Overture 22 Before the PCA General Assembly: Bring It On!

Arguing for answering Overture 22 in the affirmative to define “the general principles of biblical polity” in Vow 3

Biblically, the “vitals of religion” must include more than the five points of Calvinistic soteriology. This is no longer an issue of ecclesiastical power or of male chauvinism. We need a biblical cosmology, a clear statement of how the world is made that can answer both the feminist and LGBT dismissal of gender, behind which stands a pagan rejection of God the Creator. It seems to me that one of the “vitals of religion” is the understanding and defense of the foundational issue of the image of God, without which soteriology is a non-starter.

 

As it stands, no commissioner to the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) General Assembly, 2014, can be opposed to Overture 22, calling for a clarification of the importance of gender and its place in the Church. Indeed in our time of church history there has never been more confusion on this issue. If Philadelphia Presbytery is correct that “our constitution does not clearly delineate or define “the general principles of biblical polity” (BCO 21:5:3) or their relation to male only eldership,” even though the BCO does insist, without any ambiguity, though without explanation, that the offices of [elders and deacons] are open to men only” (BCO 7-2), then, by searching the Scriptures, the BCO’s intentions must be clarified for such a time as this. So we need to thank the Philadelphia Presbytery for raising the issue.

In general we are losing our way in defining a common agreement on “general biblical principles” that is, a general hermeneutic that does justice to the whole of inspired Scripture, and, in so doing, preserves “the vitals of religion,” especially concerning sexuality. Various “general principles” have and are being used to understand the question of sexuality—evolutionary progress, issues of freedom, a wideness in God’s mercy, questions of power and rights, the insignificance of gender.  Such approaches have often succeeded in promoting conclusions in the present that in years past were shocking and unthinkable, and we ask: “How does this happen?” A local congregation of the Reformed Church of America (RCA) is seeking membership in the PCA precisely over the RCA’s theological drift, moving from issues of women’s ordination a generation ago to now the acceptance of homosexual practice. Such hermeneutic principles, that have facilitated such a drift, must be identified and understood, if a similar drift is to be avoided in the PCA.

Though constitutionally it is the presbytery which must make the determination of the orthodoxy of ministerial candidates, (BCO 21-4f), in my view an assembly-appointed committee and the subsequent statement of that committee would be crucial in maintaining a church-wide agreement on so important a subject. One of its mandates would be to clear up the question of whether one could take exception to BCO 7-2  “In accord with Scripture, these offices [elders and deacons] are open to men only.” (BCO 7-2).

Our situation calls for a clear statement, not just for the benefit of our denomination but for that of an imploding evangelical movement that has few theological clues as to how to deal with this collapsing culture, and for that the watching world. One only need recall the disastrous vacillations of WorldVision over “gay Christian” staff, or the fact that the evangelical publisher InterVarsity Press published a book in 2011, The End of Sexual Identity, which defended a “spectrum” of at least five genders possible.[1]Thus, today’s burning conflict over the very nature of sexuality, whether it is binary or multiform, can be most helpful in placing the question of male-only eldership in its larger context, both cultural and biblical. As Al Mohler says: “Within a very short time, we will know where everyone stands on this question (of sexuality). There will be no place to hide, and there will be no way to remain silent. To be silent will answer the question.”[2]

Culturally, the Western world is collapsing. A new so-called “progressive” world is storming the Bastille, committed to taking its place, fired by an optimistic view of the state as the means of producing an earthly egalitarian utopia. The progressive vision sees the human being as self-creating and perfectible and human institutions and political power as the failsafe means of utopian social transformation.  This view, that drove nineteenth century economic and social Marxism in its liberation of the worker and its search for the classless society, is being revived in a new form. Since the workers lost their chains thanks to the affluent societies of the modern capitalist West, a new version of classless utopianism is re-appearing.  The goal is to continue the process of collective transformations but now to go beyond wages and working conditions to establish an ideal egalitarian society where all notions of distinction and privilege are eliminated. The passé categories of the binary and notions of cultural and moral distinctions must go.  Justice implies equal distribution of all things human—though, as always, as in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, “some animals are more equal than others.” An indication of how far this leveling will doubtless go is indicated by the complaint by well-heeled students at Ivy League Dartmouth College, originally established to train missionaries to reach Native Americans with the Gospel. The present student “missionaries,” so to speak, attack the Dartmouth administration for its institutional and structural “micro-aggressions” and violence. Such injustices they see in its “racist, classist, sexist, heterosexist, transphobic, xenophobic, and ableist structures.” They call “for more ‘womyn’ and people of color [on the] faculty; covering sex change operations on the college health plan; installing ‘gender-neutral bathrooms’ in every campus facility, specifically including sports locker rooms,” all in the name of equality, [3] all to bring an end to the noxious category of the binary. The goal is no longer a classless society but a classless mind and a genderless body—no longer just a fair deal for the worker but a transformation of the human psyche! At this point, such a radical goal takes on an unmistakably religious character.

If this is the cutting edge of Millennial Generation thinking, little wonder we have young candidates for the PCA ministry who have questions about the place and importance of binary gender in our polity.

Biblically, in my opinion, the “vitals of religion” must include more than the five points of Calvinistic soteriology. This is no longer an issue of ecclesiastical power or of male chauvinism. We need a biblical cosmology, a clear statement of how the world is made that can answer both the feminist and LGBT dismissal of gender, behind which stands a pagan rejection of God the Creator. It seems to me that one of the “vitals of religion” is the understanding and defense of the foundational issue of the image of God, without which soteriology is a non-starter. There have been many useful suggestions as to the content and extent of that image, from intelligence, moral sensitivity to the role of dominion. But what is incontrovertible, since it is clearly stated in the text, is the place of the binary distinction of male and female. What I call Twoism, the essential notion of the God-created distinctions related in deep unity, is how humanity and the entire cosmos reflect the nature of the triune God, Who in the three persons is both distinct and one. This is how the created order makes us without excuse (Romans 1:20), for God’s Trinitarian being and the fact of His distinction as Creator from the creation are reflected in the Twoist world He makes. Thus God creates, explicitly distinguishing between day and night, dry land and water, and finally between male and female (Genesis 1). Gender distinction is also reflected in the mystery of Redemption where the male/female difference prior to the Fall bespeaks the coming unity and distinction of Christ and his bride, the Church (Ephesians 5:31-32).

Hopefully, without impeding any serious future theological and exegetical work by the denomination, I will go on record as affirming, in a thoroughly anti-Gnostic spirit, what I consider to be a certain number of biblical non-negotiables;

  • that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected…” (1 Timothy 4:4);
  • that the male/female distinction in the divine image guarantees the essence of human dignity—for believers and unbelievers (Genesis 1:27);
  • that heterosexuality is “natural” that is, creation-affirming, rather than “unnatural” or creation-denying (Romans 1:26);
  • that this sexual binary must be maintained in a life of holiness in sexual purity ((1 Corinthians 6:13);
  • that if the distinction between Creator and creature is maintained in the new heavens and earth (Rev 4:11), then these other created distinctions will doubtless be maintained, though gloriously transformed beyond anything we can imagine;
  • if this is true, then I submit that, regarding gender, we are required to maintain those same structures of distinction and spiritual equality, and to cause them to be reflected in the visible polity and practice of the New Creational church, both for cultural witness, Gospel evangelism and for well-ordered polity (1 “Corinthians 14:40).

Once we have agreement on the normative binary nature of sexuality, I would argue that Twoism or the binary principle is the key to the cosmos, and should thus serve as a fundamental element of the general principles of biblical interpretation, helping us to identify what are “the vitals of religion,” of which one, I believe, is the vitally important revelation of the image of God in man as a heterosexual creature, expressing a structure that is ‘very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Dr. Peter Jones is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Director of truthXchange, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament, as well as Scholar in Residence, at Westminster Seminary California.

 

[1] Jennell Williams Paris, The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important To Define Who We Are (Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity Press, 2010).

[2] Al Mohler, “God, the Gospel, and the Gay Challenge — A Response to Matthew Vines,” AlbertMohler.com (April 22, 2014).

[3] Chessplayer, “Oppressed by the Ivy League,” Wall Street Journal (April 5, 2014).

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