“When we read authors who use language different from what we’re used to, we have an opportunity to try to hear what they are intending to say, an opportunity for empathy and what theologians once called the judgement of charity.”
This is what I needed to do. I thought I already was, but reading Greg Johnson’s book, Still Time to Care, has revealed just how much more I need to learn, to listen. I love the handle of this book. It is an invitation to care. Johnson writes as a pastor and as a survivor who is still in the trenches of being vilified. He writes asking for us to hear the experiences of homosexuals, gays, lesbians, queers, same-sex attracted—whatever terminology is meaningful to describe themselves—in the church.
He begins the book with a “Note on Terminology” that I needed to read. I used to be more persuaded that “same-sex attracted” was a more faithful way to describe homosexuality. I thought that “gay” was too identity-driven. I thought that Christians who know that their identity is in Christ should not want to label themselves with a term that connects to a sexual orientation, especially when the temptations that flow from this orientation are not morally neutral. To go a little off script here to something Johnson probably wouldn’t say, I recently was encouraged by an acquaintance when I was saying I should be better at something. She said, “Should is an asshole.”
And so Johnson gave me an opportunity to see a more opened up picture of what is behind all this language. As it turns out, there is a lot of historical baggage around the different terminology on sexual orientation. And different age groups hear them differently due to their experiences. I had a lot to learn. But for starters, Johnson doesn’t insist on a specific terminology. He doesn’t want that to get in the way of the opportunity to try to hear. And so he swaps terminology throughout the book, asking for charity as he is trying to speak for and reach a diversity of people. I want to get passed the terminology wars to the heart of the matter. Anyway, who the heck am I from my position of safety with my sexual orientation to tell those who are not how to describe themselves?
Johnson makes the case that the church has shifted from care for homosexually-oriented people of the faith to a posture of trying to cure them. And their cure correlates to their sanctification, or even the validity of their Christian conversion. The book is an invitation to retrieve this posture of care after seeing the utter failure of the ex-gay movement to actually help change sexual orientation and to imagine ways we can practice care in our current cultural context. The book is also a call to holiness, one that convicts even pious heterosexuals, as Johnson challenges our disdain for celibacy and suspicion towards sacred siblingship. We say that we love the person and hate the sin. But Johnson reveals our idols in this mindset. We tend to privilege our own sexual temptations and sins while demanding the othered persons look like us. We prop ourselves up as more loveable because we don’t see our own sexual orientations as fallen.
Before Conversion Therapy
Johnson starts off with the “big four” leading evangelicals of the second half of the 20th century who began to speak into a “positive and orthodox Christian vision for gay people who follow the call of Jesus Christ”: C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Billy Graham, and John Stott. These were enlightening chapters that made me realize how steeped we are in the ex-gay movement now. We didn’t always use the language that we do or have the same pre-conceived, and over-simplified notions. For example, Lewis “understood that the homosexual Christian’s biggest struggle might be not with sexual sin but with despair or pride.” And his own celibacy for most of his life and deep friendships with men, including one close friend who was gay, counters today’s idolizing of the nuclear family, homophobia, and value of friendship in the church.
Shaeffer spoke out about how the church too often failed to distinguish between homosexual orientation and practice, pointing out the cruelty of pushing them out of church life because of an orientation that they did not want.
Billy Graham supported ordaining gay men based on individual merit and qualifications, while upholding that homosexual sin should be repented of. He spoke strongly for a gospel focus, led with empathy and compassion, encouraging Christians to be advocates rebuking others when they treat homosexual sins worse than their own, and to “always trust God with the results.”
John Stott led a gathering for Anglican evangelicals to discuss a pastoral approach to homosexuality. “Remarkably, they led with public repentance for their own sins against gay people.” He too warns that the sins of pride and hypocrisy are “surely worse” than sexual sins and that we are all “sexually fallen beings with disordered sexual desires.” There is chatter about whether Stott was gay. But there is no proof of that. And Johnson says something noteworthy about this: “It would be a lot easier on gay people who become Christians to embrace celibacy if they could look around and see straight believers also following Christ in celibacy in response to Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:12 and the apostle Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 7.”
A Failed Exodus
I was then educated on the history of the ex-gay movement—when the church shifted from care to cure. It was eye-opening to learn the roots of Exodus International and its many ministry partners. Beginning in the early 70’s, it was led by a brand-new convert who was convicted of his own sinful, homosexual lifestyle and who offered a prosperity gospel for getting “out of homosexuality.” With no experience in the Christian life, no theological or clinical training, and very good story telling skills, he became the global expert for the ex-gay movement.
When we started Exodus the premise was that God could change you from gay to straight.”–Frank Worthen
And riding this story-driven train, the testimonies came pouring in as the movement exponentially grew. Johnson charts this radical growth and the factors that fueled it, such as the AIDS epidemic, the hostile culture and violence toward gays, unsafe churches, and the need for homosexuals to experience a Christian community where they could be honest about themselves and be embraced. Here is where Johnson is good with nuance as well. He documents how there was a lot of good offered in these spaces, as sexual minorities built great friendships and community in these ministries. Grace was offered.
Except, it turns out that they really couldn’t be honest about themselves. They were following a script. And it all unraveled:
In January 2012…Alan Chambers, the last president of Exodus International, came clean about the numbers. “The majority of people that I have met—and I would say the majority meaning 99.9 percent of them—have not experienced a change in their orientation.” This organization represented more than 270 ex-gay ministries.
The Need to Be Seen
But the damage was done. This is the air our generation in the church has been breathing. And the message is loud and clear—you cannot be homosexually oriented and be a Christian. Johnson accesses all the damage that has come out of this—the false hope, the conversion therapy, failure of leadership, and the message of despair in failure to change one’s sexual orientation. It is truly devastating. I am disgusted that anyone can read through it and then give such awful reviews of this book, clearly misrepresenting Johnson’s position, and barely giving a nod to what gay Christians have suffered by the hands of evangelicalism and the church, much less show real empathy to their sincere desperation in longing for the holy love of Christ and his people. They continue to place the shame on those who offer care in honesty. We need to look at this history of neglect, abuse, hatred, and self-righteousness and lament. We need to see those suffering. We need repentance. We need to learn and offer care.
When we look, we see that this was not the gospel. The promise and the aim was straightness, not faithfulness to Jesus.
A Bad Theology of Sin
Johnson nails it when he pinpoints our bad theology of sin as part of the postmortem inventory. We all have fallen sexual orientations. “Heterosexuality as experienced this side of the fall is drenched in sin..”
A man’s sexual longing for his neighbor’s wife is a sinful temptation to be resisted, not a natural desire put there by God.
Quoting Johnson more, “all the straight people I know are bent.” He should know; he is a pastor. “Only Jesus had a nonsinful, nonshameful sexual orientation.” He notes that we are aiming way too low to offer sinful heterosexual temptation in place of sinful homosexual orientation as progress in sanctification. “However our sexual attractions happen to be bent, God calls us to holiness, not heterosexuality.”
We also don’t have all the answers when it comes to the cause of homosexuality. Johnson interacts with fascinating medical and sociological research regarding how much of a factor genetics are, what genetic loci are associated with it, hormonal, immunological, developmental factors, and more.
This section ends with the challenge “to believe the gospel enough to become willing to sacrifice daily in order to obey him.” That is a call for every one of us.
Were There Even Homosexuals in Scripture?
Johnson then tackles the more progressive argument that we got the whole sexual ethic wrong. This line of argument says that the ancients did not have a concept of homosexual orientation and monogamous, loving same-sex relationships. They claim that the verses that appear to condemn homosexuality are speaking against abuse of slaves and pagan practices, not the same-sex unions that we know of today. Johnson asserts that this is not very progressive at all, as these arguments are erasing the experience of mutual same-sex unions from history in the same way as the ex-gay movement erased the sexual orientation of its members. He gives us a history lesson and a look into the Scriptures that reveals once again, this too is an attempt to offer a sexual ethic that they think better than the New Testaments.
Throughout this book, Johnson does not shy away from the tough arguments on both sides. This review is way too long now and will not be able to show how well he handles them all. But I wanted to mention that he devotes a whole chapter to whether the biblical ethic is internally violent to gay people.
A Path Forward
This is yet another section that I learned a lot from. I don’t have space to break it all down, but Johnson covers topics such as:
- Terminology as an area for Christian freedom, not building an identity for oneself.
- The difference between sexual attraction, sexual orientation, and sexual identity.
- The impoverished Western concept of sex
- The history of the concept of identity in Christ vs. older, biblical concepts
- The Nashville Statement
- Spiritual and emotional abuse
- Love as a posture
- Side B and Revoice
- The distinction between forgiveness and righteousness
- Help with sexual addictions
One reviewer accuses Johnson of offering nothing more than palliative care for the dying. I don’t know what book he was reading! This reviewer proved the case that Johnson builds: homosexuals have to not only be born again, but also be converted from their sexual orientation to be considered Christian. This reviewer does the very thing Johnson points out, using “biblical language” to weaponize. And he completely misrepresents Johnson’s work in the process. But hey, he added page numbers so it must be there how he says it. Worse, the review shows absolutely no care for actual people.
Greg Johnson literally ends his book with hope. While some with same-sex attractions can also be heterosexually attracted and some with a homosexual orientation do find they are able to be attracted to one person of the opposite sex out of love for that person and desire to build a family life with them, many just don’t have any sexual orientation toward the opposite sex. Johnson offers the difficult path of celibacy while showing the beauty in it. This is not offering palliative care to dying people or showing no care towards repentance and holiness. As Johnson says, “There is nothing that calls out the idols of Western culture more powerfully than a person who swears off sex and romance because they love Jesus.” There are more important things than sex. And as Johnson opened his book with, “Jesus captured my heart. And he is worth everything.” And after showcasing the need for a spiritual family and siblingship, he ends,
My fallen sexuality is the thing more than any other that God has used to keep me broken and humble and dependent on him. If that’s the price of knowing his love, I wouldn’t trade it. Jesus is everything.
Spoken by a 49-year-old virgin. Praise God!
A Note on Revoice
You may be concerned about some of the things that you have heard are coming out of Revoice. So am I. But there is also a lot I just don’t understand. Non-straight people who want to be faithful to God’s design for marriage and sex between a husband and a wife need support that offers real hope that is focused on discipleship, not just transferring sexual temptation to heterosexuality. They need care. Revoice is a gospel-saturated culture that addresses issues like the shame that they feel in their sexual orientation, healing from abuse, celibacy, whether to pursue marriage with the opposite sex, appropriate boundaries, healthy friendships, and evangelizing in the secular LGBT community. Those involved see that they are loved and not alone. Johnson himself shared that he has some differences than others who are trying to face loneliness while living a faithful Christian life, in that he shies away from the paradigm of celibate partnership, preferring focusing on Christian family and siblingship. There is going to be some disagreement. And failure. And yet, this is a group where it is safe to bring it all to the table and discuss with gospel encouragement and biblical guidance. Revoice is offering the care that people need because the church isn’t. Maybe we should listen more and see the fruit that is coming from that before we throw all our stones. Maybe that fruit doesn’t look like heterosexuality for everyone. Maybe it looks like gay people who are chasing God’s love. Maybe there is something we can learn from that, rejoice in, and join in love and care. We do know that if it is of God the fruit will be growth in holiness. Let’s not act like we are further ahead of everyone else in that.