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

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

There is a world of difference between identifying our sin so as to mortify it and identifying by our sin as a component part of our Christian identity. Every Christian is called to identify his sin, take it to the cross in faith and repentance, and ask God for an increase of grace to war against the desires of the flesh. Far from singling out our brothers and sisters who struggle with SSA we are simply calling on them to join the rest of us who are no less committed to being renewed in the whole man after the image of Christ.

The approval of Overtures 23 and 37 at the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) General Assembly (GA) in St. Louis, Missouri was a watershed moment in the history of the PCA. To the surprise of many, Overtures 23 and 37 received overwhelming support at GA; Overture 23 passed by a vote of 1438 to 417 and Overture 37–1130 to 692. It wasn’t even close (77% and 62%). Denominational conservatives went home feeling as though they’d scored a game-winning touchdown when, in fact, the encouraging results of GA are more akin to a first down than a touchdown—there is still a lot of ground left to cover.

In order to amend the Book of Church Order (BCO) two-thirds of the denomination’s presbyteries need to vote in favor of these overtures, and the 2022 GA in Birmingham, Ala., will need to pass the overtures by a simple majority vote. So, as important as the 48th General Assembly was, if the overtures are indeed approved by the presbyteries, the 49th GA will prove to be even more pivotal for the future of our denomination.

Of late, the National Partnership (a group of progressive-minded elders within the PCA whose members voiced their full-throated opposition to Overtures 23 and 37 on the GA floor) are making something of a goal-line stand. Hoping to dissuade presbyteries from voting in favor of the proposed BCO amendments, the National Partnership released a public document titled, “National Partnership Public Advice for Voting on Overtures 23, 37” (hereafter PA) While I do not share their concerns, I sincerely appreciate the NP’s transparency in making their reservations public. Lord willing, the process of iron-sharpening iron will prepare us all for profitable debate both at the presbytery level and at next year’s GA.

There have already been a number of helpful resources produced that offer reasons to vote in favor of Overtures 23 and 37 (hereafter O 23 & O 37). TEs Dr. Dominic Aquila and Fred Greco provide a dialogue on the merits of O 23 & O 37. Additionally, TE Todd Pruitt’s GA wrap-up at Ref 21 provides information to understand the issues at play in the O 23 & O 37 debate.

My intention for this series is to address common objections raised in the PA and on social media. Since GA, I have had friendly correspondence with several brothers who are opposed to O 23 & O 37. Though we still do not agree, interacting with these brothers has proven helpful to me in assuming best motives and clarifying my own thinking on the issues at hand. These conversations together with the PA lead me to believe that there are at least three primary objections to O 23 & O 37 that undergird all others. I call them the “Three “U”s: The overtures, they argue, are: 1. Unclear; 2. Unnecessary; and 3. Unloving. Each article will address one “U” with the hope of bringing clarity to what feels like a dizzying array of dissent. It is my sincere hope that my brothers in the PCA will receive these critiques in the manner that they are intended—in brotherly love for them and those sheep under their care.

The First “U”—Unclear

The introductory paragraph of the PA aims to erode the reader’s confidence in O 23 & O 37 by suggesting that the language of the overtures is open to “broad interpretation.” “Many in the PCA are divided on the meaning of the overtures…The proper interpretation of the BCO is based on the words as written, not as they may have been intended. The GA did not adopt reasons, much less codify reasons, for these revisions. Any Overture that immediately instigates this much constitutional confusion is unworthy of our Standards.”[1]

Elsewhere the document reads, “The proposed addition to BCO 21 (O37) fails to provide clarity about what constitutes the disqualifying self-profession” (II. 1).

This creates an ambiguity in BCO 16-4 that no one perceived in the heat of the moment. The ambiguity is caused by the uncertainty of the word “that” after the first parenthesis. Does the “that” which disqualifies from pastoral office refer to what is within the parenthesis; i.e., those who profess an identity “such as, but not limited to, [etc.],” or, does the “that” refer to the explanatory clauses following it: i.e., those who profess an identity “such as but not limited to ‘gay Christian,’ ‘same sex attracted Christian,’ ‘homosexual Christian,’ are disqualified only if they express their identity in ways contrary to the standards?” (II. 2).

Having served on the Overtures Committee (OC) and agreeing to reconvene for the purpose of perfecting the language of Overture 23, the assertion that no one caught the perceived ambiguity “in the heat of the moment” gives the impression that the OC was guilty of a rush job. The fact of the matter is that commissioners debated O23 & O 37 for hours and down to the level of punctation and syntax. There is not a jot or a tittle that was not fussed over by the OC. Hats off to our intrepid OC chairman, TE Scott Barber, for keeping track of all the moving parts!

To answer the question posed in II. 2 surrounding the word “that” and to give the reader a sense of the care and attention given to the language of O23, the exact wording is copied below:

BCO 16-4. Officers in the Presbyterian Church in America must be above reproach in their walk and Christlike in their character. Those who profess an identity (such as, but not limited to, “gay Christian,” “same sex attracted Christian,” “homosexual Christian,” or like terms) that undermines or contradicts their identity as new creations in Christ, either by denying the sinfulness of fallen desires (such as, but not limited to, same sex attraction), or by denying the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, or by failing to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions are not qualified for ordained office.

To clarify, the “that” above does not set up a situation in which it is permissible for a PCA officer to continue to identify himself by his remaining sinfulness (i.e., “gay Christian,” “same-sex attracted Christian,” “homosexual Christian,” or like terms) even if he refrains from the behaviors listed thereafter (1. denying the sinfulness of the fallen desire 2. denying the reality and hope of progressive sanctification 3. failing to pursue Spirit-empowered victory). Why? Because continuing to identify ourselves by our remaining sinfulness necessarily “undermines and contradicts our identities as new creations in Christ.”

We must be clear, there is a world of difference between identifying our sin so as to mortify it and identifying by our sin as a component part of our Christian identity. Every Christian is called to identify his sin, take it to the cross in faith and repentance, and ask God for an increase of grace to war against the desires of the flesh. Far from singling out our brothers and sisters who struggle with SSA we are simply calling on them to join the rest of us who are no less committed to being renewed in the whole man after the image of Christ.

According to the PA, O23 is guilty of introducing “magic words” into our tests for ministers and officers. But this is not the case; forbidding men from identifying themselves by their remaining sinfulness is simply bringing the words of Scripture to bear in our examination process.

Consider the words of the Apostle Paul, “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:9b-11). To the Ephesians Paul wrote, “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints” (Eph 5:3).

Furthermore, as our Confession of Faith teaches, when we are adopted by God we are “taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God; and have His name put upon us” (WCF 12). What a precious privilege, to have God as our Father, to be called by his name! In light of such a privilege, why then would we sully this new identity by continuing to identify ourselves by the sins for which Christ died? Paul wrote, “such we were some of you” not “and so you will remain forever.” Therefore, Christians ought to steer clear of terminology that gives the impression that Christ’s blood hasn’t cleansed them from all their sin. “Gay Christian” and like terms do exactly that.

But, what about the Ad Interim Committee Report on Human Sexuality (hereafter AIC)? The PA quotes the AIC, “In practical and plain terms, the issue of terminology is more likely a matter for shepherding in wisdom, and not in and of itself grounds for discipline” (p. 30). Does this sentence make our objections to one identifying himself by his remaining sinfulness litigious? Are we looking to trap examinees in their words? Certainly not.

To better understand the AIC quote above we need to keep in mind its original context. This quotation falls under the AIC section titled, “Biblical Perspectives For Pastoral Care—Discipleship, Identity, and Terminology.” This section offers practical advice to shepherds on how to effectively care for sheep who struggle with SSA. The context is pastoral care, not theological examinations nor the language that ought or ought not to be used therein. In the paragraph immediately preceding the selected quote, the AIC states:

There is an understandable desire among some celibate Christians who identify as gay to utilize the common parlance of our culture as a missional or apologetic tool, hoping to redefine for our culture a way of being gay that in fact submits those desires to the lordship of Christ. However, there is a substantial corresponding risk of syncretism in such an approach. This potential danger toward syncretism can manifest as an over-identification with the LGBT community (over and against a primary identification with the church) or even the formation of an LGBT subculture within the church. In view of the twin dangers of misunderstanding and syncretism, we believe it is generally unwise to use the language of gay Christian.

Here’s my logic. If the AIC’s recommendation to shepherds is for them to dissuade their sheep from using unwise identifiers like “gay Christian,” then how much more should we expect a man who aspires to be a shepherd to refrain from using these same identifiers? If a man refuses to shed a sinful self-conception in the interest of safeguarding against, at best, misunderstanding, and at worst, syncretism, does he really embody the spiritual qualities laid out in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5 for those who aspire to ordained leadership (e.g., temperate, not quarrelsome, being examples to the flock)? Wouldn’t he be guilty of using unclear language and sowing seeds of confusion among the flock, and not those of who object to his unwise use of terminology?

I argue from the lesser to the greater as I do because James reminds us that all those who rule in the church will be held to a higher standard. James wrote, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). Notice that James writes this in the context of Christians needing to tame their tongues. Words mattered to James and they ought to matter still, especially to those entrusted with the ministry of the Word and prayer (Acts 6:4). We must be careful not only in what we do, but also in the way we communicate who we are in Christ.

In this post I have dealt with only one side of the “Unclear” coin. In the next article I will maintain that neither O 23 or O 37 as written necessarily disqualify a man who struggles with SSA from being ordained in the PCA.

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

[1]Please note that all directly quoted statements are in italics, all those underlined are my own.

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