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A Reply to 'Queer Culture in the PCA?'

A Reply to 'Queer Culture in the PCA?'
A conference goal: What can we do to help our churches help sexual minorities connect, feel loved, and grow as disciples of Jesus?

Written by Greg Johnson |
May 28, 2018

Why are we hosting this gathering? Because there are a lot of gay men and women becoming Christians--or who grew up in Christian homes--and found themselves attracted to the same sex. They aren't always sure what that means for their sexuality or for their church life. They want to obey God, but they often feel like they don't fit in the body of Christ. The goal of the conference is to help those who believe in the historic, biblical sexual ethic figure out how to thrive within churches that share those biblical commitments.

I read Al Baker's opinion piece, "Queer Culture in the PCA? Concerns about the Revoice Conference being held in a PCA church in St. Louis in July." I want to thank Al for his eagerness to call us back to the Bible and for his passion for that repentance unto life through which (alone) we can enter our soul's rest. He has shared his own history of evangelism among people living a homosexual lifestyle. I commend that example.

As the senior pastor of the conference's host church, I would like to explain why we are honored to host the Revoice conference this summer.

Why are we hosting this gathering? Because there are a lot of gay men and women becoming Christians--or who grew up in Christian homes--and found themselves attracted to the same sex. They aren't always sure what that means for their sexuality or for their church life. They want to obey God, but they often feel like they don't fit in the body of Christ. The goal of the conference is to help those who believe in the historic, biblical sexual ethic figure out how to thrive within churches that share those biblical commitments.

These are sisters and brothers who are paying a lot more than a tithe to follow Jesus.

We love them and want to support them in that calling.

A major keynote speaker is Dr. Wes Hill, professor at Trinity School for Ministry (the Anglican seminary founded by John Stott and J.I. Packer). He also will be preaching at Memorial PCA that following Sunday. Wes is author of Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian and Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan) and is a contributor to First Things, Books and Culture and Christianity Today. Another speaker is Preston Sprinkle, author of People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just an Issue (Zondervan) and Living in a Gray World: A Christian Teen's Guide to Homosexuality (Zondervan). Others presenters include a Covenant Seminary professor and myself.

Typically, a lot of believers in our churches hide their struggle with same-sex attraction. That isolation tends to open them up to the Accuser who targets those carrying the shame of secret sin. By contrast, others simply give up and seek out a church that compromises the biblical sexual ethic, a church that tells them that homosexual behavior is a Christian option. Right now, there are a lot of alternative voices out there offering a revisionist interpretation of the Bible's sexual teaching--promising that a new sexual ethic can help same-sex attracted Christians flourish.

The Revoice conference is promoting a different vision, a vision of gospel flourishing within the biblical / historical Christian sexual ethic.

The idea behind "revoicing" a piano is that you keep the piano but tune it to bring out the beauty of the instrument's sound. Often, our teaching about homosexuality is simply that gay sex is wrong. And that much is true. That's one note, one indispensable key on the piano. But what of the teenager in our churches who only hears that one note over and over again whenever gay people are discussed--a teenager crushed by the shame of a sexual orientation he has acknowledged to no one? Is the Bible's message to him only negative? A well-voiced piano can make a much more complex and beautiful sound. Yes, that message still includes a call to self-sacrificial discipleship. (That's the same for all of us.) But the gospel offers the believer with same-sex struggle a positive vision of flourishing in Christ as a part of his body the church.

So why gather for a conference? What is there to discuss? It's a fair question. There are issues such believers have to address if they seek to flourish in the church. Does the Bible really prohibit all homosexual behaviors--when there are scholars who argue otherwise? (Answer: Yes, it does prohibit them. That's one workshop.) Then how do I deal with the shame I feel about my sexuality? How open with my church should I be about what I'm facing? Since I can't have a gay partner, what will it take for me to live permanently de-coupled? How can the gospel give me hope? What does it mean that God sets the lonely in families? What particular blessings and challenges does celibacy bring for women? And might God call me into a heterosexual marriage? What particular challenges and opportunities have others in 'mixed-orientation' marriages faced? What do I do if I develop a same-sex crush on my brother or sister in Jesus? How can I keep my same-sex friendships from becoming weird or unhealthy? What boundaries should I set? In what ways can I still serve my church?

And as for the workshop that seems to cause the most confusion online? Is there anything admirable that we can acknowledge within the literature, art and struggles of "queer" culture. From a biblical perspective, what is redeemable--what evidence of the imago dei is present within the literature of that movement? What longings does one find in "queer" art and film that point to a bigger need for God? Reformed folks, you should expect to ask this question. You were trained to ask this question. Don't get shocked when we ask this question. We ask this question of every culture. It is a question and not an endorsement.

There are still other questions for pastors and other Christian leaders. What can we do to help our churches help sexual minorities connect, feel loved, and grow as disciples of Jesus? What guidelines are helpful for pastoral care? And what do you do if your teenager tells you he thinks he is gay? How can we reach out to and love people in the gay community as a part of our mission field that needs reconciliation with God as much as the rest of us?

The gospel of Jesus speaks to all of these questions, and the conference organizers have tried to bring together a team of experienced Christian leaders to help us think these things though.

Under the FAQ heading on the Revoice website, the conference has tabs explaining the mission, vision and theology of the event:

What is the Mission of Revoice?

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.

What is the vision of Revoice?

Revoice exists because we want to see LGBT people who adhere to the historic, Christian sexual ethic flourish in their local faith communities. We envision a future Christianity where LGBT people can be open and transparent in their faith communities about their orientation and/or experience of gender dysphoria without feeling inferior to their straight, cisgender brothers and sisters; where churches not only utilize, but also celebrate the unique opportunities that life-long celibate LGBT people have to serve others; where Christian leaders boast about the faith of LGBT people who are living a sacrificial obedience for the sake of the Kingdom; and where LGBT people are welcomed into families so they, too, can experience the joys, challenges, and benefits of kinship.

What does Revoice believe about human sexuality?

We believe that the Bible restricts sexual activity to the context of a marriage covenant, which is defined in the Bible as the emotional, spiritual, and physical union of a man and a woman that is ordered toward procreation. At the same time, we also believe that the Bible honors those who live out an extended commitment to celibacy, and that unmarried people should play a uniquely valuable role in the lives of local faith communities. Together, these two convictions constitute the "traditional sexual ethic," because it represents the worldview that the Bible consistently teaches across both the Old and New Testaments and that Christians have historically believed for millennia.

But a historic, or traditional, sexual ethic in itself is not automatically a Christian sexual ethic. Simply abstaining from sex outside of marriage does not make one a faithful and thriving disciple and follower of Christ. Furthermore, LGBT people who remain faithful to the Bible's teaching about sexual expression do not automatically thrive as Christians in their local church. A Christian sexual ethic that is life-giving for all people, including LGBT people, is not something that we can simply assume we already possess, but must instead be a goal that all Christians--straight and nonstraight--continually attempt to construct and refine anew in their own cultural context. Settling for less than this results in a version of the traditional sexual ethic whose cultural relevance might not be immediately apparent to populations of people who live at the margins of our society. For these individuals, a culturally irrelevant sexual ethic simply doesn't feel livable.

I hope this helps provide context.

Now a word about terminology...

We have found that some fellow Christians see the term "gay" or "LGBT" and worry that the conference is something it is not. I know the conference organizers really struggled with terminology. Every term for those struggling with homosexual orientation has its limitations and is open to confusion. The term "ex-gay" implies to some hearers a complete orientation change, which relatively few ever experience. To others, it suggests electro-shock conversion therapy. The term "gay Christian" suggests to some a pro-homosexuality ethic and lifestyle that cannot honor God. But to others, the term "gay" just means orientation, and they feel their witness to gay people is enhanced if they can say, "Yeah, I'm gay too, but I gave up sex when Jesus captured my heart."

To most of us Reformed evangelicals, the term "same sex attracted" seems safer, but it is terminology not used and not understood by our surrounding culture. The conference organizers have preferred the term "sexual minority" because it encompasses all those whose experience of sexuality is significantly different from the norm, and even includes eunuchs like the African man who was the first Gentile convert. (Compare Jesus on eunuchs in Matthew 19.) But even that "minority" terminology can be misunderstood to imply a posture of self-pity which the organizers do not want to feed. Some even read into it a Marxist agenda.

Our presbytery did a report last year on homosexuality. Within its 300+ pages was a recommendation that our churches be sensitive to issues of personal freedom in how homosexually-inclined believers choose to describe their struggle, whether as a "same-sex attracted Christian" or as "celibate gay Christian." Since the Bible says not to quarrel about words and since we see that there are no perfect options, we've followed that recommendation to respect freedom in terminology. We've not made an issue of it with the conference organizers. Nor will we. God's power is made perfect in our weakness.

We at Memorial are honored to be allowed to host so many brothers and sisters who are paying such a high price to follow Jesus. We love them. And we covet your prayers for these believers, for their sanctification, that they would flourish in our churches, and that by God's power their witness would reach people the rest of us might never reach.

If you have more specific questions about the conference, you can reach Revoice organizers at info@revoice.us.

Greg Johnson is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is the lead pastor of Memorial PCA in Saint Louis.


On the Revoice Conference, "Gay Christianity," and the Apostle Paul's Showstopper Words to the Corinthians

By Owen Strachan
June 1, 2018

The Revoice conference has caused a stir in evangelical circles in recent days. Basically, it is a conference that stands for the idea that a person can faithfully affirm both Christian identity and a homosexual identity. This is not a new view--see Matthew Vines's work as one example--but this particular conference charts new territory by looping in numerous figures associated with Covenant Seminary and the Presbyterian Church in America, among other institutions and churches. Covenant and the PCA are complementarian in theology, so to participate in Revoice signals a major shift along the lines of sexual ethics. Though Covenant is not a conference sponsor, and has recently issued a statement (thankfully) disavowing concrete affiliation between the seminary and Revoice, no complementarian seminary or denomination has yet been so closely linked to a "gay Christian" event as this.

I have responded to the promotional material of Revoice for the Center for Public Theology, as have others like Denny Burk and Phil Johnson. My point in my CPT piece is this: Christians cannot affirm "gay Christianity" because the apostle Paul emphatically closed off any uniting of a fallen identity to a Christian one. Paul does this throughout his writings (e. g., Romans 6; Ephesians 4:22-24), but the showstopper text is 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, with verse 11 providing the key phrase: kai tauta tives nte, often translated "Such were some of you."

In the NASB, here are all three verses:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

Context is key here. As is well-known, the Corinthian church existed in a sea of iniquity. Corinth was the San Francisco of its day in sexual terms; behaviors and identities that were scandalous elsewhere were prevalent in Corinth. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, numerous born-again believers in the Corinthian church had gratuitously indulged their lusts as unbelievers. Paul explicitly says as much in the passage quoted above. In other words, Paul is not speaking of sexual sin (in terms of both practice and identity) as if it is a problem for some group somewhere else; in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, he is speaking directly to former homosexuals, drunkards, cheats, idolaters, adulterers, and more. He is writing to a group of people who formerly lived to gratify the lusts of the flesh in seemingly every direction.

On the subject of Christianized homosexuality--the issue the Revoice conference is forcing us to confront--if Paul held the view that these people could retain their fallen sexual identity but break with fallen sexual practice, he would have used different language. He would have restricted his comments to a denunciation and prohibition of past behavior--something like "You used to behave in these ways, but now you don't." This is exactly what Paul does not do. He tells the Corinthians in crystal-clear language that they have broken with both a fallen sexual identity and fallen sexual practice. In his enlightening exegetical commentary, Anthony Thiselton shows that the traditional translation of the first part of verse 11 is actually not as strong as it should be:

The most important point about the initial sentence in v. 11 is the continuous imperfect indicative of the form ἦτε. The NRSV, NJB, this is what you used to be, is exactly right, as against REB, AV/KJV, such were some of you (NJB changes JB's were). While were is not strictly incorrect, Paul's reference to continuous habituation is implicit in the imperfect (see above on vv. 9--10). The neuter plural demonstrative pronoun ταῦτα emphasizes Paul's sense of shock and undermines the unnecessary discussion about lists of qualities versus lists of actions. The English this is the kind of thing that you were brings together the notion of a state of being with the performance of actions which instantiated it.

There is serious exegetical horsepower being exercised in this paragraph, but the takeaway is plain: the translation doing most justice to the Greek here would read even stronger than the traditional "such were some of you." It would read "This is what you used to be." Thiselton has the relationship right: "the performance of actions" actually "instantiated" a "state of being." In layman's terms, Paul views the Corinthians as having broken decisively with their old identity and practice. They were thieves, but are not any longer. They were drunkards, but are not any longer. They were homosexuals (whether the malakoi or the arsevokoitai, the passive or active homosexual partner, respectively, according to the Greek) but are not any longer. David Garland says it well in his own exegetical commentary: "The implication is that Christianity not only offers a completely new sexual ethos and a new ethos regarding material possessions but also brings about a complete transformation of individuals. God's grace does not mean that God benignly accepts humans in all their fallenness, forgives them, and then leaves them in that fallenness. God is in the business not of whitewashing sins but of transforming sinners" (emphasis mine). Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner chime in helpfully in their exegetical commentary: "If for Christians the future has invaded the present, a decisive break has also been made with the past; the once/now motif is just as important as the already/not yet" (emphasis mine).

If we resource the great tradition of the Christian church on this passage and verse, we find abundant support for the view outlined above. John Calvin: "The simple meaning, therefore, is this, that prior to their being regenerated by grace, some of the Corinthians were covetous, others adulterers, others extortioners, others effeminate, others revilers, but now, being made free by Christ, they were such no longer. The design of the Apostle, however, is to humble them, by calling to their remembrance their former condition; and, farther, to stir them up to acknowledge the grace of God towards them" (emphasis mine). Jonathan Edwards (who I just wrote a book about) sermonizes that the first part of verse 11″ denotes the Reality Greatness & wonderfulness of this Change," the change wrought by gospel conversion. Spurgeon says the same: many of the congregation Paul addressed "had been fetched, by almighty grace, out of the very depths of the grossest sin." In other words, all of these great pastor-theologians see the sin-driven identities listed in verses 9 and 10 as defeated and overcome by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

There are Christians today who are making the opposite argument. I am thankful for those who have broken with sinful sexual practices of whatever kind, whether heterosexual or homosexual. The church does and must come alongside sexual sinners of every kind and help them fight their lusts and overcome the flesh. The way to do this, though, is not to break with fallen sexual practice but retain fallen sexual identity. The way to help believers fighting sin of every kind is to listen afresh to Paul. Again, if ever there was an opportunity for Paul to allow a group of sinners to hold onto their fallen identity, it was the Corinthian church. But Paul did not encourage the Corinthians--former swindlers, idol-worshippers, homosexuals, and fornicators--to do this. He taught them gospel-driven Christianity. He taught them new-nature Christianity. He showed them beyond a shadow of a doubt that Christ was their all, that conversion had overcome their past, however awful it may have been, and that they were new.

Yes, these believers would have to fight against temptation, internal and external. But the key plank in the New Testament doctrine of sanctification is identity. If you know who you are in Christ, you are freed to fight and defeat--over the long haul--your sins. If, however, you do not know that you are a wholly new creation, you will find the battle against sin terribly dispiriting. You set yourself up for defeat, shame, and the very strong possibility of terrible moral compromise.

We as believers of all backgrounds fight sin at the root level. When we think even a fleeting murderous thought--"You fool!"--or when we allow ourselves to indulge a sexual fantasy about anyone who is not our spouse, we confess it and repent of it before the Lord (see Matthew 5:21-30). I've seen some wonder if this is overwrought sanctification. It is not. God sets up an exacting standard of holiness for his church. See 1 John 2:6--"the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked." Do evangelicals know that we are called to obey a perfectly holy, perfectly righteous God? I'm surprised by how lax our understanding of divine holiness is. Note a connection, discerning reader, between our movement's lax view of holiness and the current scourge of pornography usage, implosion of marriages, and general sexual sin among Christians.

Dear friends: it is precisely because we are not killing sin at the root that we are falling head over heels into one moral compromise after another.

To sum up, the key to overcoming sin and temptation is this: to know who you are in Christ, and then to ruthlessly hunt your sin down wherever it rears its head (see Colossians 3:1-11). Out of love for fellow believers, and out of intense concern for those currently living to gratify the flesh, the church must make this clear: there is no such thing as gay Christianity. There are Christians who are fighting all sorts of sinful attractions and temptations--this, in fact, is all of us. But there is no such thing as gay Christianity. There can be no connection between Christ and Satan, the flesh and the Spirit, the church and the world.

If we teach that there is, we dishonor, disobey, and even silence the words of the apostle Paul to the Corinthians.


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