Misconceptions About Homosexuality in the PCA

Some have argued the PCA is on a slippery slope toward sexual perversion. I hope that this article will demonstrate that this is not the case. The main reasons for this are three-fold: 1: We have confessional standards that are up to the task and are being adhered to; 2: We have an excellent AIC report on human sexuality that I heartily commend to you; and 3: We have robust church courts that are doing their job.

Next week the Presbyterian Church in America gathers in St. Louis, Missouri for its 48th General Assembly. This is after a year of COVID and a postponed GA in 2020, so there is a lot on tap. One of the main items of concern within the PCA is the perceived threat of homosexuality encroaching on the PCA. Many things have been said about this threat, both in terms of what currently exists within the PCA and what might exist if we slide down a slippery slope.

The PCA stands for biblical morality. Those biblical positions are spelled out clearly in the Westminster Standards and our Book of Church Order. Westminster Confession of Faith 24:1 states, “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman: neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband at the same time.” Additionally, Larger Catechism 139 forbids gay sex in any form. In 2019, BCO 59-3 was made constitutionally binding and was amended to state the following, “Marriage is only to be between one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24,25; Matt. 19:4-6, 1 Cor. 7:2), in accordance with the Word of God. Therefore, ministers in the Presbyterian Church in America who solemnize marriages shall only solemnize marriages between one man and one woman.” Further, our Westminster Standards give us an excellent theological foundation for considering the issues of temptation, desire, indwelling sin, and sanctification.[1]

In 2019, the 47th General Assembly commissioned an Ad interim Committee to study and report on the issues of human sexuality (hereafter AIC). The resulting report is excellent, giving us a thoroughly confessional report that is informative and pastorally sensitive. I heartily commend this report as the answer that the PCA needs in order to remain faithful in this challenging time.

Given our strong confessional and constitutional foundation and the excellent AIC report, the PCA is on solid footing regarding the issue of homosexuality. Nevertheless, there are many within our denomination and without who are raising the alarm about “homosexual pastors” in our midst. I have personally seen several allegations about certain PCA pastors and elders that I believe to be untrue. As a confessionalist and as an ordained pastor, I am bound by vow to preserve and promote the truth and the good name of my neighbor, as well as to defend the innocence of those falsely accused and to discourage tale-bearers and slanderers (WLC 144). Indeed I would be sinning if I were silent in a just cause and held my peace when correction of untruths was called for (WLC 145). In this article I am seeking to keep my vow by laying out what I know to be true against some of the misstatements and rumors that have been circulating. I would remind my readers that the Larger Catechism likewise calls all of us to not stop our ears against a just defense (WLC 145) and to readily receive a good report regarding the innocence of our neighbor (WLC 144).

I will address the most important of these misconceptions section by section. In doing so, my earnest desire is to preserve and promote the purity, peace, and unity of the PCA. I have dialogued both in public and in private with several individuals and groups on the issues I am about to report on. The purpose of this article is to inform those who have not been as intimately involved in these discussions as I have so that they can judge rightly as we come to the General Assembly next week.

Gay Christian – Some have articulated that there are Pastors and Elders in the PCA who call themselves Gay Christians, or otherwise claim a Gay identity, and teach others to do the same. I am acquainted with quite a few pastors and elders in the PCA who experience unwanted homoerotic temptations, and yet I am aware of no pastor or elder in the PCA that identifies this way. There is a reasonable misunderstanding on this point because of a Christianity Today testimony in which the author uses the word “gay” 12 times.[2] However, a careful analysis reveals that he only refers to himself as such in the past tense. The opening line of the article is, “Bill, I’m gay.” Rather than being a declaration of his present identity, this is a testimony of how as a newly converted Christian he confessed his struggle for the first time to his campus minister. This is supported by the same pastor’s repeated clarification that he does not presently, and has not over the past 20+ years, used the term Gay or Gay Christian to identify himself.[3] His preferred term is “same-sex attracted,” though he realizes that term comes with some baggage from the ex-gay movement.[4] There are some PCA pastors and elders who will use the term “gay” as a descriptor in certain situations, specifically when talking with non-believers, but they emphatically reject that it is a core aspect of their identity. They claim their core identity to be in union with Christ.

Similarly, there are no PCA pastors or elders who embrace “Gay Christianity” as an alternate culture or community in the church. Those who do so are outside the bounds of the PCA and not adherents to our theological system or polity.

There may be members of the PCA, including seminarians, candidates under care, and staff members of PCA churches, who stray into some of these problematic areas. The AIC report advises the following pastoral response in those cases:

“Given this conclusion, how should we respond to fellow believers in our churches who may use such language? First, we ought not start from the assumption that they are being unfaithful or living in active rebellion to God. Rather, in the context of established relationships, pastors and leaders in the church ought to ask questions and seek to understand each individual’s story. Why do they use that language? Have they thought through the relative benefits and dangers? Noting the range of possible meanings of terms like gay and gay Christian, we would do well to seek understanding before imparting advice. In practical and plain terms, the issue of terminology is more likely a matter for shepherding in wisdom, and not in and of itself grounds for discipline.”[5]

Homoerotic Attraction and Sin – There is also a similar misunderstanding that there are PCA pastors and elders who teach that homoerotic attraction is not in itself sinful.[6] This is also not the case. There are no PCA pastors or elders that I am aware of who teach this. Specifically, in a recent presbytery investigation, one pastor stated, “I agreed that same-sex sexual attraction—even resisted—is of sin, is sinful, and is a movement of indwelling sin.”[7] He later stated:

“I don’t recall saying that same-sex attraction is a morally neutral condition. I have repeatedly stated otherwise. Any time I sense an internal sexual or romantic pull toward anyone God has not given me—including any male by definition—I have to recognize that pull for what it is. It is an effect of the fall, yes, but more precisely it is the pull of what St. Paul terms the flesh. It’s a motion of the internal corruption that remains in the believer throughout this life. “This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated” (see WCF 6.4-6). This temptation is “original corruption” and is “properly called sin,” even when it does not lead to “actual sin.” Apart from Christ, I would carry the guilt of original corruption.”[8]

All PCA pastors and elders that I am aware of affirm the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter six on sin and of statements 3-6 on sin in the AIC.

On the subject of sin, PCA pastors and elders affirm that homoerotic orientation is sinful and therefore is the subject of repentance and mortification. PCA elders and pastors also affirm that temptation to sin is itself sin. Again, I am aware of no pastors or elders in the PCA who would deny these doctrines.

Furthermore there is a misunderstanding among some that some PCA pastors and elders teach that there is an aspect of being gay that is not of sin or that should be celebrated. In the report cited above that same minister stated, “Owning your sin does not equal celebrating your sin…. If a believer were celebrating their fallen sexuality, then there’s obviously a problem with that.”[9]

Sanctification – There are also reports that there are ministers in the PCA who teach that there can be no growth in sanctification for those who experience homoerotic temptation. This is largely a misunderstanding related to the possibility of orientation change. There are pastors in the PCA who teach that orientation change is rare. However this does not mean that no change whatsoever is possible for a Christian who experiences unwanted homoerotic temptations. When someone asserts that orientation change is extremely rare, he is referring to a change where someone moves from having only attraction towards the same sex to only having attraction to the opposite sex; in other words, from being 100% gay to being 100% straight.

This shift is very rare, according to those who have been ministering in these areas for decades. “In January 2012, Alan Chambers, the last president of Exodus International, an organization representing over 270 ex-gay ministries, stated, ‘The majority of people that I have met—and I would say the majority meaning 99.9% of them—have not experienced a change in their orientation.’ He later clarified that the 0.1% represented a woman who later told him she was bisexual. Mike Rosebush, former vice president of Focus on the Family and director of Exodus International’s Professional Counselors’ Network—himself a psychologist working exclusively with same-sex-attracted men—has said that he has yet to identify a single instance in which same-sex attraction disappeared. Longtime HarvestUSA director Tim Geiger has stated that he has also never seen same-sex attraction go away—in himself or anyone else.”[10]

On the subject of orientation change the AIC has stated:

The error of some Christian approaches to same-sex sexual desire has been to tie faithfulness to the elimination of homosexual temptation (or even the development of heterosexual desire) as though if Christians really did enough therapy, had enough faith, or repented sufficiently, God would deliver them in some final and complete way, changing their orientation. This perspective reflects a sort of over-realized eschatology—a view that what we will be finally and fully in the new creation will be realized in that way in the present life. Against such a view, our Confession reminds us that even in the regenerate, the corruption of sin remains in this life (WCF 6.5). The task for believers is to pursue faithfulness and obedience in this life, holding in view our new creation selves into which we are progressively, though often with many fits and starts, being conformed.”[11]

However, this does not mean that those who experience unwanted homoerotic temptation do not change at all. In the presbytery investigation mentioned above, the pastor stated that some who experience unwanted homoerotic temptations are, by God’s grace, able to see their desires change to the point that they can marry a member of the opposite sex and have children. For those who aren’t able to experience this kind of change, the expectation and reality for the believer is that those unwanted sinful desires would diminish over time both in frequency and intensity. Thus, it is not true that PCA pastors are teaching that believers who have experienced homoerotic temptation should not expect to change.

This is in agreement with Statement Seven from the AIC report on Human Sexuality:

We affirm that Christians should flee immoral behavior and not yield to temptation. By the power of the Holy Spirit working through the ordinary means of grace, Christians should seek to wither, weaken, and put to death the underlying idolatries and sinful desires that lead to sinful behavior. The goal is not just consistent fleeing from, and regular resistance to, temptation, but the diminishment and even the end of the occurrences of sinful desires through the reordering of the loves of one’s heart toward Christ. Through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, we can make substantial progress in the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord (Rom. 6:14-19; Heb. 12:14; 1 John 4:4; WCF 13.1).

Nevertheless, this process of sanctification—even when the Christian is diligent and fervent in the application of the means of grace—will always be accompanied by many weaknesses and imperfections (WCF 16.5, 6), with the Spirit and the flesh warring against one another until final glorification (WCF 13.2). The believer who struggles with same-sex attraction should expect to see the regenerate nature increasingly overcome the remaining corruption of the flesh, but this progress will often be slow and uneven. Moreover, the process of mortification and vivification involves the whole person, not simply unwanted sexual desires. The aim of sanctification in one’s sexual life cannot be reduced to attraction to persons of the opposite sex (though some persons may experience movement in this direction), but rather involves growing in grace and perfecting holiness in the fear of God (WCF 13.3).”[12]

Lastly, on sanctification, there are are a minority of voices in the PCA who insist that true repentance and regeneration should result in the total elimination of homoerotic desires. Frankly, this position is out of accord with our system of doctrine in what it teaches on sanctification (WCF 13.2-13.3). This view seems much closer to Wesleyan Perfectionism than the Reformed view of progressive sanctification.

Orientation – There are some in the PCA who have argued that no Christian should say that they have a “homosexual orientation.” However this is contrary to the AIC report, which states:

How then should we think of the language of sexual orientation? Insofar as the term orientation is used descriptively to articulate a particular set of experiences, namely the persistent and predominant sexual attractions of an individual, it can remain useful as a way of classifying those experiences in contrast to the experiences of the majority of other people. However, insofar as the term orientation carries with it a set of assumptions about the nature of that experience that is unbiblical (e.g., overemphasized rigidity, its normativity, etc.), then the terminology may require qualification or even rejection in some circumstances.”[13]

Given what I have stated above regarding PCA pastors’ teaching on the possibility and expectation of real change for believers who experience homoerotic temptation, we should assume that those leaders in the PCA who describe themselves as having a homosexual orientation are doing so in the first sense mentioned by the AIC.

The Above Reproach Qualification – Some in the PCA have argued that anyone who states that they experience unwanted homoerotic temptation is automatically disqualified from being an ordained officer in the PCA. This is stated on the basis of BCO 8-2 and BCO 21.c.1.1, which cite 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. These two biblical passages state that elders must be “above reproach.” The Greek word used in both instances is ἀνέγκλητος, which denotes being guiltless or blameless. Moreover, 1 Timothy 3:7 states that an elder must have a good reputation with unbelievers. The Greek word in that case is μαρτυρία, which means to have a good witness or testimony. In both these instances it seems that these refer to outward instances where a person would incur guilt or a bad reputation because of their actions. Given what we have seen in the AIC report regarding the issues of sin, sanctification, right use of terminology, and orientation, which we have all covered above, it would seem that some other act or aberrant teaching would need to be in play to make someone fail to be “above reproach.” As we have stated above, I am not aware of any pastor or elder in the PCA who would hold unacceptable positions on these matters.

Furthermore, the AIC states, regarding whether a man who experiences homoerotic temptation is ordainable, “Insofar as such persons display the requisite Christian maturity, we do not consider this sin struggle automatically to disqualify someone for leadership in the church (1 Cor. 6:9-11, 1 Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:6-9; 2 Pet. 1:3-11).”[14]

In citing 1 Corinthians 6:9, the committee is presumably referring to Paul’s injunction that those who “practice homosexuality” will not inherit the kingdom of God. In verse 11 Paul states, “such were some of you.” Some in the PCA have argued that anyone who experiences unwanted homoerotic temptation is not a subject for ordination because the verse says “such were some of you,” and those men still experience the temptation. However, 1 Corinthians 6:9 does not say “those who experience homoerotic temptation,” but, “those who practice homosexuality.” The confusion may lie in that both the NASB and the NKJV translate the verse as saying “homosexuals will not inherit the kingdom of God.” However, as the ESV footnote points out, “The two Greek terms translated by this phrase refer to the passive and active partners in consensual homosexual acts.” The AIC report concurs with this in saying:

Paul coined the term arsenokoitai (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10) from the use of two related terms in the Septuagint version of Leviticus 18 and 20. The basic meaning is “man-bedders” or men who have sex with other men. The word malakoi can mean “soft” as in soft clothing (Matt. 11:8; Luke 7:25), or when used pejoratively of men it can mean “effeminate.” In the ancient Roman world, “The ‘soft’ man lack[ed] masculine posture, courage, authority, and self-restraint; he is like a woman.” Fredrik Ivarrson, “Vice Lists and Deviant Masculinity,” in Mapping Gender in Ancient Religious Discourses, eds. Todd Penner and Caroline Vander Stichele (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 180. Sexual passivity or penetrability is not the definition of malakos, but it is one possible connotation. Ivarrson, “Vice Lists,” 180-81. The combination of arsenokoitai and malakoi, uniquely used in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 6:9, likely refers most directly—as per the ESV footnote—to the active and passive partners in consensual homosexual activity. For more extended discussion, see Chapter 5 in Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Say About Homosexuality? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).”[15]

Thus, Scripture does not say that those who experience homoerotic attraction will not inherit the kingdom of God, but those who act on those attractions by engaging in gay sex. Again, there is no PCA pastor or elder who teaches that any form of gay sex is lawful (whether in marriage or not) or engages in same-sex sexual activity. It is also very clear in our recent history that those pastors and elders who have come to that position have left the PCA for denominations who allow those views and practices.

Further, some in the PCA argue that homoerotic temptation itself disqualifies because the temptation is “unnatural.” This is argued on the basis of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, which call gay sex an “abomination.” I agree that gay sex is an abomination. But I would point out that the scriptures in their original languages do not say “those who experience sexual attraction towards the same sex are an abomination.” The scriptures uniformly say, “those who engage in gay sex are an abomination.” Leviticus 18:22 states, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” This is the act of gay sex. Leviticus 20:13 states, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” Again, it is the sex act that is an abomination.

Now some may argue that being tempted to engage in something that is an abomination makes one not above reproach. I would counter that there are other abominations in the scriptures. The conclusion of Leviticus 18 says this:

But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you 27 (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), 28 lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. 29 For everyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people. 30 So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs that were practiced before you, and never to make yourselves unclean by them: I am the LORD your God.”[16]

The list of sexual sins in Leviticus 18 is long. Are we going to say that if anyone is tempted towards any of these things it makes them not above reproach? Who will be left who is above reproach? Again, the end of Leviticus 18 calls all of them abominations, even the heterosexual sins. If someone has unbidden temptations of lust towards his neighbor’s wife, is he disqualified from ministry?

Deuteronomy 25 lists several sins related to the eighth commandment. “You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, a large and a small. 14 You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, a large and a small. 15 A full and fair weight you shall have, a full and fair measure you shall have, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 16 For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are an abomination to the LORD your God.”[17] Are we saying that anyone who is tempted to be dishonest in business is disqualified for ministry? These are abominations too.

Proverbs six lists seven abominations, “There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: 17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, 18 a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, 19 a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.”[18] In Hebrew poetry, the last item in a list like this is the most important, in this case the most heinous. Are we saying that those who are tempted to be argumentative and sow discord, who struggle with this sin and even occasionally commit it are disqualified from ministry? Sowing discord is an abomination too. Is the temptation to sow discord also disqualifying?

All of this presents a purity test that none of us can pass. All of us are tempted to do things that the Scriptures call abomination. When we say that homoerotic temptation itself is disqualifying we are singling out that temptation to one sin against others. If we are consistent, then we are all disqualified.

Revoice – Many concerns have been expressed about the teachings of an interdenominational parachurch ministry called Revoice. Revoice is a conference that first met in St. Louis in 2018 in a PCA church. It was a new ministry that sought to be a place of encouragement, exhortation, and accountability for Christian believers who experience unwanted homoerotic temptation. A conference like it was needed due to the fact that a previous similar gathering called the Gay Christian Network (now called Q Christian Fellowship) had increasingly taken a stance that affirmed the goodness of same-sex relationships and ostracized Christians who still believed that homoerotic sex acts are sinful.[19] Revoice itself is a broad-tent organization that welcomes all Side B Christians regardless of denomination.[20] As such not everyone who attends or even speaks holds our Reformed views on sin and sanctification (or even anthropology).

As a broad-tent organization, and one that was in its infancy and trying to figure things out, mistakes were inevitably made. Due to the fact that the first conference was held at one of its member churches, Missouri Presbytery performed an investigation of Revoice and the PCA church that hosted it. In that investigation, some of the erroneous teachings were repudiated and warnings and admonitions were given to the conference and to the PCA church that hosted it. But on the whole, the Presbytery found that for an organization that was in its infancy, the conference did a lot of good, while it needed to be shepherded and guided by the Presbytery’s recommendations. In other words, the court of original jurisdiction, Missouri Presbytery, did its job in investigating and issuing repudiations, corrections, and admonitions. It is not the case that Missouri Presbytery has given cover for Revoice or the PCA church that hosted it, or any of its pastors or elders.[21]

There has been some discussion in PCA circles warning us about “Revoice Theology.” What is Revoice Theology? It’s hard to know what is meant by the label in absence of a systematic description by those who employ it. Revoice Theology is not a term that Revoice itself uses, instead it is a label that is intended to warn us of Revoice’s teachings. What does Revoice officially teach? You can read it for yourself (link provided below). We have to be careful not to take talks given at the first Revoice conference when the organization was still getting its legs underneath it as standing in for what the ministry definitively believes always and forever. This was one of the main points of the Missouri Presbytery report: Revoice needs to grow and mature.

Now to be clear, the statement of theology provided below is not right in line with the Westminster Confession. As I said above, Revoice is broadly Christian, welcoming in all sorts of folks who want to be committed to the Biblical sexual ethic. Not everyone in Revoice believes that orientation itself is sinful. They believe that it is a result of the fall and any conscious lusts or actions that flow out of it are sinful. But, let me be clear, PCA ministers and elders do hold the teachings of the Westminster Standards on sin, sanctification, and repentance. PCA ministers and elders who may attend or speak at Revoice do believe that homoerotic orientation is sinful, as I’ve already quoted above.

Revoice statement of theological conviction

In conclusion: Some have argued the PCA is on a slippery slope toward sexual perversion. I hope that this article has demonstrated that this is not the case. The main reasons for this are three-fold:

1: We have confessional standards that are up to the task and are being adhered to;

2: We have an excellent AIC report on human sexuality that I heartily commend to you; and

3: We have robust church courts that are doing their job.

We should be proud of our denomination and its steadfast commitment to biblical truth. We should be thankful for those men and women who have experienced unwanted same-sex attraction and who have heroically stood for Christ and his teachings in the midst of a world that calls them traitors and self-haters for daring to believe in Jesus and do what he says. I, for one, am proud to call them friends.

If you found this article helpful, you might also consider visiting A Faithful PCA.


[1] See WCF 6 on sin, 13 on sanctification, and 15 on repentance.

[2] See https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/may-web-only/greg-johnson-hide-shame-shelter-gospel-gay-teenager.html

[3] See Missouri Committee to Respond to Memorial (Hereafter CRM), p. 63, lines 41-45, “Personally, I have never referred to myself as a “gay Christian” or “homosexual Christian.” And I have not described myself as “gay” in the present tense since the 1990s. It’s always past tense as part of the arc of my personal testimony. I don’t mind when others use the term of me, but I myself have always stated that “I was a gay atheist, became a Christian, and my sexual orientation never changed. I am still same-sex attracted.”” This report is public and can be found here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/18_vvpZg2PwRFwBjwAg4fGp-bhJXh8Mhm/view 

[4] See PCA GA AIC on Human Sexuality (Hereafter AIC),p. 29, lines 35-38 and note 57, “Others find the term gay to be an important part of being honest about the reality of their sexual attractions, especially given that other terms like same-sex attraction are perceived by some to be associated with “ex-gay” or orientation change approaches,” and “See for instance Greg Coles, Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books), 61, 63, where he says, “By talking in terms of attraction instead of sexual orientation, ex-gay advocates were better equipped to treat homosexuality as a passing phase…Because of this linguistic history, I couldn’t help cringing when people referred to my sexual orientation as ‘same-sex attraction.’”” This report can be found here:  https://pcaga.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/AIC-Report-to-48th-GA-5-28-20-1.pdf

[5] AIC, p. 30, lines 31-39. Emphasis added.

[6] I use the term homoerotic attraction to make clear that there is a sexual aspect to the attraction being described. The AIC report uses the term same-sex attraction, and I intend this to be synonymous with that.

[7] Missouri CRM, p. 16, lines 22-24.

[8] Missouri CRM, p. 18, lines 7-14. Emphasis added.

[9] Missouri CRM, p. 27, line 1 and lines 6-7.

[10] This section is quoted from a trusted source off the record.

[11] AIC, p. 25, lines 11-20.

[12] AIC, p. 10.

[13] AIC, pp. 30 line 42 – 32 line 4.

[14] AIC, p. 31 lines 29-31.

[15] AIC, p. 6, footnote 4.

[16] Lev. 18:26-30

[17] Deut. 25:13-16

[18] Prov. 6:16-19

[19] These two stances were given a short hand of Side A and Side B, with Side A believing that same sex unions were blessed by God and Side B believing that same-sex sexual acts are sinful. Note that Side B is a very broad-tent with some believing that the orientation itself and temptations are not sinful while others believe that they are. All PCA Side B proponents would profess our Reformed teaching that both homoerotic orientation and temptations are inherently sinful. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Q_Christian_Fellowship

[20] See the above footnote for a definition of Side B.

[21] The text of that investigation can be found here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1XyxAwY-ACZsVS-pe_barvg2_wI9BBJsB/view

Teaching at Covenant Seminary in Fall 2013

To our Congregation (and other interested parties):

I’m writing to let you all know that I have received an amazing opportunity to teach the Ancient and Medieval Church History course at Covenant Seminary this fall. Just to alleviate any concern right off the bat, this is a part-time adjunct appointment which does not signal the change (or any intention to change) of my role at Christ Our King.

This course is a part of the core curriculum for all those training for the pastorate at Covenant Seminary. The subject is right in the area of my PhD work (I majored in Medieval and minored in Ancient). This is a wonderful opportunity for my career, as I seek to develop my involvement in academics, and also, I believe, for our church.

The course meets twice a week (Tues/Thurs) at 8:30AM, so I will have to travel to St. Louis two mornings a week. This amounts to a full day’s work per week. This will not affect any of the commitments I currently have in weekly church events, which for now happen on Wednesday or Sunday. The seminary is providing a teaching assistant to help lessen the work of grading (this is a huge blessing!).

While we are on this topic, let me take a moment to describe how I see myself pursuing the academic side of my ministry so as to hopefully alleviate any potential concerns. I feel strongly called to be a pastor-scholar. This means that I really enjoy and feel called to the pastorate. I enjoy being your pastor. I’m not looking at the pastorate as a stepping stone to an academic career. Yet, at the same time, I have gifts and a calling to the academic side of ministry as well. I am seeking to find the balance of old struck by pillars such as Augustine and Ambrose who were both pastors and scholars to the great benefit of their own congregations and the church at large. This is not to say that I think of myself on their level (how ludicrous would that be?), but that I look to them as a model for ministry.

So, to be clear, this does not in any way signal that my real desire is to be a professor and that this is just the first step back into that world. No, I want to be a pastor-scholar, and what this signals is that I am seeking to be faithful to the gifts God has given me and with the education I have been given, both in the pastorate and in the academic world.

Please give thanks with me for this wonderful opportunity, and pray for me as I seek to balance my life between these two pursuits this fall.

Thoughts on 40th General Assembly, Part Four: Intinction

This is part four of a four part series. Part one can be found here. Part two here. Part three here.

The fourth part of my series on this year’s GA deals with the issue of intinction. Inctinction is a mode of administering the Lord’s Supper whereby bread is dipped (Latin: intinctum) into the wine and that dipped bread is given to the communicant to eat. This dipped bread suffices for receiving both the bread and the wine.

The practice of intinction has become more common in PCA circles these days. The reasons given are practical and theological. On the practical side there are arguments that state that the practice is quicker (for certain situations that require a quick communion service, like the military) and easier to consume (for situations where hospital chaplains are administering the Lord’s Supper to the sick and elderly). Then there is the theological argument that states that partaking of one common cup is both theologically and aesthetically more fitting for the rite of the Supper than all the little plastic cups. Then, these men move from this theological rationale to a sanitary concern that many people find it revolting to drink after others for fear of disease. Thus dipping bread into the common cup and then eating is found to be more palatable.

Many folks in the PCA are uncomfortable with the practice of intinction. In the interest of full disclosure, I am personally against the practice for both theological and biblical reasons. Yet there are a sizable group in our denomination who not only oppose the practice, but want to make it illegal to practice. I am not a member of this later group for reasons I will explain below.

What occurred at this GA is that an overture came from the Savannah River Presbytery (Overture 30) proposing an amendment to our Book of Church Order (BCO) that would make the practice of intinction illegal in the PCA. In committee this overture was actually answered in the negative by a vote of 49-37-2. This means that the overtures committee were against banning intinction in our denomination. That the committee decided this is significant and leads to a certain prognostication about how this will be received in the presbyteries. More on this below.

In the same way as the recommendations on paedocommunion and the creation of Adam,  the minority on the committee composed a minority report on this recommendation by the committee. Under our current rules, a minority coming from either the RPR or the Overtures Committee is allowed to make a minority report and make a substitute motion on the floor of the General Assembly. The substitute motion was, of course, to answer the overture in the affirmative, which would start the process of amending the BCO. More on this process below.

A few words should be said about the debate on this issue. First of all, the debate on this issue occurred in the Thursday night session, the last session of the GA. This session was held after dinner and worship, starting at 9PM. As you might imagine, attendance for this session was low, some 100 votes or more lower than the earlier sessions. You may draw your own conclusions as to who might be more likely to remain out at dinner and not make it back to the late night sessions.

Debate went on for a good while, but not for the entire allotted time of one hour. Those who spoke for the substitute (for the ban on intinction) made sweeping claims of “liturgical anarchy” (ed. note: what liturgy?) and stated that since the Lord’s Supper is one of the marks of our church, we shouldn’t mess with it. They argued largely form scripture, from the institution narratives, especially 1 Corinthians 11.

Those who spoke against the substitute (against the ban) had several reasons. There were those practical and theological reasons stated above. In addition there were those, like myself, who do not believe that banning the practice is necessary. They argued that we should not be fighting over such relatively trivial matters, and that this strong armed maneuver would be injurious to the unity and peace of the church. Several who spoke against made the point that many of our churches already do not follow the letter of the biblical account nor our Confession by partaking of grape juice instead of wine. On a personal note: I felt that this was a very good point. How can people who do not obey the bible and instead use grape juice hold others to the fire for doing intinction? It just doesn’t make any sense.

After about 45 minutes the question was called and we proceded to vote. The vote was very close, and again, as with paedocommunion and the creation of Adam, a standing count was called for. When the dust settled, the substitute motion passed by 14 votes. Fourteen votes, my friends, out of 1,000 commissioners, that is all the majority could muster. Remember, there were 100 or so commissioners still out at “dinner.” I wonder how the vote would have broken down among them? I guess we’ll never know.

So what does this mean? First of all, it does not mean that intinction is now illegal in the PCA. The process to amend the BCO is a three step process and takes two years to complete. The first step is that it must pass GA. The second step is that it must pass 2/3 of all presbyteries by a majority vote. The third step is that it must pass the next GA.

I do not believe this will pass 2/3 of the presbyteries. My reasoning is twofold. First, because of the close nature of the vote on the floor of GA. The majority could not even muster a majority that would suffice as a statistical difference in any intro to statistics course. In other words, it may have passed, but it does not express the opinion of the majority, statistically speaking. To use election polling lingo, 14 votes is within the margin of error.

Secondly, I believe that the vote of the Overtures Committee better expresses the will of the PCA on this issue. The reason for this is that the Overtures Committee is a delegated body, meaning that only one elder and one pastor may come to that committee from each presbytery. The General Assembly, however, is not a delegated assembly. Every pastor and two elders from each particular church in the PCA may attend. Thus presbyteries that are closer to the Assembly, or who may have a greater proportional desire to engage on the GA level will be disproportionally represented in the GA. For this reason, I believe that this BCO amendment will not pass the presbyteries.

Lastly, what are we to make of all this? I said before that I was against the practice of intinction, but not for banning it. Why is this? Well, I am not for banning it because I do not believe that we should force our brothers to cease a practice that they of their own biblical and theological study and pastoral wisdom applied to their particular contexts have deemed is best for them and their congregations. I do however believe that we should engage in a debate and a discussion on this matter. My preference is that we would attempt to persuade our brothers, in love, and not to strong arm them. This is not the way of love. The world sees this and thinks, “Same old Christians. Same old junk.”

Yet, my overall impression is that entering into this first step of amending the BCO to ban intinction is a good thing. Why is that? I believe this because for the first time on the floor of GA I saw men taking out their bibles and making arguments from the scriptures regarding ritual and liturgical theology. I believe that this issue will force us to have rich conversations about what the bible has to say about ritual, liturgy, and sacramental theology, and I believe that that can and will be a good thing. I would encourage brothers in their presbyteries to have official colloquia at their stated meetings and invite men who are knowledgeable and studied on issues of biblical ritual, liturgics and sacraments to debate and discuss these issues. To be frank, our denomination has not reflected on these issues of ritual, liturgy, and the administration of the sacraments in a mature biblical way. If this forces us to do that, then I’m all for it.

Ultimately though, I hope that the amendment does not pass. I urge our brothers to discuss, debate, and dispute, in love, but not force our brothers against their will. Thus the same principle rings through all four of these major issues before the GA this year. In all of these a group wanted to force at least half of their brothers to do something against their will. The other half wanted the PCA to remain broad and inclusive for the sake of the kingdom and the gospel. Which side will ultimately win? The future of the PCA is at stake. I pray that we will all learn to understand that just because a brother across the country, or even across town, does not do everything exactly the way I do, it does not mean the gospel is at stake. On the contrary, if we make everything into an essential of the gospel, we have turned the gospel into pharisaical legalism and made the word “essential” meaningless. Furthermore, we have broken the commandment the Lord gave us on the night he was betrayed: ” A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34 ESV)

These issues are important issues. We do not simply stand by idly and not debate and discuss these important issues. But we must do it in love. We must bear with each other in love and trust that Christ will rule over his church. I think many times we do not obey the command to love simply because we do not trust Christ. We don’t think he really meant what he said, and we don’t see how the church could possibly governed in love. Brothers, let us take this commandment seriously, and let us love one another and trust that our Lord Jesus, King of all and Head of the Church, knows exactly what he is talking about.

For further reading see this post on Vintage 73.

Thoughts on GA, Part Three: Paedocommunion

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This is part three of a four part series. Part one can be found here. Part two can be found here.

The third significant issue that came before the GA was related to the issue of paedocommunion. Before we get too deeply into the details of what happened at GA this year on this issue, I would like address two  common misconceptions about paedocommunion in the PCA.

1. No one in the PCA who holds paedocommunion (hereafter PC) practices paedocommunion. There is a misconception, which was repeated on the floor of GA this year, that advocates of PC are practicing it in PCA churches. This is not the case. We must not confuse the admission of young children to the Lord’s Table by the procedure laid out in our BCO with the practice of PC. Strictly speaking, PC is when baptized children are given the Lord’s Supper without any formal admission process. The BCO gives latitude, as it should, for the discretion of individual churches and sessions to decide when the proper time for coming to the Lord’s Table should be. Neither the BCO nor the Westminster Standards proscribe an age for coming to the Lord’s Table, only a method of admission. It is up to each individual church and session to decide when a child is ready to come. The practice of admitting young children to the Table is not paedocommunion. Let’s get that straight out of the gate.

2. There is this other misconception, perpetuated on the attack blogs, that ministers in the PCA who hold to PC advocate force feeding nursing infants intincted bread and wine. This is manifestly not the case. The Reformed version of PC is not the Eastern Orthodox version. Reformed who hold to PC believe that children who are able to take solid food and who are expressing a desire to the table should be able to come by virtue of their baptisms, without having to be examined. Now, there are variations of the Reformed PC view, but the Reformed do not hold to the intinction of infants as the E. Orthodox practice.

With these two items clarified let’s get into the details of what happened at this year’s GA. What occurred this year was actually only one step in a multi-year process. The first step began at last year’s meeting of the Review of Presbytery Records (RPR). RPR is a committee of the General Assembly that meets several weeks prior in order to read and review all the minutes of all the presbyteries in the PCA. This may sound like a very boring and tedious job, and it is. What has occurred over the last several years is that RPR has become a jumping-off-point for the doctrinal purists in the PCA to launch their campaigns on various issues. The issue du jour for the past two RPRs has been paedocommunion. This is how it happened.

At the 2011 meeting of the RPR the committee reviewed the minutes of Pacific Northwest Presbytery and officially noted an exception to one of their candidates being approved for ordination though he expressed a difference with the Westminster Standards on the subject of paedocommunion. Now, the use of this word “exception” is very precise, and means that the view is “hostile to the system of doctrine or strikes at the vitals of religion.” This basically means that the view is either not Reformed and Presbyterian (hostile to the system of doctrine) or a greater charge that the view isn’t even Christian (strikes at the vitals of religion). These are serious charges.

There was a great deal of debate at last year’s RPR but the committee came to last year’s GA with the recommendation to cite the Presbytery with an exception. The presbytery responded and this came back to the RPR this year. There was again a great deal of debate, with parties reporting that the debate went on for four hours. This year, the RPR voted by a count of 29-18-1 to approve the response of the Presbytery as satisfactory. But this was not the end of the matter. Under our polity as it now stands, a minority report may come from the RPR and make a substitute motion on the floor of General Assembly. If you read part two of my series on the creation of Adam, you may recall that something similar happened there.

This minority report came to the floor of the GA on Thursday morning. The substitute motion coming from the minority stated that the PC view was in fact hostile to the system of doctrine (not Reformed) or striking at the vitals of religion (not Christian). They did not specify which they believed PC fell under. Further, they moved that the entire Pacific Northwest Presbytery be cited to appear before the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) for consistently approving men with PC views over a period of many years.

Debate on this substitute went on for quite a while, and the original time allotted of one hour was extended once by the Assembly. Those speaking against the substitute argued that there was latitude within the bounds of Reformed theology for men to hold this view, but not to practice it. They argued that there were many men who came to this view through an honest exploration of Reformed theology and the scriptures. They argued that the men were not practicing the view, and that they were not being disruptive in the church. They further argued that many ministers,for many years, have been faithfully and peacefully ministering in the PCA who have openly and honestly expressed this difference to their presbyteries. To now make this particular view unacceptable in the PCA would reverse many years of precedent and would be an act of bad faith. Men who spoke for the substitute argued that the view was dangerous because it led children to eat and drink unto judgment. Some even warned that children may become sick or die if they partook unworthily (citing 1 Corinthians 11).

Ultimately the vote was very close, but the substitute motion failed. The General Assembly did not want to cite the entire presbytery to appear before the SJC. Yet the puzzling thing is that the RPR’s recommendation to approve the response as satisfactory also failed. This was followed by a procedural motion to recommit that case along with two other cases regarding PC back to next year’s RPR for further deliberation.

Now what are we to make of all this? My personal view is that this was a win for the denomination. The GA decided that it was not appropriate to cite an entire presbytery for allowing ministers with the PC view. This is a very good thing. The status quo of the PCA is one of tolerance and broad inclusion (within the bounds of orthodoxy). In this case, maintaining the status quo is a good thing. While this is true, many were discouraged that these PC cases were recommitted to the RPR again, especially those brothers who serve on the RPR. While this is, in fact, discouraging, we can pray that those brothers on the RPR, on both sides of the issue, can come to an agreement that will allow both sides to live peacefully together in the PCA. Please make it a point to pray for that over the next year.

What we also saw is that there is a major divide in the PCA over the issue of PC. Half of the pastors and elders in the PCA are fine with PC existing as a view, the other half are not. This is significant because if there is such a split in our denomination, then either we must settle the matter as an allowable difference, or settle it as not an allowable one. Yet we must realize that setting it as not allowable will be a major blow to the unity and peace of the PCA and  may even lead to its rupture. This is a serious issue of disagreement. The policy of war and prosecution against views that are not like our own must cease if we are to  maintain a denomination that is already, by the standards of the global church, very small.

Is the PC view un-Reformed? I do not believe so, though men may disagree. To me it seems that the PC view is one of the most Reformed developments of doctrine that has come to be over the past 100 years. Every consideration with regard to PC is steeped in Reformation thought and appeal to the scriptures. I do believe that it is Reformed, though good men may disagree.

Yet the other question, is it Christian, should we even allow this question to stand? To assert, brothers, that this view strikes at the vitals of religion means that we believe that it is no longer Christian, and that those who hold it are no longer teaching the Christian faith. The mere thought of this should be revolting to us, and I urge us to comprehend completely what we are saying when we assert that something “strikes at the vitals of religion.” Something that strikes at the vitals of religion is a damnable heresy. PC is not a damnable heresy.

Let me close by making a broad appeal for reasonable  and peaceful men to be involved in the RPR next year. We need the broad middle of the denomination to be represented on these GA committees. If you do not really care about reviewing minutes or PCA polity or procedure, then you are the exact person we need to be on that committee. Be active! Be involved! Your denomination is at stake.

The last installment in this series will come on Friday.

Thoughts on the 40th PCA GA, Part Two: in thesi Statement on the Creation of Adam

This is the second of a four part series. Part one can be found here.

The second major issue dealt with at this year’s General Assembly was a proposed resolution coming from three separate overtures (10, 26, and 29) to make an in thesi statement on the creation of Adam. An in thesi statement is a non-binding resolution passed by one particular General Assembly on a particular issue. These statements do not have the force of church law, and only express the opinion of one particular General Assembly.

The rationale given for passing an in thesi statement was motivated by concern for an increasing number of adherents to theistic evolution in broader evangelical circles. Theistic evolution is the view that, put simply, teaches that the earth is very old and the processes of evolution occurred more or less as modern sciences teaches, with the caveat that God sovereignly superintended and guided that process. There are some versions of theistic evolution that hold that Adam was created directly by God in an act of special creation, and others that hold to the standard evolutionary origins of mankind.

The three overtures were debated in committee and ultimately the committee decided to answer the three overtures by affirming a fourth overture, overture 26 from Potomac Presbytery. That overture stated that there was no need to pass an in thesi statement in the first place because the scriptures and the Westminster Standards are sufficiently clear on the matter. This overture passed the committee by a vote of 50-35, but there was a minority report and a substitute motion made by that minority coming from the committee to the floor.

I know this is all pretty boring so far, but bear with me and we will get to the importance of all this in a minute. The minority report given on the floor of the assembly argued that one of the purposes of the General Assembly is to weigh in on doctrinal matters, and that this issue was a sufficient enough of one for the General Assembly to weigh in on. They then moved to pass a statement that was the exact same as a statement that was passed by the PCUS General Assembly against evolution in 1886, 1888, and 1924. That statement is as follows:

The Church remains at this time sincerely convinced that the Scriptures, as truly and authoritatively expounded in our Confession of Faith and Catechisms teach:

-That Adam and Eve were created, body and soul, by immediate acts of Almighty power, thereby preserving a perfect race unity;

-That Adam’s body was directly fashioned by Almighty God, without any natural animal parentage of any kind, out of matter previously created from nothing;

-And that any doctrine at variance therewith is a dangerous error, inasmuch: as in the methods of interpreting Scripture it must demand, and in the consequences which by fair implication it will involve, it will lead to the denial of doctrines fundamental to the faith.

The General Assembly debated the substitute motion for about 45 minutes. There were plenty of speakers on both sides of the issue. It must be understood, however, that those who spoke against the substitute (including myself) were not speaking in favor of theistic evolution. I don’t recall that anyone stood up and argued that this should not be passed because they personally held to a different view. There were various reasons expressed against the substitute, the most common of which was that our Confession was already clear, and that in thesi statements in general are not helpful. Most of the argument for the passing of the substitute centered around the denomination needing to have a clear, contemporary statement to an important contemporary issue.

I was one of those who stood up and spoke against the substitute. I argued that it didn’t make sense for us to be answering a 21st century problem with a 19th century solution. The statement that we were presented with, in other words, was not contemporary at all. It contains archaic and unclear language that could be misconstrued as some kind of racism (I refer to the statement about “race unity”). Why in the world would we want to pass a confusing statement?

Furthermore, I argued that the PCUS passed the statement repeatedly (in 1886, 1888, and 1924) and this repeated in thesi fist pounding did nothing to stop the rising tide of evolutionary views in the old Southern church. By this same rationale, we should see that passing in thesi statements really does nothing to fix things, it only makes some people feel good about drawing a supposed line in the sand, as it were.

In addition to what I presented on the floor of GA, I am against in thesi statements in general based on philosophical grounds. We have seen that although these kinds of statements have no binding ecclesiastical authority, proponents have used these deliverances of the General Assembly as blunt objects to bully their opponents. We as pastors and elders in the PCA are required to give such deliverances (including the findings of study committee reports) due and serious consideration, but they are not a part of our constitution, and we are not required to submit to them.

The chairman of the Overtures Committee, Elder Jay Neikirk said it best, in my opinion. He argued that if we feel that the Westminster Standards are insufficient to address any particular issue, then we need to amend the standards. Now, that was a rare moment of sanity in the normal cacophony of parliamentary procedure. The problem with these in thesi statements is that they can easily be passed at any GA and then used as weapons with the force of law. We have seen this repeatedly in the case of the FV Study Committee report, which has no binding authority over any person in the PCA, yet is treated as if it is the second coming of Westminster.

In case you are wondering, the substitute motion failed, by a vote in the neighborhood of 475-325, a substantial margin. We will get the exact numbers of the vote eventually in the minutes of the GA because there was actually a standing count of the votes because the moderator initially ruled that the substitute had passed by his visual judgment.

In closing, I believe that the rejection of the minority substitute and the subsequent passing of the committee’s recommendation was a good thing. Though I am personally against theistic evolution, I do not believe that in thesi statements are the answer to the problem. I do believe that holding to the special creation of Adam is essential to preserve several of our fundamental doctrines (one of which being original sin), but I am not of the opinion that the best way to handle these issues is to beat our brothers into submission. Let us do the hard work to discuss these issues with our brothers and persuade them of the rightness of our view. There are certainly boundaries that cannot be crossed, but I do not believe that passing in thesi statements for the purposes of forming blunt weapons to be used in such battles is the way to go.

More on the 40th GA to come.

My Thoughts on the 40th General Assembly of the PCA – Part One: NAE

There were four significant issues that the 40th GA in Louisville dealt with: withdrawal from the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), an overture to pass an in thesi statement on the creation of Adam, a BCO amendment to ban the practice of intinction, and a recommendation from the Review of Presbytery Records (RPR) to approve as satisfactory the allowable exception of paedocommunion by one minister in the Pacific Northwest Presbytery. I will describe each of these and comment on them serially in successive posts.

Overture 12 of the 39th GA to withdraw from the NAE
This overture actually came to last year’s GA from Central Carolina Presbytery. Last year the GA voted to recommit the overture to the GA’s permanent committee on Interchurch Relations (IRC) to study the matter and give an opportunity for churches and presbyteries to weigh in. I actually served as secretary on this year’s GA committee of commissioners (CoC) that dealt with this overture before it came to the floor. The rationale given by those in support of leaving the NAE was twofold: 1. These men are uncomfortable with some of the statements made by the governmental relations wing of the NAE. Some of these statements had what some perceived as politically left leaning overtones, and thus they opposed them being blanket statements of the NAE membership; and 2. Other men also opposed our involvement in the NAE based on their view of the church, specifically, that the church should never make any political statement, regardless of the ideology or issue supported. Ultimately both the CoC and the GA supported our remaining in the NAE (sorry for all the acronyms!).

In my opinion, this is a very good thing. We as the PCA are already a very small portion of Christ’s Church (350,000 or so out of over 2 billion). This is a drop in the ocean, my friends. If we are to take seriously the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, a prayer he prayed as he himself was facing death, that we all be one even as he and his Father are one, then we absolutely must take the visible unity of the church seriously. We know that Jesus was praying about the visible and not the mystical unity of the church because in his very next breath he prays that all unbelievers would see our unity and come to know him. How can unbelievers see the mystical unity of the invisible church? That is only a concept, not a physical manifestation. No, Jesus was praying for our visible unity.

Furthermore, this idea that the theological principle of the “Spirituality of the Church,” which includes a belief that the church should never speak on any political issue, is not one which I or many of my PCA brethren agree with. It is manifestly absurd to say that the church cannot or should not speak on any political issue. There are certainly issues that deal directly with morality and justice that the church can and should speak to. I honestly have a very hard time understanding the rationale of some brothers who say that the church shouldn’t speak for laws against abortion, slavery, prostitution, pornography, divorce, pedophilia, and many others. If the church will not speak to these issues in the public square, who will?

For these reasons, and for the reason that the NAE does so much more good than just a few possibly politically offensive statements concerning public policy, I believe that our remaining in the NAE is very good. We are already an isolated backwater of world Christianity. We have this opinion of ourselves in the PCA that we are very important, but let’s face it brothers, we are not. At this GA we heard from representatives from both the Brazilian Presbyterian Church and one of the Korean Presbyterian churches. Both these churches measure their numbers in the millions, while we measure ours in the thousands. Of the other fraternal delegates we heard from, all of which were based in the US, we heard reports of membership that were 8,000 souls, 25,000 souls, and so on. Friends, the Reformed church in the United States has a sickness. We need to learn to bear with each other in love and to begin to do as Christ commanded and be one. We need to repent of our sectarian ways and our bent toward division and discord. The Lord Jesus is not pleased with us right now. Let us heed his dying wish.

Here is the prayer that I composed and prayed on the floor of this year’s GA during the report of the Interchurch Relations Committee:

Heavenly Father, your Son Jesus Christ, when he faced death,
Prayed that the church would be one, even as He and You are one.
We pray you so to unite your holy, catholic, and apostolic church,
That all unbelievers would see our unity and love for each other,
And would come to a saving knowledge of you through your Son, Jesus Christ.
We pray in the name of the same, your Son, our Lord,
Who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
One God, one Lord, over one Church,
Now and forever.
Amen. 

What is the Catholic Church?

There has been much discussion on the interblags lately concerning Protestant conversions to the Roman Catholic church. This discussion has shown up on my Facebook feed and has raised some questions, so I thought I would write a post in order to address some of those questions. I also thought that I might offer my own perspective on the issue.

There have been several blog posts which have done a good job getting at some of the relevant issues. These can be seen here, here, and here. While these posts are good enough to stand on their own, I want to add a bit to the discussion from my perspective as one holding a PhD in Historical Theology and one who was specifically trained and wrote my dissertation in early medieval ecclesiology.

To my Roman Catholic Friends
First of all I must pay heed to the great elephantoid presence among us and say something to address my friends who are Roman Catholic, many of whom converted to the Roman Church from Protestantism. I realize that seeing a series of articles linked to my Facebook wall and seeing a post like this on my blog may be unsettling or even offensive to some of you. To this I would like to say two things. First of all, this post is not directed to Roman Catholics. My purpose in writing this is not to try to convert anyone, even if I could. This post, as well as the others I have posted are written to Protestants. I realize that some of the arguments we are using may strike a nerve with some of you because they may be addressing some of the issues you faced when you converted, yet this is not my intention. I hope that you will grant an indulgence to us as we have an “in house” discussion. Secondly, I am a Presbyterian for a reason. I have not converted to Roman Catholicism, though I have heard all the arguments for it (over many pints with some of you at mid-town St. Louis pubs). I would hope that you would grant me that latitude to express my Presbyterian distinctives, as I would you if you would express yours.

To the Protestants in the Room
It seems to me that the essence of this discussion boils down to a matter of ecclesiology. What is the nature of the church? Until we have understood and come to terms with a common definition of what the church is, we will not be able to address the issue of conversion to the Roman church. So what is the church? Our Roman Catholic brethren will claim that the church is defined by apostolic succession. What do we Protestants have against the apostles? Well, nothing at all. We all profess that the church is apostolic. The rubber meets the road, however, with how we define apostolic succession. They define it as an uninterrupted succession of bishops who are a part of a physical succession of laying on of hands that goes all the way back to the apostles. Sounds neat doesn’t it? Sounds pretty persuasive.

The only problem is that the bible doesn’t define the true church this way, and neither did the catholic church before the late middle ages. I don’t have a copy of Denzinger on me, but I would guess that, as with most things, the doctrine of apostolic succession as we know it today was not articulated until the Council of Trent. Nevertheless, even the article from the New Catholic Encyclopedia on “apostolic succession” admits that all the churches did not even have bishops until the 2nd or 3rd century, and that in many churches before that time rule was by a college of presbyters, what we today call a presbytery.

Now, this article is not a defense of Presbyterianism, so let’s not get off track. What I’m trying to do is talk about what is apostolic. It seems that before the time of Tertullian and Irenaeus (by the turn of the 3rd century) apostolic succession was held by all ordained pastors, not just the bishops. Clement of Rome in his letter to the church at Corinth espouses such an idea. Later on, it seemed expedient that the bishop become the sole authority and the-buck-stops-here’er with regard to defense of orthodoxy. Now, that is known, as I have argued to my Roman Catholic friends, as changing the rules in the middle of the game. Because if apostolic succession is defined by an unbroken chain of ministers laying hands on ministers going all the way back to the apostles, then we certainly have claim to it.

Yet I’m not even trying to make the claim that Protestants have apostolic succession. At least not yet. My purpose in writing this article is to argue that apostolic succession is not, nor never was intended to be, the marker of unity with the true church. In its inception, apostolic succession was a concept used to defend the true faith against heresy. Yet if you were to ask Tertullian or Irenaeus what the marks of the true church were, they would likely tell you that it was adherence to the orthodox faith and that unity was centered around the sacraments. This may seem like splitting hairs, but it becomes important at the Reformation. The claim of the Reformation is that the Church of Rome had departed from the apostolic faith. So what matters more, adherence to the apostolic faith, or adherence to an artifice that was once helpful in preserving the apostolic faith? No, the definition of the church cannot be changed in the middle of the game. The definition of the church and the symbol of its unity has always been centered around faith in Jesus Christ and the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, and not on its form of government.

This was how the early medievals viewed the matter. In Western Europe from the 5th-10th centuries, or so, there was an influx of new peoples into the church who were formerly pagan, or Arian, Germanic tribes. Rome was in decline, so Rome could not be depended on for help. The local bishops were largely laymen of aristocratic class who were educated in the palace courts. Who then would lead the charge for evangelism, revival, and church building in this strange new world?

The answer is that it came largely down to monks. Monks who were trained to be local parish pastors, evangelists, missionaries, and apostolic bishops. Yet how did these churchmen, who were seeking to unite the large swath of newly converted Europe into the church of Christ, how did they define the church? Was it the bishops?

No. The early medievals did what they did with almost any theological issue (or any issue at all, for that matter), they went to the bible. And what they found was that the bible defines the church as those who believe in Christ and who are unified by means of the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. What then was to be the continual driving force of unity in this nascent European civilization? The Eucharist. The Lord’s Table was the place where all men and women came to be united into one body of Christ and one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. This, if you are interested, was also the view of St. Augustine.

[Addendum: It is interesting to note that before the separation from the East and the West and before the separation of the Reformation, the church was defined around the Lord’s Table. It was only after these splits that other definitions were sought]

So what does this mean for me if I am considering the Roman Church? It means that if you are looking for the Catholic Church you may find it right where you are. The Catholic Church exists wherever the apostolic faith is professed, and the table of the Lord is held open to all baptized disciples of Jesus. If you are looking for something ancient, you will find it there: the table of the Lord was instituted by Christ himself. If you are looking for tradition, you will find it there:St. Paul says that he handed down the tradition of the Eucharist as he received directly from Jesus. If you are looking for unity with the Catholic Church, you will find it there: Sts. Paul and Augustine say that anyone who partakes of the body of Christ becomes and is in union with the body of Christ. If you are looking for salvation, you will find it there: Jesus says in the gospel of John that those who eat his flesh and blood will have eternal life. I love how Peter Leithart recently put it in this blog post: the Eucharist makes the church. That hits the nail on the head. It’s no coincidence that Peter found this insight by reading a book by Cardinal Henri de Lubac where he wrote about the early medievals and their concept of the body of Christ.

So what are you looking for? Are you looking for something ancient, some old traditions, something catholic, something salvific? You can find it at the Eucharist at your own local church.

Are you looking for certainty? Are you looking for an authority that will never be shaken? Well, you will not find it there, but sadly, you may find that you won’t find it in Rome either. The only source of truth we have is the Holy Spirit speaking through the scriptures to his people.  The only certain authority we have is the Lord Jesus Christ who rules over his church. Everything else can and will fail and err.

So put your faith in Christ. And be Catholic just where you are.