New Overtures for a Pressing Concern

By Scott Edburg | April 26, 2022


How has the failure of last year’s proposed Book of Church Order (BCO) amendments regarding sexuality affected the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) so far? Some effects are more obvious than others. The most obvious effect to date is the attempt on the part of some presbyteries to offer fresh alternatives to last year’s proposals.

Several presbyteries have produced new overtures to address the ongoing controversy surrounding ministerial qualifications (or disqualifications), so-called Side B Gay Christianity, and the influence of the Revoice Conference. The deadline to overture the 49th General Assembly (GA) to consider amending the BCO passed on April 20th. So far, 31 overtures have been submitted for consideration at the next GA. Six of these overtures seek to amend the BCO in response to the aforementioned controversy. Five proposed amendments seek to replace the 48th General Assembly’s Overture 23 (i.e., Item 2), which failed to pass the 88 presbyteries of the PCA by around 4 votes. One of the new overtures replaces last year’s less popular Overture 37 (i.e., Item 4), which failed to pass the presbyteries by around 11 votes.

It is safe to say that the authors of these new proposed amendments hope that the improved language of these latest overtures will succeed where last year’s proposals have failed. The 49th GA in Birmingham, AL will meet on June 20-24, 2022 to consider these overtures from the presbyteries.

Overture 12

Overture 12 was submitted on March 5, 2022 by Hills and Plains Presbytery, which covers Northwest Arkansas, Southwest Missouri, and all of Oklahoma. It is notable that Hills and Plains Presbytery voted down both Overture 23 (Item 2) and Overture 37 (Item 4) earlier this year at its winter meeting. This year’s Overture 12 proposes an amendment to BCO 16 by adding the following paragraph (underlining indicates language which is proposed as an addition to what is already in the BCO):

16–4. Officers in the Presbyterian Church in America, though sound in the faith and living lives according to godliness, are well served when they can be honest about both their present fallen realities and their hope for sanctification. Their 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. Desires that are inconsistent with God’s design are to be resisted and mortified, not celebrated or accommodated. To juxtapose identities rooted in sinful desires alongside the term Christian is inconsistent with biblical language and undermines the spiritual reality that they are new creations in Christ. Sometimes there are disagreements about language even when the underlying doctrinal commitments seem to be the same, and how persons express themselves is not finally determinative of their identity.

This overture proposes to amend BCO 16 by adding language from the Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Human Sexuality (AIC). Since the PCA has voted almost unanimously to commend the AIC report, this amendment seems to be an effort to achieve denominational unity by rallying behind the AIC Report. This amendment addresses the issue of sanctification and identity for ordained officers in the PCA.

Overture 15

Overture 15 was submitted on March 12 by Westminster Presbytery, which includes Northeastern Tennessee and Southwestern Virginia. This overture is notable in that it seeks to amend BCO 7 (the general classification of church officers) instead of BCO 16 (the doctrine of vocation). Westminster Presbytery passed both of last year’s proposed amendments. This year’s Overture 15 requests an amendment to BCO 7 by adding the following paragraph:

7-4. Men who identify as homosexual, even those who identify as homosexual and claim to practice celibacy in that self-identification, are disqualified from holding office in the Presbyterian Church in America.

This amendment would disqualify men from office that identify as homosexual. The authors of this amendment argue that ministers of the gospel are to be above reproach in their Christian character and self-conception. This amendment would disqualify a man from serving in ordained office in the PCA if that man identifies himself in terms associated with the LGBTQ+ movement or has a Gay self-conception.

Overtures 20 & 23

Overture 20 was submitted on April 5, 2022 by Northwest Georgia Presbytery. Southeast Alabama Presbytery subsequently sent up Overture 23, which is similar to the overture submitted by Northwest Georgia (differences between the overtures are indicated in boldface, below). Both presbyteries passed the previous round of overtures on sexuality. Overtures20 and 23 recommend an amendment to BCO 16 by adding the following paragraph:

Overture 20: 16-4. Those whom God calls to bear office in His Church shall demonstrate maturity of faith and growing conformity to Jesus Christ. While these office bearers will see spiritual perfection only in glory, they will continue in this life doing battle with and confessing remaining sins. Thus, those who identify or describe themselves according to their specific sins, or who teach that it is acceptable for Christians to identify or describe in such a manner, shall not be approved for service by any court of Christ’s Church.

Overture 23: 16-4. Those whom God calls to bear office in His Church shall demonstrate maturity of faith and growing conformity to Jesus Christ. While these office bearers will see spiritual perfection only in glory, they will continue in this life to confess and to mortify remaining sins. Thus, those who identify or describe themselves according to their specific sins, or who teach that it is acceptable for Christians to identify or describe in such a manner, shall not be approved for service by any court of Christ’s Church.

These overtures take a slightly different approach to amending BCO 16. This amendment applies the language of Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 9 regarding the state of sin and the state of grace. The authors argue that in the state of sin, a man is defined and self-conceived according to his enslavement to sin. When the Holy Spirit works within that man, he enters the state of grace. This state of grace expresses a believers union with Christ as a partaker of the benefits of salvation. The state of grace frees the believer from the bondage of sin and enables him to do that which is spiritually good. In this new state, a believer no longer conceives of himself according to sin or according to his enslavement to sin. This amendment evidently seeks to clarify the PCA’s standards for ordination as they relate to sanctification and self-conception.

Overture 29

Overture 29 was submitted on April 2, 2022 by Pittsburgh Presbytery. This presbytery also voted for the previous amendments regarding sexuality. Overture 29 suggests amending BCO 16 by adding the following paragraph:

16-4. Officers in the Presbyterian Church in America must be above reproach in their walk and Christlike in their character. Those who deny the sinfulness of fallen desires, or who deny the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, or who fail to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions are not qualified for ordained office. Our standard of conduct is always the Word of God, which transcends any culture; whether a sin is especially hated or excused in a particular society shall neither excuse those who are unrepentant nor bar those who are clearly repentant.

This overture reflects the language of the 16-4 amendments of the 48th General Assembly. The authors of this amendment argue that this amendment addresses the core issues found within the Revoice movement, captures the spirit of last year’s amendments, and avoids the problems of the now failed amendments.

Overture 31

Like Overture 29, Overture 31 comes from Pittsburgh Presbytery. This overture proposes to refine and replace the now-failed Overture 37 of last year. This year’s Overture 31 recommends the addition to two paragraphs to the BCO, one to 21-4, and one to 24-1:

21-4. In the examination of the candidate’s personal character, the presbytery shall give specific attention to potential notorious concerns. Careful attention must be given to his practical struggle against sinful actions, as well as to persistent sinful desires. 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). While imperfection will remain, when confessing sins and sinful temptations publicly, officers of the church must exercise great care to not normalize those sins in the eyes of the congregation, as though they were matters of little consequence, but rather should testify to the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ Jesus in changing our sin nature (1 Cor. 6:9-11). In order to maintain discretion and protect the honor of the pastoral office, presbyteries are encouraged to empower a committee to conduct detailed examinations of these matters and to give prayerful support to candidates.

24-1. In the examination of each nominee’s personal character, the Session shall give specific attention to potential notorious concerns. Careful attention must be given to his practical struggle against sinful actions, as well as to persistent sinful desires. 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). While imperfection will remain, when confessing sins and sinful temptations publicly, officers of the church must exercise great care to not normalize those sins in the eyes of the congregation, as though they were matters of little consequence, but rather should testify to the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ Jesus in changing our sin nature (1 Cor. 6:9-11). In order to maintain discretion and protect the honor of church office, Sessions may empower a committee to conduct detailed examinations of these matters and to give prayerful support to nominees.

The authors of this year’s Overture 31 argue that there was widespread support for last year’s proposed amendments to BCO 21 and 24. This overture recommends additions that clearly align with the spirit of last year’s proposal. However, they are carefully reworked for wide acceptability.

General Assembly 49 – June 2022

The Overtures Committee (OC) will begin its deliberations on Monday June 20, 2022 at 10 AM. This committee is comprised of 1 Teaching Elder and 1 Ruling Elder from each presbytery in the PCA. The OC’s task is to evaluate the overtures submitted this year by the presbyteries, to revise the overtures (if and where needed), and to make recommendations to the whole of the Assembly as to how best to handle each overture. The OC will present its report and recommendations on Thursday June 23, 2022. The Assembly will then have a chance to approve or reject the OC’s recommendations for the various overtures. It is likely that only one of these amendments will be recommended to the Assembly as a whole, perhaps in some amended form.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this post had the text of Overtures 20 and 23 mixed up. The present version is corrected. Additionally, the author updated several key facts in light of new information received on April 27 (the day following the initial publication of the post), particularly regarding this year’s Overture 31. Please consult the website for the PCA Administrative Committee (PCAAC) here for all official records of this year’s overtures before the General Assembly.

Scott Edburg is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Assistant Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Tuscumbia, AL.