The PCA is Quietly Corrupting Reformed Theology. Here’s How.

The PCA is Quietly Corrupting Reformed Theology. Here’s How.

The PCA general assembly passed an overture last week that declares same-sex attraction to be a sin and disqualifies gay and same-sex attracted men from office. Here’s the full text:

“Officers in the Presbyterian Church of America must be above reproach in their walk and Christlike in their character. Those who profess an identity (such as, but not limited to, “gay Christian,” “same sex attracted Christian,” “homosexual Christian,” or like terms) that undermines or contradicts their identity as new creations in Christ, either by denying the sinfulness of fallen desires (such as, but not limited to same sex attraction), or by denying the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, or by failing to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions are not qualified for ordained office.”

The overture is a natural outworking of last year’s PCA ad interim report on human sexuality. In this report, a committee of PCA representatives declared same-sex attraction to be a sin that “must be repented of and put to death.” The overture codifies this conclusion by disqualifying gay and same-sex attracted men who 1) identify as gay or same-sex attracted, 2) deny that same-sex attraction is a sin, 3) deny the possibility of being sanctified (which is code for experiencing less same-sex attraction over time), and 4) fail to live in victory over their temptations (code for continuing to struggle with same-sex attraction).

[I published a detailed analysis of last year’s PCA report on human sexuality when it was published. Check it out here.]

Following passage of the overture, there was no shortage of celebration among anti-gay activists online. Denny Burk shortened the entire overture down to simply, “Those who profess an identity… that… contradicts their identity as new creations in Christ… are not qualified for ordained office.” Carl Truemann explained triumphantly to his readers that the overture will “prevent anyone who identifies as gay or same-sex-attracted from holding office in the denomination.”

Not surprisingly, gay leaders in the PCA responded with dismay. “We don’t need to amend our constitution to make a non-affirming denomination (hostile) to gay people who want to follow Jesus in celibacy,” Greg Johnson, who is an openly gay and celibate PCA pastor, said to Religion News Service. “I think it just ultimately speaks to fear,” observed Revoice founder Nate Collins in an interview. “There was a teaching elder who said from the floor of general assembly… he literally said, ‘We do not want same sex attracted pastors. That’s what this is all about.’ I don’t know how to understand that as anything other than disdain for gay people, which is homophobia.”

Importantly, the overture is a preliminary statement that has not yet been formally adopted by the denomination. Now that it’s been approved by the general assembly, it will go before the entire denomination to be ratified by at least 2/3 of presbyteries. After this, it will go back to the general assembly for a final vote in 2022. In other words, there’s still room for this whole thing to be reconsidered.

So let’s take a look at the situation together.

What Exactly Is the PCA’s Argument and How Does it Make Sense?

Many Christians I know are befuddled by the PCA’s claim that same sex attraction is a sin. For them, they see the practice of homosexual sex to be a sin, but attraction? How could attraction be a sin? Certainly lust is a sin. Jesus spelled that out pretty clearly in Matthew 5:27-28. But attraction?

The thinking goes like this:

Reformed theology teaches that sin arises not only from an act of the will but also from our involuntary sinful nature. This means that sometimes we sin even though we never mean to sin. However, it doesn’t matter whether a sin arises from an act of the will or not. We must repent of it regardless. Furthermore, in the same way that sin doesn’t require an act of the will in order to be a sin, it also doesn’t require an act in order to be a sin. This means that the desire to commit a sinful act is also a sin, whether you did the sinful act or not. The desire to sin and the act of sin both demand repentance.

Therefore, because same-sex attraction is the desire to commit a sinful act, same-sex attraction is a sin. This means that gay and same sex attracted people must continually repent of their attractions and pursue holiness by seeking to rid themselves of those attractions. Furthermore, any Christian who chooses to call themself gay or same sex attracted is choosing to identify with sin.

Read those two paragraphs carefully. The first is basic Reformed theology. The second is such a hodge podge of illogical leaps and bounds that the energizer bunny would have a hard time keeping up. Nonetheless, a significant number of PCA members are being taken in by the above conclusions, not to mention the many denominations and church networks who look to the PCA for guidance.

The first and most egregious problem is that the PCA wrongly assumes that attraction and desire are equivalent. The logic looks like this: 1) desire for a sinful act is a sin, 2) therefore attraction toward a sinful act is a sin. Take a look at that logic. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice that the PCA is conflating desire with attraction, as if the two were essentially the same. This logic is so obviously fallacious it’s embarrassing.

Let’s unpack why attraction and desire are not equivalent (and then we’ll address the PCA’s treatment of gay identity).

Attraction and Desire Are NOT the Same Thing

If a man can’t be attracted to a woman without desiring to jump into her pants, then we’ve got bigger problems on our hands than just whether gay people are inherently sinful.

Defining attraction as the involuntary desire to have sex with another human being is a flawed approach to human sexuality. In Reformed circles especially, where desire for a sinful end is a sin to itself, attraction literally becomes equivalent to lust, encouraging men to believe they have no control over falling into sin.

Women are attractive to heterosexual men. That’s what it means to be heterosexual. But in a world where attraction is a sin to itself, women become objects of temptation to men and nothing else, responsible for “protecting” men from falling into sin and blamed for being “stumbling blocks.” A host of female authors are now unpacking the wealth of sexual abuses that have unfolded in the church as a result of this teaching.

When Reformers talked about the sinfulness of desire, from which the PCA draws their conclusions above, they weren’t talking about “attraction.” They were talking about the sinful cravings produced by our fallen nature, otherwise known as concupiscence. Reformed theology teaches that our fleshly cravings don’t always require an act of the will. Sometimes they will arise unbidden from within our fallen nature, causing us to sinfully desire a thing that God forbids. Even though it might have been involuntary, this fleshly desire is nevertheless a sin demanding repentance.

Now, all of that is good and fine. The problem is not Reformed theology. Rather, it’s the PCA’s choice to lump in attraction with concupiscence, as if the two were the same.

They aren’t.

What Is Attraction?

Attraction is a relational experience that draws us into communion with other people. Desire, in contrast, drives us to possess. Our fallen, fleshly desires, in particular, do not arise from our God-given need to exist in relationship with others. They arise from our fallen drive to make ourselves the center of the universe. They have nothing to do with attraction.

When a girl says that her favorite pop star on YouTube is “hot,” “sexy,” “attractive,” most of the time she doesn’t mean she wants to have sex with him. Normally she just means that he captivates her, that she feels drawn to him and wishes she could know him in real life. She’s attracted to him. To equate this feeling with the urge to have an orgasm on top of him is ludicrous.

As another example, a guy takes a girl he likes out to lunch. His chest flutters for just a minute when she walks through the door. He gets a little nervous. Maybe he notices that she looks drop dead gorgeous in whatever she’s wearing. He’s attracted to her. To equate this experience with the desire to stick his penis between her legs is complete and utter nonsense. If a guy can’t get lunch with an attractive woman without wanting to jump into her pants, we’ve got serious issues.

[Note: Maybe this language feels crass to many readers, but I’m using it intentionally. PCA leaders are approaching this discussion from such an intellectualized position that they can’t see the tangible reality of what they’re actually saying. When they equate attraction to desire, they are literally saying that every time a man notices that a woman is beautiful, he is desiring to have an orgasm on top of her. This is patently ridiculous, but PCA leaders have so intellectualized the discussion that they can’t even see it.]

One more example that I’ll add here as a result of conversations with readers, a woman might not want to have sex with her husband every night of the week. Does that mean when her husband comes home on Tuesday night and she doesn’t want to have sex with him that she’s no longer attracted to him on Tuesday? Of course not. She’s still attracted to him. Maybe when he walks through the door she even gives him a peck on the cheek. Just because she doesn’t want to have sex with him that night doesn’t mean she’s stopped being attracted to him. She can be attracted to him without wanting to have sex with him. Because attraction and desire are not equivalent.

Sheila Wray Gregoire puts it well when she writes, “Noticing is not lusting.” “Finding someone attractive does not mean that you are mentally cheating on your spouse. Noticing someone walk by does not mean you are lusting. Fixating on that person and fantasizing about them does.” In fact, it ought to concern everybody that the men who lead the PCA general assembly can’t tell the difference between thinking that a woman is attractive and wanting to bang her. If a heterosexual man can’t tell the difference between these two basic things, might I suggest that he is unqualified for leadership in the church.

What’s the takeaway? A straight man ought to be able to find a woman attractive without sinning. If he can’t, something is wrong with him as an individual. More importantly, if it’s possible for straight people to find someone—who isn’t their spouse—attractive without sinning, it’s possible for gay people too. Even according to Reformed theology. Why? Because concupiscence and attraction are not the same thing.

Attraction draws us into relationship. Concupiscence drives us to possess. When you feel attraction toward another human being, the response is to love them in whatever ways are appropriate. If that person is your spouse, you can love them in sexual ways. If that person is not your spouse, then the Bible calls you to love them like a sibling. If you choose to love them like a sibling, you have not sinned. If instead, you find yourself covetously desiring this person, you have sinned.

It’s really that simple.

In fact, up until people discovered that this whole thing could be an easy way to kick out the gays, leaders in the PCA would have agreed with me. For example, in a 2013 article titled, “Temptation Is Not the Same As Sin,” Kevin DeYoung said the following:

“[I]t’s important to maintain the distinction between temptation and sin, lest we give up the fight of faith too quickly. Why go to battle against the allure of pride or the inclination to self-pity if the allure and the inclination are themselves already evil deeds? Sure, we may still hate those things as sins, but we will be less likely to fight with a sense of urgency if we presume we’ve already crossed the line into sin. What if David spotted Bathsheba out of the corner of his eye, noticed she was beautiful, had a quick thought that she could be gotten for himself, but then asked God to deliver him from the temptation? What he needed at the moment of recognition was not a wallowing in the depths of despair over his lustful heart, but a strong stance against the very human temptation that was rising to assail him.”

Honestly, I don’t think I need to say much more. A gay man finding a guy attractive does not automatically mean he is desiring to get laid. Can attraction coincide with lust? Sure. Does it often? Of course. Same for straight people. Does that mean they’re equivalent? No. Saying otherwise reflects a toxic approach not merely to homosexuality but to human sexuality period. DeYoung made my argument for me.

What’s the Impact on Gay People?

In focusing on attraction and twisting Reformed theology to make it seem as though “concupiscence” applies to attraction, the PCA has found a new way to claim that homosexuality is a sin. When Christians say that “same sex attraction is a sin,” they are saying that being gay is a sin. That gay people sin just by existing. That the only way gay people can stop living in sin is if they stop being gay. If we pray hard enough, submit our flesh to Jesus, and walk in the Spirit daily, maybe we’ll wake up one day and not be gay any more. It’s ex-gay theology, plain and simple.

Telling gay people they need to stop being gay in order to live in holiness before God is a recipe for mental illness and suicide. People do not have control over their sexual orientations. Gay people can’t just magically “sow to the Spirit” and stop having same sex attraction. It doesn’t work that way. But you wouldn’t know that talking to the PCA. By twisting Reformed theology to make it say things it was never intended to address, the PCA is making it a sin for gay people to exist.

Moreover, it is crucial that Reformed gay Christians do not cave on this point in the interest of gaining acceptance by their denomination. Turning attraction into a sin represents a fundamental twisting of Reformed theology that is a serious threat to not only the spiritual health of gay people but also the spiritual health of straight people, the safety of women in the church, and ultimately the very legacy of the Reformation.

Let’s turn to the second issue at hand: gay identity.

The PCA General Assembly’s View of the Gay Identity is Patently False

The word gay emerged in the context of extreme human rights violations against gays and lesbians, a world where gay people had been reduced to sex-hungry animals and pedophiles. The point of the word gay was to reassert gay people’s humanity in the face of dehumanization, to correct how gay people had been pathologically sexualized.

The homophile movement was one of the earliest manifestations of this impulse, taking the word sex out of homosexual and replacing it with the Latin root for love. The gay rights movement took up this mantle with phrases like “love is love” and “gay is good,” reorienting the focus away from “sex” and, instead, toward the human reality of gay people’s personhood.

That legacy remains central to the gay identity up to this present day. I don’t know a single gay person who defines their identity by who they want to have sex with. Such thinking is fundamentally opposed to the entire point of the gay rights movement. Do a lot of gay people want to have sex? Sure. Just like straight people. And just like straight people, gay people deserve to move and breath and live in this world without everybody obsessing over what they may or may not be doing with their genitals.

The PCA accuses gay people of defining themselves by sex. In fact, it’s the PCA that can’t stop obsessing over gay people’s sexual desires. It’s the PCA that can’t see gay people as anything other than sexually disordered. It’s the PCA that defines gay people by sex.

Can you imagine disqualifying a monogamous, heterosexual, Christian man who is faithful to his wife from being a pastor simply because, if he were to theoretically not be monogamous, he would want to have sex with a woman who wasn’t his wife given the evidence of his opposite-sex attraction? In what universe would that make sense? But this is the logic being used against gay people.

Gay Christians Aren’t Erasing Their Identity in Christ

I see a lot of PCA members arguing that even if same sex attraction isn’t a sin, it’s still a result of the fall. Therefore, using any language associated with same sex attraction is identifying with our fallen state instead of living in the victory of our identity in Jesus Christ (see the final clause in the text of the overture above).

Setting aside the fact that heterosexuality is just as much a result of the fall as homosexuality (check out my FAQ if you want to read my thoughts on this), most gay Christians I know see their identity in Christ to be the defining feature of who they are. When they say they’re a gay Christian, they’re inviting this aspect of their existence to sit under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, to be redeemed and sanctified by his righteousness, just like any other aspect of their existence. It’s not a way to pit one identity against another. It’s a way to express their submission to God’s will.

I actually don’t know a single gay Christian who understands their identity otherwise. Claiming that all of us are defining ourselves by our fallen state amounts to slander, perpetuating false stereotypes about gay people and contributing to our stigmatization.

Greg Johnson—who is an openly celibate, gay pastor in the PCA and is directly affected by the overture—has responded to this criticism superbly on Twitter, where he observed that Christians have long acknowledged the dual reality of our existence as both sinner and saint:

As Greg observes, claiming that a Christian cannot name his ongoing struggle against sin is to deny key principles of the Reformation, undoing centuries of Christian theology in the name of pietism. We are both sinner and saint, simul justus et peccator. To borrow the words of Paul, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am [present tense] the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).

No one is looking to disqualify straight men from church leadership if they participate—or even lead—a small group for men to talk about their struggles against heterosexual lust. In fact, I’ve seen straight pastors admit to keeping Covenant Eyes on their computer because their struggle is still ongoing and they need someone or something to keep them accountable. And they talk about this arrangement as a good thing for other men to emulate.

If a gay man were to admit to doing the same thing, he’d be tarred and feathered. One person’s admission is evidence of Christian maturity, the other’s admission is evidence of sexual perversion. In fact, gay men don’t even need to admit to struggling with lust. Just having attractions alone is enough to string them up. The homophobia is so palpable it hurts.

Let’s Be Real: We’re Talking About Gay Erasure

All right, so let’s review: Gay people are not allowed to experience attraction as a thing separate from concupiscence; we are not allowed to struggle with actual sin related to our sexuality like the rest of the human race; we are not allowed to name our sexuality with language that preserves our human dignity (e.g. gay, lesbian, the entire LGBTQ lexicon); and we are not allowed to even say that we are same sex attracted period.

Let’s just be honest. The point of all of this—whether people realize it or not—is gay erasure. The point is to make it so difficult for gay people to talk about our experience being gay/same sex attracted that we effectively can’t talk about our experience at all. The point is to make it so impossible that we just stay quiet. To make us silently vanish into our closets where the rest of the church won’t have to deal with the reality of our existence, where we can just wither away under the weight of depression, anxiety, and shame—invisible and unknown.

The point is to erase gay people from the church.

It remains to be seen what the PCA will ultimately decide. As I mentioned earlier, the decision is not yet final. The overture now goes to the denomination as a whole to be ratified and, if approved, will go back to the general assembly in 2022 for a final vote. Was the general assembly in 2021 representative of the entire denomination? Or will the presbyteries soundly rebuke this nonsense and demonstrate a willingness to finally listen to their gay members?

For the sake of everyone in the PCA, gay or straight, I truly hope it’s the latter.

By the way, I’ve got a new book coming out on LGBTQ discrimination in the church. You can start reading the introduction now by clicking here. Or you’d like to support its release, give it a pre-order here!

July 12, 2021 – Edits were made to this post in order to clarify confusion surrounding lust.

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Mathew Andersen
Mathew Andersen
10 months ago

I agree with everything you have said but I doubt most people will understand it. Frankly, I find the hate against gay people so strongly entrenched in the conservative churches that there is no out. It does not matter if we are celibate and faithful, it does not matter if we have chosen a life of isolation and loneliness in order to obey God. We simply are not wanted – period. I think that is so deeply grounded that I doubt reason, theology or common sense will have any sway in this debate.

Rather, I will say this. I will repent of my attractions if the straight male pastors out there will be as willing to repent of falling in love with their wives prior to marriage – after all, prior to the actual marriage, attraction to their future spouse was, by the arguments of the PCA, a desire to sin.

Matt Marlowe
Matt Marlowe
10 months ago

I agree it’s 100% important to recognise that desire and attraction are not the same – any thinking otherwise can be really unhealthy. It’s unhealthy for gay people, who are thereby told that their sexual orientation is unsalvageably sinful, and therefore they are as well (which is clearly contrary to the gospel), it’s dangerous for women, who are often put in a situation where straight men think they can’t control their desires and therefore have to sexually harass/assault/abuse them, and in general it’s just unhealthy for anyone who experiences attraction, gay, straight, bi or otherwise. When I was about 15/16 (mostly 16) I got into a mindset where I assumed that attraction and desire were fundamentally the same, and that any time I experienced attraction, I was sinning. Looking back this was really unhealthy. I was left scared of the men that I was attracted to, to the point where I would constantly be telling myself to not look at them, lest I lust over them. I would go out of my way to avoid them so that I could avoid experiencing attraction to them, almost to the point where I was almost rude to these people and would bail out of activities that included them just so I could avoid experiencing attraction. It got to the point where one time in class we had to wear blindfolds for an activity, and I remember quietly celebrating in my head, because wearing a blindfold meant that I wouldn’t be able to see, and therefore feel attraction to, the guy in that class I had a crush on. Thankfully at that point I realised the absurdity and unhealthiness of that mentality that I had at the time. But that mentality had really harmed me – everyday I was so scared of my attractions and the people I was attracted to, and it was absolutely exhausting, and it had set me back on my fight against my shame in my sexual orientation (I hadn’t really experienced that much shame as such before that mentality, but it took me a while to get back to that point after I had deconstructed that mentality). And worst of all, in my fear of my attraction, I had acted unlovingly to the people I was attracted to, going out of my way to avoid them to avoid feeling attraction to them. At the root of this mentality was a failure to recognise that desire and attraction are not the same, and I (as well as the people I was attracted to) paid the price for it. This mentality is unhealthy, toxic and dangerous, and we cannot accept it.

James Tullis
James Tullis
10 months ago

Good. Let them codify this into their bylaws. It only illustrates who and what they are, as does Trump. I don’t need the conservative church to “help” me. I can be single and celibate and follow Jesus on my own. The conservative church is nothing but a stumbling block to my feet and a millstone around my neck. Especially the reformed variety. What else can you expect from a group whose ethos is rooted in “kill the perfidious Jews” Luther and “let’s murder our theological adversaries” Calvin. Heck, compared to that, their attitude toward gay people is really quite loving understanding and gracious.

James Tullis
James Tullis
10 months ago

Thanks for the reply. I have to admit, I’m a generation older and just haven’t seen a lot of helpful insight on the gay issue amid the conservative church across the decades, but I hope you’re right to be optimistic. BTW, your blog is terrific and I have preordered a copy of your book which I look forward to reading. God Bless!

Matt Marlowe
Matt Marlowe
10 months ago
Reply to  James Tullis

I would agree, but then I remember that there will be queer kids in those churches just coming to terms with who they are and their experiences, who will end up internalising those messages and that shame. It might make it easier for us outside of those churches to recognise them for who they are and avoid them, but for those who don’t necessarily have the spiritual or personal confidence and maturity – kids – hearing this sort of stuff is gonna hurt them. We’re outside of those conservative churches, and so it’s helpful for us when they pass these sorts of motions because like the flames of a house on fire, it helps us to know not to go into the house. But for those inside the house as it burns, they’re gonna get injured by the flames.

James Tullis
James Tullis
10 months ago
Reply to  Matt Marlowe

You’re right. I wasn’t raised as a child in conservative evangelicalism; only became involved as a young adult, so I wasn’t thinking from that perspective. I really do feel badly for the gay kids who have try and wrap their heads around the whole message of “we love you…but…we think everything about you is an abomination”

Jessica Inman
9 months ago

I was disappointed in the PCA for this overture. I hope they rethink this in the future. Not everyone in the PCA agrees with this. I certainly don’t, and I hope Christians in the LGBT community will find the grace of God that is so rich in the reformed faith and will find community and fellowship with other believers. You are loved with an everlasting love.

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