The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is in a key and defining moment. A historic moment. Overtures 23 and 37 are before the presbyteries for a vote, and the outcome, one way or another, will prove consequential for the future of the PCA.
Like other mid-size to large American evangelical denominations, we are attempting to navigate our way through the stormy waters of the moral revolution. In our cultural moment, the way forward isn’t easy or fast. There are important questions that need to be answered, ethical and doctrinal questions that many in our circles haven’t given serious attention to until recently. As a church family, with almost 400,000 members, 2,000 churches, and 5,000 TEs, it’s understandable that opinions and perspectives abound on which direction to take, and how fast to go. Should we expect anything different from passionate Presbyterians?
Sometimes there is more heat than light in our discussions on these matters, along with a discernible absence of humility and love for our brothers. This is also understandable when the stakes are so high. Nevertheless, sinful and unbecoming behavior is never justified. Whatever our views on Overtures 23 and 37, whatever our disagreements, it’s important to maintain high standards of interaction. It’s for this reason that I’m grateful for ByFaith’s kind invitation to write the following article advocating for Overtures 23 and 37.
Rationale for Recommending Overture 23
Overture 23, if adopted, would add the following language to the Book of Church Order (BCO) 16-1:
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 denying the sinfulness of fallen desires (such as, but not limited to, same sex attraction), or by denying the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, or by failing to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions are not qualified for ordained office.
The PCA Ad Interim Report on Human Sexuality is excellent. It was adopted almost unanimously by our most recent General Assembly, and is a welcome and timely expression of unity in the PCA! Even so, the report holds no constitutional authority. It is not binding in our church courts. Passing Overture 23, and thus adding the amendment to our Book of Church Order, however, would bring critical aspects of the ad interim report into our constitution. This will provide churches and presbyteries with clear standards and helpful guidance pertaining to qualifications for ordained office, especially concerning issues related to gay identity and the nature of progressive sanctification.
Statement Ten of the Ad Interim Report on Human Sexuality states:
We affirm that those in our churches would be wise to avoid the term “gay Christian.” Although the term “gay” may refer to more than being attracted to persons of the same sex, the term does not communicate less than that. 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.1
If the PCA study report declares that it’s unwise and inappropriate for ordinary Christians to identify as gay, how much more should this apply to ordained officers who, according to Scripture and Overture 23, “must be above reproach in their walk and Christlike in their character?” Should ordained officers in the PCA be permitted to identify as gay or #LGBTinChrist on social media? Are they qualified for office if they do? These are important questions presently facing the PCA. The BCO amendment in question, therefore, not only provides guidance and clarity on these controversial matters, but incorporates into our constitution that which the study report so helpfully affirms.
How can an ordained officer be above reproach and Christlike in character if he maintains a settled gay, though celibate, identity?
Above Reproach and Christlike
The Bible teaches that ordained officers in Christ’s church must be above reproach and Christlike in character.2 But how can an ordained officer be above reproach and Christlike in character if he maintains a settled gay, though celibate, identity? Is it really possible to be Christlike while at the same time holding onto, and not utterly renouncing and forsaking, one’s sinful identity? Is there a sinful identity that an ordained elder or deacon can maintain, while also being Christlike in character? These are important questions for the PCA. Overture 23, in accord with Scripture and our Reformed Confession, provides guidance.
In an article on the gospel and gay identity, Dave Garner explains that:
Solidarity in Christ’s resurrection and our bi-directional communion with Christ shape our self-identification. Wherever I go, I take Christ with me. Accordingly, our self-conception necessitates a Christ-conception. If I consider myself a SSA Christian, then Jesus is a SSA Christ. If I am a gay Christian, then Jesus is a gay Christ. What a grotesque distortion of our Savior, His holiness, and His saving and sanctifying work.3
United to Christ, sin no longer reigns in the life of the Christian. Sin remains, but it does not reign over or name the believer. As new creatures in Christ, believers are called to “consider [themselves] dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). The risen Christ has set us free from the bondage, guilt, curse, power, and penalty of sin. The chains that once held us have been broken. In Christ we are justified through faith and are being conformed more and more to His image.4 In light of this glorious new reality in Christ, how can a believer — especially an elder or deacon — continue to self-identity with a particular sin? It’s not above reproach or Christlike to do so. Overture 23 underscores this point.
A Biblical and Confessional View of Sanctification
In order to meet the qualifications of elder or deacon in the PCA, a man must possess a theologically and confessionally orthodox view of sanctification. Overture 23 helpfully exposes three errors on sanctification that are sometimes associated with Revoice or Side B gay celibate Christianity. In the words of Overture 23, these errors are “The denial of the sinfulness of fallen desires (such as, but not limited to, same sex attraction), the denial of the hope of progressive sanctification, and failing to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions.” In step with Overture 23, Statement Seven of the PCA Ad Interim Study Report on Human Sexuality affirms the following:
Christians should flee immoral behavior and not yield to temptation. By the power of the Holy Spirit working through the ordinary means of grace, Christians should seek to wither, weaken, and put to death the underlying idolatries and sinful desires that lead to sinful behavior. The goal is not just consistent fleeing from, and regular resistance to, temptation, but the diminishment and even the end of the occurrences of sinful desires through the reordering of the loves of one’s heart toward Christ. Through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, we can make substantial progress in the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord (Rom. 6:14-19; Heb. 12:14; 1 John 4:4; WCF 13.1).5 [Emphasis mine]
The report continues by stating that “this process of sanctification—even when the Christian is diligent and fervent in the application of the means of grace—will always be accompanied by many weaknesses and imperfections (WCF 16.5, 6), with the Spirit and the flesh warring against one another until final glorification (WCF 13.2)” [emphasis mine]. Moreover, “progress will often be slow and uneven.” These are important points to remember.
Nevertheless, as stated above, Christians can be confident that over time, and with the diligent use of the means of grace, there will be spiritual growth and progress. Homosexuality is not a disordered condition to be managed. It’s a destructive sin to be renounced, forsaken, and mortified. In addition, Christians with homosexual desires should not lose hope concerning real change when Christ promises true spiritual progress in the whole man.6 William Perkins writes:
Justification frees from punishment of sin; sanctification from corruption and sin itself … Christ is a mediator in two ways: first, by merit to procure life and work our salvation; secondly, by efficacy— that is, whereby His death is powerful to cause us to die to sin and His resurrection to raise us from the grave of sin to a new life. And He is no Mediator by His merit to those who are destitute of this efficacy. 7
Overture 23, in concert with the ad interim report, provides clarity and guidance on these important matters related to sanctification and the qualifications of officers in the church. And perhaps it should be mentioned that what I explain above is not a new form of Wesleyan perfectionism. It’s the Christian life.
These Extraordinary Times
The moral revolution is at hurricane-level force, and it’s uprooting the long-standing ethical norms of western civilization. Evidence of its destructive effects is everywhere. I would argue that to downplay this reality leaves our churches more vulnerable to the attacks of Satan and the subtle compromises of cultural accommodation. In God’s wisdom and strength, we need to be vigilant under-shepherds of Christ’s flock.
Our present cultural moment makes the moral revolution of the 1960s seem tame by comparison. The sexual revolution, in particular, has captured the heart and soul of our culture. The LGBTQ+ activist strategy to normalize homosexuality and gender dysphoria through literature, media, entertainment, sports, religion, education, and government legislation has been largely successful. Gay marriage is legalized. Rainbow flags are ubiquitous. The entire month of June is dedicated to gay pride. Transgenders compete in high school, college, and Olympic sports. Public elementary schools teach children to embrace and celebrate LGBTQ+ doctrine. Universities, hospitals, and corporations hire diversity officers in order to indoctrinate students, healthcare workers, and employees in the dogma of the sexual revolution. Television shows, movies, commercials, and even cartoons are rife with homosexual themes, characters, and messaging. The effects of the sexual revolution are as destructive as they are pervasive, and not just in the culture at large.
Protestant mainline churches have, to a large extent, surrendered to the pressures of the sexual revolution. Mainline Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians were at one time strong Bible-believing churches. They were formerly committed to the biblical sexual ethics of gender and sexuality. Today, however, they openly affirm that which they once repudiated.
Some might wonder what all of this has to do with the PCA. It’s my contention that the tentacles of the sexual revolution have worked their way into the PCA through Revoice—a para-church ministry that seeks to uphold a biblical sexual ethic, while simultaneously affirming and promoting a gay, though celibate, Christian identity.8 Revoice doctrine is threatening the peace, unity, and spiritual health of the PCA.
Dear fathers and brothers, these are extraordinary times. And extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. The uncommon nature of our times, therefore, serves as part of my rationale for recommending the overtures in question. Indeed, amidst the moral revolution and the confusion that follows in its wake, Overture 23 will provide clarity and practical guidance to our churches and presbyteries concerning the qualifications of ordained officers in the PCA. In June we saw an overwhelmingly one-sided vote for Overture 23. This shows us where the heart of our denomination is on this. So let’s see it through our presbyteries, vote on it next year in Birmingham, and add it to the BCO.
Rationale for Recommending Overture 37
Overture 37, if adopted, would add the following amendment to BCO 21-4 and 24-1 concerning the examinations of officers (elders and deacons):
In the examination of the candidate’s personal character, the presbytery shall give specific attention to potential notorious concerns, such as but not limited to relational sins, sexual immorality (including homosexuality, child sex abuse, fornication, and pornography), addictions, abusive behavior, racism, and financial mismanagement. Careful attention must be given to his practical struggle against sinful actions, as well as to persistent sinful desires.10 The candidate must give clear testimony of 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).11 While imperfection will remain, he must not be known by reputation or self-profession according to his remaining sinfulness, 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, presbyteries are encouraged to appoint a committee to conduct detailed examinations of these matters and to give prayerful support to candidates.
Maintaining High Standards for Officers
The Church is Christ’s precious bride. He loved her to death on Calvary.9 It’s no surprise, then, that in His Word are revealed remarkably high standards for those ordained officers who would instruct, serve, and shepherd the church in His name. Those standards or qualifications are set forth in I Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9. Elders, for example, are called to be “above reproach” [unimpeachable in character] and “dignified” [worthy of respect]. Later Paul exhorts Timothy — and all subsequent ordained officers — to flee sinful desires and ruinous behavior, and to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” (I Tim. 6:3-11). He is charged to “train [himself] for godliness” (4:7).
The focus on qualifications for elders in Scripture is not primarily centered on competence, gifts, personality, or intellect. It’s centered on character. It’s focused on holiness. It’s concentrated upon integrity and sincere piety.
This might lead us to ask if our presbyteries, in general, place this level of emphasis upon godly piety and personal holiness in the examination of candidates for ordination. How much actual time is spent with candidates exploring important aspects of their personal piety compared to inquiry about their theological knowledge and perspectives on controversial matters facing the PCA?
I’ve been serving on PCA credentials committees for almost twenty years, and I must confess that time spent examining a candidate’s piety has often been brief and insufficient. To be clear, I’m not saying that equal time be given to soundness of doctrine and soundness of life—just more time. Maybe I’m wrong, but there seems to be, at times, a growing sense that we shouldn’t press a man too hard on his home life, marriage, and the nature and practice of his personal godliness, lest we are perceived as being heavy-handed, pharisaical, or unnecessarily intrusive. The result is that this portion of the exam is carried out in a hasty fashion, and men who are not above reproach and pursuing personal holiness are approved for ordination.
The focus on qualifications for elders in Scripture is not primarily centered on competence, gifts, personality, or intellect. It’s centered on character.
During my presbytery’s debate on Overture 37 a teaching elder asked the court: “Of all the officers that you’ve known over the years who’ve been disciplined in the PCA, how many of them were disciplined for doctrinal error compared to moral failures?” The rhetorical question makes an important and highly relevant point. There is no comparison. The language set forth in Overture 37 will serve our presbyteries well if added to BCO 21-4 and 24-1.
Clear Guidance for Churches and Presbyteries
The litany of serious sins named in Overture 37 are sadly those that repeatedly plague men in ordained office. These particular sins have caused scandal in our Lord’s church cross-denominationally. The PCA is no exception. Duplicity and secret sin in the lives of ordained officers leads to disaster. The sins listed in Overture 37 are significant, and the emphasis is rightly placed upon those sins related to sexual immorality; namely, pornography, fornication, homosexuality, and child sex abuse. When a minister falls into sin, it’s very frequently because of sexual deviancy of one kind or another.
Surprisingly, the present PCA Book of Church Order gives little direction regarding the examination of candidates for ordination. Therefore, the guidance in Overture 37 would prove useful to sessions and presbyteries, encouraging them to give “careful attention” to a candidate’s “practical struggle against sinful actions, as well as to persistent sinful desires.” Is the candidate living with settled and unrepentant sinful desires and patterns of behavior, or is he, by God’s Spirit and means of grace, actively fighting against them? Furthermore, does the candidate “give clear testimony of 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 (Ps. 103:2-5, Rom. 8:29) and to bear fruit (Ps. 1:3, Gal. 5:22-23).” This language provides beneficial guidance to examination committees, potentially helping them to draw out a candidate’s views on the life-transforming power of the gospel, progressive sanctification, and the bearing of spiritual fruit, especially in regard to his own personal walk with God.
Overture 37 makes the important qualification that “imperfection will remain” this side of heaven. No officer will be perfect. All forms of perfectionism are to be utterly rejected. However, according to the biblical qualifications for officers, the Overture states that “he must not be known by reputation or self-profession according to his remaining sinfulness, but rather by the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ Jesus (I Cor. 6:9-11).” Interestingly, for those who reject Overture 37, this statement has proven to be one of the most controversial ones.
The objection is founded upon the idea that a candidate cannot necessarily control how everyone thinks of him by reputation. That’s true. However, that’s not what the statement is communicating. Rather, it’s emphasizing the point that if a man’s general reputation and/or self-profession corresponds to his remaining indwelling sin, rather than the efficacious, ongoing, and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, then he is not fit for office. Candidates who are known by reputation more for their addictions or abuses or fits of anger or sexual immorality than God’s powerful work in their lives are not qualified for ordination. This point shouldn’t at all be controversial.
The final sentence of Overture 37 states: “In order to maintain discretion and protect the honor of the pastoral office, presbyteries are encouraged to appoint a committee to conduct detailed examinations of these matters and to give prayerful support to candidates.” The directive provides presbyteries with further encouragement to conduct examinations with the utmost thoroughness, prayerfulness, and care, and thus should be adopted.
Five Objections with Very Brief Responses
First, it’s been argued that the BCO amendments before us are unnecessary because we already have the Scriptures and the Westminster Standards. I suppose that this same argument could also be made concerning other sections of the BCO. The question that we should be asking is not “Are they necessary?”, but rather, “Are they beneficial for the future spiritual health and mission of the PCA?” Moreover, “Do these overtures reinforce the truth of Scripture on these matters, and provide helpful and relevant guidance to our churches and presbyteries regarding the qualifications and examinations of ordained officers in the PCA?”
Secondly, a fairly common criticism among the opponents of Overture 23 is that it employs the term “identity,” a term found nowhere in Scripture. A prominent teaching elder in the PCA urges that “as presbyteries discuss the overtures before us- Before we put modern words like ‘identify’ or ‘identity’ into our Constitution we should first do a major study to be sure we are using the word to convey biblical truth.”12 Ironically, this same minister has been using the word “identity” in his preaching, teaching, and writing for years. Of course, I do not fault him at all for doing so. We all make regular use of the word “identity,” above all in relation to the believer’s new life and identity in Christ.13 Moreover, the almost unanimously approved PCA Ad Interim Study Report on Human Sexuality profitably employs the term on numerous occasions.
Thirdly, it’s been argued that these overtures will effectively place a “DO NOT ENTER” sign on the church door for those who struggle with same-sex attraction. At best, this is an unfair criticism and characterization of the overtures. When a Christian denomination maintains a biblical view of marriage and sexuality, there will always be those who feel unwelcome based upon cultural notions of inclusion. However, what we shouldn’t forget is that there are those who experience same sex attraction who prefer a denomination that maintains what they believe are high biblical standards for officers, especially as it relates to homosexuality and the biblical standards set forth in Overtures 23 and 37. I’ve heard from several PCA members who struggle with same-sex-attraction (SSA) who want to see these overtures pass.
Fourthly, it has been argued that the Overtures are being “used to satisfy the demands of social media.”14 To be sure, debate between presbyters on social media can get ugly. It’s sometimes as unfair as it is uncharitable. The cascades of ad hominem attacks are unbecoming of Christians, let alone ministers. But who is trying to satisfy the demands of social media with these overtures?
The originators of the overtures, and the presbyteries that approved them, have genuine and legitimate concerns about the health of the PCA. Also, the 48th General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for the overtures, seeking to bring clarity and guidance on some critical issues facing our denomination.
Fifthly, some argue that the overtures are litigious by nature, that they will multiply disputes in our church courts and deepen division. Of course, it’s impossible to know. I would assert that over time the overtures actually have the potential to cultivate greater clarity and unity in our church courts, and to provide them with needed direction on what is and what isn’t permitted in the PCA.
As I mentioned above, the result on Overtures 23 and 37 will prove consequential for the future of the Presbyterian Church in America. Therefore, may our Heavenly Father direct our steps, impart His wisdom, and amplify our love for one another as we cast our votes.
Rev. Dr. Jon D. Payne is senior minister of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, South Carolina.
PCA Ad Interim Study Report on Human Sexuality: https://pcaga.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/AIC-Report-to-48th-GA-5-28-20-1.pdf
c.f. I Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6-7
David Garner, “A Response to Greg Johnson’s Interview: The Gospel and Christian Identity” / GRN Website / June 24, 2021 … https://gospelreformation.net/a-response-to-greg-johnsons-interview/
c.f. Romans 8:29
PCA Ad Interim Study Report on Human Sexuality.
c.f. I Thess. 5:23-24
William Perkins, The Book of Jude, Works, vol. 4, 105.
For details see the Central Carolina Presbytery Study Committee Report on the 2018 Revoice Conference: https: //gospelreformation.net/central-carolina-presbytery-study-committee-report-on-2018-revoice/
Tim Keller, Twitter, November 23rd, 2021 — https://twitter.com/timkellernyc/status/1463177433339904006?t=dtXt63wP3VAHRJU-WGPWYA&s=19
Paul writes, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (II Cor. 5:17). The New Oxford Dictionary (published in 1998) defines “identity” as “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.” The definition is straightforward, and it hasn’t changed in the past quarter century.
David Coffin, “Against Overtures 23 and 37” / Semper Ref / Nov. 3, 2021 https://www.semperref.org/articles/against-overtures-23-and-37