PCA General Assembly 2021 Reflections

Good sermons answer the question, “What does it matter?” If a sermon provides no answer, then it really isn’t a sermon but a lecture or lesson: could be good but hard to put it to work. Applying God’s Word is as basic as it gets (see James 1:22).  What happened at General Assembly in St. Louis cannot be like a sermon with no application.  So, I’ll use this framework to give some legs to the work the PCA did in St. Louis.

We began with 48 overtures covering a variety of topics. The list can be found here.  It would be worth looking over the list to get a feel for what kind of business we ask the national assembly to take up.  That’s what an “overture” is: a piece of business a Session or a Presbytery or a Committee or Agency asks the Assembly to handle.

These range from the mundane to the divisive.  From all over the country, overtures included oversight of Chaplains, the conduct of Mission to the World (our world missions arm), study committees on White Supremacy, Critical Race Theory and Digital Ethics. There were overtures dealing with reducing fees for Ruling Elders attending GA, reordering the process for examining men for elder or deacon, adjusting Presbytery boundaries to accommodate new churches and commending Lifeline Christian Services and the Ad Interim Report on Human Sexuality.

What drew the most attention were those overtures designed address the pressing issue of radically changing sexual thinking in our culture.  While sexual immorality isn’t new, never before has there been a widespread effort to name same-sex attraction an acceptable—even Christian—desire.  The origin of this is a complicated issue.  Suffice it to say, many of us in the PCA saw this as a very troubling trajectory.  None of us wants to alienate struggling image-bearers and consign them to the bondage of their sin-slavery however making overtures and writing papers and statements runs the risk of doing just that.  

Nonetheless, many Presbyteries thought it was time to make some structural changes to our Constitution (i.e., the Book of Church Order or BCO) in order to strengthen our commitment to biblical sexuality.  So, off they went to the Assembly to be deliberated and voted on by the Commissioners; overtures 2, 4, 16, 23, 25, 30, and 37.  Overtures 2, 4 and 25 were pushed (appropriately) to the next GA.  That left 16, 23, 30 and 37.  When it came to debate, there were two: 23 and 37 (the answers to 16 and 30 would come from answering these).

Overture 23 was designed to add a paragraph to BCO 16 to clarify who is qualified for ordained office (i.e., elder or deacon).  The following language was affirmed by a floor vote of: 1438 (for) 417 (against):

16-4 Officers in the Presbyterian Church in America must be above reproach in their walk and Christlike in their character. Those who profess an identity (such as, but not limited to, “gay Christian,” “same sex attracted Christian,” “homosexual Christian,” or like terms) that undermines or contradicts their identity as new creations in Christ, either by [1] denying the sinfulness of fallen desires (such as, but not limited to, same sex attraction), or by [2] denying the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, or by [3] failing to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions are not qualified for ordained office.

I added in brackets [] to highlight the disqualifying language.  This language was quite different than what the original overture requested and, for that matter, the final language is much better.  It asserts anyone who attaches an identity marked by a sin-struggle (e.g., same-sex attracted) to “Christian” and admits there’s nothing wrong with the marker, affirms he cannot change or fails to actively mortify that sin is “not qualified for ordained office.”

Keep in mind, if a man struggles with SSA, knows the desire is sin, actively seeks to kill it by the power of the means of grace and believes day by day the Spirit will prevail and the sin will diminish, he can pursue ordination.  What’s the difference?  This man is dealing with his sin like every other God-fearing, Christ-exalting Christian.  The other mentioned in language is not.

What this language protects is two-fold.  It does not allow an unrepentant, sin-practicing sinner the opportunity to seek ordained office.  It does not prohibit a man beset with this sin from seeking ordained ministry as long as he lives as becomes a follower of Christ.  

The overture is criticized by some because it singles out SSA (and related sins).  Yet it does so because in our current cultural moment SSA (and related sexual sins, e.g., transgenderism) is one of the main cultural topics of the day.  The overture uses the language of, “such as, but not limited to” so that it is broad enough to cover any unrepentant, sin-practicing sinner no matter what the sin.  Which brings us to overture 37. 

Overture 37 was designed to instruct Sessions and Presbyteries to include moral requirements for ordained office rather than simply theological ones.   In BCO 21-4 (ministers) and 24-1 (elders and deacons), these men are examined in many ways but not explicitly their character.  The Assembly voted to affirm the following language of overture 37 by a vote of 1130 (for) 692 (against):

In the examination of the candidate’s personal character, the presbytery should give specific attention to potentially notorious concerns, such as but not limited to relational sins, sexual immorality (including homosexuality, fornication, and pornography), addictions, abusive behavior, and financial mismanagement. Careful reflection should be given to his practical struggle against sinful actions, as well as persistent sinful desires. The candidate shall give clear testimony of his reliance upon his union with Christ and the benefits thereof by the Holy Spirit, depending on this work of grace to make progress over sin (Psalm 103:2-5, Romans 8:29) and to bear fruit (Psalm 1:3; Gal. 5:22-23). While imperfection will remain, he should not be known by reputation or self-profession according to his remaining sinfulness (e.g., homosexual desires, etc.), but rather by the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 6:9-11). In order to maintain discretion and protect the honor of the pastoral office, the presbytery may empower a committee to conduct detailed examination into these matters and to give prayerful support to candidates.

As we can see from the language used, examination is to focus on “potentially notorious concerns” that would eventually sink a man’s ministry and wreck the church where he served.  Too many of us have too many stories of this happening. As with Overture 23, it singles out “homosexual desires” as that is the presenting and pressing problem in our culture.  It is the new front of the sexual revolution.  But again, the language refers to such desires by example, “such as but not limited to” and “e.g.”

What happens now? 

Each of the 88 presbyteries will consider these (and other actions) and vote on them.  When it comes to what is above, 2/3 of the presbyteries (62) will have to approve and then the matter goes before the Assembly next year for approval.  If those happen, the BCO will be changed and the new standards implemented.  (Our presbytery, Eastern Carolina, will vote on these matters at our January, 2022, stated meeting.)

Why does this matter? 

The Assembly has made two statements.

We have affirmed the biblical doctrines of sin, salvation and sanctification.  We have reminded the church Jesus saves sinners of every kind; He gives us a new identity that is above reproach, “Christian;” He gives the Spirit to sanctify every remaining sin so that freedom increases day-by-day and He gives us the gift of the means of grace to see that sanctifying work done.

We have told those, in and outside the church, who seek to normalize or even Christianize SSA (or related sexual sins, e.g., homosexuality and transgenderism) the PCA will not allow that in our ministers or office-bearers.  It is a clear and firm message.

But more than these statements, we have done two things.  

First, we have decided to proclaim and practice true freedom.  Yes, this bold and difficult message, if we are not careful and compassionate, will only sound like condemnation or alienation.  But, the fact of the matter is, to call “sin” sin, is to begin the process of seeing someone set free from that sin.  In the Reformed faith, this is called the 1st Use of the Law: as a tutor to lead one to Christ. Who knows of their need for a Savior if he does not see his guilt before God?

Second, for a Christian to look away or worse, encourage, what God forbids is not loving—people trapped in sin are slaves to a dark master who will never stop until he destroys all who are made in God’s image.  We must call each other to holiness seeing that is what is needed to see God (Hebrews 12:14).  There is no freedom in sin, only condemnation and darkness which is why the Scriptures exhort us to live differently now that we are in Christ (Romans 6:1-4, 10-14).  Yet, some accosted for their sins will not see in the confrontation the doorway to freedom.  

So, we must be prayerful: that God would reveal to each of us our sins, lead us to repentance and consequently humility.  We must be zealous in word and in deed to invite sin-strugglers to come to Jesus Christ.  And, if they have come and they claim to be brothers and sisters, we must demonstrate to them by our deeds and lifestyle, holiness is freedom, that is, killing sin is making the spirit more alive (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

The actions of the Assembly did not conclude our work: it blew away some of the fog that had crept in to our ministry in the area of sexuality clarifying for us the task ahead: proclaim the Father’s love for man by inviting all to put their faith in Jesus Christ because He saves sinners.  And further, compassionately partnering with our brothers and sisters as they walk down paths of sanctification—some whose paths are particularly burdensome in the moment while richly free in the end.  

Heaven soon,

Pastor Gabe

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