Note: The Session of Covenant Church, Fayetteville, AR, responded privately to Missouri Presbytery’s distribution of its report concerning our BCO 31–2 request, in an effort to encourage them to clarify their positions and to turn away from their theological errors. Covenant received a response from Missouri Presbytery in early 2021 instructing the Session that such engagement with the reports missed the point, because Missouri Presbytery did not adopt the reports but only their recommendations. We disagree. Though Missouri Presbytery may not have adopted these reports, they did disseminate them publicly in the midst of the present controversy. So it was appropriate for us to respond to them, given our concerns. We were not making a political gesture; we were seeking the truth. Even still, we have no regrets. We have learned from Missouri Presbytery’s communication with us. If Missouri Presbytery does not consider the content of the reports as necessarily representative of their views, then we can, with a clear conscience, disseminate our responses to those reports, in the hopes of contributing to the discussion regarding an important and ongoing theological disagreement in the PCA. Below is the text of Covenant’s response to Missouri Presbytery.
The Session of Covenant Church, a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America in Fayetteville, Arkansas, has received a report from Missouri Presbytery (MOP) concluding its investigation into TE Greg Johnson. We hope this response identifies our points of continued disagreement and clarifies our ongoing concerns. Although MOP chose to respond publicly to our request, we currently believe it best to continue in private correspondence and to await your timely response. We recognize and respect your zeal to defend a presbyter you love, but in doing so you make several serious errors. We highlight them privately in order to give you the opportunity to correct them publicly in due course.
We believe there are fundamental errors in (1) MOP’s assessment of the process we followed; (2) MOP’s verdict of exoneration of TE Johnson; (3) MOP’s view of homosexual identity; (4) MOP’s understanding of homosexuality and sin; (5) MOP’s understanding of the above reproach qualification for the ministry; (6) MOP’s dismissal of the more heinous nature of homosexual sin; and (7) MOP’s failure to consider the consequences of tolerating these errors in the life of the church.
MOP suggests that Covenant Church, along with the other courts, should have given TE Johnson “an informal opportunity to set out his views in writing (so that there is a record) before any formal BCO procedures are set in motion” (MOP’s emphasis, 14.23–25), because the Ninth Commandment forbids misconstruing intentions, words, and actions (14.27–30). (Cf. MOP’s specific criticism of one presbytery along these lines at 52.13–16.) Slander is speaking falsehoods for the purpose of injuring someone’s reputation. We communicated only truths to MOP, and our BCO-required inquiry had no such nefarious motive. Furthermore, WLC 145 also says the Ninth Commandment forbids “holding our peace when inquiry calleth for either a repair from ourselves, or complaint to others.” Hence our BCO 31–2 request.
We did not encounter TE Johnson at his church but on the floor of General Assembly. MOP laments “the timing of events was unfortunate in the sequence of TE Johnson openly sharing his story . . . as it appeared to some that his aim was to make a big splash” (56.37–40). But TE Johnson recognizes the importance of timing. He speaks of carefully scheduling when his congregation would hear his story (eight days after presbytery, though presbytery was postponed [42.27–29]), and he speaks about a coordinated social media effort in advance of actual media coverage (42.32–33). “Yes,” he says, “this was orchestrated to get the story out before the bloggers could twist it” (42.33–34). The result: “It became the second most read CT testimony of the year, and the magazine since has used it in their fundraising” (43.2–3). We did not need to ask TE Johnson to clarify his views privately; he had made them abundantly clear in public.
We believe TE Johnson’s own words affirm the wisdom of our handling of our BCO request. Instead of having to respond to inquiries about personal details of his life from strangers, he received patient inquiries from those elders who know him best. MOP reports that TE Johnson “felt ambushed” in an interview (11.3). Johnson himself writes that “the interview was a traumatic 3-on-one train wreck” (17.17–18). He says that after speaking at General Assembly, “I couldn’t stop from shaking” (43.11). Indeed, he continues, someone approached him, “afraid that I was having a panic attack” (43.12–13). By contrast, he writes, “My presbytery knows me” (37.40). Our letter asked those who know TE Johnson best to ask him the difficult questions. We believe our BCO request was the loving thing to do.
MOP’s suggested alternative strategy of submitting questions for written responses is not an informal approach. Written communications can enter into the public domain, even without the knowledge of the correspondent. MOP itself quotes from “something he [TE Johnson] wrote to a fellow teaching elder in February of this year” (56.45), and we assume MOP received permission to use this private correspondence in its report. MOP did not consult with us before publishing our request or MOP’s response to it.
Finally, if MOP believes courts should pursue an informal approach prior to a formal one, then MOP missed an opportunity to model such an approach in its dealings with Covenant Church. We have no record of any requests, informal or otherwise, to clarify our views, either before or after the promulgation of MOP’s report.
MOP believes TE Johnson does not compromise or dishonor his identity in Christ by identifying as a homosexual, and MOP also believes TE Johnson meets the above reproach qualification for being an elder. MOP calls these allegations 2 and 4, respectively. Though we have quarrels with MOP’s characterization of our concerns, we nevertheless follow MOP’s structure to facilitate clarity.
Here at the start, we want to commend the forthrightness of MOP and TE Johnson. TE Johnson identifies himself as homosexual, and even, depending upon the audience, as gay. MOP agrees with many of our statements about homosexuality and its sinfulness.
So, where are the differences? First, there is the question in allegation 2 regarding identity, on the one hand, and the nature of sin, on the other. We think MOP and TE Johnson move between imprecisely defined forms of sin in order to say someone can identify as a homosexual but can do so in a way that reflects one’s knowledge of fallen predispositions and not one’s actual choices.
Second, MOP disagrees with us about the relationship of the above reproach qualification as it relates to one’s self-identification as a homosexual. Here the disagreement is more straightforward. MOP and TE Johnson must defuse the explosiveness of 1 Corinthians 6:11, maintaining that Paul does not mean what he says. MOP must also illegitimately relativize the above reproach qualification itself.
Finally, MOP says allegation 2 summarizes the concerns of all four courts, but Westminster Presbytery (21.5–9), Grace and Peace (21.11–15), Covenant Church (21.17–22), and Southeast Alabama Presbytery (21.24–27) express concern over TE Johnson’s self-conception or identification as a homosexual. MOP mischaracterizes this concern as “self-identifying as a same-sex-attracted man” (20.40), but TE Johnson himself identifies his sexual orientation as homosexual (25.40). Though he says he has not referred to himself as gay since the 1990s (63.41–42), he says he has identified himself as gay to activists and non-Christians (64.7–10). MOP likewise notes that “occasionally in conversations with unbelievers he will identify himself as being gay” (MOP’s emphasis, 62.15–16).
Covenant Church, MOP, and TE Johnson all seem to agree with the following statement: TE Johnson identifies as a homosexual. But TE Johnson and MOP take this identification to be a non-core, non-aspirational, and descriptive identity, rather than a core, aspirational one (60.23–29). If possible, such a non-core, non-aspirational, and descriptive identity should be something at the periphery of one’s self-conception.
We believe TE Johnson’s words suggest this non-core, non-aspirational, and descriptive identity is not at the outer edge of his self-conception. He affirms that he was a gay atheist, who became a Christian, though his sexual orientation did not change (63.44–45). Additionally, he avoids identifying as gay before “conservative Christians,” because “they struggle to hear” it (64.11–12), adding, “It is not about creating an identity for myself; it is about loving the person to whom I am speaking” (64.12–13).
We find it difficult to discern this desire in his speaking against, and not for, Article 7 of the Nashville Statement—even going so far as to say that affirming Article 7 would speak against people like him. If being homosexual is not at the core of who TE Johnson is or who he aspires to be but is instead only a description of what he thinks he is, then we wonder why TE Johnson should think Article 7 speaks against him.
MOP attempts to make a grammatical case for a non-core, non-aspirational, and descriptive identity, but here MOP makes a grammatical distinction without offering an argument for why it applies in this particular case. MOP says that terms including “‘gay’ no more define or modify ‘Christian’ than the adjective ‘tired’ defines or modifies ‘womanhood’ in the statement, ‘I am a tired woman’” (62.36–37), suggesting that modifiers do not modify.
MOP continues, “In that statement we are simply learning two facts about the person speaking—facts that may or may not be conceptually related to each other: that this person is tired and that this person is a woman” (62.37–39). MOP’s statement identifies an issue about how adjectives and nouns interact, but MOP offers no argument for their argument apart from a speaker’s intention (62.44–45, 63.13).
But intention and motive alone cannot by themselves determine the function of an adjective. Counterfeit money isn’t counterfeit and money; it’s not money, regardless of one’s intention. An enormous flea is not enormous and a flea; it’s actually quite small, independent from one’s motive. In contrast to MOP, TE Johnson shows self-conscious sensitivity to this issue (44.1–2). MOP cannot change the rules of grammar so must ultimately rely on them, too. So, for example, when MOP writes favorably of TE Johnson’s concern to avoid a “simplistic inference” (45.30), MOP isn’t communicating admiration for TE Johnson’s desire to avoid things that are simplistic and things that are an inference. Instead, MOP uses the common rules of grammar to modify a noun with an adjective. MOP’s assertion that an adjective and its noun offer “two facts” cannot by itself do the work of distinguishing a person from the adjectives he chooses to adopt for himself.
(4) Homosexuality and Sin
TE Johnson seems to suggest that someone can identify as a homosexual without affirming it by blaming its presence in him on original sin. TE Johnson seems to believe he has inherited a greater degree of homosexuality in the original corruption he inherited from Adam: “Being same-sex-attracted is an unchosen and unwanted effect of the fall that has brought a good deal of loss into my life” (49.43–44), he writes, and he classifies “the condition known as same-sex attraction or homosexual orientation” as an example of “original corruption” (17.33–34).
He places being gay or having a homosexual orientation under the heading of “sinful conditions,” contrasting them with “actual sins” that have Greek New Testament terms, such as (in his translation) “having gay sex as a top” or “having gay sex as a bottom” (19.36). TE Johnson believes that thinking otherwise illegitimately imports contemporary constructs into the Bible and harms our missionary endeavors as well (e.g., 19.38—20.2).
To make this case, TE Johnson distinguishes, and MOP defends, three forms of sin: state, acts, and a tertium quid that we believe illegitimately bears the weight of the argument. Using Psalm 51:5, MOP seems to identify a state of sin with original sin (consistent with, e.g., WCF 9.3). MOP, referencing Psalm 51:1, also speaks of sinful acts. The tertium quid—variously identified as desire, disposition, or motion (45.25, 31)—receives no exegetical support, so we are left to wonder how MOP would define it. To be fair, in the next paragraph, MOP contrasts “being guilty of a sinful state and inner inclination on one hand, and a sinful act of disobedience that one chooses to do on the other hand” (46.14–16). But this contrast suggests MOP wants to coordinate original sin and “inner inclination” (or desire, disposition, or motion) over and against chosen sinful acts. MOP does so without scriptural support.
MOP’s appeals to the WCF and the WLC clarify the differences between us. MOP says WCF 6.5 and WLC 150–151 entail a distinction between “the sin of our (corrupted) nature and its ‘motions’” and “our willful acts of disobedience, whether internal evil thoughts or external behavior” (46.36–38). Let’s be clear: MOP takes motions to mean something different from willful acts, even internal ones.
But a motion cannot be contrasted with an act because the WCF uses motion and act interchangeably. WCF 16.3 encourages believers not “to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty unless upon a special motion of the Spirit.” The word motion here stands in for act and not for an involuntary inclination of the Spirit.
So MOP makes a distinction for which it offers no scriptural support and a distinction that also speaks against the WCF’s own language. Any motion of the Spirit is an act for which the Holy Spirit is morally responsible, because he graciously and marvelously chooses to act. Any motion of the homosexual is an act for which the homosexual is responsible, because he chooses to act.
Consider TE Johnson’s own discussion of repentance. “When I feel my heart melting because someone good-looking just walked by—even though no lustful thought has surfaced,” he says that he is “already praying, ‘Lord have mercy on me, a sinner’” (12.5–7). MOP and perhaps even TE Johnson may say he is not choosing not to feel the desire (in keeping with his three forms of sin), but it seems as though he is doing precisely that, to his credit. He seems to be living better than his theory.
To be clear, if TE Johnson notices someone’s appearance with mere admiration, he may feel shame, but he should not do so. A man can recognize another man’s handsomeness without desiring sexual union with him. However, attraction can mean more than interest or admiration. If the word stands in for sexual desire, then he is already actively sinning! He does not need to pray against lust but repent of it.
Because MOP moves a person’s specific homosexual inclinations away from sinful actions and to the Fall, MOP must take a critical view of straightforward readings of the Bible. On the reading of Romans 8:9–13 and Colossians 3:5 by Grace and Peace of Anna, Texas, MOP writes, “Nevertheless we reject this line of reasoning as simplistic and unable to account for the very strong emphasis in Scripture on the truth that the corrupt nature and its inclinations remain in believers until they die . . .” (70.1–3). MOP’s own reading of Grace and Peace’s position may be simplistic (technically, MOP offers a straw man), but Grace and Peace’s argument isn’t. They say God’s grace can and does replace sinful desires with proper ones in the very passage MOP quotes (69.42–44), even as they—in a passage unquoted by MOP—recognize that sin continues in those who are new creatures in Christ (Appendix, 32.3–7).
Blaming specific sins on the Fall produces genuine confusion. MOP speaks of “specific sins” that are “far too prevalent” (61.1–4). But what does MOP mean? Tellingly, MOP appeals to WCF 6.2, 6.4, and 6.5, leading us to think they have in mind not specific sins but original corruption instead (61.6–20). But MOP does not reference WCF 6.3, which speaks of “the same death in sin, and corrupted nature” and not of a variegated sinfulness—with one man predisposed towards homosexuality, the other toward drunkenness. We believe MOP assumes something that must be demonstrated, namely, that each person inherits a different basket of sinful tendencies from our forefather Adam.
Though it seems plausible (due to each person’s unique experience) that different people have inherited different sinful tendencies, we can’t know what we have or haven’t inherited from Adam until we try it out. MOP and TE Johnson assume a man can know his particular sinful predispositions without actually sinning. TE Johnson’s own statistic—that homosexual orientation is “about 31% genetic”—actually affirms that homosexual orientation is overwhelmingly not genetic (32.26). The Bible speaks clearly of generational sin, but God, in his infinite wisdom, has chosen not to reveal how this occurs.
While we want to avoid an extended discussion of the possibility of genetic predispositions to certain sins, we do note how, in some areas of our lives, the recognition of a genetic predisposition to a certain negative outcome should result in a change of behavior. For example, a known genetic predisposition to heart disease should make a man, in keeping with the Sixth Commandment, more diligent about his habits and activities with a view to preserving life. If someone comes to believe he is predisposed to a certain sin, he should be more cautious about behavior and identify, and not less.