style, and it appears already in the current BCO (e.g., 34-7).

Coffins says that, “The last defect to consider, and it strikes me as fatal, is found in these words: ‘While imperfections 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.’” This means simply that men shouldn’t have bad reputations or be conspicuous for their tendency to always modify ‘Christian’ with an adjective describing a sinful lifestyle when they describe themselves. Yet Coffin regards it as insurmountably difficult. A thought: maybe the problem lies rather with the critic than with the language? He continues his objection here:

This requires the examining court to have some way of discovering both how a person is seen by others (some others, or a majority of others?) and how a person speaks about himself (some of the time, or most of the time?). Is he known by others according to his remaining sinfulness (some or mostly?) and does he speak of himself with respect to his remaining sinfulness (some or mostly?) rather than the work of the Holy Spirit?

Coffin’s quarrel isn’t with Overture 37 at this point: it’s with the Apostle Paul. Apply Coffin’s argument that such careful examination of reputation/character is impracticable to 1 Tim. 3:2 (“Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach”) and 3:7 (“Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil”), both of which set high standards that require diligent verification, and you can see the impropriety of his objection.

Indeed, Coffin’s quarrels with our current standards, as BCO 21-4 already establishes that a presbytery is to carefully examine a candidate’s “acquaintance with experiential religion, especially his personal character and family management (based on the qualifications set out in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, and Titus 1:6-9).” And in so far as O37 and BCO 21-4 are essentially based upon Paul’s admonitions concerning the character of elders, Coffin comes near to having a critical attitude to the substance, if not the letter, of Scripture itself.

But perhaps the most curious thing about Coffin’s objection here is that it brings him into contradiction with himself. Near the end of his piece, he quotes the portion of BCO 21-4 that I have just quoted and says that this “and the like language in BCO 24-1, has been, and will continue to be, sufficient to set forth concisely the examining court’s Scriptural responsibility.” Follow the logic here. When O37 suggests a rigorous examination of a candidate’s character and reputation Coffin launches a flurry of detailed objections that he thinks make it impracticable. When our current standards already require such a rigorous examination, he thinks it makes them perfectly sufficient and lovely. The only difference between Overture 37 and the current BCO 21-4 is that Overture 37 seeks to elaborate upon the required examination, and to give some detailed instruction as to what it should include.

In continuing his line of argument Coffin makes a curious claim, for he says this of examining a man’s reputation:

This presents the court with a remarkably difficult and complicated task. Consider, for example, Rosaria Butterfield, a same-sex attracted woman who, by God’s grace, came to faith in Christ, and has done wonderful work in sharing her testimony. Let us imagine she was a man, and thus potentially qualified for office. The sentence under review, it seems, would exclude her from office because she is surely known by reputation and by her self-profession according to her remaining sinfulness. She is, of course, known for more. However, the text requires “not be known” by remaining sinfulness “but rather by” the work of the Holy Spirit. This phrasing presents a false dichotomy.

It is not “remarkably difficult and complicated” to determine whether men are known by their sin rather than by the work of grace in their lives when they very conspicuously describe themselves as ‘[insert adjective for sinful lifestyle here] Christians’ in front of the whole world. That notwithstanding, look at Coffin’s claims about Rosaria Butterfield. I have never read or heard where Mrs. Butterfield regards herself as ‘same-sex attracted’ or wishes to be known as such by others, and this runs contrary to all I have ever heard from her on this point. Indeed, I am confident that she would not appreciate being called a “same-sex attracted woman,” and on her website she describes herself as a “former professor” and “homeschool mother, author, and speaker,” whose mentions of her former life seem to always to speak of it as past, not present.

It is, to boot, a weird argument – if Rosaria were a man . . . but she’s not, and if she were it does not follow that she would either desire office or consider herself fit for it. It is hard to escape the feeling that Coffin just wanted an excuse to mention Butterfield and try to (mistakenly) claim her as an example for his side. And even if we grant his argument, substituting, say, Sam Allberry (as David Cassidy does), his conclusion is meaningless: for many men of talent and virtue are yet not fit for office, it being restricted to the narrow class of the called and qualified, and there being more to the qualifications than some virtues and talent. In this same vein Coffin quotes Kyle Keating’s Assembly speech:

I don’t believe it was the intent of those who put forth these overtures to disqualify men like me from ordained office. I think, however, that these overtures are worded in a way that they could very well be used to accomplish that purpose. Does the Body really wish to put this language in our Book of Church Order that could potentially be used to disqualify men in good standing who are a part of the kind of work that put together this report on human sexuality?

Here plainness of speech is needed, and I bid you remember, dear reader, that such bluntness is no arrogance or unkindness, but rather in keeping with the injunctions of Scripture (e.g., Lev. 19:17). Those of us that believe the denomination needs a strong response to our worldliness in these matters believe that this language is intended to divest and bar from office all men who experience homosexual lust, including Mr. Keating. Maybe we are wrong in interpreting it that way, but I ask: if divestiture and prohibition is not the intention, what do Keating and Coffin or anyone else think the point of Overture 37 is?

For his part Coffin asserts that Keating’s speech “should have carried the day” and says that it “is my hope that his speech will now help us to remedy our error.” In this he shows he is a partisan, not an objective ecclesiastical legal ‘expert,’ a thing which the reader ought to bear in mind as he ponders Coffin’s arguments.

In concluding let me note that I have argued against certain elements of Coffin’s opposition to Overtures 23 and 37; I am not directly arguing for the overtures. Much good will hopefully come from them if they pass (as seems likely, if not certain), but there are also good reasons for being suspicious of or even opposed to at least Overture 23, and perhaps 37 as well (see Larry Ball’s “Why I Plan to Vote Against BCO Homosexual Changes”). Those reasons are not for the most part Coffin’s reasons, however. The concern here was not that Coffin and others oppose the overtures, but on what grounds, and of what this says about their theories of polity and practice. It seems we are bent on worldly respectability at any cost and sneer at God’s Word with its plain statements on these matters. We pride ourselves on our love of litigiousness, ‘decency,’ ‘maturity,’ and ‘order,’ little realizing that we do but glory in our shame and blinding ourselves to the baleful influence of the world, the flesh, and the cunning devil, all of which lie near in these matters. And so the end result of it all is that we find a member of our high court saying that more harm will be done by barring self-professed homosexuals from office than by allowing it to them, and doing his utmost to plead their case in the guise of speaking as a disinterested ecclesiastical judge. Let the reader ponder that, weep, and pray earnestly to God that he opens our eyes and grants us repentance.

Tom Hervey is a member of Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Simpsonville, SC. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the leadership or members of Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church.

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