Claiming that the language of O23 & 37 is too “time-bound” and will become obsolete within our BCO signals a gross underestimation of the staying power of the issues before us. Do the members of the National Partnership really believe that the church will not be wrestling with these issues for years to come? Do they sincerely believe that terms like “identity” or “homosexual Christian” will fall out of use in the near or distant future?
In this article, we consider the second claim of those opposed to O23 & 37, namely that both overtures are unnecessary and should not be passed by Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) presbyteries. After reading and rereading the “National Partnership Public Advice for Voting on Overtures 23, 37” (PA) there are several arguments that fall under this “unnecessary” umbrella that deserve careful consideration.
Argument 1: O23 & O37 are unnecessary because our confessional standards already speak to the issue of same-sex attraction.
The PA reads, “The proposed additions to BCO 21 and 24 (O37) bypasses scriptural/confessional language entirely in favor of undefined terms that have no precedent or roots in our Standards. The proposed addition to BCO 16 (O23) is redundant: the 3 provisions that would actually disqualify a candidate are already contained in WCF and WLC” (I.1).
If it is true that the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) speak clearly and definitively on the doctrines of concupiscence (“…yet both itself [the corruption of man’s nature], and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin,” WCF 6:5), sanctification (WCF 13:2), and the sin of lust (WLC 139), then why would we not welcome the opportunity to bring our Book of Church Order (BCO) into further alignment with our confessional standards? Far from bypassing or “shifting confessional weight to the BCO and away from the WCF” (I.2) it seems that O23 & O37 are showing a tremendous deference to the Standards by looking to incorporate their theology and language into the BCO. Were we trying to amend the language of the Confession to better adhere to the language of the BCO, then the PA’s objection would have some merit. But as it stands, if there is a shifting of weight to be spoken of at all, it is very clearly the BCO shifting weight to the WCF and not the other way around. The contention that both overtures “degrade our doctrinal standards” has no merit.
Case in point, the PA claims that O37, particularly, “bypasses scriptural/confessional language entirely in favor of undefined terms that have no precedent or roots in our Standards.” This is simply not true. The overture speaks of “union with Christ,” “bearing fruit,” and cites more than 10 verses of Scripture. Obviously, none of these terms rival confessional or scriptural language but echo and extol their language.
Along the same lines, I find it ironic that the National Partnership critiques O23 for its “redundancy” when every officer in the National Partnership and the PCA has vowed to uphold the Westminster Standards which, according to the PA, are redundant. How so? Because the WCF, WSC, and WLC overlap in countless places. For example, the doctrine of justification is treated in WCF 11, WLC 70-73, and WSC 33. If we follow the logic of the PA, then shouldn’t we look to nix WLC 70-73 and WSC 33 for their redundancy since WCF 11 already speaks clearly on justification? What the National Partnership calls “redundancy,” others prefer to call “elaboration” or “reiteration” or “reinforcement.” If the Westminster Divines thought it prudent to repeat themselves at key points, then it seems reasonable for us to do the same.
Additionally, the PA gives the impression that the Standards already speak on character issues as they relate to fitness for ordained ministry by citing WCF 6:5, 13:2, and LC 139 in the footnote. However, these citations do not deal directly with fitness for ordination nor the best way to conduct theological examinations. In fact, there isn’t even a chapter in the WCF that deals with Presbyterian polity as there was a diversity of views represented at the Westminster Assembly (Erastians, Presbyterians, and Independents were all in the mix). The Divines did not intend for the Standards to speak exhaustively on every possible matter and so we shouldn’t feel restricted or bound when we encounter areas wherein the Standards are silent. Instead, we ought to take the words of WCF 1:6 to heart and act in a prudent manner, “There are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”
Argument 2: The language of O23 & 37 is too reactionary and will not age well within our standards
The National Partnership argues, “In the past, the General Assembly has not found it necessary or wise to address theological or cultural issues by adding language to our BCO. Federal Vision, views on Creation, charismatic gifts, theonomy, etc. are not mentioned in the BCO.” Elsewhere the language of O23 & O37 is called “confusing, litigious, and time-bound.” Claiming that the language of O23 & 37 is too “time-bound” and will become obsolete within our BCO signals a gross underestimation of the staying power of the issues before us. Do the members of the National Partnership really believe that the church will not be wrestling with these issues for years to come? Do they sincerely believe that terms like “identity” or “homosexual Christian” will fall out of use in the near or distant future? Do they believe that our covenant children will not be subjected to tremendous external pressure to compromise on matters relating to human sexuality? It would be naïve to think so. Such being the case, because all signs point to human sexuality and identity being perennial issues facing the PCA, her leaders have a moral duty to respond in a timely and biblically faithful manner. We mustn’t let a fear of being branded as “fearful” or “reactionary” keep us from responding appropriately to contemporary issues that threaten to disturb the purity and the peace of the church. In fact, it would be negligent of us to downplay the significance of these matters and to chalk Side-B Gay Christianity up as a passing fad. It is here to stay and so we need to address the matter now.
To remind the reader of just how timeless O23 & O37 are, notice that both overtures are careful not to mention Revoice by name as this would have introduced the kind of time-bound verbiage of which the PA is critical. Instead of naming the immediate diseased fruit (Revoice) which we hope will wither in the near future as did the Federal Vision, Insider Movement, and theonomy controversies, the overtures wisely focus on those issues that are at the root of the Revoice conference (human sexuality as it relates to identity) which makes them readily applicable to times and circumstances beyond our immediate context. Just because we are responding to a perennial issue at a time when it is gaining traction in the broader culture does not mean that we are being “culture warriors,” it means we are embodying the spirit of the sons of Issachar “who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). It seems quite inconsistent for those who beat the drum of contextualization so loudly, who call on their conservative brothers to “understand the times” in which they live, to be so critical of overtures that engage the cultural issues of our day. Does contextualization mean that we can only affirm and never critique the culture? If so, then the prophets and our Lord Jesus were terrible contextualizers.
While it is true that we cannot point to specific chapters or verses where we find the words “identity” or “gay Christian” or “homosexual Christian,” that does not mean that these words undermine the words of Scripture. Consider the ancient creeds and our own WCF—where in the Bible do you find the word “Trinity?” What about “hypostatic union” or “sacramental union?” Because they aren’t biblical words, should we move to strike them? Would we be right to consign the Nicene Creed to the dustbin of history because it used the “time-bound language” of the fourth century to explain the relationship that the Son sustains to the Father in the ontological Trinity (being of one substance [“homoousian”] with the Father)? Words do not need to be lifted from the Bible in order to aid us in our understanding of the Bible. To say, “We don’t want to pass the overture because it uses non-biblical/confessional words” is the same line of argument that biblicists use to defend their “no creed but the Bible” hermeneutic. If the Early Church Fathers and the Westminster Divines could use the contemporary language of their day to address theological heresy, then we should be free to do so as well.
Argument 3: The AIC study report already speaks to the issue and so we ought to leave it at that.
The AIC study report on human sexuality, as helpful as it is, is in no way constitutionally binding. If the members of the National Partnership are indeed pleased with the content of the AIC, then wouldn’t they welcome the opportunity to apply the wisdom therein to our ordination process? When I see men who sing the praises of the AIC and then in the same breath decry any effort to incorporate the spirit of the AIC into the BCO, the words of Beyonce immediately come to mind, “If you like it, then you should put a ring on it.” So long as progressives in the PCA are content to date the AIC with no intention of putting a ring on it, it is fair to question whether these men truly appreciate the spirit of the AIC. I am not assuming motives, but merely pointing out yet another inconsistency between what the National Partnership says and what it does.
The PA goes on to say that the AIC “saw no need to recommend any changes to our BCO.” Prima-facie this seems like a weighty point. But if you look back at recent study committees, with the exception of AIC on women serving in ministry, recommendations to amend the BCO are rare. The Racial Reconciliation AIC, nor the Creation Views AIC, nor the FV AIC recommended amendments to the BCO. Were I to go back further I suspect the same would be true of earlier study committees. If every study committee did recommend amendments to the BCO, then there would be something to say about this AIC not recommending BCO amendments. But since this seems to be the rule and not the exception, the PA’s argument falls flat. Furthermore, even if the AIC went so far as to recommend that the GA not amend the BCO in light of its research, remember the difference between committees and commissions—committees make recommendations and commissions rule. The AIC answers to the GA, not the GA to the AIC.
Argument 4: O23 & O37 “set up an entirely new architecture for examining committees operating according to undefined terms and with undefined powers.”
This argument pushes back against the last sentence of O37, “In order to maintain discretion and protect the honor of church office, Sessions are encouraged to appoint a committee to conduct detailed examinations into these matters and to give prayerful support to nominees.” Notice the key word “encouraged.” Nothing in this sentence mandates that every presbytery set up an “entirely new architecture” alongside its existing committees. Instead it simply suggests that presbyters (at every level) explore the option of constituting smaller committees to deal with sensitive matters in a more personal and pastoral manner. How disorderly and humiliating would it be to address a candidate’s “potentially notorious sins” for the first time before a local congregation as they are voting to call him as their pastor or on the floor of presbytery during a licensure or ordination exam? But the objection will be raised, “Our examining committees already do this. Therefore, these sub-committees are unnecessary.” Fair enough. If you believe your examining committee is doing a good job at asking hard questions and deals with sensitive matters in an appropriate manner then don’t create such a committee; you are encouraged, not required to do so. But, could it be that the reason we are seeing so many men leave the ministry due to moral failure is because our examining committees are at present, for whatever reason, not dealing with these potentially notorious sins? If so, then can you blame the framers of O37 for suggesting that there may be prudence in creating additional committees to ensure that these matters are adequately dealt with before a man is ordained? In short, if your committee is already doing its job, then keep doing what you’re doing. But if they refuse to deal with these thorny issues as it seems many have, then consider creating a sub-committee that will deal with them.
In the next article we will consider the final “U” leveled against O23 & 37. In that article I will address a number of public statements made by prominent voices in the PCA regarding O23 & 37 and the debate surrounding human sexuality generally.
Stephen Spinnenweber is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of Westminster PCA in Jacksonville, Fla.
 Please note my honest attempt at contextualization.
 Committees are certainly not “entirely new” to the PCA. If the PCA knows and loves anything, we love our committees.
 Matters including “relational sins, sexual immorality [including homosexuality, child sexual abuse, fornication, and pornography], addictions, abusive behavior, racism, and financial mismanagement.”