10 Surprising Facts about the 1980 RPCES Report on ‘Homosexual Christians’

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.

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Crying Out To Heaven For Vengeance: Catholic Reflections on Scripture, Sodom, and Justice

Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me; and if not, I will know.” – Genesis 18:20-21 (RSVC)

Sodom and the City of God

Introduction: Principles and Consistency

One of the defining moments in my Catholic education was the realization that Church teaching on sexual ethics formed a sort of “seamless garment”, unified by an internal logic that accounts for every sexual prohibition – from contraception, to masturbation, to homosexuality – in a fairly intuitive manner. For when analyzing sexual activity itself from a Catholic “natural law” perspective, if the procreative dimension can be eliminated as optional and a barrier can legitimately be placed between the man and the woman, then the body of each person is related to the other as little better than any other physical body. At that point, it hardly seems to make a significant difference if the man derives sexual pleasure from a woman, or his own hand, or an inanimate object, or even the bodies of multiple other people. Provided that all persons involved freely consent, the objective difference between any two non-procreative actions becomes so thin as to render them nearly morally equivalent. Sever the link to procreation at the start, and all of the philosophical “natural law” objections to traditionally forbidden sexual activities slowly (but inevitably, and logically) collapse, with nothing but personal preference and consent to hold it back.

Thus, I came to value the Catholic approach to sexual ethics as something built on an airtight logic, according to which it would be impossible for the Church to abandon its condemnation of contraception or homosexual activity without (inevitably, and logically) surrendering everything it has always taught about the necessary procreative dimension of sexual activity.[1] As an ethic that is not the least bit arbitrary in its details, but rather is seamlessly tied together through and through, we can see that the whole thing must stand or fall together. Reject the argument that sexual activity has any fundamental or indispensable and natural link to procreation – as our culture has done at least since the sexual revolution – and the inexorable result (apart from appeals to Scripture) is a radical new path toward embracing the conclusion that everything can be permitted. The only remaining moral condition is that there must be genuine consent from all involved, such that no individual is harmed, exploited, or otherwise violated against their will. This much, at least, is still observed by our culture as an intuitive moral principle.

To the traditionally minded Catholic, however, an awkward tension quickly presents itself. On the one hand, the moral difference between homosexual and contraceptive and masturbatory actions seems to be very thin: for all such actions are considered illicit, intrinsically and gravely disordered, on account of the same fundamental rationale. And yet, homosexual actions are frequently identified as something far worse than the others: for the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of only four sins described in Scripture as “crying out to heaven for vengeance”. In this essay I will explore the foundation of that tension, and attempt to articulate an interpretive lens that can offer a principled resolution.

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Review: What Does It Mean to Be Welcoming?

What does it mean to be welcoming

Travis Collins’ new book What Does It Mean to Be Welcoming: Navigating LGBT Questions in Your Church (IVP Press, 2018) starts with fairly basic points:

  • We are speaking about people, not mere issues. “This conversation, however, is not about dispassionate topics, academic subjects, and isolated matters.” He declares, “This is a conversation about people — people created in the image of God. People who love and are loved.”
  • The conversations are complex, our motives are complex, our denominations and congregations, which can be complex in their diversity, are all things pastors and all those in the life of Christ’s church must contend.

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How to Evade the Real Issues

In the weeks following the Revoice Conference, quite a number of critical responses have focused on “identity.” The primary objection seems to be that we make being LGB into an “identity,” which isn’t a biblical way to talk. As I’ve written before, it’s not clear what our critics mean by “identity.” What exactly is the objection? Oftentimes, it just seems to be using words or phrases like “gay” or “sexual minority” in reference to ourselves; the same objections do not usually arise regarding those who use “same-sex attracted” instead.

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Rosaria Butterfield claims that many of us are “not converted” and “cannot have union with Christ” because we have “made an identity” out of our sexuality. (Source)

This has always struck me as an odd way to argue, and I have wondered why ideas around “identity” and “ontology” are so frequently central to criticism of Revoice and Spiritual Friendship. I do think there are legitimate concerns surrounding identity, and in particular how we are to view ourselves as Christians. And those of us who contribute to Spiritual Friendship are fallible humans who may get these questions wrong at times. But I’ve found that at least in some cases, there is more going on than the “iron sharpens iron” discussion I would hope we can have. Continue reading

More Reflections on Revoice

Today over at First Things, I’ve got a piece up reflecting on this year’s Revoice conference, which was the highlight of my summer. Here’s a snippet:

In a line that’s become a kind of mantra among Revoice attendees and presenters, the celibate lesbian Catholic writer Eve Tushnet has said: “[Y]ou can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of No.” What Revoice offers—and, please God, will go on offering for years to come—is a way of thinking Christianly about homosexuality and other non-straight sexual orientations that moves beyond enumerating the sins we’re called to renounce. Revoice is trying to pose the deeper question: To which forms of love and friendship and service are we called to say yes?

Please read the rest!

Where Else Could We Go? Reflections on #Revoice18

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” – John 6:68

Revoice Worship

As other reflections start to trickle in and I’ve had the chance to consider what the past few days of the Revoice conference have meant to me, I keep coming back to the words of Simon Peter in the Gospel of John, words that were echoed multiple times in different seminars, testimonies, and conversations over the weekend. They come after one of Jesus’ hardest teachings—one so difficult that many of his followers turn away: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” Jesus says, using such seemingly uncareful language that later on the Romans would accuse the early church of practicing cannibalism.

In one sense Peter’s confession is not particularly encouraging—in fact it feels like a sort of backhanded compliment. “Yes Jesus we’ll keep following you, because there isn’t any other better option”—the apparent implication that if there was, the disciples would be right there with the rest of Jesus’ followers whose retreating backs were all that remained of their loyalty. And yet Peter’s declaration of allegiance to Christ contains the very thing that holds any of us near to Christ despite sin, suffering, and opposition: “You have the words of eternal life.”

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Where the World Attacks

In the mornings lately I’ve been reading through the book of Exodus with the help of Fr. Thomas Joseph White’s commentary, and today I came to his discussion of the Sixth Commandment. In the course of discussing its ramifications, White says this:

Homosexuality refers to sexual relations between men or between women who are attracted to members of the same sex. Homosexual acts are closed to the transmission of human life and do not originate from a genuine biological and affective complementarity. They cannot participate, therefore, in the basic goods proper to married love. For that reason, the Bible treats them as intrinsically disordered sexual acts. They are unchaste and contrary to the natural law.

The Torah does not ignore the fact that there are many human beings who experience a predominant or exclusive attraction to members of the same sex. Quite frequently people with strong homosexual inclinations do not choose their condition and experience it as a trial. Scripture affirms unequivocally that each human being is created in the image of God and possesses and intrinsic dignity, such that he or she is due respect, affability, and love. This is no less true for people who commit or who are tempted to commit homosexual acts. With regard to the weaknesses that befall human beings in the domain of human sexuality, it is best to recall the saying: “For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom. 11:32). Human beings are frequently morally frail in matters of sexuality and should be looked upon in the light of God’s complete truth, which implies his compassion and mercy.

This strikes me as a succinct and lucid statement of what Christians have traditionally believed about homosexuality. But I was struck afresh, this morning, by the double emphasis here.

In the first place, yes, same-sex sex acts are inherently (not circumstantially) immoral (i.e., in the classic language, “intrinsically disordered”), and that is part of what Christians are given to say in the world. But we are always also called to say another thing, and that is this: The people who perform those acts, or who want to, are fearfully and wonderfully made. They are beloved of God, and they should be loved, honored, and and sheltered by all of us who name the name of Christ too. The problem, though, is that so many of us downplay or omit one or the other of these two truths when we speak about homosexuality.

There’s an apocryphal Luther quote that goes like this:

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Him.

Conservative Christians are fond of using this quote to insist that we must stand up for the truth of the historic Christian sexual ethic even as it is being attacked in contemporary Western cultures, and that to fail to do so is to fail to be orthodox, faithful, biblical. And, in a mainline Protestant church like the one I belong to, I feel the force of this. These days it can seem easy to preach Christ in every way but the way that He challenges progressive sexual mores. It can feel like taking the easy road to harp on Fr. White’s second paragraph in the excerpt above rather than the first.

And yet “the world” that “Luther” mentions in that quote is not always the world of progressive secularism/liberalism. Sometimes “the world” attacks the truth of Christ on the second point that Fr. White mentions — by tempting Christians to demean, disdain, ignore, overburden, or otherwise harm LGBTQ people. “The world” and “the devil” can manifest themselves in so-called “progressivism,” yes—and they can manifest themselves just as easily whenever a Christian heaps shame on LGBTQ people (“There’s something more askew in your life than there is in that of heterosexuals,” is what a pastor once told me), or offers a quick solution to their complex dilemmas (“Just get married!” is literally the advice I saw from a conservative Christian last week, as if I haven’t ever considered that possibility), or caricatures their sex lives (“Gay culture is inherently promiscuous”), or damages their faith (“If you want healing from same-sex attraction, it is available, and you have only to say yes,” I have been promised by Christians numerous times), or in any number of other ways attacks their dignity. If you are in a so-called conservative church and you are loudly proclaiming the truth about homosexuality at every point but at the point where that truth insists on the worth and lovability of LGBTQ people — if you are binding up heavy burdens on them and not lifting a finger to help (cf. Matthew 23:4) — then you are not proclaiming Christian truth, no matter how much you may seize the high ground and claim otherwise.

Christian truth is a many-splendored thing, and we can fail to let its facets gleam in characteristically “progressive” ways as well as in “conservative” ones.

The one who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Rosaria Butterfield, Sam Allberry, and Christopher Yuan on Temptation and Sin

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Sam Allberry discusses the difference between temptation and sin with Denny Burk, and explains why saying that same-sex attraction is sin can “crush” the faith of young Christians with same-sex attraction, and “tip them over the edge pastorally.” Taken from “Q&A with a same-sex attracted pastor—Sam Allberry” starting around 12:13.

Reading yesterday’s Public Discourse article by Denny Burk and Rosaria Butterfield, I was startled to read their claim that distinguishing between the temptation of same-sex attraction and sin, as Ron Belgau did in his recent Public Discourse article, is a Catholic thing, something we Reformed Protestants just don’t do, or at least ought not do.

As a Reformed Christian (PCA) myself, I’d be the first to acknowledge that there are real differences in how Reformed Christians tend to think about sin and how Roman Catholics tend to think about sin. But I’d never have thought to draw the line where Burk and Butterfield do, precisely because so many Reformed Protestants, including those presently or formerly same-sex attracted individuals most connected with Burk, Butterfield, and the Nashville Statement—Sam Allberry, Christopher Yuan, and, well, Butterfield herself, all repeatedly draw this distinction in their writings and in their talks.

The following quotes, taken directly from Butterfield, Allberry, and Yuan’s writings, show that they draw quite similar distinctions to the ones Burk and Butterfield criticize Belgau for drawing. (Note: Kindle locations give the approximate starting point for each quote, and appear to vary between different Kindle editions; if you have trouble locating the quote, search for a few words of the first sentence.)

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Public Friendship

Over at Commonweal, David Michael writes about his Swedish wedding and how it drew his and his wife’s friends in at every turn:

Ignoring the standard U.S. wedding magazine checklist, filled with inconceivable items like second lingerie fittings, my then-fiancée Johanna made a simple checklist: food, decorations, music, readers, a priest. Next to every item, she wrote the names of our friends.

I balked at putting our friends to work, but for Johanna, it wasn’t even a question. “That’s the best part. They actually get to spend time with the bride and groom during the preparations. You might only get five minutes with them at the actual wedding. Besides,” she added, “I helped out at all their weddings.”

When she set up shop at her grandmother’s house a few days before the wedding, several of her friends joined her. A law student who had previously studied cooking began to bake the desserts and cake. A couple arrived with their baby tucked in their backseat alongside a PA system, dance-floor lights, and a keg of homebrew. They were joined by more Swedes, and soon there were more than a dozen family members and friends working side-by-side. We made decorations and prepared the food, pausing for a meal or to go swimming in the sea before continuing with the preparations. Even the Americans got in on the act: our friend Rachel arrived, all the way from Seattle, bearing the programs and nameplates that she’d designed and printed, and her husband came with the suit I was borrowing from him. The day before the wedding, a dozen or so people—Americans and Swedes—helped decorate the church reception hall from mid-afternoon until well into the night. Admittedly, there were moments I wished we’d had the money to pay someone else to set up, but the work provided a sense of quiet meaning and care that’s hard to find at a bar or a restaurant. For our friends, the work provided the opportunity to make their love manifest.

I was lucky enough to be a guest at this wedding, arriving with two other American friends in time to help set up the reception hall and mingle with the other guests while doing so. One of them brought me a beer and pulled his chair close to mine so we could chat and get to know one another while he kept an eye on his baby son asleep in a carrier on the lawn. The way David describes the atmosphere in his essay is precisely how it was: the mood was laidback, the conversation was meandering, and the occasion wasn’t “about” anything other than being together.

And for David, one of the most significant things about these Swedish customs is that it provides something in short supply in the States: “a public notion of friendship.”

What occasions do Americans have to tell friends that we love them for who they are and to acknowledge that love publicly? Our culture allows us ample opportunities to make friends, but it affords very few opportunities to mark that friendship. And even when we have those opportunities, we often squander them.

At least among American men, declarations of love between friends are frowned upon, if not verboten. If we do express our mutual love, we frame it in irony and wit, employing terms like “bromance.” But when you cannot directly say “I love you”—privately or publicly—your capacity to love your friends becomes diminished, and friendships are reduced to what Aristotle calls “friendships of pleasure.”

By contrast, at David and Johanna’s wedding, the multiple-hours-long reception provided an opportunity for friend after friend to offer toasts, publicly celebrating and declaring their love for the bride and groom.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that this is one of my hobbyhorses: We need more ways to honor and celebrate our friends! On finishing David’s essay about his Swedish wedding, I found myself thinking about the times, after my speaking gigs, when I’ve been asked for thoughts about how we might begin to do that—how we might learn to more easily and readily declare in public our love for our friends. From now on, I may just send them a link to David’s piece and say, “Start here. Look for ways to do things like this.”

 

An Honest Question for Denny Burk and His Calvinist Friends

Denny Burk

In response to a tweet calling my recent Public Discourse article defending Spiritual Friendship and Revoice “the single most helpful, most thought provoking, and most clear thing” from the Spiritual Friendship perspective, Denny Burk tweeted in reply,

I agree. And I would add that Belgau has many other thoughtful articles on these themes on the Spiritual Friendship website as does Wesley Hill. There are still important differences between us, but I appreciate the thoughtful engagement here.

In light of recent controversies, I genuinely appreciate this acknowledgement, even though differences remain.

In an effort to explore at least one dimension of those remaining differences in a—hopefully!—thoughtful and charitable way, I want to ask Denny—and his associates like Albert Mohler, Owen Strachan, and Colin Smothers—a question about how Calvinists should view the sanctification of friendship in this life, in cases of ongoing struggle with the desire for homosexual sex.

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