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Presbyterian Church of America struggles over sexual identity

November 2021 | by Paul Smith

Greg Johnson speaking at the PCA General Assembly / CREDIT: Honza Pokorny / YouTube
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Watching Christian leaders tackle tough issues can be instructive. The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) has been grappling with gay identity issues. Things came to a head at their annual meeting of church elders, the General Assembly, this year.

Why is this worth knowing about?

While we must take care not to unnecessarily import a controversy, the issue is already live on this side of the Atlantic. Not only that, in our digital world, positions and practices from the USA are impacting UK churches.

Who are the PCA?

The Presbyterian Church in America has 1,580 churches and 300,000 members receiving communion. Its ministers include Tim Keller, Kevin DeYoung, and Ligon Duncan. The late R. C. Sproul was in the PCA. Another prominent PCA minister is Greg Johnson, Lead Pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church, St Louis.

What ignited the controversy?

Some PCA ministers, like Johnson, embrace the concept of a gay sexual orientation and same-sex attraction (SSA) as an identity. His church hosted the first Revoice Conference in 2018.

Revoice states that its mission is ‘to support and encourage gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other same-sex attracted Christians’. The 2021 Conference had a session titled ‘Together as Sexual Minorities’ followed by the statement: ‘We need the body of Christ in all its diversity.’

Some progressives have been described as ‘Side A Christians’ – those who identify as gay and affirm gay marriage. One term used at Revoice is ‘Side B Christians’ – those rejecting same-sex sexual activity but still identifying as gay/SSA.

‘Being gay’ is seen as who they are. Revoice’s ‘Statement on Public Posture and Christian witness’ therefore looks for positives. It calls on those ‘who find themselves attracted to the same sex… to steward their sexuality in joyful faith and confident obedience’.

Revoice president Nate Collins has written of ‘aesthetic orientation’ – guiltless appreciation of same-gender beauty. Collins regularly uses the language of critical theorists. He criticised churches for a ‘baptized form of heteronormativity’.

He stated that ‘a gospel-centered ethic calls Christians to subvert straight privilege when it causes difficulty for gay people’. Collins similarly criticised ‘the idolatry of the nuclear family’.

What pushback has there been from PCA ministers?

Todd Pruitt, PCA minister and co-host of the Mortification of Spin podcast, stated, ‘The incursion of Revoice theology into the PCA has caused great division and confusion in our churches. We have been told to accept as an “orientation” what God’s Word calls “contrary to nature” and “dishonorable passions” (Romans 1:26-27).

‘Some of our own Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders have made and continue to make the claim that homosexual desires are akin to blindness; a disability not a moral problem. Please understand that such a claim represents a bold contradiction to the witness of God’s Word. In equating dishonorable passions to a physical disability, they deny that homosexual attractions are sinful in and of themselves.

‘We are told that those who experience but do not physically act upon their unnatural affections are “brave” and “self-denying” for abstaining from sin. But are “brave” and “courageous” the right words to describe abstinence from abominable sin? Would we describe the man who does not commit adultery as courageous for not doing so? Mortifying sin is not courageous; it is the duty we owe our King.’

What happened at the 2021 General Assembly?

Overtures (proposals) were brought which would amend the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO) regarding sexual identity. The BCO sets out practices which all PCA churches must follow. To the surprise of many, an overwhelming majority of elders present (1438-417) voted for the following statement to be part of the BCO:

‘Officers [elders and deacons] 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.’

In the PCA, elders from groups of local churches (presbyteries) meet with men to assess their suitability for ministry. A further overture was passed (1130-692) involving the examination of candidates for ordination:

‘In the examination of the candidate’s personal character, the presbytery shall give specific attention to potential notorious concerns, such as but not limited to relational sins, sexual immorality (including homosexuality, child sex 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 response to the General Assembly’s actions, Revoice president Nate Collins accused the PCA of ‘rampant homophobia’. Collins claimed that there was a ‘sustained attack on the human dignity of gay/SSA people’ at the General Assembly.

What happens next?

Two further steps must follow for the overtures to be implemented. Two thirds of presbyteries must endorse them and a final vote must be taken at the 2022 General Assembly. Presbyteries are now under pressure from those on both sides of the debate.

What do some other Presbyterians think?

Briton Carl Trueman (an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) enthused that the ‘little guys stood up’. At the General Assembly, ruling elders (i.e. unpaid) from ordinary churches proved more numerous than those making much more noise, especially online. Trueman reported a PCA elder stating that ‘the PCA voted to uphold the Christian sexual morality of the last two millennia, rather than that of merely the last two decades’.

Rosaria Butterfield (wife of an RPCNA pastor) is well known for her testimony of conversion from a lesbian lifestyle in academia. She stated, ‘Gay Christianity is a different religion. I’m not standing in the same forest with Greg Johnson and Wes Hill [priest, author, Revoice speaker] and Nate Collins looking at different angles of the trees, I’m in a different forest altogether.’

What else was highlighted?

Carl Trueman drew attention to lack of leadereship from seminaries at the PCA’s General Assembly. He felt it ‘quite astonishing’ that ‘no senior administrator of faculty member spoke up on the issue of sexuality and identity during the assembly’.

He concluded, ‘Institutions cannot claim to train individuals for leadership in the church if they are not themselves exemplifying leadership on the pressing issues of the moment.’

Greg Johnson gained his MDiv from the PCA-affiliated Covenant Theological Seminary. Its Vice President of Academics (then and now), Jay Sklar, spoke at Revoice in 2018, forcing its president to distance CTS from Revoice.

What effect does this have on the UK?

A few days after the assembly, Mark Meynell (Langhams Preaching’s Director for Europe & Caribbean and Keswick 2021 speaker) highlighted a new book by ‘the great’ Greg Johnson. Meynell published a podcast interview with Johnson where he discussed John Stott’s views of sexuality. During that conversation, Johnson described how part of his church’s outreach was to make his church’s art venue available to artists free of charge.

Johnson described how twice in two years a Transgender theatre company had been allowed to use it. The Transluminate event came with a content warning: ‘Plays may contain adult language and frank sexual situations.’ Meynell responded ‘wonderful’ when Johnson described how ‘all the pastors served as bar-tenders different nights… to show them the love of Jesus’.

Again, a few days after the assembly, Sam Alberry promoted the podcast interview as ‘a really helpful conversation’.

What issues have been highlighted?

1. Original sin. Are unwanted sexual desires disability or depravity? Are they brokenness (the effects of the fall, like blindness from birth) or sinfulness (the stamp of our original sin)? (WCF 6.5)

2. Identity. Should we use the concept of sexual orientation as a mark of identity (who we are) or describe fallen sexual desires as changeable through sanctification (how we are)?

3. Evangelism. How can we speak with biblical clarity and show biblical compassion? How can we connect with people who say that unless we affirm their self-identity we hate them as people?

4. Discipleship. How can we build a church culture where young people can be open about their struggles without downplaying sin?

5. Communication. How can we, as evangelicals, dialogue constructively when people are following leaders speaking from either a woke or anti-woke approach?

6. Gospel preaching. How can we speak of the hope, joy, and inclusiveness of the gospel with genuine connection and without compromise?

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