By Zachary Garris | September 17, 2022
It is no secret that Overture 15 (O15) barely passed the 49th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). The Overtures Committee recommended rejecting it, but RE Matt Fender delivered a minority report that convinced the Assembly to make a substitute motion in favor of the proposed amendment to the Book of Church Order (BCO). After a timely speech by TE O. Palmer Robertson, O15 passed with 54% of the Assembly voting in favor of it. It will now go on to the eighty-eight presbyteries of the Church, where it needs 2/3 support to proceed to the 50th General Assembly in Memphis for ratification.
In what follows are some of the reasons that the changes proposed in O15 should achieve the 2/3 threshold of the presbyteries, pass the 50th GA, and make it into the BCO.
The Clarity and Brevity of Overture 15
The strength of the BCO language addition proposed by O15 is its clarity and brevity. Here it is in full:
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.
The end goal of this addition is clearly to prohibit men who “describe themselves as homosexual” from holding church office in the PCA. The language proposed in this year’s O15 is an improvement over the language of last year’s Overture (O23), which used the language of “profess an identity.” Whereas the terms “identity” and “identify” are subject to differing interpretations, the verb “describe” has a narrow meaning. According to Merriam-Webster, “describe” means “to represent or give an account of in words.” This is an objective standard based on one’s own language for himself.
Upon the successful implementation of O15, a man pursuing (or holding) ordination credentials in the PCA may not “describe” himself as “homosexual.” He is not permitted to use the word “homosexual” or its synonyms to represent himself. If he does so, then he is disqualified from holding the office of elder or deacon in the PCA. The word “homosexual” is not unclear. It is commonly used to describe men who engage in sexual acts with other men, which is prohibited by Scripture and the Westminster Standards. This behavior is not befitting of a church officer. Everyone in the PCA should firmly agree with this.
Christians Who Struggle with Same-Sex Attraction Are Not “Homosexuals”
Yet disagreement may arise because “homosexual” can also be used to refer to those who are “characterized by sexual or romantic attraction to people of one’s same sex” (Merriam-Webster). In this case, a man who experiences sexual attraction to other men but “practice[s] celibacy” is still disqualified by church office if he describes himself as a “homosexual.” Notice that the ratification of O15 would not disqualify a man from office simply because he experiences same-sex attraction. The key is that he would not be permitted to “describe” himself as a “homosexual.” The man who experiences same-sex attraction is disqualified from office if — and only if — he describes himself as a “homosexual.”
But is “homosexual” ever used in English to refer to a man who experiences same-sex attraction? The answer is yes. But this definition from dictionaries like Merriam-Webster is not our standard as Christians. The Bible is “the only rule of faith and obedience” (WLC 3). And the Bible teaches us that a Christian is not to describe himself as a “homosexual.” A Christian man may experience same-sex attraction and fight against it by God’s Spirit, but he should never use the word “homosexual” to describe this struggle. A key text here is 1 Corinthians 6:9-11:
Or 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. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
The Apostle Paul teaches here that the practice of grievous sin prevents people from inheriting God’s kingdom. Notice, however, that he does not list the sins themselves, but the terms or descriptions of people who make a practice of such sins. Paul does not say a Christian who gets drunk once will go to hell. Rather, he says that a drunkard will not inherit the kingdom. Thus, no Christian should ever describe himself as a “drunkard,” as that is a description only for his pre-conversion days. “Such were some of you,” Paul says. But now you have been washed and sanctified by Christ. You may have been a drunkard before you met Christ, but now you are a Christian. And if you are still a drunkard, then it does not matter that you call yourself a Christian. A drunkard will not inherit God’s kingdom, and you need to repent.
With reference to our current discussion, Paul also says that “homosexuals” will not inherit God’s kingdom. We need not get into all the nuances of the Greek words malakoi (“effeminate”) and arsenokoitai (“homosexuals”). They are used together here to refer to those who engage in any form of homosexual sex, as seen in the English Standard Version’s translation (“men who practice homosexuality”). So we see that Scripture uses the word “homosexual” to refer to men who engage in homosexual acts, and such a description is not fitting for Christians. Those who are “homosexuals” or “immoral men” are not Christians, but “ungodly and sinners” (1 Tim. 1:9-10).
Therefore, at minimum, a Christian who calls himself “homosexual” (or a synonym) sends a confusing message to those inside the church and out. He may mean only that he experiences same-sex attraction and is celibate. However, many English speakers will justifiably understand him to mean he is engaging in homosexual sex. This is why the Scriptures never describe a Christian who struggles with same-sex attraction as a “homosexual,” just as the Scriptures never describe someone who struggles with the desire to abuse alcohol as a “drunkard.” This descriptor is simply not a word fitting for a Christian. How much more is the word “homosexual” not fitting for a church officer? The elder is to be “above reproach,” and he is not to be known as a “drunkard” (1 Tim. 3:2-3). Certainly he is also not to be known or described as a “homosexual.”
Rather, the Christian should put “evil desire” to death (Col. 3:5), and “put off” the old man that is “corrupt through deceitful desires” (Eph. 4:22). He is not to identify with the old self but instead to “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge” (Col. 3:10). Such renewal in Christ means not using sinful descriptions for oneself. Thus, even if a Christian struggles with homosexual desire, it is not fitting for him to characterize himself with his sin. He is not a homosexual but a Christian seeking to put sinful sexual desire to death. “Sexual immorality and all impurity… must not even be named among” Christians, “as is proper among saints” (Eph. 5:3). How much more is this the case for church officers?
Overture 15 Reflects the PCA’s Report on Human Sexuality
Overture 15 reflects the conclusions of the PCA’s Ad Interim Committee (AIC) on Human Sexuality Report, which received broad support. The Report advises that “Christians ought to understand themselves, define themselves, and describe themselves in light of their union with Christ and their identity as regenerate, justified, holy children of God… To juxtapose identities 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… we name our sins, but are not named by them” (p. 11).
As applied to the term “gay Christian,” the Report counsels that it is wise to avoid this phrase. It explains: “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” (p. 12).
The Report concludes, “In view of the twin dangers of misunderstanding and syncretism, we believe it is generally unwise to use the language of gay Christian.” The Report says that use of such terminology is “not in and of itself grounds for discipline,” but is “more likely a matter for shepherding in wisdom” (p. 30). However, it is important to emphasize that the amendment proposed by O15 deals with the standards for officers. We should expect maturity and wisdom from church officers. And if using the language of “homosexual” or “gay” is “unwise” for any and every Christian, then officers should certainly refrain from such descriptions. If men cannot exercise the wisdom needed to refrain from describing themselves as “homosexual,” then they should not serve as leaders in Christ’s church.
Why Overture 15 Is Needed
But do we really need the language of O15 to be incorporated into the BCO? The answer is yes. With Western culture embracing homosexual practice in large scale, the church needs to speak to this pressing issue. Church officers, and especially elders, must be able to exercise wisdom in explaining their own struggles to the world. Officers are those who fight sin, but they are never identified by it.
The day after O15 passed the 49th General Assembly, TE Greg Johnson of Memorial Presbyterian Church (PCA) in St. Louis implied that he describes himself as “homosexual.” On June 24, 2022, he tweeted the following:
Yesterday, my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, voted to approve an amendment to our constitution designed to remove me from ministry. “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.”
Johnson has been at the center of controversy over his language describing his struggles with same-sex attraction. He previously said he does not use the language of “gay Christian” for himself: “I have never once described myself as a ‘gay Christian’… Some of my detractors have claimed I identify as a ‘gay Christian,’ but they have never been able to quote me as such. It is a couplet I have not and do not use” (Speck v. MO Presbytery, pp. 17-18).
However, Johnson’s tweet in reaction to the passage of O15 demonstrates that he as yet affirms this language for himself. Johnson said in the above tweet that O15 is “designed to remove me from ministry.” The implication of his words is that he “describe[s]” himself as “homosexual.” Had Johnson said O15 does not apply to him, that would have been a display of wisdom in his language. But ironically, the fact that he says O15 would disqualify him is evidence that Johnson describes himself as homosexual. Johnson is an example of exactly why the PCA needs O15, which is to prevent pastors and elders from describing themselves as “gay” or “homosexual.”
The Insufficiency of Overtures 29 and 31
One of the chief arguments against O15 is that we do not need it because the General Assembly also passed Overture 29 (O29), which speaks more broadly of ministerial requirements. In other words, O15 is too specific. However, my contention is that O29, while certainly helpful as far as it goes, is too broad to be of sufficient use for addressing the problem outlined above. Here is what O29 says:
16-4. Officers in the Presbyterian Church in America must be above reproach in their walk and Christlike in their character. While office bearers will see spiritual perfection only in glory, they will continue in this life to confess and to mortify remaining sins in light of God’s work of progressive sanctification. Therefore, to be qualified for office, they must affirm the sinfulness of fallen desires, the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, and be committed to the pursuit of Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions.
This overture passed with flying colors, garnering around 95% of the Assembly. But considering the heated debate over Revoice and Side B, as well as last year’s O23 and the recent Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) case about Missouri Presbytery’s investigation into Greg Johnson and Memorial PCA, we have to ask, “why did O29 have such little opposition?” My answer is that it does not sufficiently address the problem. Few opposed it at GA because the successful implementation of O29 would still allow officers to describe themselves as “homosexual” Christians.
The proposed language of O29 requires church officers to (1) “affirm the sinfulness of fallen desires,” (2) affirm “the reality and hope of progressive sanctification,” and (3) “be committed to the pursuit of Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions.” Overall, O29 is biblical and a fine addition to the BCO. However, it is limited in its usefulness in addressing the current debate over homosexuality.
Advocates of “Side B Gay Christianity” hold that homosexual attraction/desire results from sin but is not sinful in and of itself. Does O29 rule that out? The answer is maybe. If the view is that homosexual attraction/desire is a fallen desire, then the answer would seem to be yes. The language of O29 specifically requires officers to “affirm the sinfulness” of these desires. However, I know of at least one Session in the PCA that distinguishes between homosexual “attraction” and “desire.” The men on that session argue that homosexual “attraction” is a “temptation” and does not fall under the Bible’s category of “desire/lust.” In this case, any “Side B” candidates would face no opposition to ordination on the basis of O29.
The second requirement of affirming “the reality and hope of progressive sanctification” is too broad to disqualify much of anyone in the current debate. The third requirement does not define what qualifies as “sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions.” A “Side B” proponent could avoid this requirement by denying that homosexual attraction is a “sinful… inclination.” Thus, we see why O29 received such significant support. It simply does not address the problem before us. However, O15 does.
We should also mention Overture 31 (O31), which passed unanimously as part of the Overture Committee’s omnibus recommendation. Upon successful passage, this proposal would amend BCO 21-4 for pastor ordination requirements, requiring a presbytery to give “careful attention” to “persistent sinful desires,” as well as requiring officers to “exercise great care to not normalize those sins in the eyes of the congregation.” (The same would be added to 24-1 for the Session in ordaining a ruling elder.) Like O29, O31 does not address the issue of an officer describing himself as “homosexual.” It simply is not specific enough, which is why O15 is needed.
Why Arguments Against O15 Fail
What are some additional arguments against the passage of O15?
(1) The language of O15 is too specific and unnecessarily targets a particular sin. While it is generally advisable to use broader language in the BCO, the specific debate before us requires specific language. Christians, especially Christian leaders, should not describe themselves as “homosexuals.” We must prohibit this practice in the PCA. While the Bible and Westminster Standards do speak to this issue, they are not being used as they should in the church courts. Further, the BCO is important for legal purposes, as it explicitly shows the PCA’s position on officer requirements. A clear statement in the BCO on this matter is needed to guide the presbyteries and in dealing with future anti-discrimination claims. Moreover, adding an amendment to our BCO that has specificity to a certain issue in response to the decay of the culture is not without precedent in the PCA. The 47th GA gave final approval to amending and granting full constitutional status to BCO 59-3, which says that marriage is solely between a man and a woman, and that ministers in the PCA shall solemnize only marriages between one man and one woman. The PCA rightlyresponded to the cultural challenge of homosexuality with specificity in the BCO, so to do so again with respect to ministerial requirements would not be unprecedented.
(2) The language of O15 will lead us down a slippery slope of adding a qualification for every perversion the church faces. This is related to the prior argument, though it draws out the conclusion that if we address homosexuality now, we will end up adding a BCO amendment later for transgenderism, etc. Thus, the argument goes, we should adopt only a broad-language approach. There are several rebuttals to this argument. First, as shown above, the broader language of O29 and O31 is insufficient to address the current challenge of Christians describing themselves as homosexual. Second, it is unlikely that things like transgenderism will need to be addressed in the same way, in part because transgenderism does not find as wide an acceptance as homosexuality does in the culture. Third, if we need to add to the language of O15 in the future, we can do so. This is no reason not to pass an amendment that would help us now.
(3) The language of O15 is in the wrong place in the BCO. This was the primary argument by the Overtures Committee against O15 at the 49th GA, but it is the weakest of all the arguments against O15. The language proposed in O15 would fall under BCO chapter 7, which is titled “Church Officers-General Classification.” This chapter is entirely fitting for the delineation of officer requirements that apply to all ordained officers. As it stands, BCO 7-3 says that officers are not to “receive any official titles of spiritual preeminence, except such as are employed in the Scriptures.” The addition proposed by O15 would follow with a newly created paragraph (7-4) by saying that these same officers should not use another unbiblical term or concept for themselves, namely the term “homosexual.” Further, BCO 7-2 says the offices of elder and deacon “are open to men only.” Thus, BCO chapter 7 is the correct place for an overture dealing with officer requirements and terminology.
(4) The language of O15 uses prejudicial language by saying “those who claim to practice celibacy.” The term “claims” in O15 is a neutral word, but opponents of O15 are insisting it is a negative, value-loaded word. We never know if an unmarried person is practicing celibacy, so “claims” to be celibate is a perfectly reasonable description. The point is that the officer is not permitted to describe himself as “homosexual” even if he says he is celibate and refrains from homosexual conduct. Those who argue this language is prejudicial or harmful are searching for reasons to oppose O15.
(5) The addition proposed in O15 uses the word “homosexual” in a way some find derogatory or antiquated. This argument was addressed above. In modern language, the word “homosexual” can refer to either homosexual practice or homosexual attraction. But since homosexual practice is not befitting of an officer, the officer should not describe himself as “homosexual.” This is not derogatory or antiquated. Rather, it is a more technical term than “gay.” Such being the case, the language of O15 rules out both “homosexual” and “gay” for the officer in the PCA.
(6) The language of O15 uses the word “describe,” which can mean different things to different people. This argument was presented on the floor of the 49th GA. The argument is that that the word “describes” may mean one thing to one person and something completely different to another person, so we cannot possibly implement this overture. The problem with this is that the English word “describes” is not up for grabs. As noted above, Meriam-Webster is sufficiently clear in defining “describes” as “to represent or give an account of in words.” This is an objective standard based on a man’s own words. Thus, someone who represents himself or attempts to give an account of himself in words such as “homosexual” or “gay” is disqualified from ordained office in the PCA. If he does not describe himself as such, then O15 does not disqualify him.
The Issue at Hand
The language of O29 and O31 are welcome additions to the BCO. However, they are insufficient. They do not address the issue before us, which is whether a church officer may describe himself as “homosexual.” The proposal put forward by O15 clearly says no. Officers who struggle with same-sex attraction are not “gay” or “homosexual,” but they are Christians redeemed by Christ who refrain from homosexual sex and put such sinful desires to death. Those in the PCA who oppose O15 will give a variety of reasons against it. But the question for them is, “should church officers describe themselves as homosexual?” If not, then why not say so?
Zachary Garris is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of Bryce Avenue Presbyterian Church in White Rock, NM.