Recently, I finished reading Greg Johnson’s Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2021). It’s a well-written and engaging book. Whether you agree with him or not, it would be of great benefit to read it and reflect on his central themes. If you are in the PCA, I’d say it is essential reading to prepare to adjudicate issues at the 2022 General Assembly impartially.
In my mind the book seeks to do three things: 1.) Promote the historic, biblical Christian ethic regarding sex and marriage against “Side A Christianity” (which affirms homosexual practice and gay marriage) that is making it’s way into the Evangelical church movement. 2.) Critique the main response that Evangelicals have had toward those struggling with homosexual orientation the last 40 years (the Ex-Gay Movement). 3.) Promote a model of ministry that accepts that sexual orientation may not change at conversion but doesn’t compromise biblical teaching.
Promoting the Historic, Biblical Christian Ethic on Sex and Marriage
Part 3 of the book (pages 151-186) sets out to defend the historic Christian understanding of biblical passages prohibiting homosexual sex. In recent years scholars like Ralph Blair, James Brownson, and Karen Keen have argued for homosexual sex acts in the context of gay marriage. To get to that point they reinterpret the biblical texts relating to homosexuality. Reading their arguments reminded me of the Evangelical feminist arguments decades ago arguing for ordaining women to the office of elder or pastor. They place biblical texts into a time bound cultural context that is then reinterpreted. They are no longer a timeless biblical injunction. Blair, Brownson and Keen have argued persuasively enough that many Evangelicals have been following them toward accepting gay marriage and homosexual sex within the context of marriage. This is the “Side A Christian” position.
Greg argues decisively against that perspective. He fully affirms the biblical teaching on homosexuality and marriage as historically understood and defends it as the correct interpretation of the Bible passages. I’m thankful to have this book on my shelf because it will provide me with good responses should I need to pastorally deal with someone who embraces “Side A Christianity”. It was also a great comfort to realize that Greg Johnson isn’t drifting away from orthodoxy in any sense of the word.
Critique of the Evangelical Orientation Change Approach of the Last 40 Years
In Part 2 of his book, he critiques what he calls the “Paradigm of Cure”. In doing so he traces the development and emergence of “Ex-Gay” ministries as they grew into the umbrella organization Exodus International. What I learned was how deeply rooted the orientation change with conversion belief was rooted in Pentecostal/Charismatic/Word of Faith theology. The men and women who built the Ex-Gay Movement were overwhelmingly in the Pentecostal/Charismatic camp. They were sincere in their efforts but suffered from a lack of training and poor theology. This lead to some theological inadequacies in the doctrine of sin and as Greg puts it, an “over-realized eschatology”. This over-realized eschatology gave false hope to someone who is homosexually oriented they achieve victory in this life reflected in orientation change. That hope ultimately is properly placed in the life to come in the New Heavens and New Earth. In other words, the movement was very deficient in their theologies of sin and sanctification.
As I read this section a lot of issues we are facing in the PCA became much more clear. Back in the 1970’s when I was a kid in a Fundamentalist church the phoniness of the faith healers and their testimonies of raising the dead, making the lame to walk and the blind to see were exposed for what they were. This was typical of the Charismatic movement. People would tell fantastic tales of healing and deliverance. Those who wanted such healing could come to Jesus, as proclaimed in the Pentecostal tradition, and find freedom from whatever ails them. Not just blindness but homosexuality too. Greg’s book showed how these promoters of the “Ex-Gay” Movement used similar techniques and messages to convince a broader Evangelical audience that sexual orientation change came with the new birth in Jesus.
People began to accept that when you got saved your orientation changed. Conversion therapies were about helping people get rid of the vestiges of homosexuality in their lives. A homosexual orientation wasn’t so much original corruption as it was an actual transgression. That’s because the original corruption of a homosexual orientation disappeared and all that was left what someone supernationally given a heterosexual orientation but still chose to think homoerotic thoughts and have same sex desires. Anyone who is truly saved would not have a homosexual orientation anymore because they are “new creations in Christ”. As I read this section I became more and more theologically confused by the Ex-Gay Movement and conversion therapy. It’s not theologically consistent at all.
I think a large part of the conflict we are having about homosexuality as a denomination makes sense in this light. Many of us have been very uncomfortable with the inconsistency that our Fathers and Brothers who are pushing for passage of the Overture exhibit toward our Westminster Standards. It could be because they are taking a belief about orientation change at conversion from the Pentecostal movement and trying to find a place for it in the Reformed tradition. It’s going to just rub in irreconcilable conflict because we are not semi-Pelagian in our view of sin and we are not Wesleyan in our view of sanctification. Twisting and bending something that is so theologically flawed into our tradition simply will not work. Why would we try? Greg’s book showed how the whole Movement came crashing down in failure due to its lack of firm biblical support. I’d encourage brothers who hold this position to carefully read Greg’s book and think about their position.
It also seems to me that when you combine a belief in the “Paradigm of Cure” along with an embracing of “Red State culture” there is a recipe for someone to be very, very concerned about ReVoice and “Side B Christianity”. Any acknowledgement that orientation change does not occur for the vast majority of Christians with a homosexual orientation can easily be seen as opening the door for the LGBTQ Movement to come rushing in. If you accept that orientation doesn’t change then the slippery slope is to accept homosexuality next. Thus, the “Paradigm of Cure” becomes an essential tenant of the culture war to preserve and protect Christianity from ungodly perversions. Those who embrace Johnson’s “Paradigm of Care” must come to terms with the fact that some of our Fathers and Brothers in Christ view things very differently.
The “Paradigm of Care”, Or How the “Cure” is Found in Discipleship and Community
The “Paradigm of Care” form bookends of the book. Parts 1 & 4 discuss this paradigm that Greg Johnson envisions as both the past and future for faithful ministry to the homosexually oriented. I think these two sections are the ones that are most challenging for those who don’t share his perspective.
One of the big problems to mention at the outset is a lack of understanding of Side B Christianity as a movement and ReVoice as an organization giving voice to that conviction. Greg did not explore this in his book. In the Reformed tradition we look to the Bible to shape our theology and our theology to dictate our practice. It’s very easy to look at Side B Christianity and ReVoice practices and then assume that there is a common theological conviction behind it. That’s how we work. But Side B Christianity isn’t a theological movement, it is an ethical one. It’s like the Pro-Life Movement. We certainly agree with Roman Catholics on the sanctity of human life and the rights of the unborn to live. But the common agreement doesn’t extend to our respective theological convictions. We come to the same place when it comes to practice, but we don’t take the same road to get to the same destination.
Side B Christianity embraces the historic Christian ethic of marriage between a man and a woman along with sex only within the confines of marriage. That means that since God doesn’t permit marriage to homosexuals it requires singleness. Singleness requires celibacy. But there are a wide range of theological convictions in Side B Christianity and in ReVoice. Those in the movement often come from very different theological positions. Some hold beliefs that we, as Reformed Christians, could not agree with. These beliefs can shade some aspects of how to implement the conviction of the historic Christian sex and marriage ethic. Especially, what’s permitted and what’s forbidden. Kind of like a Baptist and Presbyterian talking about worship. We say whatever God has not commanded is forbidden. The Baptist says that whatever God has expressly not forbidden is permitted. Our worship might even look close to the same, but our convictions are fundamentally different.
So when people talk about Side B Christianity, I’m thinking, “what flavor are you talking about?” Greg Johnson gives us his flavor in his book. Ultimately, he argues that even though same sex attraction likely will persist all through life that doesn’t mean that one who experiences it is without hope and comfort. In fact, there is much hope and comfort in our Reformed understanding of sin and sanctification.
Part 1 opens as a history lesson. He shares how Christian leaders of the 20th century like C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, John Stott and Billy Graham had a different approach to homosexuality than the one promoted by Evangelicals in the last 40 years. He does this through biographical story telling. The approach made grasping the material much more engaging. However, he left out lesser lights like Charles Colson, Gordon Hugenberger, Richard Lovelace, and Robert Rayburn, that could have given a more comprehensive scope. Johnson shows how these men didn’t focus on orientation change but rather focused on discipleship and community. At first, this seems like Johnson is advocating a “soft on homosexual inclinations” approach. That’s not true. Rather, the issue is how best to help someone who struggles with homosexual inclinations to grow in Christ.
Part 4 he returns to the “Paradigm of Care”. A homosexual, like everyone else, needs to see their homosexuality (all of it, inclinations included) as sin and in need of repentance and salvation only through Jesus Christ. As a homosexually oriented believer walks with Jesus, the Holy Spirit wages war against their flesh, and more and more sinful homosexual desire recedes as he or she is sanctified by the Spirit. We ultimately disciple homosexuals the same way we disciple everyone else who comes to faith in Jesus. He further makes note of the fact that those with same sex attraction that never do gain an attraction to the opposite sex in order that they can marry will be left with a life of singleness and celibacy. In that, he calls for the church to be the church and lovingly embrace and give these men and women the gift of spiritual family.
I think these sections are very relevant to our current debate. I’d suggest the “Paradigm of Care” elders are mostly against the Overtures and are in favor of the SJC ruling upholding the Missouri Presbytery’s investigation of Dr. Johnson. I think the “Paradigm of Cure” elders are strongly in favor of the Overtures and were very disappointed by the SJC’s ruling. Could it be that we are talking past one another because we don’t understand one another?
The Problem of Terminology
Greg has a section in his book dealing with terminology that we’d do well to read carefully. How does one who struggles with same sex attraction as part of a Christian testimony without seeming to celebrate sin? “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor. 6:11).
After reading the section I think the problem is that the Christian church has not coined a phrase to succinctly describe, “I used to engage in homosexual practices, now I’ve repented of my sin and embraced Jesus in faith. The Holy Spirit is waging war against the homosexual orientation in my deepest being (same sex attraction) and through His work, as I submit to him, it is becoming mortified and less and less of an influence in my life. I am not attracted to the opposite sex so it would not be fair to marry someone. Therefore, I’m committed to stay celibate and single.” The problem, as I see it, is there is no language that could be understood by the unbelieving world that is not attached to the LGBTQ Movement with all its baggage. Same sex attracted is about as close as we get. But how many outside the Church would understand what an SSA Christian is? This isn’t about “identifying” with sin, but how do those with same sex attraction relate to people for discipleship and evangelism? Fundamentally, this is a challenge that is not easily resolved.
I started out collecting a whole bunch of quotes to build this review. As I thought about it, I want others to read the book and process it through their own understanding. I don’t want someone to feel that a review is a substitute for reading the book. I summarized and I restated in my own words what I saw in the book. My encouragement is, especially if you are a PCA elder, to read the book in its entirety before the 2022 PCA General Assembly.