Greco is quick to point out that the proposal applies only to prospective officers, not to all church members. “Officers in the church are to be models of godliness and Christ-likeness,” he says. Though imperfect, “they are not to be identified with their sin.” He believes that the three criteria referred to above “make clear that it is neither being a sinner nor struggling with a sin that disqualifies a man from office. It is identifying with his sin and declaring that the Spirit will never give (indeed, cannot give) victory over his sin.”
Following their approval by the Presbyterian Church in America’s 48th General Assembly, the Book of Church Order (BCO) amendments proposed by Overtures 23 and 37 have been sent the PCA’s 88 presbyteries for their advice and consent. Both proposed amendments deal with homosexuality. Two-thirds of our presbyteries, a total of 59, must approve them before they’re presented to the 49th Assembly for a final vote.
Two Overtures, Three Years in the Making
A lot of history — in the culture and in our church — has brought us to this moment. This is how it goes with controversial issues in the PCA. Sometimes they’re theological — the debate over creation days, for example. Sometimes they’re related to polity — such as the ministry of women in the church. And they can be significant issues in the broader culture, such as racial reconciliation or, as we see today, homosexuality.
Such issues produce debate, prompt disciplinary cases, and spawn overtures to the General Assembly (GA). They can also lead to the creation of study committees to explore the issue, and while the findings of such committees are only advisory, they tend to promote peace in the church around the controversies.
So why this issue, and why now? There are two primary reasons.
The first comes from outside the PCA — the dramatic change in attitudes toward homosexuality in American culture. They’ve occurred quickly — in roughly two decades — and they’ve been pervasive. Sadly, these trends have also been reflected in some Christian churches. Many mainline denominations, for example, now endorse same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Though the PCA has faithfully advocated the biblical teaching concerning homosexuality, some have called for the denomination to express its position even more strongly in response to these trends.
The second reason is internal. In July 2018 Revoice, an organization created to support Christians who experience same-sex attraction while upholding the historic Christian teaching about marriage and sexuality, held its first conference at Memorial Presbyterian Church, a PCA congregation in St. Louis. The conference stirred controversy and criticism throughout the evangelical world, and particularly within the PCA.
Over the next several months, Greg Johnson, pastor of Memorial, found himself defending Revoice in a variety of public settings. In the process, he acknowledged his own struggles with same-sex attraction, which intensified the controversy and prompted a series of technical judicial actions:
- At the request of the Memorial session, Missouri Presbytery created a committee to investigate allegations raised against Johnson and Memorial for hosting Revoice.
- In May 2019, the committee presented its findings; while concluding that the Memorial session had failed to exercise due diligence in its handling of the conference, no charges were filed against Johnson or the session.
- In January 2020, two presbyteries invoked the provisions of BCO 34-1 that allow a presbytery to ask the General Assembly’s Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) to assume original jurisdiction when a presbytery fails to act on a matter of theological error. The presbyteries alleged that Missouri’s failure to charge Johnson constituted such a failure.
- In the same timeframe, two presbyteries and two sessions outside Missouri presbytery requested that Missouri initiate a disciplinary investigation of Johnson under BCO 31-2. The presbytery established a committee to conduct such an investigation in October 2019. It found no strong presumption of guilt and in July 2020 the presbytery exonerated Johnson.
- This led a third presbytery to ask the SJC to assume original jurisdiction in Johnson’s case.
- But before the SJC could act on these requests, an elder in Missouri Presbytery filed a formal complaint against the presbytery for exonerating Johnson. The complaint was denied by Missouri and then taken to the SJC, which ruled that the complaint should be considered before the requests for original jurisdiction. That complaint is currently being decided.
The PCA Reacts With 11 Overtures
All this — external and internal factors combined — led to a flurry of 11 overtures sent to the 2019 General Assembly.
- One asked the Assembly to commend a study paper on sexual orientation produced by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) and make it available to the denomination.
- Two offered their own statements on homosexuality.
- Two others asked the Assembly to re-affirm previous statements.
- Two presbyteries overtured the Assembly to commend the Nashville Statement, produced by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and make it available to the denomination.
- Four presbyteries asked the Assembly to appoint a study committee to address the issue.
Ultimately, the Assembly commended the Nashville Statement and the RPCNA’s study paper. It also approved the appointment of a study committee; GA Moderator Howard Donahoe appointed the Ad-Interim Committee on Human Sexuality (AIC) which posted its report in May 2020, prior to the Assembly that was postponed because of COVID-19.
For a complete statement of Fred Greco’s arguments in favor of Overtures 23 and 37, click here.
For a complete statement of Kyle Keating’s argument against the Overtures, click here.
[The Aquila Report Editor’s Note: Here are the proposed amendments to the PCA’s Book of Church Order as approved by the PCA General Assembly and sent to the presbyteries for their votes]:
BCO 16-4. Officers in the Presbyterian Church in America must be above reproach in their walk and Christlike in their character. Those who profess an identity (such as, but not limited to, “gay Christian,” “same sex attracted Christian,” “homosexual Christian,” or like terms) that undermines or contradicts their identity as new creations in Christ, either (1) by denying the sinfulness of fallen desires (such as, but not limited to, same sex attraction), or (2) by denying the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, or (3) by failing to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions are not qualified for ordained office.
BCO 21-4 e. 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.
BCO 24-1. In the examination of each nominee’s personal character, the Session 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. Each nominee must give clear testimony of reliance upon his union with Christ and the benefits thereof by the Holy Spirit, depending upon 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 church office, Sessions are encouraged to appoint a committee to conduct detailed examinations into these matters and to give prayerful support to nominees.