I finally read Greg Johnson’s Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality. Greg (that’s his photo on this post) is the pastor at Memorial Presbyterian Church, which has hosted Revoice a few years now and will host again this year. He’s openly gay and celibate. He’s very sweet! And a real preacher–I’ve heard him preach at Revoice, and his book follows that preachin’ cadence.
His book splits neatly into two parts. The first half is a history of the ex-gay movement in the English-speaking Protestant world (with brief dips into Catholicworld). This part was GREAT. I learned a lot! Johnson’s own story is woven in quite gracefully. If you have any interest in the subject matter, I’d definitely recommend it. It’s not academic in style.
The second half is an attempt to address what Johnson sees as the questions facing people seeking a better way, after the collapse of Exodus International and the marginalization of the ex-gay model. This was more of a mixed bag for me, I’d write it very differently (lol I have, in fact), but every addition to the growing gay celibate bookshelf adds a perspective we need. I finished the book with a bunch of questions, which Greg graciously agreed to answer.
The interview below focuses on my own questions, so it doesn’t perfectly track what’s in the book. (That’s why I started this post with a separate short review.) I have not edited the answers. I wouldn’t approach some of these questions the same way. I expect that our differences here are rooted not solely in theological differences (though those maybe play a role) but also in our experience of what has helped and harmed us in our walk with Jesus. But Greg has been a pastor for a long time, and I know he has wisdom even where I would take a different approach.
Enough from me! Let’s get interviewin’.
1. I had no idea that there were so many lifelong celibate Protestant leaders in the mid-20th century! Do you have any thoughts about why that happened? What helped sustain people in that life? Was this relatively new, or is there a tradition of Protestant celibacy? And… what happened, that now it seems very rare to hear about celibacy in Protestant circles?
Celibacy has a long history within Anglicanism. For centuries, celibacy was required to be a fellow (a don or prof) at Oxford and Cambridge. Mandatory celibacy was only repealed in 1877. But it continues as a not-uncommon practice. Celibacy has remained an accepted calling among traditionalist and evangelical Anglicans. So Lewis, Nash and Stott were all part of a long tradition.
In the US, J. Gresham Machen and John Murray were unusual in being Presbyterian evangelicals and celibate. Their teaching roles and homes on a northern campus—Westminster in Philadelphia—provided some context. But historically celibacy has been much less acceptable in the US, where it draws more suspicion than in the UK.
The fact that educated 20th century American evangelicals looked so heavily to evangelical Anglicans in the UK for academic scholarship and cultural credibility helped give models for Christian singleness. But many still erroneously see the term “celibacy” as Roman Catholic. Many are more comfortable speaking of the “call to singleness,” knowing that St. Paul describes such a calling in 1 Corinthians 7.
2. Any thoughts on the shift (if you think it IS a real shift!) in Christian discourse from “celibacy” to “singleness”? What is gained and what is lost there?
I don’t know that there has been a shift among Protestants. If anything, they are only now beginning to use the language of celibacy. It may be that using the language of singleness helps people distinguish it from the mandatory priestly celibacy among Roman Catholic clergy. Personally, I prefer to speak of celibacy because, for many people, single often means pre-married. For me this is a lifelong calling. But I also spent a decade in a Jesuit theology department, so I was surrounded by celibate people.
3. A couple times in the early part of the book you link “sexual or romantic” same-sex relationships as things that are barred by our faith. Later on, you nuance this and set it in a more personal context of prudential judgment. And you make clear that you don’t intend to “police semantics” of other people, which speaks to part of my own biggest concern, i.e. that condemning “romance” (not a Scriptural or theological term! actually just a cultural construct!) leads people into the same shame-driven fear of their emotions and tweezering of their language that the ex-gay movement encouraged. But I guess I would just ask what you see as being gained and what lost when we insist that Christian same-sex relations can’t be “romantic.”
(For the record, I have reservations about “romance” language too, for some of the same reasons you bring up… but lol as someone preparing for covenant friendship with a very hearts-and-flowers partner, I’ve had to reexamine my assessment of this kind of talk: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/evetushnet/2022/02/controversial-topics-in-gay-christian-livin.html )
Romance is so hard to define, and so I try not to draw too many lines. Pastorally, I prefer thinking in categories of Christian siblinghood. A sister or brother can have great intimacy and committed companionship. But they aren’t gazing into each other’s eyes thinking they make each other complete. And you can have more than one sibling. Again, this is more of a personal and pastoral caution than a clear biblical mandate. I don’t want anything I say here to be weaponized. We’ve had enough of that.
When someone speaks to me about wanting a celibate partner, the pastoral questions I would encourage them to ask involve whether this person occasions sexual temptation. Or vice versa. They may or may not. Do they see this as an exclusive relationship, or could they see a third or fourth person someday sharing in this fellowship? Will they have separate bedrooms? Separate beds? For me, it’s less a concern about maintaining certain rules. It’s more a question of them discerning whether or not this will help or hinder their relationship with God.
What will be the impact on their hearts? Will they—on one end—find themselves in a sexless quasi-marriage, constantly pining for more? That would be very difficult; I would want better for them. Or will they—on the other end—find themselves doing life together with a Christian sibling or two who help them trust and follow Jesus, without causing unnecessary distraction from that calling? In other words, are we talking about a Christian Laverne and Shirley? (I’m dating myself here.) Or are we talking about something almost marital in heart expectation? These are practical heart-level questions only the individual can answer. I can’t make their decisions for them. I can just help them ask the right questions, and then support them as their pastor.
For myself, I just don’t trust my own heart. Honestly, I’m not sure I would want a celibate partner to whom I wasn’t (on some level) sexually attracted. I’m that bad! And I would probably want them to be really into me, too. And I’m not convinced that would be good for their heart or for mine. That’s enough for me to that decide it’s just not for me.
But I am not everyone. It’s less about man-made external rules and more about the heart. God has given me tremendous intimacy and long-term companionship within a web of committed Christian friendships. I’ve found it to be an incredible blessing. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. Particularly if it would leave me confused and looking to a fellow man to make me feel the way that Jesus wants to make me feel. I’m aware that everyone doesn’t share my particular weaknesses. I can’t throw shade on others who perhaps experience greater freedom than I do from the internal pull of sexual temptation.
4. You write beautifully about embracing the crosses of celibacy, and sustaining hope within celibacy. But let me take a different angle: What are you grateful for in being gay (cf “In all circumstances give thanks”), and what blessings have you received through that experience?
Lol as a Catholic I’m always down for “the blessing IS the suffering!”, but I wonder if there’s more to say here. And… to show my hand a bit, I wonder if the unwillingness to ask about blessings that could come from being gay is part of the theological failure of (and the damage done by) the ex-gay movement.
You may be on to something here. I know within my own Reformed tradition, we really zero in on the ongoing presence of indwelling sin. There is wisdom here, but also there is the risk of failing to distinguish between healthy human longing and the sin that distorts such longing. Reformed folks are often hesitant to ask the question because they might be misunderstood as suggesting that sexual temptations are a good thing, which they aren’t.
People do still flatten our experience of our sexual orientation into mere sexual temptation. I try to suggest there is more to it than that. I have never objectified the body of my sister in Christ. I have never stored up her image for later recall. We don’t want to call that indwelling sin. It’s love that always protects.
There are God-given longings for companionship—to be known and to know, to give and to receive love—that are part of the imago dei. For me, I have a few deep and lasting relationships that I am unlikely to have had were I pouring myself into a spouse and children. People send me Fathers Day cards because I have had the opportunity to invest in so many people during a season when they needed a Dad. I love that I get to tell people that Jesus is worrh it. My experience of my sexual orientation—and the abuse I’ve taken for being honest about it—have opened up doors for me to talk about Jesus on Public Radio and in USA Today. I’m thankful for that. I can’t imagine a different life. This is the one God has given me, and I am thankful for it. My only regrets are my sin.
5. You’re focusing very tightly on the Protestant side of things, which I needed and appreciated, but do you have any thoughts about the influence of Catholics on the ex-gay movement and vice versa? Similarities between the Protestant and Catholic trajectories here, differences, strengths Catholics brought to these questions, weaknesses or things the Catholics tended to lack?
The biggest impact has been tangential. In the 1980s, Catholics and evangelicals realized they had some common enemies in abortion and the push to legalize gay marriage. That alliance was essentially political in nature. Not theological. That same alliance saw ex-gays as very useful. Downstream a few decades, we see political posturing overpowering much conservative religious thought in America. We’re up to our steeples in politics. Because the discourse in political and bit theological, nuanced voices like our own tend to get drowned out.
There is more. It was a Catholic therapist who gave us the language of same-sex attraction. But it took evangelical publishing empires and radio networks to convince everyone to use that terminology. The language has stuck among Roman Catholics, though. Last I checked, it was still the preferred lingo within Courage. How many people would have loved for you instead to have written a book titled Same-Sex Attracted and Catholic!
And we should remember that the Father of Reparative Therapy was Roman Catholic psychologist Joseph Nicolosi and his Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic in Encino, California. He founded National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH).
Protestants brought to the table the ex-gay testimony. (We do love a good testimony.) That seems to have been less central in Catholicism. And there was less expectation of complete deliverance within Catholic ex-gay circles than—say—in independent charismatic Protestant ex-gay circles, where complete deliverance was often an expectation.
6. Is there anything you feel you’ve discovered since writing the book?
I do keep coming across things I might have included were I writing today. It seems another once-kinda-famous ex-gay falls every few months. But there’s only so much of that people can manage. There have been a few points of theological nuance here or there, but I can’t recall exactly where.
7. And last!!! What is the one question you wish people would ask you about this book?
What did it look like to write this book?
It was during darkest days of the pandemic. I wasn’t going into the office, and I only had an Android phone to work on at home. So I researched and wrote the entire book on my Android phone, sitting on my couch, using two thumbs. Including 650 endnotes. Thankfully, most academic libraries freed up public access during the pandemic, placing a huge volume of data within reach as never before. Zoom and phone interviews took place on the same Android. That phone has some serious mileage.
It was quite an ordeal!