Let’s Help All Believers Root Their Identity in Christ
By David Cassidy

Photo by Craig Ren on Unsplash.

Tim Keller’s March 21 article “What’s Happening in the PCA?has generated considerable online discussion and reaction. I appreciate the invitation from byFaith to offer a response. 

First, I am grateful that Keller addressed the assertion that our votes on Overtures 23 and 37 indicate that the PCA is at risk of collapsing under the weight of an “incipient liberalism” that divides the denomination between faithful conservatives and less orthodox progressives. He observes that this narrative is without foundation for various reasons, chiefly our nearly unanimous affirmation of the “Ad Interim Committee Report on Human Sexuality” (AIC) offered at last year’s General Assembly. 

In Keller’s view, the report’s reception highlights our fidelity and unity. Far from being divided over the issue of sexuality, the PCA enjoys widespread agreement about the teaching of Scripture and our Confessional Standards. Our unity is not confined to a few faithful outposts but exists across our denomination. As Keller observed, presbyteries that did not pass Overtures 23 and 37 “cannot be proven to be more theologically liberal than the ‘yes-voting’ ones … some of the ‘no-voting’ presbyteries are those that trend toward our most conservative ranks.”

Keller, however, does believe that challenging differences do exist in the PCA. While he sees these as primarily associated with differences in applying what we confess rather than over the substance of our confession, his call for a less strident tone in our debates and a greater level of trust between us indicates that significant problems exist. While I believe the differences in the PCA are wider and deeper than how we apply what we confess, I agree that this area is a source of frequent conflict. 

The same AIC Report that speaks so truthfully on the issue of identity also speaks graciously concerning the exercise of gentle love for struggling sinners and commends patient understanding for believers who use the term ‘gay’ in certain circumstances.

Perhaps this tension is most evident in Keller’s suggestion that a further mark of our unity includes rejecting “Side B Christianity.” He wrote, “the PCA’s Ad Interim Committee on Human Sexuality considered this Side B view and clearly rejected it.” Keller then offers a working definition of “Side B” as affirming that “people attracted to the same sex, though remaining celibate in obedience to the Bible, still can call themselves ‘gay Christians’ and see their attraction as a part of their identity which should be acknowledged like one’s race or nationality.” This point and the attendant definition were received with gladness in some quarters and grief in others. 

Keller’s view has raised questions about the accuracy of his description of Side B, and he admits that it is a notoriously difficult term to define. Given that some Christians who view themselves as part of the Side B community don’t resonate with Keller’s description, it’s safe to say that this isn’t the final word on the matter. Nevertheless, without a clear definition of Side B (at least in the PCA), it will remain difficult for us to be in unison on how we shepherd churches, examine and ordain officer candidates, and offer a unified witness to Christ’s holy love. I am grateful for Keller’s work on this issue.

A Vital but Missing Factor

When I read the AIC Report, I rejoice in its charity and clarity. The authors have served the Church well by reminding us that, concerning identity, “… being honest about our sin struggles is important. While Christians should not identify with their sin so as to embrace it or seek to base their identity on it, Christians ought to acknowledge their sin in an effort to overcome it… we name our sins, but we are not named by them.”

Yet the Report’s wisdom and deep pastoral care in Statement Ten must also be highlighted alongside this faithful declaration of the truth. If that note of compassionate shepherding is missing from our discussions, an imbalanced and unintentionally harmful outcome might be experienced by some.

Statement Ten affirms that “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.” But it goes on to call us to, “recognize that some Christians may use the term ‘gay’ in an effort to be more readily understood by non-Christians. The word ‘gay’ is common in our culture, and we do not think it wise for churches to police every use of the term … . Churches should be gentle, patient, and intentional with believers who call themselves ‘gay Christians,’ encouraging them, as part of the process of sanctification, to leave behind identification language rooted in sinful desires, to live chaste lives, to refrain from entering into temptation, and to mortify their sinful desires.” Our affirmation of the Report includes affirming this part of Statement Ten as well. 

This is why our burden to help all believers root their identity in Christ rather than in our sinful desires must be matched by patient love that walks with all in a journey towards Christ being formed in us. The same AIC Report that speaks so truthfully on the issue of identity also speaks graciously concerning the exercise of gentle love for struggling sinners and commends patient understanding for believers who use the term ‘gay’ in certain circumstances.

Our task is not to police vocabulary but to offer hope for holiness through the gospel. This section of Statement Ten is properly balanced and helpful, and we should always include it when we speak of “Side B,” lest faithful brothers and sisters feel that our churches have rejected them as well. We must not do so.

The fact that we do not embrace Side B Christianity (at least as defined by Keller and as outlined in the AIC Report) does not mean we have closed previously open arms to any who seek to follow Christ, whatever sins may afflict them. We preach Christ, the Great Physician who has come to heal us through his death, resurrection, intercession, and return. Homophobia can have no place in our hearts or ministry, and commitment to our Confession must never be weaponized against our brothers and sisters who are seeking to live for and serve Christ faithfully as they experience same-sex attraction.

The Care for and Cure of Souls

In this regard, the entirety of AIC Report Statement Twelve is also a gift. It is always good that we ‘stand’ for the truth, but we must also be willing to bow the knee in humble repentance for our sinful failures. In part, Statement Twelve reads, “Where we have mistreated those who struggle with same-sex attraction, or with any other sinful desires, we call ourselves to repentance. Where we have nurtured or made peace with sinful thoughts, desires, words, or deeds, we call ourselves to repentance. Where we have heaped upon others misplaced shame or have not dealt well with necessary God-given shame, we call ourselves to repentance”

Our burden to help all believers root their identity in Christ rather than in our sinful desires must be matched by patient love that walks with all in a journey towards Christ being formed in us.

Given the widespread narrative that the Church is the enemy of same-sex tempted people, and given the Church’s frequent failures to love our same-sex attracted neighbors, this note must be one of the first struck when it comes to our proclamation of the gospel. Why is this so? In many places and with numerous people, we must regain the ground from which we can even begin to communicate the gospel.

In “UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity,” authors Gabe Lyon and Barna President Dave Kinnamon note that the single most recognized thing about Christians today in the wider culture is that we are anti-gay bigots. “The severity of the perception surprised us … out of 20 attributes we assessed, both positive and negative, as they related to Christianity … being anti-homosexual was at the top of the list … not opposition to gay politics or behaviors but disdain for … individuals has become virtually synonymous with Christian Faith.” 

We may believe that such a view is undeserved, or that some people will hate Christians and our faith no matter how kind we show ourselves to be. That may well be true, but our call is to clearly and compassionately proclaim the gospel to all people everywhere. We may be hated for doing so, or even for our beliefs about the teaching of Christ and his apostles concerning sexual relations and gender. Being hated or despised must not elicit from us a response of anger or disdain. Despising people from the outset can’t possibly form the foundation of a fruitful mission to others. The moral ecology of our prevailing culture has radically shifted. Without conforming to it or withdrawing from it, we must be present in it with the loving challenge of the gospel.

I’ve been a pastor for 40 years on both sides of the Atlantic, in large cities and small towns. In every church I’ve served, I have treasured the privilege of caring for men and women who, sometimes married and sometimes single, experienced same-sex temptation and the desire to overcome it. Along the way, I have witnessed remarkable faithfulness and tragic missteps. I have seen some experience deep and lasting transformation, in varying degrees; others experienced no change in the direction of their sexual desires but found in Christ a yet greater love that sustained them as they grew in the faith.

I also know a young man, now with the Lord, who often considered suicide because he’d been badly taught as a ‘church kid’ that if he just had enough faith and fervently prayed, God would heal and change him. When that healing did not come, when that longed-for change was not forthcoming, he became convinced that God had rejected him, that God hated him, and that he was outside the bounds of mercy. Thankfully he discovered that the gospel offered him new life, not as a prize he achieved but as a gift he received. So, my friends, we must always bear in mind the fragile state of human hearts as we exercise our ministry. The firm grasp of the truth in our minds must never lead to the loss of a tender heart.

We must hold not only to a glorious doctrine of sanctification but a hopeful doctrine of glorification. We are not home yet. In the resurrection, it is not only true that all sorrow and sickness will be banished, but also that all sin and misery will be as well. We will finally find ourselves in the perfect joy of all things made new.

In Conclusion

Keller is also right to suggest that many PCA conflicts are not new and are rooted in our differing views of subscription. This debate is ongoing, and we must all work together for a healthy, faithful approach to this difficulty. It is also true that our conflicts are magnified by the crosscurrents of the perplexing and sometimes frightening cultural upheaval that’s taking place in the United States. As we come from such divergent backgrounds, we must be patient with one another as we try to navigate these stormy seas. 

I hope we can take to heart Keller’s call for repentance that leads to renewal. We need grace for one another as we wrestle with these weighty matters. We must be far more concerned about removing the logs in our own eyes than becoming the spot inspectors of our friends. This is why Keller rightly concludes, “We must seek the spiritual health, scriptural integrity, ministry effectiveness, and unity of the church. And we must do it together.”

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