When the northern Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod joined the predominantly southern Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in 1982, the RPCES brought with them 189 churches including historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia (many of these churches with elected deaconesses) and 400 ordained clergy with names like Francis Schaeffer, David Jones and Robert G. Rayburn to join the PCA’s own 480 pastors. They also brought with them Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia and Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.
And they brought with them a position paper on Homosexual Christians.
As regional presbyteries investigate recent goings-on in St. Louis to support believers who are “same-sex attracted” or “gay,” it might be helpful for us to consider the historical backdrop of our churches. Before we perceive a “slippery slope” in the language some have used recently concerning sexuality, consider these 10 things that were true in our RPCES churches back in 1980. Many of our local Missouri Presbytery (PCA) churches were originally RPCES, and 38 years later, there remains incredible continuity in Missouri Presbytery’s current perspective and the 1980 RPCES report on homosexuality. This study offers a window on conservative evangelicalism before either the culture war or the ex-gay movement had picked up steam.
The RPCES study committee included a theological ultra-conservative in Dr. Robert L. Reymond, professor of systematic theology at Covenant Theological Seminary and later at Knox Theological Seminary. A supralapsarian uber-Calvinist with a Ph.D. from Bob Jones University, Reymond was anything but liberal. While scrupulously orthodox and confessional, however, Reymond was also an evangelist at heart, and that concern for souls shines through in the nuance of the RPCES report.
From the 1982 merger known as the Joining and Receiving, we hear the high value placed on this history. “In receiving these denominations, the Presbyterian Church in America recognizes the history of the respective denominations as part of her total history and receives their historical documents as valuable and significant material which will be used in the perfecting of the Church.”
What do we see in the RPCES report? We see all the things we would expect to see from a theologically conservative, confessionally-minded denomination. Remember that many in the RPCES worried about joining the PCA in 1982 because they perceived the PCA to be less theologically conservative, less confessional, less Reformed and more Arminian. (For these reasons and more, philosopher and theologian Gordon Clark ultimately refused to transfer his credentials into the PCA.) So we see in the RPCES report on homosexuality a clear statement of the biblical boundaries of sexual behavior. We also see a clear affirmation of human responsibility—not only responsibility for our choices but (as ardent Calvinists) culpability even over our unchosen desires. We see an exposition of Paul’s first chapter to the Romans. We see the gospel of Jesus Christ and its corresponding call to faith, repentance and a new obedience. From Reymond and the RPCES, these we expect.
And we see other things we might not expect.
1. Orientation change was not assumed back in 1980.
The report states, “We should not, therefore have fixed ideas in what way sanctification will express itself in any particular person. Change from homosexual desires to heterosexual attraction is only one possible expression of sanctification. 2 Corinthians 12:9 indicates one other way in which God might show his strength in our weakness (cf. also Matthew 19:12 and the promise of Isaiah 56:3-5).” The ex-gay Conversion Therapy movement was still in its infancy back in 1980, and so conservative Reformed theologians and pastors hadn’t yet drunk its Kool-Aid. As pastors, they knew orientation change was rare and that the Bible’s emphasis was on obedience, not on results.
2. Calling oneself a Homosexual was not idolatrous back in 1980.
Given the number of bloggers declaring it idolatry to call oneself “gay” recently, this may be surprising. The term used throughout the RPCES report is not “same sex attracted” but “homosexual brother and sister.” Ex-gay ministries had not yet developed their language of “same sex attraction” to obfuscate the fact that few were experiencing their promised orientation change. For the RPCES report, “homosexual” was the term for the non-straight Christian. This seems particularly odd today because now Americans tend to use the term “homosexual” as an adjective to describe certain actions—behaviors—while the term “gay” is used to describe an orientation.
But in 1980, the RPCES was just speaking English. Semantic ranges shift and change over time. In 1980, there were not homosexuals and ex-homosexuals. There were unrepentant homosexuals and (in the study report’s words) “repentant homosexuals.” The difference was the gospel. Back then, no one was filtering this through 1980s identity theory. A non-straight believer could name his or her condition without being attacked for “identifying with past sin.” You could both identify your fallen orientation and build your identity on Christ back then. Such complexity was not idolatry back in 1980.
In fact, RPCES pastor and evangelist Francis Schaeffer had explained his own belief in a letter dated August 11, 1968 that some people are “born so that they have a natural tendency to affection and sexual practice with their own sex.” Of course, we should assume he meant “natural” in its fallen sense. Schaeffer added that “the mistake … that the orthodox people have made … is [to say] that homophile tendencies are sin in themselves, even if there is no homosexual practice. Therefore the homophile tends to be pushed out of human life (and especially orthodox church life) even if he does not practice homosexuality. This, I believe, is both cruel and wrong.” (Letters, p.194). While my own theology of concupiscence is well to the right of Schaeffer’s—as was the RPCES report’s perspective—Schaeffer’s perspective was not rare among the RPCES clergy who comprised nearly half of all PCA pastors after the 1982 Joining and Receiving.
3. It wasn’t a slippery slope to acknowledge non-normative experiences of sexuality back in 1980.
Yes, creation presents us male and female, they argued, but then the RPCES pointed us to Jesus, who speaks of others who do not fit that creational paradigm. “Scripture sees in the polarity and correspondence of male and female, the original image of God. Jesus can also speak of other forms of human existence, ‘for some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by man; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven’ (19:12).” In the report they approved, our RPCES fathers perceived non-straight believers as being included in Christ’s category of eunuch.
4. It was good to affirm the beauty of same-sex relationships back in 1980.
For the “homosexual brother or sister,” the RPCES report commended beautiful and sexually pure same-sex relationships without fearing a gay agenda or slippery slope. “There can be significant and beautiful relationships between members of the same sex (1 Sam. 18:3ff and 20:41) or members of the opposite sex. But Scripture does not perceive these to find their fulfillment in sexual union.” The report cites “David’s [relationship] to Jonathan (1 Sam. 20:41)” as a “positive role model of affectionate and loving relationships.” Today, when someone speaks of “same sex relationships,” we often hear “same-sex sex.” Someone speaks of “same sex intimacy” and we hear “same sex sex.” Someone speaks of “spiritual friendship” and we hear “sexual friendship.” Like a Rorschach block test, our hearing may tell us more about ourselves than about anyone else. You could describe same-sex friendships as beautiful back in 1980 without becoming suspect.
5. Fear induced by the political climate was a problem back in 1980.
The report explained, “In the context of our concern for the homosexual in our congregation… In the political/ethical climate of our time, our congregations have at times acted more out of fear and lack of compassion than offering long term friendship, care, and openness, necessary for encouragement of those who struggle along with the rest of us in this long and never-ending path of sanctification.” Our fathers in the RPCES were very sensitive to the ways political climate can fill believers with suspicion where their “homosexual brothers and sisters” are concerned, shutting off the compassion we owe them as spiritual family. We hear orthodoxy in this report, but we hear flowing from that orthodoxy the love of Jesus for shameful sinners like all of us.
6. “Homosexual brothers and sisters” shouldn’t be afraid to “come out” back in 1980.
In discussing the pastoral needs of our “homosexual brothers and sisters,” a primary concern noted by the report was fear. “Fear: as a result of the loneliness and the prevalent climate as perceived by the homosexual an oppressive sense of fear can manifest itself: the fear of ‘coming out’ or being ‘found out,’ the fear of loss of job, reputation, the fear of any close relationship with those of the opposite sex caused by a sense of ‘inevitable’ failure, the fear of developing close friendships with persons of the same sex.”
It is fascinating to observe that they thought that “coming out” should not be filled with fear when Christ has given grace. “Our sensitivity to the holiness of God can easily become a problem to us if it overshadows our relating to one another as sinners saved by grace. It will be important to be aware of the danger of creating an atmosphere in which the individual member finds it more and more difficult to reveal himself as one in need of the grace of sanctification.”
7. You could have celibate homosexual pastors back in 1980.
In the words of the report, “If he who once was involved in homosexuality is growing in grace to such an extent that he can ‘walk with exemplary piety before the flock’ there ought not be any reason for a generalized exclusion from church office. Judgment must be made in individual cases by the session and/or presbytery, keeping in mind those aggravations that make some sins more heinous then others.”
8. The church’s job was to protect the “homosexual brother and sister” from indignity back in 1980.
For these spiritual fathers, this drive to protect was a confessional as well as biblical priority. “We have to publicly and privately protect those struggling with homosexuality in and outside of our congregations ‘in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, . . . to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever’ (WCF XIII). Especially, misconceptions and distortions about the supposed impact of homosexuals on our society, however popular they might be.” The church was to be a haven for sexual minorities. More on that later.
9. Christians could choose not to fight the secular gay political agenda in order to protect their witness to gay people back in 1980.
“Over the last few years,” the RPCES study report explained 38 years ago, “the gay rights movement as well as several conservative political action groups have focused on the ‘political/legal rights’ of the homosexual. In order to help sessions and congregations to think through their possible involvement in these questions, this study wants to provide three different ways of approaching the subject.”
They continue to list three valid approaches. “Model A. The Christian should not get involved in this particular political question in order not to prejudice his active personal evangelistic and friendship outreach to the gay community.” This was a valid approach. Christians are required to evangelize the gay community, and this model highlighted that supreme calling.
Model B was criminalization, while Model C was to see Jesus’ teaching about divorce in Matthew 19 as allowing leeway where civil matters are concerned. Keep reading.
10. You could talk about sexual minorities back in 1980.
Of those Christians who sought to criminalize homosexual behaviors, the RPCES study report pressed the question of the “minority” status of non-straight people. It states, “Those who would think along the lines of Model B [criminalization] will have to ask themselves why they would strive to impose biblical morality on the activity of homosexual[s] and not pursue with even greater vigor the much more prevalent immorality of divorce, child abuse, wife beating, etc.” The report continues, “Should political expediency be a major motivating force, then Christians would be open to the charge that they only legally pursue those who are a minority.” These fathers were not neo-Marxist. But they could spot hypocrisy, especially when it targeted a sexual “minority” while simultaneously applying a looser standard to the majority.
The final words of the RPCES study report (before the bibliography) discuss Option C, which if taken requires the Christian to “be committed to protecting the homosexual from harassment in the area of his political, economic and social life.”
The Slide from the Old Orthodoxy
So one must wonder how this RPCES report—which was still fresh at the Joining and Receiving—could have been a nuanced expression of biblical and Reformed orthodoxy in the early 1980s, while these same beliefs are denounced as heresy by some within the PCA 38 years later. Some of the difference may be regional, in that RPCES churches in post-Christian northern cities were forced by 1980 to approach their gay neighbor primarily as their mission field, not as their battle field, while churches in the American South retained more a sense of Christendom. Regional differences may continue to play a large role in our ecclesiastical posture toward Christians whose experience is same-sex attracted or otherwise non-straight.
But the PCA voiced no objection to the new RPCES report on homosexuality in 1982. This RPCES study report on our “homosexual brothers and sisters” reveals the degree to which some of us in the Presbyterian Church in America may have changed. What if—in backing away from one slippery slope—we have in fact slipped down the other side? The culture war already beginning in 1980 has overheated badly in the intervening four decades. What if a constant barrage of bad teaching and conspiracy theories through non-denominational FM Christian radio networks has pushed aside the nuanced theological and pastoral wisdom of our fathers in favor of less nuanced ideas of a more recent and adversarial origin? What if the rapid spread of false reports via social media, the fearmongering of media outlets that sell outrage as their business model and the pervasive cognitive categories and failed promises of a now-discredited 1980s ex-gay movement all have played a role in this shift over 38 years? What if these non-biblical, non-confessional forces have shaped in powerful ways our popular pastoral thinking and vocabulary about repentant believers experiencing non-straight sexual orientations?
Among adults aged 18-33 who have left their conservative faith, nearly one-third told Public Religion Research Institute in a 2014 survey that it was because of their church’s negative treatment of sexual minorities. What if our spiritual fathers back before the culture war knew better how to care for their souls than we do after four decades of seeing non-straight people as enemies in that same culture war?
From the vantage point of Missouri, it is difficult to identify whether or how our views have changed in these 38 years. When my own congregation entered the PCA in 1982, the RPCES report was still very recent. Many themes from that original RPCES report continued into our 1994 Missouri Presbytery report and our more recent 2017 Missouri Presbytery Report on Homosexuality, both which contain the original 1980 RPCES report as an appendix in its totality. We still see the biblical sexual standards unchanged. We still see a call to radical, self-sacrificial discipleship where we proactively mortify even a hint of sexual immorality. But we also share the nuanced evangelistic and pastoral concern expressed in the 1980 RPCES report. We see the welcome of Jesus to the “repentant homosexual” who can never out-sin the blood of Jesus. We still believe in simul justus et peccator, that Christians are simultaneously both sinners and justified—the apostle Paul was not the ex-chief of sinners. Both our sinful condition and our robes of righteousness remain part of the Christian’s story this side of glory. We still aren’t too worried about policing the terminology one uses to describe their non-straight orientation. And we still consider this RPCES denominational legacy to be “valuable and significant material which will be used in the perfecting of the Church.”