It appears that it is to the sin of homosexuality alone that Christians must exercise such caution and censorship of the biblical and theological language. As Johnson puts it: “Our children and grandchildren are watching… I am not saying we are at risk of losing Christians who are attracted to members of the same sex. That’s a given. I am saying we are at risk of losing the next generation” (216). Care, not cure is the only acceptable approach to homosexuality for the Christian minister.
Greg Johnson, Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2021. Hbk, 304 pp. ISBN: 9780310140931. $25.99
Greg Johnson is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and has served as a pastor for many years. In his new book, published by Zondervan and entitled, Still Time to Care, he repeatedly proclaims his love for Jesus Christ and his gratitude for Christ accepting him. At the same time, Johnson also asserts that his ongoing experience of homosexual attraction and his ongoing gay identity is a reality that the church has not handled well. He dedicates the book to, “Every gay person who has ever heard the call of Jesus and found life.”
The body of the book is divided into four parts, but the introduction provides essential framing for the arguments to follow. In the introduction, Johnson recounts what he now considers to be early indications of his homosexuality: his desire for an Easy-Bake Oven when he was young; his lust and curiosity over groomsmen at weddings; the fact that he never fit in in with stereotypically masculine or heterosexual identity with his peers (xvi). After an encounter with the gospel, however, all this seemed to have changed. His story became: “Gay atheist falls for Jesus” (xvi).
The change he experienced was so significant that Johnson recounts telling people that he used to be gay, that he was “an ex-gay” (xvi). He did not believe he was lying at the time, though in hindsight he does not believe he was telling the truth. Looking back, he sees his earlier declaration as a failed attempt to understand how his faith informed his sexual urges. Now Johnson says he “used to be an ex-gay” (xx).
The burden of the book, then, is to advocate for a paradigm of caring for those in similar situations. Its intent is to “cast a gospel vision for gay people” (xx). Part of this vision consists in convincing those who might consider calling themselves ex-gays, as Johnson once did, that the terms and ideas behind this label are false. The ex-gay movement, according to Johnson, was a “Potemkin village” (85).
Throughout the book, Johnson writes in a discursive and personal manner. His own story, told succinctly in the introduction, figures prominently in the arguments to follow, as do the stories of many others. Also, although the exact statistical estimates change, Johnson treats as axiomatic throughout the book that only a very small percentage (1% is suggested at one point) of people attracted to the same sex experience change in the orientation of their sexual desires. The majority need to be protected from “unsafe churches” (53); and churches themselves need to embrace a paradigm of care, not cure. He writes, “After four decades, the path to cure was a dead end. The ex-gay movement had died” (133). Near the conclusion to the book, Johnson puts it this way: “The church’s attempt to cure homosexuality failed” (243).
To cast his vision for a new paradigm in the absence of a cure Johnson begins by turning to four Christian leaders from the past who will be known to most evangelicals: C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, John Stott, and Billy Graham. Each of these figures, according to Johnson, provides a model for how homosexuals should be treated within the church.
He begins with C.S. Lewis. Johnson notes that Lewis had a close friend who was tempted and often succumbed to homosexual urges. Lewis treated him with sympathy as a friend. In addition, Lewis apparently did not believe that the ultimate societal solution for homosexuality lay in criminalization of homosexual behavior. He also did not see homosexuality as having been the most prevalent or serious sin in his unhappy boarding school. This is all beyond dispute and comes from Lewis’s own writings.
Johnson finds another key in Lewis’s writing on marriage. Lewis advocated that civil and Christian marriages be viewed differently. Johnson reaches the following conclusion: “In the world we inhabit, after the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges case that legalized same-sex marriage in the United States, Lewis’s perspective on marriage law may provide a paradigm for Christian political engagement (or disengagement) on sexuality” (9).
This goes far beyond what Lewis wrote. It is anachronistic at best to suggest that Lewis would have favored the reasoning in Obergefell; but employing Lewis in the service of movement toward so-called gay marriage is more sinister than that. Christians like Lewis have always acknowledged the validity of marriages between non-Christians, and they have always understood that the demands of biblical Christianity place a high premium on marital fidelity (Lewis’s basic point); but the underlying issue in the debate surrounding Obergefell was whether a homosexual union could in any real sense be considered a marriage. On this, the Bible, our confession, and the entirety of Christian tradition—Lewis included—is quite clear. What Johnson is advocating is less clear, but it appears that he is extrapolating from what Lewis wrote to suggest that Christians should consider another approach to the debate over what is called same-sex marriage. If this is what Johnson is proposing, and it seems that it is, then it is both highly significant and greatly troubling.
The section on Francis Schaeffer centers on his ministry to students at L’Abri. Johnson portrays Shaeffer as fostering an environment, “where homosexuals—both lesbians and gay men—are welcomed…no one is telling them they have to change” (13). One problem with these historical memories is that they come via Francis’s son, Frankie. This does not mean they are inaccurate, but a note of caution might be in order. Frankie’s published recollections paint a negative portrait of Francis, his ministry, and his family. If one were to accept Frankie’s accounts, his father would hardly be considered a public example. Notwithstanding these historical questions, it is also the case, as Johnson points out, that Schaeffer distinguished between temptation and action, and warned against pride when dealing pastorally with homosexuality. He was also quite clear that homosexuality was sinful, seeing it as a “breakdown in the biblical distinction of the sexes” (11).
Billy Graham is probably the best known of Johnson’s positive examples, but it is hard to understand why he was included in the argument. What Graham’s example boils down to is that he cautioned President Lyndon Johnson against reacting too harshly when one of his advisors, Walter Jenkins, was caught engaging in homosexual sex in a public restroom in Washington DC in 1974. It seems as if Graham was careful in doing so, but all we have is the record of one phone call.
While Johnson commends Graham for this phone call, he also regards Graham’s behavior in other circumstances to be concerning:
But the learning curve would be steep for Graham. In response to one 1973 letter from a young Christian woman asking about her attraction to another woman, Graham bluntly warned her that such a path leads to destruction. He warned her of judgment and pointed her to conversion and regeneration, even though she seemed to indicate that she was already converted. I can only imagine that his comments might have left her questioning her salvation. (17–18)
Isn’t it surprising that Johnson, a presbyterian minister, would find Graham’s words here in need of correction? Was it a problem that Graham issued a warning spelling out the fact that sin leads to judgement? Should he have avoided calling this woman to repentance and faith rooted in the new birth? According to Johnson, Graham should not have written these things at all. It was part of Graham’s steep learning curve, because “I can only imagine that his comments might have left her questioning her salvation” (18). If the fact that Graham may have caused this woman to question her salvation presents such difficulties, one wonders how the warnings and commands directed at professing Christians within the New Testament might raise similar concerns.
When it comes to Stott, the picture becomes murkier, although Stott is regarded by Johnson as the “architect” of the paradigm he is advocating. The confusion stems from the fact that most of the chapter on Stott is taken up with an anonymous book that he did not write, but that he was rumored at times to have written, entitled, The Returns of Love. This book apparently spoke with great feeling about homosexual longing. It was written in the form of letters between two men who expressed love for Jesus Christ and trust in His Word, but who lived in deep pain because of their celibacy in the midst of homosexual urges.
Again, it must be said (and Johnson eventually acknowledges this), John Stott did not write the book. But Stott apparently did later indicate that he found the book a helpful resource in understanding the pain of homosexual longing (28). This statement, combined with the fact of Stott’s unmarried celibacy and the false rumors that he had written the book, set the stage for the other strand of evidence in Johnson’s case, which is that Stott was emphatic that sinful pride should never enter in when dealing with homosexuals. He was not a culture warrior in this sense, and he cautioned Christians against a culture war approach, while still maintaining a consistent witness to biblical sexual ethics.
The point of Johnson’s uneven and anachronistic presentation of these four men is to hold them up as examples of a “paradigm of care” (33). What does this consist of? Johnson writes a kind of staccato manifesto on page 33, with a list of ideas which encapsulate this vision of Christian ministry taken from the examples of these four evangelicals: “[Avoid] hammering at them with your theology.” “Instead feel empathy toward sexual minorities.” “Defend gay people when under attack.” “Be honest about the relative fixity of sexual orientation for most people. False hope doesn’t help anyone.” “Like Lewis, commend gay people who follow Jesus. Tell their stories. Hold them up as models to follow” (33).
All these statements need to be questioned seriously and critiqued biblically, and they hardly seem to follow from the historical material Johnson presents. There is no indication that these men believed what Johnson assumes throughout—that deep internal change in sexual desire is impossible. They cared, but they did not explicitly set this in opposition to the possibility of change.