The PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) is having the most important conversation on homosexuality in the church today. For reasons that will become clear, the PCA is at the center of a debate around the quiddity of gay identity, desire, concupiscence, temptation and sanctification. In 2018 a PCA teaching elder, Rev. Greg Johnson who identifies as gay, hosted the Revoice Conference at his church. Revoice was started by Nate Collins. Its mission is
To support and encourage gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other same-sex attracted Christians—as well as those who love them—so that all in the Church might be empowered to live in gospel unity while observing the historic Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.
The organization adheres to a strong traditional stance on sexuality and marriage. It also promotes sexual purity, celibacy and even marriage for the same-sex struggler. For many Christians, Revoice is a breath of fresh air. The organization has also taken some controversial stances. Some of the controversial stances of Revoice are that sexual orientation is usually immutable, gay-identity language is acceptable (if you look at the names of their conference workshops, there seems to be in-your-face-use of such language), and the controversial spiritual friendship movement is embraced. Revoice is a mix of orthodoxy and novel practices. When Johnson hosted the conference at his church a few years ago, the PCA was instantly in turmoil. Many within the denomination believed a fox had gotten into the hen house.
While everyone involved believes that homosexual activity is a sin and gay marriage unacceptable, fault lines emerged. The PCA felt compelled to consider Johnson, his ordination and his church’s partnership with Revoice in light of his self-identified gay identity. The PCA also felt the need to clearly state its position on gay identity, desire, concupiscence, temptation and sanctification because of the fear that Johnson, Memorial and Revoice were defining terms for a whole denomination. With this background, the PCA organized and tasked an interim committee to consider these issues and give a report that would provide clarity on the PCA’s view of human sexuality. Also, individual presbyteries began sending overtures for the General Assembly to consider at its next gathering.
As an outsider of both Revoice, Greg Johnson and the PCA, I have been watching this with interest. What is being dealt with is of utmost importance. The answers really matter. Souls are at stake. I have deep respect for many of the leaders connected with Revoice including Greg Johnson. The same is true for those on the Interim Committee on Human Sexuality. Timothy Keller is a gift to this committee and the PCA and Kevin DeYoung is a friend and one of the smartest guys I know. I do have fear over the outcome of the report. I fear that the PCA is in danger of splitting. This would be deeply tragic. The zeal and compassion of Revoice is a gift to the PCA and the PCA’s wisdom and theological thoughtfulness is a gift to Revoice. You all need one another.
In the hopes of being a help in this conversation, I want to point out some areas that are not helpful and only distract from what matters. I see these areas in both the current overtures sent by some presbyteries, in parts of the Interim Report and the perceived attitude of Revoice.
This year at least, three overtures have been sent to the General assembly to keep people like Greg Johnson from pastoral ministry. Overture 7, 16 and 23 directly deal with the issue of identity and ordination. If someone identifies as a same-sex attracted Christian, a gay Christian or a Christian homosexual, he should be barred from ordination according to these overtures. At issue in the disqualification is not simply homosexual activity or lust but any kind of self-identification with homosexuality.
I understand the rationale of urging Christians not to use gay-identity language because of the cultural baggage that comes with it, but Greg Johnson is sexually pure and celibate. For me, his character speaks volumes. I disagree with Johnson on his use of language and I think there are landmines to which he is blind; but with a world sexually insane, he is a brother. If the goal is to help each other grow, these overtures miss the mark.
I know these are overtures and that perhaps they will be voted down at the General Assembly. I also know that the substance of these overtures is about identity. The problem I have with them is that they come across as out-of-touch, lacking pastoral concern and overly harsh. The title of Overture 16 proves my point, “Amend BCO 7 by Addition to Disqualify Same-sex Attracted Men from Ordination”. From an outside perspective this sounds a lot like we don’t want their kind here. I cannot imagine a same-sex attracted Christian reading this and thinking, “Wow they really get it. This is a place that I can follow Jesus”. Remember being right without love is meaningless. I agree that Revoice needs to refine its language; so do the presbyteries that sent these overtures.
Then there is the Ad Interim Committee on Human Sexuality and their report. It is a brilliant document that clearly explains a Christian view on sexuality and sin. Yet for all the good corrective the document gives, again one wonders how a lonely, same-sex attracted Christian might read the document. Same-sex desire is sinful (Statement 4, lines 7&8). Same-sex concupiscence is sin (Statement 5, lines 20&21). Same-sex temptation is sinful (Statement 6, lines 18&19). We should be wary of using ‘gay’ in connection to Christian identity because of the numerous problems involved (Statement 9, lines 14&15). Exclusive friendships are wrong (Statement 11, lines 30-34). I agree with all the boundaries drawn and they are important. I also know that they are direct responses to the theology of Revoice but they are also true about heterosexual sexual sin. Sexual desire as described in the report for someone other than your wife is sin. Sexual concupiscence is sin. Heterosexual temptation is sinful. Overly emotionally attached relationships with women other than your spouse are sin. This matters because the same-sex afflicted are not a special kind of sexual sinner. There should be more work to describe the sexual sin that is pervasive in the PCA. If stats hold, pornography is rampant within the denomination. Many marriages are loveless and chaotic. Adultery is happening. By naming the sins that so easily ensnare us, it lets our brothers and sisters know that we are just like them. We need mercy too.
Next, the PCA needs to learn from Revoice. Like it or not, Revoice is attracting many same-sex attracted Christians to its community. This has less to do with language and views and more to do with the atmosphere of grace that Revoice embodies. It is not just an idea they defend; it is a value they live. Same-sex Christians don’t need special care, but they do require intentional community and pastoral help. We give such help to young adults who need direction, the addicted, and those struggling in marriage. We do this because we feel safe when we are with people who get what we are going through. This is not the only community a Christian needs but it is integral to discipleship. The PCA does not just need a clarifying report on human sexuality; it needs to practically find ways to reach the gay community and struggling Christians.
Finally, the PCA needs to affirm that the gospel is good news for the same-sex attracted. Practically, this means that within the teaching elders of the PCA there will be men who can proclaim, “such were some of us”. I am not sure what the PCA thinks on this, but the silence of the committee is troubling. Is this not a central question before the PCA? This is what I think: Paul terrorized Christians, Peter denied Jesus and kept blundering after the resurrection, Augustine was a sex addict, Martin Luther had anti-Semitic tendencies and Jonathan Edwards had slaves. If there is room for these men, surely there is room for men like Greg Johnson. Please make a way for the redeemed sexual sinner to lead in your denomination. Not to be overly dramatic, the Lord is watching.
To Revoice, I have one observation. You guys are giving off the “we are the cool club” vibe. This makes sense because you are innovators seeking to cultivate the gospel in hard soil. Innovators usually have discord with the establishment, but this is a fault not a benefit. Whether you know it or not, Revoice needs the wisdom and tempering of the whole church which the PCA is a part. The Lord is seeking to temper your movement so it can persevere. If you do not submit to it, I am afraid the good you bring will disappear because the foundation is not strong. For the good of the church, cultivate humility. Do the work of trying to understand those you disagree with. Publicly repent where you have been wrong. Don’t make this an us-versus-them argument. Seek peace and unity. Take the higher road when others don’t. Accept that you are right in many things and you are also wrong in some things. There is no shame in this. It is the discipline of the Lord. He gives it to those he loves.
What is before the PCA is important. God is using it to grow the whole church. I pray that there is an intentional earnestness to seek the way of love even as these important challenges are worked through. I pray you fight well and honor the Lord in the days ahead.