In the Presbyterian Church in America, it seems we disagree on where “the line” is to be drawn for church officers and what it means to be “above reproach.” Our presbyteries are debating whether to ratify Overture 15 (Item 1) which reads:
Men who describe themselves as homosexual, even those who describe themselves as homosexual and claim to practice celibacy by refraining from homosexual conduct, are disqualified from holding office in the Presbyterian Church in America.
I believe the debate centers on the extent to which worldly concepts and ideas are permitted to shape the way potential officers conceive of and describe themselves. We disagree on how closely a man may come to describing himself according to his unnatural desires and still be qualified to serve Christ and His people in ordained office. It seems some see this debate as centered on simply, how worldly can a man be and not be disqualified?
I. The Main Debate: “homosexual”
Some argue there is nothing wrong with an officer who experiences sodomite lust being described by the national media as “gay.” They see nothing necessarily wrong with a man who conceives of himself as a homosexual ministering as an ordained officer in Christ’s Church. One side of the PCA insists a man who confesses to be homosexual is simply acknowledging unwanted same-sex attraction, which is no worse than a man acknowledging an unwanted attraction for a woman not his wife.
But others insist that while we may name our sins, we are not named by our sins. They argue for a man to describe himself according to his sinful lusts disqualifies him from ordained ministry. Their concern is that describing oneself as “gay” or “homosexual” indicates the man has bought into - or at least is unduly influenced by - a Post Modern Worldview in which the self and sexuality are virtually indistinguishable. Carl Trueman’s diagnosis is helpful to explain the concerns of many of those in the 54% of the General Assembly who voted to pass Overture 15:
The idea that sexuality is identity is now basic and intuitive in the West, and this means that all matters pertaining to sex are therefore matters that concern who we are at the deepest level. Sex is identity, sex is politics, sex is culture.
As Trueman explains, the culture in which we minister views sex as fundamental to identity. Thus, many in the PCA argue a potential officer who describes himself according to a disordered and unnatural sexuality crosses the line of propriety and reveals such a man has succumbed to the disease Trueman has diagnosed in the wider society.
But there is another, less considered, part of Overture 15 (Item 1).
II. An Overlooked Aspect of the Conversation: “celibacy”
One recent author has claimedthe PCA and other Bible-believing denominations have had same-sex-attracted ministers for generations who have ministered faithfully to the church in a lifestyle of celibacy.
But the PCA constitution requires more than celibacy for faithful Christians and especially of men called to be officers in Christ’s Church. Celibacy for unmarried Christians is only the beginning of sexual faithfulness.
I am aware in our Post Modern Age that appealing to a dictionary for a definition is a rather risky proposition, but nonetheless: Merriam-Webster defines celibacy as follows:
not engaging in or characterized by sexual intercourse; abstaining from marriage and sex especially because of a religious vow.
But our confessional standards require more than celibacy, but rather chastity:
The duties required in the seventh commandment are, chastity in body, mind, affections, words, and behavior; and the preservation of it in ourselves and others; watchfulness over the eyes and all the senses; temperance, keeping of chaste company, modesty in apparel; marriage by those that have not the gift of continency, conjugal love, and cohabitation; diligent labor in all our callings; shunning all occasions of uncleanness, and resisting temptations thereunto (WLC138).
In our hyper-sexualized society, it might be easy to conflate celibacy and chastity, but they are not strictly synonyms.While they do have significant definitional overlap, they are different, yet related concepts. Merriam-Webster on chaste:
implies a refraining from acts or even thoughts or desires that are not virginal or not sanctioned by marriage vows; innocent of unlawful sexual intercourse; pure in thought and act; free from all taint of what is lewd or salacious.
Single Christians and married Christians are alike called to chastity. Chastity includes not simply abstinence from fornication, but also the setting of a guard over our thoughts, desires, and company that they all be chaste.
This is why it is not enough for a man who describes himself as “homosexual” to claim to practice celibacy. The mere abstinence from sodomite conduct - while at the same time speaking about, attending conferences focused on, and writing about one’s sodomite lust - is hardly to be considered “above reproach” (cf. 1 Tim 3), to “adorn the profession of the gospel” (cf. BCO 21-5, 24-6), or to be “free from all taint of what is lewd or salacious.”
Bare abstinence from all sexual conduct does not meet the minimum standard for Christian behavior. All Christians - whether single or married - are called to chastity, so the claim of celibacy is not enough to show oneself called and qualified for church office.
Rather, a man must demonstrate chastity; a man’s talk, his life, his teaching and/or preaching, his serving should all be characterized by a holy chastity in which his sexuality is scarcely mentioned and there is no hint of sexual immorality:
But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. (Ephesians 5:3–4)
Unlike the culture in which we live, Christians - and especially church officers - cannot be defined by their sexuality (or be known by their sexuality!).
So if a man describes himself as homosexual, but insists he is celibate, he would still rightly be barred from ordained ministry because he conceives of himself in a way that is not chaste, but instead “sexually immoral” (and unnatural).
Overture 15 (Item 1) clarifies what our Standards already require - but on which there is great confusion - that a homosexual (sodomite, gay person, queer, or any other cognate) is not qualified for church office because he describes himself or conceives of himself in a way that is not chaste.
TE Larry Ball explains it well:
Once a man comes out of the closet, especially as he identifies himself with the genre of homosexuality in terms of dress and various other signals, he loses his reputation and the right to speak God’s Word authoritatively.
By contrast, someone who merely experiences same-sex or homosexual desire and mortifies it, who even privately acknowledges such unnatural affections would not necessarily be excluded by our Standards (or this proposition) because he expresses his struggle with sin in a chaste way.
III. A Couple of Test Cases
A. An Officer
What if there was an officer in the PCA who was known by reputation according to his unnatural affections? An officer whose speech, writing, preaching, and ministering became so tethered to his own experience of sodomite lust that he was identified in the national press as a “gay pastor” or by very excited RUF campus student leaders as a “queer person.”
While we cannot entirely control what people call us, we can impact the way people perceive us. Perhaps being known first and foremost according to one’s lusts may meet the requirements of celibacy, but does that suggest a chaste lifestyle?
B. A Venue
What if there was a congregation whose session had decided to open a portion of its facility to artists in hopes of gaining “influence in the city by serving it” and part of that “service” included hosting art festivals celebrating unnatural affections to explore “gender, sexuality, and romantic orientation?”
Can church officers who host such events be considered to be loving their neighbors and preserving chaste “affections, words, and behaviour…in ourselves and others” (Cf. WLC138)?
These test cases help us to discern the distinction between chastity and celibacy.
We need officers in the PCA who will not simply practice celibacy, but who will live chaste lives and whose ministries will promote chastity both in the church and outside of it by calling people to reject worldly philosophies and ideas concerning the self and to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ in faith and repentance.
If - as is seen in these test cases - celibacy is the standard, then officers and congregations of the PCA may indeed adopt and promote worldly ways of thinking and speaking so long as they refrain from one very specific act. That is not the way of holiness.
The mission of the church is not simply to “influence the city,” but to make disciples by calling people to repent and believe the good news. If we lower the standard of sexual holiness from chastity to celibacy, we obscure the good news. The good news is not only that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scripture and that He was raised, but also that His Spirit works within us to will and to do according to God’s good pleasure.
Because God’s Spirit gives power to His saints (i.e. holy ones), we can strive to live not merely for celibacy outside of marriage, but for chastity in all of life. The PCA must maintain high standards for ordination.
Worldlings conceive of themselves primarily in terms of their sexual appetites; it is gravely alarming that a small number of officers in the PCA seem to do so as well. Officers in the PCA must not succumb to worldly influences, but instead conceive of themselves according to what is proper for saints: as God’s holy ones, chosen and beloved.
Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Wheaton; Crossway, 2020), 299.
n.b. the author’s use and appropriation of historical sources has recently been called into question by M. D. Perkins and the Presbytery of the Ascension (PCA).
Greg Johnson, Still Time to Care (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2021). See also this podcast episode for a similar claim.
Indeed Merriam-Webster does seem to note the words are becoming conflated. But our Confessional Standards nonetheless recognize a difference between the requirements of chastity versus celibacy.
The Church of Rome in France has had its share of sexual scandals. A French bishop explained to me that the vow fo celibacy does not include, necessarily, a vow of chastity. Why? It is impossible to keep. He explained that the church, while not permitting marriage, will tolerate, in certain instances, a man having a mistress. For a pro testamentum (our word protestant, i.e. for a witness) stated that unrepentant un-chaste behavior would disqualify one for ordained ministry.
In another discussion, I stated that if someone seeking ordination defined themselves as a non-practicing paedophile, he would be excluded from ordained ministry; as his sinful orientation could very well result in him "stumbling", thus doing irreparable damage to a child.
Grace and Peace,
"It seems some see this debate as centered on simply, how worldly can a man be and not be disqualified?"