Last week Jake Meador urged the PCA and the broader confessionally Reformed, Protestant world to move on from the human sexuality debates. He says,
[T]he best thing that could happen right now is if reformed protestants in the US treated those [the PCA’s and ACNA Bishops’] reports as consensus documents that are broadly representative of where we are on these matters. There’s no reason that pastors in the PCA, OPC, EPC, ECO, ARP, REC, and ACNA can’t begin using these two statements in their ministry as a way of helping church members and visitors understand where they basically stand on these matters. Collectively, those seven communions number over a million weekly attendees. Given the disastrous ways evangelicals have often discussed matters of sexuality in the past, it would be an enormous win if a critical mass of our reformed congregations began to use these two statements more regularly.
I think Jake’s impulse is right, but there are still several legitimate barriers to doing that. There is not unanimity, and sometimes there is silence, on the pastoral question of whether someone should repent of an LGBT/SSA orientation. I have written extensively on this subject, but my argument is that orientation and desire/affection are distinct (something many Side B proponents also argue), that LGBT/SSA orientation may be sin, but may also describe an externally inflicted propensity, that mortification sin and the flesh is the best pastoral category in addressing this subject, and that Westminsterian confessionalism bears this out…
If, as I have argued, there is distinction between desire to sin and orientation to sin in Reformed confessionalism (in general here, on the Nashville statement and Side B here and here), and if people who are oriented to same-sex attraction are committed to orthodox chastity, then why would anyone care if such a person called themselves a gay Christian? This subject has seen a firestorm of controversy as a result of actions and statements taken in the Anglican Church/REC and PCA. The arguments against using “gay Christian” or “same-sex attracted” Christian boil down to a) confusing language to outsiders, b) the implication that communities are being formed based upon a shared proclivity to sin, c) and the unwise addition of excessive, sin-oriented adjectives to describe the identity of the Christian. The PCA’s move is more stark than the Anglican’s, in that it pursues forbidding the ordination of men who would profess such an identity.
The issue at hand is the nature of the identity being avowed. For example, Amber Noel makes a strong case that “gay Christian” is a helpful pastoral category, not for identifying an embracing of sin, but of a real besetting condition upon the sinner. Others in the PCA have argued that identifying oneself as same-sex attracted is only identifying their sin struggle, and that a double-standard is being imposed on same-sex tempted Christians…
The College of Bishops of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) released a pastoral statement on human sexuality and identity in mid-January. At the time, I thought about assessing it here, like I did with the Nashville Statement, the PCA’s report on human sexuality, and the CRC’s report on human sexuality. But the ACNA statement seemed so benign that there was not much that I thought I could say. The statement held that there is no guarantee, though there is the possibility, that Christians experiencing same-sex attraction will see an end to that attraction in this life. No comment is made on whether same-sex attraction or orientation is itself sinful or needs to be something repented. The statement even-handily evaluated the ways in which “same-sex Christian” or “gay Christian” are used, but then said, “We do not believe it wise nor commendable to adopt categorically the language of ‘gay Christian,’ or ‘same-sex attracted Christian’ as the default description for those who experience same-sex attraction…
The Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRC) and my Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) are fraternal, ecumenical partners and are both denominational members of the World Communion of Reformed Churches as well as the World Reformed Fellowship. The CRC in 2016 appointed a study committee to address questions of human sexuality, with that committee publishing its report this past weekend. The report can be found here and its executive summary here. The committee is soliciting feedback from CRC congregations and classes, and its 2021 synod may yet edit their report in light of that response. The EPC similarly dealt with these subjects through a revised position paper (2016) and extensive pastoral letter (2018). There is much to commend in the CRC’s report, and several areas that the EPC could stand to emulate or consider imitating in modifying our own position and pastoral papers on this subject. My areas of concern focus in particular on the report’s therapeutic approach, minimizing the necessity of repentance, sidestepping important confessional questions on transgenderism and preferred pronouns, and the intrinsic evil of pornography.
Areas of Appreciation
I want to begin my comments with the report’s strong conclusion, which addresses the CRC’s confessional position regarding human sexuality: It observes that Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108’s teaching that the 7th commandment (“You shall not commit adultery”) condemns all “unchastity”, which includes premarital sex, extramarital sex, adultery, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex (pg. 146, 148). Citing Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 81-82 and Belgic Confession 29, the report affirms that the CRC’s confessions already teach that the church may never ignore or affirm these expressions of unchaste sexual immorality, and instead must warn that those who practice such sins and refuse to repent will not inherit the kingdom of heaven (pg. 146). The report concludes that the CRC’s confessional teaching is biblically warranted “because these sins threaten a person’s salvation. The Scriptures call the church to warn people to flee sexual immorality for the sake of their souls and to encourage them with God’s presence and power to equip them for holy living. A church that fails to call people to repentance and offer them the hope of God’s loving deliverance is acting like a false church (pg. 148).”
This is sober and hard language, but loving…
It was released yesterday, and is generally superior to the Nashville Statement, which it was intended to supplant as the PCA’s position. In particular, I think its section on sanctification and homosexuality is far better than Nashville.
The center of my confessionally-oriented critique of Nashville was that it conflated homosexual orientation and desire, making them both sinful acts or arising from a sinful nature. I argued that the Westminster Standards teach that the fall into sin not only corrupted human desires, but also inflicted corrupted pressures on human desires, pressures which do no not arise from the moral character of the person being tempted. A homosexual orientation could be a way of describing a persistent pressure to have disordered affections, rather than being a way of describing disordered affections themselves.
While not embracing this error of Nashville, the PCA report simply avoids the conversation, I think very unhelpfully. §8 on the impeccability of Christ is the closest the report comes to this, acknowledging that temptation to sin can be something that occurs passively and externally to a person, but only discusses this as something occurring to Christ, “Christ had only the suffering part of temptation, where we also have the sinning part”. In context, this seems to indicate that all other people always experience temptation from both external pressure and internal sinful desires simultaneously (which may be experientially true, but I don’t think can be dogmatically asserted).
The ~50 page report spends 6 lines on the issue of orientation, and only discusses whether it is appropriate to use that term. Yes, if employed to describe a set of experiences of persistent homosexual desires; No, if the term in its context implies a rigid sense of homosexual normativity. This is wise counsel, I think, but demonstrates that the report still conflates orientation with having the desire, either in regards to classification of a history of desire or an assertion about the permanency of desire. The Side B of Gay Christianity has sometimes used the term to describe the inclination (i.e., external pressure) to the desire, which is substantially different than the report’s engagement with the issue. I think the report missed an opportunity to address this subject.