By Philip Ryan | February 24, 2023
“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18
For the second year in a row, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) has sent down overtures regarding the sexuality of ministers to the presbyteries. Overture 29 presented to the 49th General Assembly passed on the floor of the Assembly and was referred to the 88 presbyteries of the PCA as Item 4. Along with a related proposal (Item 5), it has received overwhelming approval from across the spectrum of the PCA. Indeed, leaders of the Gospel Reformation Network and the former leader of the National Partnership have both expressed their desire to see these approved and added to the BCO.
Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your opinion – Overture 15 presented before the 49th Assembly passed by a much narrower vote and has now failed to achieve the requisite 2/3 majority of affirmative votes from the presbyteries (as Item 1) to proceed to a final ratification vote at the 50th General Assembly in Memphis. For some reason, the unity around PCAGA49 Overture 29 splits when it comes to PCAGA49 Overture 15. Why is that? Perhaps it is due – in TE Richard D. Phillips’s supportive words – to the “straight talk” expressed in the proposal contained in the Overture. The proposal contained in PCAGA49 Overture 15 as passed by the Assembly sought to amend Chapter 7 of the Book of Church Order (BCO) by adding a new paragraph, “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.”
My argument for supporting such a proposal is primarily historical. Scripture calls us to be people who remember their history. By studying another denomination with a common history and once-similar polity handling this issue, I hope to show that the PCA is on dangerous ground if we do not incorporate more robust language in our BCO regarding issues of sexual sin for church officers.
Before moving forward with a crash course in the history of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (hereafter, PCUSA) and LGBTQ ordination, I would like to respond to a legitimate criticism that many will make. Some will perhaps respond to my concern as follows: “We have nothing in common with the Liberalism of the Mainline Protestant denominations.” Yes, the PCA started in 1973, ten years before the PCUSA united the northern and southern Presbyterian churches. Yes, both those churches were decidedly Liberal in theology and much more liberal socially at that time than the PCA, and the PCUSA of today is certainly far more liberal than the PCA.
However, as the history of LGBTQ ordination in the PCUSA will show, there were enough conservative and moderate believers in the PCUSA to curb LGBTQ ordination for over forty years. There even continues to be renewal movements within the PCUSA. What ultimately led to the full acceptance of LGBTQ ordination in the PCUSA was a failure on the part of the denomination to add “straight talk” language regarding human sexuality to their Book of Order. Like us, as we will see, the PCUSA had Scripture and the Westminster Standards, but they decided not to change their other authoritative constitutional document, the Book of Order. Consider what has since become of them. Their history is a warning for the PCA.
Troubling Hermeneutics in the North 1970
Our history lesson begins in the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (The Northern Presbyterian Church; hereafter, UPCUSA), when a study report, “Sexuality and the Human Community,” was presented to the General Assembly. The “Sexuality and the Human Community” is a fascinating report. The Northern Presbyterians were more liberal than their Southern cousins (the Presbyterian Church in the United States; hereafter, PCUS). While informing the reader that they turned “repeatedly to the theological issues and questions of Biblical tradition which have informed the church’s view of human sexuality,” they also, “found ourselves relying heavily on the social and behavioral sciences. Insights from psychology and psychiatry about the workings of sex influenced us to think often with criteria of psychological health in mind” (italics mine, page 6).
The report continues on a shaky foundation as the authors wrote about their research into sociology, “We frequently found ourselves challenging the conventional wisdom of the Christian community concerning sexuality, only to find that those conventions were too often the culture-bound wisdom of part of the community: to wit, the white, Protestant, and middle-class part. But the Christian community encompasses a wide diversity of racial, ethnic, and cultural groups, and therefore a wide variety of assessments of sexuality and sexual behavior.” (pg 7).
The report continues with recommendations for ethical considerations:
- Difference between homosexuality as “a condition of personal existence and homosexualism as explicit homosexual behavior” (18).
- The biblical condemnation of homosexuality in St. Paul, in context, shows, “It is not singled out as more heinous than other sins, but is discussed with other forms of behavior which betoken man’s refusal to accept his creatureliness” (18).
- The context of St. Paul’s condemnation suggests that he objected to “the element of disregard for the neighbor more than he did to acts in themselves…Perhaps pederasty, homosexual prostitution, and similar neighbor-disregarding forms of behavior ought not to overshadow our entire response to the human condition of homosexuality” (18, these arguments have historically and linguistically been debunked even among some liberal scholars. For example, see the works of William Loader).
- No one is exempt from the experience of alienation from God. Thus everyone may experience reconciliation in Christ (19).
What is fascinating is that given all the above statements, the authors of the report still recommended that pastors and theologians study this subject, “so that the desire for change can be more effectively elicited and encouraged…homosexual behavior is essentially incomplete in character. It is therefore important to guard against the development of fixed homosexual patterns during childhood and adolescence…one function of such an understanding is to spare young people from thinking they are destined to homosexuality because of some developmentally normal experience” (19). This was a study committee report that was received at the General Assembly and circulated widely in the UPCUSA.
1975-1978 The Task Force to Study Homosexuality (UPCUSA)
In 1975, an openly gay man came before the Presbytery of New York City having received a call from a congregation and thus seeking ordination. The debate on the floor of the Presbytery lasted hours. The end result was that the Presbytery petitioned the General Assembly for “definitive guidance” regarding the issue of homosexuals and ordination. As one commentator who voted in favor of the man argued, “the Book of Order (i.e., the Church’s constitution) didn’t mention homosexuality because it was immaterial and irrelevant.” Several other presbyteries sent overtures asking for “definitive guidance” as well. The 1976 General Assembly formed a Task Force (study committee) to provide “definitive guidance.”
The Task Force completed its study in January of 1978. The resultant report included a minority report. The recommendation from the majority of the Task Force was to let presbyteries make their own decisions in all aspects of ordination. The minority report, supported by 5 of the Task Force’s 19 members, advised against allowing homosexuals to be ordained. The General Assembly of 1978 approved the minority statement. Below are some highlights from the official summary of the Task Force’s majority report, which is available in its entirety here:
- Homosexuality should be primarily viewed as affectional attraction, not as actions or behavioral patterns. Homosexuality is just the basic attraction and preference of part of the population. It is not “consciously chosen nor readily susceptible to change.” They concluded, “Homosexuality, then, is a strong, enduring, not consciously chosen and usually irreversible affectional attraction to and preference for persons of the same sex” (2).
- Homosexuality is “a minor theme in Scripture. It is not mentioned by any of the prophets nor by Jesus himself…Only three specific passages, Leviticus 18 and 20, and Romans 1:18-3:20 appear potentially enlightening as the church today seeks God’s attitude toward consensual homosexual relationships. However, neither Paul nor the priest of Jerusalem understood that homosexual relationships could be based in an orientation of self-perceived as constitutive of one’s nature…The view of what is ‘natural’ that undergirded these convictions was a view conditioned by time and place” (2-3).
- On whether it is acceptable to ordain homosexuals, “Ordination in no way sets a person apart into a class or status separated from other Christians…May a self-affirming, practicing homosexual Christian be ordained? We believe so, if the person manifests such gifts as are required for ordination. For some homosexual Christians growth toward mature Christian living may imply accepting celibacy; for some it may imply accomplishing reorientation to heterosexuality; however, for others it may imply remaining open to or attaining full companionship and partnership with a person of the same sex” (3). The authors thus wanted to leave ordination up to a case-by-case basis.
- Significant for today’s discussions within the PCA were the UPCUSA Task Force’s recommendations regarding the Presbytery of New York City’s request for assistance over whether or not they should ordain a homosexual man. They wrote, “No phrase within the Constitution can be construed explicitly to prohibit the ordination of self-affirming practicing homosexual Christians” (3). Further, it is the right of presbyteries to determine the fitness of candidates for ordination.
The majority report from the Task Force was rejected in favor of the minority report which provided “definitive guidance” that homosexuals were not to be ordained. I want to pause here and point out that this is again a report (i.e., a non-binding statement of advice). There were no amendments made to the Book of Order. In 1979, a group within the PCUS attempted to get the PCUS to adopt the majority report of the Task Force. Instead, the PCUS adopted the minority report as well.
The 1991 Human Sexuality Committee
During the 1980s many Presbyterian congregations were distracted by the merger of the Northern and Southern denominations. However, more pro-LGBTQ organizations formed within the new denomination and provided advocacy for homosexual members and those seeking ordination. In 1987, the General Assembly upheld the ban on ordaining homosexuals. The General Assembly did order a new study committee to spend three years researching and studying all aspects of human sexuality. The report was finished and presented at the 1991 General Assembly.
At the 1991 General Assembly, the Human Sexuality Committee presented its final report. It advocated for the ordination of gay and lesbian candidates. What followed was an intense debate that ultimately led to the rejection of the committee’s recommendations, much like what had happened in 1978. This led to a dramatic silent protest on the floor of the Assembly. The majority report was defeated, but it merits a close inspection.
The report of Human Sexuality called for a theological vision, “of inclusive wholeness, of the well-being of all persons in full community with others – provides a powerful normative vision for sexual relations” (7). The committee framed its report with the larger question of justice (Sexual Justice as the committee called it) opposed to so-called patriarchy, “What we may learn from the marginalized is that the fundamental ethical division in the church has never been between men and women or between heterosexual and homosexual persons. Rather, the great divide is between justice and injustice. From them we may learn to discern, as well, the difference between a patriarchal Christian spirituality on the one hand, and a truly life-enhancing, justice-centered Christian spirituality on the other” (10). Further the committee recognized that continuing education on matters of sexuality are important and in the ‘semper reformanda’ spirit of Protestantism, “Indeed, we have things to unlearn, as well as learn. A church reformed and always being reformed (italics mine) must remain open to new insights and new ways of being, forever seeking faithfulness to God alone who has ultimate authority in our lives. Clearly, the test of our theology, our ethics, and our ministry is whether they represent faithful responses to God’s activity in human liberation, love, and justice”(11).
Again, the arguments for the ordination of LGBTQ persons were rejected by the Assembly, but only by a non-binding report. There were no changes made to the Book of Order.
The Turbulent 1990s
The response to the 1991 General Assembly saw an unprecedented period of boldness from those sympathetic to LGBTQ clergy. In 1992, two lesbians were prohibited from accepting calls to churches. At the 1993 General Assembly, overtures were sent asking for presbyteries to have the freedom to ordain whom they wanted. At the same meeting, another study committee was formed to spend three years discussing sexuality issues. In 1996, the first amendment to the Book of Order was approved by the General Assembly. It was known as the “fidelity-chastity” amendment. It was added to the paragraph on ordination requirements and read, “Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”The presbyteries approved of the amendment and it was added to the Book of Order in 1997.
Immediately, a new amendment was proposed called the “fidelity-integrity” amendment. This would replace the “fidelity-chastity” amendment by using more inclusive language. The amendment read, “Among these standards is the requirement to demonstrate fidelity and integrity in marriage or singleness and in all relationships of life.”During the campaign to approve the amendment at the presbytery level, LGBT-inclusion advocates organized themselves as the Covenant Network of Presbyterians and sent the following flyer out to presbyteries:
Notice the language of the argument in their poster, “That means getting along. Staying together. Even when we don’t see eye to eye on everything.” “We agree on essentials, and trust each other to interpret them faithfully.” Also of note is the language “Candidates for ordained office shall acknowledge their own sinfulness, their need for repentance, and their reliance on the grace and mercy of God to fulfill the duties of their office.”Both the “fidelity-chastity” and the “fidelity-integrity” amendments are broad appeals to faithfulness in marriage (the chastity one specifies male-female marriage) and integrity in singleness. Neither amendment specifically names sins of homosexuality which was the context behind these amendments.
The Transformational 2000s
The Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church was formed in 2001. To date, it has been the last study committee formed by the General Assembly of the PCUSA on this issue. It was charged with leading the church in a process of discernment that covered issues of Christology, biblical authority, ordination, and power. The task force completed its study in 2006. The report was approved by the General Assembly.
The Task Force indicated that it was not asked to take a position on human sexuality or ordination. However, the authors did reach an agreement on several issues. One of these was “Sexual orientation is, in itself, no barrier to ordination” (20 line 585). They were tasked with providing resources for constructive engagement. One of these areas was “Presbyterian Polity.” In that section, they wrote, “Church polity must provide ways for serious disagreements to be resolved. But resolution by merely technical or legal means will not endure because it does not address the conflict of convictions that gave rise to the disagreements in the first place. Only a resolution with theological integrity can be sustained” (23 lines 678-681). On lines 775-788 of the report, the authors included some fascinating comments on the PCUS’s history of limiting the power of the General Assembly.Recommendation 5 of this report was to provide “authoritative interpretation of section G-6.0108 of the Book of Order” (35-43). And yet, there are no recommendations to change anything in the Constitution of the Church. What the authors offered instead was a way to “clarify potentially ambiguous words or phrases in the Book of Order” (37). Most importantly, “It is not the intention of this proposed authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108 to change existing ordination standards, including the standards of G-6.0106b, which was added to the Constitution in 1997, and authoritative interpretation addressing its concerns.” A footnote quotes that part of the Book of Order which is not being changed, “Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.” However, the report undermines itself because this part of the Book of Order would be subsumed under subsection 5 of the “authoritative interpretation” that “All parties must outdo one another in honoring the decisions of other bodies, presuming that other governing bodies have employed their best wisdom and sincerely sought the Spirit’s guidance in all their deliberations” (42).
In 2008, a new amendment was proposed to allow the ordination of PCUSA Presbyterians who identified as LGBTQ. It passed the General Assembly but was defeated in presbyteries in 2009. In 2010-2011, after 40 years of debate (and decline in Church membership), Amendment 10-A passed the presbyteries and resulted in a change to the Book of Order which allowed the ordination of LGBTQ Presbyterians without restriction. The new language reads in the PCUSA Book of Order, “Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (F-1.02). The council responsible for ordination and/or installation (G-2.0402; G-2.0607; G-3.0306) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of ordered ministry. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Councils shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.”
The history of LGBTQ ordination within the PCUSA cannot be reduced to “they are Liberals.” The number of study committees and their reports show that this was an issue that took years of serious debate to resolve. Further, individual churches that made up presbyteries kept the General Assembly in check on several occasions by voting down proposals to allow for the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Above, I have linked to the study reports themselves and other resources put out by the PCUSA.
As we in the PCA continue to deliberate about contentious and important matters of human sexuality – and about homosexuality in particular – we will hear the well-worn arguments, “We have the study report…We have the Bible…We have the Book of Church Order. We don’t need added clarity when we have so many resources that speak to this issue already.” What I am arguing is that we need a Book of Church Order (BCO)that speaks with “straight talk” to the issues facing us. The majority of mainline Protestants – such as our Presbyterian cousins in the PCUSA – thought they were being pastoral and accommodating when they asked for “chastity in singleness” from their LGBTQ-identifying ministers. We see that such “pastoral” accommodation did nothing to protect the Church from a compromised ministry.
 Editor’s Note: Historically, this designation began as LGB (then later added T) in the 1980s. To date, there are many variants, some of which include long strings of alphanumeric and special characters. For simplicity’s sake, the relatively simple LGBTQ designation is what is used in this article, by the author’s design.
 Editor’s note: This was not the historical referent behind the name of this site. Originally, our site’s name was PCA Polity. In deference to the Presbyterian Church in America’s propriety over the initials PCA when used in reference to the Church, we changed our name to Presbyterian Polity.
Philip Ryan is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Assistant Pastor of Discipleship at The Kirk Presbyterian (PCA) in Savannah, GA.