If you’ve followed the discourse around sexuality and the PCA, then you’ve likely seen Tim Keller’s recent piece, which has provoked some strong reactions within the PCA. It’s a helpful write-up of what has happened so far. This is my attempt to define a few ideas about where the conversation should go next.
First, the particular conversations that have happened in the PCA can and should begin to move on to newer, better frames: How can we form stronger church communities that provide easy on-ramps for unmarrieds to join church life, to be received into close friendship, to receive whatever support they need in their Christian discipline, and so on? How can we better teach the fulness of the Christian moral tradition regarding sexuality, including the glorious calling given to celibate Christians? How can we support them in that calling so that they themselves actually experience it as a good and life-giving call?
There are wonderful and vital conversations to be had concerning these matters. And there are many same-sex attracted people in the PCA who we can and should be listening to and learning from on these matters. These questions also raise broader questions about the plausibility of Christian community and healthy Christian living in a society marked by the high degree of alienation and mistrust currently present in the US. My best guess is that we’re all basically going to either end up burnt out or forming more intensive Bruderhof Lite type Christian communities.
This is mostly not what we are talking about right now in the PCA or within reformed protestantism more generally. Why has the conversation gotten stuck? For very predictable PCA reasons: Because we have the 5% of the denomination most to our left along with the 10% most to the right shouting at each other incessantly. This is a familiar and unhappy dynamic common in our communion because it would not serve the 5% to acknowledge that most of our communion is not reactionary and fundamentalistic, nor would it serve the 10% to acknowledge that most of our communion is not progressive. So here we are.
The PCA as a whole would be well-served if the majority of us which are not aligned with either GRN or the denomination’s left began talking more with each other about these matters and paying less mind to many of the voices that have attempted to dominate the conversation to this point.
Second, there’s actually a remarkable degree of consensus amongst many in the reformed protestant world. The PCA report is very good and was drafted by a broad range of denominational figures, including prominent pastors representing both the “left” and “right” wings of the denomination as well as members of Missouri Presbytery (a more “left” presbytery) and North Texas (a more “right” presbytery). Not only that, there’s a tremendous degree of overlap between the PCA report and the comparable ACNA bishop’s statement on the same questions. Both documents lay out what needs to be said regarding desire and the doctrine of sin while also recognizing the unique evangelistic, apologetic, and communal challenges that the sexual revolution has presented to churches.
Given that, the best thing that could happen right now is if reformed protestants in the US treated those two reports as consensus documents that are broadly representative of where we are on these matters. There’s no reason that pastors in the PCA, OPC, EPC, ECO, ARP, REC, and ACNA can’t begin using these two statements in their ministry as a way of helping church members and visitors understand where they basically stand on these matters. Collectively, those seven communions number over a million weekly attendees. Given the disastrous ways evangelicals have often discussed matters of sexuality in the past, it would be an enormous win if a critical mass of our reformed congregations began to use these two statements more regularly.
I actually feel very hopeful about where this could go. We are blessed with many wonderful thinkers in the PCA that we can and should continue to learn from. The ACNA is similarly blessed. Moreover, the riches of historic church teaching on these matters are such that there is wonderful potential here not only to revitalize family life, but also for the church to model better forms of life that are able to include and build up unmarried church members. (I continue to find this old article by Wes Hill to be deeply challenging and moving.) There is so much good work for us to do.
But much of this will need to happen in local churches—which means spending less time shouting at each other online—and much of it will happen better if we can re-establish some sense of trust between leaders, pastors, churches, and so on. And that, I expect, will only happen if we start ignoring the respective fringes of this discussion and realizing that those of us not belonging to either fringe actually have a great deal in common, even if the dynamics of church politicking and maneuvering sometimes try to tell us otherwise.