Why Are Presbyterians Fighting Over Celibate, ‘Gay Christians’?

Why Are Presbyterians Fighting Over Celibate, ‘Gay Christians’? July 2, 2019

See the end of this article for a response I received from Greg Johnson (Lead Pastor, Memorial Presbyterian Church, which hosted Revoice 2018).

Last week was the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), my own denomination. For those who don’t know, the PCA is America’s largest conservative Presbyterian denomination, originally composed of Reformed congregations that split off from the liberal PC(US). We’re the Presbyterians who don’t ordain women, who affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, who condemn abortion, and don’t affirm homosexual relationships.

Nevertheless, the PCA is currently fighting (and I don’t think that’s too strong a word) over people who identify themselves as “gay,” but affirm the historic Christian sexual ethic (no sex outside of biblical, man-woman marriage). Last year, a PCA church hosted a conference in St. Louis called “Revoice,” where various speakers and authors promoted this celibate, “gay Christian” lifestyle. Days ago, the PCA met in Dallas and responded in part to the claims of Revoice by affirming a doctrinal statement condemning some of those claims, and by creating a study committee (Presbyterians love study committees) to craft a more precise and detailed statement.

“So, what’s all the fuss?” many will ask. These “gay Christians” are celibate. They’re not advocating homosexual sin. Some may see this as a tempest in a teapot (the PCA isn’t really that big), or a waste of time when the culture is pressuring Christians from all sides to affirm actual homosexual sin. But anyone who understands the debate in my denomination will realize that it has implications for all Christians and churches committed to a biblical sexual ethic.

The “Revoice” crowd claims that the evangelical church in general, and the PCA in particular, have failed to fully include and love Christians who experience same-sex attraction. They want the church to rethink how it treats and talks about gay people, from recognizing them as a distinct “sexual minority,” or set of minorities, to accepting the permanence of their “orientation,” to acknowledging labels like “gay” and “lesbian” as valid expressions of identity for Christians, and even to encourage close, platonic, same-sex relationships (“spiritual friendships”) designed to fulfill some of the longings of same-sex attraction in a godly way.

A lot of these claims, and some of the rhetoric used to present them, rub conservative Presbyterians the wrong way—I think rightly. They contain obvious echoes of secular LGBT vocabulary, even if they’re qualified with a commitment to Christian chastity. Revoice’s stated purpose (it has become an annual event) is to “encourage, support, and empower gay, lesbian, and other same-sex attracted Christians so they can experience the life-giving character of the historic, Christian sexual ethic.” Prominent Christians who were converted out of a homosexual lifestyle, among them Rosaria Butterfield and Christopher Yuan, have criticized Revoice over exactly this language, saying it imports categories and assumptions that are at best imprudent, and at worst antithetical to the Gospel.

Some of the speakers from Revoice are obviously trying to be provocative. Grant Hartley raised eyebrows with a workshop whose online teaser read: “…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 (Revelation 21:24-26)?”

Another Revoice speaker, Catholic Eve Tushnet, describes herself in her Twitter bio as a “romoerotic gaytriarch” whose “hobbies include sin, confession, and ecstasy.” She defends Christians attending gay pride parades, insisting there’s something “freeing” at such events that she can’t find in church.

More to the point, Ron Belgau, co-editor of the “Spiritual Friendship” blog and another Revoice speaker, argues that homosexual desires are not, in themselves, sinful. He writes that “the desire to have sex with others of our own sex is a temptation to sin which is a result of the fall, but it is not, in itself, sinful.” Greg Johnson, senior pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church, where Revoice 2018 was held, sounded a similar note at last week’s General Assembly, criticizing the Nashville Statement as hurtful, since it denies “that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation or redemption.”

Here we get to the heart of the debate in the PCA—a debate that’s coming to much larger evangelical denominations. Belgau and Johnson may not be as provocative as other Revoice speakers, but they appear to be making the same core claim: that “gay” identity is in some sense compatible with Christianity—that there are aspects of what the secular culture calls “homosexual orientation” that are either redeemable or at least morally neutral for Christians. It’s not clear whether they agree with fellow Revoice speakers who encourage “gay Christians,” as members of a “sexual minority,” to make common cause with other LGBT activists without engaging in or approving what the Church has historically considered sinful sexual practices.

So, what’s the big deal? Well, as Denny Burk and Rosaria Butterfield point out, all of this relies on a theology that identifies concupiscence (the moral corruption we inherit from Adam and must mortify as Christians) as a kind of disability or handicap, rather than sin. In his brief address at General Assembly, Johnson actually compares his same-sex attraction with quadriplegia and infertility (along with alcoholism, which has a debatable moral status, given its well-established genetic component). The problem with this line of thinking, at least within the PCA, is that it probably contradicts the Westminster Confession—our denomination’s primary doctrinal standard outside the Bible. In chapter 6, section 5, the confession says that the corruption of nature we inherit from Adam, “during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be through Christ pardoned and mortified, yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin.” (emphasis mine.)

Self-identified celibate gay Christians—as commendable as their conduct often is—seem to be insisting that a corruption which Westminster identifies as indwelling sin is a defining aspect of their lives, rising even to the level of an identity, worth prefixing to the name which Jesus’ followers were first called at Antioch. In a cultural climate like ours, besieged as Christians are with demands that we affirm not only a panoply of confusing sexual identities, but acts that the Church has universally condemned as sinful for 2,000 years, it’s little wonder that those using the world’s vocabulary are dividing denominations.

But it’s more than words and vocabulary. Anyone who hasn’t been living in an undersea cave for the past ten years will know that LGBT activists have triumphed in courts and in the culture largely due to a simple syllogism: “I was born gay. It’s part of who I am, and I can no more stop being gay than you can stop being straight. To deny me the right to love who I want and marry who I want and demand wedding cakes from whomever I want is akin to racism, and it has no place in this country.”

To enter an embattled, conservative denomination apparently parroting the first premise of this syllogism, and not expect trouble, is pretty naive. Even more, Revoice supporters might want to examine the course our culture has taken and ask themselves some hard questions. The unspoken (or quietly spoken) concern of many evangelicals is that “gay Christians” and “sexual minorities” may fall prey to their own logic; that if they really believe same-sex desires are part of who they are, they may begin wondering why they should keep denying themselves.

Having affirmed the Nashville Statement over impassioned objections from Revoice participants, the PCA may be on its way to widening that division—perhaps even to splitting. Johnson pointed out on Twitter shortly after the assembly that a substantial minority of delegates—many of them young—voted to reject the statement. And Presbyterians—along with other Christians—must still weigh the grievances of those who experience same-sex attraction but don’t feel welcome in the Church. After all, their sin—both indwelling and enacted—is just as soluble by the blood of Christ as any. None of us has a right to refuse someone a place under the cross, or to treat conversion as conversion therapy. Westminster denies that Christians can pray our indwelling sin away just as clearly as it affirms that we’re indwelt by sin.

So, as the PCA debates, what’s not up for debate is that the questions Revoice raises aren’t Presbyterian questions. They’re questions every Christian communion will eventually have to answer. And while my little denomination’s doctrinal standards may take out a lot of the guesswork, churches with much longer membership rolls and much shorter confessions should start taking notes. This tempest isn’t staying in this teapot.

Response I received from from Greg Johnson: 

Hi Shane. I just noticed your piece on Patheos and would like to offer some correction to misrepresentations about me on several points. I hope you will take a moment to read this over.

1. You state, “Johnson may not be as provocative as other Revoice speakers, but [he] appear[s] to be making the same core claim … that there are aspects of what the secular culture calls ‘homosexual orientation’ that are … morally neutral.” I do not believe this to be the case. I believe my same-sex attraction to be a movement of indwelling sin within me which I seek to mortify daily. I believe that original sin, like actual sin, is properly called sin. I believe that even my internal temptations are sin whether I act on them or not. I have been clear on this question in my public preaching and teaching. I follow Calvin closely in his reading of James 1.

2. The article continues, “All of this relies on a theology that identifies concupiscence (the moral corruption we inherit from Adam and must mortify as Christians) as a kind of disability or handicap, rather than sin.” Again, I am in print stating just the opposite. My theology of concupiscence is as Reformed as they come. On that point of our Standards I subscribe strictly. As a believer who is same-sex attracted, I can only survive in Christ by knowing my enemy within.

3. The article misunderstands the point I made in my floor speech at GA that we allow people to name their fallen conditions. The article states that my real point was that homosexuality is just a disability. I do not believe homosexuality to be morally neutral. I wish you had reached out to me to clarify this matter.

4. The article states that I believe I was born gay. “‘I was born gay. … To deny me the right to love who I want and marry who I want … has no place in this country.’ To enter an embattled, conservative denomination apparently parroting the first premise of this syllogism, and not expect trouble, is pretty naive.” I do not believe I was born gay. I am on record in public teaching stating this. According to twin studies, an inborn factor accounts at most 31-39% of homosexual orientation.

5. The article states, “Greg Johnson, senior pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church … sounded a similar note at last week’s General Assembly, criticizing the Nashville Statement as hurtful, since it denies ‘that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes.'” This is misleading. I excluded the transgender part from my quote. My critique was limited to the question of whether one can conceive of himself as “homosexual” in orientation. I omitted the transgender part.

After blogs about me began spreading misinformation about me last year, I and my session requested Missouri Presbytery (PCA) to formally investigate me and our session for our involvement with Revoice. That investigative report as approved by Missouri Presbytery concluded on page 108 with this: “While there were things said that were unclear and confusing, we do not believe that doctrinal positions contrary to the Scriptures and our confessional standards were advanced at Revoice 18.” You can download that investigative report here:

https://mopres.org/resources/papers/201905-reportOnMemorialAndRevoice.pdf

I wish you the best and hope a retraction or correction can be issued quickly.

Yours in Jesus,

TE Greg Johnson
Lead Pastor, Memorial PCA St. Louis

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