Before the sexual revolution took root in America’s cultural institutions, there existed pervasive agreement—both explicit and tacit—about sexuality, marriage, children’s rights, and religious liberty. Sexual immorality of all forms existed but was appropriately stigmatized. Fornication; consensual adult incest; homosexuality (including pederasty and pedophilia); pornography; bestiality; stripping (i.e., exhibitionism) and its corollary, voyeurism; sadomasochism (now referred to positively as “kink”), and anything else the darkened minds of fallen humans can think of could be found but in the closet, on the fringes, and after dark. Now such forms of immorality are not merely out of the closet, in city and suburban centers, and in broad daylight but in our schools and even houses of worship.
We cannot trust our civic leaders, educators, and storytellers (novelists, essayists, playwrights, journalists etc.) to speak truth. And increasingly, pastors and priests who claim to be Christ-followers are suspect. That’s why it’s critically important that theologically orthodox Christian leaders speak with utter clarity on matters related to sexuality. Unfortunately, too often their voices are ambiguous, and that ambiguity exacerbates both confusion and division. The recent and controversial Revoice Conference (already scheduled for 2019), hosted by the theologically orthodox Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), included several speakers who have used language or expressed ideas that unnecessarily confuse and divide.
All the Revoice speakers and writers mentioned in this article have written valuable, encouraging, wise words from which both Christians who experience unchosen, unwanted homosexual attraction and the church at large can benefit. But it is their roles as cultural leaders in this fraught area that makes the need for clarity critical. In many instances that necessary clarity has been missing.
For example, celibate, theologically orthodox Catholic lesbian Eve Tushnet, who is a central figure in the “spiritual friendship” movement and keynote speaker at the Revoice Conference, was asked what “accepting sexuality” means in the title of her book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith. Her response was unhelpful at minimum:
It means not separating out your sexuality and your sexual orientation by saying they need to be repressed or destroyed in some way.
Since she is by her own admission sexually oriented toward women, meaning she experiences desires to engage in sinful activity, how does she reconcile her answer with Colossians 3:5 which says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry”?
Another Revoice speaker, Nate Collins, who is a former instructor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a same-sex attracted man who is married to a woman, said this in an interview on the conference published in Christianity Today:
Even the phrase “sexual orientation” can be unhelpful because it puts sexuality at the center of orientation. We are sexual beings; God created us to have sexuality; we will inevitably at some point experience our orientation as sexual. But that doesn’t mean that the orientation itself is a sexual orientation. Now what it is exactly I don’t know—that is something that we Christians have a vested interest in thinking about theologically….
I think that a straight man’s desire, the way he experiences desire for intimate friendship with other men, that is obviously real and is a very valid way of experiencing the God-given need for relationships not to be alone.
It’s important to distinguish, though, between the way that a straight person would experience that desire and the way that a non-straight person would experience that desire. Because when gay people experience a desire for intimate relationships, they do it in the context of their orientation. Which, again, I want to say is not intrinsically sexual.
So we’re trying to understand what is at the center of orientation, which I admit requires more thinking. But at this point, what I personally think [is] that at the center of orientation is the perception and admiration of personal beauty. God created us to recognize beauty in other image bearers. When we notice that beauty and when there’s a pattern for that beauty then I think that raises the level of orientation.
Say what? For a moment I thought this was Professor Irwin Corey. I can’t make heads or tails out of this, except for agreeing that it requires more thinking—a lot more thinking.
Perhaps after he thinks more about this issue, he can explain how a non-straight person like himself can know with certainty that the way a straight person experiences the non-sexual desire for friendship is different from the way a non-straight person experiences a non-sexual desire for friendship. Perhaps the non-sexual desires of “straights” and “non-straights” for friendship are really not so different, and perhaps he is attributing too much to homosexual orientation.
Joel Belz, founder of World magazine, recently wrote that “offering, or even allowing, positions of church leadership to people who embrace and celebrate sexual disorders, all on the promise they will be chaste, is foolhardy [emphasis added].” In response, Wesley Hill, Revoice speaker, author of Washed and Waiting, “spiritual friendship” blogger, and associate professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, tweeted this:
Every time I read something like this, I wonder how the writer imagines someone like me living my day to day life. I would genuinely love to hear them explain how the vision is other than, ‘Make your peace with the closet.’
It’s absurd to contend that prohibiting men who, while committing to celibacy, also “embrace and celebrate” homosexuality constitutes shoving them into the proverbial closet. One could argue that theologically orthodox churches should not only prohibit such men from leading but also exercise discipline over members who “embrace and celebrate” homosexuality. Again, Hill’s tweet is at best unhelpful.
Hill wrote a more helpful summary of Revoice for First Things, but questions still remain because of statements like this:
Appearance-wise, many of the attendees wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow in Boystown or Brighton. Rainbow bracelets and body piercings abounded (one friend of mine sported rainbow-colored shoelaces to match the rainbow Ichthus pendant on his lapel)…. Might there be some divine design, some strange providence, in my homosexuality? Might my sexual orientation be something God does not want to remove, knowing that its challenge keeps pulling me back towards Him in prayer? Might it even be something through which more empathy and compassion for fellow sufferers are birthed?
Do the accouterments of the “gay pride” movement like rainbow bracelets and shoelaces signify a biblical attitude toward sin or do they signify a troubling unbiblical, worldly attitude? Does Hill mean that God works all things together for good—including our sinful desires—for those who love him and are called according to his purpose, or does Hill mean that God’s divine design could include his intentional creation of desires for acts that he detests and which violate his own design for sex? It is this kind of confusion that plagues much of the writing that emerges from the “spiritual friendship”/“celibate gay Christian” movement.
The importance of language
And then there’s the issue of terminology.
In the face of much criticism of Revoice organizers’ and speakers’ word choices, Greg Johnson, senior pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church that hosted Revoice, offered a weak justification for their use of terms like “gay,” “gay Christian,” “LGBT+,” “cisgender,” and “sexual minorities,” implausibly citing 2 Timothy 2:14 as a justification for acquiescing to the controversial and confusing terms that Revoice organizers chose. It is noteworthy that with every term Johnson mentioned as eliciting debate among Revoice organizers, they decided to go with the “progressive” choice. One wonders what biblical warrant they found for always choosing language denuded of implications of sin when dealing with serious sin. The issue of language is critical because language is one of the most powerful and effective tools “progressives” use to transmogrify culture into anti-culture.
Johnson said that “Since the Bible says not to quarrel about words and since we see that there are no perfect options, we’ve followed” a “recommendation to respect freedom in terminology.” Is Johnson applying 2 Tim. 2:14 correctly? In 2 Tim. 2: 14, Paul writes to Timothy, “Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.” What is the context? Is Paul saying that words never matter? Paul is writing to Timothy to urge him to handle correctly the Word, which is to say Scripture. Paul instructs Timothy to avoid “irreverent babble” (ESV), “godless chatter” (NIV), or “profane and vain babblings” (KJV). Paul in no way suggests that words don’t matter. Words matter enormously, which is why “progressives” continually invent new words, redefine existing words, and insist that everyone use them in their unholy quest to advance cultural affirmation of sexual deviance. While the left continually invents and redefines language, insisting that everyone use their terms, conservatives—including Christian conservatives—continually capitulate to leftist language as if it’s trivial. If it were trivial, the left wouldn’t be so insistent that everyone use it. If Pastor Johnson didn’t learn about the critical importance of words from God’s Word, didn’t he learn about it from Orwell?
New Testament scholar Dr. Robert A. J. Gagnon corrects Johnson’s misapplication of 2 Tim. 2:14:
[T]he interpretation of “not fighting over words” offered by the pastor who hosted the Revoice Conference is a significant misapplication of the text. He was using the passage to justify the appropriation of unorthodox secular terminology (“gay,” “sexual minorities”), terminology commonly used to affirm sexual immorality, in order to silence orthodox complaints about the use of such terms in the church for faithful believers. Paul in context meant by “not fighting over words” the complete avoidance of heretical spins on words found in the OT Scriptures. Paul was arguing against unorthodox interpretations of words, not telling his churches to give a pass to Christians using sexually tainted terminology that carries unorthodox baggage. It is those bringing into the church terms like “gay” and “sexual minorities,” terms that imply affirmation of the homosexual and transgender life, who are “fighting over words” by introducing language that is in tension with orthodox teaching about sexual ethics.
Rob Rienow, pastor at Gospel Fellowship Church in Wheaton, Illinois, offers this clarification of Paul’s instruction to Timothy:
God reveals Himself to us in words. Words mean things. That is why when we study the Bible, we always want to know what the words that God chose to give us mean. Verse 15 gives us a clue into verse 14: God calls his people to “rightly handle the word of truth.” So, instead of “words are not important,” we are told to pay attention to the words, dig deep into them, understand their correct meanings, and teach them to others. Verse 16 further illuminates and clarifies the instruction from verse 14: “avoid irreverent babble,” that is, silly words, irreverent words, careless words because those kinds of words can actually lead people into “more ungodliness.” So rather than communicating that “words don’t matter, don’t worry about them,” Paul doubles down on the importance of using true words and using words that matter.
Another Gospel Fellowship Church pastor, Michael Johnson (unrelated to Greg Johnson), elaborates further:
The kind of “word-battle” that Paul has in mind is a useless quarreling over words that is more about displaying the intelligence of the debater than bringing edification to others. We must avoid that kind of argumentation over words. It does no good. It’s been seen over time that words drive thinking and culture. So, for example, I would never use the made-up pro-noun “ze” or the generic pronoun “they” to refer to an individual that is claiming a false identity like “gender-non-binary.” Doing so cedes too much intellectual ground and gives implicit credibility to a false idea. It is by definition ceding Scriptural truth because it is contrary to God’s Word. This we cannot do. The point is, standing ground in these cases is not a “quarreling about words” that “does no good” and “only ruins the hearers”; on the contrary, it is an example of “rightly handling the word of truth.” To stand and defend this truth is not only right, but it is what edifies and keeps people from falling into ruin. So, we have an obligation to fight for some words because that is what maintains the truth, brings clarity, and builds people up in the faith. If we keep reading, Paul has in mind “foolish, ignorant controversies” that “breed quarrels.” Defining our terms in the great debate of our time—that is, human sexuality—is most definitely not a useless argument or a waste of time. In fact, not only are we to “rightly handle the word of truth” but we must also teach and correct our opponents with gentleness, praying God will grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.
The terms “sexual minorities,” “gay,” and “gay Christian”
Pastor, author, and theology professor Kevin DeYoung points out the problematic nature of one of the terms Revoice organizers chose, “sexual minorities”:
[I]n our culture, “minority” does not simply mean “less than the majority.” Minorities are considered an aggrieved group in our society. Because of the heroism of many in the civil-rights movement, and because most Americans recognize that non-whites have been mistreated in our nation’s past, any new identity that can achieve minority status is automatically afforded moral weight and authority. The term “sexual minority” is prescriptive, not merely descriptive.
Johnson defended the use of “sexual minorities” on the basis of its inclusion of “all those whose experience of sexuality is significantly different from the norm.” Would the Revoice organizers include those whose experience of sexuality includes multiple partners, close relatives, animals, children, pornography, pain, or exhibitionism?
Revoice’s commitment to “sexual minority” inclusion was promoted through one of the breakout sessions titled “Redeeming Queer Culture: An Adventure” that aimed to answer questions about the value of “queer” culture:
For the sexual minority seeking to submit his or her life fully to Christ and to the historic Christian sexual ethic, queer culture presents a bit of a dilemma; rather than combing through and analyzing to find which parts are to be rejected, to be redeemed, or to be received with joy, Christians have often discarded the virtues of queer culture along with the vices, which leaves culturally connected Christian sexual minorities torn between two cultures, two histories, and two communities. So questions that have until now been largely unanswered remain: what does queer culture (and specifically, queer literature and theory) have to offer us who follow Christ? What queer treasure, honor, and glory will be brought into the New Jerusalem at the end of time.
It seems Revoice organizers have it backwards. Whatever good is found in “queer culture” has nothing whatsoever to do with queerness. “Queer treasure,” “queer honor,” and “queer glories” are oxymorons. That is not to say there is no creativity, beauty, or honor to be found in the midst of grievous sin. But if it’s there, it’s there despite sin. And it’s polluted, marred, and scarred by sin. While treasure, honor, and glory may be birthed in the midst of homosexuality, no treasure, nothing honorable, nothing glorious is birthed by homosexuality or any other form of disordered sexuality.
Johnson also defended the use of “gay” claiming that “To most of us Reformed evangelicals, the term ‘same sex attracted’ seems safer [than ‘gay’], but it is terminology not used and not understood by our surrounding culture.” Really? The term “same-sex attracted” is neither used nor understood by our surrounding culture? Even if it were true that it’s not used in our culture, it’s self-explanatory. An average middle-schooler could understand it on first hearing.
Former English professor, writer, and pastor’s wife, Rosaria Butterfield, who, after accepting Christ, left a long-term lesbian relationship, warns about the dangers of adopting the term “gay Christian” and the assumptions embedded in it:
How can any of us fight a sin that we don’t hate? Hating our own sin is a key component to doing battle with it. At the same time, we need to separate ourselves from the sin we hate. This can be a very challenging issue for a Christian who experiences SSA, an issue that becomes exceedingly more challenging if one assumes the social identity of “gay Christian.”
Is there any other besetting sin that we continue to attach to ourselves after we become one with Christ?
Revoice worship leader, Greg Coles, who identifies as a “gay Christian,” writes in his memoir this strange description of his sexual orientation—strange, that is, for a theologically orthodox Christian:
I began to realize that my sexual orientation was an inextricable part of the bigger story God was telling over my life. My interests, my passions, my abilities, my temperament, my calling—there was no way to sever those things completely from the gay desires and mannerisms and attitudes that had developed alongside them….
Is it too dangerous, too unorthodox, to believe that I am uniquely designed to reflect the glory of God? That my orientation, before the fall, was meant to be a gift in appreciating the beauty of my own sex as I celebrated the friendship of the opposite sex?… What if God dreamed it for me, wove it into the fabric of my being as he knit be [sic] together and sang life into me?
Professor of Biblical Studies Denny Burke, wonders how it’s possible for a theologically orthodox Christian to hold such a view as Coles holds:
I do not know how to reconcile this perspective with scripture or with the natural law. Same-sex orientation is not simply a “creational variance”…. Scripture teaches explicitly that homosexual desire and behavior are “against nature”—meaning against God’s original creation design.
In his book Is God anti-gay?, British pastor Sam Allberry, who experiences unwanted, unchosen same-sex attraction, illuminates the theological problems with Christians identifying as “gay”:
When someone says they’re “gay” … they normally mean that as well as being attracted to someone of the same gender, their sexual preference is one of the fundamental ways in which they see themselves. And it’s for this reason that I tend to avoid using the term. It sounds clunky to describe myself as “someone who experiences same sex attraction”. But describing myself like this is a way for me to recognize that the kind of sexual attractions I experience are not fundamental to my identity. They are part of what I feel but are not who I am in a fundamental sense. I am far more than my sexuality…. What Jesus calls me to do is exactly what he calls anyone to do….:
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
Is “shame” bad?
Johnson understandably worries about teenagers who feel “crushed by the shame of a sexual orientation” they have “acknowledged to no one.” The church should be thinking deeply about how to address with grace and truth both sin and the shame associated with sin—a shame that is particularly isolating when it comes to sexual sin.
The Bible teaches that sexual sin—sin against the body—is of a different character and more serious than many other forms of sin. Doesn’t it make sense that we would experience guilt and shame from sexual sin differently than when we, for example, gossip? The intimate nature of sex renders confession or revelation of sexual sin to others extraordinarily difficult, but there are many forms of sin that are difficult to confess. Should this difficulty result in the church seeking to eradicate shame? Are we not supposed to feel shame about sin?
If someone’s besetting sin were compulsive stealing, which might be difficult to share and accompanied by deep shame, should we invent new terms to make them feel less ashamed—terms imbued with positive connotations; terms that suggest that, although stealing per se is wrong, the impulse to steal is attended by other positive qualities, attitudes, or ways of viewing life?
What about zoophilia? I imagine those who struggle with attraction to animals feel even greater shame than those who experience same-sex attraction. Should we use the term zoophile Christians? Should we have workshops to discuss which zoophilic treasures, honor, and glory will be brought into the New Jerusalem?
I think not.
What the church urgently needs is less worldly influence and more biblical influence. We should concern ourselves less about the complicated, confusing contours and nuances of sexual sin as articulated by the world and concern ourselves more with the truths taught in Scripture and expressed by Pastor Allberry:
It is the same for us all…. I am to deny myself, take up my cross and follow him. Every Christian is called to costly sacrifice. Denying yourself does not mean tweaking your behavior here and there. It is saying “No” to your deepest sense of who you are for the sake of Christ. To take up a cross is to declare your life (as you have known it) forfeit. It is laying down your life for the very reason that your life, as it turns out, is not yours at all. It belongs to Jesus. He made it, and through his death, he has bought it.
Listen to this article read by Laurie:
Subscribe to the IFI YouTube channel
and never miss a video report or special program!