Presbyterian Church in America outs SSA pastors

A debate within a conservative evangelical church in the US is headed Down Under. Do people who identify as “celibate gay Christians” have a place in a church fellowhip, or does a conservtive orthodox Christian view of sexuality meas that no-one should identify themselves that way?

The Presbyterian Church in America met for its 48th General Assembly in St Louis, Missouri, last week. On the agenda was a paper from an “Ad Interim Committee on Human Sexuality” and a series of follow-up overtures [motions which can lead to a rule-change for that church] that will prevent men who “identify as “gay Christians” or “same-sex-attracted Christians” from being ordained in the denomination, even if they uphold a traditional sexual ethic on questions of same-sex lust, marriage, and sex.

In a move that has raised significant concerns about the denomination’s ability to pastor LGBTIQA+ or same-sex-attracted believers, and that will prompt similar conversations in conservative Presbyterian denominations around the world, including here in Australia, this overture was approved by 78 per cent of commissioners at the Assembly (1438-417).

In the Presbyterian system, an overture is the first step to changing the denomination’s rules (in this case, the rules of the Presbyterian Church in America; the implications for the Australian church are cultural, rather than direct). An approved overture makes its way back to Presbyteries around the country, where it must secure two thirds majority support, before returning to the next national assembly for ratification.

The Ad Interim Committee, featuring prominent Presbyterians including Tim Keller and Kevin DeYoung, was formed to investigate “the topic of human sexuality with particular attention to the issues of homosexuality, same-sex attraction, and transgenderism, and prepare a report”. It was also formed in response to an emerging movement in conservative Christianity in the United States – a conference called Revoice and, particularly, the participation in Revoice by an ordained PCA minister, the Rev. Greg Johnson.

His standing in the denomination, as a result of his involvement with Revoice – and his descriptions of himself as a gay, or same-sex-attracted, Christian – was the subject of three overtures (Overtures 2, 4, and 25) in this year’s assembly. However, as a matter of procedure, these overtures were not held this year while his standing is considered by his Presbytery.

Revoice is a movement for gay or same-sex-attracted Christians (the terminology is a fraught issue in this story) who are committed to a traditional sexual ethic. In 2018, prominent celibate, gay Christian, the Rev. Dr Wesley Hill (an ordained Anglican [Episcopal] minister) wrote of Revoice’s commitment to a “vocation of yes” for gay or same-sex-attracted Christians.

Where those committed to a traditional sexual ethic are constantly called to ‘mortify’ their sin – that is, put it to death – Hill suggested celibate, gay Christians committed to a traditional ethic are capable of taking some part of their experiences and desires towards vivification, or new life in Christ, as the Spirit works to transform them into the image of Jesus.

He said: “What Revoice offers — and, please God, will go on offering for years to come — is a way of thinking Christianly about homosexuality and other non-straight sexual orientations that moves beyond enumerating the sins we’re called to renounce. Revoice is trying to pose the deeper question: To which forms of love and friendship and service are we called to say yes?”

Revoice published doctrinal statements on Sexual Ethics and Christian Obedience, and on Public Posture and Christian Witness, unpacking how this might work within a traditional sexual ethic that views gay lust, and gay sex as outside of God’s design for human flourishing, and as sinful disobedience to God’s revealed will. This affirmation of aspects of LGBTIQA+ life – or same-sex attraction – beyond conversion has led to conflict with some (especially Reformed) Christians, including the Centre for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s Nashville Statement. The PCA’s Ad Interim Committee report went further than the Nashville Statement, which suggested Christians can not “adopt a homosexual or transgender identity,” arguing that same sex attraction itself is sinful. which emphasises the sinfulness of same-sex attraction itself and reduces all experience of ‘attraction’ to sexual desire.

In this view, this attraction itself is an aspect of a person’s nature that is to be mortified upon conversion. In the most extreme versions of this theology, the ideal expression of human sexual desire is heterosexuality, and the best outcome is some form of orientation conversion.

While the Ad Interim committee’s report was wide ranging, delving in to what is called “concupiscence” — the sinfulness of attraction itself — and other theological issues. It also played in to a form of ‘identity politics’, choosing to comment on the language Christians use to describe their experience of sexual desire, attraction, or orientation, and to highlight “identity claims” they saw as problematic. The PCA General Assembly took up these concerns to prohibit the use of this language by ordained ministers.

Christians who self-describe as “celibate, gay Christians,” particularly Christians committed to what has been called a “Side B” approach – those who uphold traditional sexual ethics and view same-sex lust and sexual intercourse as sinful (as opposed to “Side A” Christians, who affirm gay desire, relationships and marriage) – often say their use of these descriptors is an attempt to both acknowledge that their experience of attraction goes far beyond sexual desire (or lust), and serves as an expression of solidarity with other LGBTIQA+ people.

This language use is a way to acknowledge shared experiences of navigating a world that has until recently been openly hostile to sexuality or gender expressions outside the ‘norm’, and who face significant challenges within communities of faith (including churches). It’s precisely this sort of experience — navigating hostile systems — that is the context governments are now recognising as they legislate against “conversion therapy,” including religious practices.

The Presbyterian Church in America has rejected from its midst those who in a particular way reflect Jesus’ own celibacy and sexual martyrdom

Side B Christians like Wesley Hill, or Australian David Bennett, make a distinction between the experience of life that flows from a same-sex orientation, going beyond simply sexual desire, or lust — experiences they seek to describe with phrases like “celibate gay Christian” — and refuse to reduce their orientation (and particularly their sexual attraction, desire, or lust) to an “identity claim,” especially one that competes with their union with Christ.

Side B Christians often make a distinction between an “ontological use” of the words “gay” or “same-sex attraction” — that is, they are not saying “this is who I am” – and a “phenomenological use” — that is saying “this is my experience of life.”

When Catholic writer Ron Belgau explored the distinction between ‘ontological’ and ‘phenomenological’ use of language in this piece, he wrote: “If I say, ‘I’m gay and celibate’ in a writing aimed at engaging gay people with the claims of the Gospel, I’m not elevating my sexual orientation to the most fundamental aspect of my personality. I am using the same language that the Pope uses when he talks about reaching out to gay people, and using it for the same motive that he uses it: to engage with them, starting from their situation.”

A phenomenological use of language allows celibate, gay Christians like Matthew Ventura, a theological student in Queensland employed as a student minister within a Presbyterian Church (disclosure: where I am a pastor), to engage in what he calls a “differentiation versus solidarity paradigm”. Ventura says choice of words is not about “identity” but about connection, or disconnection. Where one approach to language use amplifies disconnection with LGBTIQA+ people outside the church, another builds a bridge around common experiences.

He says: “The motivations for this approach can either be missional (taking a step into ‘their world’ with the hope of eventually welcoming them into ‘our world’ of God’s family), hospitable (seeking to bring other marginalised people in and offer them a place of belonging in a safe and loving queer community) or a personal motivation (seeking a community where one can feel understood, supported and loved in their minority experience), or any combination of these motivations.”

In a world of “expressive individualism,” where we are increasingly obsessed with questions of “identity” — answers to the question ‘Who am I?’ – and where our identity is so often constructed around the performance of our desires, there are big questions around how Christians should speak about their identity. The Presbyterian Church of America’s report this week acknowledged the Side B use of language, but suggested Christians would be wise to avoid language connecting sinfulness to “identity”. Without arguing for a blanket prohibition, it said it is “inappropriate to juxtapose this sinful desire, or any other sinful desire, as an identity marker alongside our identity as new creations in Christ”.

It took an “ontological” approach to the language “gay” or “same-sex-attracted” which Christians employ to describe their lives, interpreting descriptions like “gay Christian” or “same-sex-attracted Christian” as identity claims. The report said: “We do not justify our sin struggles by affixing them to our identity as Christians. Churches should be gentle, patient, and intentional with believers who call themselves ‘gay Christians’, encouraging them, as part of the process of sanctification, to leave behind identification language rooted in sinful desires, to live chaste lives, to refrain from entering into temptation, and to mortify their sinful desires.”

Members of the Presbyterian Church of America, specifically the Gulf Coast and Westminster Presbyteries, took up this conclusion of the report. They applied it not to believers in congregations, but ministers in the denomination — seeking to prohibit the ordination of men (remembering that the denomination is strictly complementarian) who self-identify as “gay Christians”, or “same-sex-attracted Christians”.

Two other Presbyteries, Lowcountry and Eastern Pennsylvania, sought to amend other rules around the “moral requirements for church office” in a similar manner for both teaching elders (ordained ministers) and ruling elders.

“They haven’t seen the costly obedience of same-sex-attracted believers telling them, ‘Jesus is worth it!’”

The Westminster Overture aimed to eliminate such men from ordination even if they “claim to practice celibacy.” Both overtures cited the Nashville Statement’s declaration that “we deny adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption”, and sought to clarify that same-sex-attraction itself makes a person guilty of “homosexual” sin, such that to acknowledge, or affirm, one’s orientation is to make an identity claim, such that one’s sexual orientation is competing with one’s “identity in Christ.”

An amendment to these motions attempted to insert the words “men who are known by reputation or self-profession according to their remaining sinfulness” shall be deemed not qualified to hold office in the denomination.

A significantly amended version of the Gulf Coast Presbytery’s overture was ultimately put forward by the denomination’s Overture Committee following debate and passed by a significant majority in the Assembly.

It read: “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.”

Rev. Greg Johnson shared his own thoughts on Twitter throughout the debates — debates about his own place in his church community, but also the place of many other vulnerable brothers and sisters in Christ. He expressed concern not for his own standing in the church, but for both the pastoral care of those in Presbyterian communities, and the mission of the church.

“The reigning cultural narrative is that ‘Christians hate gay people.’ I hear from SSA youth who feel unsafe in our churches. Youth who contemplate suicide. Parents who lost their teen to suicide. It’s still not safe for SSA kids. I am not just saying we’re at risk of losing our SSA members. That’s a given. I’m saying we’re at risk of losing the next generation. They look around and don’t see any openly same-sex-attracted people in their church. The see an adversarial posture toward gays that grieves them.”

He said “They haven’t seen the costly obedience of same-sex-attracted believers telling them, “Jesus is worth it!”

The tragedy is that it is precisely these living testimonies to the goodness of the Gospel, and the sufficiency of our union with Christ as the basis of a complete, and flourishing life, supported by the people of God, that will be pushed out of Presbyterian Churches in America if this overture passes the Presbytery process and is ratified at the next Assembly. And this should serve as a warning to our own Presbyterian Church here in Australia, where I serve as an ordained minister alongside brothers who also describe themselves as gay or same-sex-attracted.

Our own denominational public theology committee here in Queensland adopted a similar position on language and identity to the Ad Interim Committee’s report (see pages 47-50) in a recent state assembly. It is only a matter of time before members of our denomination, nationally, encouraged by the success of the motion in the United States, play the ‘identity politics’ game and seek to eradicate “competing identities” from our own fold. It is already being discussed, and straw-polled, in a denominational Facebook community.

Australian Side B Christian David Bennett’s reflections on the Presbyterian Church of America decision are worth heeding as this debate moves to our own shores.

“The Presbyterian Church in America has rejected from its midst those who in a particular way reflect Jesus’ own celibacy and sexual martyrdom … [rejecting] Celibate gay or SSA Christians from their midst and from ordination. That is homophobia on steroids. It’s patently disgusting prejudice. Please pray and lament with me especially for my friends who within it now must leave or will be vilified if they stay. This is the evil that kills LGBTQI/SSA youth and it’s anathema to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Clarified to note the PCA’s Ad Interim Committee report went further than the Nashville Statement.

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