The Next Big Controversy in the Presbyterian Church (USA)

Rev. Gordon Tubbs
12 min readMay 23, 2024


The 226th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) will be held in Salt Lake City between June 25th and July 4th, 2024. (Source:

In reference to: Overture POL-01 OVT-001On Amending the Book of Order to Include Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Among the Categories Against Which This Church Does Not Discriminate.”

A constitutional controversy is looming in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and with the 226th General Assembly (titled “Live Into Hope”) an important issue will be discussed about gender identity and sexual orientation. OVT-001 is being advanced in order to protect people who have been excluded from participation in church over their gender identity and sexual orientation. Although the PC(USA) is already (broadly speaking) an ‘open and affirming’ denomination — not all congregations or members in the PC(USA) take this view. If passed (and later adopted at the 227th General Assembly) then as a consequence the affirmation of gender identities and sexual orientations would become a requirement for anyone seeking ordination (either as a Minister, Elder, or Deacon). In thinking about how one might respond to this overture and to vote against it or in favor of it accordingly, we will get to the very heart of what it means to be a Presbyterian.


When the Presbyterian Church (USA) formed in 1983, it had to undergo a reconsolidation of previous bylaws, standards, and confessions that existed in its antecedent organizations. This reconsolidation led to the creation of the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order. Both of these documents combined establish what we Presbyterians refer to as The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The Book of Confessions is a library and chronicle of historic and landmark creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the Reformation and consists even of modern statements such as The Theological Declaration of Barmen (1934), the Confession of 1967, and the Belhar Confession (1982). Although a few of the confessions are most certainly dated (such as the Scots Confession) given their language, all of the confessions bear witness to ways in which the Spirit convicted church leaders to articulate their faith in their culture and age in a relevant way.

The Book of Order on the other hand concerns itself with the ecclesial function of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and provides rules and guidelines for how the church should be organized and operated. The short word for this is ‘polity.’ This is important, because to be a Presbyterian is to be polity-minded, and to do things ‘by the book’ (literally, the Book of Order). Our emphasis on polity is the key difference that separates us from every other denomination — even those that share and agree with some or all of the statements in the Book of Confessions.

The entirety of The Constitution of the PC(USA) is subordinate to God’s Holy Word — the Bible. Ultimately, we profess that Christ is the head of the Church, and that whatever authority is mediated through Christ via the Constitution is a temporary placeholder until Christ returns and ushers the New Heaven and New Earth into being. This is to say one thing, and one thing only: the Constitution is not final, binding, or infallible. In the spirit of the Reformation, it is also subject to being reformed again (and again, if needed) as the Spirit leads us to.

At the end of the day, The Constitution of the PC(USA) is the standard by which one Presbyterian may measure another Presbyterian in terms of what we define as being Presbyterian. It is the responsibility of every Presbyterian, especially those called and installed to leadership positions, to study, defend, uphold, and enforce our standard. We take on this responsibility knowing full well that the great ship we call the Presbyterian Church is powered by the wind of the Holy Spirit, but with the rudder that is our Constitution, we must place our hands on it with humility, reverence, gentleness, and respect, knowing that the course we set to sail must be for the good of the whole Presbyterian Church and the Kingdom of God.


What I perceive to be the fundamental theological issue of our age is that of identity. From the time of the inception of the PC(USA) and onward, identity has been at the forefront of every controversial decision made about marriage and ordination. Broadly speaking, two movements in decision-making on matters of ordination and marriage can be recognized: the first we might call socio-theological progressivism, and the second socio-theological conservatism. Socio-theological progressivism emphasizes an expansionist and inclusivist model of the Gospel and the Church, whereas socio-theological conservatism emphasizes an evangelistic and exclusivist model of the Gospel and the Church.

This is to say that socio-theological progressives and those sympathetic to its cause wish to see the Gospel proclaimed in such a way that it is not merely about how an individual might be saved by and reconciled to God, but how entire social groups can be saved and reconciled to not only God but also to each other. Inclusivity is simply a function of how the Church, armed with such an understanding of the Gospel, ought to be; that is, the Church ought to be open to, welcoming of, affirming of, and celebrating of all persons who join or participate in a Christian community. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you have done, or the state of your present lifestyle.

On the other hand, socio-theological conservatives and those sympathetic to its cause wish to see the Gospel proclaimed in such a way that it is the only solution to the problem of personal moral failure and personal sin is ultimately what’s wrong with everything and everyone. It is only by confronting our own moral failures and sins and repenting of them that reconciliation to God and our neighbor can begin. Exclusivity is simply a function of how the Church understands how it ought to be; in that the Church ought to be open to, welcoming of, affirming of, and celebrating of all persons who join or participate in a Christian community… BUT only if those persons recognize what their moral failure and sin is and if they have repented of it.

If I had to present the simplest possible description of either movement in biblical terms, I would say that socio-theological progressives view the Gospel and the Church through the lens of Galatians 3, and socio-theological conservatives view the Gospel and the Church through the lens of John 3. The universality of the Gospel and the radical inclusivity in the Church that Galatians 3 points to is conditioned by the radical repentance of oneself that John 3 points to. To be clear, this is a gross oversimplification and neither of those passages should be read as prooftexts for their corresponding views, but I find them to be thematic in terms of how the Gospel and Church is understood and contextualized when it comes to engaging the world.

To be even clearer, neither the socio-theological progressive or conservative movements are ‘wrong’ or ‘false’ per se. Both in fact have good things going for them, both have ways of understanding and contextualizing the Gospel and the Church in order to fulfill “The Great Ends of the Church” (BOO, F-1.0304). But, where both stray perhaps is in losing sight of each other and becoming more polarized, which in turn has led to decision-making that is also polarized, which has led to schism.

In the mainline Protestant denominations in particular, this schism could be characterized as the fight of socio-theological progressives and the flight of socio-theological conservatives. Today, the PC(USA) is no exception to this phenomenon. Although many perceive the PC(USA) to be a socio-theological progressive denomination as a whole, parts of it are still deeply socio-theologically conservative. To put it one way, the PC(USA) is purple. Within a single presbytery might be a PC(USA) congregation that is ‘woke’ and ‘open and affirming’ while one other clings to ‘traditional values’ and strives to preach ‘truth and grace.’ Disagreement between presbyteries is also rampant.

As our society and culture have developed a more complex understanding of identity, one might see how it already is more and more difficult for the socio-theologically conservative remnant within the PC(USA) to continue to remain, wrestle, and reform, especially since the denomination welcomes and invites all LGBTQIA+ persons to participate in, join, serve, and lead its congregations. Regardless, countless scores of socio-theological conservatives have chosen to stay in the PC(USA) despite the allure of jumping ship to other presbyterian denominations like ECO, EPC, OPC, ARP, or even the PCA.

The willingness of the socio-theological conservatives who remain in the PC(USA) in order to wrestle and reform with their more socio-theological progressive brothers and sisters in Christ should be taken seriously. Then again, so should the willingness of socio-theological progressives to accommodate conservative views be taken seriously as well. We all need to take each other seriously, and show respect rather than contempt for each other’s viewpoints and doctrinal positions.

Even still, one could understand why a socio-theological progressive might feel dissatisfied with the status quo of the PC(USA) such as it is. If such a person felt as though that everyone ought to be able to participate, join, serve, and lead everywhere in the denomination — then being barred anywhere from participation, membership, service, and leadership on the basis of how they identity themselves would certainly constitute a form of discrimination and that an injustice is being perpetrated. For the socio-theological progressives, OVT-001 is a matter of conscience and principle. But alas, it is also a matter of conscience and principle for socio-theological conservatives as well. What are we to do?


The current tension present in our status quo is why I whole-heartedly agree that there is a “…need for denominational clarity concerning the church’s ministry to LGBTQIA+ individuals as full participants in all aspects of life in the church” as OVT-001 puts it. And yet at the same time I wonder if clarity is even necessary, and if we are better off embracing the tension for the sake of mutual forbearance. After all, nothing in the current Book of Order prohibits LGBTQIA+ persons from becoming ordained to ministry or marrying in the Presbyterian Church, so what exactly needs to be clarified?

Was the so-called “New Castle Resolution’’ adopted by the General Assembly back in 2018 unclear? Do we need to create a new article in the Book of Order that defines all the gender identities and sexual orientations that OVT-001 is referring to? Do we need a manual for best pastoral practices to use when engaging LGBTQIA+ people? Should we mandate what we should say or do when somebody identifies themselves as a gender that we would not assign them?

Perhaps the PC(USA) needs to take a page from our PCA brothers and sisters and entertain an overture over this specific controversial issue. Back in 2019, the PCA recognized the Nashville Statement as being ‘a biblically faithful declaration’ and fit for pedagogical use in their denomination. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the PC(USA) entertain the exact same overture (could you imagine the outrage?), but something in the style of the Nashville Statement needs to be developed and adopted. By simply making gender identity and sexual orientation a ‘protected class,’ OVT-001 falls far short in adding clarity and only stirs the pot. It moralizes the gender-affirmative and gender non-affirmative views, and in turn gives ammunition to councils at every level to discipline those who do not hold the gender-affirmative view.

The freedom of conscience afforded to each individual member of the PC(USA) via G-2.0105 has allowed a plurality of beliefs to flourish in our denomination, even some questionable ones. Take for example the doctrine of Hell. We have universalists and annihilationists in our denomination, and even people who flat-out deny the reality of Hell altogether! At no point in the history of our denomination have we ever initiated an ‘inquisition’ to catechize our ordained leaders and bind them to a particular doctrine of Hell. This is not to say we do not have standards for entry and participation (as delineated in F-3.01), but that as a denomination we have always prided ourselves on keeping the essentials of the Reformed faith and our polity the main thing.

What OVT-001 seeks to accomplish in its proposed amendments is to make the “open and affirming” view of gender identity and sexual orientation one of the ‘essentials of our polity’ that we have to commit to. It is fully possible I am reading the overture the wrong way. However, its stated rationale leaves little room for interpreting it differently. Although I was not on the floor of the Olympia Presbytery meetings where two ordinands expressed “opinions that did not fully embrace the equal and affirmed status of LGBTQIA+ persons in the church” (my emphasis), it does not take any stretch of the imagination to suppose what those opinions might have been. Clearly, someone took issue with those opinions, and I suspect felt that these ordinands were departing from the essentials of our polity (at the very least). In effect, OVT-001 will close the ‘loophole’ that permits those opinions.

The very notion of a ‘local option’ (the idea that individual councils each have the prerogative to approve ordinations and marriages) is now under attack because of OVT-001. If for instance in my own congregation I were to receive a request from a young gay couple in town who wish to use our sanctuary to get married, and my Session denied this request because of the sexual orientation of the couple, then OVT-001 could empower my presbytery to discipline my Session for failing to uphold the principle of Unity and Diversity as expressed in F-1.0403 of the BOO. While I doubt my presbytery would ever go to the lengths of disciplining my Session (either by rebuking it, censuring it, or taking any other action as prescribed in the Rules of Discipline section of the BOO); it is clear such lengths will be traversed in Olympia Presbytery (and the other concurring presbyteries) if OVT-001 becomes a reality.

In a time in which our denomination is barely hanging on as it is (with reduced membership, a high pulpit vacancy rate, etc.) and in a culture that is becoming ever-so obsessed with politics and political ideologies, is it really necessary for the good of the denomination as a whole, that OVT-001 is affirmed?

If we allow a plurality of beliefs related to theological views because they are matters of conscience, then we also have to allow a plurality of sociological views as well. We can be a denomination that has universalists and annihilationists as well as people who are gender affirming or non-affirming, or those who stand on either Side A, B, X or Y of the faith and sexuality debate. Why not?


This problem is not going to go away, and thankfully OVT-001 is giving everyone in the PC(USA) a chance to at least talk about it if not hopefully solve it. So, for what it is worth, in so far as my low opinion matters, I believe it is possible for us to solve it. More than a belief however, I also see it as a responsibility. I see debating and discussing OVT-001 as part of my calling, because one of the questions that was asked of me (and every ordinand for that matter) was:

“Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God? Will you fulfill your ministry in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and be continually guided by our confessions?” (BOO, W-4.0404 c and d).

In answering the affirmative to these questions, I see it as a duty of mine to provide clarity on matters pertaining to identity, especially when it comes to ordination and marriage in the PC(USA). It is not just a personal duty, but a collective one as well. At each council level of the Session, Presbytery, Synod, and General Assembly, the Book of Order prescribes several responsibilities thereof, and when it comes to “[nurturing] the covenant community of disciples of Christ” (G-3.0201c, G-3.0301c, G-3.0401c, G-3.0501c), specifically one of those responsibilities is the “warning and bearing witness against errors in doctrine or immorality” in their respective jurisdictions. Our theological doctrine of identity interfaces directly with our doctrines of ordination and marriage. An error in one constitutes an error in another. And so we must bear witness.

Be a good Presbyterian. Cast a vote for moderation. Cast a vote for the status quo. Tension takes effort to maintain, but that effort produces growth. Cast a vote against OVT-001.



Rev. Gordon Tubbs

Clear and critical thinking-out-loud about philosophical and theological topics from the perspective of an ordained Christian minister.