It is to be expected that the following opinion piece will be criticized as homophobic, fundamentally at odds with the gospel, grossly callous and hurtful. It will surely be faulted for issues it does not address, and for forbidden diction as well as insufficient empathy.
Criticism of that kind will simply prove the point. Some matters are indubitable, no matter how they provoke offense. Some matters are judgement calls, no matter how much a motion to call the question disappoints. You can't have this discussion without a messy omelette. You can't have this discussion without wails and consternation.
Such shadow & gesture & implication assessment of my assertions and conclusions is purposefully invoked by this italicized introduction as a convenient demonstration of the whole. Earnest engagement with homosexuality in the PCA will bring friction, flack and slow moralistic pressure. Our Constitution and our vows must be fit for both our convictions and our weakness. Pass 23 and 37.
Our Setting and Circumstance
In the summer of 2021, overtures 23 and 37 were passed by large majorities at the PCA General Assembly. During the subsequent year, 88 presbyteries will vote on the corresponding amendments to the Book of Church Order, defeating them if more than 29 presbyteries reject them. If at least 59 presbyteries uphold them, a final vote will be cast at the 2022 General assembly. Yes, that is 90 votes. That is what it takes for a positive result, but essentially only 31 votes for a negative conclusion. These are the numbers of the process.
The most sympathetic and poignant reasons to reject the overtures are the possible negative impact for some who aspire to office in the PCA. Purportedly the amendments would become discriminatory tools in the hands of teaching and ruling elders shepherding men through the process of ordination. They would cause collateral grief and provoke understandable sins. In sum, the argument arises from distrust in the competence of PCA officers to act with wisdom. (See Part One).
Distrust is a common thread in discussion of homosexual persons-- not just in the church. Over the last decade the cultural significance of homosexuality has changed, and such distrust has become less defensive and rather preemptive. Homosexuality has been transformed-- not into a matter of individuality and public indifference, but rather into a benchmark of recognizable authenticity and public liberty. (See Part Two)
Ensconced in the framework of sexual minority status, that distrust anticipates and squares off with any diminution of homosexuality as an honored value in the attempted social equilibrium. Similar though not identical preemptive distrust has been articulated in the PCA; however, at times similarity seems to bend from being identical only by the difference of being congruent. It can be difficult to detect the difference. A discriminating disposition to detect determinative differences is the desideratum in presbyterian process. In a wholesome sense-- even if the lexicon expunges it-- the business of church courts is discrimination.
PCA Policy and Procedure
The policy and procedures of the PCA regarding homosexuality must reckon with the de facto status imputed to homosexual men and women. Contemporary admiration and protection afforded to homosexual persons is grounded in the axiom that same sex attraction is fixed and immutable; moreover, that static foundation is all the more virtuously embraced when combined with the commitment to celibacy. The virtuous estimation of homosexuality combined with a traditional rejection of illicit sexual activity waxes more fully, even to both praise for and vigilance on behalf of homosexual persons in the PCA.
The offered amendments do not curtail either the praise or the vigilance; however they provide a stipulated requirement for courts to persist in distinguishing members from officers, a credible profession of faith with all its entitlements in the PCA from an exemplary piety with all its authority in the PCA. Preemptive distrust discolors discriminating examination and analysis as inherently discriminatory, so long as gay (fixed and immutable) is combined with celibate (persevering and reliable). Gay and celibate should be enough, or 95%, to end the consideration of a man’s fitness for office so far as the seventh commandment is concerned.
Is celibacy the boundary of homosexual corruption? Such self-mastery, no-- Spiritual fortitude, in a professing Christian calls for admiration and protection. Gay&Celibate can be mocked and discouraged by other homosexuals as obvious “wannabes and gonnabes”. Certainly that is the diction of the accuser of the brethren-- declaring that Christ has not emancipated them from the flesh. Victory must be celebrated and faith vigilantly bolstered in the household of God. Such is true with all believers and all besetting sins. Still, the question stands: is unstinting celibacy the homosexual line between the general office of church member and the special offices of deacon and elder? Does gay celibacy only need to pass the requisite ordination exams?
The offered amendments address only the standards for discriminating which men are fit for special office. They assume that what falls short of ordination does not disqualify from membership. In regards to homosexuality, they do not rule out some notion of “fixed” (indwelling sin, anyone?); however, they are in no way controversial for compromising “immutable”. Gay&celibate has already championed a real index of change. The amendments go further in rejecting celibacy as the demarcation of exemplary piety requisite for office in the case of same sex attracted aspirants to office. The amendments do not establish a checklist, rather they call for examination of the man’s character and conduct in regards to his remaining sinfulness in the specific array and dynamic of homosexuality.
The Alcoholic Parallel
Advocates of the Side B position (Gay&celibate) have adduced the Christian alcoholic, some of whom I have known, as a parallel case bringing clarity to the issue. The brother was a blackout and burnitdown drunk. United with Christ, he has been sober these 5, 10, 20 years. He will frankly tell you that he is an alcoholic, just as he is a Christian-- until! Indwelling sin and mortification of sin are his bread and butter. Does that truly impressive and unending war against sin disqualify him from office? He hasn’t had a drink in years, though drinks have been in arm’s reach much of the time. Isn’t gay and celibate the same as alcoholic and sober?
While one might hold some reticence about the therapeutic constructs on both sides of the parallel, the similarity of homosexuality and alcoholism actually demands the discriminating attention stipulated by the two amendments. Start with the parallel: gay and celibate matches alcoholic and teetotaling. According to the literature of alcoholism and recovery, a sober alcoholic is often still a “dry drunk.”
The term dry drunk syndrome was originally coined by the creators of the 12-Step program, Alcoholics Anonymous. Author R.J. Solberg defined the term in his 1970 book, The Dry Drunk Syndrome, as “the presence of actions and attitudes that characterized the alcoholic prior to recovery.” (source)
My father was a most accomplished man-- in profession, philanthropy and sheer common life exuberance. When he did not repulse me, he invigorated me. He was a drunk, an inexplicable haunting of my childhood, a stupidly incredulous divorcee and a string of near-miss scandals. He entered full bore into recovery with AA 35 years ago. With the providence of not yet discernible Parkinson's, his irascible and incorrigible demeanor softened and sweetened-- even seeking reconciliation beyond the AA checklist. He was a dry drunk for decades, only getting some dew as his physical frame failed. I loved him, and now I have relished him-- not only for who he was, but for who he became with me and my children.
In so far as these amendments about church officers address homosexuality (and they simultaneously address by name financial folly, relational abusiveness and racial wickedness), they simply parallel the common grace observation of AA. The absence of alcohol or of sex truly is significant, but it is not inherently decisive in the discernment for ordination. Gay and celibate isn’t enough. These amendments fix firmly the immutable obligation of PCA courts to recognize dry drunks and moist homosexuals as believers ineligible for ordination.
The courts must recognize that--even if they have the good sense to eschew such offensive diction as fits this article-- deliberation about the character of a man shaped by his struggle with homosexual corruption is not a task of mere theology. It requires the grit of apologetics on the floor of presbytery. Undertaking this discernment summons the full power of our age: counterfeits of righteous outrage, compassion for the afflicted and handwringing justice for the oppressed. There is a cringing desire to have prosperity in this world by peace with this world. The amendments are common sense per the AA analogy, and they are common sense given the unrelenting pressure of our society upon the PCA.
Don’t be virtuously naive. These are necessary questions for believers who aspire to office. No fitting candidate should balk. These are necessary bulwarks to keep these questions robustly considered. No court should be left to a stellar argument that cannot cite the BCO. The members of the PCA-- with whatever foolish point they resonant on the irreducible binary of a spectrum-- need officers who can say without any plausible public parsing or reasonable chuckling, "And such was I. But I was washed, I was sanctified, I was justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."
Benjamin T. Inman serves as a Teaching Elder at
Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA), in Fuquay-Varina, NC.