Though this summer’s General Assembly has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the PCA’s Ad Interim Committee on Human Sexuality has published their report, which was to be given at GA. At 62 pages, it is not terribly long. It is also written at a level that should be accessible to most lay people who have some level of familiarity with the issues involved.
That said, summaries can still be helpful for drawing out particular positions that have been taken and identifying key points made in the paper. Toward that end, here is a summary of the committee’s report.
The report begins, after a brief preamble, with twelve short theses concerning marriage, sin, sexuality, and desire, amongst other things:
I am including the full text for the twelve statements. Initially I abridged the statements but a friend suggested that the statements be published in full since they are central to the report.
Statement 1: Marriage
We affirm that marriage is to be between one man and one woman (Gen. 2:18-25; Matt. 19:4-6; 6 WCF 24.1). Sexual intimacy is a gift from God to be cherished and is reserved for the marriage relationship between one man and one woman (Prov. 5:18-19). Marriage was instituted by God for the mutual help and blessing of husband and wife, for procreation and the raising together of godly children, and to prevent sexual immorality (Gen. 1:28; 2:18; Mal. 2:14-15; 1 Cor. 7:2, 9; WCF 24.2). Marriage is also a God-ordained picture of the differentiated relationship between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:22-33; Rev. 19:6-10). All other forms of sexual intimacy, including all forms of lust and same-sex sexual activity of any kind, are sinful (Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Rom. 1:18-32; 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10; Jude 7; WLC 139).
Nevertheless, we do not believe that sexual intimacy in marriage automatically eliminates unwanted sexual desires, nor that all sex within marriage is sinless (WCF 6.5). We all stand in need of God’s grace for sexual sin and temptation, whether married or not. Moreover, sexual immorality is not an unpardonable sin. There is no sin so small it does not deserve damnation, and no sin so big it cannot be forgiven (WCF 15.4). There is hope and forgiveness for all who repent of their sin and put their trust in Christ (Matt. 11:28-30; John 6:35, 37; Acts 2:37-38; 21 16:30-31).
Statement 2: Image of God
We affirm that God created human beings in his image as male and female (Gen. 1:26-27). Likewise, we recognize the goodness of the human body (Gen. 1:31; John 1:14) and the call to glorify God with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:12-20). As a God of order and design, God opposes the confusion of man as woman and woman as man (1 Cor. 11:14-15). While situations involving such confusion can be heartbreaking and complex, men and women should be helped to live in accordance with their biological sex.
Nevertheless, we ought to minister compassionately to those who are sincerely confused and disturbed by their internal sense of gender identity (Gal. 3:1; 2 Tim. 2:24-26). We recognize that the effects of the Fall extend to the corruption of our whole nature (WSC 18), which may include how we think of our own gender and sexuality. Moreover, some persons, in rare instances, may possess an objective medical condition in which their anatomical development may be ambiguous or does not match their genetic chromosomal sex. Such persons are also made in the image of God and should live out their biological sex, insofar as it can be known.
Statement 3: Original Sin
We affirm that from the sin of our first parents we have received an inherited guilt and an inherited depravity (Rom. 5:12-19; Eph. 2:1-3). From this original corruption—which is itself sinful and for which we are culpable—proceed all actual transgressions. All the outworkings of our corrupted nature (a corruption which remains, in part, even after regeneration) are truly and properly called sin (WCF 6.1-5).5 Every sin, original and actual, deserves death and renders us liable to the wrath of God (Rom. 3:23; James 2:10; WCF 6.6). We must repent of our sin in general and our particular sins, particularly (WCF 15.5). That is, we ought to grieve for our sin, hate our sin, turn from our sin unto God, and endeavor to walk with God in obedience to his commandments (WCF 15.2).
Nevertheless, God does not wish for believers to live in perpetual misery for their sins, each of which are pardoned and mortified in Christ (WCF 6.5). By the Spirit of Christ, we are able to make spiritual progress and to do good works, not perfectly, but truly (WCF 16.3). Even our imperfect works are made acceptable through Christ, and God is pleased to accept and reward them as pleasing in his sight (WCF 16.6).
Statement 4: Desire
“We affirm not only that our inclination toward sin is a result of the Fall, but that our fallen desires are in themselves sinful (Rom 6:11-12; 1 Peter 1:14; 2:11).9 4 The desire for an illicit end—whether in sexual desire for a person of the same sex or in sexual desire disconnected from the context of Biblical marriage—is itself an illicit desire. Therefore, the experience of same-sex attraction is not morally neutral; the attraction is an expression of original or indwelling sin that must be repented of and put to death (Rom. 8:13).
Nevertheless, we must celebrate that, despite the continuing presence of sinful desires (and even, at times, egregious sinful behavior), repentant, justified, and adopted believers are free from condemnation through the imputed righteousness of Christ (Rom. 8:1; 2 Cor. 5:21) and are able to please God by walking in the Spirit (Rom. 8:3-6).
Statement 5: Concupiscence
We affirm that impure thoughts and desires arising in us prior to and apart from a conscious act of the will are still sin. We reject the Roman Catholic understanding of concupiscence whereby disordered desires that afflict us due to the Fall do not become sin without a consenting act of the will. These desires within us are not mere weaknesses or inclinations to sin but are themselves idolatrous and sinful.
Nevertheless, we recognize that many persons who experience same-sex attraction describe their desires as arising in them unbidden and unwanted. We also recognize that the presence of same-sex attraction is often owing to many factors, which always include our own sin nature and may include being sinned against in the past. As with any sinful pattern or propensity—which may include disordered desires, extramarital lust, pornographic addictions, and all abusive sexual behavior—the actions of others, though never finally determinative, can be significant and influential. This should move us to compassion and understanding. Moreover, it is true for all of us that sin can be both unchosen bondage and idolatrous rebellion at the same time. We all experience sin, at times, as a kind of voluntary servitude (Rom. 7:13-20).
Statement 6: Temptation
We affirm that Scripture speaks of temptation in different ways. There are some temptations God gives us in the form of morally neutral trials, and other temptations God never gives us because they arise from within as morally illicit desires (James 1:2, 13-14). When temptations come from without, the temptation itself is not sin, unless we enter into the temptation. But when the temptation arises from within, it is our own act and is rightly called sin.
Nevertheless, there is an important degree of moral difference between temptation to sin and giving in to sin, even when the temptation is itself an expressing of indwelling sin. While our goal is the weakening and lessening of internal temptations to sin, Christians should feel their greatest responsibility not for the fact that such temptations occur but for thoroughly and immediately fleeing and resisting the temptations when they arise. We can avoid “entering into” temptation by refusing to internally ponder and entertain the proposal and desire to actual sin. Without some distinction between (1) the illicit temptations that arise in us due to original sin and (2) the willful giving over to actual sin, Christians will be too discouraged to “make every effort” at growth in godliness and will feel like failures in their necessary efforts to be holy as God is holy (2 Peter 1:5-7; 1 Peter 1:14-16). God is pleased with our sincere obedience, even though it may be accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections (WCF 16.6).
Statement 7: Sanctification
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).
Statement 8: Impeccability
We affirm the impeccability of Christ. The incarnate Son of God neither sinned (in thought, word, deed, or desire) nor had the possibility of sinning. Christ experienced temptation passively, in the form of trials and the devil’s entreaties, not actively, in the form of disordered desires. Christ had only the suffering part of temptation, where we also have the sinning part. Christ had no inward disposition or inclination unto the least evil, being perfect in all graces and all their operations at all times.
Nevertheless, Christ endured, from without, real soul-wrenching temptations which qualified him to be our sympathetic high priest (Heb. 2:18; 4:15). Christ assumed a human nature that was susceptible to suffering and death. He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3).
Statement 9: Identity
We affirm that the believer’s most important identity is found in Christ (Rom. 8:38-39; Eph. 1:4, 7). Christians ought to understand themselves, define themselves, and describe themselves in light of their union with Christ and their identity as regenerate, justified, holy children of God (Rom. 6:5-11; 1 Cor. 6:15-20; Eph. 2:1-10). To juxtapose identities rooted in sinful desires alongside the term ‘Christian’ is inconsistent with Biblical language and undermines the spiritual reality that we are new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).
Nevertheless, being honest about our sin struggles is important. While Christians should not identify with their sin so as to embrace it or seek to base their identity on it, Christians ought to acknowledge their sin in an effort to overcome it. There is a difference between speaking about a phenomenological facet of a person’s sin-stained reality and employing the language of sinful desires as a personal identity marker. That is, we name our sins, but are not named by them. Moreover, we recognize that there are some secondary identities, when not rooted in sinful desires or struggles against the flesh, that can be legitimately affirmed along with our primary identity as Christians. For example, the distinctions between male and female, or between various nationalities and people groups, are not eradicated in becoming Christians, but serve to magnify the glory of God in his plan of salvation (Gen. 1:27; 1 Peter 3:7; 28 Rev. 5:9; 7:9-10).
Statement 10: Language
We affirm that those in our churches would be wise to avoid the term “gay Christian.” Although the term “gay” may refer to more than being attracted to persons of the same sex, the term does not communicate less than that. For many people in our culture, to self-identify as “gay” suggests that one is engaged in homosexual practice. At the very least, the term normally communicates the presence and approval of same-sex sexual attraction as morally neutral or morally praiseworthy. Even if “gay,” for some Christians, simply means “same-sex attraction,” it is still inappropriate to juxtapose this sinful desire, or any other sinful desire, as an identity marker alongside our identity as new creations in Christ.
Nevertheless, we recognize that some Christians may use the term “gay” in an effort to be more readily understood by non-Christians. The word “gay” is common in our culture, and we do not think it wise for churches to police every use of the term. Our burden is that we do not justify our sin struggles by affixing them to our identity as Christians. Churches should be gentle, patient, and intentional with believers who call themselves “gay Christians,” encouraging them, as part of the process of sanctification, to leave behind identification language rooted in sinful desires, to live chaste lives, to refrain from entering into temptation, and to mortify their sinful desires.
Statement 11: Friendship
We affirm that our contemporary ecclesiastical culture has an underdeveloped understanding of friendship and often does not honor singleness as it should. The church must work to see that all members, including believers who struggle with same-sex attraction, are valued members of the body of Christ and engaged in meaningful relationships through the blessings of the family of God. Likewise we affirm the value of Christians who share common struggles gathering together for mutual accountability, exhortation, and encouragement.
Nevertheless, we do not support the formation of exclusive, contractual marriage-like friendships, nor do we support same-sex romantic behavior or the assumption that certain sensibilities and interests are necessarily aspects of a gay identity. We do not consider same sex attraction a gift in itself, nor do we think this sin struggle, or any sin struggle, should be celebrated in the church.
Statement 12: Repentance and Hope
We affirm that the entire life of the believer is one of repentance. Where we have mistreated those who struggle with same-sex attraction, or with any other sinful desires, we call ourselves to repentance. Where we have nurtured or made peace with sinful thoughts, desires, words, or deeds, we call ourselves to repentance. Where we have heaped upon others misplaced shame or have not dealt well with necessary God-given shame, we call ourselves to repentance.
Nevertheless, as we call ourselves to the evangelical grace of repentance (WCF 15.1), we see many reasons for rejoicing (Phil. 4:1). We give thanks for penitent believers who, though they continue to struggle with same-sex attraction, are living lives of chastity and obedience. These brothers and sisters can serve as courageous examples of faith and faithfulness, as they pursue Christ with a long obedience in gospel dependence. We also give thanks for ministries and churches within our denomination that minister to sexual strugglers (of all kinds) with Biblical truth and grace. Most importantly, we give thanks for the gospel that can save and transform the worst of sinners—older brothers and younger brothers, tax collectors and Pharisees, insiders and outsiders. We rejoice in ten thousand spiritual blessings that are ours when we turn from sin by the power of the Spirit, trust in the promises of God, and rest upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life (WCF 14.2).
Confessional Foundations Regarding the Nature of Temptation, Sin, and Repentance
The report then continues with a short commentary on how the Westminster Standards understand the doctrine of sin and how that informs our understanding of sexual identity as well as repentance of sexual sin.
Central to this section is the analysis of original sin as well as concupiscence. For the Westminsterian tradition, original sin is pervasive and its effects linger even after conversion. Contrary to Rome, baptism does not wash away the stain of original sin. Rather, Christian believers continue to be vexed by both “original” and “actual” sin. Original sin here refers to the corrupted inclinations of the human heart, which are so complete that we are unable, apart from God’s grace, to do good. “Actual” sin, meanwhile, refers to sins which we commit through our actions. So the Standards do allow for a form of the distinction between sexual desires and sexual acts. But the distinction is not between that which “inclines” toward sin and that which is “properly” sinful. Rather, it is a distinction between types of sin.
Why is this point important? Our doctrine of sin informs our understanding of salvation. Here the report presents the problem well:
The Reformers saw in this a gospel destroying shift from the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to a confidence in our own. Though reference is made to Romans 8:1, the righteousness that Trent describes as belonging to the Christian is not imputed and alien, but infused and inherent. To the Reformers this struck at the heart of the gospel. The Christian would be encouraged to rest in a righteousness within himself. The paragraph on concupiscence follows immediately, so as to say that though the experience of the pull of concupiscence was still there, the Christian was to believe that all sin was ontologically removed from him (therefore concupiscence must not be sin). The Reformers, however, stressed the importance of recognizing the ongoing presence of sinful concupiscence in the Christian precisely because it highlighted that the righteousness given is only and completely an imputation of that which is Christ’s.
In other words, a pervasive account of original sin forces the Christian throw themselves completely on Christ as the hope of their salvation rather than withholding some part for themselves to play in it by cooperating with the workings of divine grace. Our salvation, they taught, is entirely contingent upon God’s grace imputed to us. Thus an error in defining the nature of concupiscence leads to errors in our understanding of how it is that people enter into fellowship with God.
The report then goes on to note that this understanding of concupiscence affects everyone, not merely one sub-group of people who experience particular forms of sexual temptation:
The truth is that if we think humbly and carefully about our own spontaneous thoughts, feelings, and desires, we would recognize that we are all much more alike than different. Who has been a Christian for some length of time who is not aware of at least one particular area of struggle with sin in which whatever success is had in curbing behavior is nonetheless accompanied by a troubling inward draw towards the sin, like a stubborn memory of sinful pleasure that interrupts incessantly and uninvited?
Who does not feel the passion of sinful anger rising up without conscious deliberation or decision, even in contradiction to a prior deliberate decision to “deal with” our anger problem? Even our lack of feeling is often concupiscent: that which is most good and would glorify God does not delight us as it should; that which is evil does not repel us as it should. Luther put it this way, “For it is like a sick man whose mortal illness is not only the loss of health of one of his members, but it is, in addition to the lack of health in all his members, the weakness of all of his senses and powers, culminating even in his disdain for those things which are healthful and in his desire for those things which make him sick.” Good Reformed teaching on sin places us all on equal footing in our need of Christ’s imputed righteousness.
One practical effect of this understanding of sin is that it helps us have a compassionate, humane posture toward sinners, for we recognize the ways in which all of us will never be free of sin in this life:
According to the system of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the remaining experience of homosexual attractions notwithstanding, God is truly pleased with one’s sincere efforts to follow Christ in holiness because he looks on even those imperfect deeds as being “in Christ,” and covered by the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness (WCF 16.6).
This point assumes the Confession’s assertion that gospel change in an individual’s life is always incomplete and mixed with corruption, but then puts that assertion in the form of a positive encouragement. In Christ, every bit of progress, every moment of victory over temptation, even victory over the temptation that comes from the sinful corruption remaining inside of us, is to be celebrated as a gift of the new life of Christ with confidence that it pleases God as such.
Biblical Perspectives for Pastoral Care—Discipleship, Identity, and Terminology
The report then goes on to discuss how churches should shepherd and counsel Christians struggling with various forms of disordered sexual desires. Given what has already been said, it is not surprising that the report emphasizes the already-not yet aspect of sanctification. This is an important point as it provides a real foundation for care and patience within evangelical churches while also remaining clear on the nature of human identity and the purpose of sexuality.
The report then goes on to note that human identity, Christianly understood, has multiple foundations which must all be acknowledged as we attempt to speak about the human person:
- “Scripture begins with the affirmation that humans are created in the image of God.”
- “A biblical understanding of identity must also take into account the reality that we are fallen and corrupted, possessing original and indwelling sin, as well as the miseries of the fall. It tells us who we are… as we experience our sinful selves and our sinful world.”
- “The third and most critical foundational reality pertains to those who repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. We who are made in his image, yet defiled by sin, are redeemed and restored into the image of Christ through our union with him.”
When applied to sexuality, this cashes out in relatively predictable ways: all people bear the divine image and “are worthy of dignity and respect as image bearers and should never be the target of self-righteous condescension, violence, or hatred. Within the church there is no place for a sort of second-class citizenship of believers who have particular struggles, trials, or temptations.”
It then notes that due to the doctrine of creation, any approach to gender identity that relativizes the male-female binary “necessarily undermines” Christian teachings concerning sex and gender. (The report does note, briefly, that there are a minority of cases of ambiguity or uncertainty with intersex individuals, but mostly declines to address this question at length due to its being beyond the scope of the report.)
Regarding terminology, the report says that the use of the term ‘gay Christian’ is unwise. The authors’ reasoning is that the word ‘gay’ communicates many things today and ‘gay Christian’ will be understood by many as referring to Christians who affirm the moral goodness of same-sex acts or a gay self-conception. Due to the confusion that the term can create, it is unwise to use it.
That said, the report also says that the use of the term should not be regarded as a matter of sin. Rather, “the issue of terminology is more likely a matter for shepherding in wisdom, and not in and of itself grounds for discipline.”
The report then goes on to describe how Christians can respond more fruitfully to fellow believers who identify themselves as gay or same-sex attracted.
Too often, Christians have been very clear on the ‘no’ of same-sex sexual relationships, without then offering a plausible pathway to deep and meaningful community for which we were made. Believers who experience same-sex attraction often struggle with a deep-seated and crushing loneliness—a fear of never belonging to another human being. Churches must be committed to being communities of welcome for all sinners.
Significantly, the report also says that “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.”
The report then affirms the necessity of forming strong same-sex friendships within the church while condemning any attempt to make same-sex friendships into a kind of proxy for marriage for same-sex attracted Christians. “The attempt to retain aspects of the marital relationship in the context of celibate partnerships is fundamentally a category mistake: it seeks to have aspects of romance or marriage without its fullness, instead of rightly rooting this type of deeply caring, same-sex relationship in its proper relational category of family or friendship.” The report then turns the screws a bit more, stating that, “the attempt to bring aspects of the marital relationship into a non-marital relationship is itself a violation of the seventh commandment.”
Apologetic Approaches for Speaking to the World
Next, the report turns to the question of how Christians ought to apologetically present a Christian sexual ethic to a deeply skeptical and often hostile world. This section is one of the report’s greatest strengths, in my opinion. It contextualizes contemporary beliefs about sexuality in a way that is helpful while also presenting a positive, hopeful way of presenting Christian teachings regarding sexuality.
The report begins by defining the common narrative concerning sexuality in the contemporary west. The narrative is built around “the oppression of the past,” “the need for authentic expression,” “the fight to love whom we want to love,” “the hard-won rights of today,” and “the continual danger.” They then identify three challenges for Christians today:
- Addressing the modern identity narrative—unseen, deep background beliefs about identity and freedom and power. The conclusion is excellent: “As long as people in our culture hold these views of identity and freedom, they cannot find the Christian view of sexuality plausible. And so no Christian sexuality apologetic can have any real impact unless it spends tie and effort ot reveal the deeply problematic nature of these background beliefs. In short, our sexuality apologetic cannot talk only about sex.”
- Addressing the historical narrative—ignorance of the first (Christian) ‘sexual revoltuion.’ Here the report shows how the Christian sexual ethic first triumphed over the norms of the classical Roman world—norms which in many ways resemble the current understanding of sexuality. Here they lean heavily on Kyle Harper’s work on sex in the classical world. In particular, the authors astutely note that what we really have today is an odd attempt to create a hybrid of the classical and Christian accounts of sexuality—sex is chiefly related to power and pleasure, as in the classical view, but consent is still made central, as in a Christian account. The result is an odd and contradictory view that a Christian sex ethic can critique in compelling ways: “Modern culture’s desire to retain some parts of the Christian sex ethic but not the others has created huge tension. The idea of consent goes best with covenant, not hook-ups. Women in particular can feel used as objects. Early Christians faced the same charge that we do—that our sex ethic is stifling, kill-joy, negative, repressive, and unrealistic. They also knew that, while in the short run sexual self-control is hard, in the long run, the Christian sex ethic is more fulfilling and less dehumanizing. In our day we must also find ways to talk confidently about the revolutionary Christian good news about sex.”
- Rooting the church’s teaching about sexuality in its full theology, rather than simply declaring its ethic. Though the Christian teaching can be stated simply, it is helpful to offer a broader account of the reasons for the teaching. “The Christian answer to the question, ‘why must sex be within heterosexual marriage?’ gets us into the very heart of the gospel. We should not, then, present the sex ethic without rooting it in the Bible’s doctrines of God, of creation, and of redemption.” This consideration naturally leads into the next section of the report.
Grounding the Purposes of Sex in Biblical Theology
The report then lays out an excellent and pervasively biblical rationale for the Christian teachings regarding sexuality. This is essential work if we are to counter the claim, regularly made, that Christian teachings regarding sexuality ultimately are little more than thinly veiled means of hiding anti-gay animus. The report is extremely helpful in the way it contextualizes Christian sexual ethics within broader Christian theology:
As union with Christ is a relationship of exclusive, covenantal, self-giving love, so sexual intimacy is only to be experienced within the covenant of marriage.
Just as union with God is entered into through covenant, so sexual love between people must be a covenanted thing. “Modern culture turns all sexual relationships into consumerist, transactional relationships. A consumer connection is about mutual self-fulfillment; the individual’s needs are the non-negotiables and are more importantthan the relationship, which is provisonal and easily terminated. A covenant, however, is based on mutual self-giving and putting the needs of the other party and the good of the relationship before your own.”
As union with Christ is a relationship between deeply different beings (God and humanity), so sexual intimacy is only to be experienced in a union across the deep difference of gender.
This was a new line of argument to me, but it seems well-reasoned and to follow from the biblical witness. Here is how the report makes the case:
Paul says that when God created the marital union he was doing so to give us a mysterion—a sign pointing to Christ’s love and union with us. The male-female bond can only serve as an analogy to the Christ-Church union if the parties are significantly different. The wonder of our union in Christ is that humanity and deity—alienated by sin—are now united, first in the person of Christ himself, and then in our union with him through the Holy Spirit. And one of the great accomplishments of marriage is that the genders—also alienated by sin (Genesis 3:16-17)—are brought together in a loving union.
Finally, this section concluded with a third argument:
As union with Christ brings new life into the world, so God has bestowed only on male-female marriage both the ability to create new human life and the best resources to nourish that life.
This is one of the key points that must continuously be made in the argument over same-sex marriage. An approach to marriage and sexuality that functionally makes procreation a merely incidental or secondary good is already a sub-Christian account of marriage. And the reason for that is clear here: Marriage is the means by which new physical life is brought into the world.
The addition of “and the best resources to nourish that life,” is also a clever addition. The point is not simply that a man and woman together have the necessary apparatus, to speak in crude terms, for the creation of new life. It is that man and woman covenanted together in marriage have both the ability to create life and the means required to nurture, sustain, and support that life through to adulthood.
Toward a Christian Sexual Apologetic
The report then lists some of the points it sees as being necessary for developing a Christian sexual apologetic. First, it lays out, in concise form, the rationale for a Christian conception of marriage:
- Super-consensual: “Christians believe sexual intimacy is not for those who merely give temporary consent for one sexual encounter but for those who give permanent, whole-life consent to each other through marriage.” The report also notes, significantly, that “even inside marriage, sex must be mutually consensual.” One of the things I most admire about the report is the way it anticipates many potential objections and includes short notes and clarifying statements that head off the objection before it can be raised.
- Gender diverse: “We believe a marriage between persons of the same gender fails to practice the gender diversity that we wish to see in other areas of life.” One intriguing note here is that I think you can argue that the report at points comes very close to endorsing a broad complementarian framework rather than the narrower version of complementarianism. That is an aside and is not central to the argument. But the report rather consistently seems to affirm a form of gender essentialism that goes beyond the merely biological. This is one of the places where further discussion will be required, I think.
- Capable of life: “Not only is this relationship the one that produces new human life, it also then exposes growing children to the full range of our gendered humanity through the presence of both a mother and a father.” Here, again, we see a repeat of the earlier line about the necessity of marriage not only for the creation of life, but for its nurture and maturation.
Second, the report proposes some methods for criticizing contemporary understandings of sexuality:
- The brutality of sex in the old world: Earlier in the report, the authors cited Kyle Harper’s work in which he argued that Christian teachings regarding sexuality shifted the center of sexuality, as it were. In Christianity, sex is related to God because God created it and gives us direction via revelation in how we ought to approach sexuality. In the pagan world, sex was chiefly related to the city and was chiefly a form of experiencing pleasure and establishing power. So here the report returns to that argument, noting that in the classical world, “Sex was seen merely as a way to enhance personal pleasure and fulfillment of those in power… this led to much brutality.”
- A new personal identity: Christian teachings regarding identity and society have a flattening effect that tacitly undermined the power structures of the classical world, which in turn contributes to the reimagining of what sex is.
- A new social ethic: Similarly, the Christian teachings regarding identity also flattened distinctions across classes, which, again, tacitly undermines the ways in which sex was used to establish power and control across class. “Relationships within the Christian community were to be based on self-giving, sacrificial love, rather than on class and status.”
- A new vision for sexuality: “Christians called for sex to be based not (as in the Roman society) on power but on love, to be captive not to the culture but to Christ who gave himself for us and brought us into an exclusive, covenantal relationship with him.” Sex is thus shaped by two principles: The first is self-giving. The second is gender diversity.
- The failures of western society: The report then notes that attempts to impose Christian sexual standards through the law have often been disconnected from “the high vision of Christ’s love and grace.” This did truly lead to a kind of “sex-negativity,” which the report condemns. It further condemns the cruelty often visited upon pregnant teenage women and homosexual young people.
- The modern sexual revolution: The report concedes that the sexual revolution was in part a reaction to those failures. But it then goes on to note that the revolution itself is failing by reducing sex to a “transactional… consumer good in which two parties exchange favors only as long as they are getting their needs met.” These trends tend toward loneliness and isolation and are “especially devastating to the poorest communities and so, arguably, the modern sex ethic is hardest on those with the least power and societal protections.”
- The Christian sexual counter-culture: I will just quote the report at length here:
Our culture tells us we must discover our deepest desires and then express them in order to become our authentic selves. But the reality is that we have contradictory impulses in our heart. We need some standard to help us determine which of our desires and instincts should be cultivated and which ones should not. Ancient people and modern people alike let their cultures set the standards. Christianity says: don’t let tribe or culture control you and give you your valuation. Let God’s Word give you the moral grid to understand your heart. And let God’s love and grace, through Jesus Christ, give you your deepest validation and identity. We believe that this link between God’s love and sexuality, that is lived out through the Biblical model of marriage, is the best way for human beings to live and thrive.
The report the concludes with a selective bibliography of books recommended for pastors and sessions. Authors cited here include Sam Allbery, Kevin DeYoung, Rachel Gilson, Jackie Hill Perry, Vaughan Roberts, and Ed Shaw.
In a later list of ‘books and articles for further study,’ the report also lists works by Denny Burk, Rosaria Butterfield, Robert A. J. Gagnon, Richard Hays, Wesley Hill, Nancy Pearcey, Preston Sprinkle, John Stott, Mark Yarhouse, and Christopher Yuan.
The report concludes with a very helpful note that, to my mind, exemplifies the best of the PCA:
We confess that we began our work with the obvious understanding that members of this Committee were chosen to represent varying perspectives in our church. While we shared mutual respect, the polarities in our church and the expectations of various constituencies we represented created a certain wariness in our initial discussions.
Two important commitments helped us advance beyond wariness of churchmen to the work of the church in a way that we believe honors the Lord: 1) the commitment of leaders to deal with one another honestly and honorably; and, 2) the commitment of each person on the Committee to be a learner, as well as a leader.
Each of us had things to learn: details, history, and implications of our Confessional standards; the pastoral challenges of those whose sacrificial ministries regularly involve ministering to those whose sexual sins our culture approves; the ways to get a hearing for the gospel from friends and neighbors who have adopted the pervasive cultural mindset; resources that equip us with additional knowledge and perspective to address one another and our culture with wise application of God’s Word; and means to extend grace and truth to those with whom we disagree—even those in the church. These differing perspectives and pastoral obligations are reflected in the various sections of our Report that we pray will serve the varying concerns of ministry leaders across our church.
The Lord blessed us by providing Committee members who could teach each of us, and by providing leaders who would listen without letting wariness become deafness to fathers and brothers serving the Lord in different capacities and contexts.
Just as we were clear-eyed about the differences among Committee members, we recognized that there are those outside our Committee who might presume that some sort of “group-think” became responsible for the unity of our Report. So, we also sent our key documents to trusted leaders, representing diverse perspectives across our denomination for commentary and critique. All provided honest and detailed responses that allowed us to discern some blind spots, address some issues with greater sensitivity or directness, and refine some language. No response was disrespectful. No response was disregarded. All responses proved helpful and were addressed in the final Report.
I will have some further thoughts on my personal blog at some future point. But I thought it best to first put up a summary document that can likely be read in around 15-20 minutes and will, I hope, encourage more people to read the entire report.