“Still Time to Care” and the PCA’s Culture War: An Analytical Review of Greg Johnson’s Book.

Recently, I finished reading Greg Johnson’s Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2021). It’s a well-written and engaging book. Whether you agree with him or not, it would be of great benefit to read it and reflect on his central themes. If you are in the PCA, I’d say it is essential reading to prepare to adjudicate issues at the 2022 General Assembly impartially.

In my mind the book seeks to do three things: 1.) Promote the historic, biblical Christian ethic regarding sex and marriage against “Side A Christianity” (which affirms homosexual practice and gay marriage) that is making it’s way into the Evangelical church movement. 2.) Critique the main response that Evangelicals have had toward those struggling with homosexual orientation the last 40 years (the Ex-Gay Movement). 3.) Promote a model of ministry that accepts that sexual orientation may not change at conversion but doesn’t compromise biblical teaching.

Promoting the Historic, Biblical Christian Ethic on Sex and Marriage

Part 3 of the book (pages 151-186) sets out to defend the historic Christian understanding of biblical passages prohibiting homosexual sex. In recent years scholars like Ralph Blair, James Brownson, and Karen Keen have argued for homosexual sex acts in the context of gay marriage. To get to that point they reinterpret the biblical texts relating to homosexuality. Reading their arguments reminded me of the Evangelical feminist arguments decades ago arguing for ordaining women to the office of elder or pastor. They place biblical texts into a time bound cultural context that is then reinterpreted. They are no longer a timeless biblical injunction. Blair, Brownson and Keen have argued persuasively enough that many Evangelicals have been following them toward accepting gay marriage and homosexual sex within the context of marriage. This is the “Side A Christian” position.

Greg argues decisively against that perspective. He fully affirms the biblical teaching on homosexuality and marriage as historically understood and defends it as the correct interpretation of the Bible passages. I’m thankful to have this book on my shelf because it will provide me with good responses should I need to pastorally deal with someone who embraces “Side A Christianity”. It was also a great comfort to realize that Greg Johnson isn’t drifting away from orthodoxy in any sense of the word.

Critique of the Evangelical Orientation Change Approach of the Last 40 Years

In Part 2 of his book, he critiques what he calls the “Paradigm of Cure”. In doing so he traces the development and emergence of “Ex-Gay” ministries as they grew into the umbrella organization Exodus International. What I learned was how deeply rooted the orientation change with conversion belief was rooted in Pentecostal/Charismatic/Word of Faith theology. The men and women who built the Ex-Gay Movement were overwhelmingly in the Pentecostal/Charismatic camp. They were sincere in their efforts but suffered from a lack of training and poor theology. This lead to some theological inadequacies in the doctrine of sin and as Greg puts it, an “over-realized eschatology”. This over-realized eschatology gave false hope to someone who is homosexually oriented they achieve victory in this life reflected in orientation change. That hope ultimately is properly placed in the life to come in the New Heavens and New Earth. In other words, the movement was very deficient in their theologies of sin and sanctification.

As I read this section a lot of issues we are facing in the PCA became much more clear. Back in the 1970’s when I was a kid in a Fundamentalist church the phoniness of the faith healers and their testimonies of raising the dead, making the lame to walk and the blind to see were exposed for what they were. This was typical of the Charismatic movement. People would tell fantastic tales of healing and deliverance. Those who wanted such healing could come to Jesus, as proclaimed in the Pentecostal tradition, and find freedom from whatever ails them. Not just blindness but homosexuality too. Greg’s book showed how these promoters of the “Ex-Gay” Movement used similar techniques and messages to convince a broader Evangelical audience that sexual orientation change came with the new birth in Jesus.

People began to accept that when you got saved your orientation changed. Conversion therapies were about helping people get rid of the vestiges of homosexuality in their lives. A homosexual orientation wasn’t so much original corruption as it was an actual transgression. That’s because the original corruption of a homosexual orientation disappeared and all that was left what someone supernationally given a heterosexual orientation but still chose to think homoerotic thoughts and have same sex desires. Anyone who is truly saved would not have a homosexual orientation anymore because they are “new creations in Christ”. As I read this section I became more and more theologically confused by the Ex-Gay Movement and conversion therapy. It’s not theologically consistent at all.

I think a large part of the conflict we are having about homosexuality as a denomination makes sense in this light. Many of us have been very uncomfortable with the inconsistency that our Fathers and Brothers who are pushing for passage of the Overture exhibit toward our Westminster Standards. It could be because they are taking a belief about orientation change at conversion from the Pentecostal movement and trying to find a place for it in the Reformed tradition. It’s going to just rub in irreconcilable conflict because we are not semi-Pelagian in our view of sin and we are not Wesleyan in our view of sanctification. Twisting and bending something that is so theologically flawed into our tradition simply will not work. Why would we try? Greg’s book showed how the whole Movement came crashing down in failure due to its lack of firm biblical support. I’d encourage brothers who hold this position to carefully read Greg’s book and think about their position.

It also seems to me that when you combine a belief in the “Paradigm of Cure” along with an embracing of “Red State culture” there is a recipe for someone to be very, very concerned about ReVoice and “Side B Christianity”. Any acknowledgement that orientation change does not occur for the vast majority of Christians with a homosexual orientation can easily be seen as opening the door for the LGBTQ Movement to come rushing in. If you accept that orientation doesn’t change then the slippery slope is to accept homosexuality next. Thus, the “Paradigm of Cure” becomes an essential tenant of the culture war to preserve and protect Christianity from ungodly perversions. Those who embrace Johnson’s “Paradigm of Care” must come to terms with the fact that some of our Fathers and Brothers in Christ view things very differently.

The “Paradigm of Care”, Or How the “Cure” is Found in Discipleship and Community

The “Paradigm of Care” form bookends of the book. Parts 1 & 4 discuss this paradigm that Greg Johnson envisions as both the past and future for faithful ministry to the homosexually oriented. I think these two sections are the ones that are most challenging for those who don’t share his perspective.

One of the big problems to mention at the outset is a lack of understanding of Side B Christianity as a movement and ReVoice as an organization giving voice to that conviction. Greg did not explore this in his book. In the Reformed tradition we look to the Bible to shape our theology and our theology to dictate our practice. It’s very easy to look at Side B Christianity and ReVoice practices and then assume that there is a common theological conviction behind it. That’s how we work. But Side B Christianity isn’t a theological movement, it is an ethical one. It’s like the Pro-Life Movement. We certainly agree with Roman Catholics on the sanctity of human life and the rights of the unborn to live. But the common agreement doesn’t extend to our respective theological convictions. We come to the same place when it comes to practice, but we don’t take the same road to get to the same destination.

Side B Christianity embraces the historic Christian ethic of marriage between a man and a woman along with sex only within the confines of marriage. That means that since God doesn’t permit marriage to homosexuals it requires singleness. Singleness requires celibacy. But there are a wide range of theological convictions in Side B Christianity and in ReVoice. Those in the movement often come from very different theological positions. Some hold beliefs that we, as Reformed Christians, could not agree with. These beliefs can shade some aspects of how to implement the conviction of the historic Christian sex and marriage ethic. Especially, what’s permitted and what’s forbidden. Kind of like a Baptist and Presbyterian talking about worship. We say whatever God has not commanded is forbidden. The Baptist says that whatever God has expressly not forbidden is permitted. Our worship might even look close to the same, but our convictions are fundamentally different.

So when people talk about Side B Christianity, I’m thinking, “what flavor are you talking about?” Greg Johnson gives us his flavor in his book. Ultimately, he argues that even though same sex attraction likely will persist all through life that doesn’t mean that one who experiences it is without hope and comfort. In fact, there is much hope and comfort in our Reformed understanding of sin and sanctification.

Part 1 opens as a history lesson. He shares how Christian leaders of the 20th century like C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, John Stott and Billy Graham had a different approach to homosexuality than the one promoted by Evangelicals in the last 40 years. He does this through biographical story telling. The approach made grasping the material much more engaging. However, he left out lesser lights like Charles Colson, Gordon Hugenberger, Richard Lovelace, and Robert Rayburn, that could have given a more comprehensive scope. Johnson shows how these men didn’t focus on orientation change but rather focused on discipleship and community. At first, this seems like Johnson is advocating a “soft on homosexual inclinations” approach. That’s not true. Rather, the issue is how best to help someone who struggles with homosexual inclinations to grow in Christ.

Part 4 he returns to the “Paradigm of Care”. A homosexual, like everyone else, needs to see their homosexuality (all of it, inclinations included) as sin and in need of repentance and salvation only through Jesus Christ. As a homosexually oriented believer walks with Jesus, the Holy Spirit wages war against their flesh, and more and more sinful homosexual desire recedes as he or she is sanctified by the Spirit. We ultimately disciple homosexuals the same way we disciple everyone else who comes to faith in Jesus. He further makes note of the fact that those with same sex attraction that never do gain an attraction to the opposite sex in order that they can marry will be left with a life of singleness and celibacy. In that, he calls for the church to be the church and lovingly embrace and give these men and women the gift of spiritual family.

I think these sections are very relevant to our current debate. I’d suggest the “Paradigm of Care” elders are mostly against the Overtures and are in favor of the SJC ruling upholding the Missouri Presbytery’s investigation of Dr. Johnson. I think the “Paradigm of Cure” elders are strongly in favor of the Overtures and were very disappointed by the SJC’s ruling. Could it be that we are talking past one another because we don’t understand one another?

The Problem of Terminology

Greg has a section in his book dealing with terminology that we’d do well to read carefully. How does one who struggles with same sex attraction as part of a Christian testimony without seeming to celebrate sin? “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. 6:11).

After reading the section I think the problem is that the Christian church has not coined a phrase to succinctly describe, “I used to engage in homosexual practices, now I’ve repented of my sin and embraced Jesus in faith. The Holy Spirit is waging war against the homosexual orientation in my deepest being (same sex attraction) and through His work, as I submit to him, it is becoming mortified and less and less of an influence in my life. I am not attracted to the opposite sex so it would not be fair to marry someone. Therefore, I’m committed to stay celibate and single.” The problem, as I see it, is there is no language that could be understood by the unbelieving world that is not attached to the LGBTQ Movement with all its baggage. Same sex attracted is about as close as we get. But how many outside the Church would understand what an SSA Christian is? This isn’t about “identifying” with sin, but how do those with same sex attraction relate to people for discipleship and evangelism? Fundamentally, this is a challenge that is not easily resolved.

Conclusion

I started out collecting a whole bunch of quotes to build this review. As I thought about it, I want others to read the book and process it through their own understanding. I don’t want someone to feel that a review is a substitute for reading the book. I summarized and I restated in my own words what I saw in the book. My encouragement is, especially if you are a PCA elder, to read the book in its entirety before the 2022 PCA General Assembly.

Resources for 2022 PCA General Assembly (and Presbytery Overture Votes)

Here is some valuable study material to review in the lead up to the 2022 PCA General Assembly. I wanted to share documents with other elders who are looking to prepare well for GA. Below is an article I wrote sharing my convictions about being impartial judges at General Assembly. I fear the PCA will not remain united unless we ground our decisions in careful exegesis of Scripture and thoughtful analysis of our Westminster Standards.

Can We Act as Impartial Judges?

I’m trying to collect as many resources as possible of those that have a position contrary to mine. Its good to listen to the other side and carefully evaluate their arguments.

Scroll all the way through. There are a wide range of links posted. Read 3 or 4 articles presenting a position opposite of yours. Read them thinking the best of those writing them.

I’ll update this blog entry as I find new resources. My goal is to post links to as complete a list of resources possible. Last Updated: 1/21/2022 at 11:20am

Official PCA Documents:

SJC Ruling: TE Ryan Speck v. Missouri Presbytery.

Official Missouri Presbytery Documents:

Open Letter from the Administrative Committee. January 9, 2020.

Affirmations and Denials on Human Sexuality. June 2, 2020.

BCO 31-2 Investigation of TE Greg Johnson. July 21, 2020.

General Assembly Declared “Biblically Faithful” Documents:

Ad Interim Committee on Human Sexuality Report (2021 General Assembly)

Nashville Statement (2019 General Assembly)

Articles Relating to the Concept of “Identity” & Bringing It Into the PCA

Reformed Articles:

Michael Allen. Sources of the Self: The Distinct Makings of the Christian Identity.

Matthew Lee Anderson. The Trouble with Talking about our “Identity in Christ”

Nathan Campbell. Identity is a Trojan Horse. Stop bringing it in behind the gates of the church

Nathan Campbell. Questioning identity (including the idea of ‘identity in Christ’)

Nathan Campbell. Could a theology of beauty fix how we talk about ‘attraction’ and help us tell a better story about God, the world, and ourselves

Scott Swain. Renewing theological anthropology.

Scott Swain. More thoughts on theological anthropology: man as male and female.

Non-Christian Scholarly Articles:

Phillip Gleason. Identifying Identity: A Semantic History. NOTE: Most often quoted history of “identity” in scholarly articles.

Young Yun Kim. Ideology, Identity, and Intercultural Communication: An Analysis of Differing Academic Conceptions of Cultural Identity

Medical News Today. Types of Gender Identity. Note: A list defining the many genders people areidentifying” with.

Oyserman, Elmore & Smith. Self, Self-Concept, and Identity

Research.net. Identity Definition

Turner, Oakes, Haslam & McGarty. Personal and Social Identity: Self and Social Context

Greg Johnson’s Material:

Essential Reading:

Greg Johnson. Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2021.

Greg Johnson. I Used To Hide My Shame. Now I Take Shelter Under the Gospel. Christianity Today, May 20, 2019.

Greg Johnson. I’m a gay, celibate pastor of a conservative church. Here’s a trick for de-escalation. USA Today, December 22, 2021. NOTE: Greg Johnson did not choose the title of this article.

Greg Johnson. The Gay Threat to the PCA. Semper Ref, September 26, 2021.

Greg Johnson. Gay Shame and Jesus. Living Out, October 2021.

Interviews Regarding His Book:

Greg Johnson. Same-Sex Attracted, Sexually Pure, and…Unfit for Ministry? Interview with Preston Sprinkle, June 29, 2021.

Greg Johnson. Being Gay and Christian. Conversations About Life Podcast (Will Jackson), December 31, 2021.

Greg Johnson. Still Time to Care. The Hopper Podcast (William Sofield & Dave Baggett), January, 2, 2022.

Greg Johnson. Embrace Webinar #23. Embrace (Michelle Sanchez). December 11, 2021.

Greg Johnson. The Church Wasn’t Always So Bad at the LBTQ Conversation with Greg Johnson. Hole in My Heart Podcast (Laurie Krieg), December 2021.

Greg Johnson. Hard Questions with Greg Johnson. Refuge Media. August 25, 2021.

Greg Johnson. Greg Johnson. John Stott Legacy Podcast. July 6, 2021.

Book Reviews of Still Time to Care (In alphabetical order):

Steven Cooper. The Time is Now: A Review of Greg Johnson’s Still Time to Care. November 29, 2021.

Joe Dallas. Is it Time To Change Ministry to LGBTQ People? Book Review Still Time to Care by Greg Johnson. December 22, 2021.

Ben Hein. Review: Greg Johnson’s Still Time to Care. December 6, 2021.

Jonathan Master. A Review of Greg Johnson’s New Book: “Still Time to Care”. December 6, 2021.

Ben Hein. A Review of a Review. Note: A response to Jonathan Master’s review. January 19, 2022.

Ed Shaw. Still Time to Care: A Review. September 2021.

ReVoice:

Note: ReVoice is an interdenominational 501c3 non-profit ministry with no official ties to the PCA. Since 2019 no PCA elder has been on the staff, served on the board of directors, or served on the advisory council of ReVoice. ReVoice made a board decision to distance themselves from the PCA due to our harsh treatment of the organization (communication with Founder and President Nate Collins).

Mission, Vision & Values.

Statement of Faith.

Statement on Sexual Ethics and Christian Obedience.

Statement on Public Posture and Christian Witness.

Articles Favoring Both Overtures

TE Dominic Aquilla and TE Fred Greco (SJC Member). Reasons to Vote in Favor of Amendments to the PCA’s BCO 16-4, BCO 20-4 and BCO 24-1.

TE Jon Payne (GRN Executive Coordinator). Recommending Overtures 23 and 37.

TE Todd Pruitt. A Clear Message from the 48th General Assembly of the PCA.               

TE Fred Greco (SJC Member). Overtures 23 and 37, and the Book of Church Order. Mortification of Spin Podcast (Carl Trueman and Todd Pruitt), October 27, 2021.             

Articles Against Both Overtures

TE Larry Ball. Why I Plan to Vote Against BCO Homosexual Changes.

TE Steve Cavallaro. Considering the BCO Amendments on Sexuality.  

TE Steve Cavallaro. Considering the BCO Amendments on Sexuality, Part 2.

TE David Coffin (SJC Member). Against Overtures 23 and 37.

RE Kyle Keating (AIC Human Sexuality Member). Arguments Against The Proposals in Overtures 23 and 37.

TE Tim LeCroy. Misconceptions About Homosexuality in the PCA.

TE James Kessler (National Partnership). National Partnership Public Advice for Voting on Overtures 23, 37.

RE Jim Pocta (AIC Human Sexuality Member). Did I Disqualify Myself at GA?

TE Derek Radney. The Heart of the PCA Overtures Issue.

TE Jim Weidenaar. Are Sins “Contrary to Nature” the Worst Sins?

Articles Favoring Overture 23

Articles Against Overture 23

TE Larry Hoop (CCB Member). Overture 23: A Potential Constitutional Quagmire.

TE Brent Horan. The Definitive Meaning of Overture 23 Approved by the PCA GA.

TE Chris Accardy. Can the PCA Remain United? The Point of Friction.

Articles Favoring Overture 37

TE Richard Phillips (GRN Council Member). Five Reasons I’m Voting for Overture 37.

Articles Against Overture 37

TE Chris Accardy. Child Sex Abuse and Overture 37.

RE Trevor Laurence (2021 B&O Committee Member). An Unresolved and Perilous Ambiguity.

TE Travis Scott. 5 Reasons to Vote No on Overture 37.

Other Notes:

National Partnership (NP): A confidential group, founded by TE James Kessler, of about 200 PCA elders that communicate privately via email, text and other means to discuss issues and strategies to shape the PCA in their Presbyteries and at General Assembly. The group has no public presence, no website, no Facebook page, no YouTube channel, no blog, no podcast, and no conference. The group does not have a tax exempt status and does not fundraise. There is no board of directors or staff. The Beautiful Orthodoxy Conference, Semper Ref, and Mike Khandjian’s GA Fellowship are led by members of the National Partnership but are not official ministries of the group. That these ministries are unaffiliated is made plain to members of the group (as seen from exposed private emails). The group also makes clear in its correspondence that participants are to vote their conscience in all matters before their presbyteries and General Assembly (as seen from exposed private emails). At the 2021 General Assembly members of the group split their vote on the Overtures (some in favor and most against). Members of this group generally oppose Overtures 23 & 37 and support the SJC decision regarding Greg Johnson.

Gospel Reformation Network (GRN): A public 501c3 non-profit organization that is working to shape the future direction of the PCA. The Executive Coordinator is TE Jon Payne and editorial director is TE John Crosby. The Principal Officer on IRS 990 annual filings is RE Melton Duncan. The GRN Council is comprised of TE Ligon Duncan, TE Jason Helopoulos, TE Richard Phillips, TE Harry Reeder III, TE David Strain, RE Melton Duncan, and TE David Garner. The group maintains a public presence, including a website with blog, a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, a Twitter channel, and an annual conference (usually around the time of GA). The organization fundraises and lists 38 financially supporting churches on its website. The organization has paid for public ads promoting their positions on social media. This group vigorously supports Overtures 23 & 37 and strongly disagrees with the SJC decision related to Greg Johnson. GRN Principal Officer RE Melton Duncan is also a member of the SJC and cast a dissenting vote on recent TE Ryan Speck v. Missouri Presbytery ruling.

Can the PCA Remain United?

A series of essays by TE Chris Accardy

Part 1: The Point of Friction

Part 2: PCA Politics and American Culture

Part 3: The Politics of Self-Destruction

Part 4: Can We Act as Impartial Judges?

Part 5: Evaluating the Biblical Case

Part 6: Why are the Conservative Traditionalists Introducing Liberal Social Theory into the PCA?

Part 7: The Necessity of Church Discipline for Divisiveness

Part 8: We Can Do Better: A Hopeful Vision for a United PCA

Can the PCA Remain United? (Part 4) Can We Act as Impartial Judges?

I would like to make an argument here that if we show partiality in judging a brother in Christ outside of the church courts (Presbytery & General Assembly) then it will make it virtually impossible to be impartial in our judgement when a brother’s case comes to a church court. It appears, based on what many are writing and speaking on social media, that the purpose of Overtures 23 & 37 is to get Greg Johnson out of the PCA and prevent another Greg Johnson from coming into the PCA. Its interesting to me that all the arguments for these Overtures at one point or another come back to Dr. Greg Johnson. He is a fellow elder being judged on social media by those who will judge him in the church courts. First, in our votes regarding Overtures 23 & 37 in our presbyteries. Secondly, as we possibly make a final vote regarding those overtures at the 2022 General Assembly and decide on matters related to SJC actions pertaining to him, God’s Word urges us toward extreme caution as we act as judges. It is imperative that we are able to act as impartial judges.

Acting impartially isn’t merely about the kind of judgment we make. It’s also about the kind of judge we are and the kind of character we display. One could come to the right decision while still committing the sin of partiality. With God, the ends don’t justify the means. Displaying God’s glory in the means we use are just as important as the outcome of our judgment as elders in Christ’s Church.

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:1-13 ESV)

In James 2:1-13 we see the Holy Spirit, through James, challenge those who profess Christ but commit the “sin of partiality”. To get James 2 in context we need to look at James 1. There James identifies true Christians as one who remain steadfast in the faith despite the trials they face, seek God for wisdom, and are moved by their faith to not only hear God’s Word but to put it into practice, that is, to be “doers of the Word”. (1:3-25). Christians are those who remain steadfast, seek God for wisdom, and put God’s Word into action in their lives.

This general context leads into James 1:26-27. This often-quoted passage serves as the bridge between what James says in 1:3-25 and what he will say about making judgements as a church in 2:1-13. First James observes that a professing Christian who does not bridle his tongue not only deceives himself but also has a worthless religion (1:26). He will pick up why bridling the tongue is important for Christians in 3:1-12 where he concludes that the tongue is a “restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:8). Ultimately for James, how one uses their tongue is a great indicator of the reality of their faith and standing before God.

James goes on to speak of what pure and undefiled religion looks like. He first mentions what we do, “visit orphans and widows in their distress”. Practicing true religion sees the needs of the marginalized and meets them where they are suffering. Next, he mentions what we resist. We keep ourselves “unstained by the world.” (1:27). This is a picture of a doer of the Word. Their faith can be tangibly seen in their lives by their conduct. James picks this up in 2:14-26 where he argues that “faith, by itself, if it does not have works, is dead,” (2:17) and “for as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead” (2:26). Thus, how one lives their lives tells the truth about the reality of their faith.

In other words, true Christians are careful about what they say and the things that they do point to a genuine faith. The ones who remain steadfast in this kind of life through trials while seeking God for wisdom are the ones we’d truly count as our brothers and sisters in Christ.

It’s in the midst of this argumentation that James 2:1-13 appears. The sin of partiality is one that bears witness against the genuineness of faith. The sin of partiality is not “doing the Word” and it is not “bridling the tongue”. So, what is the sin of partiality?

Holding to, being “steadfast”, in our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ means that we will not show partiality (προσωπολημψίαις)(2:1). As Keener notes, “The language of impartiality was normally applied especially to legal settings.”(p. 693). Johnson notes that the word is a Christian neologism of the Hebrew “nasa panim”. He observes this Hebrew word at work in Leviticus 19:15, ““You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor,” (p. 221). Yahweh ingrained into the justice system of his people that judging is to be impartial. Davids also notes that James would refer to Leviticus 19:18, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord,” in 2:8 (p. 110). Spencer quotes Deuteronomy 10:17-18: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” She observes, “God is not affected by any external pressure to be unjust,” before concluding, “Therefore, since God the Trinity is impartial, it should be impossible to maintain a faith in Jesus that is partial to the wealthy.” (p. 100-101).

God does not show partiality between Jews and Greeks (Rom. 2:11). Masters are to treat their slaves well because of God’s impartiality (Eph. 6:9). God will show no partiality in paying back the wrongdoer for what he or she has done (Col. 3:25). So, if we show partiality by not “loving our neighbor as yourself” (2:8) then we are sinning because we are falling short of God’s glory shown in His impartiality. Thus, we are convicted by God’s moral law as lawbreakers. The sin of partiality is a serious offense against God. It is not something to take lightly according to James.

How does he describe this sin? James speaks of two men. The first man wears a gold ring and fine clothing, while the second man wears shabby clothing (2:2). This echoes back to 1:9-10a where James writes: “let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation.” The lowly, the poor are lifted up by the Gospel while the rich are brought low, humbled by the Gospel. One would expect, then when these two people come into the assembly of Christians that no distinction would be made between the poor man and the rich man. But that’s not what happened. What happened is the opposite of what one would expect from reading James 1. Instead, the rich man is given the place of privilege and the poor man is marginalized (2:3). The assembly is making a distinction between the rich man and the poor man. Craig Keener notes that, “Jewish legal texts condemn judges who make one litigant stand while another is permitted to sit” (p. 694).

Of note, the Greek word used for the assembly is συναγωγὴν. They are at the synagogue which was not only a place of worship but also a place where elders of the assembly gathered to resolve community disputes (Johnson, p. 222). The language and setting harkens back to the day when religious people would seek to have their disputes resolved by religious leaders. In this case, it is possible that this was not a worship gathering, rather a rich man and poor man come to the synagogue to have their dispute resolved by the elders of the congregation. Maybe the same case or two different cases. It could have also been a worship assembly. In any case, the congregation telegraphs their hearts in the disparate treatment of the rich man and the poor man. McKnight has a footnote that lists the many modern scholars that see this passage describing a judicial function of the synagogue rather than a worship function along with a scholarly work that traces this view back to the 17th century (p. 185).

The assembly of Christian judges “pays attention” to the rich man (ἐπιβλέψητε). Johnson notes the force of this word is to look upon favorably based on the appearance of the rich man and the poor man (p. 222) and in doing so become judges with evil designs (p. 223-24). The evil design is to reject the command of God in Leviticus 19 to judge impartially. Without hearing any evidence the assembly is already judging guilt or innocence based on appearance. When they do this they are not loving their neighbor as themselves (Lev. 19:18).

The world looks with favor on the rich man and with contempt upon the poor man. This is true even today. I heard someone once say, “True justice in the American courts is only for those who can afford it.” In my ministry to the poor, I have seen this happen over and over. There is a great difference in the quality of representation between an overworked, usually inexperienced public defender and an experienced and well-paid defense lawyer. This is not God’s way. James reminds his hearers of this in 2:5-7. God chose the poor to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom in His economy (2:5). In contrast, the rich are the oppressors who drag the less fortunate into court and they are the ones that blaspheme the name of Jesus (2:6-7). The world is pressing the judges to view people a certain way, but James is reminding them the folly in God’s economy of showing partiality.

James urges that those who judge, do so according to the “royal law” that one must love one’s neighbor as oneself.” (2:8). Spencer quotes Michael Fiorello’s observation about Leviticus 19, the chapter that serves as a foundation for James 2:8, “communal holiness is defined as love expressed in displays of integrity and guardianship for one’s neighbor.” (132).

Would we want people judging us to show partiality and favoritism toward those we are in a dispute with? Why then would we do that to others? Why would we want to single out one sin that Scripture condemns for special judgment while not addressing other sins the Word of God mentions in the same sentence? Why favored treatment toward those who commit “respectable sins” while adding to Scripture words that are not there when judging one particular sin regarding hierarchies of “heinousness”?

James clearly states that showing partiality is a sin and makes one just as much of a lawbreaker as the one being judged (2:9). Breaking one aspect of the law makes us guilty of all of it (2:10-11). This doesn’t seem to leave much room to debate the heinousness of sin, making out our brother’s sin to be more heinous than ours. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t degrees of heinousness of sin, but it means that it is immaterial to how we judge others. We can debate whether adultery or murder is more heinous but James isn’t measuring the degree of the sin but what it does to our relationship with God. That is the danger of legalism, we drift into it when we begin to show partiality in our judgment towards others. We begin to excuse our own sin while harshly condemning the sin of others. We get into discussions where we make our own sins less heinous than another’s.

It seems to me, based on this passage, that we can misuse the Westminster Larger Catechism at this point. We quote the answer to question 151: “All transgressions of the law of God are not equally heinous; but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.” What about the “sins in themselves?” What could the Westminster Divines have in mind here? The answer is in the Scripture proofs they provided…idolatry (Ez. 8), unbelief (Ps. 78), betrayal of Jesus by the religious leaders (Jn. 19), and the “sin unto death” (1 John 5), that many commentators would argue as the sin of failing to repent and believe the Gospel. Notice that any reference to homosexual sin is absent from the minds of the Westminster Divines. That such would be a more heinous sin in and of itself is a modern creation.

We also seem to forget that question 152 further defines the “several aggravations” of question 151 by placing those aggravations into four different categories, the persons offending, the parties offended, the nature and quality of the offense, and the circumstances of time and place. The Westminster Divines didn’t view the determining the heinousness of sin by creating a hierarchical list. Rather, they noted that the heinousness of sin was determined by a number of factors that required wisdom and insight.

After clearly condemning partiality in judging in the church, James goes on to point to a better approach to judging. He calls those judging to, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.” (2:12). John Calvin writes that James is making the point that, “…unless you wish to undergo the rigor of the Law, you must be less severe on your neighbors. The law of liberty, then, is the equivalent to God’s clemency, which free us from the curse of the Law.” (p. 281). Christian judgement is to be done as those who are under the law of liberty. Calvin saw this as referring to a deliverance that comes from the Gospel that frees us from the “rigor of the law”. Jesus quoted the Septuagint version of Hosea 6:6 when challenging the legalism of the Pharisees, “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hos. 6:6). Mercy is of high value in God’s Kingdom among His children.

In Luke 4 Jesus goes to Nazareth, his hometown, and preaches the Gospel from Isaiah 61. It declares the Messiah will bring liberty for captives and those oppressed. Then He tells the citizens of Nazareth that God chose to show mercy on Gentiles and not Jews only. This enraged his Jewish audience who thought it was by their law-keeping that they had a special standing with God (Luke 4:16-30). Again, mercy rises to the top in connection to liberty.

The Apostle Paul issues an exhortation and warning in Galatians 5:13-15, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” If we treat others without mercy then we are not using our liberty in Christ to do the good work of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Are we surprised that James ends his argument with, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (2:13)? Its interesting that after Jesus speaks about church discipline and judgment in the Church (Matt 18:15-20), he goes on to tell the parable of the “Unforgiving Servant.” Peter wants to know how often he has to forgive a brother. Jesus follows with the parable that tells of a servant who has a great debt that he can’t repay and his master shows mercy toward him and forgives the debt. That same servant has someone else who owes him a much smaller amount. The servant does not show mercy to his fellow servant like the mercy he was shown by his master. That angered the master and the servant was sent back to jail to pay off his debt. The point Jesus was making about forgiveness to Peter is that God has shown him much mercy so he should show mercy to others. Receiving mercy begets giving mercy, and forgiveness is part and parcel of showing mercy.

To sum up, I think the point of James 2:1-13 is that Christians are not to show partiality when making judgements in the church courts. Partiality is shown by singling out people (like the poor) based on pre-judging their character based on appearance and giving favoritism to other people (the benefit of the doubt) based on their appearance. By showing partiality in any form a judge has evil intentions and sins against God. Rather than showing partiality, a judge is to love his neighbor as himself and in doing so speak and act as one under the Gospel (law of liberty). In understanding this, mercy will triumph over partiality in judgment. The key to overcoming partiality is loving neighbor by showing him mercy.

The one who would judge but does not bridle his tongue (1:26) is not as religious as he imagines himself to be. Why? According to James, the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness (3:6) and restless evil, full of deadly poison (3:7). Paul warns about these kind of men becoming elders in the Church, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” (Acts 20:28-30). They do not embody Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” In 1 Timothy 6 Paul identifies false teachers as leading people away from behavior that honors God (1 Tim. 6:1-6). They are known as people who have an, “unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.” (1 Tim 6:4-5). In Galatians 5 the Apostle Paul warns against people who stir up “rivalries, dissensions, divisions” saying they will not inherit the Kingdom of God (Gal 5:19-20). Those who make it a practice of reviling (being verbally abusive) will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10).

In other words, unregenerate men like this will be flagrant violators of Westminster Larger Catechism questions 144-145 because their focus is gain over godliness (1 Tim. 6:1-6). Pursuing the truth for God’s glory does not require violating our ordination vows.

The WLC on the Ninth Commandment (not bearing false witness) is written with the spirit of James 2:1-13 at the forefront. Consider the wording:

What is commanded in the Ninth Commandment: “The duties required in the ninth commandment are, the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor, as well as our own; appearing and standing for the truth; and from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever; a charitable esteem of our neighbors; loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for, and covering of their infirmities; freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocency; a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; discouraging tale-bearers, flatterers, and slanderers; love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requireth; keeping of lawful promises; studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.”

What is forbidden by the Ninth Commandment: “The sins forbidden in the ninth commandment are, all prejudicing the truth, and the good name of our neighbors, as well as our own, especially in public judicature; giving false evidence, suborning false witnesses, wittingly appearing and pleading for an evil cause, outfacing and overbearing the truth; passing unjust sentence, calling evil good, and good evil; rewarding the wicked according to the work of the righteous, and the righteous according to the work of the wicked; forgery, concealing the truth, undue silence in a just cause, and holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves, or complaint to others; speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end, or perverting it to a wrong meaning, or in doubtful and equivocal expressions, to the prejudice of truth or justice; speaking untruth, lying, slandering, backbiting, detracting, tale bearing, whispering, scoffing, reviling, rash, harsh, and partial censuring; misconstructing intentions, words, and actions; flattering, vain-glorious boasting; thinking or speaking too highly or too meanly of ourselves or others; denying the gifts and graces of God; aggravating smaller faults; hiding, excusing, or extenuating of sins, when called to a free confession; unnecessary discovering of infirmities; raising false rumors, receiving and countenancing evil reports, and stopping our ears against just defense; evil suspicion; envying or grieving at the deserved credit of any, endeavoring or desiring to impair it, rejoicing in their disgrace and infamy; scornful contempt, fond admiration; breach of lawful promises; neglecting such things as are of good report, and practicing, or not avoiding ourselves, or not hindering what we can in others, such things as procure an ill name.”

It is hard for me to imagine the PCA remaining united through the challenging times posed by the current culture war raging around us. If we get caught up in that and begin to turn the judgements of the church courts into political battles I think we will suffer greatly. If, as we get caught up in battles over overtures, we begin to show partiality in our judgements in violation of Scripture it will be far too easy for us to take the easy way of fighting political battles rather than the hard way of setting aside our biases and judge based solely on the Word of God guided by the system of doctrine we believe accurately reflects Bible teaching. In the next part I want to examine some biblical texts that are very pertinent to the judgements we will likely be called to make at the 2022 and 2023 General Assemblies.

Bibliography of Study Resources:

John Calvin. Trans by A.W. Morrison. Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: Matthew, Mark and Luke Volume III, James and Jude. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)

Peter Davids. New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Epistle of James. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982)

Craig Keener. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993)

Luke Timothy Johnson. The Anchor Bible: The Letter of James.(New York: Doubleday, 1995)

Scot McKnight. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Letter of James. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011)

Douglas Moo. The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Letter of James (Second Edition). (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021)

W.E. Oesterley. Edited by W. Robertson Nicoll. The Expositor’s Greek Testament, Volume IV: The General Epistle of James. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970)

Aida Bensancon Spencer. Kregel Exegetical Library: A Commentary on James. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2020)

Can the PCA Remain United? (Part 3) The Politics of Self-Destruction

I’m hearing word from pastors that our public battles on social media is damaging their witness in their communities and stirring up division within their churches. Some have lost families. Others have lost good outreach opportunities. The PCA has become a front in the culture war and our political behavior is driving people away. People are looking for the Jesus proclaimed by the Gospel in the Bible. I believe we’re sowing the seeds of our own destruction in the way we are dealing with conflict as a denomination.

Conservative traditionalist church members and the culturally conservative unchurched see the dire predictions regarding the direction of the PCA on social media and begin to wonder if they had better leave or not join a PCA congregation at all. After all, they hear loud voices proclaiming that the PCA has become untethered from her biblical moorings with gay and liberal pastors. Progressive, biblically grounded members see what they consider to be Pharisaic judgementalism coming from the more extreme voices on the traditionalist side and begin to wonder if the PCA isn’t on the verge of abandoning the biblical Gospel. They fear the replacement is self-righteous hypocrisy. Unchurched cultural liberals who embrace LGBTQ and CRT and other humanistic philosophies avoid the PCA, not because of the Gospel, but because of a perceived hatred and dislike of anybody that isn’t a white Evangelical traditionalist.

The sad thing is that these overtly politicizing public debates in the PCA are probably being propagated by only 10% of her elders. But the actions of a minority are negatively impacting the whole denomination. I simply do not believe there is a political solution to the challenges we face. This is especially true in a very polarized society with two very distinct cultural worldviews that are mutually exclusive. We don’t need to fight it out like Democrats and Republicans fight it out for cultural dominance. That is the way of the world.

In other words, the PCA’s public battles are hurting the church’s discipleship and mission. We will feel it more in the coming years. If we don’t find a way to return our focus toward keeping obedience to the Great Commission I don’t think the PCA will remain united. And that would be sad because doctrinally we capture the teaching of Scripture faithfully. That is, it takes both the “progressives” and “traditionalists” working together as in a marriage to make a stronger body. Becoming political enemies does not advance the Kingdom of God.

I believe that if the PCA is to remain as a united national denomination we’ve got to figure some things out and fast. We’ve got to learn how to be “Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, and Obedient to the Great Commission,” in two very different, polarized cultures simultaneously. Without a mighty work of God in our midst I believe this is an impossible task. The culture war raging around us between Blue State culture and Red State culture. This culture war has been turning our mission field here in the United States into a battle zone with accumulating ruins.

The ever-increasing polarization leads people to intensely negative feelings, if not outright hatred of the other side. The other side are idiots, are evil, are misguided, are ignorant, are destroying America, any bad name you can think of is hurled toward the other side. Democrats and Republicans hate each other. Liberals and Conservatives hate each other. The LGBTQ+ Movement and the Traditional Marriage and Family Movement hate each other. The Socialists and the Capitalists hate each other. The America First crowd and the Pro-Immigration crowd hate each other. We could go on and on. The debate is not just intellectual anymore. It’s visceral. The United States is turning into a melting pot of hatred and disgust toward one another. The frog is in the kettle and the water is now boiling.

I know these are strong words but the culture war is evoking very strong feelings. Those that are active in the battle express it publicly and vocally. Those caught in the middle between the two extremes increasingly suffer culture war PTSD. We don’t know how to even act in the public square anymore. What is okay to say? What should I be quiet about? How do I keep myself from getting canceled? Businesses are on edge. Public institutions are on edge. The ideologues of both sides are moving into public spaces and drowning out any voice that would question them.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Democrats were sure that former President Donald Trump cheated in the 2016 elections. That was the only explanation for their loss. After all, Blue State culture represented most Americans in their minds. Former President Donald Trump and the Republicans were sure that President Joe Biden cheated in the 2020 elections. There is no other way to explain it. Red State culture represents most Americans in their minds.

War is being raged between the opposing sides in the culture wars. It feels like a no holds barred political street fight to those in the middle. The fight is for public perception. With truth being relative in the public mind there is no search together to find a middle ground. The winners get to determine the version of truth we will get. The losers are left fighting to prevent the winner’s version of truth from being embraced. The battle rages on and on.

The goal is to make the leaders on our side look like saints and the leaders of the other side look like devils. We are the good guys. They are the evil guys. Blue State culture and Red State culture get a constant diet of “love our team” and “hate their team” messaging across their preferred media platforms until we no longer see the flaws and failings on “our side” and see only wickedness and corruption on the “other side”.

This is the lake where the PCA swims. It is stormy and tumultuous. It is fraught with danger. The promise of success seems unlikely and impossible. But when it gets that way, God has a way of showing up and bringing glory to himself. In the midst of this culture war God is going to have the final victory, Jesus will bring people to himself because the Holy Spirit will do His work. As my dad used to say, “The question isn’t whether the Holy Spirit is going to work and accomplish the purposes for which he came, the question is whether He will use us or someone else to accomplish those purposes.” The PCA is at a crossroads, and it seems like we are in danger of failing the test. Has our time to do the Lord’s work come and gone? If the way we conduct our denominational affairs looks suspiciously like the way worldly culture engages in politics, then could we take that as a warning sign that we are off track? Seriously off track.

Before jumping in further I have a confession to make. I was praying about this today. When I look at WLC 144-145’s exposition of the Ninth Commandment, I see my guilt. I have not kept God’s law like I should as His child and ambassador of Jesus Christ. Reading through the Ten Commandments section of the Westminster Larger Catechism brings me into close encounter with a magisterial exposition of Scripture. It also confronts me with my total inability to keep God’s Law perfectly. As I’m confronted by my own faults and failures – that is my sin – I’m driven to cling to Jesus and any pretense to self-righteousness begins to melt away.

It also serves as my guide. A “how to” live as a child of the living God who made me, adopted me into his family, and takes care of me. So I confess that I imperfectly keep God’s Law. The Holy Spirit wages war against my flesh so that He might bring forth the Fruit of the Spirit in me. I’ve been a Christian for 32 years now. More and more I see the depth of my sin and how great my need of a Savior really is. Any vestige of self-righteousness in me undermines my growth in sanctification.

Violations of the Ninth Commandment, cannot be avoided, if we speak and write. Scripture calls us to be quick to hear and slow to speak (James 1:19). James also tells us that no one can tame their tongue and that they are a restless evil that is full of poison (3:8). Should we journey through the Proverbs?  The more we write and engage on social media and other online platforms the more likely we will violate the Ninth Commandment, even if it is unintentional. At any time someone can point out how what we write falls short of God’s glory. Even though we’ve been made new in Christ, and we have the Holy Spirit waging war against our flesh (Gal 5:16-24 cf. WCF 13.2) we still have not attained the perfection that awaits us in the New Heavens and New Earth. I think those who approach online interactions with others in a spirit of pride and self-righteousness are bearing bad fruit and show they don’t really understand the Gospel. The Gospel leads us to humility, compassion, patience, and mercy.

This is how I see us conducting ourselves in public according to worldly political power struggles rather than biblical imperatives.

Back & Forth Online (i.e. Arguing in Front of the Kids)

When it comes to disagreements between parents there is a balance. Kids need to see parents working out differences. But if those differences are leading to a breakdown of the marriage, it only serves to stir up a child’s insecurity to see how close to a trainwreck their parent’s marriage is.

There are PCA elders throwing things out there in public forums. Then other PCA elders respond. It’s one thing to have a discussion about ideas (but is doing in on social media really all that effective?), it’s another thing to tear down and rip apart both the PCA as a whole and the elders who serve her. Someone makes a controversial statement or claim and then members of the other side jump in to express disagreement. Give it a few days or maybe hours and a full-blown unhealthy public debate is going on. Repeat this hundreds of times and negative impressions are built by outsiders (remember that biblical qualification of being thought of well by outsiders) and by church members alike. The sheep start getting restless because the under-shepherds don’t look very much like the Chief Shepherd.

Sometimes posting a blog post or YouTube video only serves the purpose of being a flame thrower to take out one’s opponents. This is the world of grassroots politics online. Make your point and debate everyone else. The loudest, strongest, and most persuasive voice wins. People outside looking in couldn’t care less about the National Partnership or the Gospel Reformation Network, if they are spiritual seekers, they are looking for people in whom they see evidence that God is at work, that their faith is real, and that they care about people like them. Who wants to go to church with people who argue like Democrats and Republicans on Facebook?

Demagoguery and PCA Stardom

When I first heard there were “gay pastors” in the PCA, I was alarmed. In my mind, there were elders in the PCA that were engaging in homosexual acts. As I dug deeper, I heard about a pastor in British Columbia and one in Georgia who were disciplined by their Presbyteries after engaging in homosexual acts. Though their Presbyteries didn’t act perfectly, these men were removed from office. I couldn’t find one Presbytery in the PCA that didn’t discipline those who engaged in homosexual practices in their bounds or embraced and promoted homosexuality or gay marriage. As I even dug deeper, I discovered that there are some same sex attracted pastors that fight to mortify homoerotic desire. But these men do not engage in homosexual practice or promote it. In fact, they were supporting the traditional, biblical Christian sex ethic. Using “gay pastor” without qualification only serves to stir up fear and create “rivalries, dissensions, and divisions” (Gal 5:20). These are the works of the flesh and part of worldly politics.

The same is true when speaking of “liberals” and “progressives” in the PCA. Not knowing any better, it leaves the impression that there are elders in the PCA that deny the inspiration and authority of the Bible, who deny the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds, who don’t believe the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards. In other words, there are men in the PCA who no longer affirm their ordination vows. But that is not what is meant by the term. Often Tim Keller and Scott Sauls are named as the prime example of these “liberals” and “progressives”. These men and others that fit into this “camp” or “tribe” or “group”, whatever you choose to call it are not the progressives and liberals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States. Those earned the name by their doctrinal deviation from biblical truth. When we talk about liberals and progressives in the PCA we are talking about men who affirm the Scriptures, the Creeds, and our Confession. I think the reason “slippery slope” comes up in the context of these discussions is because what is being said of these men is fundamentally untrue and dishonest. One must predict the future with regard to these men and their ministries in order to make the “progressive” or “liberal” label stick. Kind of like convicting a man on charges of murder because you think some of his ideas could possibly lead him to maybe having thoughts of committing murder. Again, these labels, used without qualification, are ones that are meant to evoke fear and distrust amongst the brethren.

This is the way of worldly politics. Both sides try to define each other in a way that puts their opponents in the worst possible light. They try to get labels to stick and put their opponents on the defensive. This is not the way of Scripture. Didn’t Jesus say, ““You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…’” (Matt. 5:43-44). How does that fit in with contemporary national politics in the United States? How does this kind of behavior fit the imperative of Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear?” It doesn’t seem to me that the disingenuousness of creating a false picture of one’s opponents is being obedient to God’s commands about speech in Ephesians 4.

It appears to me that a lot of these tactics are being used by men who produce blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos, and social media posts trying to build their brand among those that think like them. In fact, it seems to me that the most strident voices appear to be pursuing PCA stardom. It may not be their conscious intent, but it sure looks like the effect of their behavior.

“Presbyleaks” and the National Partnership

There has been a group of elders that has been touting the release of confidential emails from a group that call themselves the “National Partnership”. Some voices are trying really hard to turn these emails that are claimed to have been leaked into a major scandal. I saw one public Facebook post that imagined these emails to be something church historians would talk about. Really?

First of all, nobody has come forward to identify themselves privately to the sender of the emails (I asked him directly) as the one who leaked them or publicly to explain why they leaked them. In fact, it is also possible that the emails were gained as a result of a hack or by stealing a username and password of a member of that Google Group. Something doesn’t feel right about the whole way these emails came to light. I think Peter’s urging in 1 Peter 2:1, “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.”

Secondly, a weakness of human nature is to desire knowledge that is forbidden. To create a group and give it an important sounding name, “The National Partnership”, and then let PCA elders know of its existence but tell many, “our discussions are confidential and you can’t be part of our group,” only stirs up suspicion. In some ways the National Partnership’s wounds were partially self-inflicted.

Third, the National Partnership is a group so small that it has little real influence unless their ideas and nominations they supported were agreeable to the mainstream. With 230 in the email group at their highest point, they weren’t swaying votes like a secret cabal. Rather, their agenda fit well enough others that some of the priorities expressed by the National Partnership came to fruition. If anything, it shows that those in the NP were in touch with the majority of the PCA.

Again, “Presbyleaks” is the way of American politics. Dig dirt on your opponents and use the media to try to create scandals that will damage them. But how does this fit in with 1 Corinthians 12:21-25, “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.”? It seems to me that if one thinks that they National Partnership members are less honorable and unpresentable, why are we not treating them with greater modesty? Why do we have to parade their dirty laundry, not just among other elders, but to the general public? Digging dirt and trying to create scandals is not the way that Jesus Christ leads His Church.

Non-Profit PCA Super PACs

In American politics if you want to push to defeat an opponent or ram an agenda through what do you do? You form a non-profit PAC (political action committee). What does the PAC do? It creates a website, a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, a Twitter account, and it starts pushing out its position in hopes that larger media venues will pick up its case and help them make it to larger and larger audiences. You’ll hold rallies with speakers that people respect. You’ll give people opportunities to join the cause. You fundraise and try to get resources to hire staff, pay for advertising, and try to influence those who vote in order to make the decisions you want them to make.

In order to get attention these PACs make outlandish and shocking claims. They often use half-truths and deceptively shape perceptions of their opponents to maximize shock value. Fear and angst are a major motivation for people to vote for you in American politics. You exalt your vision while making people scared of the other side. “Going negative” works in American politics. The goal is to make sure people don’t even give your opponents position a fair hearing.

There are several 501c3 non-profits that have been formed or are in the process of being formed to directly influence the direction of the PCA. These organizations seek to influence the courts of our Church while remaining outside the jurisdiction of our Church. They are behaving like PACs that are trying to lobby and shape public perception in order to achieve their agenda. But do we want these groups to shape the perception the public has of the PCA. The vast majority of PCA elders have little or no influence in these groups.

Over the last several months I’ve had a number of paid advertisements from these groups appear in my Facebook news feed. Some elders have been frustrated when trying to correct erroneous statements in the blogs and other public statements by these organizations. Their private messages aren’t responded to. Their comments correcting false statements are deleted. They save screen shots as proof but have no idea what to do with them. This is not the behavior of brothers in Christ pursuing the truth. This is the action of a political group seeking to influence an election. Their opponents are persona non grata to them.

How drawn are we to webpages and blogs that airs all of our dirty laundry in full view of the public? How slow are those pages and blogs to correct false statements once they are made aware of them? Do we secretly love to watch “the politics of personal destruction” unfold before our eyes? Are we ready to jump on board with a narrative more because it appeals to our convictions and less because we have thoroughly researched what the speaker or writer is saying?

“Side B” Christianity & Revoice Theology

In worldly political discourse a political party will try to tie the beliefs and practices of extreme members of one party to their mainstream. For example, a Democrat politician participates in a community party gathering. Republicans then say that all Democrats are socialist. A Republican politician participates in a white supremacist rally and the Democrats say all Republicans are racist. Trying to make extreme beliefs mainstream for the opposing political party in order to damage a political party’s reputation has been a standard play for the last several decades.

This is playing out when it comes to discussions of “Side B” Christianity and ReVoice theology. Trying to fasten the extremes to PCA elders is a political power play in my mind.

Side B Christianity is a response to Side A Christianity which seeks to normalize homosexual practices in various denominations and traditions within Christianity.

Side B Christianity is like the Pro-Life Movement. What unifying is the desire to uphold the historic, biblical ethic on sexuality and marriage among those who are same-sex attracted. Side B Christians can be Arminian, Pentecostal, Baptist, Dispensational, Roman Catholic, Mormon and a host of other beliefs, just like it is with the Pro-Life Movement. To tie a Mormon “Side B” Christian’s theological beliefs and practices with regard to same-sex attraction to a PCA elder is not fair or accurate. Side B Christianity isn’t a theological movement as much as it is an ethical one. There are a lot of differing theologies that fall under the Side B Christianity umbrella. Just because a Roman Catholic Side B Christian argues according to the theology of their church doesn’t mean that a PCA elder isn’t coming to his conclusion based on a very different theology. A PCA elder should be judged on their own beliefs, not the beliefs of someone else in the Side B Christian movement.

There is no “ReVoice theology”. In the beginning several PCA elders were involved with Revoice. But, due to the controversy in the PCA, ReVoice has distanced themselves from the PCA. There have been no PCA elders that are on staff, on the board of directors, or on the board of advisors of ReVoice for several years. It is an interdenominational ministry that include a wide range of Christian denominations and traditions. I asked Dr. Nate Collins, the founder and director of ReVoice directly, and they are very wary of the PCA right now and are not eager to do anything in partnership with any PCA church or organization.

ReVoice has three official faith and practice documents. They adopt the Langham Partnership’s Statement of Faith. The Langham Partnership was started in 1969 by John Stott. They have a statement on Christian Ethics and Christian Obedience . Finally, they have a statement on Public Posture and Christian Obedience. Any talk of “ReVoice theology” should only be in reference to these official statements from the organization.

Outside of their uniting documents there is no complete system of theology. ReVoice speakers and others involved with the organization each have their own individual beliefs. The diversity in ReVoice as a non-denominational, parachurch ministry is far broader than what would be acceptable in the PCA. Being involved with ReVoice is like being involved with the NAE (National Association of Evangelicals). It’s helpful for us as a denomination to be involved in the broader Christian community but it also makes many of us uncomfortable with the broadness because we have significant theological disagreements with Charismatics, Arminians and Dispensationalists. We would vigorously oppose someone imputing Assemblies of God theology to us just because we are in the NAE together.

Playing politics in this manner only serves to further divide the PCA. We need less polarization, not more. We need to be very careful about how we talk to one another as we try to build a consensus on how we will approach the issue of homosexually oriented Christians who remain celibate and embrace a biblical sexual and marriage ethic.

Sloganeering

Then there’s the sloganeering. In secular politics one creates slogans to streamline messaging. Has anyone heard “Let’s Go, Brandon” lately? Remember the oldie but goodie, “The Politics of Personal Destruction”? How about “Liberalism is a mental disorder”? Or, “Conservatives are fascists”? Former President Trump was a master of branding people with short slogans. Remember “Sleepy Joe” and “Crazy Bernie”. This pejorative labeling says to followers, “Stay away, these are bad people.”

How are we doing with that? I’ve seen “Keep the Gay out of the PCA” and “PCGay”. There’s “liberal rot” in the PCA. How many times have we heard “Slippery Slope” used in a political way? “National Partnership” (NP) and “Gospel Reformation Network” (GRN) have become pejorative slogans depending upon which side you are on. As a former Fundamentalist in my childhood and an OPC elder earlier in my ministry, I admit I greatly struggle with watching GRN align more and more with the historic Presbyterian Fundamentalism of the Bible Presbyterian Church (which split off from the OPC). But that’s no excuse. Yeah, I’ve been guilty and it’s not right. This is the world’s way of doing politics. The pejoratives seem to come from all over and they are used to batter and bruise our opponents in the eyes of the people we are trying to persuade. Those “independent” PCA people who aren’t aligned with any “camp” or “group” or “side” or “tribe”, whatever you want to call it.

Sloganeering and demonizing opponents is the way of worldly politics. It’s not the way of a denomination that says WLC 144-145 is an accurate exposition of Scripture. Our goal as Christians is to restore gently (Gal 6:1-2). Where is the deep grief over a brother we feel is going astray? Has politics in the PCA become a blood sport for many of us? Have our opponents become enemies to be vanquished rather than brothers to be reconciled?

The world is watching us and our behavior. What are they thinking of the PCA right now? Yes, it’s a small minority making the most noise. But if we let that small minority continue to act without accountability or correction, what kind of reputation will we have as a denomination in a few years? Will every godly elder be tarred and stained by opponents as the culture war in American culture is brought into the PCA? Will the “progressives” and “traditionalists” so batter and bruise one another that nothing viable is left standing?

Final Thoughts

How do we deal with a minority of elders who are damaging our reputation as a denomination by their speech and writing? I’m not thinking about discussion and debate in the church courts or in private among groups of elders. That is healthy and good. I’m thinking of those who air our “dirty laundry” out in full view of the general public. Somehow we need both accountability and a culture change. I really struggled with posting these articles on my blog because of the risk that those who are not ordained elders in the PCA might come across them. Brothers, somehow we’ve got to shift our culture to more God-honoring practices. If our politics lead us to self-destruction, then we’ve got to change our politics.

Scripture tells us that those who practice the works of the flesh such as, “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions” will not inherit the Kingdom of God (Gal. 5:20). God’s Word also tells us that revilers (verbally abusive people) will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10). Paul instructs Titus, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” (Tit. 3:10-11). Paul warns the Ephesian elder about savage wolves that would come from amongst their number, “speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” (Acts 20:30). We’ve got to be careful about who we follow.

Which is preferable? A repentant homosexual who does not engage in homosexual acts can be a true believer, born again by the Holy Spirit who will inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-11). An unrepentant divider who does not repent will not inherit the Kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21). I’d rather have a regenerate Elder who mortifies SSA and chooses celibacy over engaging in homosexual acts, than an unregenerate Elder who unrepentantly stirs up and foments division through slander and reviling.

My point is that I do not think we can resolve the many issues related to all the godless, immoral sexual practices we are seeing around us these days by turning the issue into a Red State culture vs Blue State culture political battle. It’s not the “culture warriors” vs the “social justice warriors”. I think that we need to back off the heated political infighting and step back and consider acting as biblically faithful judges in the church courts. We’ve got some significant issues to resolve. They deserve more than sinking to our lowest common denominator. There must be some accountability for the lowest common denominators in our midst.

I don’t think the PCA can remain united, and it may not even remain viable, if we continue down the path of the politics of self-destruction. The public battles are hurting our churches and making life very difficult for many of our Sessions. It doesn’t need to be this way. We can handle controversies like ReVoice and CRT privately amongst ourselves and in our church courts. The next two parts describe what I see in Scripture that I believe can guide us through the issues we face at the moment with regard to homosexuality.

Can the PCA Remain United? (Part 2) PCA Politics and American Culture

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines politics in part as the “art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy,” and “the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government.” As Presbyterians we have a polity, a Presbyterian form of government. The Book of Church Order (BCO) provides the framework for how we engage in politics on a denominational level.

Back in 1861 as the Civil War broke out the national Presbyterian old school body, the PCUSA, was split and the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (PCCSA) was born. The old school Presbyterian Church could not overcome the cultural political division between the North and the South that had been developing for decades. Debates on the floor of General Assembly would get hot and heated.

The Gardiner Spring resolutions passed at the 1861 General Assembly were the straw that broke the camel’s back. Resolution 2 stated: “Resolved, That this General Assembly, in the spirit of that Christian patriotism which the Scriptures enjoin, and which has always characterized this Church, do hereby acknowledge and declare our obligations to promote and perpetuate, so far as in us lies, the integrity of these United States, and to strengthen, uphold, and encourage the Federal Government in the exercise of all its functions under our noble Constitution; and to this Constitution in all its provisions, requirements, and principles, we profess our unabated loyalty.” It’s not surprising that ministers and elders serving in the states that would form the Confederate States of America would have a little trouble with the resolution. The resolution appeared to be a political power-play at a time when there were deep societal divisions that were spilling over into civil war. Rev. Gardiner Spring was caught up in the heat of the culture war of his day and, in his zeal, further exasperated the division to its breaking point.

In 1864 the old school PCCSA merged with the new school United Synod of the South to form the PCUS, aka “The Southern Presbyterian Church.” The PCUS grew up as a denomination in a region that had just been decimated by the Civil War. Nearly 300,000 lives lost. About 60% of the wealth evaporated. Agricultural equipment destroyed. Carpetbaggers from the North coming in to try to reshape the South into the image of the North. In came the era of Jim Crow.

In that environment the “Lost Cause” explanation of the South’s predicament grew. How does one preserve a culture that had just been crushed in battle and repudiated? The old institutions grew in importance and value. The PCUS churches were generally comprised of the leading citizens of the communities they inhabited – the educated, the wealthy, and the influential. It was the PCUS that, in many ways, became the cultural historians and preservationists in the South.

Heading into the 20th century theological liberalism was a highly infectious disease being spread from “Northern Presbyterians” into the Southern Presbyterian Church. In addition, the United States was being culturally shaped by Europe. In the first 60 years of PCUS existence: Darwin brought evolution; Marx brought communism; Nietzsche brought nihilism; Freud normalized sexual deviancy; and Sanger brought eugenics into broader American culture. In the 1930’s the Great Depression brought suffering across the United States. Socialism was introduced as a solution through the New Deal. By the end of World War II, the United States had a percolating secularism and pluralism that has grown up into what we now call “Liberalism” or “Progressivism” today.

By the 1960’s the PCUS had been irrevocably shaped and influenced by both theological and cultural liberalism. The departure from biblical truth had a devastating effect on a Church that adhered to the system of doctrine found in the Westminster Standards and the polity found in the Book of Church Order. The rapid transformation of culture combined with the departure from orthodoxy left a Church that remained rooted in Southern traditions and a culture that was interpreted by the Lost Cause, but without a solid biblical and theological foundation. Both theological and cultural liberalism and progressivism needed to be opposed.

During the Civil Rights era, in the South, progressivism and traditionalism battled it out. In the minds of most Southerners, progressivism won. The PCA was born in 1973 into this world as we took the mantle from the PCUS to be a continuing conservative, mainline Presbyterian Church as Sean Lucas described it. We aspired to be “Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, and Obedient to the Great Commission.” It was the commitment to be obedient to the Great Commission that would propel the PCA into becoming a national denomination rather than merely a Southern regional one.

PCA churches in the South were big on tradition. The Big Steeple churches of influence shaped a denomination that would be faithful to the Scriptures and true to the Reformed faith. Reformed Theological Seminary was formed in the 1950’s in Jackson, MS to train ministers who would soon flock to the newly formed PCA. These men would faithfully serve to preserve a biblically faithful tradition in a culture that valued tradition.

The conservative, mainline bent also made for a bigger tent in the PCA. There was a measure of tolerance in the PCA that was fueled by this mainline spirit. More and more church plants looked very different from the Big Steeple churches that funded them.

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s the drive to fulfill the Great Commission led to the cultivation of churches that would not be very Southern in their culture and philosophy of ministry. For example, there was New City Fellowship under the leadership of Randy Nabors in Chattanooga, TN with its drive to cross racial barriers. Then came Perimeter Church under the leadership of Randy Pope in Duluth, GA that opened the door to mix the historic Reformed faith with more contemporary forms of worship, discipleship, and outreach. By the late 1980’s there was Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, who under the leadership of Tim Keller, focused on mission to educated, secular urbanites. The Great Commission was being obeyed and the tent was being enlarged and the PCA was growing rapidly.

In the North, several decades earlier, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was borne out of the liberal drift among Northern Presbyterians. Soon after the OPC was founded there was a rift between the old school traditionalists ministering in the spirit of J. Gresham Machen and the new school fundamentalists with Carl McIntyre as the leading voice. The Fundamentalists would leave to form the Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC).

During that time a young man, Francis Schaeffer, was starting his education at Westminster Seminary, the training ground for the OPC traditionalists. He would finish his education at Faith Seminary with the BPC fundamentalists. Over time, Schaeffer would become disenfranchised by the harsh fundamentalism of the BPC. He would eventually start L’Abri and become a leader in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES). The RPCES eschewed the harsh tone and inflexible tactics Fundamentalism and embraced a missional apologetic that involved engagement with secular culture. They also had a seminary that came to them via merger, Covenant Seminary, in St. Louis, MO to train pastors to serve the RPCES well.

When the PCA and RPCES merged in the early 1980’s it seemed like a great fit. Both were seeking to be “Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, and Obedient to the Great Commission.” Overnight the PCA grew by about 30%. But there were some fundamentally different approaches to ministry and a divergent culture that came along with the RPCES.

Southern PCA churches seemed to have a dominant vision for ministry based on 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15, “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”

For the RPCES and the PCA church plants influenced by Covenant Seminary it would be 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”

This tension existed and was tolerated while we were a national leader in denominational growth for several decades. Both sides tolerated each other. After all, people were coming to faith in Jesus Christ and new churches were being started across the United States. The “progressive” church planting movement was making the PCA a national denomination and we were growing in influence in the evangelical world. The Southern Presbyterian churches tolerated what made them uncomfortable. These new churches were creating new traditions and didn’t seem to value the traditions of the past.

On the other hand, the church planting movement needed the Big Steeple Southern congregations. That was where most of the aggregate wealth in the PCA was located. The church planters, increasingly trained at Covenant Seminary, engaged in church planting mission across the United States and the traditional Southern congregations, with their zeal for the Great Commission paid for it, despite the discomfort many felt. The Big Steeple Southern teaching and ruling elders also provided the largest share of leadership denominationally.

The spirit of the RPCES lived on in the training Covenant Seminary provided to PCA pastors, especially church planters and RUF campus ministers. As the PCA grew, so did the number of teaching elders who weren’t very Southern Presbyterian in their outlook and approach to ministry. These elders also wanted more of a voice to shape the PCA on a denominational level. But the traditional Southern congregations still generally controlled the vote at General Assembly. They appeared to be fine with what Covenant Seminary and the church planting movement was doing in fulfilling the Great Commission, but lots of these very traditional elders were not going to vote for men who, while they valued their work for the denomination, didn’t feel comfortable with their outlook and vision for ministry.

When I came into the PCA in 2003 from the OPC, I felt this tension. What drew me to the PCA was this tension. There was a high value for the historic Presbyterian polity of the BCO and doctrine of the Westminster Standards, yet a willingness to reshape that tradition into something intelligible to people we were reaching as we planted churches. The tradition was firm, yet flexible. It was Big Tent Presbyterianism that was “Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, and Obedient to the Great Commission.” I loved it. I could live in this tension. I could attend Twin Lakes Fellowship with many traditional Southern elders one weekend and the next weekend get more ministry training at Perimeter Church.

As we plateaued in our rapid growth in the 2000’s I think people began to feel it. The “progressives” weren’t delivering when it came to rapid expansion of ministry at MNA or at RUF. The “progressives” began to feel that the PCA as a denomination was being held back by the “traditionalists” that controlled most of the church courts, especially GA and our denominational agencies. To move off the plateau and return to a greater focus on biblically faithful mission, then there needed to be a change of leadership at the General Assembly level.

The need was being even more acutely felt by PCA “progressives” as American society was becoming more and more polarized. I was living in New Hampshire in 2008 when Civil Union laws were passed. On January 1, 2010, New Hampshire legalized gay marriage. Since that time many “Blue States” have not only embraced the LGBTQ+ movement, but also many movements like BLM and others we call “politically correct.” In “Blue States” the LGBTQ+ movement is accepted and promoted. As a national denomination a lot of our church plants and mission works are ministering in a culture where gay marriage is not only legal, but homosexuality is embraced and promoted as a cultural value.

“Progressives” ministering in this environment are trying to implement 1 Corinthians 9 while remaining “Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, and Obedient to the Great Commission.” It’s in this environment where ministries like ReVoice take shape. It’s also where something like ReVoice becomes a broad interdenominational cooperative effort with different collaborators that aren’t totally on the same theological page. The desire is not to depart the Reformed faith but to bring the Gospel to people who have thrown off all restraint when it comes to sexuality. Partnering with a theologically diverse group of Evangelicals in achieving that goal makes sense but it doesn’t lend itself to theological precision, something Presbyterians highly value.

The story is much different culturally in the “Red States” where the vast majority of the traditionalist PCA churches exist. The “Red States” culturally have not embraced homosexuality as the “Blue States” culturally have. In fact, it took a 2015 decision by the U.S. Supreme court to force gay marriage on Red States against their will. The cultural pressure on Red States is to fight and resist the expansion of the LGTBQ+ movement. The inclination for traditionalists primarily in the South and Midwest is to dig in and resist. I think we can certainly expect the culture war that has been brewing for a long time to spill over into the PCA.

American society has become so polarized in recent years that we can see a definite “Blue State” culture and “Red State” culture. These two cultures are at war with one another. People are getting more and more politically polarized.

Some PCA churches and elders are seeking to faithfully minister in the very secular “Blue State” culture driven by 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. Other PCA churches and elders are seeking to faithfully minister in the culturally religious “Red State” culture driven by 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15. The tension that has been developing for decades in the PCA. We are moving toward a breaking point in our denomination as the culture war further fractures the United States.

I think it’s the height of arrogance for any of us to think we’re immune from the cultural forces around us. I think we can be quite naïve at this point. Because we live in the United States where people are getting more and more polarized in their views, we can expect this spirit of polarization to rear its ugly head in our denomination. It’s often very hard to spot our own party spirit. We think we are being objective without bias, but others don’t see our perspective the way we see it.

The greatest danger I see will come from trying to solve the polarization politically. Those seeking to reach Blue State culture and those seeking to preserve Red State culture can expect to be at odds. My Session reminded me of this when it comes to ReVoice. ReVoice makes sense in a Blue State culture. ReVoice is harshly condemned by the LGBTQ+ movement. It is not seen as an ally of the LGBTQ+ Movement in any measure. ReVoice does not make sense in a Red State culture that is already opposed to the LGBTQ+ movement. In that environment ReVoice looks like a capitulation to the LGBTQ+ Movement. This tension cannot be solved with politics and compromise.

It’s understandable that many PCA elders would be strongly opposed to ReVoice. It’s understandable that many PCA elders see ReVoice as a helpful outreach tool. But I contend, that if we make the battle political, nobody wins and the PCA suffers great damage.

The PCUSA split in 1861 because Northern elders voted for a resolution deeply influenced by Christian Nationalism. Southern elders could not see the errors of the institution of slavery. The elders that formed the 1861 General Assembly did not desire to depart from Scripture or to betray the Reformed faith. They were sincere in their beliefs. They were trying to bring glory to God. But they were all culture bound too. Many in ways they didn’t recognize. We can see more clearly now because we aren’t in the midst of their culture war. We are in the midst of a different culture war. Is there a way we can step back and keep the PCA united without compromising our faithfulness to the Scriptures, fidelity to the Reformed Faith, and obedience to the Great Commission?

I fear the way of modern secular politics is the path we are walking. Modern political discourse is less concerned with truth and more concerned about appearances and power. In world where truth has become relative what is there left, but the power to make one’s version of truth the dominant one? This worldview may fit in a world that suppresses the truth in unrighteousness. It doesn’t fit in with our commitments as a denomination. I think pursuing truth by means that American political parties pursue power will lead us to self-destruction. In other words, I don’t believe we can pursue God’s glory in the manner the world pursues political power. In part 3, I’d like to discuss how I think we are slipping into worldly means of pursuing biblical truth.

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.

Child Sex Abuse and Overture 37

I write this as a teaching elder (M.Div., Covenant Theological Seminary) who is also a registered nurse (B.S.N., University of Memphis) who used to work in pediatrics. In the last 30 years I’ve done a lot of work with at risk children and the victims of child sexual abuse.

I also served as an assistant pastor in an independent church whose senior pastor molested at least 8 boys over a period of 20 years. There was a strong suspicion that the number of his victims approached 30 but a lot of the boys refused to come forward out of shame. He was a heterosexual married male with children (as research shows up to 80% of child sex abusers are). He went to prison for his crimes.

The legal fallout was something. I don’t think most people understand how deep a dive plaintiff lawyers will make into all the church constitutional documents and how much things said or not said will have an impact on litigation. The following reflects my life experience and training. I believe we unintentionally created a high risk for an unnecessary legal nightmare.

At the PCA General Assembly in 2021 Overture 37 was passed by a large margin thanks to the Overtures Committee working very hard to create a compromise that would appeal to a broad range of elders with various concerns. The overture, as presented to the presbyteries for ratification, contains the following language:

BCO 21-4e. In the examination of the candidate’s personal character, the presbytery shall give specific attention to potentially notorious concerns, such as but not limited to relational sins, sexual immorality (including homosexuality, child sexual abuse, fornication, and pornography), addictions, abusive behavior, racism, and financial mismanagement. Careful attention must be given to his practical struggle against sinful actions, as well as to persistent sinful desires. The candidate must give clear testimony of reliance upon his union with Christ and the benefits thereof by the Holy Spirit, depending on 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. 6:9-11). In order to maintain discretion and protect the honor of the pastoral office, Presbyteries are encouraged to appoint a committee to conduct detailed examinations of these matters and to give prayerful support to candidates.

In the compromise language, rather than focus exclusively on homosexuality, the Overtures Committee added different kinds of sinful behavior. In their zeal to accommodate concerns of elders on the committee the Overtures Committee inadvertently created a situation of legal and public relations risk.

I think the poison pill is the phrase “child sexual abuse” (“CSA” throughout this writing). Everything else in the list is largely, if not exclusively, seen as a moral failure. But CSA is both a moral failure and a criminal act. In fact, our society embraces homosexuality, fornication and pornography as matters of personal choice. There are no legal repercussions, except for pornography involving children. However, CSA is a crime that is universally condemned in the strongest terms. Society views it still as the most shocking of crimes.

In the late 1980’s CSA by Roman Catholic Church (RCC) clergy received a lot of public attention. What was most scandalous was the fact that the RCC helped priests avoid legal consequences for their acts of child molestation by helping them avoid criminal investigation. The RCC treated CSA as a moral failure, not a crime to be reported to authorities. To this day the RCC is paying for that failure to understand that CSA is both a moral failure and a very serious crime.

In the last three years, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has been embroiled in its own scandal of churches independently covering up CSA by pastors and ministry staff. Again, SBC treated CSA as a moral failure, not a serious crime to be reported to authorities. They just wanted to move the pastor along rather than report him to authorities.

Many in our society are on the lookout for churches that cover up CSA. Activist groups run PR campaigns against those churches. Trial lawyers are looking for clients to sue cash rich organizations and churches usually carry big liability policies. As the second largest Presbyterian body in the United States we are a rich target for negative press and lawsuits. We don’t want to do anything in a society hostile to Christianity to provoke anything that would damage our witness unnecessarily.

By treating CSA primarily as a moral failure rather than a crime to be reported all of Christianity has been given a black eye. The way various denominations have failed to properly address CSA has made people very suspicious of churches. Good stewardship requires that we be “wise as serpents, harmless as doves”.

What does this have to do with Overture 37? Overture 37 unintentionally treats CSA as a moral failure to be explored by Presbytery committees but it does not recognize that CSA is also a crime. There is no statement that requires that, upon becoming aware of suspicions of CSA by the committee, that it must be reported to the proper authorities according to the laws of the state where the candidate resides. In fact, we have nothing in our Book of Church Order stating that PCA officers are required to follow local laws related to CSA reporting. The assumption by people outside the PCA, who don’t know our serious commitment to Scripture, could understandably be that we treat CSA as a merely moral failure and will engage in the same kind of cover up that other denominations have done.

Many PCA churches have spent a lot of time and energy coming up with CSA prevention policies and procedures that protect children in their congregation. Up until Overture 37 CSA policy has been a matter for a local church. However, Overture 37 nationalizes CSA policy by placing it in our Form of Government, a constitutional document. If Overture 37 passes I’d recommend that each Presbytery come up with a policy poste haste that further fleshes out a presbytery response to the discovery of potential CSA.

Imagine a trial lawyer who is representing children that were sexually abused by someone who at one time was a candidate being examined per the new BCO 21-4e (Overture 37). The candidate was not allowed to move forward for ordination because of some uneasiness. In fact, there were signs of potential abuse that the committee didn’t recognize because not enough members of the committee had the proper training. Besides the committee is focused on making sure the candidate’s character meets the requirements of O37 for ordination, not detecting CSA. The committee becomes concerned about the candidate readiness for ministry and doesn’t move through with the ordination. The candidate gets a job teaching at a local Christian school based on his status of being under care of that presbytery. He molests a couple of young boys. In the investigation its comes to light that there were signs the committee didn’t recognize and didn’t report. There was an uneasiness with the candidate but nobody felt it was reportable. Maybe the committee never even explored the area of CSA. Based on experience I could see a lawyer coming after the presbytery for neglect.

At this point I can imagine elders saying, “So what? I don’t know a Presbytery that would not take action against a candidate suspected of child sexual abuse.” You’re right, I don’t know a Presbytery that would approve a man for ordination with a history of sexually abusing children or someone who makes a presbytery uncomfortable with regard to his relationship with children. I’m fairly certain that a history CSA would permanently disqualify a man from ordained office in the PCA.

The problem is that this overture is not clear about where we really stand on reporting CSA. We will require a presbytery to explore the area of CSA with a candidate in the screening process? But what is required of the committee should they feel there are red flags with regard to CSA? What red flags does the committee need to recognize? Where is the direction to follow local laws in cases of becoming aware of or suspecting sexual abuse against children? What if the presbytery committee doesn’t even explore the issue of CSA with a candidate? Too many in our denomination still don’t realize that the vast majority of child sex abusers are heterosexual married men with children, even those who molest little boys. Do we expect the little boy’s attorney not to pursue neglect because the presbytery committee didn’t thoroughly explore the issue of CSA?

We’ve been so focused on reading this overture through the lens of SSA that I fear we haven’t read it through the lens of CSA. The current public perception is that denominations cover up and protect those charged with CSA. The way O37 reads is, in my opinion, a public relations nightmare. By adding “child sexual abuse” to O37 we also added the need to provide formal direction to a Presbytery on how do deal with CSA when it is suspected. But there is nothing in our BCO that comes close to that. It appears that we are taking the route of discipleship. We are treating CSA as a moral failure, not a serious felony crime.

Someone not familiar with the PCA and our moral convictions would assume that a man that says to a Presbytery, “I’m struggling with sexually abusing children,” will be treated as someone who needs protection so that he can rely on Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit to contain his persistent sinful desires. As long as he isn’t publicly known or admits to struggles with sexually abusing children, his struggle will remain, but will be kept quiet. It has all the earmarks of a church providing a pathway to cover up child sexual abuse and protect child sexual abusers from legal accountability. That is absolutely not what we’d do. We’d treat a CSA discovery as something very serious, and I can’t imagine that a presbytery wouldn’t report to appropriate authorities. The problem is that we don’t say formally that’s what we’d do.

We can’t assume people will read O37 in the same manner we do and as ones who know who we are as a denomination. They are not theologians. And most are not even Christians in any biblical sense. When dealing with CSA as an issue, precise language is a must and it is a must that the church recognizes in its documents that CSA is a crime that must be reported to the proper authorities.

As written, O37’s reference to CSA could provide the PCA with some legal and public relations headaches. It could also cost our denomination a lot of money. Our church went through a process of creating a child abuse and prevention policy. We did it to protect children. But the added bonus was a significant discount on our insurance premium. It seems to me that we need the Administrative Committee to inquire of major church insurers about the impact of passing O37 as written and what impact it would have in their risk assessment of our presbyteries and our denomination as a whole.

In our contemporary society both what is said and what is not said means something. A number of elders have called O37 a “word salad”. It is open to being misunderstood. In fact, as we debate the practical effects of O37 if passed, we have a number of different opinions. We’ve been so focused on the issue of SSA that I fear we don’t see the broader implications of adopting O37.

I get that there is a strong sentiment to get something in our BCO that can be used to protect our church from ordaining practicing homosexuals. I would urge us to slow down and think about this compromise language for O37.

I know the voices that strongly favor O37 feel that we’ve got to pass something now. The feeling is that O37 is urgent. My presbytery passed O23 and rejected O37. As I reflect on the decision, I think there is wisdom there.