Presbyterian Church America Revoice

Sexual Orientation, Identity and Language: A Review of the Presbyterian Church in America’s Report on Human Sexuality, Part Two

on June 29, 2020

“To what extent should Christians allow their experience of sexuality to shape who they are? And more specifically, how should Christians attracted to the same sex think about how their experience of their sexual attractions shapes who they are?”  (Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Human Sexuality, page 27, lines 9-12)

In the summer of 2019, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) General Assembly authorized a Study Committee on human sexuality. The previous year, a local PCA church and denominational leaders had been involved in a controversial conference called Revoice. Though the conference affirmed a traditional sexual ethic (physical intimacy approved only within a heterosexual, monogamous, covenanted union), some of the speakers had expressed varying attitudes toward homosexual orientation and gay Christian identity. The Study Committee was tasked with bringing some clarity to these and other issues, and its official Report was issued on May 28, 2020.

Part One of this blog post reviewed the Report’s Calvinist theological and doctrinal arguments regarding original sin and the moral nature of desire and temptation, especially in regard to same-sex attraction. In contrast to United Methodist Church policy, which only morally denounces homosexual behavior (“the practice of homosexuality”), the Report concludes that

the experience of same-sex attraction is not morally neutral; (it) is an expression of original or indwelling sin that must be repented of and put to death (and) these desires within us are not mere weaknesses or inclinations to sin but are themselves idolatrous and sinful. (Report, page 8, lines 6-8, 20-21)

This moral decree also shapes the answers to three of the remaining denominational concerns: 1. whether or not the concepts of sexual orientation/sexual identity align with biblical and doctrinal teaching and are appropriate language for Christian usage, 2. how to disciple and care for same-sex attracted individuals within the Church community, and 3. how to best share the Christian sexual ethic with an unbelieving world. The first concern will be dealt with here in Part Two and the second and third later in Part Three.

Sexual Orientation

Though the Study Committee was specifically tasked with determining “the status of ‘orientation’ as a valid anthropological category,” the subject is given scant mention throughout the report and only seven dedicated lines in Essay #2:

How then should we think of the language of sexual orientation? Insofar as the term orientation is used descriptively to articulate a particular set of experiences, namely the persistent and predominant sexual attractions of an individual, it can remain useful as a way of classifying those experiences in contrast to the experiences of the majority of other people. However, insofar as the term orientation carries with it a set of assumptions about the nature of that experience that is unbiblical (e.g., overemphasized rigidity, its normativity, etc.), then the terminology may require qualification or even rejection in some circumstances. (Report, page 30, line 40 – page 31, line 4)

On the positive side, the Report does recognize that Christian acceptance of false conventional wisdom (sexual orientation is fixed and unchangeable) could have a detrimental effect on discipleship and pastoral care. On the other hand, it falls short of its task by failing to even mention that sexual orientation is a cultural construct, and a quite recent one at that. (A cultural or social construct is the way that a people group understands or assigns meaning to something. The construct may not be universally or eternally true or necessarily reflect actual reality. For more about orientation as a construct, see here, here and here.) Finally, the comments about language or “terminology” are weak, as will also be the case regarding sexual identity.

Part of this hesitance to critically address sexual orientation seems to stem from an aversion to what is sometimes still called “ex-gay ministry” and the false claim that it insists on orientation change. (Report, page 29, lines 35-38 and footnote 57) This demonstrates a basic lack of understanding about transformational ministry that will be dealt with more fully in Part Three of the blog.

Gay Christian Identity

Much more attention is given to the consideration of biblical identity. Essay #2 contains a wonderfully clear and very helpful explanation of the distinction between ontological identity (who a person was created to be essentially as male/female in the Image of God), phenomenological identity (what a person experiences living as a fallen being in a fallen world), and teleological identity (who a person becomes when he/she is redeemed and restored to the Image of God in Christ.) Embracing and affirming a gay Christian identity leaves one stuck in category two; so, Christians should always find their foundational identity in the last category, as new creations in Jesus Christ.

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) … 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.  (Report, page 11, lines 12-16, 20-23)


In contrast to the strength of the biblical and confessional arguments regarding sexual identity, the Report’s conclusions about appropriate language seem surprisingly weak and indecisive. Especially since this was one of the major concerns regarding the Revoice conference.

For example, Statement 10 suggests “those in our churches would be wise to avoid the term ‘gay Christian’” because it juxtaposes a sinful desire alongside the believer’s new identity in Christ and generally signals moral neutrality or approval. In like manner, Essay #2 warns that use of the term is “generally unwise” because of potential syncretism with the culture. And yet, the Report also recommends that churches should not “police every use of the term” since it could be helpful in an effort to communicate with non-believers and shepherd them toward godliness.

I can’t help comparing these rather timid suggestions with an essay written in 2006 by United Methodist Bishop Timothy Whitaker. I am in complete agreement with his opinion that language is of the utmost importance.

One of the problems in the discussion is that the language being used is laden with assumptions on which there is no agreement. I prefer the term “same-sex attraction” to describe the phenomenon usually called “homosexuality.” This term describes the fact there are persons who are attracted to other persons of the same sex. It does not imply what the possible causes of the phenomenon might be. It does not imply that this attraction is constitutional, as “orientation” does, nor does it deny it. It does not denigrate a person’s dignity, nor advocate for an understanding of that person’s identity in terms of his or her sexuality as the terms “gay” and “lesbian” do …

The main reason I prefer to refer to someone as a person who experiences same-sex attraction rather than as a “homosexual” or “gay” or “lesbian” is because this way of speaking is more fitting for the church, which views all people as persons created in the image of God. That is, the church views our identity in terms of our relationship to God, not in terms of our sexual identity. Once the church succumbs to the idea that our basic identity is sexual rather than theological in nature, then the church has already lost its way in the discussion. (Emphasis mine.)

For further study on sexual orientation/identity and language see these thoughtful essays by Al Mohler, Jim Shaw and Shane Morris.

  1. Comment by Tom on June 29, 2020 at 9:27 pm

    I am an elder in a PCA church and attended the General Assembly last year. I agree that the language seemed indecisive. It does make me wonder just a bit as to where we really are as a denomination. Since our annual meeting was canceled this year, we’ll have to wait till next summer to see what we do with this report.

  2. Comment by Daniel on July 1, 2020 at 1:54 pm

    As a Christian with same-sex attraction myself, the big issue for those with my experience is that the language policing does make it difficult to communicate how we perceive the world. Many of us aren’t just now experiencing same-sex attraction and can trivially bring that up as if it’s just another sinful thought. Many of us have lived totally immersed in gay culture. We didn’t decide one day to link our identify with sexual attractions, that decision was made for us by the majority of society. I have reservations with continuing to refer to myself as “gay” or “LGBT” for these very reasons. I can’t think of one individual with same-sex attraction I have ever met who wanted the first thing people to know about them was that they were attracted to the same sex, but here we are. Once we tell others that, they are the ones who link our identity with sexual attraction. Those who do not follow a Christian sexual ethic choose to partner with someone of the same-sex, and by that partnership, the world now has linked their identify with homosexuality. If you were to ask that couple, once again, they would very likely tell you something else about themselves before they told you they were attracted to the same-sex. I wish I knew the solution, but shutting down and denouncing Revoice doesn’t seem like a good solution. There are a lot of hurting people like myself out there who need the gospel, and you can get your foot in the door without compromising your values or your language by simply ceasing to police theirs.

  3. Comment by td on July 1, 2020 at 8:19 pm

    The highlighted sentence at the end of the article says it all.

    I have no idea where the idea came from that our identity is defined by who we are attracted to; I did not learn this at home or in church. I do agree that once a church decides that our basic identity is defined by sinful sexual desires, then that church has left christianity.

  4. Comment by Paul Rudolph on July 5, 2020 at 7:19 pm

    “There are a lot of hurting people like myself out there who need the gospel, …”. Perhaps a solution would be that those of you that “need the gospel” read it. Paul makes it very clear.

  5. Comment by Search4Truth on July 10, 2020 at 1:33 pm

    Paul makes it very clear that we are all sinners and called to repent. I, myself, am no exception and have my struggles constantly. However, I do not demand the church to accept my sin as not “sin” but as my identity, and to affirm it.

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.