Crafting Sexuality Criteria for Church Officers

by Zachary Groff | June 7, 2023

Image Credit: Kevin Ruck via Adobe Stock

Please note that the Editorial Board of Presbyterian Polity does not necessarily endorse all views expressed on the blog of this site, but the editors are pleased to present well-crafted position papers on issues facing Presbyterian churches and denominations. What follows is one such paper for our readers’ consideration. ~ The Editors

On the eve of the 50th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), commissioners are reading through thirty overtures (one carryover from 2021 and twenty-nine fresh productions) sent up to the Assembly from the lower courts of the Church. No fewer than five propose amendments or additions to the Book of Church Order (BCO) concerning moral qualifications for ordained service in the PCA.

In what follows, I aim to do two things. First, I seek to encourage those of my readers who – like me – were hoping that this year we would ratify the reasonably well-crafted sexuality criteria for ordination that we passed last year. Second, I present the differences and similarities of Overtures 9, 16, 17, 23, and 24 before this year’s Assembly, commenting on the merits of the two broadly defined approaches (revise BCO 7 or revise BCO 8 and 9) represented in the group of five.

A Brief Word of Encouragement

These overtures continue what has become a multi-year discussion that hits on perhaps the most highly charged issue in our cultural moment: human sexuality. Dr. O. Palmer Robertson captured the significance of this discussion last year when he spoke from the floor, “Somewhere we must draw the line about this specific item of homosexuality. And if we are to draw any line in the public eye, it would be with respect to the ordained minister of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.”[1] Though last year’s Overture 15 passed the Assembly, it failed to meet the requisite 2/3 threshold of Presbytery affirmation to proceed to a final ratification vote at this year’s Assembly. Thus, here we are again, with Dr. Robertson’s prophetic words ringing in our hearts and minds.

What are we to make of the fact that we have been working on this issue for several years? Should we be discouraged, wearied, or worn out? By no means!

Our work on this issue is subject to the “glorious inefficiency”[2] of Presbyterianism, and this is ultimately a good thing. However slowly and incrementally, we are drawing near to adopting constitutional language adequate for clarifying our denominational stance on the nature of sin and sexual desire, as seen most clearly in our requirements for ordination. As we do so, the need is present and urgent both to eschew hastiness and to raise aloft the banner of biblical faithfulness along the way.

Be encouraged that together as a denomination, we have steered a sane course of deliberate, careful, and faithful action up to this point. We should be especially encouraged to note that since – and including – the 47th General Assembly in 2019,[3] no fewer than 28 presbyteries and one local church session have sent up 30 overtures addressing human sexuality and the PCA’s fidelity to Scripture.

By my count, five overtures in this period sought to address a particular instance of questionable ministry practice in connection to biblical sexuality,[4] 14 overtures were made for the purpose of signaling the PCA’s commitment to biblical sexual ethics (either by the formation of a study committee or by the affirmation of a statement/report), and 11 overtures proposed amendments or additions to the BCO to clarify standards for ordination. One could argue that two or three additional overtures addressed related issues beyond those comprehended in one of the three categories above.

Furthermore, the majority of the denomination’s presbyteries and commissioners to the 49th Assembly voted in favor of Overture 2022-15 (which became Item 1 before the presbyteries this past cycle). While we may be disappointed that Item 1 did not meet the 2/3 requirement at the presbytery level to proceed to final ratification of amendment at the 50th General Assembly, we should not be discouraged. All indicators suggest that the denomination as a whole is wanting to incorporate into the BCO the principles expressed in Overture 2022-15, and there are further refinements before us at this year’s Assembly. That brings us to the second part of this piece.

Morality & Sexuality for Prospective PCA Officers

As stated above, there are five overtures before the PCA’s 50th General Assembly dealing with the issue of moral qualifications for those pursuing ordained office in the PCA. These are this year’s Overtures 9, 16, 17, 23, and 24. Why so many? Why are we still hammering away at this issue? In short, this is a critically important issue and deserves the best deliberation and consideration we can give it. As Dr. Robertson so powerfully expressed last year, this is the issue of our present cultural moment. If we are ever to speak prophetically as an Assembly on the matter of homosexuality, personal morality, sexual ethics, church leadership, and our practical theology of sin (hamartiology), then it is at this point and at this time. The overwhelming importance of the issue merits the attention it is receiving.

As the Holy Spirit speaking through the Apostle Paul testifies to us, “if any man aspires to the office of overseer,[5] it is an honorable work he desires to do” (1 Tim. 3:1).[6] Not only is the work of the elder – and by extension, of any ordained office – “an honorable work,” but it is a work that demands utmost godliness of heart, mind, speech, and conduct in strict accord with God’s Word. As the same Holy Spirit testifies through the Apostle James, “Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” (Jas. 1:21). The five overtures before this year’s Assembly follow the proposals that have come before previous Assemblies to make clear to candidates for the ministry, prospective officers, church members, and the watching world how it is we understand what it means to put aside “all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness” in terms of officer qualifications.

So, how do these five overtures propose to do that? There are two basic approaches to the problem.

Overtures 9, 16, and 17 propose adding a fourth paragraph to BCO 7, which is entitled Church Officers – General Classification. Overtures 23 and 24 propose amending chapter 8 of the BCO (The Elder), and Overture 23 proposes an additional corresponding amendment to chapter 9 (The Deacon). The two basic approaches are: 1) amend the BCO at a single place and in such a way so as to apply a single general provision to both elders and deacons; or 2) amend the BCO at two places so as to introduce two complementary provisions applying to elders in one place and to deacons in a separate place.

Other than the difference in approaches outlined here, all five overtures substantially agree that it would be honorable, good, and wise for the PCA to clarify that men being considered for ordained office must conform to biblical patterns of godliness, purity, and self-description, especially in matters pertaining to sexual ethics and desire. It is likely that the Overtures Committee will endorse one approach or the other for the Assembly’s consideration, though it is possible that the Committee will recommend changes to all three chapters under consideration, or none at all. It is my hope that the Overtures Committee will present a unified recommendation to the Assembly to augment the language of the BCO at one or several points in order to achieve the clearly evident hopes of the denomination for clarification on this issue of officer qualifications.

The merit of the first approach (i.e., that of Overtures 9, 16, and 17) is its parsimony, or economy of words. That is, this approach “kills two birds with one stone.” It requires the fewest alterations to the BCO to accomplish the intended goal of clarifying the moral qualifications for ordained office in the PCA. A second merit to this approach is that it does seem that general qualifications for ordained office belong in BCO 7, though the title of the chapter suggests that it is more (or strictly) concerned with general classifications rather than qualifications. Paragraph 2 ends with the following: In accord with Scripture, these offices are open to men only. That is clearly a statement about a general qualification applying to both offices. Paragraph 3 opens with this prohibition on abuse of leadership: No one who holds office in the Church ought to usurp authority therein. These are general statements that apply both to elders and to deacons, and so it is reasonable to argue that a general statement about moral qualifications for both elders and deacons belongs in this chapter.

The merit of the second approach (i.e., that of Overtures 23 and 24) is that any proposed additions are to extant paragraphs in chapters 8 and 9. In other words, this approach does not require the introduction of a new paragraph. Generally speaking, we want to make the littlest possible changes to our constitution whenever we introduce either additions or revisions. Whereas the first approach makes a change to only one chapter (by the addition of one short paragraph covering all ordained offices), the second approach makes a change without resorting to the addition of a new paragraph. Both approaches are commendably elegant, other things being equal.

In terms of evaluation, I think that it likely makes more sense to introduce a single general provision that covers both offices, matching the general provision in BCO 7-2 that “in accord with Scripture, these offices are open to men only.” That being said, I see clear benefits to spelling out the moral qualifications for ordained service in each chapter dedicated to a particular officer classification (i.e., BCO 8 and 9). There is biblical support and precedent for either approach. God’s Word presents general qualifications for ordained service as well as specific – though overlapping – qualifications for elders and for deacons. I am interested to receive the collective wisdom of the Overtures Committee as our brothers consider this year’s batch of overtures seeking to craft sexual morality criteria for the PCA’s officers.

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

[1] For a transcription of Dr. Robertson’s powerful speech, we express gratitude and give credit to The Aquila Report, here.

[2] I am indebted to someone for this brilliant phrase, but I cannot seem to recall from whom I first heard this. I suspect it was either TE Fred Greco, RE Mel Duncan, or TE Guy Prentiss Waters. C’est la vie!

[3] N.B. The 47th General Assembly was the first GA to take place after the inaugural Revoice Conference in 2018.

[4] i.e., Memorial Presbyterian Church’s hosting of the inaugural Revoice Conference in 2018.

[5] The term here used is synonymous with “elder.”

[6] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from either the NASB1995 or the author’s own translation.

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