Rejection from the world because we teach and preach biblical truth is typical; why do we continue to think otherwise? While I believe all officers in the PCA affirm this principle intellectually, it seems that some of us experientially may become unsettled by the potential rejection of our faith by the culture around us.
In previous articles we addressed the first two “U”s against Overtures 23 & O37 presented in the “National Partnership Public Advice for Voting on Overtures 23, 37” (see Part 1, Part 1 continued, and Part 2), specifically the claim that the overtures are unclear and unnecessary. In this article I assess the third basic argument presented against O23 & O37: that the overtures are unloving toward those who struggle with same-sex attraction (SSA). The National Partnership (PA) Advice for Voting opens and closes with two primary concerns. First, how the world outside the PCA will respond to O23 & O37, and second, how SSA strugglers within the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) will respond to O23 & O37.
Under this second primary concern I will highlight a number of public statements made by Dr. Greg Johnson, pastor of Memorial PCA in St. Louis, who is arguably the most vocal opponent of O23 & O37. My comments are not assessing his Christian character, not discounting the grace of God which is evident in his life of celibacy, or mischaracterizing his theological formulations. Doing so would be unnecessary and inappropriate. Instead, my comments are intended to demonstrate that frank and sincere disagreement and Christian love are not mutually exclusive. In this present debate before the PCA, we can take issue with another’s rhetoric without being accused of holding to a “harsh and adversarial fundamentalism,” that, unfortunately, has been attributed to some in the PCA. May God grant us all the ability to disagree with grace and humility.
- Concern #1 The Response of the Unbelieving World
In the second sentence of the PA, the writers mention the Washington Times as being among the publications that “struggled to interpret O23 (BCO 16-4) and O37 (BCO 21, 24).”  In an age when journalistic integrity and objectivity are circling the drain, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the writer engaged in virtually no interpretation but simply recounted the events of General Assembly (GA) and cited various perspectives on the outcome. The only “struggle” that I could identify was found in the title itself, “Gay men not qualified for ministry, Presbyterian Church in America votes.” Admittedly, the title could have been clearer. At face value, the title could give the impression the PCA had a standing practice of ordaining practicing homosexuals and that the 48th GA voted to do so no longer or that any person who admits to struggling with homosexual desires at all was automatically disqualified by these overtures.
So yes, the article’s title is confusing and subject to misunderstanding but is this necessarily the fault of O23 & O37 as the PA insinuates or is it possible that the reporter simply chose an unclear title for his article? By extension, should the PCA shoulder the blame any and every time a secular news outlet misinterprets or misrepresents the teachings and rulings of our denomination? The answer must be “No.”
Kellner’s article was by no means a tongue lashing and the concern surrounding it feels overblown. But, what if it had been a tongue lashing? What if Kellner did interpret O23 & O37 in the worst light possible and took the PCA behind the woodshed for its “homophobic crusade against SSA strugglers?” Would such strong pushback from a secular news outlet be clear proof that the GA failed to love SSA individuals by voting in favor of O23 & O37? No, in fact, it would be yet another realization of what the Apostle Paul said will ordinarily result when the Church faithfully proclaims the gospel of Christ—opposition.
Paul reminded believers in the church of Corinth, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). The very meat and marrow of our message, the cross of Christ, “is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). We are not to expect the unbelieving world to apprehend or appreciate the spiritual truths we confess, no matter how clearly and carefully we communicate them. For spiritual truth to be understood rightly one needs to be spiritually discerning, and for one to be spiritually discerning he needs to be regenerated by the power of the Holy Spirit (John 3:3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God”). Without this sovereign intervention of God’s Holy Spirit in the heart and life of sinners, faithful Christians will, in fact, come off as “a fragrance from death to death” to those who are perishing (2 Cor 2:15, 16).
Be that as it may, we are not to use the above passages as license to be as obnoxious or offensive as we please. The gospel by its very nature is already offensive to unbelievers; it is contrary to the world system and the two systems clash every time they meet (Eph 2:1-5). Indeed, Christians should be mindful of the manner in which they communicate the gospel. I’ve personally found it a helpful and humbling exercise when reflecting on an evangelistic conversation, to ask myself, “Did my tone communicate concern or contempt for the person to whom I was speaking? Were my words intended to heal or to hurt my neighbor? Was my neighbor offended by me or by the gospel?” Such self-reflection can be painful, but essential to effective gospel engagement.
Yet, as true as this is, we must not let the unbelieving world’s feelings about our message become the standard by which we measure the faithfulness of our witness. Consider the prophets (Matt 23:37), Christ himself (John 1:9-11), and the warning that Christ gave his disciples in the Upper Room Discourse:
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 14:18-20).
We are not greater than our Master and so we should not expect a warmer reception from the world than Christ received himself. Rejection from the world because we teach and preach biblical truth is typical; why do we continue to think that otherwise? While I believe all officers in the PCA affirm this principle intellectually, it seems that some of us experientially may become unsettled by the potential rejection of our faith by the culture around us. At times, when our commitment to biblical truth is misunderstood by those living in darkness, it may result in losing book deals, or followers on Twitter, or forfeiting a seat at the table with cultural thought leaders. But when compared to the unfading glory and the riches of the gospel, we should consider all these earthly, fading treasures as rubbish. God’s approval is infinitely more valuable than the approval of man.
- Concern #2 The Response Among SSA Strugglers Within the PCA
In the final paragraph of the PA, the writers argue, “These overtures will be heard and read by many faithful same-sex attracted congregants in ways that will make them feel more alone and isolated in our congregations.” This possibility should be taken very seriously by every shepherd in the PCA; it is an outcome that we want to avoid at all costs. And such a reading is indeed avoidable if ministers and elders in the PCA would accurately represent the spirit of the O23 & O37 and display their substantial agreement with the Ad Inerim Committee Report on Human Sexuality (AIC). In step with the AIC, neither overture automatically disqualifies a man who struggles with SSA from pursuing ordination in the PCA (see O23). Neither O23 nor O37 single out or “isolate” homosexuality or the attraction to members of the same sex as though they were unpardonable sins. Like all the other sins listed in O37, if a candidate who confesses to struggle with SSA can demonstrate that his life is not dominated by his sin, and that he is living an exemplary life of holiness through the power of the Spirit, then there is nothing stopping him from serving as a deacon or elder in good standing in the PCA. What SSA member of our congregations wouldn’t be encouraged by this? O23 & O37 cut through any confusion that may have been hanging over the heads of SSA strugglers in the PCA for years, “Can I live a life of holiness that is pleasing to God though I still struggle with this particular sin?” O23 & O37’s answer is a resounding “Yes.”
However, this positive perspective has been largely ignored by those who oppose O23 & O37. In fact, though they accuse their opponents of “fear mongering,” marching to the “drumbeat of fear,” and resorting to “Humpty Dumpty verbicide,” these same men have likely produced tremendous angst within SSA strugglers with their inflammatory language. If Greg Johnson and David Cassidy so object to being called theological “liberals” on the grounds that it is untrue and uncharitable, then why do they continue to refer to those who disagree with them as “fundamentalists” and “pietistic Southern moralists” when this, too, is patently untrue and unloving? If you are going to call on your brothers to love and assume the best of you, then please be consistent and extend the same love toward your brothers. If “liberalism” is off the table, then “fundamentalist” should be, too.
And this gets us to the heart of the issue—who or what determines whether our words are loving or unloving? The ultimate standard must be the objective truth of God’s Word (John 17:17). Whatever is prejudicial to truth is, by nature, unloving. We hate our neighbor when we lie or conceal the truth from him. Speaking the truth is a must, but it is only half of what we must do. Paul calls on believers to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15). But this brings us back to the original question, “Who gets to decide whether my words are loving or not?” According to Greg Johnson, love is determined primarily by the ear and feelings of the listener and not the mouth or heart of the speaker. In a tweet published on July 16, 2021, Dr. Johnson wrote:
Dear pastors and elders. No matter how well intended, I’m rather afraid that your words are not always heard the way you think. Here, let me translate. (If you’d like to educate yourself, you can start here: http://stilltimetocare.com)
- “You shouldn’t identify with your sin” = “Get back in your closet”
- “Your identity is in Christ” = “Fake it ’til you make it”
- “God won’t leave you there” = “You haven’t tried/prayed/believed hard enough”
- “You’re minimizing the power of the gospel to change you” = “You’re unbelieving”
- “You can’t be gay and be a Christian” = “You are not saved”
In effect, Dr. Johnson’s tweet leaves virtually no possibility for a well-intentioned brother in the Lord to disagree with him or Side B Gay Christianity without inflicting emotional damage in the process. The tweet leaves the speaker with no words, no possibility of mutually beneficial dialogue. And because the hearer will inevitably hear “get back in your closet” or “fake it ’til you make it,” when we use the above language, it seems that we are left to conclude only the following: we must stop critiquing Side B Gay Christianity altogether lest we offend the SSA struggler and thereby be guilty of failing to love our neighbor. Far from a meaningful contribution to the furtherance of peace and unity in our denomination, Johnson’s comments read like a gag order to silence all objections. Such rhetoric only compounds our problems.
Dr. R. Scott Clark noted in an insightful blogpost on the above tweet,
“The receiver of the message is also morally bound to do his best to interpret the message sent in the way the sender intended…Where the receiver simply refuses to fulfill his part in the process, communication necessarily breaks down. This refusal is known as bad faith. Just as the sender is obligated to communicate in a way that can be understood by rational people…so the receiver is obligated to act in good faith by seeking to interpret the message as intended.”
So long as the speaker is tuned to the frequency of biblical truth, clarity, and Christian love, any breakdown in communication is the sole responsibility of the hearer who refuses to tune to that same frequency. As I read Johnson’s tweet, the words of Heidelberg Catechism 112 came to mind,
“What is required in the ninth commandment? A: That I bear false witness against no one; wrest no one’s words; be no backbiter, or slanderer; join in condemning no one unheard and rashly.”
In my mind, the text that settles the issue over love as it relates to speech is Mark 10:17-22. Mark’s account highlights the heart of our Savior toward the rich young ruler:
“And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
Should Jesus have been more careful with the words he spoke? Was he somehow at fault for the rich young ruler’s rejection of his exhortation to mortify his besetting sin of materialism? If the hearer has the final say on what is and is not loving, then we must conclude that Jesus didn’t really love the young man as Scripture claims he did. It is crucial that we do not allow crooked, sinful man to be the plumbline of truth and love.
Finally, Scripture teaches elsewhere that frank reasoning among Christians is not contrary to, but a genuine expression of, brotherly love. Often, when people cite the Golden Rule from Leviticus 19:19, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” they isolate these words from those that immediately precede. Beginning in verse 17, God said to Moses:
“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
According to Scripture, remaining silent while a prominent voice in our denomination continues to align with the troublesome Revoice conference would be a form of hatred. Failing to speak the truth to him and those who follow him would be cruel. This is why I, and countless others, have reasoned as frankly as we have online, out of love for a brother in Christ and love for those sheep who look to him and to us all as their shepherds. It is my sincere hope that my brothers in the PCA will receive my writing in the spirit that it was intended: love for Christ and love for his church.
Stephen Spinnenweber is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of Westminster PCA in Jacksonville, Fla.
 Kellner is the Faith & Family reporter for the Washington Times. Previously, Kellner served as News Assistant Director and News Editor for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. From what I gather I assume him to be a sincere brother in the Lord.
 Some have argued that O23 does, in fact, single out SSA strugglers because it only mentions those identities by name that refer to homosexual sin. However, the language of the overture indicates that there are other identities that could undermine one’s identity in Christ (such as, but not limited to, “gay Christian,” “same sex attracted Christian,” “homosexual Christian,” or like terms) and furthermore, no one is presently identifying themselves as “child abusing Christians” or “racist Christians” and so it would be superfluous to include these in the wording of the overture.
 Add my name to the list of those who object to anyone being called a theological liberal. There are no liberals in the PCA and such language is uncalled for. Though Dr. Johnson did not say “pietistic Southern moralists” but “pietistic Southern Moralism” in his July 2, 2021 tweet, I agree with Dr. Carl Trueman who wrote on Ref 21, “If someone claims that pietistic moralism is attacking the Reformed faith, as exemplified by the PCA GA decisions, then it is not misrepresenting that person to portray them as claiming that pietistic moralists are attacking the Reformed faith, as exemplified in the PCA GA decisions.” Full article: https://www.reformation21.org/blog/a-friendly-correspondence