I’ve been looking forward to reading Greg Johnson’s book Still Time to Care since it came out. While I have some disagreements with Greg Johnson (more of which I will get into below), I have always appreciated his testimony and his commitment to Christ. Anyone who can uphold Biblical chastity in one’s sexuality for nearly 50 years of life will always have my respect for that.
As someone who knows well the struggles of same-sex desires and has continued to wrestle through the theology of the ex-gay movement myself, I can personally relate to many of the things Johnson raises in this book. The struggles. The hurts. The heartaches. The loneliness. The joy of finding your sufficiency in Christ and not in your sexuality. These things aren’t unique to people who wrestle with homosexual attractions. Still, these desires can present a particular challenge for a Christian in a culture that looks to sex and romance as one’s ultimate fulfillment. And when it can seem that one’s sexual attractions aren’t changing despite your best efforts, this leads to the realization that one may never have that romantic or sexual fulfillment.
Of course, as I’ve gotten older and continued to mull over these things, my thinking has developed as well. God continues to challenge me more and more in my sanctification and holiness as it applies to my sexuality and every other area of life.
But enough about me.
The purpose of this post is to review Greg Johnson’s book Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality. I hope this can serve Christians as a way of thinking more deeply and more carefully about the topics presented in this book.
Would I recommend Still Time to Care?
While there is a lot to appreciate and agree with in Still Time to Care (and I will certainly be using it as a resource in the future), there are enough cautionary notes I would have to give that keep me from being able to recommend it to an average Christian reader.
If you are a first-time reader looking for a solid resource on how to minister to those in your church who struggle with LGBTQ issues, this book has a lot of good things to say, but I would more heartily recommend books by Christopher Yuan or Rosaria Butterfield. I think they are on better ground biblically in thinking through some of the nuances of desire, language, identity, etc.
If sexuality, Christianity, and the theology of “Side B” is something that is familiar to you and you have already read several books about these topics, then I would say this book is a must-add to your collection.
If you are looking for a good history of the ex-gay movement, then part 2 of this book (which comprises its majority) is a must-have and probably the best I’ve read.
With that being said, let’s dive in.
Part 1: The Paradigm of Care
The first part of Still Time to Care highlights the comments and teachings of four Evangelical stalwarts—C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Billy Graham, and John Stott—and how they exemplified a “paradigm of care” towards homosexuality that existed prior to the ex-gay movement and the gay rights movement. In other words, it was before homosexuality, gay marriage, and things like education curricula on sexuality for elementary school children became the hotly contested political issues that they are today.
Greg Johnson does a good job in pointing out several aspects of the approaches of Lewis, Schaeffer, Graham, and Stott that are just as applicable today:
- Not treating homosexuality as the worst or most heinous sin while ignoring or belittling the heinousness of all other sins.
- Not making political battles our end-all-be-all.
- Emphasize the preaching of the good news of the gospel for everyone.
- Treating people as image-bearers of God, not merely as an issue to be solved or a defect to be fixed.
- Valuing same-sex friendships and pushing against the constant suspicion of homosexuality in intimate same-sex friendships.
- Approaching these issues with grace, truth, love, and humility.
- Standing up for people (regardless of orientation) when they are bullied or treated cruelly and unjustly.
- Treating Christians who struggle with same-sex desires as brothers and sisters in Christ who are full members of the Church—people to be loved, cared for, and held accountable, not shunned or kept at arm’s length.
- Not making orientation change the goal of sanctification or a prerequisite for salvation.
- Valuing singleness as a good (Stott especially, given that he was single his whole life).
Johnson summarizes, “In this positive gospel vision for gay people and the church, we see a focus not on curing homosexuality but on caring for people. We see that the locus of hope lies in the coming age. This present age is a time not for cure but for care.” (p. 35)
However, I think that Johnson extols the approaches of these four Evangelical heavyweights a bit uncritically. On one hand, I don’t really blame him. How could you not? Lewis, Schaeffer, Graham, and Stott are huge, well-respected names and people I greatly admire. We should heed what they have to say on such an important issue.
Yet, we can’t ignore the fact that these men were operating in a different cultural moment than we do today. As such, parts of their approach—for instance, the language they used or certain assumptions they held about sexual orientation—should not just be blindly accepted but should be subject to greater scrutiny.
Johnson’s points in these chapters don’t center around language and identity, but there seems to be a bit of an undertone throughout that says, “See, Lewis, Schaeffer, Graham, and Stott (to various degrees) used words like ‘gay’ to describe people, seemed to view sexual orientation as a part of one’s person or identity, and were even willing to ordain “gay Christians” to the pastorate. And no one seems to question their faithfulness as a Christian for doing this. Why can’t that be the case today? Stop making such a big fuss about these things.”
While I don’t want to be that guy who says, “Look how far we’ve come compared to these thinkers of old,” I likewise can’t ignore that the events of the last 60-70 years (and even particularly the last 10-20 years) have caused Christians to think more deeply about many of the nuances of sexuality, identity, language, and ontology.
The politics of sexuality has greatly changed as well. The promulgation of concepts like sexual and gender identity as well as other tectonic shifts in our culture like gay marriage have altered the way we think and approach these issues, down to the very language we use and the meaning that those words have. We can see this clearly in the debate about transgender pronouns.
The approach of these past leaders is certainly worth emulating in all the ways I mentioned above, but I’m not sure that we need to emulate them in every way in light of the way our culture has changed or the way Christian thinking has further developed.
Part 2: The Paradigm of Cure
This second part of Still Time to Care addresses the history of the ex-gay movement. For me, this was the most valuable part of the book. Unlike the biased portrayal in the Netflix documentary “Pray Away,” Greg Johnson gives an honest and fair assessment of how the ex-gay movement came about, how it developed, what claims were made, and how it eventually fell apart.
As someone who was only tangentially connected to the ex-gay movement since the mid-2000s (I’m 32 at the time of writing this), it was good to see the entire history laid out from the early 70s to the present, especially from someone who was pretty deeply involved in it. Things that I’ve heard over the years as hearsay or merely anecdotal experiences were documented with good primary and secondary sources from the people who birthed and shaped the movement or who observed it from afar.
The details of all this (comprising about half the book) were laid out in an orderly, informative, and engaging fashion. As I mentioned above, this is definitely a resource I am going to come back to later when I want to discuss the ex-gay movement.
While it was certainly beyond the scope of Johnson’s book, I wish he had included more details about the history of sexual orientation, particularly the developments in the mid-1800s to early 1900s that really gave modern Western culture the category of sexual orientation as we understand it today.
For me, these developments are necessary to understand why the church handled homosexuality the way it did and why the ex-gay movement started, developed, and collapsed as it did.
Throughout the book, Johnson takes the paradigm of sexual orientation for granted. (Yes, I understand, so does pretty much everyone today.) But ask yourself the question: if we didn’t have the categories of heterosexuals and homosexuals, would the church’s goal have been to try and “cure” or “fix” or “heal” or “change” people from homosexual to heterosexual? And I’m not merely talking about repenting and changing one’s actions but changing one’s sexual attractions and temptations. I would venture to say that without the whole paradigm of sexual orientation being an unquestioned underlying assumption, I see no reason why the ex-gay movement would have developed.
In part, I suspect that the gay rights movement and culture wars drove churches to look for a solution to the “homosexual problem” as I’ve heard it put before. So what is the solution? In a culture where people accept that sexual orientation is a real, indelible, ontologically distinct part of who you are or a category of people that you belong to, the solution will take one of two (simplified) forms:
- Solution 1: If you view a homosexual orientation as inherently sinful, then the solution will become changing your homosexual orientation to a heterosexual orientation (ex-gay).
- Solution 2: If you view your sexual orientation as morally neutral or morally good, then the solution is to accept your orientation as it is but not act on it (or at least the sexual parts of it) (Side B).
I argue in my paper on this subject that orientation should not be viewed in such a light. We ought to instead adopt the biblical categories of Genesis 1-2 of male and female, viewing sexuality as an expression and outgrowth of our gender/sex, not an ontologically distinct category of personhood to define ourselves by.
Part 3: The Rising Challenge to a Historical Ethic
Part 3 of Still Time to Care delves into whether, in light of the flaws of the ex-gay movement, Christians have gotten it wrong regarding our broader sexual ethic about homosexuality (and LGBTQ+ issues more widely). Greg Johnson gives a resounding “No.” While the ex-gay movement got a lot of things wrong, the arguments which try to reinterpret 2000 years of church tradition on homosexuality really don’t hold up upon further scrutiny. And Johnson does a good job defending the traditional sexual ethic from common arguments which have emerged in the last 50 years.
The most interesting chapter in this section is entitled, “Is the Biblical Ethic Inherently Violent to Gay People?” In it, he discusses how believers with same-sex desires tend to fare in churches. We are often flooded with accounts of people who have been abused or mistreated in churches that hold to the traditional sexual ethic, but the data actually suggests that believers with same-sex desires can do quite well in nonaffirming churches. To be sure, there are still challenges. Not everything is as it ought to be.
Johnson encourages Christians to model the biblical paradigm of both grace and truth. The sexual ethic, if used as a bludgeon and without compassion, can drive people to depression or suicide, but not because it is inherently that way. Quite the opposite. When wrapped in grace, the biblical sexual ethic is life-giving.
If I had to give a critique for this section, it would be that Johnson (here and throughout the book) is primarily focused on what the church needs to do better. There is less of a challenge given to believers with same-sex desires on how they need to engage with the church. Given that the focal point of the book is on what mistakes churches have made, this isn’t altogether surprising. But more often than not, Johnson treats believers who have same-sex desires as fragile people that need to be handled with care rather than those who need to be challenged in our faith and walk. To be sure, both approaches are necessary depending on where a person is at. I just would have liked to see more of the other side of that coin.
Part 4: A Path Forward
So, given everything that has been said so far, where do we go from here? Clearly, for Greg Johnson, returning to an ex-gay narrative is out of the question. So how does he suggest that the church move forward in ministering to those with homosexual desires?
This section covers quite a lot of ground. Topics that Johnson has addressed briefly throughout Still Time to Care get a fuller treatment. I want to approach Part 4 by delving into what Johnson calls “The Terminology Wars.” This subject connects with many other issues of interest to me and will serve as the launching pad of my summary and critique.
4.1 The Terminology Wars
A bit of background: Johnson has gotten into a bit of hot water the last few years within his denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). His church hosted the first Revoice Conference in 2018, which according to its mission statement, exists “to support and encourage gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other same-sex attracted Christians—as well as those who love them—so that all in the Church might be empowered to live in gospel unity while observing the historic Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.”
Some of the controversies of the Revoice Conference from its more conservative critics have revolved around language. What language should a Christian use to describe their experience of same-sex desires? Should they use gay, same-sex attracted, or something else? Normally, conservative critics favor only using same-sex attracted (or at least avoiding words like “gay” or “queer”), while Revoice has been more permissive in letting people choose their own terminology. Other controversies have revolved around the sinfulness of same-sex attractions or a gay orientation, as well as the role that sexual orientation ought to play in one’s identity.
Johnson, being the host, defended Revoice, also confessing to his own struggles with same-sex attractions. This eventually led to an investigation that brought up charges against Johnson and his church. This led to a trial before the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission, and it ruled that “Missouri Presbytery did not err when it declined to process allegations against Teaching Elder Greg Johnson.” You can read more about that story by clicking on the links in this paragraph.
All that to say, the whole debate around terminology is one that Johnson is all too familiar with and sought to address in his book.
Johnson articulates the heart of the debate this way:
“What if our fallen sexual orientation is still homosexual? Can we not find a way to acknowledge the reality and persistence of sexual orientations that seldom change and are part of our lowercase, secondary identities, while still locating homoerotic temptation as an effect of the fall and manifestation of indwelling sin? I think we can and must.” (p. 207)
There’s a lot packed into this statement that touches on a lot of different areas. Let’s unpack it and analyze Johnson’s claims.
4.1.1. “What if our fallen sexual orientation is still homosexual?”
In my opinion, Johnson’s critique of this debate suffers from being bound by the paradigm of sexual orientation. Because Johnson treats the category of sexual orientation as a given and something that we come to define ourselves by (at some level), this creates the need to find language which can articulate both our experience and our identities in light of our sexual desires. Thus, he sets up what I think is a false dichotomy between saying “I am gay” vs. “I am same-sex attracted.” (The two most common phrases the church has adopted.) By pointing out the flaws in both, he leaves the reader with only one option: “These are personal decisions about how one describes one’s experience. Terminology is an area for Christian freedom.” (p. 193)
To me, this debate asks the wrong question of “What language should I use to describe my sexual orientation?” rather than “Is sexual orientation a biblical category to use in the first place?” If, as I believe, the answer to the latter question is no, then the whole gay vs. same-sex attracted debate becomes mostly unnecessary. Without sexual orientation, the debate would shift from what language should I use to describe the kind of person I am to what kinds of desires, temptations, or indwelling sins do I experience.
Over time, my main concern with saying “I am gay” vs. “I am same-sex attracted” has shifted from the predicate (gay vs. SSA) to the “I am” part of those sentences. When sexual orientation comes to define an essential attribute of who we are, then it distorts other God-given categories of human personhood.
4.1.2. “Can we not find a way to acknowledge the reality and persistence of sexual orientations…”
Yes, we can, and should. While a rather small minority of Christians would object even to this, most have no issue with merely acknowledging the presence of indwelling sins or temptations. It’s the next two phrases that most people take issue with.
4.1.3. “sexual orientations that seldom change”
I’ll say upfront that the available data (and my own experience) backs up Johnson’s claims that the pattern of one’s sexual attractions rarely does a 180-degree flip.
However, Johnson’s overall tone with regard to “change” is one of resignation (see this blog or this one for a list of such quotes). Johnson rightly puts his ultimate hope in Christ’s second coming and kingdom, where sin and its effects will be no more—and this is a good thing. However, he doesn’t clearly articulate what hope we have in the present in regard to overcoming sin.
I, too, have gone down the path of trying to “change” my sexual attractions and have found that approach wanting. Nevertheless, I do think that I can experience meaningful change (in terms of overcoming sin) through sanctification. Why? Because Scripture tells us that we should expect such growth (Ephesians 4:11-16, Colossians 1:28, Hebrews 5:12-14, 2 Peter 3:18). If this is the case, why would our sexuality be exempt from this? At the same time, Christians need to be clearer about what “change” means. Should we expect it to include a shift from general same-sex eroticism to general opposite-sex eroticism? No, because that isn’t God’s goal or ideal for us anyway. But should we expect more victory over sin and a greater transformation of our hearts and desires? Yes! And I leave the results of what that will exactly mean to God. My goal is to put all of my clay in the hands of the potter to be shaped in accordance with his will and desires.
Just as a fixation on changing one’s sexual attractions led to many errors in the ex-gay movement, Johnson’s fixation on the seeming permanence of one’s sexual desires leads to different errors.
4.1.4. “sexual orientations that … are part of our lowercase, secondary identities”
Johnson is clear that “no Christian should have a sexual orientation as their core identity.” (p. 193) At the same time, he argues for being able to adopt sexual orientation as a “lowercase, secondary identity,” just as we have numerous other identities that are subservient to Christ (like nationality (I am an American), race (I am white), occupation (I am a writer), and numerous other things). But you might say, “These aren’t identities rooted in sin, whereas identifying as gay/homosexual is based on sin.” Johnson’s response is that:
- Not all parts of a gay sexual orientation are sinful. Johnson says, “A homosexual orientation includes more than just same-sex sexual attraction. It also includes the lack of sexual attraction to members of the opposite sex.” (p. 192-193) It isn’t sinful to not be attracted to members of the opposite sex, so not all parts of a gay orientation are sinful or would necessarily be incompatible with our identity in Christ.
- We are able to “identify with sin in a healthy way,” (p. 198) similar to how Paul identified with his sin in 1 Timothy 1:15 – “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” The “of whom I am the foremost” is in the present tense. As Johnson puts it, Paul “identified as a sinner. He even identified as the chief of all sinners. Not former chief. Not chief emeritus. Chief. Paul identified as the CEO of depravity.” (p. 196) Johnson views identifying as gay, same-sex attracted, or something else as falling into this same category of identifying as a sinner. Johnson compares this to how many in Alcoholics Anonymous identify as an alcoholic (“My name is … and I am an alcoholic“).
Let me address these in reverse order.
22.214.171.124. 1 Timothy 1:15
1 Timothy 1:15 is a relevant verse to this conversation. It demonstrates the reality, as Luther put it (whom Johnson also cites), that Christians are simul justus et peccator, simultaneously just/righteous and sinner. And the fact that Paul identifies himself as the chief of all sinners is important to this conversation.
However, I think Johnson is stretching this verse beyond what is intended when he compares Paul identifying as a sinner with identifying as gay or same-sex attracted for several reasons:
First, reading the context of 1 Timothy 1:15 gives us a clearer picture of perhaps what Paul meant (or didn’t mean) when he identified as a sinner.
"I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost." (1 Timothy 1:12-15)
Notice that Paul doesn’t address himself presently as a blasphemer, persecutor, or insolent opponent. Those are things he has forsaken and abandoned, something he was “formerly.” Yet, he still says that he is (present tense) the foremost of all sinners. There are two senses (maybe more) in which this might be true.
- The first is that Paul is the foremost of all sinners (present tense) based on his actions in the past rather than present sin. If you put his entire life’s sins on a scale, they would be weighty indeed, and he can still feel that weight presently. But thanks be to Christ, he received mercy and was saved by grace through faith. Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to him.
- The second sense is what Johnson seems to be implying (or would have to be implied in order for the analogy to make sense), which is that Paul is identifying with his present sinfulness that he currently experiences.
Both seem like plausible interpretations. It could even be that both are true. But I tend to think that Paul is at least emphasizing more of the former because of the focus on his past sins.
Second, 1 Timothy 1:15 is the only verse where Paul addresses himself in this way. In three other places, he calls himself the least of the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:9), the least of all the saints (Ephesians 3:8), and “nothing” (1 Corinthians 12:11). But nowhere else does he identify with sin. Even in Romans 7 using the interpretation that Johnson favors, Paul also distances himself from his sin, saying “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it but sin that dwells within me.” (Romans 7:17, 20). The rest of the New Testament (and especially Paul’s writings) draws a very sharp distinction between our life of sin and our life in Christ (Romans 6:11-13; Ephesians 2:1-10, 4:22-24; Colossians 3:1-10).
Third, looking at the 43 times the word “sinner” is used in the New Testament, with the exception of only 3 (1 Timothy 1:15 and possibly Galatians 2:17-18 and Luke 18:13), the word “sinner” is used almost exclusively of non-believers, not Christians.
Fourth, let’s just say that Paul is identifying as a sinner, present tense. Is that the same as identifying with a particular sin? Paul nowhere identifies in the present tense with particular sins. The particular sins he lists in connection to himself (here and elsewhere) are in relation to his former self and life before he knew Christ as Lord.
Fifth, the meaning of simul justus et peccator needs clarification. R.C. Sproul offers a concise explanation of what Luther meant when he used this phrase:
And so with this formula, Luther was saying, in our justification we are one and the same time righteous or just, and sinners. Now if he would say that we are at the same time and in the same relationship just and sinners that would be a contradiction in terms. But that’s not what he was saying. He was saying from one perspective, in one sense, we are just. In another sense, from a different perspective, we are sinners; and how he defines that is simple. In and of ourselves, under the analysis of God’s scrutiny, we still have sin; we’re still sinners. But, by imputation and by faith in Jesus Christ, whose righteousness is now transferred to our account, then we are considered just or righteous. This is the very heart of the gospel.
I wonder if, in some sense, Johnson’s assertion that one can identify as a sinner at the same time that we identify with Christ is more an example of the part I bolded than what Sproul is saying Luther meant.
Sixth, let’s talk about Alcoholics Anonymous’s famous phrase “I am an alcoholic.” To be fair to Johnson, because AA has a fairly good reputation and has done good work for decades, most Christians are likely comfortable with the phrase “I am an alcoholic” but uncomfortable with the phrase “I am gay.” But to be consistent, if I oppose identifying with a sinful sexual orientation, I ought to reject identifying with other sins. And it seems to me that “I am an alcoholic” falls into that category as well. If we are in Christ, alcoholism is something we repent of and turn away from, even if it remains a present struggle. It ought not to be something that we identify with.
Where I think such phrases can have an unintended good is in the fact that saying those words forces you to own up to your sinfulness, what you’ve done, and what you continue to wrestle with. It doesn’t try to wash it over or ignore it. I do think Johnson has a legitimate concern that some can use “identity in Christ” language to ignore the hardships of life or the ongoing struggles with sin. At the same time, I think the hymn “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” has the right idea:
O soul are you weary and troubled
No light in the darkness you see
There’s light for a look at the Savior
And life more abundant and free
Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in his wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace
This, of course, doesn’t mean that we ignore our experiences, but it is those realities defined by God (both created and eternal realities) that ought to define who we are. Manmade or constructed identities can have their place, but they must always be submitted to our Christian identity and our created identities (like male and female).
For all these reasons, I think the weight of the evidence does not support Johnson’s interpretation of 1 Timothy 1:15 and its application to identifying with our sinful sexual desires while identifying with Christ.
126.96.36.199. Is a gay sexual orientation sinful?
Johnson and I both agree that the “homoerotic temptation” is “an effect of the fall and manifestation of indwelling sin.” Honestly, I was surprised when I read that. Most Side B authors and thinkers would disagree with that, or at least frame that statement differently or qualify it differently. So, I give kudos to Johnson for upholding that.
But where this conversation tends to get tricky is when sexual orientation is expanded beyond the realm of the sexual. Take one of Johnson’s hypothetical conversations from his book dealing with identity (p. 196-197):
Christian: I’m gay.
Well Intentioned: No, you’re not. Your identity is in Christ.
Christian: Well, of course. Jesus is everything to me. That’s my core identity. But I’m also attracted to members of the same sex.
Well Intentioned: You shouldn’t identify with your sin.
Christian: My sexual orientation tempts me toward different sins than yours does, but it encompasses more than sexual desires. My orientation encompasses my complete lack of sexual attraction to members of the opposite sex. That’s not indwelling sin, is it? My orientation also brings certain shared experiences. I’m not talking about some intangible quality of gayness. I’m talking about the feeling of always having been different. The common experience of growing up closeted and afraid. The process of being honest and opening up about my story. Taking off the mask.
Well Intentioned: You still shouldn’t identify with your sin. Your identity is in Christ.
Johnson admits that “perhaps, this [conversation] is a bit of a caricature,” but the longest paragraph in that quote is representative of what I commonly see in Side B literature. Sexual orientation becomes more than just the pattern of your sexual desires. It becomes a shared set of experiences that, for some, can lead to identifying with an entire “gay culture,” complete with gay ways to dress, gay mannerisms, gay language, gay activities, etc. (many, if not most, of which tend to defy gender stereotypes—another topic for another time). Everything starts to be infected by one’s sexual orientation. While Johnson doesn’t take the idea that far in his book, other side B thinkers do (see a piece by Julie Rodgers, for example, and a response by Owen Strachan).
In Wesley Hill’s piece responding to both of these authors, he makes a helpful delineation between the different ways they (those at Spiritual Friendship and side B thinkers in general) and their critics (like Owen Strachan) distinguish between how they conceive of homosexuality and sexual orientation in general.
… It seems to me that Strachan is viewing homosexuality much more like a pre-modern Christian might: to be homosexually oriented is to experience discrete moments of temptation, forbidden desire, and (perhaps) to perform certain actions or behavior. When Strachan says that “we cannot glean any positive aspects of our patterns of sinful desires,” it’s clear that he’s treating homosexuality as a particular pattern of illicit attraction. Which is very similar to how almost all Christians would have thought about homosexuality until very recently.
But we live in a constantly changing world, and many modern Westerners—especially, but not only, younger people—recognize that “being gay” today is a cultural identity. It’s a community designation (“gay community”); it names a way of being in the world (“gay culture”); it involves a continuous narrative (“when I came out… my gay friends…”); and it can exist even before or without lust and behavior (think of how many teenagers you know came out before their first kiss). It isn’t identical to “lust” or even “desire.”
I want to suggest—and I do so tentatively, as a sort of thought experiment—that when people like Julie (and I) say that their “being gay” can be the time or the place where they experience redemptive grace, they’re speaking very much within a contemporary framework of thinking about homosexuality. They’re recognizing that not all aspects of this new social construct—“being gay”—are reducible to what the Bible names as lust or what pre-modern Christians (and modern ones) recognized as sin. There’s a whole raft of experiences and social connections and relational histories and aesthetic sensibilities that go under the rubric of “being gay” for many of us moderns…
In this aspect, I agree more with Strachan’s approach to thinking about homosexuality because I think it aligns more with how the Bible presents sexuality: as an outworking of our created sex and gender, which includes sexual desires, rather than as a cultural identity. I think Hill, Johnson, and others, have chosen to work within our culture’s concept of sexual orientation rather than question its validity.
It’s not that I disagree that people with same-sex desires could have more in common with one another than just their sexual desires. I know this from my own experience. Commonalities of any kind, including sin struggles, will bring with them shared experiences. I have found those shared experiences (common challenges we face, common questions we ask, common ways of fighting sin, etc.) to be a source of comfort as we pursue Christ wholeheartedly (2 Corinthians 1:3-5). But the question is how those experiences, brought about by sinful sexual desires, ought to relate to my identity.
If such experiences are intrinsically good (such as how people with same-sex desires tend to put an increased value on hospitality, friendship, or singleness), these are an outgrowth of the fact that we are created in God’s image with the capacities for these good things. But people with predominantly heterosexual desires can value these things just as much as I can. Such things are not exclusive to me just because I’ve had same-sex attractions for most of my life. I don’t have an intrinsic ability to be a better friend, to be more hospitable, or to value singleness because of my disordered sexual attractions. To indicate otherwise would be prideful or arrogant, in my opinion.
For those experiences which, in and of themselves are morally neutral, I hesitate to incorporate something like this into my identity. For example, I agree with Johnson that a lack of sexual attraction to the opposite sex is not a sin in itself, but I also wouldn’t necessarily put it in the category of “the way God intended” either. It’s difficult to know what a prelapsarian (pre-Fall) sexuality or sexual desire might have looked like, but it’s that very ontological and moral ambiguity that makes me put a “lack of sexual attraction to the opposite sex” in the category of “shifting sand,” not a “solid rock” on which to build the house of my identity, nor something that I would want to feature in the construction of the house itself.
For those experiences which are sinful, I think Johnson and I would both agree that such things ought to be rejected and crucified.
At the end of the day, so many of these experiences (whether we discern them as good, neutral, or bad) would likely not exist were these sinful same-sex desires not also present. Is that really a good source of identity? I want to build my identity on what God created good (like being created male/female) and on the fact that I am “in Christ,” not on shared experiences that can ultimately be traced back to sinful desires.
4.1.5. “while still locating homoerotic temptation as an effect of the fall and manifestation of indwelling sin”
Yes. Well said.
4.1.6 Concluding Thoughts on the Terminology Wars
In conclusion to this section, I want to close with what Scripture says more generally about our words. As Christians, I don’t think we can help but make a big fuss about words. Words are important.
It was through words that God spoke the universe into existence (Genesis 1 – “And God said…”). Jesus himself is called the Word of God (John 1:1, Revelation 19:13). Words are how God has revealed himself to us through the prophets and Scriptures. Jesus, while on earth, used words to speak parables, teach, heal, cast out demons, and even raise the dead! God is Truth, and every word he speaks is true and eternal (Proverbs 30:5-6, Matthew 24:35, John 17:17). Words are so powerful because they are deeply connected with the communication of the truth.
Likewise, our words can carry great power (Proverbs 18:4, James 3:1-12). Proverbs 18:21 tells us, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Our words have the power to build up and the power to tear down; the power to declare truth and the power to deceive (Proverbs 15:1, 4, 18:20; James 1:26). Both Old and New Testaments place a high value on choosing our words carefully (Proverbs 16:24; Ephesians 4:29; Colossians 3:8-10, 4:6) We are also told that our words are a reflection of our hearts. Luke 6:45 says, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” Jesus gives all Christians a stern warning when he says, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36-37)
Thus, the words we use connect back to our hearts and most deeply held beliefs. Not only do our words express what is in our hearts, but they also influence our hearts. The words we use to describe ourselves will have a big influence on our own self-perception and thinking, which in turn affects the way we act.
In light of this, here are two questions I would raise for any Christian struggling with how to think about terminology, sexuality, and Christian faithfulness:
- What do our word choices reveal about our underlying assumptions and beliefs concerning God’s truth about who we are, how he created us, and what he has called us to do? Are the words I am using to describe my experiences reflective of and submitted to those truths?
- How will our words be received and interpreted by others? In a conversation, Scripture puts responsibilities on both the speaker (Proverbs 16:23, Ephesians 4:29, Colossians 4:6) and the listener (Proverbs 18:13, James 1:19). Wisdom is needed to navigate how to communicate the fullness of the truth while using words that will be understood by the listener. Our approach to words needs to focus on the needs of the listener, not our own desire for self-expression.
I ultimately agree that language (taken in isolation) is a matter of wisdom. But the language of sexuality connects to so many fundamental truths about who God is, who we are, and how we are called to live and act. This puts far greater limitations upon our words than I think most people want, especially in a culture where self-expression is seen as a matter of ultimate importance.
In this matter, I think Johnson’s approach is too permissive compared to what Scripture instructs us about words, but I think his permissiveness is ultimately born from underlying theological assumptions that differ from my own. We would be better off addressing those theological assumptions than merely the words which flow from them.
There are numerous other things I could go on to compliment or critique about Greg Johnson’s book Still Time to Care, but this review has gone on longer than I intended.
As I mentioned at the beginning, Still Time to Care does numerous things well, especially the explanation and documentation of the ex-gay movement. Greg Johnson should be commended for the work he has done here. But when it comes to his solutions about how to move forward, I have more measured criticism. Johnson, like so many others, takes the cultural paradigm of sexual orientation for granted. And, like so many others, this has led to a distortion in the way we conceive of human personhood and identity. If we do take sexual orientation for granted as Johnson does, this book represents a very thoughtful exploration of how Christians ought to move forward in the LGBTQ+ discussion. But as it stands now, it would be difficult for me to endorse or recommend this book as more than a good historical resource on the church’s approach to homosexuality in the last 80 years.