Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Three Reports on Revoice from PCA Presbyteries

There was a conference held in St. Louis last year called Revoice, which sought to support gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other same-sex attracted Christians who affirmed the historic Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality. This event was controversial before it even happened and has continued to be polarizing, particularly among conservative Presbyterians. While Revoice was clear in teaching that sex belongs only within monogamous and heterosexual marriage, it was less clear on the issues of homosexual desire, orientation, and identity.

Revoice is not a Presbyterian organization, and its speakers came from a variety of denominational backgrounds, but it featured several speakers who are ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and was held at Memorial Presbyterian Church (PCA), whose senior pastor spoke at the event and defended it against critics. After the conference, several of the PCA's regional presbyteries set up committees to study and report on the teachings promoted at the conference. These reports have been released as the PCA approaches its annual General Assembly later this month. I am in a different conservative Presbyterian denomination (the Orthodox Presbyterian Church). Yet we in the OPC have an interest in the direction and well-being of our sister denomination. I am also personally involved - I graduated from the PCA's seminary and I have friends in the PCA (on "both sides" of this controversy).

Here I want to review the reports on Revoice adopted by three of the PCA's presbyteries: Missouri Presbytery, Central Carolina Presbytery, and Westminster Presbytery. For those who do not have time to sort through these reports, perhaps this summary can give you an idea how the PCA is addressing this controversy.

Missouri Presbytery - "Missouri Presbytery Ad Hoc Committee to Investigate Memorial Presbyterian Church for Hosting the Revoice 18 Conference in July 2018" (111 pages, 32 additional pages in the appendices)

This presbytery is the one which includes Memorial Presbyterian Church and its senior pastor, Rev. Greg Johnson. Its task was to investigate not only Revoice, but particularly the role played by Memorial Presbyterian Church and its senior pastor. This investigation was first requested by Memorial PCA and later by Calvary Presbytery. Its report is by far the largest of these three reports, but it does include a "Summary of Allegations and Judgments" on pages 29-34 and "Commendations and Recommendations" on pages 110-111 for those who want to read a shorter version.

In receiving this report and adopting and approving certain parts of it, the Missouri Presbytery also noted on their website,
"We would ask readers to take care to not represent this report as an endorsement of Revoice, because our Presbytery does not understand itself to be endorsing Revoice by the actions it took at the May 18 meeting. As we say candidly in the report, we have concerns about where Revoice is going, and even now, how its goals and principles are being worked out by some of its participants under the umbrella this organization has become. We believe it is a young and evolving organization and stands in need of much prayer and guidance, and, in places, constructive criticism, to the end of becoming aware of some corrective moving it needs to make, at least in our judgment." 
More specifically, the report judged,

- "...that both TE Johnson and Memorial ought to have vetted more carefully the speakers and content of the Revoice conference.... In addition, ... by not providing a gracious, clear critique of the conference, especially at those points where it was alleged that there was difference with our doctrinal standards, the Session of Memorial and TE Johnson erred…” (p. 29)

- "...that neither Revoice nor the Memorial Presbyterian Church Session ground homoerotic desire and actions in Creation rather than in the Fall. We believe that Revoice itself does not teach that sexual desire for someone of the same sex is morally neutral and not sinful. In fact, they affirm that it is sinful." (p. 29)

- "...that the way Revoice and Side B believers in general use terms has been confusing to many of our churches. But we reject the claim that this is because terms like 'gay,' 'sexual orientation,' 'queer,' and 'sexual minorities' are always or necessarily unbiblical." (p. 30)

- that Revoice understands terms like "same-sex attraction" and "gay" in an expanded way so that "they are inclusive of 'attractions,' of an 'orientation,' of a quality of 'gayness' that lies behind homoerotic desire and yet is essentially or intrinsically related to it—rather than being simply related to it situationally" and in this "Revoice has committed at least an error of imprudence by indulging in needless and potentially dangerous speculation, and it remains to be seen whether this error will be used in such a way as to strike at the vitals of religion." (p. 30-31)

- that while a Christian can, in some sense, include their sinful desires as a part of who they are, "any part of 'who we are' that is the result of the Fall and sinful must be mortified, and all aspects of our identity must be seen through the lens of our primary identity as those who are made in the image of God and restored to that image through our union with Christ." (p. 31)

- "...that, to the extent that Revoice even entertains the possibility of 'celibate partnerships' (even within the limits expressed above), it has erred in offering unwise, unedifying relational arrangements to Christians who know same-sex-attraction (cf. 1 Cor. 6:12).... TE Johnson, in his Revoice workshop, publicly warned about the danger of friendships morphing into romances and stressed the importance of boundaries." (p. 32)

- "...that Memorial did not err in allowing Roman Catholics to speak in their church building under the aegis of Revoice…. However, Memorial erred in failing to make clear to their congregation our doctrinal differences with Roman Catholicism before, but especially after the Revoice conference." (p. 34)

The end result of this investigation is that the Missouri Presbytery required Memorial PCA to respond to these concerns (specifically, "the judgements and recommendations of this report") by their summer presbytery meeting in July, and that Missouri Presbytery adopted an “Overture to the 47th General Assembly of the PCA to Form an Ad Interim Committee to Seek Consensus on Doctrinal Boundaries and Pastoral Care in the Current Debates About Sexuality.”

Central Carolina Presbytery - "Central Carolina Presbytery Study Committee Report on 2018 Revoice Conference" (16 pages)

The Central Carolina Presbytery's report is generally well written and only 16 pages long. It helpfully summarizes the main talks at Revoice and then addresses them by looking at five issues.

Regarding desire and temptation, this report helpfully distinguishes between the Reformed and Roman Catholic understandings of sin and desire (both Reformed and Roman Catholic speakers were present at the conferences). While the Roman Catholic view is that disordered desires only become sinful when we consent or act upon them, our Presbyterian standards affirm that the corruption of our nature (original sin) is sin to be repented of, and that the desire for sin is a sinful desire. In other words, "when the heart is drawn after an illegitimate end, we must repent of that sinful desire, longing, or attraction and run to Christ for cleanness of conscience and forgiveness of sin" (p. 8). The report critiques the idea that same-sex sexual desire can be purified, leaving behind a unique attraction towards members of one's own sex. Unfortunately, the report ends up arguing that there is no such thing as non-sexual attraction towards another person (!).

Regarding labels and identities, this report notes that "'gay' or 'sexual minority' might be used occasionally in order to identify a persistent struggle that must be mortified by the power of the Holy Spirit. Insofar as identity language is used in this way, we see it as consistent with the manner in which faithful Christians have talked throughout the centuries (e.g., 'I’m an alcoholic but a Christian who is seeking to forsake this sin.')" (p. 10). But it also argues that adopting these labels can seem to foster the idea that these sins cannot be resisted, that they are part of a settled identity, and are perhaps morally neutral. I find this section of the report a bit unclear - it seems to realize that people can adopt these terms in a legitimate way, but then condemns the use of these terms since those who do so "are not merely identifying a struggle. Such linguistic moves signal an inappropriate add-on to what we all agree is a more fundamental category: Christian" (p. 11). It does helpfully recognize the life long struggle with sin described in Romans 7, while also noting that it is a mistake to view sexual orientation as immutable.

Regarding spiritual friendships, this report states, "We certainly agree with the Revoice Conference that same-sex attracted persons can find in the Bible, and should find in the church, examples of deep, loyal, committed relationships between persons of the same sex. We think it unwise, however, to posit a separate class of homosexual friendship that goes by different names and looks substantially different from the healthy friendships all Christians should cultivate and enjoy" (p. 13).

Regarding the "gift of homosexuality", I think the report says it well: "as we discussed above, we do not believe it is right to characterize sinful inclinations as a gift. But if same-sex attraction is not a gift to be celebrated, our brothers and sisters who pursue Christ courageously in the midst of this attraction certainly are. In short, we believe it is important to affirm that same-sex desires are sinful, that the fight against these desires is an admirable struggle, and that those who labor in faith and repentance to overcome these desires should receive our sympathy, our gratitude, and our support" (p. 14-15).

In the end, the report summarizes by saying: "We appreciate Revoice’s commitment to biblical marriage. We commend them for their desire to help sexual strugglers stay rooted in Christ and in historic orthodoxy. At the same time, we are concerned that some of the principal voices in Revoice have not been careful enough with their labels, their theology, and their relational advice. Consequently, at present we do not feel Revoice is a safe guide in helping Christians navigate questions of gender and sexuality" (p. 16).

Westminster Presbytery - "Report of the Committee to Investigate THE TEACHINGS OF THE REVOICE CONFERENCE, Adopted by Westminster Presbytery March 9, 2019" (27 pages)

Westminster Presbytery earlier sent an overture to the PCA's General Assembly with a list of twelve affirmations and denials on this controversy (available here), which I found to be good, though I would push back a little on article nine's denial. Unfortunately, their report is somewhat misled by a misunderstanding of what Revoice speaker Nate Collins meant in his book when he said that "the gay identity is a first-creation identity" (cited on page 3 of the report). While the report understands Collins to say that the gay identity was a pre-fall reality, Collins meant that this identity was part of this present, post-fall age, as opposed to the age to come. Collins does affirm that "sexual desire for someone of the same sex is sinful and something that I should repent from" (source), but also argues that being gay includes a broader aesthetic orientation that is not sinful in itself, though restricted to this age (footnote on p. 3). This understanding of sexual orientation is problematic, but this report ignores these distinctions and so misses the mark in some of its critique.

In short, this report commends Revoice for teaching that "Homosexual Sex and Homosexual Marriage are always Sinful." Yet, it argues that the "counsel and teaching of the Revoice conference is, for the most part, in grave error and is spiritually reckless and destructive" (p. 27)
- because it taught that "Sexual Orientation is Real, Fixed, & Likely Unchangeable, and same-sex orientation is not inherently sinful" (p. 2)
- because "Memorial PCA has put 3 Roman Catholic Speakers in front of the people of God as spokespersons for true Christianity and teachers of God’s word" (p. 13)
- because "Revoice’s Concept of 'Spiritual Friendship' Promoted by Wesley Hill and Ron Belgau [RC] is the Creation of Marriage Culture Minus Sex" (p. 16)
- because it taught that "Gender and Sexual Minority Christians are Victims of the Church Because the Church Will not Acknowledge Sexual Orientation and LGBT Identity" (p. 17)
- because it taught that "Roman Catholicism’s Anti-Scriptural Doctrine of Sin is True (aka: “concupiscence”): Sin consists in actions only, not in desires contrary to God’s Word" (p. 22)

I should note that it was Revoice, not Memorial PCA, that invited the Roman Catholic speakers, although as the Missouri Presbytery report noted, Memorial was not free of all responsibility to note where we disagree with Roman Catholics on these issues. Also, it is not correct to say that the speakers at Revoice taught that desires contrary to God's word are not sin. Some did make the problematic assertion that homosexual orientation or attraction is not sinful and a debatable distinction between lust and involuntary desires/temptation. For example, outside the conference in his interview on Crosspolitic, Memorial PCA's senior pastor, Greg Johnson, seemed to make the distinction that one must repent of volitional sins and lusts while one must mortify homosexual attraction (but that one cannot repent of homosexual attraction). This issue was more accurately handled by the other two reports.

Yet, this report helpfully draws to a conclusion by saying,
"In summary, Christian people and ministers must befriend, love, and express the deepest patience and grace toward people engaged in sexually perverted forms of sin.... And individuals ensnared by such sins must see in us a people who are determined to love and serve them regardless of whether or not they ever repent and come to Christ.... The church must support, encourage, and empower people to repent from and put to death their LGBT identities, attractions, desires, and/or actions with the help of Christ. And we must work hard to counsel and walk beside such people as they do so. Their battle with sin will be no less consuming and intense than our own. This is what the body of Christ and Christian fellowship is all about. We walk alongside each other, support one another in our battles with sin, and cheer each other on as we run the race with endurance." (p. 27)

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