In the summer of 2020, many, if not most, North American denominations of churches were forced to cancel their general assemblies, synods, and conventions. By the time the summer of 2021 arrived, the restrictions in many states allowed for these larger assemblies to convene and take up their annual work once again.
Growing anticipation for CRC’s next synod
One denomination that did not convene a synod this summer is the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC). The CRC’s “Council of Delegates” convened virtually in June to take up some of the work on synod’s agenda. The Council is the denomination’s governing board, consisting of one delegate from each of the 49 classes in the CRC, plus five at large delegates.1 Interested readers can find a report from The Banner that highlights a few of the items from synod’s agenda that were addressed by the Council, and a few that were not.2
The Banner anticipates Synod 2022 as “a defining moment for the relationship between the Christian Reformed Church and its members who identify as LGBTQ.”3 A special committee’s report on human sexuality and overtures pertaining to that report will surely be at the crux of such a moment. The report’s length (175 pages) and expansive scope preclude any exhaustive commentary in this space, but the full report4 and the committee’s summary5 are available at the links below.
There are, however, two aspects of the report that caught my attention.
First, the report affirms the CRC’s 1973 report on homosexuality, which the committee quotes, “We must distinguish between the person who is homosexual in [their] sexual orientation and the person who engages in explicit sexual acts with persons of the same sex.”6 They explain in their own words that “there is no sin in being attracted to the same sex.” It is sad, but not surprising, that this long-standing deviation from the biblical doctrine of human sexuality is not overturned or called into question.
Second, there are some commendable aspects of the committee’s report. One of them is the committee’s firm conclusion that “the church’s teaching on premarital sex, extramarital sex, adultery, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex already has confessional status.”7 Aside from the aforementioned weakness (affirming the report of 1973), the committee is bold in its conclusion that the Bible and Confessions condemn all sexual immorality as sin. The committee’s final sentence is powerful: “To refuse to uphold Christian teaching on sexual immorality would signal that the Christian Reformed Church in North America is deviating not only from Scripture but from the shared confession of the historic and worldwide church.” My personal observation is that this conclusion of the report seems to be the most controversial and divisive aspect of it; we shall see how Synod receives it next summer, D.V.
PCA 2021 General Assembly
If this discussion concerning special committee reports and human sexuality sounds familiar, that is because it is an issue (and an approach) that is plaguing more than just the CRC. The PCA had its own committee and its own report on human sexuality. In contrast to the CRC, the PCA’s committee report does affirm the biblical truth that homosexual attraction, not just activity, is sin. The General Assembly (GA) voted to commend the report, and approved overtures that harmonized with it.
These actions have been largely hailed as a victory for conservatives. Jon Payne (who wrote about these issues in advance of the GA) responded positively to the GA’s decisions. Payne calls the GA’s decisions a “clear message” that “the PCA doesn’t want a bigger tent,” (that is, making room for Side B Gay Christianity8), while also acknowledging “there is still much work to be done in these and other areas.”9 Carl Trueman offered his “outside perspective” (as a member of the OPC), calling the result “encouraging and surprising.”10
On the other hand, Larry Ball, a retired minister in the PCA gave his take “as a teaching elder who sits in almost every presbytery meeting of one of the most conservative presbyteries in the PCA.”11 Ball recognizes reason for optimism, but also expresses concerns that the matter of “Side B Homosexuality” is not decisively put to rest by the actions of the GA. Ball writes, “As far as I know, not one Side B Homosexual who holds office in the PCA plans to resign from his position. I would suggest that if the changes are ultimately adopted, none will resign. And don’t expect any disciplinary action.”12 He adds a little later, “In my opinion, there are enough loopholes in the proposed changes to continue to allow Side B Homosexuals to continue as officers in the PCA (or be admitted to the PCA).”13 Although some of Ball’s reasons for concern are more or less speculative, his fears are at least a warning against undercutting what the GA accomplished this summer.
The PCA’s actions are most definitely a step in the right direction on the issue of homosexuality, but at the same time, anything less would have been greatly discouraging. Approval from presbyteries and a final approval from next year’s GA are required to finalize some of the GA’s decisions, so the work will continue and, likely, the controversy will continue with it.
SBC: Plagiarism in the pulpit
As I monitored the news from various North American denominations, the issue of homosexuality (along with COVID-19) dominated many of the headlines. Unfortunately, the only thing that seems capable of breaking up the commentary on one controversy is a new controversy or scandal. The new story was one of plagiarism in the pulpit that took place in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). I take no pleasure in addressing it, but it may be profitable for the purpose of learning from it.
As Religion News Service reports, the scandal involves the newly-elected president of the SBC, Ed Litton, and the outgoing president of the SBC, J.D. Greear. 14 When Litton preached from the book of Romans early this summer, his sermons gained a large amount of attention likely because of his new position in the SBC and the sermon’s teaching on homosexuality. Soon it was discovered that Litton’s sermon had striking similarities to sermons preached by Greear a year earlier. In some instances, Litton’s sermons match Greear’s almost word-for-word, and no credit is given. After news broke, both Litton and Greear addressed the controversy. 15 Apparently, Litton had sought and was granted permission from Greear to borrow from his sermons in advance of preaching them, but the error was his failure to give credit. Litton apologized for this, and Greear handled it graciously.
Although the matter seems resolved between the two ministers, the scandal had already taken hold on a national scale. Soon more instances of plagiarism were discovered, and the story was addressed in Newsweek and even The New York Times. The result of this scandal is not only the damaged reputation of a preacher, but an occasion for the world to blaspheme the God of preaching. We do well to learn from it.
One lesson to take from all this is obvious: If a preacher uses another man’s work, then he must cite his source. Plagiarism is sin. It is the theft of a neighbor’s words or work by passing it off as one’s own. Most often, plagiarism takes place in written form, even though it can be avoided with a simple citation. Plagiarism in the context of preaching is also sin, and on account of preaching’s spiritual and sacred character, it is even more serious.
Reformed preachers ought to be avid readers of theologians in our tradition and acquainted with the work of our own peers, and there are many reasons why this is wise and profitable. But, on the rare occasion that a preacher takes another man’s work to his own pulpit (perhaps by using another’s distinctive phrase, quotation, or idea), there must at least be an acknowledgment that the work is not his own. Usually a simple, general reference to a pastor, a theologian, or commentator is sufficient to maintain a basic standard of transparency and honesty in the pulpit. Most church members will appreciate preaching that is not saturated with citations and interested hearers can still inquire further into references made in the preaching.
There is a more important admonition that arises out of this case of plagiarism. “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15). A man who does his own work in the Spirit need not be ashamed of the work he has done before God (much less before his congregation), and he will be kept from the temptation to steal the work of other men.
Faithful preaching never depends upon the words and opinions of men for its credibility, for its authority, and certainly not for its saving power. The beauty of faithful preaching is that when a minister does his own work faithfully, believers will receive it “not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe” (I Thess. 2:13). God-ordained preachers are richly equipped and solemnly called to do this work, and congregations will gratefully receive the fruits of these labors, even as they are proclaimed with simplicity.
2 Gayla R. Postma, “Not a Real Synod: Council of Delegates Meets in Special Session,” The Banner, June 17, 2021, www. thebanner.org/news/2021/06/not-a-real-synod-council-of-delegates- meets-in-special-session.
3 Postma, “Not a Real Synod.”
4 www.crcna.org/sites/default /f i les/human_sexual ity_report_ 2021.pdf.
5 www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/summary_human_sexuality_ report_2020.pdf.
6 CRC Human Sexuality Report, 2020.
7 CRC Human Sexuality Report, 2020.
8 To the best of my knowledge, “Side B” does not seem to have precise, standard definition, but it is basically a term for those who identify as gay or homosexual Christians, but do not approve or practice homosexual actions. I second Payne’s suggestion of Rosario Butterfield’s article for one explanation: https://rosariabutterfield. com/new-blog/2018/2/14/what-is-wrong-with-gaychristianity- what-is-side-a-and-side-b-anyway.
9 Jon Payne, “The PCA’s Bright Future—Without a Bigger Tent,” Gospel Reformation Network, July 9, 2021, https://gospelreformation. net/the-pcas-bright-future-without-a-bigger-tent.
10 Carl R. Trueman, “At the PCA General Assembly, The Little Guys Stood Up,” First Things, July 8, 2021, www.firstthings. com/web-exclusives/2021/07/at-the-pca-general-assembly-thelittle- guys-stood-up.
11 Larry Ball, “Did the Little Guy Really Win?—The 48th PCA General Assembly,” The Aquila Report, July 14, 2021, www. theaquilareport.com/did-the-little-guy-really-win-the-48th-pcageneral- assembly/.
14 Bob Smietana, “New SBC President Ed Litton apologizes for using JD Greear sermon quotes without credit,” Religion News Service, June 26, 2021, https://religionnews.com/2021/06/26/ new-sbc-president-ed-litton-apologizes-for-using-j-d-greear-sermon- quotes-without-credit-god-whisper-homosexuality-sin-romans.
15 Both Litton and Greear’s statements are available online. Litton’s Statement: https://jd/goredemption.com/pastors-statement/ and Greear’s Statement: https://greear.com/a-statement-aboutmy- sermon-on-romans-1.