Discipline in PCA BCO 27-3: Its Proper Usage and Ends

Posted by R. Fowler White

Elders in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) affirm that they “approve of the form of government and discipline of the denomination, in conformity with the general principles of biblical polity” (The Book of Church Order 21-5). Consequently, they affirm the following statement that appears in the BCO of the PCA, Part II The Rules of Discipline, Paragraph 27-3:

27-3. The exercise of discipline is highly important and necessary. In its proper usage discipline maintains:

a. the glory of God,

b. the purity of His Church,

c. the keeping and reclaiming of disobedient sinners. Discipline is for the purpose of godliness (1 Timothy 4:7); therefore, it demands a self-examination under Scripture.

Its ends, so far as it involves judicial action, are the rebuke of offenses, the removal of scandal, the vindication of the honor of Christ, the promotion of the purity and general edification of the Church, and the spiritual good of offenders themselves.

There would be wide agreement that the above statement is a good and faithful expression of what Scripture teaches. When reading that section, however, the question might arise: as good and faithful as the statement is, does it say all that it should say? Posing that question does not disparage the care with which the BCO generally or paragraph 27-3 specifically expresses “the general principles of biblical polity.” It is understandable and agreeable that the statement should in fact be both general and principial and not exhaustive. Even so, it might be asked if the statement has in fact identified all the general principles that are necessary and sufficient. For example, two related questions emerge: 1) Does the statement above contain what is necessary to express the proper usage of discipline? 2) Does the statement above contain what is necessary to express the ends of discipline?

Scripturally speaking, the statement is accurate … as far as it goes. But it is, arguably, not complete. Here is what I mean. In WCF 15.6, we affirm that “he that scandalizeth his brother, or the church of Christ, ought to be willing, by a private or public confession, and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance to those that are offended, who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him.” It seems reasonably clear here that the Confession envisions a usage of discipline that BCO 27-3 does not mention, namely, the recuperation of those whom the offender had scandalized and their reconciliation with the offender. Is it not the case, then, that the proper usage of discipline will maintain not only the glory of God, the purity of the church, and the keeping and reclaiming of disobedient sinners, but also the wellbeing of the offended parties, whether they be the church generally or the injured church members specifically (e.g., 2 Cor 2:5-11). Is it not the case also that the ends of discipline will include not only the rebuke of offenses, the removal of scandal, the vindication of the honor of Christ, the promotion of the purity and general edification of the Church, and the spiritual good of offenders themselves, but also the spiritual good of the offended parties (e.g., Matt 18:15)?

In answer to the question about discipline’s proper usage, we might say that the wellbeing of the offended parties was meant to be implied in the words “the … reclaiming of disobedient sinners.” In answer to the question about discipline’s ends, we might say that the spiritual good of the offended parties was meant to be implied in the phrase “the promotion of the purity and general edification of the Church.” Neither reading seems to be plausible, however. The phrase describing the reclaiming of offenders seems distinctly insufficient to convey the idea of the wellbeing of the offenders’ victims. Likewise, the words describing the ends of discipline seems to have omitted consideration of a necessary element of biblical judicial action, namely, the spiritual good of the offended. As a result, the statement found in BCO 27-3, though good and faithful as far as it goes, looks to be incomplete.

Would PCA BCO 27-3 not be improved if it included explicit reference to the benefits that discipline holds for those offended and injured?

On the Apostle Paul’s Above Reproach Criterion

Posted by R. Fowler White

1 Tim 3:2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach … (δεῖ οὖν τὸν ἐπίσκοπον ἀνεπίλημπτον εἶναι).
Titus 1: 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach … (δεῖ γὰρ τὸν ἐπίσκοπον ἀνέγκλητον εἶναι ὡς θεοῦ οἰκονόμον).

Introduction. While considering whether men who experience same-sex inclinations should be ordained to or remain in the office of elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), one focus of attention has been the Apostle Paul’s criterion in 1 Tim 3:2 and Titus 1:7 requiring candidates for eldership to be above reproach. To put that requirement in perspective, it is useful to observe that, in the commentaries on these texts, there is substantial agreement that the above reproach standard is most likely a summary of the specific qualifications listed thereafter. Granted that consensus, our question in the following post is this: does the criterion allow for variable assessment by sessions and presbyteries when applied to individual cases? Before we take up that question, let’s consider several preliminary stipulations.

Three means. First, we propose to stipulate that self-description is one of three parts that make up a man’s call to ministry. When elders, in their ordination vows for the PCA, “approve of [its] form of government and discipline …, in conformity with the general principles of Biblical polity” (BCO 21-5.3), that approval involves their affirmation that “ordinary vocation to office in the Church is the calling of God by the Spirit, through the inward testimony of a good conscience, the manifest approbation of God’s people, and the concurring judgment of a lawful court of the Church” (BCO 16-1). In this light, ordained PCA overseers have affirmed that there are three means through which “the calling of God by the Spirit” is realized. (Fittingly, Paul’s charge to Timothy in 1 Tim 4:12-16 with 1 Tim 1:18-19a; 2 Tim 1:6, 14 illustrates all three components.) We affirm, then, that, when it comes to making judgments about fitness for office, assessment will include but will not be limited to a man’s self-description. We follow the Apostle’s example as expressed in BCO 16-1 and stipulate that the Spirit of God gives His testimony that a man should be inducted into or remain in office through all three measures mentioned above.

A Good Reputation. Second, though the preceding summary may be agreeable enough, we suggest that it strengthens our consensus to fill in the picture in BCO 16-1 from the contexts of 1 Tim 3:2 and Titus 1:7. Factoring in the content of 1 Tim 1:3-11; 3:7; 4:12-16; Titus 1:10-16; and 2:7-8, we confirm that a candidate’s self-description is not the Apostle’s only or even primary focus. This is not to say that Paul advocates an approach of suspicion, but rather one of earned credibility. In a phrase, trust but verify. Why? Because Paul is eager to establish the necessary contrast between the church’s elders and false teachers when it comes to their self-description, doctrine, and practice. In doing so, he calls special attention to what the false teachers believe and declare about themselves: they profess to know God (Titus 1:16). We do not doubt the candidates for eldership also professed to know God. What is of interest to the Apostle, however, is not a man’s profession (self-description) as such, but rather the consistency of a man’s teaching and practice with his profession. In other words, a man’s self-description is of no interest to Paul if neither his doctrine (1:10-14) nor his practice (1:15-16) matches up to it. Even if a man believes and declares himself conscientiously to be above reproach, his open and honest self-description is not sufficient or conclusive to demonstrate that he is as he believes and declares himself to be. Transparency and authenticity, while praiseworthy, are, in themselves, inadequate to prove qualification or to protect against disqualification.

Unmistakably, we anticipate that a man will humbly describe his character and conduct—personal, domestic, and public—as a fitting example for others to follow in their own profession, doctrine, and practice. Particularly in his self-description, we expect that a man will conscientiously describe himself in terms of his Christian experience and inward call to the ministry (BCO 24-1.a). We also expect that, in distinction from a recent convert, he will present himself as a man of mature profession, teaching, and practice, devoted to genuine experiential religion, including his ongoing crucifixion of indwelling sin and all its corruptions to our nature that incline us to evil. Overall, then, the contexts of 1 Tim 3:2 and Titus 1:7 provide us a synopsis of the point expressed in BCO 21-5 and BCO 16-1: a candidate’s doctrine and practice must bring no reproach on what he believes and declares himself to be, nor on what the church believes and declares itself to be. He must be above reproach—have a good reputation—not only with those inside the church, but also with those outside the church, including with the church’s opponents.

A Good Reputation with Outsiders? Third, though we can all agree that, for the Apostle, the above reproach criterion involves the specific qualification of a good reputation with those outside as well as inside the church (δεῖ δὲ καὶ μαρτυρίαν καλὴν ἔχειν ἀπὸ τῶν ἔξωθεν, 1 Tim 3:7; 4:12-16), we can also agree that a shared approbation from outsiders and insiders presumes a shared definition of the good, at least on pertinent issues. Clearly, however, we should ask, how can those outside and inside the church come to share a definition of what is good? Since we would all agree that Paul does not look to outsiders to define the good, we can surely agree that the good reputation qualification presumes that insiders know what is good from God’s revelation in the apostolic traditions (which included the law of Moses), in nature, and in conscience, and that outsiders know what is good from His revelation in nature and conscience (Rom 1:18-23, 32; 2:14-15). Accordingly, as Ridderbos reminds us, though Paul declares that outsiders are all subject to God’s wrath (Rom 1:18, 24, 26, 28; Eph 2:3), he also acknowledges differences among them. He knows that not all outsiders are guilty of the most heinous sins. Some show the requirement of God’s law written in their hearts, as their conscience, though defiled by sin, bears witness to good and evil as defined by God’s revelation (Rom 2:14-15). They are thus commendable, even if in a civic sense only, for their good conduct (Rom 13:3-5; cf. 1 Cor 5:1-2; 1 Tim 5:8).

Knowing, then, that outsiders vary in their judgments, it is for the church to accept the judgment of outsiders only when it accords with God’s revealed will (cf. Rom 12:17; Col 4:5; 2 Cor 8:21). Remarkably, this is what Paul himself does when he accepts as true the testimony of an outsider about the Cretans (whose reputation included the practice of homosexual religious rites) as he applies it to certain divisive teachers in the Cretan church (Titus 1:12-13a; 1:9-16; 3:10-11). Therefore, when it comes to the matter of sexual immorality and specifically homosexuality, we reasonably infer that Paul acknowledged differences among outsiders. Though some in Greco-Roman culture showed the requirement of God’s law written in their hearts, the Apostle well knew that, outside the NT church, homosexuality was widely tolerated or approved in that culture (e.g., Rom 1:32a), just as it had been tolerated or approved in Canaanite and other ANE cultures outside of the OT church. When it came, then, to the issue of a good reputation with outsiders, the Apostle does not require the church and its officers to gain the respect of all outsiders without exception. Instead, he requires the church and its officers to gain the respect of outsiders who by nature do what the law requires … [who] are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law … [who] show that the work of the law written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them (Rom 2:14-15). In this way, we get our bearings on our time. We see that it is not materially different from the ancient past. We know that outsiders today vary in their judgment about homosexuality and other sexual immoralities, but we also know that they largely affirm these vices in greater or lesser degree. Thus, when our congregations, sessions, and presbyteries come to Paul’s specific qualification that an elder candidate should have a good reputation with those outside the church, we should look only to those outsiders who share our definition of what is good. If, as a result, we lose the respect of other outsiders, we remain faithful to implore them to join us in acknowledging that we are all sinners in God’s sight, justly deserving His wrath and without hope except in His sovereign mercy, and in believing in our Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of sinners, receiving and resting upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered to us in the Gospel.

Variable Assessment. With the preceding stipulations in place, we take up finally the question of whether the Apostle’s criterion allows for variable assessment when applied to individual cases. In the context of our considerations, we submit that allowance for variable individualized judgments among the churches is plainly at odds with the deliverance of universally binding standards to the congregations and with the connectionalism of the NT church. The overt aims of the Apostles to prevent individualization and to promote standardization of profession, teaching, and practice in the churches meant that judgments in the churches would not vary without accountability. Particularly as that connectionalism stemmed from the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), the NT makes it explicit that the Council’s decisions were to be kept from one church situation to another, wherever the Gentile mission bore fruit (Acts 15:23; 16:4-5; 21:17-25). Moreover, there is evidence sufficient to indicate that to ensure the consistency of profession, doctrine, and practice in all the churches, the NT letters themselves, like the Jerusalem Council’s letter, were effectively open letters—hence official documents—for all the churches impacted by the Apostles’ Gentile mission (see, e.g., Col 4:16; Rev 2:1­–3:22). In general, from the earliest to the latest days of the Gentile mission, the NT bears witness that the Apostles set boundaries to prevent individualization of profession, doctrine, and practice among the churches by requiring them to implement the universally binding apostolic traditions delivered to them (2 Thess 2:15; 3:6; 1 Cor 11:2, 16; 1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 2:2, 14; cf. 1 Cor 7:17). Once delivered to the churches, sessions and presbyteries were to apply those traditions with a view to standardizing what was professed, taught, and practiced in the congregations. Furthermore, given our focus on the above reproach criterion, it is noteworthy that embedded in the traditions of the Apostles was the moral law of Moses (e.g., 1 Tim 1:8-11; Rom 13:8-10), including the specific provision in the official resolution issued by the Jerusalem Council: the requirement of sexual purity (Acts 15:19-21, 29), the terminology of which included homosexuality and other sexual immoralities. That being the case, the official ministry in the churches was (is) to be carried out to promote their purity, to prevent their impurity, and to hold them accountable for their judgments relative to those purity standards. In fact, the NT documents associated with the Gentile mission show that this requirement was an indispensable point of emphasis in the churches (Acts 15:23; 16:4-5; 21:25; Gal 5:19; Eph 5:3; Col 3:5; 1 Thess 4:1-8; 1 Tim 1:10; Rev 2:14, 20-21).

Thus, though sessions and presbyteries may have reached varying judgments in individual cases, this did not mean that the apostolic standards were inherently subjective. To the contrary, the connectional principles of biblical church polity—mutual accountability, mutual dependency, and mutual submission—constrain our conclusion that the Apostles took the necessary steps to ensure that their standards, including officer qualifications with the above reproach criterion, would not vary from one situation to another, and that judgments about fitness for office by sessions and presbyteries, while variable when applied to individual cases, would be subject to external official review and correction. Of these principles, the Apostles’ correspondence to the congregation in Corinth, to Timothy and Titus, and to the congregations of Asia Minor provide multiple occasions addressing standards of sexual conduct (1 Cor 5:1-13; 6:9-20; 1 Tim 1:3-11; Titus 1:9-16; 3:8-11; Rev 2:14-16; 2:20-24).

Conclusion. In summary, when weighing the question of whether a man who experiences same-sex inclination should be ordained to or remain in the eldership of the PCA, it seems prudent to begin with the premise that evaluation of a man for office will include but will not be limited to his self-description. In addition, his doctrine and practice will be consistent with what he believes and declares himself to be and with what the church believes and declares itself to be. In this way, a candidate will gain a good reputation with those inside and outside the church, with the church accepting the judgment of outsiders only when it accords with God’s revealed will. All of these factors work together to fill out the picture of how the Spirit of God gives His testimony that a man should be inducted into or remain in the eldership through the testimonies of the candidate himself, a congregation, and a church court. Against the preceding backdrop, when we consider whether the Apostle’s above reproach criterion allowed for individualized judgments about fitness for eldership when it came to men experiencing homosexual inclinations, we have to deny that claim and oppose those who affirm it. Such a claim is at odds with the connectional obligation of congregations, sessions, and presbyteries to promote the consistency of the church’s profession, teaching, and practice with the apostolic traditions in general and with the sexual purity standards of Scripture in particular.

SSA Identification is Not Above Reproach

<rdp> As the Presbyterian Church in America draws closer to this year’s General Assembly, we’re beginning to focus a bit more on the core issues around the question of same-sex-attracted (SSA) men and ordination to sacred office. While there are lots of variables and permutations in front of us, the focus is rightly placed upon the one instantiation (the concrete example) of a teaching elder’s identification as a SSA (homosexual, gay) – (hyphenated) Christian (professing believer in Jesus Christ).

In a previous post I provided a simple summary of why I believe that men so identifying themselves are not above reproach. Accordingly, following the Bible’s rationale here, such men are NOT qualified for sacred office. More, in saying that they are not qualified, this is not a mere declaration that they don’t check off the boxes in a biblical qualifications checklist. No, reading these qualifications via the Bible’s idea of evidence of the Spirit’s work, what I am more fully concluding is that such a man’s lack of the biblical qualifications demonstrates that God has not called him to sacred office. Hence, in submission to the Head of the Body, the Church, we cannot place hands on him in ordination to sacred office.

Of course, these opinions generate some questions, most quite understandable and reasonable. I don’t propose I am the person to answer all these questions. I am not equipped to answer some of them, nor do I have the time to answer all of them. Suffice to say, I strongly recommend reliance on resources from others. Among those, let me highlight a few that presently are drawing my attention (in hopes that you may find them useful too):

Following my previous behavior, this past week I’ve sought to carefully listen to those interacting with my blog post, especially those who’ve disagreed with me. As of today, I am even more persuaded that an SSA-Christian man is not qualified for/not called to sacred office. He is not above reproach. Such a man has established as part of his identity a sin that is against nature (Jude 1:7; Rom 1:26). This identification may be nothing more than a confusion of a worldly-informed identity matrix (complex of principles). Yet at the very least such an identification marks him as one who has not (yet) secured the blessing of living in the language of 1Co 6:11:

“And such were some of you.” (e.g., formerly identifying with your SSA, rdp). “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1Co 6:11 ESV)

reed depace

No SSA Clergy in the PCA

<rdp> So for me, this has been a bit of a difficult decision to arrive at. Others I respect got here a lot sooner. Some I respect still decline to even travel in this direction. But, as the headline says above, I am convicted that same-sex-attracted men are not qualified to serve as ministers (teaching elders, pastors) in any denomination that seeks biblical fidelity in their ordination practices. As this is one of the biggie issues in our circles, allow me a few words to explain, support, and defend my conviction.

Background

Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson, a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, is the Sr. pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. He has publicly identified as a man who is both a Christian and gay. That is, he affirms that both labels are essential in describing his core identity. He affirms all of the PCA’s doctrinal standards, including that same sex attraction (SSA) is sinful, both in desire and practice.

Sounds like, “what’s the problem?” at this point, I know. Indeed, when this first came to my attention (as best I recollect, sometime in 2018), after the first few months’ flurry of interaction and discussion I was inclined to think that, while there may be some minor problems, nothing rose to the level of reaching the conclusion I am affirming in this post. I made a connection with Greg (via Facebook). He graciously accepted my friendship request. He engaged in a number of private messages with me, even when he was being bombarded with people wanting a slice of his attention. (Out of care for him, I decided to not take advantage of our social media “friendship”. At best, we’re acquaintances, showing respect and kindness toward one another via social media’s limits.) Greg has treated me with nothing but the best of Christian kindness. I’m grateful to count him among my brothers in Christ, whom I will see around the throne of Christ in glory. Writing this blog post, then, grieves me.

The Nutshell

God requires men to be ordained as ministers in his church (1Ti 2:12). Further, he requires such men to be above reproach:

“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you–if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.” (Tit 1:5-6 ESV)

I recognize others will have different opinions as to what this means. For me, as God has grown me in the wonders of his perfect grace and mercy in Jesus, his comforting kindness and secure love has led me to a deepening desire to not lean on my own understanding, but align my beliefs and practices as closely as possible to what his Bible says, without variation (Pro 3:5-6). I’ve learned to take quite seriously God’s warnings to neither add to or subtract from his Bible (Dt 4:2; 12:32; Pro 30:6; Rv 22:18-19). I’ve become increasingly cautious that I neither get off-track to the right or to the left in any matter the BIble addresses (Dt 5:32; 28:14; Jos 1:7; Pro 4:27).

This has led me to conclude that identifying as a (SSA) gay-Christian makes a man not above reproach. He may indeed have a credible profession of faith. His life may in every other way be an exemplar of Christian virtue. Yet in the one vital area of sexual ethics, such a man has declared that he is not above reproach. At best, his life is marked by an ongoing struggle with a sexual perversion that both those inside and outside the church identify as debauchery:

“TNDT Dictionary: 112
ἀσώτως aÃsoÒtos [dissolute],
ἀσωτία asoÒtiÃa [debauchery]
The original sense is “incurable”; then we have the ideas of dissipation, gluttony, voluptuousness, and indiscipline. The only OT instances are Prov. 7:11 and 28:7. The reference in Lk. 15:7 is to the prodigal’s life of dissipation, and in Eph. 5:18; Tit. 1:6; 1 Pet. 4:4 to a disorderly life (rather than voluptuousness). [W. FOERSTER, I, 506-07]”

Such debauchery is not limited to the actions of those who indulge their SSA, but it certainly includes such things:

“For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you.” (1Pt 4:3-4 ESV)

Let me be clear at this point: Greg declares that he has never engaged his SSA. He declares that he continually fights this temptation of his fallen flesh with the resources of Christ. And I believe him! Let no one misread me and infer that I’m suggesting Greg is guilty of SSA practice. I am most certainly not!

Instead, Greg’s own resolute self-identifying as a gay-Christian marks him as one who is ever suspect. His conviction that his SSA is an integral part of his personal identity means that both those in the church and outside the church will always wonder if Greg is free of any and all charges of debauchery. This is even the case for those who believe SSA is not condemnable. Certainly they will never think Greg is chargeable with debauchery, but that is only because they do not believe SSA desire or practice is sinful!

Thus, a Christian man who ongoingly identifies as a gay-Christian is, by that self-identification, declaring himself to be disqualified for sacred office in the church of Christ. All the debates about concupiscence, mortification, etc. (as important as they are), do not remove the disqualifying effect of the self-identification as a gay-Christian. Such a man will, as fine as he and his life may be in all other ways, always be marked this side of eternity as one who may be guilty of a debauchery attached to his SSA. Disappointing and discouraging as this conclusion may be, it is the only one that respects the integrity of Scripture, that takes it exactly at it’s word, neither turning to the left or the right, but maintaining God’s sole authority.

Notwithstandings

I recognize that the discussion on these matters has left many with frustrations. Men on both sides may feel like those on the other have not listened to them, or are guilty (even inadvertently) of equivocation. Yet, in the providence of God, we’ve not seen much progress in collapsing the gaps between us.

I also recognize that the motivations of Greg (and those agreeing with him) are dominated by concerns for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom. Even where I’ve been deeply and personally offended by some things found among those supporting Greg’s position, I recognize that the motives have been consistent with the desire to lift up Christ that all the lost elect might be drawn to him and be saved. Nevertheless, the gay-Christian identification is a compromise with the world’s system of thought. It is a syncretism that in time will yield a destructive harvest in the churches that adopt it. Rather than be helpful to the cause of Christ, the insistence that identifying as a gay-Christian is consistent with biblical fidelity is a pernicious error which can only bring dissoluteness.

For such considerations, as much I wish no harm to Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson, I believe we cannot affirm his calling as a minister in the PCA. Rather, I think we have no choice but to take the actions necessary to make sure no man identifying as a gay-Christian is ordained to sacred office. He is not qualified because he is not above reproach.

Offered with prayers for God’s blessing in the hearts of my fellow elders in the PCA,

Rev. Dr. Reed DePace

[Postscript, 4/24/21: thank you to the brother/ministry that made a way for me to attend GA this year after all. See you in St. Louiee!]