The summer of 2021 is proving to be an interesting time for the conservative Protestant denominations of the U.S. First, the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting witnessed the contentious election of a new president, who was engulfed in controversy almost as soon as the result was announced. Then the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) met in St. Louis for a General Assembly (GA) that was inevitably focused on questions of sexual identity and Christianity that have been brought to the fore by Revoice. In particular: Is it acceptable for a Christian minister to identify as a celibate gay Christian, thereby legitimizing “gay” as an identity, while still maintaining the traditional Christian teaching on sexual acts?
To outside observers of the PCA, like myself, the result was encouraging and surprising. What happened, as outlined here and here, was that the Assembly voted to propose several changes to the denomination’s Book of Church Order (the manual of church law) that would prevent anyone who identifies as gay or same-sex-attracted from holding office in the denomination. The proposed new rule states, “Those who profess an identity (such as, but not limited to, ‘gay Christian,' ‘same-sex attracted Christian,' ‘homosexual Christian,' or like terms) that undermines or contradicts their identity as new creations in Christ, either by denying the sinfulness of fallen desires . . . or by denying the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, or by failing to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions are not qualified for ordained office.” The Assembly also proposed to make examination of a ministerial candidate’s attitude to his sexual struggles part of the ordination process. Both proposals passed with huge majorities and will now be discussed by the presbyteries. If approved by two-thirds of them, they will be subject to a final vote for approval, by simple majority, at next year's GA.
If the online world and the noisy pulpits of the denomination had proved a reliable guide, the result would have been the opposite, and “gay” would have been established as an acceptable identity for Christian ministers—the position that many of the loudest online voices in the PCA seem to be promoting. Encouragingly, it is now clear that rumors of the PCA’s proximity to the PCUSA on the key issues of our day have been greatly exaggerated. Less encouragingly, it is equally clear that the PCA elites are out of touch with the denomination's grass roots. Indeed, the observations of Mark DeVine on the SBC would seem to indicate that this kind of disconnect is a problem within conservative Protestant denominations in general.
In the last few days, I have spoken to a number of GA commissioners. They seem to agree that at the GA, “the little guys stood up” (to quote one commissioner verbatim). Ruling elders—commissioners who are not professional clergy and who live in the real world—turned out in force. Small churches scrimped and saved to send their pastors. The big urban churches, even with the social media savvy and the careful organization of the National Partnership (that most un-Presbyterian of things—a lobby group that operates outside the courts of the church), were beaten by the votes of culturally anonymous and culturally inconsequential congregations. And, to quote said commissioner again, the PCA voted to uphold the Christian sexual morality of the last two millennia, rather than that of merely the last two decades. The world will not thank them for it. But those of us in smaller sister denominations do.
The PCA progressives and those seminaries that train potential PCA ministers will face challenges in the next twelve months. For the progressives, their own rhetoric of listening and inclusion now poses a problem for their strategy. Their church has spoken. As ministers, they have taken vows to maintain the peace and unity of the church. That does not mean they should simply submit their consciences to the church at this point, for the changes to the Book of Church Order are still in process. But having had their approach so roundly defeated by the GA, are they prepared to listen as humbly to their fellow presbyters as they have apparently been willing to listen to culturally dominant voices in society at large? Or will they simply blame the result on the bigoted, troglodyte ignorance of the majority?
Initial responses on Twitter suggest that the latter might well be the case. For example, one prominent opponent of the GA’s decision has declared on Twitter that it is the result of Southern pietistic moralists. Such a response gives little hope that the progressives will engage in any significant self-criticism at this point. That is unfortunate and, if it persists, would imply that the progressive language of love, unity, and dialogue amounts in practice to nothing more than sententious sanctimony designed to serve a broader political purpose. Love, unity, and dialogue are meaningless when applied only to those of whom one already approves. And if the progressives spend their energy engaging in Twitter polemics, hashtag diplomacy, and online civil war, they will appear not simply as bad-faith churchmen, but also as foolish, having learned nothing from their recent defeat.
As to the seminaries, the commissioners with whom I spoke commented that no senior administrator or faculty member spoke up on the issue of sexuality and identity during the assembly. That is quite astonishing, given the fact that the seminaries, more than any other institution, shape the intellectual culture of the ministry. Perhaps that silence can be forgiven this time. Perhaps. But as the church reaffirms its position on the issues at hand, those institutions that depend upon PCA students for a significant part of their income need to declare themselves.
Students who are paying large fees for ministerial training should be aware of whether what they hear in the classroom might cause problems at ordination exams. And churches—progressive and conservative—that fund students deserve to know where their money is going so that they can adjust their giving strategies accordingly. Such seminaries should therefore state their positions relative to what the GA decided this year. And given the unwillingness or inability of Christian critical race theorists to explain why their approach to racism does not leave them hermeneutically vulnerable on the LGBTQ+ issues, the seminaries could well serve the church by publicly connecting their stand on sexuality to the matter of race as well. Institutions cannot claim to train individuals for leadership in the church if they are not themselves exemplifying leadership on the pressing issues of the moment.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College.
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