The language of O29 and O31 are welcome additions to the BCO. However, they are insufficient. They do not address the issue before us, which is whether a church officer may describe himself as “homosexual.” The proposal put forward by O15 clearly says no. Officers who struggle with same-sex attraction are not “gay” or “homosexual,” but they are Christians redeemed by Christ who refrain from homosexual sex and put such sinful desires to death. Those in the PCA who oppose O15 will give a variety of reasons against it. But the question for them is, “should church officers describe themselves as homosexual?” If not, then why not say so?
It is no secret that Overture 15 (O15) barely passed the 49th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). The Overtures Committee recommended rejecting it, but RE Matt Fender delivered a minority report that convinced the Assembly to make a substitute motion in favor of the proposed amendment to the Book of Church Order (BCO). After a timely speech by TE O. Palmer Robertson, O15 passed with 54% of the Assembly voting in favor of it. It will now go on to the eighty-eight presbyteries of the Church, where it needs 2/3 support to proceed to the 50th General Assembly in Memphis for ratification.
In what follows are some of the reasons that the changes proposed in O15 should achieve the 2/3 threshold of the presbyteries, pass the 50th GA, and make it into the BCO.
The Clarity and Brevity of Overture 15
The strength of the BCO language addition proposed by O15 is its clarity and brevity. Here it is in full:
7-4. 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.
The end goal of this addition is clearly to prohibit men who “describe themselves as homosexual” from holding church office in the PCA. The language proposed in this year’s O15 is an improvement over the language of last year’s Overture (O23), which used the language of “profess an identity.” Whereas the terms “identity” and “identify” are subject to differing interpretations, the verb “describe” has a narrow meaning. According to Merriam-Webster, “describe” means “to represent or give an account of in words.” This is an objective standard based on one’s own language for himself.
Upon the successful implementation of O15, a man pursuing (or holding) ordination credentials in the PCA may not “describe” himself as “homosexual.” He is not permitted to use the word “homosexual” or its synonyms to represent himself. If he does so, then he is disqualified from holding the office of elder or deacon in the PCA. The word “homosexual” is not unclear. It is commonly used to describe men who engage in sexual acts with other men, which is prohibited by Scripture and the Westminster Standards. This behavior is not befitting of a church officer. Everyone in the PCA should firmly agree with this.
Christians Who Struggle with Same-Sex Attraction Are Not “Homosexuals”
Yet disagreement may arise because “homosexual” can also be used to refer to those who are “characterized by sexual or romantic attraction to people of one’s same sex” (Merriam-Webster). In this case, a man who experiences sexual attraction to other men but “practice[s] celibacy” is still disqualified by church office if he describes himself as a “homosexual.” Notice that the ratification of O15 would not disqualify a man from office simply because he experiences same-sex attraction. The key is that he would not be permitted to “describe” himself as a “homosexual.” The man who experiences same-sex attraction is disqualified from office if — and only if — he describes himself as a “homosexual.”
But is “homosexual” ever used in English to refer to a man who experiences same-sex attraction? The answer is yes. But this definition from dictionaries like Merriam-Webster is not our standard as Christians. The Bible is “the only rule of faith and obedience” (WLC 3). And the Bible teaches us that a Christian is not to describe himself as a “homosexual.” A Christian man may experience same-sex attraction and fight against it by God’s Spirit, but he should never use the word “homosexual” to describe this struggle. A key text here is 1 Corinthians 6:9-11:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
The Apostle Paul teaches here that the practice of grievous sin prevents people from inheriting God’s kingdom. Notice, however, that he does not list the sins themselves, but the terms or descriptions of people who make a practice of such sins. Paul does not say a Christian who gets drunk once will go to hell. Rather, he says that a drunkard will not inherit the kingdom. Thus, no Christian should ever describe himself as a “drunkard,” as that is a description only for his pre-conversion days. “Such were some of you,” Paul says. But now you have been washed and sanctified by Christ. You may have been a drunkard before you met Christ, but now you are a Christian. And if you are still a drunkard, then it does not matter that you call yourself a Christian. A drunkard will not inherit God’s kingdom, and you need to repent.
With reference to our current discussion, Paul also says that “homosexuals” will not inherit God’s kingdom. We need not get into all the nuances of the Greek words malakoi (“effeminate”) and arsenokoitai (“homosexuals”). They are used together here to refer to those who engage in any form of homosexual sex, as seen in the English Standard Version’s translation (“men who practice homosexuality”). So we see that Scripture uses the word “homosexual” to refer to men who engage in homosexual acts, and such a description is not fitting for Christians. Those who are “homosexuals” or “immoral men” are not Christians, but “ungodly and sinners” (1 Tim. 1:9-10).
Therefore, at minimum, a Christian who calls himself “homosexual” (or a synonym) sends a confusing message to those inside the church and out. He may mean only that he experiences same-sex attraction and is celibate. However, many English speakers will justifiably understand him to mean he is engaging in homosexual sex. This is why the Scriptures never describe a Christian who struggles with same-sex attraction as a “homosexual,” just as the Scriptures never describe someone who struggles with the desire to abuse alcohol as a “drunkard.” This descriptor is simply not a word fitting for a Christian. How much more is the word “homosexual” not fitting for a church officer? The elder is to be “above reproach,” and he is not to be known as a “drunkard” (1 Tim. 3:2-3). Certainly he is also not to be known or described as a “homosexual.”
Rather, the Christian should put “evil desire” to death (Col. 3:5), and “put off” the old man that is “corrupt through deceitful desires” (Eph. 4:22). He is not to identify with the old self but instead to “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge” (Col. 3:10). Such renewal in Christ means not using sinful descriptions for oneself. Thus, even if a Christian struggles with homosexual desire, it is not fitting for him to characterize himself with his sin. He is not a homosexual but a Christian seeking to put sinful sexual desire to death. “Sexual immorality and all impurity… must not even be named among” Christians, “as is proper among saints” (Eph. 5:3). How much more is this the case for church officers?
Overture 15 Reflects the PCA’s Report on Human Sexuality
Overture 15 reflects the conclusions of the PCA’s Ad Interim Committee (AIC) on Human Sexuality Report, which received broad support. The Report advises that “Christians ought to understand themselves, define themselves, and describe themselves in light of their union with Christ and their identity as regenerate, justified, holy children of God… To juxtapose identities rooted in sinful desires alongside the term ‘Christian’ is inconsistent with Biblical language and undermines the spiritual reality that we are new creations in Christ… we name our sins, but are not named by them” (p. 11).
As applied to the term “gay Christian,” the Report counsels that it is wise to avoid this phrase. It explains: “For many people in our culture, to self-identify as ‘gay’ suggests that one is engaged in homosexual practice. At the very least, the term normally communicates the presence and approval of same-sex sexual attraction as morally neutral or morally praiseworthy. Even if ‘gay,’ for some Christians, simply means ‘same-sex attraction,’ it is still inappropriate to juxtapose this sinful desire, or any other sinful desire, as an identity marker alongside our identity as new creations in Christ” (p. 12).