Last weekend the Chapel, a secular arts venue owned and operated by Memorial Presbyterian Church, a PCA congregation in St Louis, MO, hosted Transluminate, an arts festival put on by an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization. The festival was a “celebration of transgender, agender, non-binary, genderqueer, and genderfluid artists.”
As such an event promotes a view of sexuality and the human body that is plainly at odds with the teachings of the denomination’s confessional standard, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), this decision has created a great deal of controversy within the PCA.
The Chapel is a space that Memorial Presbyterian owns but does not use as part of their ecclesiastical life. As explained in a letter by Greg Johnson, the pastor at Memorial, the church owns three properties, two of which are used as part of the church’s ministry with the third, the Chapel, being used as a space to support local artists.
This places the Chapel in a somewhat ambiguous place in its relationship to the ministry at Memorial, as it is positioned as being completely unassociated with the church’s liturgical life, but also a ministry of the church, and also a venue made available to local artists to serve the city of St Louis.
Thus one of the questions the event raises is whether or not church-owned property that is not used for church functions should be treated differently than property that is used for church functions with regard to what kind of groups can use the space, what events can be hosted in the space, and so on. If such property should be viewed differently, what is the nature of that difference? What concerns govern the use of the property?
In addition to Memorial’s statement, the Missouri Presbytery also issued a statement concerning the event.
We want to inform you of our Presbytery’s response: several weeks ago, when we first learned of the event, a delegation from our Presbytery met with several members of Memorial’s Session to ask questions, seek clarification and express our grave concerns about the wisdom of hosting this event. During that meeting, Memorial and Chapel leaders acknowledged a need to take a closer look going forward at the appropriateness of hosting this production and expressed an openness to discussing the ministry and its governing policies with Missouri Presbytery. To that end, the delegation asked them to present on Chapel ministry at the Presbytery’s April Stated meeting.
Thus it appears likely that more will be known about this event prior to this summer’s General Assembly to be held in Birmingham, AL.
There also other factors influencing how this particular event is discussed in the PCA.
Concerns Over Revoice and Sexuality as Taught in the PCA
First, there are long-standing debates over the way in which the church should minister to LGBTQ+ individuals and how Christians who are attracted to individuals of the same sex or experience gender dysphoria should describe themselves. These debates are closely linked to Memorial Presbyterian because Memorial hosted the first annual Revoice conference in 2018 and because Johnson is listed as a speaker for the 2020 conference and has said that he is still same-sex attracted after his conversion. (You can read his testimony at CT.)
The Missouri presbytery has also released two separate reports dealing with issues related to Revoice. First, in the fall of 2017—prior to the first Revoice event—the presbytery released a report called “Homosexuality and the Gospel of Grace: Faithfulness to the Lord’s Calling in an Age of Sexual Autonomy.” Then in January of 2020 the presbytery released the final version of a report concerning Revoice and Johnson.
Occasional Mere Orthodoxy contributor Steven Wedgeworth, who is an ordained pastor in the PCA, published a review on “Homosexuality and the Gospel of Grace,” on the Mere O front page. Additionally, Mere Orthodoxy has published a critical review of the Spiritual Friendship project, also written by Wedgeworth, and multiple pieces defending Revoice by founding editor (and Revoice advisor) Matthew Lee Anderson:
- Can Christians Be Gay? An Inquiry
- Sex, Temptation, and the Gay Christian: What Chastity Demands
- His Mercy is on Them That Fear Him
- Assorted Thoughts After Revoice
Concerns with the Missouri Presbytery
Second, there are also long-standing concerns about the Missouri Presbytery in particular. These issues date back a number of years and recently have concerned South City Church, another PCA congregation in the St Louis metro.
The first major issue involving South City was in 2015 and concerned a speech given at the Urbana conference by worship leader Michelle Higgins, who is also the daughter of senior pastor Mike Higgins, and who holds an M.Div degree from Covenant Theological Seminary.
You can view the speech below:
I commented on Higgins’s remarks for the main page shortly after the conference.
In subsequent years, additional controversies involving Michelle Higgins would arise.
After the Orlando Pulse shooting in the summer of 2016, Higgins published a piece at Faith for Justice calling Christians who did not express solidarity with oppressed LGBTQ+ individuals ‘bigoted terrorists.’ I also covered that story for the main page.
In 2017 Higgins made remarks on the Truth’s Table podcast that sparked debate over the denomination’s understanding of gender roles:
Near the end of the episode, Higgins said:
What does that word mean? What does the word ‘ordainable’ mean? It LITERALLY means possesses a penis. It does not mean, is currently in seminary, has graduated with an M.Div and has gone before a licensure committee, ‘ordainable’ means that the person is able to be set to the practice of potentially becoming a church leader. And, specifically, in some denominations, church leaders may only be male. And therefore when you whittle it all down, that word is how we live out a theology that we have prooftexted to death, to twist and to turn in order to re-erect a wall that God, I believe, tore down in his flesh. Jesus, with his male body, tore down a dividing wall that now allows me to be just as complete as a woman. And yet in my own context, no one will hear me unless maybe I design and develop a penis-shaped microphone. Because if all you need to have is A PENIS in order to be heard, then maybe we should have a line of penis microphones. Because it is ALL that you need to have to pass out communion, to take up the offering,
Then in early 2019 Higgins’s organization, Faith for Justice, invited Jay-Marie Hill, a transgender activist, to speak at their MLK Day event which would be hosted at South City Church. The presbytery issued a full report on that event in April of 2019 which made it clear that no one ordained in the Missouri Presbytery had been aware of Hill’s role in the event until it had already been publicly announced. The event was also moved to a different site after the session at South City said they would not allow it to be hosted at South City due to Hill’s involvement. Later in 2019, Higgins left her role at South City Church. She is no longer a member in a PCA congregation.
Notes on Judging the Story So Far
To this point I’ve limited my remarks to stating the facts about the Transluminate event and the long-term debates within the PCA about sexuality and the Missouri presbytery in hopes that simply laying out the facts of the case and its surrounding context would be helpful.
Now I want to suggest a few principles for further debate within the church.
The Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way
Ordained leaders in the PCA take these vows at ordination:
1. Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as originally given, to be the inerrant Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice?
2. Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will, on your own initiative, make known to your Session the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?
3. Do you approve of the form of government and discipline of the Presbyterian Church in America, in conformity with the general principles of biblical polity?
4. Do you accept the office of ruling elder (or deacon, as the case may be) in this church, and promise faithfully to perform all the duties thereof, and to endeavor by the grace of God to adorn the profession of the Gospel in your life, and to set a worthy example before the Church of which God has made you an officer?
5. Do you promise subjection to your brethren in the Lord?
6. Do you promise to strive for the purity, peace, unity and edification of the Church?
These vows must necessarily condition the way in which intra-denomination issues are debated.
First, ordained leaders in the church have taken vows to uphold the system of religion taught in the Westminster Confession. This necessarily limits the views that can be affirmed and publicly taught by ordained people.
Second, ordained leaders in the church have taken vows to ‘strive’ for both ‘the purity’ and ‘peace’ of the church. (Members in PCA congregations also take vows to uphold the purity and peace of the church.) This necessarily limits the ways in which we can talk about our disagreements and criticize one another within Christ’s church. Impugning motives, making accusations of bad faith, and the like would seem to be a clear violation of the sixth ordination vow and so should not be tolerated. Likewise, teachings that are shown to violate the system taught in the WCF should, similarly, not be tolerated.
In other words, the words we speak need to reflect and conform with Christian teaching and the way in which we speak must reflect and conform with Christian teaching. To fail in either area is to fail to fulfill our duty as Christians.
Negligence is not deceptiveness. Concern is not divisiveness.
I’ll preface this by saying I’m merely a PCA member who has been in the denomination for over a decade and who knows and loves the church. But from where I’m standing, I think it is fair to say that multiple churches in the Missouri presbytery have been negligent in their handling of certain issues.
Two issues in particular stand out to me: First, given everything that had happened prior to the 2019 MLK event, it was a serious mistake to not have direct session-level oversight of any Faith for Justice events to be hosted at South City Church. That controversy could have been avoided if the session had known about the event prior to it being publicized. The outcome with Higgins may not have been different, but the way it was perceived within the denomination might have been.
Similarly, based on Johnson’s statement it would appear that the Chapel operated with some degree of autonomy from the session at Memorial. Given the current climate in the denomination and particularly the controversy around Johnson, this was also imprudent. Again, the private fallout of a more direct handling of the situation by the session might have been difficult and unpleasant as with Higgins at South City. But, again, if this had been addressed privately when the event was first being planned and discussed internally, the denominational fallout would have been minimized.
That being said, many conservatives in the denomination seem prone to ascribe the worst possible intentions to these kind of mistakes. Sessions generally are very busy and have many responsibilities in the life of a church. They are also often under-manned. I would think that anyone who has served on a session or in pastoral ministry for long has probably had something bad happen in their congregation that they arguably could have seen coming but did not because they were attending to other matters. So it is in keeping with Christian charity to give one another the benefit of the doubt and to distinguish between something that is an act of negligence on the part of the session from some kind of plot to stage a progressive coup within the PCA.
By the same token, expressions of concern and even frank criticism from conservatives in the PCA are not inherently failures to honor the peace of the church. The peace of the church is not defined by the absence of conflict. The church’s peace is a principled peace based upon a shared profession of the gospel and a desire to preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments, and aid one another in the practice of Christian discipline. The wounds of a friend are faithful, Proverbs tells us. Both aspects of that phrase matter—the wounding and the friendship. To fail in either is to abandon the biblical vision of life together in the church.
The desires of both the ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ wings of the PCA are good.
Near the end of their statement on Transluminate, Johnson writes,
One night after a show, an actress had an hour-long conversation with one of our pastors. “We know what your church believes,” she said, “and so we don’t understand why you are being so kind to us.” He answered, “It’s precisely because of what we believe.” They had a long talk. She left saying it was the first time she felt a Christian had really listened to her.
It is a truism to talk about the polarization and divisiveness that defines the American republic today. Theoretically, one of the greatest rebuttals to that division should be visible on Sunday morning in churches all over the country as a great variety of people share a meal together and profess that Jesus is Lord and unite in praising him. Many of the ‘progressive’ churches in the PCA are driven by a desire to see everyone come to know and love Jesus, including the many people in our culture who have become deeply hostile to the faith for a variety of reasons. This is a praiseworthy, commendable desire that all in the PCA should affirm and support.
Indeed, I often wonder if I would be a Christian today if it were not for the folks on this wing of the denomination who welcomed me and loved me in all my anger and confusion when I stumbled into a PCA congregation in 2007. I can also tell many stories of people like me coming back into the faith via the ministry of RUF. Accusations that the ‘progressives’ in the PCA are wolves or secret theological liberals often completely fail to reckon with what motivates these folks and the obvious fruit of their ministry that can be seen in hundreds of PCA congregations every Sunday morning.
Likewise, one of the particular difficulties many individuals face today is a complete lack of identity and an inability to bear the heavy burden of fashioning an identity for themselves. Often the only people able to manage this are the wealthy, who, thanks to their wealth, are able to fill out the necessary support systems in their life as they attempt this basically impossible task. If we are to speak to people facing this difficulty and to have any kind of hopeful message for them, we need a clear understanding of the Gospel but also a clear understanding of theological anthropology and theological ethics. It is a concern with these matters that animates many conservatives in the denomination. Our outreach to the world cannot simply be a gesture of welcome, but must also include a call to repentance and to adopt the practices of Christian piety in grateful response to God’s offer of grace in the Gospel. What conservatives fear is that this inherently confrontational aspect of Gospel proclamation is lost or watered down by some on the church’s progressive side. And this is not a wholly groundless concern.
Paul tells us that love hopes all things. Amongst other things, a hopeful love does not rush to judgment, does not assume the worst, and is patient in its approach to the brethren. This standard applies equally to both wings of the PCA. Progressives would do well to recognize the motivations for conservative criticisms, which are often driven by a deep concern with fidelity to the biblical texts and, secondarily, fidelity to the broader theological system taught by reformed churches for centuries. Conservatives, likewise, would do well to recognize the motivations and desires of the progressives in the PCA, particularly as those relate to evangelism and outreach. Were we to more consistently operate with this spirit of love, I expect ours would be a stronger, more fruitful, more faithful church.
** Note: I have used ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ throughout this post because I need terms of some kind to describe the rift within the PCA. That being said, the relative theological range of the PCA is incredibly narrow. Progressives in the PCA would be conservatives in many orthodox denominations to the PCA’s left and the PCA’s conservatives may well look deeply progressive in denominations to the PCA’s right. So bear in mind the relativity of those terms and particularly keep in mind that when I refer to ‘progressives’ in the PCA I am referring to people who have taken vows to uphold the system of religion taught in the Westminster Confession and whose ‘progressivism’ is manifested theologically as an openness to deaconesses, non-young earth readings of the creation account in Genesis, and probable exceptions on the Sabbath and images of Jesus in children’s Bibles and things like that. People who hold such views are ‘progressive’ relative to the PCA’s standards, but in any broader snapshot of American Protestantism would still appear conservative.
UPDATE: The piece has been edited to note that Greg Johnson does not describe himself as a ‘gay Christian.’ I apologize for the error.