Peter Sanlon

A Letter to PCA Friends from England: Learn From Our Past

You need to be aware that is the trajectory. Many Side B proponents argue for using the language of the liberals in order to win them over. Many Side B proponents wrote books and articles criticizing evangelical churches for what they perceived to be their failures and sins in not accepting their outlook. Evangelical churches were challenged to review themselves on how welcoming of Side B outlooks they would be and warned that failure to do so would lead to suicides among gay teenagers or failure in mission to the next generation… The doctrinal outlook of Side B is such that it functions as a gateway for some, over time, to change sides and advance the Side A outlook. We have seen this in England, and I expect you will see the same in the PCA if this trend is not clearly and firmly resisted.

I share this letter to brethren in the PCA with some trepidation. With Prov. 26:17 in mind it is arguably foolhardy to get involved in another denomination’s ecclesial debates — especially one on the other side of the Atlantic! However, friends in the PCA have suggested it may be helpful to you if I share how things have played out in England over the past decade.
Why would you want to read about the recent history of English evangelicalism as you ponder important votes in the PCA?
In most matters, American culture leads the Western world. To be sure, any time my children get obsessed with some fad or new toy, I can bet my bottom pound (dollar?) that the toy or movement originated in the USA. However, in regard to the specific debates you today face in the PCA — Revoice, ‘Side B’ views on sexuality — England, rather than America, has led the way.
It was a good decade ago that evangelical leaders in England began speaking of their same sex attractions in public, and shortly after that a para-church organization was established that promotes the collection of views that you would identify as being of the ‘Side B’ family. The language of ‘Side B’ was not used over here back then, but the doctrine was the same. One reason English evangelicals got a jumpstart on Americans in this area is that the Christian scene here is shaped in a large measure by what happens in the Church of England. Since that Church is a state church, with deep ties to the secular establishment, it naturally reflects the culture’s views more speedily than those Churches that distance themselves from the secular establishment.
Back in 2010, I realized where the sexuality debates in the Church were headed. At that time people were talking about homosexuality, but I could see that the goalposts would rapidly shift, and that the challenge would in the future be how to respond to transgenderism. That is why back in 2010 I published one of the first books from a conservative on the intellectual background to our culture’s celebration of transgenderism (Plastic People, Latimer Press, 2010). I hope that goes some way towards reassuring you I have been following these debates closely and pondering where matters are headed.
I pray then that a letter from a supportive friend in England may be of help to you in the PCA. I can do what you cannot do — write with the benefit of hindsight. I can share to you observations of what has happened in England where to a great degree, Side B views on sexuality have carried the day in evangelical circles. Rarely in ecclesial debates can you have the benefit of hindsight. I hope it is of use to you now.
What has happened in English church circles as Side B views have been widely accepted and promoted?
Confessions Have Been Overwhelmed by Personal Stories
The Confession of the Church of England (The 39 Articles) is robustly Reformed, and was used in drafting the Westminster Confession. The Confessions of both the Church of England and the PCA reject the fundamental tenet of ‘Side B’ when they affirm that the desires for something sinful are themselves sinful, requiring repentance, mortification and the Spirit’s sanctifying power.
The 39 Articles used the word ‘concupiscence’ to make this point. Article 9 says, ‘The Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.’ The claim is that the Bible itself teaches that the desire for sinful things has the ‘nature of sin.’
The Westminster Confession did not use the word ‘concupiscence’ but expanded and elucidated its meaning. So WCF 6,5 teaches, ‘This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be through Christ pardoned and mortified, yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin.’
Looking back over the past decade in England, the striking thing is that the Confessional resources we have to hand have been largely set aside and ignored in favour of moving, emotive personal stories from people willing to interpret their experiences through lenses foreign to Scripture. Side B views cannot root themselves in your Confession — instead, they seek to carry the day with emotive stories and personal experience. In so doing they resonate with the culture of the day.
One result of this in England has been that very few ministers are able or willing to teach a classical Reformed view on the nature of temptation in the realm of homosexuality. Personal stories are so valued by people that the duties of teaching are delegated out to parachurch organizations that can send into your church somebody who speaks from their personal experience. You can guess what happens — they promote a Side B view, and that outlook is embedded ever deeper in churches.
The Power of God Has Been Downplayed
The conservative movement in the Church of England was arguably susceptible to Side B type views, because it had for decades prior to that downplayed the supernatural work of God in conversion. For a long time, we favoured evangelistic training rather than evangelism, talks about the Bible rather than preaching, calls to sign-up to a course rather than to place one’s faith in Christ. Reacting against the Charismatic Movement since the 1970s, we warned people against the Holy Spirit and tried to settle for courses, clear teaching, and well managed churches. All this gave the wider movement a shallow, non-supernatural view of conversion and the Christian life.
There are echoes of relevant debates in American Christianity, such as Warfield contending for supernaturalism, or Edwards arguing for the New Birth.
If English evangelicals were primed to downplay the supernatural power of God in conversion and the Christian life, the problem was exacerbated by acceptance of Side B views. As leaders began telling their stories of how they became Christians but did not experience any deep spiritual change in their desires or outlook in important areas of life. Churches were primed to accept their stories and self-diagnosis because few had awareness of the Bible’s teaching about the radical supernatural impact of being born again.
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