By David Patrick Cassidy | July 21, 2023
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For the past several years the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) has been embroiled in debates about, studies of, and Overtures concerning a whole array of issues surrounding human sexuality. That’s hardly unusual for ecclesiastical communions these days. After all, these are difficult and contentious matters, and our perspectives are often shaped by personal experiences and backgrounds as varied as the creatures in the sea – and sometimes just as frightening. Such debate and dissension can be an understandably wearying process to go through. That’s aggravated by the fact that we are by nature an impatient people, made even more so by the speed of technology. We stand in front of microwaves muttering, “C’mon already.”
Yet we really should rejoice in the debate and the process. Through it all, we can grow in our capacity to listen to one another, learn from each other, and – as we all wish to do – accomplish the work of the Church in such a way that her understanding, holiness, witness, and mission are strengthened for God’s glory. We need each other to free one another from the captivity of our own lack of knowledge, our misgivings, fears, parochial prejudices, and even our wounds. In the end, attentive and patient work with one another can eventually yield peaceful fruit and deeper maturity. I think that’s the outcome we see in the success enjoyed by Overture 23 at our recent General Assembly.
By a vote of 1673-223, the 50th General Assembly of the PCA overwhelmingly approved Overture 23 submitted by the Mississippi Valley Presbytery. There is much in it to commend to our churches, our church leadership communities, and our officers, and as a testimony to the wider communion of Christ’s church. The Overture addresses the Biblical mandate for all of our Deacons and Elders to be above reproach in sexual holiness, not only in their own personal conduct but also in their teaching and public declarations concerning the Church’s doctrine on sexuality.
The Apostle Paul was understandably concerned about Christians learning to follow Jesus in the path of holiness as His disciples. It was an issue He emphasized, especially with the fledgling churches in His mission in the Roman world. The Classical world was a society that displayed a sexual ethic vastly different than one reflecting God’s love and kindness. Rooted in power and often characterized by both brutality and hedonistic pursuit of mere pleasure instead of love, the Roman world’s views on the matter stood in need of a great sexual revolution. That certainly arrived with the gospel.
The Roman view gave men free rein to explore their sexual appetites but greatly restricted and frequently denied a woman’s high place in marriage, giving them no authority in their sexual relationships with their husbands (and in virtually no other way either). Both male and female slaves, including young boys and even children, were viewed as degraded objects provided for the pleasure of owners and superiors. Christian teaching, on the other hand, viewed all people as God’s offspring to be honored and loved. Sexual license, the abuse of power, and the dishonoring of any through sexual exploitation were steadfastly opposed by Christian teaching. Ancient Christians recognized every person as an image-bearer of God and acknowledged that a Christian’s body is a sacred space, the Temple of the Holy Spirit.
Our approach to sexuality originates in God’s good creation of all things and in His redemption of the world from our fall into sin, joining believers by the Spirit to His Son. Referring to creation, Jesus taught that sexual union is a gift between men and women in a life-long covenant marriage bond protecting wives from abandonment and improper divorce by unfaithful husbands. He upheld the Law as well, highlighting and emphasizing not only the necessity of our external conformity to it but also our need for cleansing from every internal disordered desire which does not submit to it (see Matthew 5-7 and 19).
The Apostles preserved and applied Jesus’ teaching, urging ancient Christians to abandon their conformity to long-held cultural norms of power and pleasure and to be instead transformed by God’s grace, embracing mutual respect between husbands and wives, chastity as singles, and purity of heart in all things.
- Paul reminded the Corinthians to “flee from sexual immorality… your body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit within you… you are not your own, for you were bought with a price. Therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:18-20). He would go on to note that the example of Israel’s wilderness sojourn was instructive. Noting their idolatry, he wrote, “We must not indulge in sexual immorality, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day…these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction…” (1 Corinthians 10:7-11). He instructed the Thessalonians, “This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality and that each of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter for the Lord is an avenger in all these things… God has not called us for impurity but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man, but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8).
- Jude was just as forthright when he wrote, “Now I want to remind you…that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe… just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 5-7).
The emphasis of Jesus and the Apostles on this subject is consistent and clear. Their teaching highlights both God’s mercy and God’s justice, His redeeming love, and our need for new paths of living in a society that continues to rebel against God. The ancient Christian approach to sexuality radically differed from the prevailing culture in which Christians sought to walk with and serve Christ. It should not surprise us that the leaders of the Christian Church were expected to uphold this teaching in the posture of their hearts, the conduct of their lives, and the words of their instruction. We should expect nothing less today.
While the Scripture’s clear and wise teaching on sexuality is consistently presented in our doctrinal standards and has been repeatedly affirmed by the General Assembly in a variety of ways, the Assembly has struggled to find the precise language needed for our Book of Church Order (BCO) to make plain our requirements for officers in regard to these issues. There are perhaps many reasons for this, but surely one is simply that discourse in Western Culture on sexuality, including not only general vocabulary but also legal language and psychological and medical terminology, has evolved so dramatically in the past century. In certain cases, language that appears harmless to some is deeply offensive to others, and we are not immune to this in the church. Maintaining both clarity and charity has proven challenging.
The passage of Overture 23 as presented to the 50th General Assembly, however, provides a unique opportunity to unite around language that avoids that which is unclear and potentially harmful, while humbly and joyfully affirming the biblical standards for sexual holiness we expect from the officers of Christ’s Church. I was delighted to vote in its favor, will work with others for its passage in our Presbyteries, and hope for its ratification by the 51st General Assembly.
Far from emphasizing one sin in particular, Overture 23 reminds us of our need for Officers who will lead us with an example of the comprehensive sexual holiness of heart and body that arises from our union with Christ while they teach in conformity with the Gospel of Christ, and – always mindful of our own fallenness and looking to Christ for the grace to be found faithful – assist with Christ’s mercy those enduring the devastation of sexual sin, whether their own or as victims of another.
It offers no cover for those who, with misplaced inquisitional zeal, would launch “seek and expel missions” against others. What it does do is provide unambiguous guidance for those who aspire to serve and those who already do so.
I hope it will prove to be the Overture around which we unite and put to rest the persistent repetition of new amendments on this issue, as one wise commissioner noted in his speech in favor of the Overture at the Assembly.
Will Overture 23 answer every question that might arise in the future? Does it guarantee that misguided people will not be able to misapply it? No amendment could likely make those claims – even idiot-proof systems are no match for system-proof idiots. Still, should other issues arise, or should greater clarity become necessary, we can look to God for wisdom if and when that time comes.
For now, however, with the gift of wise counsel from the AIC Report on Sexuality to draw on, with our abundantly clear Confessional Standards at hand, and with this proposed BCO amendment in place after next year’s Assembly, surely we can move forward together for the sake of the Gospel, more focused than ever on the Great Commission.
Many friends and brothers will no doubt conclude that what we’ve always had available to us in our Standards is adequate to handle the questions that arise and that such amendments to the BCO for the sake of clarity are unnecessary. Respectfully, that hasn’t proven to be the case so far. Here’s what I do know, however: whether or not one believes the new language is needed in the BCO for the sake of clarity, there can be little doubt that it is needed for the sake of unity. Let’s approve Overture 23.
Here are the proposed changes as adopted by the Assembly with the amendments underscored:
8-2. He that fills this office should possess a competency of human learning and be blameless in life, sound in the faith and apt to teach. He should exhibit a sobriety and holiness of life becoming the Gospel. He should conform to the biblical requirement of chastity and sexual purity in his descriptions of himself, and in his convictions, character, and conduct. He should rule his own house well and should have a good report of them that are outside the Church.
9-3. To the office of deacon, which is spiritual in nature, shall be chosen men of spiritual character, honest repute, exemplary lives, brotherly spirit, warm sympathies, and sound judgment, conforming to the biblical requirement of chastity and sexual purity in their descriptions of themselves, and in their convictions, character, and conduct.
David Patrick Cassidy is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Lead Pastor of Spanish River Church (PCA) in Boca Raton, FL. He blogs regularly at davidpcassidy.com.
 Editor’s Note: Readers will note that Overture 23 presented to and passed by the 50th General Assembly of the PCA is now Item 2 presented to the Presbyteries for “advice and consent.” It will need to garner majority votes in at least 2/3 of the Presbyteries in order to proceed to a final “approval and enactment” vote at the 51st General Assembly (see Book of Church Order [BCO] 26-2).