Clearing Out the Fog

TE Reed DePace

Some months ago, I realized I was going to have to come to some conclusions about the nature of same sex attraction (SSA) and its interaction with the question of ordination in the Presbyterian Church in America. Up to that point, I had sought to stay on top of the wide variety of conversation on relevant topics. From social media chat, to blog posts, to online magazine articles, to podcasts, to private digital conversations, I made time to delve deeply into this topic. My calling as a pastor and a presbyter demanded this of me.

And, some months ago I acknowledged to myself that I was hopelessly in a fog about all this. One brother from one side makes a credible challenge. Someone from the other side offers a credible response. The former gives a valid pushback I hadn’t considered. Chalk up another “who’s right/who’s wrong” moment. Tally up months and months of exchanges, pro and con, for and against, yea and nay, and I think many can appreciate my fog imagery in these events and subjects.

About a month ago, in preparation for our forty-eighth general assembly, I determined to try and boil things down into a set of vital issues to be addressed. While neither exhaustive nor exclusive, these are:

  • Is there credible information validating TE Johnson’s orthodoxy on the issues before us?
  • Is a man with an ongoing struggle with SSA ordainable to office within the PCA?

It seems to me that these are the crux of the matters before us. Thus, if I was going to be able to navigate the churning fog of these issues to safely land on the biblical runway, answering these was essential.

On the first question, with sadness, my conclusion is a no.

To be sure, TE Johnson expresses a noble missional focus: to bring the gospel to a community at best ignored by the (evangelical) church, and at worst (often) stigmatized by Christ’s Bride. To this, I affirm with a willingness to invest some of my ministry in the same missional focus.

Also to be sure, TE Johnson expresses an understandable commitment to the need for contextualizing his gospel witness to this community. Again, while there is no common ground between God and the sinner, there is common ground between we saint-sinners and the LGBTQ-sinners we’ve been sent to reach. Of course, some contextualizing is a necessary part of our apologetic introduction to them. Even if this means nothing more than entering into deeds of love that “earn” trust within this suffering community, this is entirely understandable, and indeed, biblically sound.

Yet it is here that I’ve (again, sadly!) concluded that there is not sufficient credible information validate TE Johnson’s orthodoxy on the issues before us. Without seeking to prove these observations (since I expect these are rather common amongst many of us): TE Johnson’s contextualization involves adopting critical parts of the metanarrative (the worldview) of the Side-B community. To be specific, TE Johnson clearly and succinctly agrees that the Side-A position (SSA men/women identifying as Christians may engage in homosexual acts in the context of homosexual marriage) is biblically condemned. Yet in seeking to minister to those affirming the Side-B position (SSA men/women identifying as Christians engaging in celibacy), TE Johnson all too frequently adopts the words, the language, and even the dialogical constructs used by those in this community. That is, he adopts the hermeneutic of Side-B.These words, language, and constructs are at times sub-biblical, and at other times contra-biblical.

To be sure, over the years since these issues arose (circa 2018) TE Johnson has offered clarifying language to us inside his doctrinal camp. And most often, sometimes after a bit more questioning for clarity, he has offered expressions that are biblically sound.

Yet then, in another venue, speaking to those outside his doctrinal camp, TE Johnson will yet again offer contextualized expressions that fit with Side-B sub/contra-biblical positions! This pattern has been repeated again, and again, and…

It is not unreasonable for me to ask, “Wait a minute, that contradicts your previously clarification of what you first said that contradicted our biblical convictions. What gives?” It is not reasonable for TE Johnson (or those who defend him) to respond with: “See my prior answer; asked-answered, nothing new here, move on now, drop it.” To be sure, I’ve grown increasingly grateful for what I see as growing gracefulness in TE Johnson’s response to his interlocutors. Yet, my hope for unity then gets smacked in the face when I hear of yet another interview/comment, etc. in which he once again offers contradictory comments. It is entirely reasonable for someone to ask, “Since he continues to offer confusing and contradictory information, what, then, are TE Johnson’s real beliefs on these issues?”

Yet, seeking to cut through the fog, I’ve concluded that I simply do not have the time, resources, and maybe even the ability, to adequately answer such questions. Thus, following the precepts of assuming the best of a brother (1Co 13:4-7), I’ve chosen to conclude the best in these circumstances: TE Johnson is most likely confused on how to apply our doctrinal standards to his apologetic to the Side-B community. Whether this is due to a defective understanding of biblical contextualization (my sense), or something else, does not matter. A TE is called to speak with clarity, not be a fog machine. (To be sure, I’m not suggesting I’d do any better; but then, I’ve not sought to engage at the level TE Johnson has.)

Let me be clear: my answer to this first question does not resolve to saying TE Johnson does not have a credible faith, or even that he is not orthodox on these issues. Rather my conclusion simply states that his lack of clarity, based on this repeated pattern, yields a fog making it impossible to validate his orthodoxy on these things.

That leaves me with the second question: is a man struggling with SSA ordainable? My answer is a qualified no.

My answer revolves around the issues of what does it mean to be above reproach, and the issue of what the Bible describes as sexual immorality contrary to nature (i.e., “unnatural” desire, Jude 1:7; Rom 1:26-27). Rather than repeat myself, I’ll let my words at this prior post offer more explanation. Suffice to say here, a man affirming that he has an ongoing struggle with same sex attraction (homoerotic desire as suggested by a fellow TE supporting TE Johnson), is NOT above reproach, and therefore not ordainable.

How this applies to the situation of TE Johnson is still in the fog for me. As implied above (necessarily inferred by me), I think TE Johnson might not be as he presents himself to those outside the PCA, as a man who is in effect a “gay” Christian as they are, i.e., someone firmly in the Side-B camp. It may very well be that TE Johnson is better described according to the past tense language of 1Co 6:11 (in the context of 1Co 6:9-10). Yet, as long as he continues to adopt the Side-B hermeneutic in his apologetics, it is unclear (i.e., the fog machine issue) whether he has experienced the degree of mortification that would make him above reproach.

To simplify here: a man with SSA in his life is ordainable depending on whether a present tense or a past tense applies to this issue in his life. If a man demonstrates that his struggle with SSA is past tense, then he has experienced the mortification that makes him above reproach on this issue. If however, this man demonstrates that SSA is a present struggle for him, then mortification has not yet qualified him as above reporach on this issue.

I get my expressions here may be frustrating to some, even on both sides of these issues. Yet my purpose has been to help any I might to the degree they too feel like they’re in a fog on these issues. With malice toward none, mercy and grace toward all, may God grant the PCA purity and peace on these issues.

reed depace