By Steven Wedgeworth
The Presbyterian Church in America’s annual General Assembly is quickly approaching, and at least 8 of the overtures that have been submitted concern sexual identity and LGBT ministry in the church. There is also an overture to release Covenant Theological Seminary from official PCA oversight, and it’s hard to think that this isn’t at least partially due to the controversy surrounding last year’s Revoice Conference. Covenant itself seems to feel the heat. After issuing a generic statement about Revoice last year, CTS has recently released a second defense of itself, this time more clearly criticizing the ideas associated with the conference.
When it comes to Revoice and the PCA’s ministry to self-identifying but celibate homosexuals, one resource has gone largely unnoticed. In the fall of 2017, the Missouri Presbytery issued a lengthy study report, entitled “Homosexuality and the Gospel of Grace: Faithfulness to the Lord’s Calling in an Age of Sexual Autonomy.” At 347 pages, the report is substantial. It may be too substantial, however, as many people will no doubt feel overwhelmed by the page count (about a third of the document is actually an appendix, but this doesn’t take away the initial shock factor). This probably explains part of why the report has not enjoyed a wider distribution and response.
There is another potential challenge to the report gaining wide acceptance in the PCA, however, and that is the source and makeup of the committee. The Missouri Presbytery is, after all, the home to both Covenant Theological Seminary and Memorial Presbyterian Church (the host church for Revoice 2018). At least one member of the Study Committee is an instructor at Covenant, and several others have some connection to Revoice. If you wanted to look for red flags, there would be a few.
And yet, I was surprised at how well I liked the report. It reaffirms the traditional understanding of the Bible’s teaching on human sexuality, it prioritizes the natural, and productive, household, as the center of all healthy sexual activity, and it even maintains that this natural family is “the building block of every human society” and is a, perhaps the, primary institution that carries the mission of the church out into the world.
More than this, the Missouri Report emphasizes that truly good gifts and virtues can exist alongside a disordered sexual desire. Yet they also distinguish these gifts from the disorder, stating that the disordered sexual desire in itself always inclines one towards evil. This sort of balanced treatment continues throughout.
Importantly, the report argues against treating all sins equally and explains the argument of the Westminster Larger Catechism on this point. While it rejects the claim that homosexual sins are necessarily the very worst kinds of sins, it still maintains that aspects of homosexual sins involve sins of a “more heinous” class. There is a pastoral sensitivity to the complexity of human relationships, but the arguments of the report also address the relevant logic and matters of principle.
My general conclusion on the Missouri Presbytery Report is that it is good, quite good, and I would be happy to use it as a starting point for finding consensus on the topic of homosexuality in the PCA. In what follows, I would like to highlight certain portions of “Homosexuality and the Gospel of Grace,” illustrating its rather “traditional” character.
Perhaps most of all, I would like for this overview to help us better understand the current discourse in the PCA. For all of the different approaches to winsomeness and pastoral concern for outreach with compassion, there is still important fundamental agreement on human sexuality when addressed on the level of principles. There may be outlying voices in the PCA who disagree, and there are no doubt a great many who do not relate their principles and their applications in a consistent way, but if the Missouri Presbytery represents the center or center-left of the denomination when it comes to sexual identity then the PCA is still rather firmly anchored in a traditional Christian ethics.
On the Rectification of Names, Or Declining to Do So
The first thing that has to be discussed is the use of language and labels. The Missouri Presbytery Report does use the language of “gay Christian” and “same-sex attracted Christian” throughout. And it frequently quotes Wesley Hill and other “Side B” Christian writers in an approving way. For many readers, this will be all they need to know in order to make a summary judgment about the rest of the report. However, this would be a mistaken reaction. The report actually presents a variety of views on how best to use the relevant nomenclature, and it explains the arguments of Daniel Mattson and Rosaria Butterfield which forcefully criticize Hill’s.
Instead, the report explicitly states that it is not taking a side on this debate at this time:
We are not ready to endorse solidly either Butterfield’s philosophy of language or Hill’s contention that there are things “other” than sexual desire intrinsic to the state of “being gay” that are morally neutral and even good…
This report does not seek to offer a definitive word on the debate about the connection between terminology and identity. The controversy stirred up over these questions continues, and pastors and ministry leaders would be wise to continue to stay up to date with the conversation. As our culture continues to shift rapidly, the church will need to seek new ways of communicating clearly with those who do not share our worldview, but will also need to do it carefully. (70)
Now, “choosing not to decide,” as Geddy Lee has taught us, is still an active choice, and this open-mindedness on the part of the Missouri Report may indeed serve to further a particular kind of argument. It may be a kind of set up. We should not dismiss the possibility at the forefront. At the same time, the only way to determine if this is the case is to deal with what the report goes on to actually argue. As I will demonstrate, it does not offer any kind of “soft” approach.
As important as prudential rhetorical strategies may be, more important are the underlying principles which give meaning to those strategies. As it turns out, the Missouri Report makes a very strong case for the traditional understanding of human sexuality. It does this by exegeting specific biblical passages and by constructing a consistent larger biblical “paradigm” of sexuality. The report begins with the creation account in Genesis chapters 1-3. The report correctly argues that this creation paradigm is the controlling paradigm for the rest of the Scriptures, and it defends the traditional understanding that humanity was created as a sexual dyad of man and woman, both equal in their human nature but different in their complementary relations.
It then moves on to a lengthy treatment of Leviticus 18 and 20, and argues that the chapters clearly condemn sexual activities between persons of the same sex and that such condemnations still apply in the New Covenant. The authors of the report are reluctant to use the narrative of Sodom in Genesis 19 as a central passage against homosexuality as such, noting that it contains complicating additional considerations, yet they note that the story is nevertheless “consistent with the dim view taken of homosexual relations elsewhere in Scripture,” and they do cite Robert Gagnon’s argument that homosexuality was a significant factor in Sodom’s sin, and they highlight Jude’s association of Sodom with unnatural sexuality.
Even if one might think the report was a little too delicate with Gen. 19, this does not signal any further softness in exegesis. As they survey the New Testament material, the authors give an extended reading of Romans 1, arguing that it is directly concerned with homosexuality. The report argues that the Apostle Paul’s argument from “nature” in Romans 1 demonstrates that:
…according to the way God made the world, a man should act (sexually) and look like a man, and a woman should act (sexually) and look like a woman. And that which is according to nature, that which expresses our created, human sexual glory is erotic love expressed between two sexual and gendered complements: a man with a woman, assumed by Paul to be mated for life in marriage. (pg. 94)
The authors go on to make an argument from natural law and show that the Apostle Paul was assuming such a concept of nature in his own teaching. Homosexual activity is a revolt against the natural order. To this, they add, “Romans 1 makes clear that what Paul describes as a manifestation of the human fall from innocence into sin is the homoerotic in principle—its acts, and by implication, its passions” (pg. 103). Note that claim well: “the homoerotic in principle” is what Paul uses to illustrate the fall of man.
The Big Picture
After the exegetical arguments, the Missouri Report lays out a positive overarching philosophy of human sexuality, and the authors ground it in the natural family. This is extremely important and a most welcome correction to many other evangelical writings on sexuality. The question is not simply one of proof texts, nor a matter of limitations on the otherwise free choice of sovereign individuals. It is, instead, the fact that sexual activity belongs within the productive household, the one flesh of husband and wife. The authors of the report make this case in several explicit ways. They write, “The purpose and glory of human sexuality [is] bodily and personal union of a man and a woman, exclusive of all others, and ordered to sacrificial love and the procreation of children” (110).
In fact, the report is particularly good in its treatment of the “erotic flash.” It notes that “sexual intimacy is a continuum” and is not limited simply to the final physical consummation (113). Because of this, heterosexual persons must use wisdom in establishing proper boundary lines. The Missouri Report even suggests that men and women can’t really be “just friends” or at least not without reckoning soberly and seriously with the reality of erotic tension.
It states, “That ‘flash’ commonly happens, and gives credence to the suggestion made by the respected evangelical counselor of the late 20th century, Dwight Hervey Small, who contended that there is an ‘erotic tension’ between every man and woman…” (113). The report argues that such erotic flashes are inevitably tied to our sexuality and so we must “discipline ourselves, by the power of the Holy Spirit who brings Christ to us, not to feed any erotic desires we may feel toward someone we have no right to pursue romantically” (114).
One might wonder if this isn’t a potentially “leveling” move, perhaps establishing that heterosexual people constantly live in a state of potential sin, analogous to the celibate homosexual person. The report does draw something of a parallel here. Yet, the report also maintains a firm distinction. Whereas an unmarried heterosexual couple can engage in part of the “spectrum” of sexual expression (holding hands or kissing), the report argues that “Same-sex-attracted men and women determined to follow Christ carry the experiential burden that they must learn to regard the whole romantic/erotic/sexual continuum as off limits” (113). Whatever “spiritual friendship” may be possible, it cannot exist as an early location on the erotic continuum. The authors of the Missouri Report give us this rule: “Erotic ‘flashes’ may come; but what God forbids any of us to do is intentionally to eroticize a relationship we know to be a sexually illicit one” (114).
Moving back to the topic of the marriage household, we find these affirmations:
the sexual boundaries and prohibitions God has given the human race are for the positive purpose of protecting the end toward which the sexual urge drives us: a deep union between a man and a woman that is both personal and physical: a union in which their souls and their bodies are united. As such it is a union that is ordered toward both companionship and procreation. (114)
The report also states that the Bible presents a heteronormative picture of reality, and not in an abstract way but through the concrete form of “conjugal marriage”:
In Scripture the richness and goodness of sexual expression is either explicitly or implicitly tied to—or to put it more strongly, understood as belonging to—a category larger than itself: to the institution of conjugal marriage—that is, to sexually-differentiated-but-complementary-partnered, marriage. Thus, it is not enough, in any discussion of “the big picture” of the Bible’s view of sex, to say that it leaves no room for a legitimate homosexuality, that heterosexuality is its God-ordained norm. We must always go to that larger category, which is conjugal marriage. In a perceptive article, two authors stress that while conjugal marriage is taught in Scripture, the law of God is also written on the human heart and makes itself felt; and that, in fact, “the intrinsic human value” of conjugal marriage is obvious in the way people everywhere have lived, because it is a “natural association.” (118)
Again we see an appeal to natural law and the common example of historic human society. The Missouri Report argues that the Bible reflects and prescribes such an arrangement. This is not just a passing remark. The report even makes this extremely loaded statement:
The Reformed tradition rightly understands marriage to be a “creation ordinance,” that is, a perpetual institution belonging to the whole human race, believer and unbeliever alike. The nuclear/extended family has been the building block of every human society and civilization and will be until “the form of this world” gives way to the new heavens and the new earth (1 Corinthians 7:29-31). And in the Kingdom of God the nuclear/extended family plays a critical role as well, as the locus of hospitality and ministries of mercy, the raising of believing children, and the ongoing, living symbol in and for the world of Christ’s passionate love of his Bride, the church, for which he laid down his life. (120)
Don’t miss what is being said here. The institution of the family “has been the building block of every human society and civilization,” and the report argues that this will continue to be the case until Second Coming of Christ. Even more than this, the Missouri Report argues that the Kingdom of God works with this natural arrangement as it uses the family as “the locus of hospitality and ministries of mercy,” as well as for the raising of believing children and in being the living icon of Christ’s union with the Church.
Such a statement ought to warm the hearts of neo-traditionalists the internet over. The family is defined as natural and conjugal. Procreation is central to it. It is the building block of civilization and the institution sanctified by and used by the Kingdom of God in unique and irreplaceable way.
Singleness and Friendship
The Missouri Report does discuss the place of singleness in the life of the Church, both those singles who have heterosexual desires and those who have homosexual desires. It rightly notes that the New Testament identifies singleness as a permissible state for the Christian and even one which can uniquely benefit the Church. It explains how single people will naturally still desire companionship and that they will need the love of friends. Yet the report is clear to maintain that such friend love is “non-eroticized” (121).
This point was already discussed in the reality of the “erotic flash” between men and woman, and thus the need to take precautions against it. But the report also adds an extra caution to those Christians with homosexual attractions who might try to form deep friendships with members of their same sex. It approvingly quotes Spiritual Friendship writer Ron Belgau, maintaining that “spiritual friendship” cannot be a sort of “sexless marriage” (169). But then it adds more to this, stating that spiritual friendship can never actually approximate a marriage because it lacks sexual complementarity and “the creational structure of the husband’s headship, which is to be devoted to the care and flourishing of his wife” (170). Again, the report’s commitment to the natural family is on display. Even as it seeks to assist celibate homosexual Christians in their search for companionship, it refuses to blur the lines between the companionship of friends and the productive conjugal union of the household.
The report goes on to treat the possibility of “deep, nonerotically-focused friendships” between chaste homosexuals. Here the authors are trying to interact with the proposals of Wesley Hill and similar writers. In doing so, it is helpful to note that they interact with Hill’s project appreciatively but also critically. They make a clear distinction between friendship and eros. They acknowledge that there may be traces of erotic feelings present in homosexual friendships, similar to those “flashes” spoken above between men and women, but the report explains that they must, “learn to resist, starve and sublimate those feelings, carrying on in the relationship by conforming their behavior to, and ‘setting’ their attitudinal focus on, those non-erotic features that define that relationship” (174, footnote 240). Notice that while the report does use the term “sublimate,” it combines it with the call to both “resist” and “starve” homoerotic feelings. Recalling what has already been maintained about the requirement to regard the entire sexual spectrum as “off limits,” we can see the Missouri Presbytery is in fact drawing essential boundary lines.
In fact, the Missouri Report goes on to state that Hill’s proposal of spiritual friendship may not be helpful or appropriate for all same-sex attracted Christians. It argues that:
another SSA brother might be discouraged from the same thing, because the associations are still too strong for him. For the latter man, committed as he might be to sexual abstinence, such a friendship with another SSA brother in Christ might become too much like a “ ” where there is romance without sex—not something biblical teaching on male-to-male relationships can reasonably be made to justify. (175)
Notice again the principle: homosexual “romance without sex” cannot be justified. In a footnote in this same paragraph, the authors of the report offer a further challenge to this particular notion of spiritual friendship. They note that while some same-sex attracted persons may feel a stronger pull towards deep friendship in their homoerotic desire, many believe “the very presence and power of the erotic that ‘gets in the way of’ an intimate and genuine same-sex friendship.” This is a point that deserves to be made in more detail, and we could wish the report devoted a little more time to it, more than just the footnote.
Indeed, there are some homosexual men who argue that the whole point of their homosexuality is to be able to enjoy their sexual interactions as purely sexual interactions, free from other relational attachments. (See, for example, Justin Raimondo’s argument here. In another place, Raimondo, himself a gay man, says this: “Homosexuality, after all, is really all about the avoidance of marriage—and the responsibility of raising a family. It is the embrace of sensuality for its own sake, as an instrument of pure pleasure rather than procreation. Do gay guys really want to give up what is most attractive—to males, at any rate—about their recreational activities, the tremendous sense of freedom it implies?”)
If this is so, then it cannot be maintained that the desire for intimate friendship is uniquely intrinsic to homoerotic desires. Rather, a desire for friendship is a natural good, common to all, and any homoerotic desires would be attached to that good, as distortions of it. But it is also very possible that homoerotic desires can be distortions of other desires too, the desire for freedom, the desire for some measure of power of accomplishment, or perhaps the desire for a certain kind of unique status or expression.
Christian psychologist Paul Tournier suggests that homosexuality is a distorted form of the fundamental “creative urge” in man, a part of his call to dominion. Friendship would not necessarily be an appropriate redirection of such a desire. Instead, some sort of successful and productive vocation would be more fitting. We should not allow a certain sort of good-natured sentimentality to conflate things which truly are distinct, and we should never forget how complex humans really are. The heart wants what it wants, as the old saying goes, but why it wants what it wants is a labyrinthine question. This topic will come up again in the final section on the nature of sexual desires and self-identity. But before that discussion, the report adds a section on the doctrine of sin itself, noting that there are various kinds of sin with varying degrees of moral heinousness.
Some Sins Are More Heinous Than Others
Beginning on pg. 151, the Missouri Report takes up the question “Is Homosexual Sin Regarded As Worse Than Other Kinds of Sin?” I do think that this section of the report shows some inconsistency. It suggests that the authors were themselves not in full agreement over the answer or that they were not confident in how to best answer the question. The general answer they give to the question is “No” or “Not necessarily,” however they also give important evidence that suggests the answer should actually be a qualified “yes.” This seems like a case where the mode of presentation obscures their actual argument.
For example, the report begins with an affirmation of the common sinful condition of all humanity. Thus, we have a sort of appeal to equality:
…before God’s holiness, we are all equally humbled, having been equally condemned, and then, by divine mercy, having become also the objects of his grace… What does this imply, practically? That believers in Christ should ponder a truth we are stressing in several places in this report: Heterosexual sinners have more in common with homosexual sinners than they don’t have in common with them. (152)
Yet the report immediately goes on to affirm the teaching of the Westminster Larger Catechism that some sins are indeed more heinous than other sins:
Nevertheless, while our Standards are concerned to defend the biblical teaching that the whole human race stands in solidarity under divine judgment, they do not stop there and simplistically reduce all that the Bible says about sin to this “equality-in-guilt.” WLC Q #150 puts this question: Are all transgressions of the law of God equally heinous in themselves, and in the sight of God? The answer they give is, “No.” (152)
We then learn the “aggravations” which make a sin more heinous than other sins, and one is “the nature and character of the offense itself.” The report explicitly notes how this aggravation would apply to homosexual sin, and it explains the several ways in which homosexual sin qualifies as a “more heinous” class of sin.
The first point in this subsection is that homosexual sins violate the light of nature. “…the Westminster Assembly regarded homoerotic sex as a more flagrant violation of the will of God because it violates not only the decrees of special revelation (Leviticus 20:15-16; Romans 1:26-27) given to the people of God, but, as Paul insists in Romans 1, it goes against the natural order of things…” (153).
The second point is that homosexual sins violate the explicit letter of the law, and here the Missouri Report references its many earlier exegetical arguments. It argues that the New Testament repeats “the explicit letter of the sexual law in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13” (153).
The third point is that a sin becomes “more heinous” if it is not only conceived in the heart but also acted upon. Thus a person acting upon their homoerotic desires is sinning in a more heinous way than a person who merely has those desires but does not act upon them. (We will say more on the question of temptation and desire below.)
And the fourth point for making a sin “more heinous” is if it is deliberately and willfully engaged in with frequency, delight, and continuance. In connection with this point, the report states, “two Christians of the same sex who do not try to resist sexual temptation, but on the contrary ‘make their peace’ with sexual intimacy with each other on the grounds that they can do no better in a fallen world, actually aggravate their moral culpability before God in each sexual encounter” (154).
Given all of this, one could conclude that the Missouri Report does indeed believe that homosexual sins are of “more heinous” class of sins. Yet, curiously, it says otherwise:
If we stopped here, our exposition of the Standards might seem to present an open and shut case for the view that homosexual sin is generally a “more heinous” sin than other sins, and particularly, that it is generally a more heinous sin than heterosexual sin. But that would be a superficial reading of our Standards” (154).
The report goes on to argue that a variety of other sins can also have aggravations which make them “more heinous,” including heterosexual sins. The report then, as it has done earlier, attempts to avoid the question:
While not wanting to negate the serious distortion of sexual love that the Scriptures represent homosexual relationships to be, we do believe that any attempt to rank sins in their degree of seriousness or “heinousness” in some kind of simple or definitive way, is fraught with problems and hardly serves the high purpose of improving our sanctification. (155)
This case of indecision is more debilitating to their argument than the earlier open-mindedness on nomenclature. Here we have not simply caution but a case of moving the goalposts. Yes, “some kind of simple” ranking of sins is unwise, but what about a careful and sophisticated way? The term “definitive” is also unhelpful. Surely the writers mean that we should be humble in any attempt to rank sins and not think that we have always seen every angle or covered every possibility.
But one can do this and still make general statements about sins. Certainly the Apostle Paul does. He believes some sins are so obviously heinous that even non-believers have a strict revulsion against them (1 Cor. 5:1). Paul feels no burden to ask whether or not the incestuous relationship has mitigating factors or might not be quite as bad as other kinds of sins which receive less notoriety. The nature of the offense is sufficient for him to denounce it in such a strong fashion. We may not be able to speak about the absolute “worst” sin, but we can still maintain that some sins are more heinous than others, and we can still attempt to classify various individual sins accordingly.
Curiously, the report itself supposes that the Westminster Larger Catechism would include homosexual sins in this “more heinous” class: “the answer the Westminster divines would give to this question is yes, that homosexual sins are ‘in themselves,’ i.e., considered intrinsically, judged by the Word of God to be ‘more heinous’ since they are committed ‘against…the light of nature’” (154).
There is then a footnote which strengthens this argument, “Note that the proof text WLC #151 gives for this phrase ‘against the light of nature’ is Romans 1:26-27, where Paul says of homosexual passion and acts that they are para physin, ‘contrary to nature.’” So the report actually does tell us that homosexual sexual activity meets the criteria for the third “aggravation.” It violates the light of nature.
Additionally, this section of the Missouri Report gives a second interaction with Romans 1. Earlier, we had noted that the report states, “Romans 1 makes clear that what Paul describes as a manifestation of the human fall from innocence into sin is the homoerotic in principle—its acts, and by implication, its passions” (pg. 103). But now the report argues that we should not use Romans 1 to say that homosexuality is “the lowest of low sins” (155). Instead, “Paul moves on and continues to condemn and denounce as perverse the human sin which flows out of ‘a debased mind’ (1:28), and adds to his mention of homosexual sin other sins, such as gossip, envy, murder, and disobedience to parents” (156).
What we see in all of this is that the report does not want to use the argument that “some sins are more heinous than other sins” to justify an approach that says homosexual sins are the worst kinds of sins there are and, thus, homosexuals are, simply by the fact of their homosexual sin, in a worse condition than other sinners. This is a proper concern and an important pastoral note. While a certain sort of reader might come to this report assuming a lot of elementary information, we must keep in mind that many people, pastors included, have addressed LGBT questions with more of a visceral response than a principled theological one.
Yet the report makes its point here in a rather convoluted manner. In several places it compares apples to oranges in order to make the case, comparing an isolated homosexual sin with a heterosexual person committing a composite group of sins. A heterosexual person engaged in gossip, envy, murder, or disobedience to parents is sinning heinously, indeed more heinously than a celibate homosexual person who does not do those things. But this observation is not explained by flattening out the questions about sexuality.
In fact, the report itself earlier said, those various accompanying sins in Romans 1 are “homoerotic in principle.” This means that there is a common link with these various sins, but not one that makes homosexuality irrelevant or equal to heterosexuality when considered abstractly. Instead, the other “lower” sins are themselves united by the principle of rejecting God’s design for the image of self. Instead of relativizing sexuality, this ought to provide a more elaborate critique of homoeroticism.
If we set aside the various complicating questions for a moment, we can see that the Missouri Report provides for us the principles to determine that homosexual sins are themselves more heinous than the properly analogous heterosexual sins. A single act of homosexual fornication among non-married persons would be more heinous than a single act of heterosexual fornication among non-married persons, and this is true because of the nature of the homosexual act—it is a disordered use of sexuality and violates the light of nature.
Further, the logic of homoerotic desire is to pull one away from God’s order and to a descent into a harmful sort of self-likeness. The fact that relatively few “real life cases” are cut and dry is important to note. Pastors will not encounter these sins in a classroom setting but rather in a matrix of interrelated sins. Still, this neither contradicts nor weakens the basic principles themselves, principles which the Missouri Report has already articulated and affirmed.
Thus we should conclude that not all homosexual sinners are more heinous sinners than all heterosexual sinners, but homosexual sin, as such, is more heinous than heterosexual sin, as such. That the Missouri Report does not do this clearly or succinctly is a weakness and reflects either internal inconsistency on the part of the authors or the way in which a particular strategy of winsomeness can prevent one from making a point in a clear and direct manner. We can acknowledge the pastoral intent on the part of the report’s authors here, but we should also ask for a more focused presentation. Perhaps this dialectic between pastoral sensitivity and strict argumentation is a sort of microcosm of the PCA’s larger landscape at the moment.
Perhaps rearranging the structure of the argument would have avoided this problem. The argument could begin with the statement that pastors should not rank sins in a simplistic manner, then move to the true proposition that a homosexual need not automatically be deemed to be in a worse situation than other sinners, and then make a clear articulation of the principles, comparing like sin with like sin, explaining the biblical and confessional position. Further applications could then be made in different ways, according to local pastoral prudence.
Are Homosexual Desires Sinful?
Before it makes its final conclusions, the Missouri Report takes up the important question of the moral status of homosexual desires. In doing so, it returns to topics addressed in the earlier section on singleness and friendship. In many ways, this is the main issue with what is called the “Side B” conversation. After all, what makes Side B distinct from “Side A” within the gay Christian debate is that Side A proponents argue that Christianity ought to recognize homosexual believers and affirm their homosexual behavior. They ought to bless gay marriages and the rest. Side B, however, argues that the Bible does indeed condemn homosexual sexual activity, and so homosexual believers must either conform themselves to sex within a heterosexual marriage or remain celibate. Yet, Side B argues that one’s homosexuality is not reducible to their desires for sex with members of the same sex but may indeed include other positive virtues.
The Missouri Report acknowledges this earlier on when it interacts with Wesley Hill. We could also add the argument from Nate Collins that homosexual orientation is a sort of aesthetic orientation, recognizing the beauty of one’s own sex in a unique and powerful way but in a way that may or may not involve sexual activity. I have criticized this way of defining sexual orientation elsewhere, and there is much more that could be said about it.
Still, for whatever criticisms one may wish to level, it is essential to note that Side B gay Christians do not promote homosexual sexual activity. Many commentators have not made this point in a clear and unequivocal manner, suggesting rather that Side B or the Revoice Conference is simply one more facet of the larger common “gay agenda.” This is an unfair approach and it forestalls any actual progress in the conversation. Insofar as a critic engages in this kind of approach consistently and after being presented with contrary evidence, it is itself a sin. Yet, with that said, there is still an important debate to be had on this point.
The true dividing line is not homosexual activity per se (though we do frequently make a lot of assumptions about what qualifies an activity as being “sexual” or not), but rather the moral nature of homosexual desire. Even if a person does not act upon their desires, or not in an obvious and direct way, the way that they view those desires is important.
The Missouri Report is actually quite direct on this main point. It states that same-sex sexual desire “is illicit by definition” (159). Indeed, it goes on to say:
We agree with those revisionists who say that traditionalists are bound to hold that not just homosexual acts but homosexual desire also ought to be renounced as “sinful,” or perhaps, expressing it more carefully, ought to be renounced as “borne of sin,” since that which always inclines one to a morally evil act must itself be a morally evil impulse. (160)
The report acknowledges that this need not require a conscious choice on the part of the one experiencing the desire, but due to the reality of original sin and the nature of concupiscence, or inordinate desire, these desires have an immoral character. This is true even when such desires appear in close relationship to true good desires:
There are many gay relationships where it would not be an error to call them examples of disordered love, because there is ample evidence of the partners’ deep care for each other’s well being, real sacrifices made for each other, and real enjoyment in each other’s company that is not about erotic desire. But that love would still be disordered, because the presence of certain qualities of real human care for the well being of the other person cannot neutralize the fact that male-to-male and female-to-female relationships grounded in a romantic and sexual bonding with each other are, by definition, characterized by inordinate and therefore immoral desire. (162)
Here the Missouri Report is doing what I have called for in the past. It is distinguishing between the erotic love, which in the case of homosexuals is fundamentally illicit and immoral, and other kinds of loves which can be licit and moral. “Real human care for the well being of the other person” is a good thing. Desires for “romantic and sexual bonding” between members of the same sex is a bad thing. The same person may experience both kinds of desires, and they may experience them in such a way that they cannot easily discern when one ceases and the other begins, and yet they are called to mortify the illicit desire and actively put it away. The report does use the language of sublimation in connection to this matrix of desires (171, 174, and 188) but it also repeatedly uses the language of “starve” (pg. 23, 167, 171, and 174). The illicit aspects and disordered elements of one’s desires are to be starved, while the appropriate elements can be redirected towards proper ends.
The report goes on to give an extended discussion on the question of dividing up the “good” and “bad” elements of a desire, and it interacts with Wesley Hill’s central contention that his “gay identity” is fundamentally a good thing, with the illicit aspects being something like accidental appendages. To this, the authors of the report say, “We believe this effort to be well-intentioned in those we know who are defending it” (185).
Yet after a few more sentences of commendation, a contrast is given: “Nevertheless, we believe great care needs to be taken in how we understand and express God’s purpose to redeem broken situations, especially where the ‘brokenness’ involves deep desires that are ‘not the way it’s supposed to be;’ that is, since the thing desired (homosexual sexual gratification) would always and by definition be contrary to the will of God to get” (185).
The report also questions several of Hill’s generalizations, namely that homosexual desires can be said to always bring with them a propensity toward deep friendships. Some readers may wish to a see a stronger criticism on this point, but it is important to note that the report attempts to affirm the possibilities of Hill’s argument while highlighting its imbalances and weaknesses.
In connection with this, there is a somewhat detailed discussion of the “Augustinian” perspective on sin and desire, namely that all people have a desire for God due to their creation in God’s image and that sin is a privation of that good. The report then attempts to apply this to the question of sinful and illicit desires. It states:
The church’s view since apostolic times is that in the biblical framework of things, homoerotic attractions deceive when they incline a person toward their end, which is, bodily union with someone who is not sexually other, but sexually the same. Nevertheless, mixed in with or behind the homoerotic desire are the desires for closeness, intimacy, friendship, and love with others—not only with those who are sexually “other,” but also with those who are of the same sex. These desires are morally good; they are central to what it means to be made in the image of God. (188)
Even as this appears to be another “both/and” approach to answer the question, a close reading shows that a line of distinction has been drawn in a consistent and principled way. The argument states that a homoerotic desire is sinful insofar as it has a sinful goal (the erotic love of the same sex), and it is not sinful insofar as it has a virtuous goal (Christian friendship and social affection). Still, it seems a basic question is this: In what sense is a desire for non-erotic or non “sexual” intimacy and friendship with a member of the same sex properly homosexual?
If such a desire cannot be “homoerotic,” then why even bother calling it “sexual”? In that case, it should just be human. To say that the person possessing that desire also possess other desires (and, in this case, illicit ones) does not further identify the desires themselves. It simply tells you more things about the person. To hypothesize that perhaps the person’s sin somehow creates new virtues is obviously unacceptable, and to maintain that people with homosexual desires necessarily have a predictable set of affections or aesthetic tastes requires the sort of overgeneralizing that the Missouri Report rightly warns against.
All of this brings up the point that several of the rhetorical expressions being used deserve scrutiny. As mentioned earlier, the modifiers “sexual” or “erotic” are sometimes attached to activity which would otherwise simply be called “social.” This is unnecessarily confusing, and it creates redundancies and self-contradictory constructs like “homosexual sexual activity” or “non-sexual homosexual.”
The recent Revoice “Statement on Sexual Ethics and Obedience” represents a step forward in this way, but it still feels forced to use language like “same-sex sexual desire.” This is good for what it intends, but it also, and perhaps unwittingly, invites the obvious response. The “sexual desire” is not the same thing as the “friend desire” or the “community desire.” Thus refusing to distinguish these concepts is a form of the complex question fallacy.
After all of this, the Missouri Report asks they key question, can or should a person “accept” their homosexual orientation? To this they give a two-part answer. A homosexual orientation cannot be accepted “as something unbroken and good, to be embraced and enjoyed” (190). No, rather it maintains that “homoerotically-oriented” relationships are incompatible with faithfully Christian ways of meeting the needs of “human intimacy and love” (190). Yet the report does affirm that “there is a proper sense in which one’s situation of living with ongoing homoerotic desire can be ‘accepted.’” It explains that this would mean accepting such a situation as “a burden to be borne” and by “drawing good things by having to endure it” (190). The report does speak of finding “a vocation of service to others hidden in it,” but it goes on to explain this hidden vocation as a new opportunity to do a good work, analogous to the blessings we receive from Christ’s unjust conviction or the Gentiles place in the kingdom of God largely being made possible because of the rejection of the gospel by the Jews. In such cases, a person accepts the reality of bearing the burden, gives thanks for the new possibilities to do good, and moves forward trusting the Lord and seeking to keep His commandments.
My summary presentation of the Missouri Presbytery’s report on homosexuality has not covered every section of the paper. I have tried to focus on the basic theological and ethical principles and to highlight the key points which answer decisive questions. I have not argued that the report is a perfect one. Indeed, I have made certain points of criticism and offered some suggestions for improvement. Still, I have argued that the report is overwhelmingly good and that even in some of its perceived “weak spots,” the correction is actually available within other parts of the report itself. Perhaps I am seeing the inherent good and redeeming the report from its various privations. One might be inclined to such a perspective. Still, I do not believe that I am converting the report into something it is not. The basic material, the mechanics of the argument, and the principle conclusions are all there to be had, and they are mostly sound.
Seeing the Missouri Report for what it is will be helpful to the PCA in many ways. Firstly, it ought to encourage the more conservative members of the denomination. There is tremendous agreement between themselves and the Missouri Presbytery. It may even be the case that those members of the PCA who participated in the Revoice Conference also agree on these basics. Rapprochement is entirely possible. Secondly, for those who would disagree with the various statements and arguments I have highlighted, they ought to either rethink some their own positions or be honest enough to extend their criticisms to the Missouri Presbytery. I would prefer the first option, but even the second would bring clarity and, I believe, greater unity to the PCA. Thirdly, seeing the strengths and the weaknesses of a “both/and” approach to dialogue can help us make more and better progress in our arguments and understanding. There is no dishonor involved in a traditionalist recognizing a valid point made by a moderate (or even by a progressive!). Indeed, we honor Christ when we notice true unity, when we sharpen our understanding of the truth through debate, and when we arrive at true unity through agreement after an honest debate is concluded.
The Missouri Presbytery’s report on homosexuality deserves a wider readership, and I would be more than willing to use it as a starting document for a denominational consensus.
- I fully admit, this involves a selective sampling of the report, but my method is not opportunistic. As earlier stated, the report is long. A sizeable portion of it is made up of pastoral commentary on US political history. There is also a summary of the social science work of Mark Yarhouse concerning sexual identity and orientation. This material will naturally lend itself to differing views, few of which will be able to demonstrate any totally objective conclusions. I disagreed with much in that section. Still, we have to understand what kind of material this section is. It is commentary about social science, pastoral strategy, and local prudence. As such, this material simply cannot hold truly authoritative status in the life of a presbytery. It is helpful food for thought but not actually more than that. I will also not spend time criticizing the “tone” of the report. Readers will quickly see that the report wants to make its case in an irenic and winsome way. Many conservatives are presently inclined to see compromise in such an approach, but this need not necessarily be the case. I do think this winsome strategy caused the report to be inconsistent on a few points, offering one proposition and then appearing to take it away with the next. Yet, over all, I found the “winsome” approach to be something of a husk surrounding a rather forceful and traditional argument. I presume there will be other commentators who will dedicate more energy to criticizing these peripheral matters. I would like to foreground the substance. ↑
- In fact, in strict Augustinian thought, all “eros” is really a desire for God Himself, union with one’s origin and one’s destiny. And, for strict Augustinian thinking, all directing of this specific kind of erotic desire to a finite creature is a mistake. One should instead see the finite version of this love as a pointer to the true spiritual love for God. But no one in this current debate takes that to mean that we should therefore renounce our earthly eros or sublimate both homosexual and heterosexual desire into pure divine contemplation, leaving no appropriate role for human eros. No one is arguing for the kind of asceticism that Augustine sometimes argued for. And so, as interesting as the Augustinian discussion may be, it is in many ways a distraction from the main point facing the PCA. One set of erotic desires can be at least partially fulfilled in a valid and licit way between human sexual activity, while the other cannot be. ↑
Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.