THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY AND SIN
THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY AND SIN by Randy Nabors
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This is not to imply that General Assembly of the PCA was sinful, although I don’t know about everybody and everything that happened. GA made me think about sin, that is, my sin, our sin, and sinfulness in general.
We discussed the ordination of men who have some susceptibility to same sex attraction or homosexual desires. We discussed the propriety of those men announcing their struggle by modifying their identity as Christians with a label, such as “Gay Christian.” The GA doesn't want men to self-identify in that way and passed an overture, which will be sent down to the Presbyteries, to add to the Book of Church Order instructions for a closer examination of candidates concerning certain besetting sins. The focus was on SSA, but not exclusively.
The basic idea is that the GA doesn’t want candidates for the Gospel ministry to assume their struggle with sin is something that should define them, at least not for any specific sin. The GA doesn’t want to have ordained men whose public reputation or identity is more about their desires, inclinations, and “sins,” than about their union with Christ. Neither did the General Assembly condemn such men as automatically unfit for the office of Elder.
For those outside of our church let me assure you that the PCA sees the practice of homosexuality as sinful, and homosexuals as equally called as any other person to repent of their sins, come to Jesus for forgiveness, and know the love and mercy of God.
The Scripture says in Hebrews 12:1, …"let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely...” I think the GA intends for Presbyteries to ask Pastoral Candidates the question...”what are those sins which ‘cling so closely’ to you?” Candidates will then be expected to confess their struggles with sin, but they won’t be allowed to publicly claim things like, “I am an alcoholic Christian, or a pedophile Christian, or a pornography addicted Christian, or an out-of-control temper Christian or a greedy Christian, or a racist Christian, or a slandering Christian, or an adulterous Christian, etc, etc.” At least the idea is that if the candidate has, or has had, such struggles they would not dominate him and they would be kept private, disclosed maybe to his Elders. They certainly should not be something that is defeating him in his attempt to live godly. Let me make a few observations:
1. PCA presbyteries have seldom closely examined candidates for the Gospel ministry about their character. This indeed is counter-intuitive for a Religious/Church organization. Presbytery exams are more academic and theological and make assumptions about character.
2. Problems with character come by exception or accusation in the PCA. In other words when a candidate comes to be licensed and ordained his sending church is responsible to tell the Presbytery if he is not qualified in terms of his public and known righteousness; if they should know of any such issue.
3. In the PCA church planter assessment has pursued character questions in very specific and personal areas with potential Church Planters and their spouse. Most candidates have said they have never been asked or confronted by such questions. Most have been very grateful for the concern, and compassion, shown to them in such interrogations.
4. The challenge for all such inquisitors is what level of struggle is too much struggle, or when do we judge that what we see is not a struggle but actually a defeated and sinful life?
5. Because the PCA does discipline its’ pastors, and remove them from ministry along with their employment in the church, there can be patterns of “hiding” our sins and not being open with each other about our struggles. People hide their sins for all kinds of reasons; some so they can continue in it, some because of shame, some because of the fear of repercussions. Habitual sins are like ropes that bind us.
6. All who are Christians continue to sin. We admit this in our understanding of total depravity, by our weekly confessions at worship, and in our saying of the Lord’s prayer. We are called to forgive others lest we not be forgiven ourselves. We are called to restore people who have sinned in a spirit of gentleness, and to bear each other’s burdens. The Church of Jesus Christ is not surprised that believer's sin, fall, and struggle.
7. All who are Christians are called to live holy lives and expected to do so. We can no longer live “in” sin, not if we are truly born-again. The spiritual power of moral change is what the Gospel gives to believers, and if there is no evidence of it then one must question if regeneration has come.
8. The struggle to walk in holiness along with the reality of indwelling sin and the old nature is not only difficult to navigate in life, but sometimes even hard to understand. Sanctification (this whole process of growing in holiness) comes not simply by knowing the doctrines of it, nor by reciting verses that state we “died with Christ,” but in actually dying to our sins by the power of the Holy Spirit. Killing our sins, and dying to them, is often painful. Patterns of sexual lust and behavior are hard to break. Confession, repentance, receiving mercy and deliverance is our constant progression.
9. The call to hold each other accountable, to judge ourselves lest we be judged, is to be a consistent effort personally for every believer, and a responsibility for both Pastors and Elders in the fencing of the Lord’s Table. In both the original ordination of men to ministry, or the restoration of those ministers who have sinned, some Elders allow for no original installment or restoration to the office of Elders if there has been “scandalous” sin. Some take the demand that ministers be above reproach to mean that there be no known sin issues in a man’s life or that once fallen no pastor can be restored to the office. Divorce used to be one of those reasons to deny ordination. Other Elders and presbyteries have sought to create a process of restoration to the office of Teaching Elder. For presbyteries it is a collective subjective decision pertinent to each individual case.
10. Sin is scary, we should be afraid of what it can do to us. Paul didn’t want to be a castaway, Hebrews warns us of being deceived by sin, and without holiness no one will see the Lord. This is simply what it means to fear God who will not be mocked. I don’t want to be controlled by my sins because I fear the Lord, and I love him, and I don’t want to grow away from him. Yet sin is real, “prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love...”
11. God’s grace and the Gospel are our confidence and protection. Our faith trusts in the blood of Jesus to cleanse us, the righteousness of Christ to cover us, and the Holy Ghost to deliver us. Grace is not simply a doctrine of God’s sovereignty but his power mercifully given to the helpless for deliverance, and that which preserves and keeps us. That power must be sought and depended on in this life of faith.
12. The reality of grace enables us to tell the truth about ourselves to ourselves, and to others. It delivers us from the pretense that we have no sin struggles. It delivers us from self-righteousness that comes from self-striving. Without the truth that grace enables we end up denying the reality of indwelling sin, seek righteousness in our flesh and pretend we are nearing perfection. That will come, but only when we see Christ as he is. Sin humiliates, grace truly humbles, and faith believes, accepts, and enters into the restoration of the mercy and forgiveness of God.