As professors at Covenant College, the Christian liberal arts college of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and ruling elders in the PCA, we’ve had countless conversations with students and fellow church members about issues surrounding identity and sexuality. Like the rest of us, they’re trying to understand our cultural moment with all its complexities.
We both read widely on these issues for our teaching and counseling, and thus were eager to read Greg Johnson’s Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality, a book by a brother in Christ and a fellow elder in our denomination.
We hold historically orthodox views on sexuality, so we should acknowledge that prior to reading the book, we were well aware that over the past several years the author has become a lightning rod in the PCA on these issues. Frankly, we approached the book with significant skepticism. However, we also must confess that as we read the book, some of our skepticism dissipated. We found much of it pleasantly surprising.
Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality
Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality
At the start of the gay rights movement in 1969, evangelicalism’s leading voices cast a vision for gay people who turn to Jesus. We see with them a positive pastoral approach toward gay people, an approach that viewed homosexuality as a fallen condition experienced by some Christians who needed care more than cure.
With the birth and rise of the ex-gay movement, the focus shifted from care to cure. As a result, there are an estimated 700,000 people alive today who underwent conversion therapy in the United States alone. Despite the best of intentions, the movement ended with very troubling results. Yet the ex-gay movement died not because it had the wrong sex ethic. It died because it was founded on a practice that diminished the beauty of the gospel.
For orthodox Christians, the way forward is a path back to where we were 40 years ago. It is time again to focus with our Neo-Evangelical fathers on care—not cure—for our non-straight sisters and brothers who are living lives of costly obedience to Jesus.
Let’s begin with a sketch of the book’s 20 chapters. First, Johnson describes two contrasting paradigms of Christians and homosexuality. He begins with noteworthy theological forebears like C. S. Lewis, John Stott, and Francis Schaeffer who modeled a caring approach to “gay Christians.” These men didn’t object to using the adjective “gay” to describe believers who have a propensity to experience same-sex sexual desires and temptations. Johnson styles the gentle approach of these and others as “the paradigm of care.” This paradigm emphasizes gospel-driven empathy that doesn’t compromise the biblical sexual ethic.
Second, he reviews the contrasting strategy of ex-gay ministries, which he dubs “the paradigm of cure,” and judges the whole movement as an abject failure. The movement failed because of “a vastly underdeveloped theology of sin” and “a vastly overrealized eschatology” (135).
Third, Johnson responds to common objections to orthodox biblical sexuality and defends the position of the Christian tradition.
And finally, Johnson charts a way forward for Christians who struggle with their sexuality and for those seeking to love them well—a way that reembodies the paradigm of care rather than the paradigm of cure exemplified by the ex-gay movement.
Winsome and Pastoral Orthodoxy
The book is well written, full of pastoral warmth and hard-won wisdom. Johnson writes with verve and models a winsome orthodoxy that Christians everywhere should emulate. This man is single, in his 40s, and still a virgin. Regardless of how you judge his ministry, here’s a brother with something to boast about.
Johnson charts a way forward that reembodies the paradigm of care rather than the paradigm of cure exemplified by the ex-gay movement.
If you don’t struggle with same-sex attraction, you might find yourself scratching your head at the intensity of recent debates. Why all the fuss? Johnson’s patient analysis helps the reader understand how same-sex desires feel on the inside and why ex-gay ministries—those under the umbrella of Exodus International and others—left many people disillusioned. One comes away feeling deep empathy for our siblings in Christ, especially in light of Johnson’s searing exposé of the ex-gay movement.
Over 12 chapters, Johnson documents countless failures and lapses in integrity and judgment among ex-gay leaders. The evidence that Johnson piles on is staggering, with many instances of misleading propaganda and outright hypocrisy and with claims like that of Colin Cook, founder of Homosexuals Anonymous, who promised that if you followed his method, “In time, 80 to 90 percent of the strength of homosexual feelings will pass away” (78). So much of the ex-gay rhetoric, especially in the early years, betrayed a flawed hamartiology and pneumatology unduly confident in the capacity of ex-gay programs to lessen or even remove same-sex attraction, when in fact only the Holy Spirit can change our affections and internal desires.
Johnson’s critique of the paradigm of cure is merely a prelude to the position he advocates, namely, the paradigm of care. He retrieves past conservative lights like Richard Lovelace who exhorted the church “to accept, honor, and nurture nonpracticing gay believers in its membership, and ordain these to positions of leadership for ministry” (34). In 1980, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES) published a report on homosexuality that embraced “our homosexual brothers and sisters” (207) and encouraged its members to “publicly and privately protect those struggling with homosexuality in and outside of our congregations” (15)—and, of course, the RPCES denomination joined the PCA in 1982. As Johnson notes, “the PCA General Assembly voted to receive the report and other RPCES reports as part of the PCA’s history to be ‘valuable and significant material which will be used in the perfecting of the Church’” (15). This older care paradigm marries a traditional sexual ethic to a gospel-centered pastoral approach that is full of mercy and grace (but note: David Linden and Paul Gilchrist have raised several concerns with Johnson’s interpretation of the RPCES report—see this article).
Greg Johnson also outlines his perspective on the linguistic debate over whether Christians should see themselves as “gay” versus “same-sex attracted.” For example, he writes,
For the non-Christian, there are missiological implications of telling gay people, “You cannot be gay and be a Christian.” There is only one way a secular audience will hear such a statement. Gay to them means their sexual orientation, not their sexual ethic. When you tell someone they can’t be gay and be a Christian, they will hear that as, “The gospel of Jesus Christ does not apply to you, because you are sexually attracted to members of the same sex.” In our attempt to reinforce the script of a dead movement, we risk obscuring the gospel to gay people. (209)
Johnson movingly speaks of the “emotional abuse” that many of our brothers and sisters feel because of fellow believers constantly trying to police terminology (243). Even though we still question the wisdom of adopting adjectives like “gay” or “homosexual” as Christian identity markers, Johnson’s observations here are sober and thought-provoking.
Why Is There So Much Debate?
Given the strengths of this book, why is Johnson controversial for some Christians, especially in the PCA? Some cultural (or nominal) Christians oppose his message due to cultural rather than biblical influences, but we can safely pass over this group as peripheral to Johnson’s target audience, which leaves two main groups that will likely define how this book will be received.
On the one hand are those carving out space for Side B Christianity. “Side B” advocates experience persistent same-sex desire but reserve sex for the relationship between a husband and wife, as opposed to “Side A” advocates who believe that Christianity is consistent with having same-sex sexual partners—both Side A and Side B reject ex-gay strategies of orientation change. On the other hand are their critics who are both alarmed at how both Side A and Side B Christians are normalizing homosexual desire and worried that core theological commitments are being sacrificed. By their lights, Side B Christianity is a slippery slope to Side A Christianity (e.g., see the cautionary remarks by a U.K. pastor). For good or ill, Still Time to Care is inseparable from that broader conversation; however, we note that while Johnson’s book is consistent with some of the key emphases of Side B Christianity, he doesn’t apply this language directly to his own proposal.
In our judgment, the concerns of Johnson’s critics are not tilting at windmills but rather reflect the genuine dissent of sincere Christians across the globe. Massive shifts in sexual mores have turned the Western world upside down, not least in the normalization of homosexuality, queer theory, and the transgender movement.
Furthermore, some have accused Johnson of being needlessly provocative in his wider speaking and writing and say that he often picks fights unwisely. Whether one agrees with these sentiments or not, the present book is innocent on that score, but here and there we sense an impatience with the concerns of more theologically conservative critics. At any rate, while potential readers should be alert to this broader context, our review is focused on assessing the book on its own terms.
Massive shifts in sexual mores have turned the Western world upside down, not least in the normalization of homosexuality, queer theory, and the transgender movement.
Still Time to Care may be a reality check for some of Johnson’s critics. Although we resonate with pastoral leaders who have raised specific theological misgivings about Johnson and his allies, we regret other shrill and unreflective voices that are too common in our churches and in the online space, especially among laypeople. In those latter instances, one wonders whether fears about the Revoice conference or Side B Christianity are always motivated by biblical fidelity (rather than red herrings). It isn’t unusual to find Christians with very strong opinions about people who struggle with homosexual attraction, while they completely ignore their own struggles with abominable sins like pride, greed, envy, lust, and sloth. Why this double standard? Why the obsession with condemning anything with a whiff of homosexuality?
As Johnson rightly notes, this discrepancy is unbiblical (210–11). Christians should consistently oppose all sins, and, especially when it comes to the sin of homosexuality, we should imitate the compassion and gentleness of men like Stott and Schaeffer. Yes, Christ was very critical of the Pharisees and their hypocrisy, and yes, the Bible doesn’t mince words about sin, but we can be forthright about the biblical teaching on homosexuality and same-sex attraction without losing the humility and grace that are the fruit of the Spirit. If we’re not known for that kind of pastoral care, then we should repent.
1 Question, 2 Reservations
While we appreciate much of this book, we have two significant reservations and one question. Before laying out our reservations, we wish to raise a question—unusual in a book review—not about Johnson’s thesis, but about the dust jacket. It’s the first thing the reader notices about the book, and so we confess to some degree of puzzlement and disappointment in its design, which, though quite handsome, features the bands of the rainbow on front, back, and (most prominently) spine.
We love the rainbow, especially because of its divinely given meaning as the sign of the Noahic covenant (Gen. 9:13–16), and we’re jealous to honor its covenantal significance. But why is it used here? What’s the intended messaging in this design? We see no obvious connection with its covenantal meaning. Given the topic of the book and the co-opting of the rainbow symbol by purveyors of the LGBT+-affirming agenda, doesn’t the use of the rainbow theme on the dust jacket run the risk of misleading the potential reader, suggesting that the book is somehow promoting or aligned with the LGBT+ agenda? But Johnson has ably defended the biblical sexual ethic in this book alongside a beautiful and biblically grounded paradigm of care for the church. His voice is openly at odds with the LGBT+ agenda. So we’re not sure what to make of this design nor who’s responsible for the questionable judgment reflected in it. Perhaps our worries are unfounded and the design isn’t intended to have anything to do with the position defended in the book; perhaps it’s only meant aesthetically or evocatively, without implying anything about the author’s own views. Even then, however, we fear that it’ll prove to be a hindrance, biasing many against the book who might be helped by it.
Our first reservation concerns Johnson’s treatment of how a Christian’s same-sex sexual desires and temptations should be viewed. In the PCA and other Reformed circles, same-sex sexual desire itself is judged sinful, the fruit of concupiscence or original sin. Although Schaeffer and others denied the sinfulness of involuntary same-sex attraction (12), in this book Johnson clearly and consistently defends the position that same-sex sexual desire is concupiscent and thus sinful—an assessment with which we agree. This defense is noteworthy since many of Johnson’s Side B allies disagree.
At the same time, we worry that Johnson’s penetrating critique of and reaction against the ex-gay movement throws out the baby with the bathwater. Has he, perhaps inadvertently, abandoned the hope of significant change in our sinful sexual desires and temptations?
Throughout the book, Johnson denies that Christians should expect change and prefers to emphasize the stability of our sexual desires and propensities.
For example, he writes, “There is no cure for corrupted nature in this life. We remain inescapably children of Adam. There is only a charge to fight our corrupted nature’s temptations to sin” (36). Later, he asks, “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” (207).
Indeed, the message that substantial change in sexual attraction is highly unlikely is implicit throughout Johnson’s history of the failed ex-gay movement:
Our struggle to confirm even a couple of handfuls of cases of true gay-to-straight orientation change is telling. God has power to do anything. It appears this is something he has chosen to do only very rarely in this era. (127)
Here’s another typical statement: “It would be naive to think that something so deeply rooted as the inward pull of sexual temptation could be eliminated in this life” (138–39). Such passages pepper the book’s pages and will likely leave many readers with the impression that Christians cannot experience any change in concupiscence. Yet Johnson never makes that claim and likely doesn’t believe it (e.g., in his floor speech at the 2019 PCA General Assembly, he confessed that he no longer struggles with pornography, which implies that in his view concupiscence can diminish). However, Johnson is fixated on criticizing the ex-gay movement’s belief that God promises complete eradication of same-sex sexual desires in this life, and that fixation renders his analysis imbalanced.
The reader thus never hears that believers should expect God, by his Spirit, to lessen the power and frequency of such sexual temptations—indeed to lessen concupiscence itself—following the normal pattern for all sins we face in the Christian life.
The reader thus never hears that believers should expect God, by his Spirit, to lessen the power and frequency of such sexual temptation.
As the Westminster Confession of Faith says about progressive sanctification, “The dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (XIII.1, our emphasis). Granted, the Confession immediately concedes that sanctification is “imperfect in this life” (XIII.2), but we should nonetheless expect the Spirit to help us grow in grace, including the weakening of concupiscence.
We agree with Johnson that ex-gay leaders shouldn’t have held up marriage as the apex of the Christian life; and yet, they were still right to emphasize the expectation of sanctification lessening, if not eradicating, those sinful desires, because those convictions are rooted in what we believe about divine omnipotence and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Christians who struggle with sinful sexual desires are merely experiencing the eschatological reality that characterizes the entire Christian life for every believer, a life lived in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet”—God will not eliminate our experience of sin, but he will enable genuine spiritual growth in the power of the Spirit. In short, Johnson needs to communicate a more carefully developed theology of sanctification in the book. His constant emphasis on the improbability of losing one’s propensity toward certain sexual desires and temptations after coming to faith in Christ might encourage resignation about one’s condition that inhibits real growth in sexual holiness.
Our second reservation relates to the notion of sexual orientation. This concept is relatively unexamined throughout the book. Johnson draws on the convincing research of Thomas Hubbard and others who show that homosexuality was alive and well in antiquity (especially with the Greeks and Romans)—and not just homosexuality but monogamous same-sex relationships. And yet, Johnson never scrutinizes whether that way of understanding humanity—as “homosexuals” versus “heterosexuals,” as “oriented” in some fixed and uniquely sexual way—is congruent with Scripture, or even whether it’s well-grounded in science.
On whether someone can change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual, Johnson says “no” while the ex-gay movement says “yes.” But are they, perhaps, both wrong? The very language of “sexual orientation” begs the question in favor of essentialist understandings of homosexuality, a point under much debate. As Michael Hannon has argued, the very idea of sexual orientation may well be a mirage (see also Jenell Paris, The End of Sexual Identity, 74–76; and Rosaria Butterfield, Openness Unhindered, 93–112).
While we don’t take a dogmatic position on this issue, we wonder whether the language of sexual orientation with its embedded secular-scientific anthropological assumptions invariably distracts us from the deeper categories that Scripture and the Christian tradition apply to us as persons, categories like the image of God, grace, original sin, progressive sanctification, and petitionary prayer. Admittedly, this issue is complicated because the concept of “sexual orientation”—conceived back in the 19th century and endorsed by the American Psychological Association—is so baked into our cultural self-understanding and everyday discourse. Easy platitudes and evangelical shibboleths are wholly inadequate here. Nevertheless, we think that critical attention to this issue would have strengthened the book.
Johnson’s Still Time to Care is a timely book that presents a vision of Christian discipleship in relation to same-sex attraction and temptation that is remarkable in its theological depth, historical awareness, and pastoral sensibility. Johnson’s ministry model is more compelling than much of what billed itself as ex-gay ministry, and he tries to hold together the missional, pietist, and doctrinal streams of the PCA tradition. His book earnestly seeks to offer a way forward for Christians who struggle with sexuality and who long to obey God’s Word in this area of their lives. On all those fronts, he deserves our gratitude.
We wonder whether the language of sexual orientation distracts us from the deeper categories that Scripture and the Christian tradition apply to us as persons.
Yet we’ve registered two substantial reservations, raising a worry about Johnson’s treatment of sanctification with respect to concupiscence and questions about the notion of sexual orientation as a fixed propensity that’s taken for granted in this book and by most participants in the broader debate. Since these themes are central to the book’s overall argument, they end up weakening his case for a paradigm of care. In our opinion, the paradigm of care is inadequate without a complementary devotion to sanctification.
Unless the Lord has mercy, we suspect that thinking and living faithfully in the area of sexuality will only become increasingly difficult, especially for young Christians. These are sobering times. Johnson’s book is an important contribution to the growing body of literature for confessional believers who want help navigating our cultural moment.