The mere abstinence from sodomite conduct – while at the same time speaking about, attending conferences focused on, and writing about one’s sodomite lust – is hardly to be considered “above reproach” (cf. 1 Tim 3), to “adorn the profession of the gospel” (cf. BCO 21-5, 24-6), or to be “free from all taint of what is lewd or salacious.” Bare abstinence from all sexual conduct does not meet the minimum standard for Christian behavior. All Christians – whether single or married – are called to chastity, so the claim of celibacy is not enough to show oneself called and qualified for church office.
In the Presbyterian Church in America, it seems we disagree on where “the line” is to be drawn for church officers and what it means to be “above reproach.” Our presbyteries are debating whether to ratify Overture 15 (Item 1) which reads:
Men who describe themselves as homosexual, even those who describe themselves as homosexual and claim to practice celibacy by refraining from homosexual conduct, are disqualified from holding office in the Presbyterian Church in America.
I believe the debate centers on the extent to which worldly concepts and ideas are permitted to shape the way potential officers conceive of and describe themselves. We disagree on how closely a man may come to describing himself according to his unnatural desires and still be qualified to serve Christ and His people in ordained office. It seems some see this debate as centered on simply, how worldly can a man be and not be disqualified?
I. The Main Debate: “homosexual”
Some argue there is nothing wrong with an officer who experiences sodomite lust being described by the national media as “gay.” They see nothing necessarily wrong with a man who conceives of himself as a homosexual ministering as an ordained officer in Christ’s Church. One side of the PCA insists a man who confesses to be homosexual is simply acknowledging unwanted same-sex attraction, which is no worse than a man acknowledging an unwanted attraction for a woman not his wife.
But others insist that while we may name our sins, we are not named by our sins. They argue for a man to describe himself according to his sinful lusts disqualifies him from ordained ministry. Their concern is that describing oneself as “gay” or “homosexual” indicates the man has bought into – or at least is unduly influenced by – a Post Modern Worldview in which the self and sexuality are virtually indistinguishable. Carl Trueman’s diagnosis is helpful to explain the concerns of many of those in the 54% of the General Assembly who voted to pass Overture 15:
The idea that sexuality is identity is now basic and intuitive in the West, and this means that all matters pertaining to sex are therefore matters that concern who we are at the deepest level. Sex is identity, sex is politics, sex is culture.1
As Trueman explains, the culture in which we minister views sex as fundamental to identity. Thus, many in the PCA argue a potential officer who describes himself according to a disordered and unnatural sexuality crosses the line of propriety and reveals such a man has succumbed to the disease Trueman has diagnosed in the wider society.
But there is another, less considered, part of Overture 15 (Item 1).
II. An Overlooked Aspect of the Conversation: “celibacy”
One recent author has claimed2 the PCA and other Bible-believing denominations have had same-sex-attracted ministers for generations who have ministered faithfully to the church in a lifestyle of celibacy.3
But the PCA constitution requires more than celibacy for faithful Christians and especially of men called to be officers in Christ’s Church. Celibacy for unmarried Christians is only the beginning of sexual faithfulness.
I am aware in our Post Modern Age that appealing to a dictionary for a definition is a rather risky proposition, but nonetheless: Merriam-Webster defines celibacy as follows:
not engaging in or characterized by sexual intercourse; abstaining from marriage and sex especially because of a religious vow.
But our confessional standards require more than celibacy, but rather chastity:
The duties required in the seventh commandment are, chastity in body, mind, affections, words, and behavior; and the preservation of it in ourselves and others; watchfulness over the eyes and all the senses; temperance, keeping of chaste company, modesty in apparel; marriage by those that have not the gift of continency, conjugal love, and cohabitation; diligent labor in all our callings; shunning all occasions of uncleanness, and resisting temptations thereunto (WLC138).
In our hyper-sexualized society, it might be easy to conflate celibacy and chastity, but they are not strictly synonyms.4 While they do have significant definitional overlap, they are different, yet related concepts. Merriam-Webster on chaste:
implies a refraining from acts or even thoughts or desires that are not virginal or not sanctioned by marriage vows; innocent of unlawful sexual intercourse; pure in thought and act; free from all taint of what is lewd or salacious.
Single Christians and married Christians are alike called to chastity. Chastity includes not simply abstinence from fornication, but also the setting of a guard over our thoughts, desires, and company that they all be chaste.
1 Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 299.
4 Indeed Merriam-Webster does seem to note the words are becoming conflated. But our Confessional Standards nonetheless recognize a difference between the requirements of chastity versus celibacy.