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A canceled event at South City Church (PCA) in St. Louis, Mo., brought renewed attention to ongoing friction among Presbyterians in the city also home to Covenant Theological Seminary—the denominational seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America.
In January, South City Church leaders had agreed to allow an event to take place on its campus that was sponsored by an organization called Faith for Justice. The MLK Day-related gathering was set to include speaker Jay-Marie Hill, a lesbian and an activist for transgenderism.
A Faith for Justice announcement said Hill would “teach us how to not only mourn the tragic death of trans folx, but learn to celebrate their lives and humanity.”
In a Jan. 14 statement, the session of South City said the elders and pastoral staff had become aware of the details over the past few days and “determined that some of the planned elements … appeared to be inconsistent with South City Church’s theological convictions.” They retracted the offer to use the church’s building.
The statement didn’t mention that one of the founders of Faith for Justice is Michelle Higgins, South City’s director of worship. And one of the group’s board members is Mike Higgins—the father of Michelle Higgins and the lead pastor of South City.
The event moved to a nearby PCUSA church, and both Mike Higgins and Michelle Higgins attended. (South City elders and the Higginses didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.)
Mike Higgins is also dean of students at nearby Covenant Theological Seminary, a school that faced criticism last year when Jay Sklar, a professor of Old Testament, spoke at the “Revoice” conference organized and hosted by Memorial PCA in St. Louis.
Revoice leaders bill the event as a gathering to support “gay, lesbian, same-sex attracted, and other gender and sexual minority Christians,” and they say they want to help such men and women observe “the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.”
But many pastors expressed objections about such language. At the time, PCA pastor and author Kevin DeYoung wrote about his concern over phrases like “sexual minority”: “It’s troubling because it makes disordered sexual desires (which can be repented of and forgiven, just like any disordered desire) essential to one’s personhood.”
Sklar published a letter last year explaining he planned to speak at Revoice about verses in Leviticus prohibiting homosexuality. He noted that many people argue the verses don’t apply to God’s intent for sexuality today: “I argue the opposite.”
By mid-January of this year, Covenant President Mark Dalbey said he had received calls from alumni concerned about the recent events at South City Church, and he noted the developments came on the heels of last year’s Revoice.
“Let’s just be candid: these events look, at best, confusing in language and, at worst, compromising of our denomination’s doctrinal integrity,” he wrote in a Jan. 19 letter.
But Dalbey rejected charges of liberalism at Covenant, and he said the seminary affirms the Bible’s teaching on sexuality and the principle that Christians’ foundational identity is rooted in their union with Christ. (He told WORLD no Covenant professors would speak at Revoice this year.)
When it comes to Higgins, Dalbey said the seminary was in conversations with the South City session and the Missouri Presbytery, and that any further comment would be premature.
The Missouri Presbytery of the PCA announced it was aware of the recent developments at South City Church and had established a committee to look into those events. A separate statement said the pastor of Memorial PCA had asked the presbytery to investigate complaints against his church related to organizing the Revoice conference.
The presbytery formed a committee last fall, and it noted it had received concerns from several other presbyteries as well. The announcement said the presbytery hopes to hear a report before the PCA’s General Assembly in late June.
Meanwhile, the 2019 Revoice conference is set for early June in St. Louis. Conference organizers say they expect last year’s attendance of more than 400 to at least double.
Past orthodoxy not allowed
At an important liberal Protestant seminary, it’s not enough to offer enthusiastic support for the LGBTQ+ agenda now.
In 2017, United Lutheran Seminary (ULS)—created in Pennsylvania by the merger of two Evangelical Lutheran Church in America seminaries —named Theresa Latini president. But last year the ULS board ended her tenure due to “issues related to trust as the president of this institution.”
These “trust issues” stemmed from her failure to inform the whole board prior to her presidency of her former opposition to the seminary’s liberal LGBT stance. From 1996 to 2001, Latini directed OneByOne, a group that calls any sexual expression outside of heterosexual marriage “sexual brokenness.” Students and staff members complained the board was negligent in missing that part of Latini’s history.
One month before her termination, Latini published an article apologizing for her participation in OneByOne. She says she is now “‘open and affirming’ of LGBTQ+ persons.”
Grove City College religion professor Carl Trueman, formerly of Westminster Theological Seminary, remembers Latini’s letter as “embarrassing the way that she was made to grovel, but it still didn’t do any good. … The views that Latini held in the 1990s were not particularly conservative or particularly exceptional at the time. … That she’s being held to account for those more than 20 years later is remarkable.”
Eight members of the ULS board of trustees resigned during the controversy. One of them, Pastor Lisa Leber, complained that the board both failed to remove Latini promptly after hearing of her past and did not apologize to LGBTQ+ individuals. —Alyssa Jackson