Any paradigm of “care” that does not manifest itself in encouraging one’s brother to pursue comprehensive, Spirit-wrought change is caring only in name. Calling on a fellow believer earnestly to desire and actively to seek change at the level of sexual desire is not abusive; it is our duty. As believers we are called to hate our sin, turn from it to God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience (WSC Q. 87) and to call on our brothers and sisters in Christ to do the same.2 Repentance unto life is the pulse of God’s people individually and corporately. No desire, no matter how consistent or persistent, is exempt from Scripture’s call to mortification and vivification.
Since the inaugural meeting of Revoice in 2018 the Reformed and evangelical world has been holding its breath wondering, “Where will all of this lead?” In four years we have seen three successive Revoice conferences with the fourth forthcoming, hotly debated BCO amendments with more to be debated at the 2022 PCA General Assembly, and the recent decision of the Standing Judicial Commission concerning Missouri Presbytery’s investigation of Memorial Presbyterian Church. All of these together suggest that matters will get worse before they get better. Only the sovereign God knows exactly how everything will fall out, but we now know where the most prominent figure of the Revoice movement wants to see things go. In the concluding chapters of Still Time to Care, Greg Johnson offers his vision for the church’s future: he wants us to pick up the ball that we dropped forty years ago and return to the “paradigm of care” that he sees exemplified in the ministries of C. S. Lewis, Billy Graham, Francis Schaeffer, and Richard Lovelace (216). The “paradigm of care” is Johnson’s antidote to the “paradigm of cure” that undergirded the ex-gay movement of the last 50 years. To be sure, the ex-gay movement was fraught with serious theological and methodological errors from the start but, as one examines Johnson’s “paradigm of care,” one will find a host of other issues that will do more harm than good to the one who adopts it. For the sake of our sheep, I encourage pastors to consider different paradigm, a third way that I believe better adheres to the teaching of Scripture: a paradigm of change.
“But wait, change? That’s the same empty promise of the ex-gay movement. They tried to change peoples’ sexual orientation before, but it was an utter failure. Why turn back to a defunct paradigm like that?” In Johnson’s eyes, the language of “change” has become so poisoned by the ex-gay movement that calls to change are all but off limits. In fact, he goes so far as to call them abusive.
While Exodus in the United States is largely buried and dead, change-focused ministries continue to exist. And in much of the world, the ex-gay movement is still very much alive. As we ask what a path to care looks like for gay people who become Christians, we have to confront the ways the ex-gay movement is still moving about undead among us. The relics of the ex-gay movement continue to foster emotionally unsafe and even abusive spaces within conservative Christianity. Any path to care must root out the emotional abuse within our churches and ministries (190).
To be sure, if the only change that is pursued is a change in one’s sexual orientation, that is setting the bar for holiness woefully, woefully low.1 I am not here to advocate for mere behavioral change as was common among the purveyors of the ex-gay movement. As Christians we are called to aim higher and seek change that is deeper— change at the level of our hearts, affections, and yes, even our sexual desires. I agree, by and large, with Dr. Johnson’s assessment of the ex-gay movement and find many of its measures misguided and some even abusive. It pains me to hear that anyone would be told they must not be a Christian if they continue to struggle with a particular besetting sin. This represents an unfortunate and painful chapter in the history of American evangelicalism and it is one to which I hope we never return.
Johnson’s reaction, however, to the excesses of the ex-gay movement and its promise of orientation change inflicts a new damage all its own: it cuts the hope for meaningful change at the knees. Johnson writes:
Lewis, Schaeffer, Graham, and Stott viewed the homosexual condition not as a cognitive behavioral challenge to be cured but as an unchosen orientation with no reliable cure in this life (32; emphasis added).
What is a paradigm of care?…Be honest about the relative fixity of sexual orientation for most people (33; emphasis added).
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 not for cure but for care (35; emphasis added).
There were some individuals who experienced profound shifts in their sexual preference. Jill Rennick recalls several cases that could be deemed orientation change. She counts eight women and one man whose stories she is confident pan out. I spoke with one woman, named Debra, who has experienced a significant shift in her sexual orientation. So it’s not impossible in some instances, but the rarity of these cases is still striking (123–4; emphasis added).
Our struggle to confirm even a couple handfuls of cases of true gay-to-straight orientation change is telling. God has the power to do anything. It appears this is something he has chosen to do only very rarely in this era (127; emphasis added).
For me (Johnson), the sexualized pull toward people of the same sex is not likely to go away. This is a lifetime calling not to let it rule over me (136; emphasis added).
Paul wrote to the Corinthians to stress just how limited our transformation is in this life. Yet many well-meaning believers, having drunk the ex-gay Kool-Aid, continue to twist Paul’s letter to say something very different (143; emphasis added).
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 affect of the fall and manifestation of indwelling sin? I think we can and must (207; emphasis added).
We learned that sexual orientation is real. It’s not an addiction. And any shifts within it are fairly rare and incremental (243; emphasis added).
Whatever hope Johnson gives with one hand, he immediately takes away with the other. One can feel the walls closing in on the believer who wrestles with homosexual desire and longs to be freed from its bondage. “Sexual orientation is relatively fixed…change is so rare…hope is beyond our grasp until we reach the eschaton…look at all these statistics of people who tried and failed to change their orientation,” what other choice does the homosexual struggler have than to wave the white flag and adopt their homosexual desires as a “secondary identity” (199)?
Johnson is very careful in his walk along the terminological tightrope. Nowhere does he say that a homosexual orientation is altogether fixed, which would certainly open him up to ecclesiastical investigation. Instead he speaks of homosexuality’s “relative fixity” (33) which doesn’t violate the letter of progressive sanctification, but when all the individual pieces above are brought into focus, the spirit of progressive sanctification is consistently undermined throughout the book. The cumulative effect of Johnson’s countless qualifications and reminders that change is “fairly rare” and that “the locus of our hope lies in the coming age” feels like death by a thousand paper cuts instead of blunt force heterodoxy. Either way, the sexual struggler is left with virtually no encouragement to war against his sin.
Is “Change” a Biblical Paradigm?
Any paradigm of “care” that does not manifest itself in encouraging one’s brother to pursue comprehensive, Spirit-wrought change is caring only in name. Calling on a fellow believer earnestly to desire and actively to seek change at the level of sexual desire is not abusive; it is our duty. As believers we are called to hate our sin, turn from it to God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience (WSC Q. 87) and to call on our brothers and sisters in Christ to do the same.2 Repentance unto life is the pulse of God’s people individually and corporately. No desire, no matter how consistent or persistent, is exempt from Scripture’s call to mortification and vivification. Consider Paul’s exhortations to the saints in Rome and Colossae:
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” (Rom 12:2; emphasis added).
“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col 3:5; emphasis added).
Paul didn’t seem to think that calling on believers to mortify evil desires in their hearts and minds was abusive, so who is Greg Johnson to say that it is? Paul’s call to “put to death” the earthly within sounds very differently from the way Johnson speaks about homosexual desire, “God has called me to steward my sexual orientation in obedience to him” (199). How can one steward that which Scripture commands be put to death? How can Johnson’s paradigm of care peacefully coexist beside Scripture’s obvious paradigm of change?3 It cannot.
Is “Change” a Confessional Paradigm?
Change, however, is not only the expectation of Scripture. It is the expectation of the Reformed churches. Consider the Westminster Standards’ stress on the necessity of holistic sanctification, i.e., change not in part but in the whole man. They taught that sanctification cannot be selective or piecemeal, it must be comprehensive. If we exempt a handful of our besetting sinful desires from the process of progressive sanctification then we are guilty of two perilous errors:
Thinking too much of the power of our sin;
Thinking too little of the transformative power of the Holy Spirit.
In our Standards we confess God’s Word to teach:
WSC Q.35 What is Sanctification?
Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole manafter the image of God,and are enabled more and moreto die unto sin, and live unto righteousness (emphasis added).
WLC Q. 75. What is sanctification?
Sanctification is a work of God’s grace, whereby they whom God hath, before the foundation of the world, chosen to be holy, are in time, through the powerful operation of his Spirit applying the death and resurrection of Christ unto them, renewed in their whole man after the image of God; having the seeds of repentance unto life, and all other saving graces, put into their hearts, and those graces so stirred up, increased, and strengthened, as that they more and more die unto sin, and rise unto newness of life (emphasis added).
WCF 13.2 This sanctification is throughout in the whole man, yet imperfect in this life; there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part: whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war; the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh (emphasis added).