As we in the PCA continue to deliberate about contentious and important matters of human sexuality – and about homosexuality in particular – we will hear the well-worn arguments, “We have the study report…We have the Bible…We have the Book of Church Order. We don’t need added clarity when we have so many resources that speak to this issue already.” What I am arguing is that we need a Book of Church Order (BCO)that speaks with “straight talk” to the issues facing us. The majority of mainline Protestants – such as our Presbyterian cousins in the PCUSA – thought they were being pastoral and accommodating when they asked for “chastity in singleness” from their LGBTQ-identifying ministers. We see that such “pastoral” accommodation did nothing to protect the Church from a compromised ministry.
“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18
For the second year in a row, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) has sent down overtures regarding the sexuality of ministers to the presbyteries. Overture 29 presented to the 49th General Assembly passed on the floor of the Assembly and was referred to the 88 presbyteries of the PCA as Item 4. Along with a related proposal (Item 5), it has received overwhelming approval from across the spectrum of the PCA. Indeed, leaders of the Gospel Reformation Network and the former leader of the National Partnership have both expressed their desire to see these approved and added to the BCO.
Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your opinion – Overture 15 presented before the 49th Assembly passed by a much narrower vote and has now failed to achieve the requisite 2/3 majority of affirmative votes from the presbyteries (as Item 1) to proceed to a final ratification vote at the 50th General Assembly in Memphis. For some reason, the unity around PCAGA49 Overture 29 splits when it comes to PCAGA49 Overture 15. Why is that? Perhaps it is due – in TE Richard D. Phillips’s supportive words – to the “straight talk” expressed in the proposal contained in the Overture. The proposal contained in PCAGA49 Overture 15 as passed by the Assembly sought to amend Chapter 7 of the Book of Church Order (BCO) by adding a new paragraph, “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.”
My argument for supporting such a proposal is primarily historical. Scripture calls us to be people who remember their history. By studying another denomination with a common history and once-similar polity handling this issue, I hope to show that the PCA is on dangerous ground if we do not incorporate more robust language in our BCO regarding issues of sexual sin for church officers.
Before moving forward with a crash course in the history of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (hereafter, PCUSA) and LGBTQ ordination, I would like to respond to a legitimate criticism that many will make. Some will perhaps respond to my concern as follows: “We have nothing in common with the Liberalism of the Mainline Protestant denominations.” Yes, the PCA started in 1973, ten years before the PCUSA united the northern and southern Presbyterian churches. Yes, both those churches were decidedly Liberal in theology and much more liberal socially at that time than the PCA, and the PCUSA of today is certainly far more liberal than the PCA.
However, as the history of LGBTQ ordination in the PCUSA will show, there were enough conservative and moderate believers in the PCUSA to curb LGBTQ ordination for over forty years. There even continues to be renewal movements within the PCUSA. What ultimately led to the full acceptance of LGBTQ ordination in the PCUSA was a failure on the part of the denomination to add “straight talk” language regarding human sexuality to their Book of Order. Like us, as we will see, the PCUSA had Scripture and the Westminster Standards, but they decided not to change their other authoritative constitutional document, the Book of Order. Consider what has since become of them. Their history is a warning for the PCA.
Troubling Hermeneutics in the North 1970
Our history lesson begins in the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (The Northern Presbyterian Church; hereafter, UPCUSA), when a study report, “Sexuality and the Human Community,” was presented to the General Assembly. The “Sexuality and the Human Community” is a fascinating report. The Northern Presbyterians were more liberal than their Southern cousins (the Presbyterian Church in the United States; hereafter, PCUS). While informing the reader that they turned “repeatedly to the theological issues and questions of Biblical tradition which have informed the church’s view of human sexuality,” they also, “found ourselves relying heavily on the social and behavioral sciences. Insights from psychology and psychiatry about the workings of sex influenced us to think often with criteria of psychological health in mind” (italics mine, page 6).
The report continues on a shaky foundation as the authors wrote about their research into sociology, “We frequently found ourselves challenging the conventional wisdom of the Christian community concerning sexuality, only to find that those conventions were too often the culture-bound wisdom of part of the community: to wit, the white, Protestant, and middle-class part. But the Christian community encompasses a wide diversity of racial, ethnic, and cultural groups, and therefore a wide variety of assessments of sexuality and sexual behavior.” (pg 7).
The report continues with recommendations for ethical considerations:
- Difference between homosexuality as “a condition of personal existence and homosexualism as explicit homosexual behavior” (18).
- The biblical condemnation of homosexuality in St. Paul, in context, shows, “It is not singled out as more heinous than other sins, but is discussed with other forms of behavior which betoken man’s refusal to accept his creatureliness” (18).
- The context of St. Paul’s condemnation suggests that he objected to “the element of disregard for the neighbor more than he did to acts in themselves…Perhaps pederasty, homosexual prostitution, and similar neighbor-disregarding forms of behavior ought not to overshadow our entire response to the human condition of homosexuality” (18, these arguments have historically and linguistically been debunked even among some liberal scholars. For example, see the works of William Loader).
- No one is exempt from the experience of alienation from God. Thus everyone may experience reconciliation in Christ (19).
What is fascinating is that given all the above statements, the authors of the report still recommended that pastors and theologians study this subject, “so that the desire for change can be more effectively elicited and encouraged…homosexual behavior is essentially incomplete in character. It is therefore important to guard against the development of fixed homosexual patterns during childhood and adolescence…one function of such an understanding is to spare young people from thinking they are destined to homosexuality because of some developmentally normal experience” (19). This was a study committee report that was received at the General Assembly and circulated widely in the UPCUSA.
1975-1978 The Task Force to Study Homosexuality (UPCUSA)
In 1975, an openly gay man came before the Presbytery of New York City having received a call from a congregation and thus seeking ordination. The debate on the floor of the Presbytery lasted hours. The end result was that the Presbytery petitioned the General Assembly for “definitive guidance” regarding the issue of homosexuals and ordination. As one commentator who voted in favor of the man argued, “the Book of Order (i.e., the Church’s constitution) didn’t mention homosexuality because it was immaterial and irrelevant.” Several other presbyteries sent overtures asking for “definitive guidance” as well. The 1976 General Assembly formed a Task Force (study committee) to provide “definitive guidance.”
The Task Force completed its study in January of 1978. The resultant report included a minority report. The recommendation from the majority of the Task Force was to let presbyteries make their own decisions in all aspects of ordination. The minority report, supported by 5 of the Task Force’s 19 members, advised against allowing homosexuals to be ordained. The General Assembly of 1978 approved the minority statement. Below are some highlights from the official summary of the Task Force’s majority report, which is available in its entirety here:
- Homosexuality should be primarily viewed as affectional attraction, not as actions or behavioral patterns. Homosexuality is just the basic attraction and preference of part of the population. It is not “consciously chosen nor readily susceptible to change.”