Overture 37 from the 2021 PCA General Assembly (approved as amended by a substantial majority of commissioners) proposes a change to the Book of Church Order (BCO) in Chapters 21-4 (for teaching elders) and 24-1 (for ruling elders and deacons). If approved by 2/3 of the presbyteries, the change would call for presbyteries to examine the personal character of candidates for office, giving specific attention to notorious concerns, such as but not limited to relational sins, sexual immorality (including homosexuality, child sexual abuse, fornication, and pornography), addictions, abusive behavior, racism, and financial mismanagement).
I want to urge our presbyteries to affirm Overture 37 and thus insert this paragraph into our BCO for the following reasons:
Reason #1: To bring unity and peace to the PCA. The cause of unity is served by taking clear stances on controversial issues. The PCA went into the 2021 General Assembly with a great deal of controversy centered on same-sex attracted ministers and answered this controversy with a resounding endorsement of biblical teaching. Not only did the study committee on sexuality give clear and lucid affirmation to the Reformed doctrine of concupiscence—affirming that all sin desires and orientations must be repented and mortified—but the strong majorities in support of Overtures 23 and 37 signaled a desire for the PCA to take a clear and biblical stance. Unless these overtures are passed by the presbyteries, then the statements of the General Assembly will have resulted in no action and no progress will have been made on our unity as a denomination.
Reason #2: To align with the biblical emphasis on character. As it now stands, our BCO does not specify the examination of an ordinand’s character. This deficiency is surprising since in 1 Timothy 3:1–7, almost all of the apostle’s qualifications deal with character and personal fitness. For the PCA not to have clear and pointed areas of concern regarding character leaves us out of step with Scripture.
Reason #3: To protect the church from problems arising from character deficiencies. It may be argued that doctrinal error produces the greatest harm to the church, but character concerns produce the most frequent damage to our congregations and people. We live in a time when serious harm brought by the sexual misconduct, addictions, or abusive leadership of Christian leaders regularly hits the news. It simply would be irresponsible of our denomination not to take formal action to ensure that our leaders have no tendencies toward child sexual abuse or demeaning leader behavior. In a time when pornography wreaks untold damage to marriages and families, the PCA must take a firm stand against the use of pornography by its officers. In short, the PCA needs clear categories for the examination of character that will preserve the honor of our Lord, protect the flock from distress and harm, and guard the peace and purity of the church.
Reason #4: The categories of Overture 37 are clear, appropriate, and helpful. Overture 37 provides a helpfully pointed guide for character examinations that meets the evident needs of our situation. Church courts will be greatly aided in fulfilling their biblical duty by focusing on sexual immorality, relational sins, abuse, racism, and gross financial mismanagement. It also will communicate to our leaders what character is regarded as necessary for holding church office. On its merits, the proposed change to the BCO is one for which we have had an urgent need for many years.
Considering the Objections
Before concluding with my final reason to support Overture 37, let me consider the objections that have been raised against it. One objection—raised by the minority report last General Assembly—holds that the language of Overture 37 is unclear and ambiguous. This kind of charge is regularly made whenever an overture simply is disliked, but in this case, it seems especially unwarranted. Courts are to “give specific attention” when examining candidates to “potentially notorious concerns.” The concerns themselves are crystal clear. Moreover, the overture calls for candidates to “give clear testimony of reliance upon his union with Christ and the benefits thereof by the Holy Spirit, depending on this work of grace to make progress over sin.” The meaning of this sentence is perfectly clear and entirely in line with our soteriology. The overture clearly notes that perfection is not the standard. It further (and helpfully) states that he “must not be known by reputation or self-profession according to his remaining sinfulness,” a statement that clearly addresses the controversial issues today. The overture does not insist that there be no “remaining sinfulness,” but rather that we may not place our identity on the sin with which we are purportedly struggling. Upon reasonable reflection, whatever other arguments may be made against Overture 37, the charge of confusing, imprecise obscurity cannot fairly be made.
A second objection—and probably closer to the heart of the matter—is that Overture 37 provides the ammunition for malicious fundamentalists to harass well-meaning but imperfect candidates. But this objection assumes a pernicious attitude in our presbyteries and their committees which I do not believe can be justified. The effect of this objection is that we dare not have clear qualifications because the graceless leaders of our courts will use them to do harm. This open disparagement of PCA teaching and ruling elders actually argues for the need of Overture 37! Moreover, the insistence that our courts cannot be trusted is hardly a sound basis for determining our polity.
A third objection holds that Overture 37 is not needed because all the resources to safeguard the character of our elders and deacons is already in our confession. Perhaps, but if this is true, why are we embroiled in controversy? And why do we regularly learn of character problems harming the church? A call to inaction is not leadership, nor responsible polity.
In my opinion, the actual objection to Overture 37 is that it communicates that men standing for ordination should effectively have dealt with gross, scandalous sins before being ordained as deacons, elders, or pastors. It is deemed legalistic to expect that our officers do not nurture serious sins. But why, then, did Paul write that an elder “must be above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2). Why must an elder must be “hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined” (Titus 1:8). In short, the opposition to Overture 37 reveals a bias against holiness. Otherwise, how could we think that a man who has not shown great progress in overcoming “homosexuality, child sexual abuse, fornication, pornography, additions, abusive behavior, racism, and financial mismanagement” is fit for church office? Far from being alarmed at what will happen if the changes of Overture 37 are added to our BCO, we should be greatly alarmed at the implications of them being rejected.
Reason #5: Qualifications express our conception of Christianity. Since the Bible calls for Christians to imitate the faith and life of their leaders (Heb. 13:7), the qualifications for office express our ideal of what salvation involves. Paul expressed the basic norm of sexual purity for all Christians when he wrote: “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints” (Eph. 5:3). So if a man self-identifies as gay, has struggles with sexually abusing women or children, or has an on-going unmortified pattern of viewing pornography, how can we set him before the church as a model of basic godliness? John wrote, “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness” (1 John 2:9). So what is our belief regarding Christianity if we set a man with an unmortified racism or pattern of abuse in a position of authority in the church?
In contrast to the approach that views an emphasis on holiness with suspicion, Overture 37 exemplifies a gospel in which Christians rejoice both in our deliverance from the guilt of sin and in our deliverance from the power of sin. Officers with high Christian character send a hopeful message to the church that Christ is able to set us free from a life dominated by sin—a freedom that ultimately and perfectly occurs only in the life to come, but which growing Christians substantially experience now.
In short, if we do not believe in a holy ministry, it can only be because we do not have confidence about holiness. It is because we must believe in holiness, by grace and to God’s glory, that Overture 37 not only should be approved by our presbyteries but is actually essential to the gospel witness and spiritual vitality of the PCA.