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The Three “U”s and PCA Overtures 23 and 37: Part 1 Continued

The Three “U”s and PCA Overtures 23 and 37: Part 1 Continued

When Overture 23 uses the word “professing” it is clearly modifying the word identity. Confessing on the other hand is admitting that one still struggles with a particular behavior. Professing says, “This is who I am.” whereas confessing says, “This is what I do, but I hate it and my sin does not define me.”   Neither overture in any way discourages ordinands from being honest about their wrestling with remaining sin. In fact, the wording of Overture 37 presupposes that every man will continue to struggle with his sin and encourages the candidate to be transparent about God’s work of grace in his life.

In a previous article, we examined the first of the three “U”s leveled against Overtures 23 and 37 (O23 and O37); specifically, the assertion that both overtures are unclear and should not be approved by PCA presbyteries. In this article we address the other side of the “unclear” coin by asking: “Will O23 and O37 exclude any and all who struggle with same-sex attraction (SSA) from ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)?”

The First “U”—More on “Unclear”

Much of the “National Partnership Public Advice for Voting on Overtures 23, 37” (PA) opposition to O23 centers on the word “that.” To what does it refer? How far does “that” extend within the overture? Does it extend to that which precedes the first parenthesis or to all that follows thereafter? If I understand their question correctly, the writers are functionally asking:

Would O23 disqualify a man who professes an identity such as, but not limited to, “gay Christian,” “same sex attracted Christian,” “homosexual Christian,” or like terms regardless of his Christian conduct? In other words, is professing to be a “homosexual Christian” or a “same sex attracted Christian” by itself enough to disqualify a man from ordination? OR—

Would O23 disqualify only those men who profess such identities and are not “above reproach in their walk and Christlike in their character”? If so, then are those men who profess to be “homosexual Christians” or “same-sex attracted Christians” able to be ordained so long as they affirm the sinfulness of their desires, affirm the reality of progressive sanctification, and pursue Spirit-empowered victory over their sin?

If my rephrasing is basically correct, then I believe the question itself is guilty of setting up a false dilemma. The two options to which the PA artificially limits the reader are these:

Option 1. Those candidates/fellow elders within the PCA who are honest about their struggle with SSA will be immediately disqualified from holding ordained office along with any others who confess their struggle against “persistent sinful desires.” Referring to Overture 37, which deals with the examination of ordinands on their Christian character, the PA reads

The proposed addition to BCO 21 (O37) fails to provide clarity about what constitutes the disqualifying self-profession. Under these rules, any brother who self-professes any “remaining sinfulness” of “struggle against sinful actions” or “persistent sinful desires” puts his ordination in jeopardy – not necessarily because he is living a sinful life, but because he confesses that he still struggles with lusts, anger, ambition, family/work balance, bitterness, etc. The consequences of adopting this standard into our Constitution is either to tempt every man who wants to keep his ordination to be less transparent, and to put a weapon in the hand of every aggressive person or party that wants to control a church or a presbytery (II. 1).

In essence, the above quote believes that O23 and O37 are doomed to function as cudgels wielded by “aggressive persons” against SSA strugglers, and if passed they will not only force SSA strugglers to be less transparent when examined on their Christian character but also countless others who wrestle with lusts, anger, ambition, family/work balance, bitterness, etc. Needless to say, I respectfully disagree with the first sentence of the above quote; O37 is crystal clear about what constitutes a disqualifying self-profession (but more on that later). The second option the PA offers is:

Option 2. If a man professes to be a “gay Christian” or a “same sex attracted Christian” and is not living in a sinful manner but affirms the sinfulness of his desires, the reality of progressive sanctification, and is pursuing Spirit-empowered victory over his sin, then the phrasing of this overture inadvertently leaves space for ordained officers to continue to identify themselves as “gay Christians” or “homosexual Christians.” The follow up question then would be: “Aren’t these the very terms that so chafe the conservatives who voted up O23 and O37? How then can you vote for an overture that allows for the use of those terms that you categorically deny?”

As mentioned previously, there is a world of difference between identifying sin so as to mortify it and identifying by our sin. Hitching modifiers like “gay” or “homosexual” as sidecars to our Christian identity ought be unthinkable to believers as such terms obscure and minimize the work that Christ has done (justification) and is doing (sanctification) in our lives. If a Christian affirms that SSA itself is a sin, that progressive sanctification is real and true, and if he is pursuing Spirit-empowered victory over his sin, then in what world would it make sense for this person to continue to identify himself as a “gay Christian” or a “homosexual Christian” (or by any other sin for that matter)? For example, would a Christian who left a white supremacist prison gang be wise to refer to himself as a “white supremacist Christian” even after he’d been delivered from the bondage and guilt of that sin? Certainly not! Why? Because white supremacy is absolutely antithetical to what he now believes as a Christian (see Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek…”)! Why then would a repentant Christian continue to identify himself as a “gay Christian” even after he’d been delivered from the bondage of that sin? Some may say that I am advocating for language tests, but I am not. I only desire that my brothers on the other side of this issue be as careful with their language as they desire for me to be with mine.

Consequently, the second option can and should be dismissed immediately. If a man refuses to humble himself and refrain from using ambiguous and scandalizing identity language (e.g., “I am a gay Christian,” “I am a queer Christian,” “I am a transgender Christian”) it is either because he does not believe SSA to be a sin, or denies the reality of progressive sanctification, or is not pursuing Spirit-empowered victory over his sin or because he lacks the wisdom, discernment, and maturity requisite for holding ordained office.

Along these same lines, there is an all-important difference between “professing an identity” as a gay Christian and a man who “confesses that he still struggles with lusts, anger, ambition, family/work balance, bitterness, etc” (PA II.1). “Confessing” and “professing” are not identical terms and the PA’s using the two interchangeably reads like an attempt to obfuscate.

When O23 uses the word “professing” it is clearly modifying the word identity. Confessing on the other hand is admitting that one still struggles with a particular behavior. Professing says, “This is who I am.” whereas confessing says, “This is what I do, but I hate it and my sin does not define me.”[1]  Neither overture in any way discourages ordinands from being honest about their wrestling with remaining sin. In fact, the wording of O37 presupposes that every man will continue to struggle with his sin and encourages the candidate to be transparent about God’s work of grace in his life. Consider the wording of O37

Careful attention must be given to his practical struggle against sinful actions, as well as to persistent sinful desires. Each nominee must give clear testimony of reliance upon his union with Christ and the benefits thereof by the Holy Spirit, depending upon 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. 6:9-14 11).

O37 does not disqualify a man from holding church office because he is a sinner, it only disqualifies those who are unwilling to pursue victory over their sin.[2] Contrary to specious claims made on the floor of GA, the language of O37 in no way tips its hat to Wesleyan Perfectionism or Keswick theology. The overture goes out of its way to say, “imperfection will remain.” Struggle, not sinlessness is the expectation of O37. So long as a brother who struggles with SSA can demonstrate that he indeed hates his sin, that he is depending upon the power of the Spirit in his fight against that sin and is bearing fruit in an exemplary fashion, then there is no reason to believe that O37 as written will disqualify such a man from ordained office. I struggle to find what is unclear.

The same is the case with O23. If a man denies the sinfulness of fallen desires, the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, or fails to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over his sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions, he is obviously not fit for office. However, if a man confesses that he struggles with SSA and affirms the sinfulness thereof, believes that God’s grace not only pardons but gives him power to war against his sin (progressive sanctification), and is pursing Spirit-empowered victory in every sphere of his life then this overture would say that such a man is qualified to rule in Christ’s church.

Therefore, those who claim that all SSA strugglers will be purged from ordained ministry if O23 and 37 pass would do well to abandon that line of argument. Neither the “intention” nor the “words written”[3] set up a second Great Ejection of those ministers who honestly struggle with and mortify their sin.

But, there is another word in O37 that the NP believes to be perilously unclear—reputation. What does “known by self-profession or reputation according to his remaining sinfulness” mean? During the minority report delivered at GA, RE Trevor Lawrence (the lawyer, not the quarterback) explained some of the minority’s reservations surrounding this particular word in O37.

Does the phrase “known by reputation” mean that the candidate must not be publicly known for acting upon same-sex desire or for embracing same-sex attraction as a good or morally neutral aspect of his fundamental identity? Or does the language in question mean that a candidate who discloses unwanted, repented of, and daily mortified same-sex attraction and has this disclosure publicized—whether willingly or unwillingly—is disqualified because his remaining sinfulness has become a matter of public knowledge and, presumably, part of his public reputation?

What if a candidate names his experience of same-sex attraction before his Presbytery and explicitly professes that his identity is in Christ, but an online outlet publishes a report of the disclosure of his same-sex attraction while inadvertently neglecting to mention his affirmation that his identity is in Christ? What if the omission of his affirmation of Christ-rooted identity is the work of malicious actors intending to spread a false report? Would these scenarios constitute a disqualifying reputation?

Or consider this possibility: a man practiced homosexuality prior to becoming a Christian, at which point he trusts the gospel, reorients his self-conception around his union with Christ, and even marries a godly Christian woman. Over the ensuing years, this man writes numerous faithful books to minister to others experiencing same-sex attraction, speaks to large crowds about same-sex attraction and the gospel, and reaches a global audience even as he experiences persistent and unwanted same-sex attraction. If such a man were to pursue ordination, would he be disqualified? He is recognized around the world as a Christian who experiences same-sex attraction. Though some presbytery members might claim that his fundamental identity is in Christ, could not others reasonably object that this man is “known by reputation…according to his remaining sinfulness”? Would the General Assembly wish to see this man deemed disqualified? What in Overture 37 would prevent it?

I must say that I appreciated this brother’s thoughtful questions. They have tremendous merit and they forced me to think. Below are my answers to the above questions

Question: “Does the phrase “known by reputation” mean that the candidate must not be publicly known for acting upon same-sex desire or for embracing same-sex attraction as a good or morally neutral aspect of his fundamental identity?” 

Answer: Absolutely. See O23.

Question: “Or does the language in question mean that a candidate who discloses unwanted, repented of, and daily mortified same-sex attraction and has this disclosure publicized—whether willingly or unwillingly—is disqualified because his remaining sinfulness has become a matter of public knowledge and, presumably, part of his public reputation?”

Answer: No, because every member of the PCA already publicly discloses that he or she is “sinner in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy” when they take their membership vows. To a degree, every Christian’s remaining sinfulness becomes public knowledge. But we mustn’t be known simply by that continued sinfulness, but by our daily repentance, by the work of the Spirit in our life. So even if the particular sin with which this brother struggles does become public knowledge, as long as he bears the marks of genuine repentance, he would not be disqualified from ordained ministry. He would simply be doing that which is expected of a genuine Christian who loves his Savior.

Question: “What if a candidate names his experience of same-sex attraction before his Presbytery and explicitly professes that his identity is in Christ, but an online outlet publishes a report of the disclosure of his same-sex attraction while inadvertently neglecting to mention his affirmation that his identity is in Christ? What if the omission of his affirmation of Christ-rooted identity is the work of malicious actors intending to spread a false report? Would these scenarios constitute a disqualifying reputation?

Answer: No, he would not be disqualified. Even he who was sinlessly perfect was subject to slander and false reports (e.g., Matthew 9:34; Mark 14:56, 59). Being above reproach does not mean that you are immune to accusation or reproach—it means that no amount of reproach will stick because your character is blameless and Christlike. No overture, no matter how precisely worded, can safeguard against every attempt to tarnish one’s good name. To be sure, examining committees and presbyteries need to be extremely discerning if they receive a negative report concerning a candidate’s character. It is imperative that they abide by the wisdom of Proverbs 18:13, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and his shame,” that they hear all sides of a story before taking action. But, in no way does O37 jeopardize this careful, prayerful process or necessitate a rush to judgement. Trust your committees and presbyteries to have the wisdom to discern truth from lies.

Question: “Or consider this possibility: a man practiced homosexuality prior to becoming a Christian, at which point he trusts the gospel, reorients his self-conception around his union with Christ, and even marries a godly Christian woman. Over the ensuing years, this man writes numerous faithful books to minister to others experiencing same-sex attraction, speaks to large crowds about same-sex attraction and the gospel, and reaches a global audience even as he experiences persistent and unwanted same-sex attraction. If such a man were to pursue ordination, would he be disqualified? He is recognized around the world as a Christian who experiences same-sex attraction. Though some presbytery members might claim that his fundamental identity is in Christ, could not others reasonably object that this man is “known by reputation…according to his remaining sinfulness”? Would the General Assembly wish to see this man deemed disqualified? What in Overture 37 would prevent it?

Answer: No. Notice that the minority report stops at “according to his sinfulness.” This is only half of the sentence and the omission of everything thereafter is significant. The rest of the sentence reads, “but rather by the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 6:9-14 11).  Again, the defining mark of a Christian is not that he is a sinner, it is the work of the Holy Spirit in his life. Clearly, the above individual has accepted the grace of Christ and is living in dependence upon the His Spirit. He “trusts the gospel, reorients his self-conception around his union with Christ, and even marries a godly woman.” His repentance is seen by all! What more could we ask for? He is exemplifying the kind of Christian character to which all of God’s people ought to strive. If selectively quoted, I can see how one might think O37 would disqualify such a man from holding office, but when the overture is considered as a whole I see no reason why this person could not be ordained and enjoy a fruitful ministry within the PCA.

In the next article we will address the second “U” leveled against O23 and O37— that they are Unnecessary. The PA has much to say about redundancy, the Confession, and the inclusion of time-bound, cultural language into our confessional standards; We’ll consider and answer these objections.

Stephen Spinnenweber is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of Westminster PCA in Jacksonville, Fla.


[1] See Romans 7:15-25 for a picture of sanctified honesty and wrestling with remaining sin. See also Carl Trueman’s excellent treatment of identity vs. behavior as it relates to human sexuality in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, p. 51.

[2] “…with full purpose of an endeavor after new obedience” (WSC Q.87).

[3] Quote from the PA opening paragraph.

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