What is at stake? Many consider that the disposition of the judicial cases (which concern investigations and actions of Missouri Presbytery re: Johnson and Revoice doctrine) and the fate of the various related overtures will signal the PCA’s future course vis-à-vis the allowability of “gay Christian” or SSA officers and pastors.
Tough times are ahead for the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Most members and indeed many elders are unaware of the looming crisis, but fault lines, more or less visible in the past, may soon become gaping chasms accompanied by a great shaking that cannot be ignored. The issue is simply this: Will the PCA have “gay Christian” pastors and other church officers or not?
The range of opinion and conviction on this issue in the PCA is breathtaking. Some (mostly in the “missional” or city church movement) believe that outreach to homosexual or same sex-attracted (SSA) persons requires or allows the use of terms like “gay Christian” and concepts like Side A and Side B Christians. Perhaps most importantly, many on this side would say that SSA is not sinful in and of itself, that the attraction need not or cannot be repented of. They would also hold that the Christians with SSA rarely change their orientations. And they say that SSA is “of” sin (the result of the Fall) but not necessarily “a” sin.
Others in the PCA consider these terms and concepts to be novel, unbiblical, and likely catastrophic to the peace and purity of the church. Between the two schools of thought, of course, are many who are unaware of or unbothered by what might be called “Revoice theology,” so called because of the Revoice conference which was first held at a PCA church in St. Louis in 2018, and with which the pastor of that church is often associated.
The new terms “Side A” and “Side B” need to be explained inasmuch as they are essential to Revoice theology. Side A refers to those who consider themselves Christians (within the mainline or liberal side of the spectrum) believe homosexual activity and/or marriage is allowed. Side B Christians “adhere to historic, Christian teaching about marriage and sexuality experience”—meaning no sexual activity or marriage unless it is between one man and one woman. But Side B does not consider same-sex attraction sinful in and of itself, nor does it consider a SSA orientation something to be repented of. Neither do Side B advocates believe that change of orientation ought always to be sought or indeed that such change is even possible in most cases.
The arguments of Revoice/Side B advocates are highly nuanced and space does not allow a full consideration of them. Suffice it to say that many critics fault both the modern psychological terms and concepts employed, and they contend that Revoice/Side B doctrines resemble the Roman Catholic doctrine of concupiscence and do not align with the Westminster Standards’ teaching on the sinfulness of sinful desires in and of themselves (https://www.theaquilareport.com/the-heart-of-the-difference-between-revoice-theology-and-reformed-theology-the-sinfulness-and-mortification-of-sinful-desires/).
Complaints about the actions (or inaction) of Missouri Presbytery with regard to the session of Memorial Presbyterian Church of St. Louis (host of the first Revoice conference), the church’s lead pastor Greg Johnson, and Revoice doctrine more generally are now before the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission. To date presbyteries have also sent five overtures related to Johnson or SSA issues for consideration by the 2021 General Assembly or the Standing Judicial Commission.
What is at stake? Many consider that the disposition of the judicial cases (which concern investigations and actions of Missouri Presbytery re: Johnson and Revoice doctrine) and the fate of the various related overtures will signal the PCA’s future course vis-à-vis the allowability of “gay Christian” or SSA officers and pastors. And there are rumblings that if Johnson and Side B/Revoice doctrine is not decisively addressed then a number of churches will consider their affiliation options. A few churches have already left the denomination and a small breakaway group, Vanguard Presbytery, cited Revoice-related issues as an important factor in their decision to depart.
Is the PCA’s big tent capacious enough for “gay Christian” officers and Revoice doctrine? Adherents of a certain type of “missionalism” might consider Revoice-style contextualization and accommodation to be absolutely essential; thus they would make room in the tent. Moderate evangelicals in the PCA might appreciate the testimony of Greg Johnson and, though some aspects of Revoiceism might give them pause, they may find room for the movement…in moderate form. As usual, their votes will be decisive. Cultural conservatives and “confessionalists” have the biggest problem with these issues, and it is in these camps that unease is growing. Revoice/SSA issues are not the only stressors, but they are primary.
What will be the outcome? No one can predict the outcome of the judicial cases nor can the timeframe for their resolution be known, though resolution may come before the 2021 General Assembly. Presbyterian judicial process is notoriously slow and sometimes decisions don’t seem altogether decisive. Depending on the nature of the SJC decisions, presbyters troubled by Revoice/Side B doctrine and gay/SSA officers may not see results as quickly or as clearly as they would prefer. Uncertainty surrounding the 2021 General Assembly (to be held in St. Louis and hosted by Missouri Presbytery) adds to the strain. The date is not even certain yet. And there is fear that COVID-related travel issues and unforeseeable local restrictions may suppress attendance in a year where critical issues will be decided. The uncertainty of the date and conditions of the assembly, it is feared, may make it even harder than usual for ruling elders to attend.
All of this could amount to a perfect Presbyterian storm—a storm that could precipitate a division or portend years of conflict to come.
Finally, what can those who love the PCA do about this? First, they ought to pray for the presbyters and the courts of the church. Second, they ought to encourage their pastors and ruling elders to make every sacrifice to attend the General Assembly in this most unusual and critical year, and to attend as well-informed participants. In this way—whatever the outcome—PCA folks can at least know that momentous and future-shaping decisions were made by a court that truly represented the opinions and convictions of the PCA.
Brad Isbell is a ruling elder at Covenant PCA in Oak Ridge, TN and is a board member of MORE in the PCA, a non-profit organization that provides assistance to ruling elders who desire to attend the PCA General Assembly