Two BCO Amendments Related to Homosexuality Now Before Presbyteries
By Larry Hoop

Following their approval by the 48th General Assembly, the BCO amendments proposed by Overtures 23 and 37 have been sent the PCA’s 88 presbyteries for their advice and consent. Both proposed amendments deal with homosexuality. Two-thirds of our presbyteries, a total of 59, must approve them before they’re presented to the 49th Assembly for a final vote.

Two Overtures, Three Years in the Making

A lot of history — in the culture and in our church — has brought us to this moment. This is how it goes with controversial issues in the PCA. Sometimes they’re theological — the debate over creation days, for example. Sometimes they’re related to polity — such as the ministry of women in the church. And they can be significant issues in the broader culture, such as racial reconciliation or, as we see today, homosexuality.

Such issues produce debate, prompt disciplinary cases, and spawn overtures to the General Assembly (GA). They can also lead to the creation of study committees to explore the issue, and while the findings of such committees are only advisory, they tend to promote peace in the church around the controversies.

So why this issue, and why now? There are two primary reasons.

The first comes from outside the PCA — the dramatic change in attitudes toward homosexuality in American culture. They’ve occurred quickly — in roughly two decades — and they’ve been pervasive. Sadly, these trends have also been reflected in some Christian churches. Many mainline denominations, for example, now endorse same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Though the PCA has faithfully advocated the biblical teaching concerning homosexuality, some have called for the denomination to express its position even more strongly in response to these trends.

The second reason is internal. In July 2018 Revoice, an organization created to support Christians who experience same-sex attraction while upholding the historic Christian teaching about marriage and sexuality, held its first conference at Memorial Presbyterian Church, a PCA congregation in St. Louis. The conference stirred controversy and criticism throughout the evangelical world, and particularly within the PCA.

Over the next several months, Greg Johnson, pastor of Memorial, found himself defending Revoice in a variety of public settings. In the process, he acknowledged his own struggles with same-sex attraction, which intensified the controversy and prompted a series of technical judicial actions:

  • At the request of the Memorial session, Missouri Presbytery created a committee to investigate allegations raised against Johnson and Memorial for hosting Revoice.
  • In May 2019, the committee presented its findings; while concluding that the Memorial session had failed to exercise due diligence in its handling of the conference, no charges were filed against Johnson or the session. 
  • In January 2020, two presbyteries invoked the provisions of BCO 34-1 that allow a presbytery to ask the General Assembly’s Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) to assume original jurisdiction when a presbytery fails to act on a matter of theological error. The presbyteries alleged that Missouri’s failure to charge Johnson constituted such a failure.
  • In the same timeframe, two presbyteries and two sessions outside Missouri presbytery requested that Missouri initiate a disciplinary investigation of Johnson under BCO 31-2. The presbytery established a committee to conduct such an investigation in October 2019. It found no strong presumption of guilt and in July 2020 the presbytery exonerated Johnson.
  • This led a third presbytery to ask the SJC to assume original jurisdiction in Johnson’s case.
  • But before the SJC could act on these requests, an elder in Missouri Presbytery filed a formal complaint against the presbytery for exonerating Johnson. The complaint was denied by Missouri and then taken to the SJC, which ruled that the complaint should be considered before the requests for original jurisdiction. That complaint is currently being decided.

The PCA Reacts With 11 Overtures

All this — external and internal factors combined — led to a flurry of 11 overtures sent to the 2019 General Assembly.

  • One asked the Assembly to commend a study paper on sexual orientation produced by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) and make it available to the denomination.
  • Two offered their own statements on homosexuality.
  • Two others asked the Assembly to re-affirm previous statements.
  • Two presbyteries overtured the Assembly to commend the Nashville Statement, produced by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and make it available to the denomination.
  • Four presbyteries asked the Assembly to appoint a study committee to address the issue.

Ultimately, the Assembly commended the Nashville Statement and the RPCNA’s study paper. It also approved the appointment of a study committee; GA Moderator Howard Donahoe appointed the Ad-Interim Committee on Human Sexuality (AIC) which posted its report in May 2020, prior to the Assembly that was postponed because of COVID-19.

A Year-long Wait Produces Five More Overtures

By the time the 48th General Assembly convened in St. Louis this June, five additional overtures related to homosexuality and same-sex attraction had been proposed:

  • Overture 16 called for the amendment of BCO 7 to disqualify same-sex attracted men from ordained office.
  • Overture 23 called for amendment of BCO 17 to prohibit men who self-identify as gay Christians, homosexual Christians, or same-sex attracted Christians from ordained office.
  • Overtures 30 and 37 would amend BCO 21-4 and 24-1 to clarify moral requirements for church office. Both overtures highlighted homosexuality in their proposals, and in the rationale for them.
  • Overture 38 called for the Assembly to declare the AIC report biblically faithful, and to ask the Committee on Discipleship Ministries to promote it.

Ultimately, the Assembly approved Overture 38 with little opposition. The Assembly also adopted an extensively modified version of Overture 23 and a lightly amended version of Overture 37 by significant margins after considerable debate. That debate will continue as these overtures make their way through the presbyteries.

As modified by the Assembly, Overture 23 calls for a fourth paragraph to be added to BCO 16 (Church Order – The Doctrine of Vocation). The new paragraph identifies “Those who profess an identity . . . that undermines or contradicts their identity as new creations in Christ” as being unqualified for church office. It lists three possible criteria that constitute such a profession: “denying the sinfulness of fallen desires,” “denying the reality or hope of progressive sanctification,” or “failing to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions.” In a parenthetical comment it also specifies “gay Christian”, “same-sex attracted Christian,” and “homosexual Christian” as examples of professed identities that undermine or contradict a person’s identity as a new creation.

These two proposals, along with six others approved by the 48th General Assembly, are now before the PCA’s presbyteries, who will determine whether or not the 49th Assembly will vote on them.

Teaching Elder Fred Greco, a member of this year’s Overtures Committee and part of the group that modified Overture 23, argues that the change it proposes codifies the position of the Ad Interim Committee on Human Sexuality (AIC), that “identity language that is ‘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.”

Greco is quick to point out that the proposal applies only to prospective officers, not to all church members. “Officers in the church are to be models of godliness and Christ-likeness,” he says. Though imperfect, “they are not to be identified with their sin.” He believes that the three criteria referred to above “make clear that it is neither being a sinner nor struggling with a sin that disqualifies a man from office. It is identifying with his sin and declaring that the Spirit will never give (indeed, cannot give) victory over his sin.”

This amendment, he believes, would be a helpful addition to the BCO because it would “bring clarity to an emerging issue in our wider culture.”

Ruling Elder Kyle Keating, a member of the AIC, sees things differently. Keating argues that the parenthetical insertion “essentially codifies the language of expressive individualism (the idea that people find meaning by giving expression to their own feelings and desires) in the BCO.” He further argues that the parenthetical statements “unnecessarily single out people who experience same-sex attraction and show little understanding of the important contrasts between terms like ‘gay’ and ‘same sex attracted’ which the AIC carefully addressed.”

Three more things are on Keating’s mind: Will the use of any of the parenthetical terms themselves be considered disqualifying without fully examining their context? Are we creating a new and never-ending practice: “Will we need to amend the BCO for whatever label appears next in our cultural vernacular?” he asks. Finally, he points to potential confusion about how the grammar of the provision is interpreted: Do the three criteria set forth in the overture determine whether one has “professed an identity that undermines or contradicts their new identity in Christ?” Or does profession of any of the phrases in the parenthetical insertion suffice?

“We can produce something clearer and more aligned with the AIC report than the current version of Overture 23,” he concludes.

Overture 37 would modify BCO 21-4, with respect to examining the character of a candidate for teaching elder, and 24-1 regarding the similar examination of candidates for ruling elder and deacon. Both call for presbyteries and sessions to give careful attention to “potentially notorious concerns” and the candidate’s “practical struggle against sinful actions, and persistent sinful desires.” Moreover, a candidate is to “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 .. . and to bear fruit.” Further, the candidate “must not be known by reputation or self-profession for his remaining sinfulness” but “by the work of the Holy Spirit.”

The proposed BCO amendment encourages sessions and presbyteries to form committees to carry out detailed investigations of these matters, in order to “maintain discretion and protect the honor” of the offices in question. These committees are also  tasked to “give prayerful support to nominees” during their investigation..

Though Keating finds much to commend in the proposal, he believes it has one major flaw: The phrase “known by reputation or self-profession according to his remaining sinfulness.” It creates an unclear standard, he says. “If . . . men who were open and honest about their experience of ongoing same-sex attraction . . . were seeking ordination in the PCA, could they not be said to be ‘known by reputation or self-profession’ according to their experience of same-sex attraction? If the language here is not intended to apply to such candidates, what in the language prevents it from doing so?”

He goes on to say that some plausible interpretations of Overture 37 conflict with the AIC report’s argument that, “Insofar as such persons display the requisite Christian maturity, we do not consider this sin struggle automatically to disqualify someone from leadership in the church.” Keating agrees with the assertion of the minority report presented to the Assembly, that “adoption of the overture would only provoke endless debate over intended meaning.”

Again, he concludes, “We can produce something clearer and more aligned with the AIC report.”

Greco counters, arguing that the proposal brings greater clarity to what the BCO means when it calls for “examination of personal character.” “In the same way the BCO currently expands on the requirement to examine a man in ‘theology’ by referencing his knowledge of the Westminster Standards, this amendment would clarify personal character by requiring examination that ‘give[s] specific attention to potentially notorious concerns’ and a ‘clear testimony of reliance upon his union with Christ.’” Our exams concentrate on theology, Greco says, but character flaws and scandals are more often the reason men are removed from office. “This amendment would require Church courts to make character examination a priority.”

These two proposals, along with six others approved by the 48th General Assembly, are now before the PCA’s presbyteries, who will determine whether or not the 49th Assembly will vote on them.

For a complete statement of Fred Greco’s arguments in favor of Overtures 23 and 37, click here. For a complete statement of Kyle Keating’s argument against the Overtures, click here.

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