“Not Being Named by Our Sins” But when we identify with our sins, we do something very different. To identify with our sin may bring disgrace upon the name of Christ. It is to violate vow #7 which is to “adorn the profession of the gospel in your manner of life”. It is particularly disgraceful for a minister to do so publicly. A minister who has publicly identified with their sin should undergo the appropriate steps of discipline to remove the affront that this brings to the Church.
Contemporary & Confessional Discussion
Contemporary Language about Sexuality
There are three major terms used today to talk about how sexuality relates to anthropology, which are: orientation, attraction, and desire, all of which are related to personality traits. Attraction is a category of mere empirical or observable phenomena of a person’s habitual sexual interests or proclivities. A person is said to be sexually oriented towards someone if they have a habitual, subconscious attraction towards them, and/or a habitual and conscious sexual desire or interest in them. In secular society, a person is told that they should figure out what particular subconscious attractions and conscious desires they have, and then publicly declare which particular sexual orientation corresponds to their patterns of attraction. This is “living out” and being true to one’s self. Because human beings have a large range of habitual attractions, the acronym for sexual orientation has become larger and larger, and is now simplified as LGBTQ+.
There is not complete agreement on anthropology within this conception of sexual orientation. Some affirm that there are only two sexes and two genders, with the occasional and rare genetic deformity causing the issue of “intersex” persons, and that therefore a person’s sexual orientation is based around habitual attractions to a definite sex/gender, age, race, or species. On the other hand, there are others who deny that there are only two genders. Some propose that while there may be two definite, biological sexes, gender is a mental construct. At the same time, some people believe that there are not two definite biological sexes, and that instead there are many. Each group agrees that a person who is a biological male may believe he is a gendered female (and vice-versa), or not a gender, or some alternative gender, and that this is a good or neutral thing because “gender norms” are not real. The issue that follows is how that relates to biological sex. According to many with these views, “living out”, or true to one’s mental perceptions and sexual orientation, means that a person may or ought to alter their physical sex, insofar as possible, in order to conform to their mental gender. This relates to attraction in that, within this understanding, a person is not necessarily attracted to a definite “sex” of male or female–that would be binary thinking–and instead is attracted to their own self-defined type of gender. In this view, there would then be “flavors” of sexual attraction, rather than simple binary choices like male-female, male-male, female-female.
But, again, not all groups within LGBTQ+ agree. Some affirm biological sex as being distinctively male and female (aside from rare genetic abnormalities), while some deny that biological sex is real or only distinctly male and female. Some affirm that gender perception ought to conform to biological sex, while some deny that this is necessary or good. This disagreement within LGBTQ+ was recently made apparent in a series of interactions between JK Rowling and her original fan-base.
Biblical and Confessional Language about Original Sin & Sexuality
There is an extremely helpful document on this subject, composed by the RPCNA. It is referred to by themselves as a “Testimony” on this topic, which, in book form is called “The Gospel & Sexual Orientation“. This “Testimony” was actually voted on in the PCA’s last General Assembly, and approved as Overture 11, “Commend and Distribute RPCNA’s ‘Contemporary Perspectives on Sexual Orientation: A Theological and Pastoral Analysis'”, as it was originally titled in their own minutes. In this paper/book, they write
“It is a modern convention to divide man’s ‘inner sexuality’ into distinct categories of conscious thought and subconscious orientations. To interpret the Catechism as addressing only conscious thought (to the exclusion of subconscious urgings) by its terminology is to force modern conventions upon the text, anachronistically. Rather, it should be understood that the intention of the Catechism statement is to address the entire inner and external life of the one whose sexuality is contrary to nature as God designed it.”
The Gospel & Sexual Orientation
I hope to consider the biblical and confessional terms about sexuality, and then bring in some of Vermigli’s work to help add to this discussion. “The Gospel and Sexual Orientation” summarizes Scripture and the Confession: God has a natural order in which mankind should participate, which is male/female compatibility. In conformity to this, there are good inward desires and good outward expressions. Inwardly, in conformity to God’s natural order, a male may have some form of sexual interest in a female (and vice-versa) with the hopes of marriage and procreation. That said, it is obviously difficult for sinful humans to navigate what exactly is appropriate sexual interest from what is lust, but that said it is theoretically the natural order God intends. Outwardly, in conformity to God’s natural order, a male and a female may make vows of marriage before God and man, and then engage in copulation for pleasure and procreation and protection against sin.
But there are violations to this natural order. Inwardly, in violation of the natural order, there are sins like unnatural lust, or sins like excessive desires, any of which may be either subconscious and unbidden, or conscious and bidden. Outwardly, in violation of this natural order, there are sins like fornication, adultery, polygamy or polyandry or polyamory, sodomy, bestiality, paedophilia, and the numerous sins surrounding these. (See p. 123 of “The Gospel and Sexual Orientation,” where the left side of the chart shows Confessional Categories and the right side shows Modern Categories.)
The PCA’s study report, which admittedly has not yet been voted on or received by the General Assembly (delayed by COVID), presents what I believe to be a helpful summary of biblical and confessional language as well. They speak in tandem with the RPCNA’s Testimony when they focus on the term “desire” as the primary descriptive term to correspond to inward sexuality (whether that be unwanted impulses, or wanted thoughts).
But the PCA’s report goes beyond the RPCNA’s Testimony in that it correlates original sin with the term “attraction” and with the term “desire”. They argue that concupiscence, or original sin is the inward propensity or inclination to sin, which is “experienced as spontaneous feelings” (p. 15 of report).
“The desire for an illicit end—whether in sexual desire for a person of the same sex or in sexual desire disconnected from the context of Biblical marriage—is itself an illicit desire. Therefore, the experience of same-sex attraction is not morally neutral; the attraction is an expression of original or indwelling sin that must be repented of and put to death (Rom. 8:13).”
They go on to state that same-sex attraction is an expression of original sin, later clarifying that attraction is an arousal or feeling towards sin prior to conscious consent (p. 15 of report). This corresponds to what Vermigli suggests.
How Vermigli Relates to Reformers and Confessionalism
Agreement over what constitutes original sin
I’d like to summarize Vermigli’s view of the distinction between original and actual sin. Remember above, where Vermigli suggests that there are some inclinations of the mind that are not, properly speaking original sin, but instead are actual sins that result from original sin. “Indeed, sin understood in this broad sense not only encompasses original sin, that is, our depraved nature and the corrupted powers of our body and mind, but also all those evils following upon this. These include forbidden inclinations of the mind, sinful deliberations, evil pursuits, and corrupt habits.” -Vermigli, p. 83. We could then argue that this is a summary of Vermigli’s view:
- Sinful inclinations of the affections/impulses (ie lusts) are original sin.
- Sinful patterns of the mind are original sin.
- But sinful inclinations of the mind are actual sin. That is, conscious consent to these affections and patterns is a progression beyond original sin, and goes into willful and deliberate meditation upon what is against God’s law.
A summary of a Confessional description could be:
- Sinful inclinations of the affections are original sin. This is described as “unnatural lusts” in the RPCNA testimony, and as “attraction” and “desire” in the PCA report.
- Sinful concessions/thoughts of the mind are actual sin.
- Original sin in the regenerated Christian is called indwelling sin.
A Chart comparing these uses:
|Original Sin (ie concupiscence)||Sinful inclinations of the affections & impulses (lusts).||Unbidden: Attraction,
|Sinful patterns of the mind.|
|Actual Sin||Sinful inclinations (conscious consent) of the mind.||Consent of the mind to sin.
Includes willful desire.
How Vermigli and the Confession Relate to Contemporary Terms
Should we use contemporary terminology? Is it helpful? Can we relate biblical and theological terminology to contemporary terminology? On the one hand, some have argued: No. For example, Rosaria Butterfield says this about side A and side B, “Side A and Side B both support the idea that sexual orientation is an accurate category of personhood, and therefore they both are outside the bounds of biblical teaching.” In this regards, the RPCNA study reports on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity both resist embracing contemporary terms, and instead refer to biblical and confessional terminology. They do not attempt to adopt any parallels in the sense of “attraction=this or that”.
But on the other hand, we want to live in a world where we can understandably interact with people who use very different terminology than us, and yet explain corresponding terms and ideas to them. No, they will not be perfect parallels, but I think that as we consider Vermigli’s and the Committee’s work, there may be a useful amount of correspondence between their language, and that of contemporary language, such that we could rightly apply it. This does not mean an endorsement of the modern terminology. Instead, it should be employed to bring modern terminology back to the bounds of Scripture. The terms that could be properly corresponded with one another are:
|Original||Original Sin, Sinful inclinations of the affections, impulses, lusts, and patterns of the mind||Subconscious (unbidden) orientation, desire, or attraction|
|Actual||Initial Sinful inclinations of the mind, and bidden sinful desires and lusts||Willful desire, lust. On occasion attraction is used to mean willful desire or lust as well.|
Disqualification & Discipline in Pastoral Ministry
That man, therefore, ought by all means to be drawn with cords to be an example of good living who already lives spiritually, dying to all passions of the flesh.
Gregory the Great
-The Pastoral Rule
What Qualifies a Man for Pastoral Ministry?
Simply being a human is not enough to qualify one for ministry. Simply being a Christian is not enough to qualify one for ministry. Only a spiritually mature Christian man with an outward call that corresponds to his inward call may be lawfully ordained to Christian ministry. Though that is the case, a minister is a sinner (one with indwelling sin), just like the rest of his fellow Christians. A minister mustn’t think he is beyond sinning the disqualifying sins of others, lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:12). Yet, the minister lives a life of godliness, pursues holiness, and is the chief repenter in his congregation.
The relevant and particular passages the describe the qualification for pastoral ministry are 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, though the general pattern of qualified ministry can be perceived in the example of Christ and his apostles.
1 Timothy 3:1-7
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
…Appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
Husband of one wife
Well thought of by outsiders
Not a drunkard
Not violent but gentle
Not a lover of money nor greedy for gain
Lover of good
Must manage his household well (children submissive and not debauched)
|Called||Aspires to the office of overseer…desires a noble task|
|Competent||Able to teach/give instruction in sound doctrine
Able to rebuke those who contradict it
Holds firm to the trustworthy word as taught
The Book of Church Order (PCA) lays out a number of things about ministerial qualifications that are essentially what was quoted above. But it adds one thing (biblical thing) that I have not mentioned yet:
Ministerial vow #7: Do you engage to be faithful and diligent in the exercise of all your duties as a Christian and a minister of the Gospel, whether personal or relational, private or public; and to endeavor by the grace of God to adorn the profession of the Gospel in your manner of life, and to walk with exemplary piety before the flock of which God shall make you overseer?
A man is qualified in regards to character for ministry if he can live in such a way that he honors the Lord in his lifestyle, and is pious (holy) in his obedience and form of worship to God.
What Disqualifies a Man from Pastoral Ministry?
This leads us to the ultimate issue: What constitutes a spiritually mature Christian man? What sort of original sin and actual sin is disqualifying from ministry? Can original sin really disqualify a minister from ministry?
- Things that aren’t original (or actual) sin aren’t disqualifying.
According to Vermigli’s and Confessional categories, a man is not barred from ministry or disqualified from service in ministry if he is, in a godly and normal way, “attracted” to the opposite sex. This terminology of attraction does not adequately explain the biblical idea that a “pattern of interest” in the opposite sex is the normal, natural order created by God. This does not derive from original sin, but from nature, from creation. This kind of attraction would theoretically be part of God’s good created order.
- If original sin is not repented of, such that a minister is not a Christian, it disqualifies him.
There are some men who pursue ministry, or who are in ministry, who may simply not be Christians. If they have not repented of their original sin, then they are not a Christian! What does it look like to repent of original sin? Repenting of original sin begins with initial repentance of it as well as of actual sin. It includes turning from the enjoyment of the sin we are inclined towards, and the sins which we have done, and instead despising them and looking to Jesus Christ for salvation from their guilt, their power, and their pollution. Repenting of original sin continues with ongoing, daily repentance of “indwelling sin” and actual sins. Original sin remains in the Christian as “indwelling sin” though in Christ it is “pardoned and mortified” (WCF 6.5). Indwelling sin remains a constant enemy of the Christian, and is the source of all motions to actual sins, sins which the Christian still commits. This means that the Christian daily goes to the Lord for forgiveness for the entirety of their sin–original (indwelling) and actual–as well as for strength to mortify original and actual sin and be made alive in righteousness.
This brings up the question: Must a man perfectly repent to be qualified to be a Christian or a Christian minister? No! We often must “repent of our repentance.” Then what is the standard by which a person is determined to not be truly repentant of original sin, and so not a genuine Christian or qualified to be a minister?
- If original sin is not repented of, such that a man is a Christian, but identifies with original sin, it may disqualify him from ministry, or make a minister liable to discipline and possible deposition.
Identification terminology matters. A Christian, by necessity, must identify their particular proclivities, and their “expressions” of original sin, in order to make headway in mortifying that sin and living to righteousness in Christ. But there is an important difference between identifying our indwelling sin, and identifying with our indwelling sin. There is a great deal of difference between saying “this is the thorn in my flesh”, and saying, “the thorn in my flesh is me.”
“Naming Our Sins”
We figure out how to die to our particular indwelling sins, and how to strengthen ourselves against temptation to these sins, when we identify them. “But when anything is exposed to light, it becomes visible” (Eph. 5:13). Identifying our sins and learning to die to them also enables us to explain to others how to live godly lives as Christians with weaknesses and indwelling sins. We can discuss, as a community, how to fight against our indwelling sins.
But, what sort of terms are appropriate? If I identify my particular indwelling sin to be materialism, or pride, or alcoholism, or drug addiction, or covetousness, or same-sex attraction, or etc. what do I say? What do I consider myself? How do I talk to others about it?
For example, is it appropriate to think of myself as habitually proud? Yes. This is biblical terminology. Pride may rise, unbidden, regularly in my heart. This is something I should watch out for, should pray against, and should take steps to stop by growing in humility. But should I consider myself a Proud Christian? Am I someone whose identity is such that pride will likely never be removed, and it is simply part of my make-up? No. This is not biblical terminology, and comes alarmingly close to the conception of a Carnal Christian, or a Christian who may identify with (and potentially live in) their sin. In fact, if you flip through the Scriptures, you will not see a single instance of pride being considered an identity of any of the Churches. They are warned to stop being proud (Rom. 11:20; James 4:6), and to be alert of the prideful in the world (2 Tim. 3:2), but they are never considered as Proud Christians.
I’ve heard people draw parallels to alcoholism and same-sex identity in Christianity. People have said that some ministers are alcoholics who attend AA and who are sober. Should they not identify as alcoholics, or is that sinful? Should they only do it in private (keep it in the closet) because it is only sinful to do it publicly? The problem with this analogy is that there aren’t meetings celebrating Alcoholic Christian Identity as neutral or good. There aren’t people on the floor of our Presbyteries and GA’s arguing that since they are Alcoholic Christians, we shouldn’t vote for x or y or z motions. There is a difference between a person who has recognized their indwelling sin, and has identified it, and the person who has identified with their indwelling sin, and brought disgrace to name of Jesus Christ.
“Not Being Named by Our Sins”
But when we identify with our sins, we do something very different. To identify with our sin may bring disgrace upon the name of Christ. It is to violate vow #7 which is to “adorn the profession of the gospel in your manner of life”. It is particularly disgraceful for a minister to do so publicly. A minister who has publicly identified with their sin should undergo the appropriate steps of discipline to remove the affront that this brings to the Church.
- If original sin is repented of, but it is of such a heinous or powerful nature, a man should not be a minister.
Some expressions of original sin (unbidden, unwilled) are too prevalent and powerful, or heinous that a man who regularly repents of them may be a Christian, but should not aspire to the office of an overseer, or else is disqualified from pastoral ministry.
Prevalence and power of original sin
One example of this is in habitual and powerful overruling lust in the life of a Christian. If a man has an overwhelming, unbidden, habitual lust, he should consider not pursuing pastoral ministry. While this may be assisted in marriage, until such overwhelming desires are controlled, a man is not qualified for pastoral ministry, which requires one to be “self-controlled” generally in their emotional life.
Heinous original sin
I want to use a rather horrid example, but if a person is habitually sexually attracted to children, even if this sin is unbidden and unwilled and thus an expression of original sin, this person should not pursue ministry. That seems obvious enough, however I wish to show the logical implication of this discussion. The former, particular expression of original sin is heinous enough to disqualify a man from ministry. But this conception ought to apply not only to the prior unnatural lust, but to all habitual, unnatural lusts. But, just like with the case of a man overwhelmed by the power of lust, if a person matures in their Christian walk, such that they are no longer habitually inclined to these things, they may consider ministry as they fit biblical criteria for spiritual maturity.
- If a man commits an actual sin that is great or heinous, or if he regularly commits a pattern of actual sins, this may currently disqualify him from ministry, and does make a minister liable to discipline and possible deposition.
This is the typical thing that people consider when they think about entering into pastoral ministry, or when Church members seek for their minister to be disciplined or deposed from his office. When someone commits a great sin or a heinous sin (such as adultery), or is regularly engaged in actual sins (such as pornographic addiction), he should not consider pursuing ministry. If he is a minister, he should be placed under discipline and either restored or deposed (depending on his repentance).
I’ve summarized each of these below:
|Qualified for Ministry?||Disqualified Despite Regular Repentance||Qualified after Repentance and/or Discipline|
|Original Sin||Expressions of original sin that are heinous or powerful in nature and are not mortified or subdued to a point of maturity in Christ.||Expressions of original sin that are “natural” and weak in nature. Expressions of original sin that were heinous or powerful in nature, but have been mortified and subdued to a point of maturity in Christ.|
|Identification with one’s expression of original sin.|
|Actual Sin||Motions of original sin into acts that are unnatural or great. There are occasions when men have been restored to ministry after acts like these, but it is generally unwise.||Motions of original sin into acts that are private, “natural”, and mild, are put under Church discipline (depends on the sin), and ends with result of restoration.|
|Repetitive actual sins that are not mortified or subdued to a point of maturity in Christ.||Motions of original sin into acts that are public, “natural” and mild, are put under Church discipline, and end with the result of restoration.|
Ministerial Standards Compared to Vermigli & Westminster Confession of Faith
I hope this serves as a biblical/confessional summary of what qualifies or disqualifies a man from ministry. In regards to the upcoming overtures that relate to this issue, I want to point out that some of them do not adequately deal with the nature of original sin. Even as they seek to address what may or may not be ministerially disqualifying, they neglect the other elements of sin that may disqualify a man. They also may neglect the fact that many sins are things that can be repented of, and that a man must be evaluated based on his walk with the Lord, and in regards to his progress in the mortification of sin and vivification of righteousness in Christ. For that reason, I think the overture that best handles this is Overture 30 from Lowcountry Presbytery. It addresses this issue by placing it within the examination of a minister, and seeks to address “areas of notorious concern” that are not limited to SSA, but are far broader. If anything, what these discussions have recently shown is that our ministerial examinations have not been specific enough in asking questions to candidates about things that may disqualify them from ministry. As such, we may be lacking in the pastoral sensitivity and thoughtfulness needed to help guide a man away from ministry, or to encourage him to come back to re-consider his call after he has spiritually matured. May God bless our endeavors as we seek to pursue godliness and love and wisdom in Jesus Christ.
Christopher Brown is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Assistant Pastor at Covenant Reformed PCA in Asheville, N.C. This article is used with permission.