Can the PCA Remain United? (Part 1) The Point of Friction

In 2003 I transferred my ordination credentials from the OPC to the PCA. One of the things I really appreciated about the PCA was the big tent. We are a denomination that is “faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission.” In the midst of those commitments there is a of freedom of ministry practice. PCA churches, while holding to the same doctrinal commitments, could look a little different from local church to local church.

I see a growing discontent with the PCA as it has existed since its founding. This is the PCA that embraced the RPCES and its cultural distinctives, and the PCA that embraced Korean-speaking Presbyterian Churches. This is the PCA in which Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia; Redeemer Church in New York City; Perimeter Church in Metro Atlanta area; New City Fellowship in Chattanooga; Briarwood Presbyterian in Alabama; and Mosaic Church in Washington DC all co-exist in a spirit of unity of purpose and theology, partnership in the Gospel, and the common bonds of brotherhood among elders. Yes, there have been sometimes sharp disagreements and more minor squabbles, with some of them being very intense at times. There have always been the disgruntled voices that continually complained and threatened to pull out of the PCA. And churches do pull out because they are moving too far leftward or rightward. But these are the minority. Far more regularly we see churches weary of denominational battles and lonely in their independent status moving into the PCA. Up until the last decade the PCA has been one of the fastest growing denominations in the United States. Its only been in the last two years that I’ve wondered about the spiritual health of the PCA.

Lately, there is more and more talk from disgruntled groups that have moved from a win-win approach to differing visions, methodologies, and theological emphases, to a win-lose proposition. Among some of the more culturally conservative churches there is talk about pulling out of the PCA if their agenda is not embraced. On the other side, churches and elders, who are more open to contextualing their ministries, feel like they are being forced out. More and more people in the big tent are feeling unwanted and unwelcome by other groups in the tent. I have to admit that I’ve imagined re-forming the RPCES if a large number of elders and churches find themselves forced out of the PCA. Others are talking about pulling out and forming a totally new denomination. It’s led me to wonder what it will take to keep the PCA united. I’m under no illusion that my thoughts are somehow definitive or authoritative. I share them with the hopes of sparking a discussion. There will be multiple posts on this topic. There is no way I can share all that’s on my heart in just one post.

In 2018 a Conference captured the attention of the conservative Evangelical world in the United States. The Conference was called “ReVoice.” Its purpose was aimed at “supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.” In the last decade or so there has been a growing number of voices from within the Evangelical community embracing homosexual relationships and gay marriage, from Tony Campolo to David Neff to Rachel Held Evans to Jen Hatmaker. ReVoice is an interdenominational parachurch ministry with the goal of encouraging those who experience a homosexual orientation to embrace the historic, biblical Christian tradition regarding sex and marriage. It is a biblical response to “Side A” Christianity that is making inroads into Evangelicalism, that affirms same sex relationships and marriage.

Our denomination was particularly affected because the October 2018 ReVoice Conference was held at Memorial PCA in St. Louis, MO. Some of the key promoters of the conference were elders in the PCA. All of a sudden there was a spotlight on the PCA that made many very concerned. It was an unwanted spotlight, and I don’t believe we were prepared for it.

Dr. Greg Johnson, the Senior Pastor at Memorial PCA, spoke openly of his struggle against homosexual temptation while pursuing a biblical Christian sexual ethic of chastity in singleness, affirming traditional marriage between a biological male and biological female, and a renunciation of an active homosexual lifestyle, as a lead up to the conference. But the way he spoke of his experience led many to be confused. It had been about 40 years since Reformed Evangelicals had spoken of homosexually-oriented Christians. Francis Schaeffer, Richard Lovelace, John Stott, Gordon Hugenberger, and other conservative evangelicals used terms like “gay Chrisitians” or “homosexual Christians” to refer to those who were faithful and orthodox Christians who experienced homosexual temptations but were committed to faithfully follow Jesus Christ. Other conservative Evangelical leaders like evangelist Billy Graham and Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, followed their lead. However, since the rise of Exodus International, and other ex-gay ministries, the expectation was the homosexuals who became Christians would speak of their SSA struggles in the past tense and speak of being delivered by God at their conversion to a heterosexual orientation. Exodus International no longer exists and its founders and leaders have acknowledged that their approach and assumptions were not just ineffective, but unbiblical and damaging. Most people had either forgotten or never knew how Reformed Evangelicals spoke of homosexuality prior to 1980. So Greg’s language was unfamiliar and confusing – and to many, shocking and provocative.

Dr. Nate Collins, the founder of ReVoice, was a Southern Baptist, a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and former New Testament instructor when he founded the organization. Eventually he and his family would become members of Memorial PCA.

Many PCA elders were justified to wonder about the trajectory of ReVoice.  Many, including myself, contacted Greg Johnson directly challenged and urged him to influence ReVoice in a biblically faithful direction. Others were not so kind in seeking clarification by asking questions and clarifying concerns, and even more did not even contact Greg or Memorial PCA directly. These chose to make public condemnations of what they believed ReVoice was saying and where they were going. Like a wildfire burning out of control, assumptions became truth, conclusions were arrived at, and condemnations, based on those (unverified) assumptions and conclusions, were pronounced. It appeared to many, including me, that the process the PCA’s BCO outlines for discipline was being tossed in favor of polarized political discourse fostered by social media. It seemed that quite a few PCA elders chose to ignore Ordination vow #3 regarding their support and approval of the BCO and Presbyterian Church government.

It didn’t help that ReVoice didn’t release their “Statement on Sexual Ethics and Christian Obedience” until after they were embroiled in controversy. While that statement is biblical and orthodox, it came too late and doubt and suspicion had already been sown widely. 

Like so many new ministries, ReVoice got off to a bit of a messy start, many PCA elders in more culturally conservative communities were blindsided by the conference. Elders in the PCA did not know much about the people involved with ReVoice or their intentions. Elder found themselves busy learning the difference between “Side A” and “Side B” Christianity.

With the culture war front and center, outreach to the LGBTQ community had been part of very few churches local missions. In fact, for most, embracing LGBTQ people in any measure was a step toward theological compromise. I don’t think ReVoice was prepared for the controversy. I think their ministry was largely unanticipated since ministry to the LGBTQ community by Evangelicals had almost completely fallen apart since the collapse of Exodus International in 2013. The only notable exception is Harvest USA, a popular ministry in Reformed circles.

Greg Johnson and Memorial PCA found themselves in the middle of a tsunami. The controversy reached even greater heights after Christianity Today published Greg’s testimony when he referred to himself as “gay” prior to coming to faith in Jesus Christ and spoke of his sexual orientation not changing after conversion. Despite not ever engaging in any homosexual sex or any homosexual acts of physical intimacy of any kind, and having his internet activity monitored since 2004, many elders saw him as a trojan horse for bringing gay marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals into the PCA. Others were quick to come to his defense and speak against the idea of a slippery slope.

Intense debate has risen up, not only in presbytery meetings, and in private communications between elders, but in full view of the general public on social media. That public debate, outside of the church courts, has led to greatly inflamed passions and a lot of misinformation. The volume of misleading statements, overstatements, exaggerations, and extrapolation has been significant, misleading, and destructive. The purveyors of misinformation have had an unchallenged platform on social media. Social scientists have observed that most people determine truth via popular perception rather than close analysis of the facts. That seems to be the case with the “ReVoice” issue. Sides have become entrenched in their positions. With many hardcore supporters of a certain position its hard to even have a discussion.

Some good things have come out of this controversy. We have made the section on marriage in our Book of Church order constitutional in order to prohibit PCA ministers from performing anything but a heterosexual wedding between one man and one woman. In 2019 we embraced the so-called “Nashville Statement” on marriage and sexuality which promoted a historic, biblical Christian sex ethic as a biblically faithful statement. We also tasked a committee to come up with our own statement on biblical sexuality. Greg Johnson and the Session of Memorial PCA requested that Missouri Presbytery conduct an investigation of them in order to evaluate their own beliefs and relationship to ReVoice. Later several presbyteries would also request an investigation. A number of presbyteries produced their own statement on marriage and sexual ethics. The ReVoice 2018 Conference at Memorial PCA proved to be a catalyst for a lot of biblical examination and theological reflection in our circles.

In the midst of the controversy there has been a lot of smoke. So much smoke that its been hard to see the fire. Exactly where is the disagreement between the “pro-ReVoice” side and the “anti-ReVoice” side? It isn’t about the practice of homosexuality. Both sides agree that homosexual practice or condoning homosexual practice are acts that are not only prohibited by Scripture and the Westminster Standards but those elders who engage in such behavior are to be the subject of church discipline. We’ve had churches drift toward becoming “affirming” churches and in doing so have left the PCA because they knew we would not embrace the practice of homosexuality. When presbyteries have found ministers to have engaged in homosexual practice they have been removed from pastoral office and subjected to formal discipline. General Assembly made constitutional a provision in our Directory of Public Worship that prohibits ministers from performing gay marriage. General Assembly affirmed the Nashville Statement as a biblically faithful statement. Many of the opponents to that overture were opposed because they preferred that we come up with our own statement as a denomination not because they disagreed with a historic, biblical Christian sex ethic. If the real issue was about homosexual practice, the controversy and tensions would have died down a long time ago.

I also don’t think the issue is elders with a Same Sex Attraction that could lead to temptation toward homoerotic desires unless mortified through sanctification. As we’ve discovered over the last three plus years there are a number of elders in the PCA who confess to SSA to the surprise of the larger Church. These men have ministered quietly in their contexts and have been under the radar. They didn’t participate in conferences where they publicly identified themselves as SSA and they never published testimonies in Christianity Today speaking of themselves as “gay” prior to conversion and stating that they continued to experience Same Sex Attraction temptations after conversion and that they had not developed opposite sex attraction after conversion. In fact, the current language of Overture 23 won’t affect anyone who does not engage in homosexual practice or promote it while experiencing SSA, as long as they are quiet about their SSA.

In other words, the issue isn’t about homosexual practice or promoting it. We’re all agreed on that. The PCA isn’t an “affirming” denomination and there is no movement whatsoever to push it in that direction. Anyone doing so would be subject to church discipline and deposed from office.

The issue isn’t about elders that are quiet about their struggle against SSA (mortifying it) while they are committed to a historic, biblical Christian sex ethic. Overture 23 (and Overture 37 for that matter) would not force ordained elders to be deposed or bar candidates for ordination who are quiet about their struggles with SSA. Experiencing SSA while refraining from homosexual practice, as long as one is quiet about it, is permitted. Actually, if elders don’t ever talk about it, no one would know in the first place.

The heart of the controversy is men that continue to experience Same Sex Attraction temptations after conversion and have not developed opposite sex attraction after conversion, that are being open and vocal about their struggles. It doesn’t matter that they are committed to a historic, biblical Christian sex ethic and traditional, biblical understandings of marriage. What has caused the controversy is that in conferences like ReVoice and in testimonials in Christianity Today, there are elders, and Dr. Greg Johnson in particular, that are speaking openly about their internal struggle against homosexuality. In doing so they’ve used terms like “same-sex attracted”, called themselves “gay”, spoke of being Christians who continue to have a homosexual orientation after conversion, despite great effort to eradicate it. The controversy has not died down because Greg Johnson in particular, and a few others in general, have not been quiet.

This is where the identity language appears to come in. In secular conceptions of defining self and the self’s relationship to others the ever changing and evolving idea of “identity” has developed, first taking shape in the thought of Erik Erickson in the 1950’s. This secular concept of identity is without any theological heritage in Reformed churches. It doesn’t appear in any historic Creeds, Confessions, or Catechisms. The great theologians of the Church have not hammered out its meaning theologically in their systematic theologies. It’s a recent adaptation of a secular concept embraced by popular Evangelicalism, with few Reformed thinkers developing “identity” theologically until the ReVoice controversy exploded.

At the 2021 General Assembly we saw a group of actions by the Assembly. First, The Ad Interim Committee on Human Sexuality produced a report that the Assembly overwhelmingly approved as a biblically faithful declaration and referred it to Church Discipleship Ministries to be included in denominational educational materials. Second, Overture 37 was approved with additional language to require moral screening of elder candidates prior to ordination. Based on arguments by proponents, it seems like there is a feeling that this screening would prevent elders like Greg Johnson from being ordained in the PCA. Third, while not an action of GA, the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) would hear a complaint filed by a teaching elder in Missouri Presbytery related to their investigation that resulted in exonerating Greg Johnson from charges brought against him in that presbytery.

Finally, two very similar overtures made their way to the Assembly. The first one, Overture 16, requested that the following be added to the Book of Church Order: “Men who identify as homosexual, even those who identify as homosexual and claim to practice celibacy in that self-identification, are disqualified from holding office in the Presbyterian Church in America.” The second one, Overture 23, requested that the Book of Church Order be changed to add: “Men who self-identify as a “gay Christian,” “same-sex attracted Christian,” “homosexual Christian,” or like term shall be deemed not qualified for ordination in the Presbyterian Church in America.” The Bills & Overtures Committee decided to work with Overture 23. Notice that both came to General Assembly with “identity” language. The first disqualifies any man who identifies both as a homosexual or celibate homosexual from serving in office of the PCA. The other added terms like “gay Christian” and “same sex attracted Christian”.

What came to the floor was an amended Overture 23 which states: “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.” This compromise wording was approved by a large margin by the General Assembly.

Many would state they voted for the overture with the intention to voting it down in their presbytery. They did this because they thought the compromise language was preferable to the overture as originally submitted. It was a political calculation because the Overtures Committee had enough votes to get Overture 23 to the floor of GA as submitted. Many opponents did not want to risk O23 being approved by the Assembly as written.

Note first that “identity” phrasing remains instead of biblical wording or confessional language. Second, note that the added language also included the phrasing, “failing to pursue Spirit-empowered victory.” This language is not biblical wording nor confessional language. Why wasn’t biblical wording or confessional language used in Overture 23? One can argue that the concepts for identity language and Spirit-empowered victory are in the Bible. But that’s the problem, we are debating biblical-sounding concepts and what they mean. These biblical-sounding concepts remain undefined by our General Assembly leaving interpretations open to differing personal understandings. Second, neither concept is directly found in any historic Reformed Confession or Catechism. Third, while “pursue Spirit-empowered victory” does appear in Wesleyan and Keswick theological traditions along with being something one would expect to see in a Neil T. Anderson book, it seems at its face to contradict WCF 13 on sanctification. Additionally, identity language doesn’t have a Reformed theological consensus regarding definition by any means. This is because no Reformed theologian of significance has developed the concept in their systematic theology.

As I’ve backed away from the heat of debates on social media and prayerfully reflected on the situation we find ourselves in as a denomination, I’m beginning to realize that controversy should have been the expected result of the ReVoice Conference. Since 2018, we have been trying to come up with a political solution. The solution seems to be to silence elders in the PCA with SSA who are speaking out publicly even though they are embracing a historic, biblical Christian marriage and sex ethic. We are left debating what “identity” means in Overture 23 like Democrats and Republicans debate social policy. Our debate has been largely driven by the pattern established in secular politics of late. This will be the subject of parts 2 & 3.

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