When asked, “Does the PCA ordain homosexuals?” we cannot say, “We can neither confirm nor deny that the PCA ordains homosexuals.” We must either say, “Yes, the PCA ordains homosexuals, but men must claim celibacy from homosexual conduct in order to ordained,” or we will say, “No, but there may be men who count that amongst the temptations they resist.” Put succinctly, we will either be a “Yes, but” or a “No, but” denomination.
Overture 15, answered by General Assembly in the affirmative as amended, places Item 1 before the Presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Item 1 proposes the addition of a new, fourth paragraph to the Book of Church Order (BCO):
7-4. 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.
In what follows, I’ll argue that Item 1 should be answered in the affirmative, for four reasons. The addition of this paragraph is (1) appropriate and (2) needed; (3) the issue it seeks to address is unavoidable; and (4) voting in the negative perpetuates one problem and creates another.
Overture 15 Is Appropriate
First, it is appropriate to add this paragraph to BCO Chapter 7: Church Officers-General Classification. Each paragraph in Chapter 7 deals with the disqualification of someone who may be accepted as a legitimate candidate for ordination in another denomination, but not in ours. Over its history, the PCA has used Chapter 7 to clarify whether church offices are open to charismatics, women, and those preferring a different church government.
Let’s take each paragraph in turn. From 1789, American Presbyterians have rejected the continuation of miraculous gifts. But the 1973 proposed text lacked a statement about gifts related to new revelation, something the PCA wanted to address directly. The second General Assembly adopted a pastoral letter on the issue suggesting that “any view of the tongues as experienced in our time which conceives of it an experience by which revelation is received from God is contrary to the finalized character of revelation in Scripture.” Unsurprisingly, then, the final sentence of BCO 7-1 says, “Such officers and gifts related to new revelation have no successors since God completed His revelation at the conclusion of the Apostolic Age.” PCA History notes, “The current PCA text dates to 1974 and the wording of this paragraph is that which was proposed by the Ad-Interim Committee on Charismatic Gifts.”
It’s appropriate for the PCA to inform those who think they have a special gift of divine revelation that they cannot seek ordination in the PCA. That’s not to exclude them from a PCA church; it’s to be helpfully honest about what they can expect. Remember, Chapter 7 of the BCO is on church officers, not on church membership or attendance.
Similarly, it’s appropriate for the PCA to inform women who think they are called to ordination that they cannot seek ordination in the PCA. Hence this sentence at the end of BCO 7-2: “In accord with Scripture, these offices are open to men only.” The change occurred in 1980. Since that time, women have not been excluded from PCA churches. On the contrary, they have flourished. Remember, Chapter 7 of the BCO is on church officers, not on church membership or attendance.
Finally, BCO 7-3 notifies would-be archdeacons, archbishops, cardinals, and popes that office holders in the PCA cannot “usurp authority” in the church, by claiming more than one vote in a church court, and that they cannot “receive any official titles of spiritual preeminence, except such as are employed in the Scriptures.” That’s not to exclude them from a PCA church; it’s to be helpfully honest about what they can expect. Remember, Chapter 7 of the BCO is on church officers, not on church membership or attendance.
Given the multiyear conversation about homosexuality we have had in the PCA, it’s appropriate for the PCA to speak on this issue, and the seventh chapter of the BCO is the place to do it. To put it another way, even if you think this particular change should be rejected, its location in the BCO can’t be a reason to reject it. If it’s needed, it’s appropriate to place this sentence in BCO 7, as that chapter serves as the place to clarify, lovingly, those who cannot pursue ordination in the PCA. If it belongs anywhere, it belongs here.
Overture 15 Is Needed
But is it needed? That’s the pressing question. The answer is yes. This paragraph achieves the compromise we have been seeking.
Though I voted for it on the floor of General Assembly, I did not add my name to the minority report as a member of the Overtures Committee, in part because I wondered whether Overture 15 was tight enough. I worried that this overture could provide an admittedly hypothetical person with the following defense: “I should be ordained, in spite of being completely beholden to homosexuality, simply because I do not describe myself as a homosexual.”
I think my initial reservations show how the language of this paragraph is a helpful compromise. Its adoption can help heal the divisions we face in the Presbyterian Church in America.
Think about the two sides of this controversy. One side of the debate worries we are sliding into gospel-abandoning cultural accommodation. I share that concern. It’s always a threat. But the other side of the debate fears we are illegitimately and ungraciously tightening our ordination requirements in a misguided culture war. I share that concern, too. It’s always a threat.
Overture 15 addresses both these concerns. This paragraph may not make anyone completely comfortable, but that’s a feature, not a bug. We are a deliberative assembly, after all.
First, saying that the PCA disqualifies some men because of what they say about themselves shows one side of the debate that the PCA is still a denomination willing to speak with the Bible against the culture. They can rest assured that Presbyteries in large metropolitan areas will not overlook an issue that has caused public scandal in their churches.
Similarly, focusing on what a man actually says avoids the concerns the other side has raised about witch hunts and psychobabble language. If a man has engaged in same-sex activity in the past or struggles against current same-sex attraction in the present, the addition of this fourth paragraph will serve as a protection for him if he seeks ordination. Saying that a man does not now describe himself as a homosexual mitigates against a Presbytery’s inappropriate allergic reaction to this particular sin. Those on this side of the debate can rest assured that, if this overture passes, then Presbyteries in Southern, seersucker parts of the country cannot illegitimately raise the requirement for holiness on this particular sin by itself.
Presbyteries should affirm Item 1, as Overture 15 helpfully addresses an issue we must address.
Overture 15 Addresses an Unavoidable Issue
Let’s be clear: This issue is unavoidable. If Item 1 fails, does anyone really think we won’t face other overtures again next year? There may be some who say they will always vote against any proposed change to the BCO that mentions homosexuality. I find this commitment demoralizing and unwise.
First, I find a commitment never to speak on this issue demoralizing because — forgive me — I want to stop talking about it. We have spent a not insignificant amount of time discussing this issue, and I don’t think I am the only one growing weary. We have been discussing it since 2018. Students can graduate from college or medical school in four years, and law school in three. Can’t we find something new to argue about?
Second, I find a commitment never to add language in the BCO on homosexuality unwise. Such an attitude preemptively denies what we hope to achieve in a deliberative body. If it’s not this particular overture, then what about something next year, or the year after that? It’s also unwise because if the principle is simply that we can’t speak against the ordination of any particular group, it cuts against the grain of the three paragraphs already in BCO 7. It also suggests that we may not need to add another paragraph at some time in the future about another issue, which is something we shouldn’t rule out in advance.
I am hopeful that the addition of this paragraph in the BCO will end our multiyear debate.
So, in summary, Item 1 is appropriate and needed, and it addresses an issue that is unavoidable.
Answering Overture 15 in the Negative Perpetuates One Problem and Creates Another
Now let’s turn from the benefits of answering this proposed amendment in the affirmative to the costs of answering it in the negative. Answering Item 1 in the negative will perpetuate one problem and create another.
First, answering this item in the negative will continue the confusion of what is expected of men who have same-sex attraction as part of their biographies. Continued uncertainty does a disservice to those coming forward for ordination. A man with a sensitive conscience may think himself ineligible for ordination when, in fact, he would sail through ordination in any Presbytery and could even serve as a model for holy living.
Imagine a man who is forthright about his struggles, in the appropriate context, but who affirms, along with the justly acclaimed Ad Interim Committee Report on Human Sexuality, that “we name our sins, but are not named by them.” This man would never describe himself as a homosexual; adding this paragraph in the BCO will help him. Voting against this proposed addition deprives him of guidance and leaves us all in a crisis of ambiguity.
Second, we should recognize that answering this item in the negative will generate a new problem. The General Assembly has placed the denomination in a precarious position — in a way I did not realize when we voted last summer. If we say we will not add a paragraph saying that “men who describe themselves as homosexual” are disqualified from holding office, then it suggests, though it does not logically entail, that the PCA is comfortable with men describing themselves as homosexuals. I say “suggests” and not “entails” because to reject the addition of something does not require anyone to accept the addition of its opposite.
Even still, voting in the negative will suggest to people that the PCA is comfortable with its officers calling themselves homosexuals. When asked, “Does the PCA ordain homosexuals?,” we cannot say, “We can neither confirm nor deny that the PCA ordains homosexuals.” We must either say, “Yes, the PCA ordains homosexuals, but men must claim celibacy from homosexual conduct in order to ordained,” or we will say, “No, but there may be men who count that amongst the temptations they resist.” Put succinctly, we will either be a “Yes, but” or a “No, but” denomination.
Item 1 places before us a stark choice: Will we be a yes-but or a no-but denomination? “Yes, we ordain homosexuals, but . . .” or “No, we don’t ordain homosexuals, but . . .”? Will we be a denomination that ordains men who call themselves homosexuals, with caveats, or will we be a denomination that does not ordain such men, with caveats?
I voted in the affirmative on Item 1, because I think the PCA is a no-but and not a yes-but denomination. If we add this paragraph to the Book of Church Order, we will be able to say, when asked whether the PCA ordains homosexuals, that anyone calling himself a homosexual is disqualified for office, per BCO 7-4. If we do not add this paragraph, our people will continue to wonder what kind of denomination we are — and I will, too.
James Bruce is a professor of philosophy at John Brown University, the director of the Center for Faith and Flourishing, and an associate pastor of Covenant Church PCA in Fayetteville, Arkansas.