by Walter Henegar, senior pastor
Last month the Session (or elder board) of Westside decided to initiate a conversation with the congregation about God’s design for human sexuality. This blog post is intended to start the conversation, with an initial in-person dialogue scheduled for Sunday, February 6 at 2:30p.
We are motivated to start this conversation for at least four reasons.
Because we believe God’s design for sex is good and worthy of commending to you.
A short way to summarize that view is that God designed sex for the marriage covenant between a husband and a wife. Of course sin has warped every part of creation, and none of us has ever lived in perfect alignment with this design. Therefore we are also commending the grace of Jesus, which covers our sin and increasingly conforms us to his original design. In this regard we are not “taking a stand,” but kneeling before the enduring wisdom of God’s Word in a posture of humility, wonder and gratitude.
Because we all live in a time when people’s views on sexuality are changing rapidly, both inside and outside of the church.
As undershepherds who are accountable to God to lead, feed, guide and protect his sheep, we want to help you navigate this confusing landscape along with us. In this regard we are also kneeling, in a posture of service, curiosity and teachability.
Because we recognize that Christian churches, including our own, have failed in many grievous ways to embody the grace and truth of Jesus toward those who experience sexuality in non-straight ways.
Some churches have been harsh and graceless; other churches have been false and toothless. Both are failures of love. In this respect we are kneeling in repentance, seeking to better emulate our Savior in caring for our fellow saint-sufferer-sinners the way he cares for all of us.
Because the churches of our denomination have, and continue to, wrestle with how to govern ourselves in regard to sexuality.
In 2019, our General Assembly (the national “court” of our denomination) created a committee to study these issues – especially around LGBTQ issues. That committee of seven included prominent pastors Tim Keller, Bryan Chapell and Kevin DeYoung, as well as Jim Pocta, an elder who personally experiences same-sex attraction. Their 60-page report (pdf here) was released online in 2020, but because General Assembly was canceled that year due to Covid, the committee’s verbal report was not made until 2021 (video stream here). The report itself, like prior study committee reports, is not legislatively binding but is presented as “pious advice.”
By contrast, the 2021 General Assembly gave preliminary approval to two changes to our Book of Church Order that would place binding restrictions on the ordination of some same-sex-attracted men. These changes are currently being debated in our presbyteries (regional church “courts”), and if they receive support from at least two-thirds of them, will be finally voted on at General Assembly in the summer of 2022. The Metro Atlanta Presbytery has voted against them, and one (overture 37) has already failed to receive support from two-thirds of presbyteries.
In regard to all these denominational matters, we are kneeling in mutual submission to our fellow pastors and elders to whom we are mutually accountable. One of the reasons we are part of a denomination is because we do not trust ourselves alone to preserve the integrity of God’s truth. We need accountability, and we are grateful to have it.
The main conclusions of the 2020 Study Committee are represented by twelve statements, each with a paragraph of affirmations and a paragraph beginning with “nevertheless.” I have pasted them below as a way to begin the conversation with you. They are not perfect, but they represent some of the best theological and pastoral thinking in our denomination.
A Personal Note
I have a habit of keeping my views “close to the vest” in order not to bias discussions up front. In this case, I think it’s important to give you some idea of how I’m thinking about these matters. I have included a few brief comments at the end of this post, after the twelve statements.
The 2020 PCA Ad Interim Committee on Human Sexuality
(to read the full report, click here)
We affirm that marriage is to be between one man and one woman (Gen. 2:18-25; Matt. 19:4-6; WCF 24.1). Sexual intimacy is a gift from God to be cherished and is reserved for the marriage relationship between one man and one woman (Prov. 5:18-19). Marriage was instituted by God for the mutual help and blessing of husband and wife, for procreation and the raising together of godly children, and to prevent sexual immorality (Gen. 1:28; 2:18; Mal. 2:14-15; 1 Cor. 7:2, 9; WCF 24.2). Marriage is also a God-ordained picture of the differentiated relationship between Christ and the church (Eph. 5:22-33; Rev. 19:6-10). All other forms of sexual intimacy, including all forms of lust and same-sex sexual activity of any kind, are sinful (Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Rom. 1:18-32; 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10; Jude 7; WLC 139).
Nevertheless, we do not believe that sexual intimacy in marriage automatically eliminates unwanted sexual desires, nor that all sex within marriage is sinless (WCF 6.5). We all stand in need of God’s grace for sexual sin and temptation, whether married or not. Moreover, sexual immorality is not an unpardonable sin. There is no sin so small it does not deserve damnation, and no sin so big it cannot be forgiven (WCF 15.4). There is hope and forgiveness for all who repent of their sin and put their trust in Christ (Matt. 11:28-30; John 6:35, 37; Acts 2:37-38; 16:30-31).
- IMAGE OF GOD
We affirm that God created human beings in his image as male and female (Gen. 1:26-27). Likewise, we recognize the goodness of the human body (Gen. 1:31; John 1:14) and the call to glorify God with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:12-20). As a God of order and design, God opposes the confusion of man as woman and woman as man (1 Cor. 11:14-15). While situations involving such confusion can be heartbreaking and complex, men and women should be helped to live in accordance with their biological sex.
Nevertheless, we ought to minister compassionately to those who are sincerely confused and disturbed by their internal sense of gender identity (Gal. 3:1; 2 Tim. 2:24-26). We recognize that the effects of the Fall extend to the corruption of our whole nature (WSC 18), which may include how we think of our own gender and sexuality. Moreover, some persons, in rare instances, may possess an objective medical condition in which their anatomical development may be ambiguous or does not match their genetic chromosomal sex. Such persons are also made in the image of God and should live out their biological sex, insofar as it can be known.
- ORIGINAL SIN
We affirm that from the sin of our first parents we have received an inherited guilt and an inherited depravity (Rom. 5:12-19; Eph. 2:1-3). From this original corruption—which is itself sinful and for which we are culpable—proceed all actual transgressions. All the outworkings of our corrupted nature (a corruption which remains, in part, even after regeneration) are truly and properly called sin (WCF 6.1-5). Every sin, original and actual, deserves death and renders us liable to the wrath of God (Rom. 3:23; James 2:10; WCF6.6). We must repent of our sin in general and our particular sins, particularly (WCF 15.5). That is, we ought to grieve for our sin, hate our sin, turn from our sin unto God, and endeavor to walk with God in obedience to his commandments (WCF 15.2).
Nevertheless, God does not wish for believers to live in perpetual misery for their sins, each of which are pardoned and mortified in Christ (WCF 6.5). By the Spirit of Christ, we are able to make spiritual progress and to do good works, not perfectly, but truly (WCF 16.3). Even our imperfect works are made acceptable through Christ, and God is pleased to accept and reward them as pleasing in his sight (WCF16.6).
We affirm not only that our inclination toward sin is a result of the Fall, but that our fallen desires are in themselves sinful (Rom 6:11-12; 1 Peter 1:14; 2:11). The desire for an illicit end—whether in sexual desire for a person of the same sex or in sexual desire disconnected from the context of Biblical marriage—is itself an illicit desire. Therefore, the experience of same-sex attraction is not morally neutral; the attraction is an expression of original or indwelling sin that must be repented of and put to death (Rom. 8:13).
Nevertheless, we must celebrate that, despite the continuing presence of sinful desires (and even, at times, egregious sinful behavior), repentant, justified, and adopted believers are free from condemnation through the imputed righteousness of Christ (Rom. 8:1; 2 Cor. 5:21) and are able to please God by walking in the Spirit (Rom. 8:3-6).
We affirm that impure thoughts and desires arising in us prior to and apart from a conscious act of the will are still sin. We reject the Roman Catholic understanding of concupiscence whereby disordered desires that afflict us due to the Fall do not become sin without a consenting act of the will. These desires within us are not mere weaknesses or inclinations to sin but are themselves idolatrous and sinful.
Nevertheless, we recognize that many persons who experience same-sex attraction describe their desires as arising in them unbidden and unwanted. We also recognize that the presence of same-sex attraction is often owing to many factors, which always include our own sin nature and may include being sinned against in the past. As with any sinful pattern or propensity—which may include disordered desires, extramarital lust, pornographic addictions, and all abusive sexual behavior—the actions of others, though never finally determinative, can be significant and influential. This should move us to compassion and understanding. Moreover, it is true for all of us that sin can be both unchosen bondage and idolatrous rebellion at the same time. We all experience sin, at times, as a kind of voluntary servitude (Rom. 7:13-20).
We affirm that Scripture speaks of temptation in different ways. There are some temptations God gives us in the form of morally neutral trials, and other temptations God never gives us because they arise from within as morally illicit desires (James 1:2, 13-14). When temptations come from without, the temptation itself is not sin, unless we enter into the temptation. But when the temptation arises from within, it is our own act and is rightly called sin.
Nevertheless, there is an important degree of moral difference between temptation to sin and giving in to sin, even when the temptation is itself an expressing of indwelling sin. While our goal is the weakening and lessening of internal temptations to sin, Christians should feel their greatest responsibility not for the fact that such temptations occur but for thoroughly and immediately fleeing and resisting the temptations when they arise. We can avoid “entering into” temptation by refusing to internally ponder and entertain the proposal and desire to actual sin. Without some distinction between (1) the illicit temptations that arise in us due to original sin and (2) the willful giving over to actual sin, Christians will be too discouraged to “make every effort” at growth in godliness and will feel like failures in their necessary efforts to be holy as God is holy (2 Peter 1:5-7; 1 Peter 1:14-16). God is pleased with our sincere obedience, even though it may be accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections (WCF 16.6).
We affirm that Christians should flee immoral behavior and not yield to temptation. By the power of the Holy Spirit working through the ordinary means of grace, Christians should seek to wither, weaken, and put to death the underlying idolatries and sinful desires that lead to sinful behavior. The goal is not just consistent fleeing from, and regular resistance to, temptation, but the diminishment and even the end of the occurrences of sinful desires through the reordering of the loves of one’s heart toward Christ. Through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, we can make substantial progress in the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord (Rom. 6:14-19; Heb. 12:14; 1 John 4:4; WCF 13.1).
Nevertheless, this process of sanctification—even when the Christian is diligent and fervent in the application of the means of grace—will always be accompanied by many weaknesses and imperfections (WCF 16.5, 6), with the Spirit and the flesh warring against one another until final glorification (WCF 13.2). The believer who struggles with same-sex attraction should expect to see the regenerate nature increasingly overcome the remaining corruption of the flesh, but this progress will often be slow and uneven. Moreover, the process of mortification and vivification involves the whole person, not simply unwanted sexual desires. The aim of sanctification in one’s sexual life cannot be reduced to attraction to persons of the opposite sex (though some persons may experience movement in this direction), but rather involves growing in grace and perfecting holiness in the fear of God (WCF 13.3).
We affirm the impeccability of Christ. The incarnate Son of God neither sinned (in thought, word, deed, or desire) nor had the possibility of sinning. Christ experienced temptation passively, in the form of trials and the devil’s entreaties, not actively, in the form of disordered desires. Christ had only the suffering part of temptation, where we also have the sinning part. Christ had no inward disposition or inclination unto the least evil, being perfect in all graces and all their operations at all times.
Nevertheless, Christ endured, from without, real soul-wrenching temptations which qualified him to be our sympathetic high priest (Heb. 2:18; 4:15). Christ assumed a human nature that was susceptible to suffering and death. He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3).
We affirm that the believer’s most important identity is found in Christ (Rom. 8:38-39; Eph. 1:4, 7). Christians ought to understand themselves, define themselves, and describe themselves in light of their union with Christ and their identity as regenerate, justified, holy children of God (Rom. 6:5-11; 1 Cor. 6:15-20; Eph. 2:1-10). To juxtapose identities rooted in sinful desires alongside the term “Christian” is inconsistent with Biblical language and undermines the spiritual reality that we are new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).
Nevertheless, being honest about our sin struggles is important. While Christians should not identify with their sin so as to embrace it or seek to base their identity on it, Christians ought to acknowledge their sin in an effort to overcome it. There is a difference between speaking about a phenomenological facet of a person’s sin-stained reality and employing the language of sinful desires as a personal identity marker. That is, we name our sins, but are not named by them. Moreover, we recognize that there are some secondary identities, when not rooted in sinful desires or struggles against the flesh, that can be legitimately affirmed along with our primary identity as Christians. For example, the distinctions between male and female, or between various nationalities and people groups, are not eradicated in becoming Christians, but serve to magnify the glory of God in his plan of salvation (Gen. 1:27; 1 Peter 3:7; Rev. 5:9; 7:9-10).
We affirm that those in our churches would be wise to avoid the term “gay Christian.” Although the term “gay” may refer to more than being attracted to persons of the same sex, the term does not communicate less than that. For many people in our culture, to self-identify as “gay” suggests that one is engaged in homosexual practice. At the very least, the term normally communicates the presence and approval of same-sex sexual attraction as morally neutral or morally praiseworthy. Even if “gay,” for some Christians, simply means “same-sex attraction,” it is still inappropriate to juxtapose this sinful desire, or any other sinful desire, as an identity marker alongside our identity as new creations in Christ.
Nevertheless, we recognize that some Christians may use the term “gay” in an effort to be more readily understood by non-Christians. The word “gay” is common in our culture, and we do not think it wise for churches to police every use of the term. Our burden is that we do not justify our sin struggles by affixing them to our identity as Christians. Churches should be gentle, patient, and intentional with believers who call themselves “gay Christians,” encouraging them, as part of the process of sanctification, to leave behind identification language rooted in sinful desires, to live chaste lives, to refrain from entering into temptation, and to mortify their sinful desires.
We affirm that our contemporary ecclesiastical culture has an underdeveloped understanding of friendship and often does not honor singleness as it should. The church must work to see that all members, including believers who struggle with same-sex attraction, are valued members of the body of Christ and engaged in meaningful relationships through the blessings of the family of God. Likewise we affirm the value of Christians who share common struggles gathering together for mutual accountability, exhortation, and encouragement.
Nevertheless, we do not support the formation of exclusive, contractual marriage-like friendships, nor do we support same-sex romantic behavior or the assumption that certain sensibilities and interests are necessarily aspects of a gay identity. We do not consider same-sex attraction a gift in itself, nor do we think this sin struggle, or any sin struggle, should be celebrated in the church.
- REPENTANCE AND HOPE
We affirm that the entire life of the believer is one of repentance. Where we have mistreated those who struggle with same-sex attraction, or with any other sinful desires, we call ourselves to repentance. Where we have nurtured or made peace with sinful thoughts, desires, words, or deeds, we call ourselves to repentance. Where we have heaped upon others misplaced shame or have not dealt well with necessary God-given shame, we call ourselves to repentance.
Nevertheless, as we call ourselves to the evangelical grace of repentance (WCF 15.1), we see many reasons for rejoicing (Phil. 4:1). We give thanks for penitent believers who, though they continue to struggle with same-sex attraction, are living lives of chastity and obedience. These brothers and sisters can serve as courageous examples of faith and faithfulness, as they pursue Christ with a long obedience in gospel dependence. We also give thanks for ministries and churches within our denomination that minister to sexual strugglers (of all kinds) with Biblical truth and grace. Most importantly, we give thanks for the gospel that can save and transform the worst of sinners—older brothers and younger brothers, tax collectors and Pharisees, insiders and outsiders. We rejoice in ten thousand spiritual blessings that are ours when we turn from sin by the power of the Spirit, trust in the promises of God, and rest upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life (WCF 14.2).
Some of My Personal Views on these Matters
- I agree with our denomination’s basic stance on sexuality, and I also weep for how we, and I personally, have often done such a poor job of embodying it. Especially in many of the ways we have treated those for whom obeying it is far more costly.
- I do not personally experience same-sex attraction, but I have a deep burden to shepherd my brothers and sisters in Christ who do.
- I think statements 9 and 10, on Identity and Language, express some things more starkly and confidently than is warranted. In particular:
- There is no universally agreed-upon definition for what we mean by the relatively novel concept of identity. Some “identity markers” can simply describe a part of our experience, not necessarily what we are “putting our identity in.” This unavoidable ambiguity, which is further clouded by the recent explosion of identity politics in public life, makes it an unreliable metric for assessing which expressions are “unwise,” and even less useful for determining which men are fit for Gospel ministry.
- Relatedly, the nature of language often defies confident assertion about what certain terms “normally mean.” Meaning always depends on context, and the context of our speech about sexuality has been changing rapidly in recent decades. As a result, people from different generations and cultures often “hear” the same words in very different ways. This means there are no non-problematic ways for non-straight Christians to describe their experience. Instead of policing terminology, we must be willing to have long conversations to understand each individual person.
- For these reasons and many others, I am opposed to the two overtures that seek to build this kind of conceptual and linguistic overreach into our Book of Church Order.
Whether you agree with me or not, I hope you will plan to attend the initial conversation on Sunday, February 6 at 2:30p. If you are unable to attend but would like another opportunity to discuss these issues – or if the event has now passed and you have follow-up questions or comments – please email email@example.com.