The Author’s Rationale for Overture 9

By Josh Harp | June 5, 2023

Image Credit: TomR via Adobe Stock

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The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is at a crossroads. The issues related to human sexuality have become a focal point for the past five years. And although great strides have been made to carefully explore these issues, there is still work to be done. We have communicated our appreciation for the Nashville Statement as biblically faithful at our 47th General Assembly. We then overwhelmingly approved the Ad Interim Committee Report on Human Sexuality at our 48th General Assembly. Our 49th General Assembly approved a proposed amendment that sought to amend our governing document (Book of Church Order) to better reflect our stated convictions on these matters as they relate to the general classification of officers. This proposed amendment failed to meet the threshold of approval among the presbyteries, and so we now have several requests to the General Assembly (overtures) to amend our Book of Church Order (BCO) to clarify even further our conviction and resolve on issues related to human sexuality. This year’s Overture 9 from Arizona Presbytery is just one of several that have been submitted. It proposes to add the following language to the BCO:

7-4.  Men who deviate – whether by declared conviction, self-description, lifestyle decisions, or overt practice – from God’s creational intention for human sexuality are disqualified from holding office in the Presbyterian Church in America.

It is my intention here to give helpful insight into the principle and intention of this overture so that our commissioners might see best what this overture brings to the table. I crafted this overture in conjunction with my Session, and it was discussed among several other Teaching Elders in our presbytery before being brought to the floor of presbytery for a vote.

One challenge we’ve noticed with these types of overtures is related to the proper placement of the amendment in the BCO. This seems to be one of the more contested issues among those convinced that an amendment on these matters is desirable and necessary. Where do you place such an amendment? My argument for chapter 7 would be simply that this chapter deals most fundamentally with the classes of officers (elder and deacon), including setting various general constraints upon these offices. This overture necessarily follows BCO 7-2, which states, “In accord with Scripture, these offices are open to men only,” and, since the content is dealing with a further restriction upon these offices, it necessitates an additional paragraph, much like what BCO 7-3 accomplishes related to ecclesial titles. Therefore, chapter 7 seems the most helpful and natural place for this type of restriction related to officers to be stated.

Regardless of the placement, however, I believe this overture and the others submitted will give helpful and necessary fodder for our Overtures Committee to chew on, so that we might together craft governing language that will seek to do what is in accordance with our vows as elders, to “strive for the purity, peace, unity and edification of the Church” (BCO 24-6). So, in light of these things, let me walk through the language of this overture so we can best understand it as we prepare for the work of our 50th General Assembly.

“Men who deviate”

The key word of this overture is “deviate,” upon which the principle of the overture is set forth. Here is the principle: Define the standard to expose the deviation. We need language that bolsters our ability to see deviations, rather than language that names and even describes a limited number of deviations. When we do the latter, we open ourselves to either: A) frequent amendments to our BCO based upon aberrant cultural developments and/or B) the inability of our courts to properly adjudicate matters pertaining to future deviations that we cannot now name or define. This proposal is different than previous proposed amendments and additions to the BCO in that it seeks to develop a procedural rubric for determining deviations from the biblical standard as they relate to officers in the PCA.

The Particular Categories

The short list of descriptive phrases found within the em dashes in the language proposed is meant to provide categorical insight into the focus of this provision. In terms of the purposes of this overture, these cover a wide variety of potentials and will give our courts helpful language to assess one’s conformity or lack thereof to our confessional standards, which rest on the biblical witness. Let’s take these in turn to explore the contours of these descriptive phrases. You will notice that each phrase speaks to the willful way in which someone is operating and does not impugn or presume upon one’s motivations.

“declared conviction”

The first is “declared conviction” which speaks to the professed, stated, or articulated belief of someone regarding these issues. It is important to note that this first category does not necessitate the need for one to struggle with these sinful proclivities themselves but rather is based on the substance of one’s declared convictions on these matters. If an officer or candidate is an advocate for positions that deviate in one way or another from God’s intention for human sexuality (i.e., sexual union, sexual intimacy, sexual attraction), then this declared conviction would be grounds for a court to bring discipline against a current officer or prevent a candidate from becoming an officer. For instance, an elder declares that same-sex sexual desire is not sinful. This would qualify as a deviation. Consider another example: During the initial examination, a candidate for gospel ministry states that an aberrant sexual orientation may be within God’s creational intention for human sexuality. This would be a deviation. It is important to note that this would implicate one regardless of their own personal experience with said desires, temptations, proclivities, etc. because of their conviction to affirm, support, or defend these deviant positions.


This term is one that has been the focal point of our recent controversy and was the emphasis of Overture 15 from 2022. What is in view here is the significance of the preservation of one’s mind and one’s words as an officer of Christ’s Church. In speaking of the way in which one describes themselves, our own Ad Interim Committee Report on Human Sexuality states:

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 (2 Cor. 5:17). [1]

If we have stated this in the report related to Christians in general, then how much more so ought this to be the standard of our officers? The way in which an officer describes himself is important for the purpose of clarity and understanding among: 1) those he has been called to shepherd; 2) those under his care who may struggle with same-sex attraction; and 3) those under his care who know someone who struggles with these sinful proclivities. This is showing Christian love by not peddling the confusion of our culture but instead faithfully presenting ourselves in light of who we are in Christ.

This category is critical because of the need for our courts to determine if the way in which one describes themselves is out of accord with our biblical and confessional standards. Note that there are no “magic words” or shibboleth phrases that become landmines, but rather, a court is charged to superintend the overall way in which one is describing themselves to gain an understanding of whether or not they are deviating from God’s creational intention for human sexuality in their self-description.

“lifestyle decisions”

This phrase has attracted the most attention among those who have interacted with me directly regarding this overture. What is in view here are those decisions that are reflected in one’s life. Decisions that would expressly deviate from the divine intention for human sexuality (i.e., sexual union, sexual intimacy, sexual attraction). Such deviations would include, but certainly not be limited to: “spiritual friendship” (described as same-sex unions that are exclusive in nature, with the appearance of marriage, but are not engaged in sexual activity); transvestism (the presentation of oneself to seem like the opposite sex); transgenderism (a lifestyle in which one presents themselves out of accord with their biological sex, even through actions that may cause irreversible damage to one’s body); and queer culture (an adapted form of belonging that envisages one’s affiliations and community as made up by those who are transgressive in their sexual expression and lifestyle). It is worth mentioning at this point that some of these categories of “lifestyle decisions” are relatively new to our society and reflect in many ways the spirit of the age. It is not unreasonable to assume that these types of transgressions will only metastasize as the culture willingly moves away from any and all biblical moorings.

It is important that we understand that these lifestyle decisions are directly related to the way in which one is expressing their vision of human sexuality and would not include family decisions or marital decisions that fall well within the parameters of the Scriptures, such as adoption or remaining unmarried. These, in and of themselves, do not necessarily expose a deviation because they are not in violation of the biblical standard for human sexuality. In fact, in terms of adoption, we see that far from being a deviation, it is rather a marvelous parable of the gospel, as Paul states:

…you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15b-17)

In terms of remaining unmarried, again, the Apostle Paul gives a vision of this for the Christian from his own life and encourages others to consider this way of serving the Lord. He states his reason for this clearly when he says:

I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:35)

The Apostle states that there is a God-glorifying way to remain unmarried that does not violate God’s creational intention for human sexuality (i.e., sexual union, sexual intimacy, sexual attraction) but rather upholds it, honors it, and puts forward a vision of Christian chastity. An unmarried man living a chaste life shows fidelity to God’s creational intention for human sexuality. This is not a deviation. This is true whether this has occurred in widowhood, until one is eventually married, or even if one remains unmarried for their entire life. A deviation would consist of a man who is unmarried pursuing sexual intimacy or sexual union, which God intended for one who is married. A deviation would also include a man who is unmarried entering into a vow of celibacy or if a man were to put off marriage in an inordinate manner.

“overt practice”

The final category seeks to deal with the language the Apostle Paul uses when he writes to the church in Colossae, saying: “seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices” (Colossians 3:9), having listed several things that are tied up with the ‘old self,’ such as: “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness” (Colossians 3:5) of which he says: “In these you too once walked, when you were living in them” (Colossians 3:7). These are evil practices that are out of accord with the Christian, and we need to be mindful of these overt practices in the same way the Apostle is as he relates these things to the church in Colossae.

The spirit of the age has deluded and taken captive many within the visible church along the lines of issues related to human sexuality. For the sake of the peace and purity of the church, we should be particularly mindful of those practices that align with our sinful rebellion and are part of the “old man.” Those practices that seek to dignify, accept, and accommodate what God has said are abominations (Leviticus 18:22; 1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 Timothy 1:8–11). Those practices that make light of what the Scriptures clearly call out as the product of our sin and rebellion against our Creator (Romans 1:26-27).

“God’s creational intention”

In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin speaks of the Scriptures analogically as spectacles:

For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any book, however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly. [2]

We see the world rightly through God’s Word. In commenting on this portion of the Institutes, theologian Al Wolters posits that “we can discern creational normativity best in the light of Scripture.”[3] This understanding will aid us as we approach this particular phrase.

In dealing with these three words, we must be mindful that we are talking about the revelation of God in the Scriptures. We understand not only that God made the world, but that he made the world in a certain way—with structure and direction. And not only this, but he has made man in his image and likeness, male and female. The creational intention here has to do with the way in which God formed mankind and bestowed upon man His image.

We, being image-bearers of God, are made and designed to be his vice regents in the world. The creational intention is that we would live in accordance with his ways and experience the blessings of his communion, his love, and his kingly rule in our lives. As Wolters notes, seeing God’s law as a condition of freedom, not a contradiction of freedom.[4] This aspect gains further clarity as it is narrowed to the way in which God has formed us as male and female, opposite sexes yet designed to complete or complement one another. This defines the condition of freedom—”God’s creational intention”—and is built upon in the next portion of the overture.

“For human sexuality”

This short portion modifies “God’s creational intention” by pointing toward His intention for sexual intimacy and sexual attraction to be directed toward the fulfillment of a lifelong covenant of marriage between one man and one woman. Any and all sexual expression that falls outside of these glorious bounds is therefore determined to be aberrant, transgressive, sinful, wicked, ungodly, carnal, and rebellious and is to be rejected and, if given quarter within the life of an officer, disciplined.

The Westminster Larger Catechism, speaking to the seventh commandment, asks: “What are the sins forbidden in the seventh commandment?” to which question is given the following answer:

The sins forbidden in the seventh commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are, adultery, fornication, rape, incest, sodomy, and all unnatural lusts; all unclean imaginations, thoughts, purposes, and affections; all corrupt or filthy communications, or listening thereunto; wanton looks; impudent or light behavior; immodest apparel; prohibiting of lawful, and dispensing with unlawful marriages; allowing, tolerating, keeping of stews, and resorting to them; entangling vows of single life; undue delay of marriage; having more wives or husbands than one at the same time; unjust divorce or desertion; idleness, gluttony, drunkenness, unchaste company; lascivious songs, books, pictures, dancing, stage plays; all other provocations to, or acts of uncleanness, either in ourselves or others. [5]

In light of deviations related to human sexuality, we also should view the 148th question of the Westminster Larger Catechism. In dealing with covetousness, the question is asked: “What are the sins forbidden in the tenth commandment?” which is given the answer:

The sins forbidden in the tenth commandment are, discontentment with our own estate; envying, and grieving at the good of our neighbor, together with all inordinate motions and affections to anything that is his. [6]

These wondrous explanations given by the divines help us to see the contours of that which would deviate from God’s creational intention for human sexuality. In light of these, the final portion of disqualification is a good and necessary consequence.

“disqualified from holding office”

As officers of Christ’s Church, we do well to remember that we are called to a high standard. We should each be circumspect in our lives and eager to guard the integrity of the office, not for the honor of our name but for that of Christ, that his name be rightly revered and exalted. We should hear the caution of James when he says:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)

In addition to this, our standards state that there are aggravations that make some sins more heinous than others, such as “From the persons offending: if they be of riper age, greater experience or grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed by others.[7] This overture deals with those called to or presently serving in an office of the church. This overture is narrowed in that particular sense; it deals with those who have been or are preparing to be ordained within the Presbyterian Church in America. This overture is not the final word of the church on these matters, but may, by God’s grace, provide us with governing and procedural language to uphold what has been entrusted to us by our forebears—our confessional standards, which we are again under a particular vow that says that we “sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures” (BCO 24-6).

In light of our current crossroads as a denomination, I pray that we will be found faithful to uphold the faith once delivered, to realize the shoulders of the many faithful men who have gone before us and upon which we stand, and to not shy away from where the battle is most fierce but instead to charge forward by the power of the Spirit knowing that he who has called us is faithful.

Josh Harp is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as the pastor of King of Kings Presbyterian Church, a PCA congregation located in the West Valley of Phoenix, Arizona.

[1] This is found on page 11 of the AIC Report on Human Sexuality, approved at the 48th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America.

[2] “Institutes of the Christian Religion” by John Calvin, 1.6.1.

[3] Wolters, Al. Creation Regained. 37-8.

[4] Wolters, Al. Creation Regained. 50.

[5] Westminster Larger Catechism, Q139.

[6] Westminster Larger Catechism, Q148.

[7] Westminster Larger Catechism, Q151.