The Biblical Genius of PCAGA49’s Overture 15

by Zachary Groff | August 6, 2022

This year, twelve proposed changes to the Presbyterian Church in America’s (PCA) Book of Church Order (BCO) will come before the denomination’s eighty-eight presbyteries for consideration.[1] Three of the twelve proposals address aspects of ministerial qualifications and examination.

Perhaps the most talked-about item is that which resulted from Overture 15 before the 49th Stated Meeting of the General Assembly. Upon the proposal’s successful passage by two-thirds of the presbyteries and ratification by the 50th General Assembly, a new paragraph will augment Chapter 7 of the BCO (on Church Officers in general) as follows:

7-4. Men who describe themselves as homosexual, even those who describe themselves as homosexual and claim to practice celibacy by refraining from homosexual conduct, are disqualified from holding office in the Presbyterian Church in America.

It is undeniable that the substance and phrasing of this proposed addition to the BCO has attracted special attention before,[2] during,[3] and after the 49th General Assembly. Already, the post-Assembly discussion on this proposal has been unsurprisingly vigorous on both sides of the issue.[4]

It is not my purpose in this brief post to respond to any of the missives that are already circulating the Internet. Instead, I intend to explore the biblical propriety of what this proposed addition to the BCO will do upon ratification: specifically banning (and thus, singling out) homosexual self-description by those who hold spiritual office in our Church.

To frame the issue as a question, does God’s Word give warrant for the inclusion of a paragraph in our BCO that disqualifies from ministry (as Deacons or Elders) “men who describe themselves as homosexual?” Having wrestled with this question, I believe that the answer is yes. Indeed, I am more and more convinced of the biblical genius of Overture 15. To understand how I reached this conclusion, we would do well to walk through a few preliminary matters.

Christ the King over His Kingdom

The preface to the BCO opens with a glorious description of Jesus Christ as “The King and Head of the Church.” The third and fourth paragraphs set out the place reserved for Christ to rule and govern the Church as His Kingdom.

It belongs to His Majesty from His throne of glory to rule and teach the Church through His Word and Spirit by the ministry of men; thus mediately exercising His own authority and enforcing His own laws, unto the edification and establishment of His Kingdom.

Christ, as King, has given to His Church officers, oracles and ordinances; and especially has He ordained therein His system of doctrine, government, discipline and worship, all of which are either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary inference may be deduced therefrom; and to which things He commands that nothing be added, and that from them naught be taken away.

In this exalted language drawn from Scripture and our doctrinal Standards, we read of Christ reserving to Himself both decisive authority over His church and the means of communicating that authority. In the publication, preservation, and propagation of His Word, He has established and continues to build up the Kingdom of Heaven in and as the visible church.

The Westminster Confession of Faith defines the visible church as “the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ” (WCF 25.2).  Geerhardus Vos likewise argued in favor of understanding “the visible church as a veritable embodiment of [Christ’s] kingdom.”[5] Vos made the point that though the Kingdom of Heaven is fundamentally spiritual and ultimately more expansive than the church, it nonetheless finds visible expression in the visible church as one manifestation among many.

If Christ the King rules over the church as His Kingdom,[6] then we must evaluate every proposal affecting the government of His Kingdom – including the qualifications of that Kingdom’s officers – against the record of the King’s righteous administration of His Kingdom in times past. What has Jesus done in the past to inform our deliberations in the present as He continues to rule over us by His Word and Spirit?[7]

Christ the King in His Kingdom

When “Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to Himself a true body, and a reasonable soul” (WSC 22), He descended from heaven to earth to inaugurate His heavenly Kingdom. Thus, His preaching ministry was one of glad tidings of the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 4:23ff), proclaiming the gospel of release, recovery, and redemption (Luke 4:16-21; Isaiah 61:1, 2).

While it is entirely proper and necessary to speak of Christ doing something new in His earthly ministry, His mighty deeds of deliverance in the first century A.D. cannot be divorced from His mighty deeds of deliverance recorded in the Scriptures of the Old Testament. Indeed, the Old Testament background of Christ’s kingship is crucial for understanding rightly what He intends for His Kingdom today.[8] Christ came not to destroy the essence of the Kingdom of old, but to fulfill all its purposes in Himself (Matthew 5:17). His ministry is one of reformation and fulfillment, not of abrogation and invention.

How did Christ righteously administer His Kingdom when its visible expression was that ancient nation of Israelites dwelling in the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Two passages of Christ’s royal charter come to mind as especially relevant to our consideration of the proposal to disqualify any man from ordained office who would describe himself as homosexual.

In the first place, we consider the record of righteous King Asa’s 41-year reign over Judah in 1 Kings 15:10-24. We are told that “Asa did what was right in the sight of the LORD, like David his father” (v. 11). Indeed, “the heart of Asa was wholly devoted to the LORD all his days” (v. 14). Interestingly, the very first example of Asa’s David-like righteousness before God is that he “put away the male cult prostitutes (KJV: sodomites) from the land and removed all the idols which his fathers had made” (v. 12). Exegetically, the parallel construction of these two clauses (“put away… and removed”) suggests that both of Asa’s commendable acts of reformation concerned the religious worship of the Kingdom (i.e., the visible church of Asa’s day). The evidence of Asa’s true and lively devotion to the Lord consisted in his expulsive ban of “the male cult prostitutes,” or “sodomites” from the religious worship of the people of God.

In the second place, we can go back behind this historical example of reformation to consider the governing precept which God conveyed through Moses in Deuteronomy 23:17, that “none of the daughters of Israel shall be a cult prostitute (NKJV: ritual harlot), nor shall any of the sons of Israel be a cult prostitute (KJV: sodomite).” In the context of worship regulations (see verse 18), this decree of God bans a particular set of people (i.e., those who are described as “cult prostitutes” of one kind or another) from the service of religious work, priestly or otherwise.

Whereas the two examples cited here may be primarily concerned with regulating the priesthood of the Old Testament church, the principle that undergirds both the precept in Deuteronomy 23:17 and the historical act recorded in 1 Kings 15:12 leaves no room to those who would seek to dismiss the relevance of the ban today on the grounds that the ceremonial law has been fulfilled in Christ. Though ministers of the New Testament church are not priests in a Levitical sense – for we have one “great high priest” (Hebrews 4:14) – the moral nature and demands of God expressed in the two examples cited above stand unchanged and ever-relevant to the government and ministry of the church through all ages. Indeed, a major feature of Christ’s earthly ministry was the emphatic application of the moral demands of God’s law to the hearts of men, and not just to their outward acts. Taken together with what we find in the New Testament (with but one example cited below), we can and should recognize the propriety of singling out specific sins as disqualifying, for that is what Christ has done as Head of the church in all ages. In fact, the BCO already names particular sins as disqualifying and particular virtues as necessary for officer qualification at several points.[9]

These two passages give us much more than an explicit precept with an historical example to consider applying in some generally equitable manner to our own day. Fundamentally, Deuteronomy 23:17 is Christ’s decree, and King Asa’s godly reformation in 1 Kings 15:12 is Christ’s mighty act of royal administration in His church. If we want to ask “what did King Jesus do?” we can say that He commanded and enacted the expulsion of “male cult prostitutes” or “sodomites” from His service. That is what King Jesus did. This then is Christ the King’s royal initiative laid out in the Old Testament: to exclude those who would describe themselves as homosexuals (or in terms of any kind of sexual perversion) from worship leadership. This divine initiative is echoed in the New Testament when Paul repeatedly names homosexuality and related character and affectional sins (e.g., effeminacy) as especially grievous affronts to God’s order and design for mankind.[10]

Reforming the Kingdom

It is at precisely this point that the genius of Overture 15 to the 49th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America emerges. The very vocabulary used in Deuteronomy 23:17 and 1 Kings 15:12 militates against any argument that reserves the right of an ordained servant of King Jesus to maintain a presently “homosexual” identity, self-conception, or self-definition. Both passages (and others besides) employ the sparsely used technical term qadesh[11] to refer to what various translations render in pluralized form as “male cult prostitutes,” “sodomites,” “perverse men,” or simply “defiled ones.”[12]

The consonantal root structure of this term is identical to the much more frequently occurring qodesh,[13] which describes the holiness of God and those things related to His service or habitation. Both terms derive from the verb qadash,[14] which means to set apart, to consecrate, or to make holy.

The lexical similarity in the words is not at all superficial. Indeed, the closeness of the terms betrays a deep heart problem in the “male cult prostitutes” outlawed from the religious worship of the Israelites. They believed themselves to be set apart for a special form of religious devotion that the church of their day was lacking without them. They reveled in their debased self-definition and self-identity as something they conceived of as good for their church. They did not set out to corrupt the worship of God any more than Aaron set out to engage in idolatry with the golden calf (as a representation of the Lord) in Exodus 32 or his sons Nadab and Abihu set out to defile the tabernacle with strange fire in Leviticus 10. But just as surely as Christ the King ground the golden calf into dust and consumed Aaron’s presumptuous sons with fire from the altar, He casts out all those who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18) and defile the worship of His church.

As we look to Christ our King for what He has done, what He is doing, and what He would have us to do today in the courts of His church, let us consider His inaugurated program of spiritual reformation.

There are individuals and movements both within and around the PCA that would have us celebrate “queer treasure”[15] and “Side B Gay Christianity”[16] as set apart for a special form of religious devotion. Such celebrants revel in their debased self-definition and self-identity as something which they believe is good for the church and that particular expression of the church we affectionately call the PCA. But Christ as the great Reformer and Redeemer of His church, as the King of kings and Lord of lords has spoken and acted already to purify and beautify His bride.

Christ the King has published His definitive list of what He shall not tolerate in the courts of His Kingdom: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9, 10). When sinners flee to Christ for salvation, they forsake their sin and are stripped bare of their old self-conceptions as they are washed clean in the blood of the Lamb and clothed with His perfect righteousness. The name of Christ is then set upon them as a crown without competition. Why is it that there is such clamor for room to be made for ministers who would carry “queer treasure” into the Kingdom of Heaven, or otherwise celebrate their unique value and perspective as so-called homosexual or Gay Christians? This is the issue that the authors and defenders of the proposal developed out of the last General Assembly’s Overture 15 seek to address. The proposed addition to the BCO’s statement of officer qualifications in Chapter 7 is an enactment of the wisdom expressed in Matthew Henry’s comments on 1 Kings 14:24, that homosexual desire and practice is “not to be thought of, much less mentioned, without abhorrence and indignation,” and especially in relation to ordained officers in Christ’s church.

If the PCA ratifies this proposed change and proceeds to enforce it, then the apparent goal of the proposal will be achieved. The clamor of those who would import a homosexual self-conception into the ordained ministry of the PCA will be silenced in the Church. Since Christ our King has definitively prohibited and expelled such mock “ministry” perpetrated in His Kingdom in the past, and He has not changed, we should expect that He will not tolerate such defiling mockery in our midst for long. Instead, He promises the renewal of His beloved bride’s beauty in place of her defilement and shame.

[1] You can read a helpful primer of the twelve items here (thanks to Larry Hoop and byFaith). You can track the progress of the proposals here as the presbyteries vote upon them (thanks to Scott Edburg and Joshua Torrey).

[2] See Scott Edburg, “New Overtures for a Pressing Concern.”

[3] For example, see “Great Speeches of PCAGA49,” which includes links to the floor debate surrounding Overture 15. Watch the speeches by RE Matt Fender, TE Richard D. Phillips, and TE O. Palmer Robertson for the best examples of the argument presented at the 49th General Assembly in favor of Overture 15. Consult as well The Aquila Report’s helpful transcription of Dr. O. Palmer Robertson’s speech.

[4] See the following opinion pieces on The Aquila Report: Joe Gibbons, “Exploring Overture 15 from the PCA General Assembly;” Larry Ball, “Overture 15 – The Tipping Point for a Split in the PCA?;” Luke Kallberg, “A Response to “Exploring Overture 15 from the PCA General Assembly” – Revised;” as well as Jared Nelson’s fine piece on this site, “Stepping Up to Overture 29.”

[5] Geerhardus Vos, The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church (New York: American Tract Society, 1903), 161. Readers can find a .pdf version of this excellent little book for free online here.

[6] For a classic biblical theological presentation of Christ Jesus as the incarnate Shepherd King promised and anticipated in the Old Testament, see F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Development of Old Testament Themes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969), 100-114.

[7] If ever you find yourself wondering “what would Jesus do?” the better questions to bring to Scripture are “what did Jesus do?” and “what is Jesus doing?”

[8] For a helpful presentation of the relationship between the Kingdom of God in the Old Testament and in Christ’s teaching, see Vos, The Teaching of Jesus, 11-25.

[9] Note that the BCO cites particular sins as disqualifying in 7-3; particular virtues as necessary for officer qualification in 8-1, 8-2, 9-3, and 16-3; and particular virtues as necessary for non-ordained service in 9-7.

[10] For development of this point in the history of the polity of the Presbyterian Church in America, see Minutes of the 5th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, pages 61, 67, 68, 69; Overture 22 from Westminster Presbytery to the 27th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America; the Nashville Statement as affirmed by the 47th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America; the Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Human Sexuality to the 48th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America; and, Overture 15 from Westminster Presbytery to the 49th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America.

[11] קָדֵשׁ

[12] The other passages in which this technical term describing sacrilegious and sexually deviant worshippers appears include 1 Kings 14:24, 1 Kings 22:46, 2 Kings 23:7, and Job 36:14.

[13] קֹדֶשׁ

[14] קָדַשׁ

[15] For a summary of this concept, see proponent Wesley Hill’s personal blog post, About Revoice’s “Queer Treasure.”

[16] Arguably the most vocal proponents of Side-B Gay Christianity are the organizers and supporters of the annual Revoice Conference.

Zachary Groff is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of Antioch Presbyterian Church in Woodruff, SC.