Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality

Written by Greg Johnson Reviewed By Karl Deenick

Greg Johnson’s Still Time to Care is an important book. His aim is to chronicle and reflect on the very real trauma that was often inflicted on people by “ex-gay ministries”—like Exodus International, which rose to prominence in the 1970s and continued into the 2010s. Although the efforts of such groups were often well-meant, they were often profoundly damaging. As a theologian, pastor and person who battles homosexual desires, Johnson is well-equipped to write this book.

The first part of the book starts in the past, before ex-gay ministries ever existed. Johnson shows how Christian luminaries like C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Billy Graham, John Stott and others found ways of ministering to people beset by homosexual desires. As Johnson notes, they cast a “positive and biblically orthodox Christian vision for gay people who follow the call of Jesus Christ” (p. 4). For example, he recounts the story of Billy Graham’s generous response to a high-profile gay sex scandal. He tells of Francis Schaeffer’s disposition of “compassion and empathy” (p. 11). He notes, too, the positive vision set by various denominations, including one which, already in 1973, identified the great failing of the church as a lack of “sympathy and concern for the plight of homosexuals among them” (p. 15).

In each case he shows how these Christian leaders and churches affirmed the biblical ethic that same-sex sexual behavior is wrong, while also affirming that disciples of Jesus who experienced homosexual desires ought to be welcomed, loved and embraced.

Nevertheless, these early days were not without tragedies. Johnson, for instance, tells the story of Egon Middelmann, a pastor who was himself same-sex attracted. Middelmann fell into sexual temptation and in despair took his own life. Middelmann had never opened up to anyone about his sexual orientation. So although there was something of a positive pastoral posture in these pre-ex-gay ministry days, those who were same-sex attracted remained largely in the closet.

The book’s second part, however, tells a story of what happened later, beginning from the early 1970s. It tells of the rise and fall of “ex-gay ministries.” These were ministries to people who experienced homosexual attractions. They were largely run by those who experienced those attractions themselves. At one level, the story of these chapters is tremendously encouraging—people coming to faith and leaving old lifestyles behind, and safe spaces being created where people with homosexual desires could talk, pray and find love and acceptance. Johnson quotes one person: “I felt known. I no longer felt uniquely twisted, uniquely perverted” (p. 57). But there are also many disturbing stories, some, perhaps, more graphic in Johnson’s recounting than they needed to be. There are also accounts of highly suspect “therapies”—like men sitting naked together in a room exchanging stories of sexual encounters (p. 67). Johnson, too, piles up stories of ministry leaders who, having sought to minister to others in their sexual brokenness, ended up falling headlong back into sin themselves—some completely abandoning the Bible’s sexual ethic.

Yet, undoubtedly the most tragic stories are those of the people whose lives were shattered by buying into the false hope peddled by the ex-gay ministries. They had been sold a narrative of certain or near certain cure. But when that did not eventuate, as it almost always didn’t, they were left desperate and hopeless. Johnson tells stories of suicide, self-harm and self-destructive behavior (pp. 92–97). He also recounts the disturbing response of many churches to those who continued to struggle, such as the church pastor who declared one sufferer “‘too needy and too broken’ to be allowed to come to church” (p. 96).

Johnson continues with the story of how the movement changed and improved in the light of some of its errors. But despite change, the movement “died” with the decision to shutter the most prominent organization, Exodus International. Then, in the last chapter of part 2, Johnson gives his assessment of what went wrong. This is one of the most helpful chapters of the book. The two main weaknesses he highlights are: (1) an underdeveloped theology of sin (especially not understanding concupiscence), and (2) an over realized eschatology. Much of the ministry approach seemed to be influenced by the Word of Faith movement, with the result that people were taught that if they simply believed a new reality about themselves—that they were heterosexual—it would come to be. A further problem was that the movement had been started by “anyone with a story to tell” and who often “invented things on the fly” (p. 135). Consequently, it was not only characterized by theological naivety but led by people without the theological acumen to help them steer clear of classic theological blunders.

Personally, I found part 2 the most enlightening, if not the most disturbing, part of the book. I often found myself reading these pages in a state of near disbelief. I suspect that this is partly due to my location in Australia rather than the United States. It seems to me that the ex-gay ministries, while present in Australia, never had the prominence that they gained in the US. Nevertheless, the stories in part 2 helped me to understand the severely allergic reaction that many have to “conversion” ministries. Although often painful to read, I was grateful to Johnson for compiling this history.

In the light of the trauma created by these ministries, part 3 takes the time to ask whether part of the problem the ex-gay movement faced was that it got the biblical sexual ethic wrong. That is, did the movement flounder because homosexuality really is okay after all? In three straightforward chapters, Johnson shows that this is not the case. The Bible’s clear view is that sexual intimacy is intended only for a man and woman within the bounds of marriage. The job that Johnson does in these three chapters of defending the biblical ethic is masterful, not least because it is so brief and to the point.

Finally, part 4 maps a way forward for Christians to care for members of the church who experience same-sex sexual attraction. Johnson suggests four things. First, we need to kill off the remnants of the orientation change ethos that underpinned ex-gay ministries. Second, we need to end the “ex-gay script” in which people are encouraged to conceive of themselves as “not gay.” Third, we need to need to establish a gospel culture that focusses on forgiveness and care, rather than cure. Fourth, we need to give back to celibacy the legitimacy that such luminaries as Jesus and Paul gave it, rediscover friendship and cultivate hope.

In many ways, Johnson’s vision of how the church can grow to support same-sex attracted Christians is incredibly helpful. The “ex-gay” movement seemed obsessed with complete cure from any ongoing sin. But a biblical view of the Christian life will recognize that, this side of eternity, sin remains. What Christians need then is a community of believers that cares for and supports them as they continue to wrestle with indwelling sin, while holding out to them the full and free forgiveness of God, even for the one-millionth time. So, too, the movement often conflated freedom from homosexual desires with heterosexual marriage, such that to be freed from the first necessarily implied the second. But that was a profound mistake. Might it not be a blessing that some people don’t want to marry? Paul certainly thought so. Johnson is right that the church needs to move from the frequently implicit expectation that every Christian should marry, to valuing celibacy as a calling for the sake of the kingdom.

But it is with Johnson’s first two remedies that I have some concerns. For Johnson, care for those with homosexual desires necessarily involves abandoning the ethos of orientation change. It involves “holiness not heterosexuality,” as he frequently notes. The difficulty, however, is working out exactly what that means. If it means abandoning the expectation that same-sex attracted people will end up in heterosexual marriages, that seems fair enough (although clearly some do). Similarly, if it means abandoning the hope that homosexual lust will be replaced with heterosexual lust, that too seems fair enough (p. 140). Both are profound mistakes, and both are mistakes that, disturbingly, Johnson gives evidence to suggest Christians have made (e.g., p. 139).

But, confusingly, Johnson’s vision of “holiness not heterosexuality” seems to be at odds with his rejection of any suggestion of orientation change. For instance, in chapter 17, he critiques organizations that “seek to change underlying predispositions ‘regardless of whether residual struggle remains or returns on occasion.’” He also highlights the statement of another key leader who writes: “There is sure hope that one can enjoy freedom from driving homosexual temptation and the pounding desires of same-sex lust, which many call same-sex attraction.” Johnson responds: “Whatever name they give it, this program is still very much focused on the promise of sexual orientation change” (p. 191). Likewise, at the beginning of chapter 18, he criticizes well-meaning Christians who inflict “emotional wounds” by suggesting, “You may start out there, but God won’t leave you there” (p. 200).

But I struggle to see the problem with these statements. Certainly, the expression “sure hope” might be seen to overpromise, but the subsequent language of “driving” and “pounding” seems to indicate that the promise is not of complete “cure,” but of some measure of freedom from being dominated by homosexual temptations. Is that wrong? Doesn’t the gospel offer that much? In rightly critiquing the “ex-gay ministry” promise of “cure,” Johnson seems to have carried on too far and abandoned any hope for the diminution of homosexual desires.

Moreover, it is hard to see how Johnson’s examples of problematic “orientation change” materially differ from his affirmation that “the biblical sexual ethic calls us away from homoeroticism to holiness, but that holiness doesn’t mean heterosexuality” (p. 243). How, for example, does calling people to move away from “homoeroticism” differ from “freedom from driving homosexual temptation”? It seems to me that Johnson wants to affirm two convictions that, in his explanation of them, don’t quite go together. The first is the biblical demand to eschew homoeroticism or homosexual lust. The second is that orientation change is impossible to do and damaging to try. The problem is that Johnson’s definition of “orientation change” at times includes the reduction of homosexual desires. Therefore, it becomes unclear how one can encourage people away from such desires without that being construed as a form of damaging orientation change. In my view, it would be better to limit the critique of the ex-gay ministries to the promise of either heterosexuality or the complete absence of homosexual desires.

The other problematic aspect of Johnson’s care rubric is the second plank: ending the “ex-gay” script. Johnson’s target throughout the book is those who say or want to say (or want others to say) that they are no longer “gay.” Johnson criticizes attempts by people to distance themselves from their sexual proclivities and embrace their new position in Christ. For example, he finds fault with those who say, “I have same-sex attractions and do not consider myself gay or homosexual.” For Johnson, this is not successful orientation change but simply a “successful change in sexual orientation terminology” (p. 191).

Similarly, in a section polemically entitled “Weaponizing Identity in Christ,” Johnson quotes the father of the early ex-gay ministry movement, Frank Worthen, who on a cassette tape titled “Introduction to Love in Action” explained, “Does Christ’s life-changing power mean that I will suddenly become heterosexual? No, it certainly does not mean that. What will I be then? Neither homosexual nor heterosexual. You will become a new creature in Christ.” This, to me, seems like a fairly balanced statement. It does not promise heterosexuality, instead it offers a new life with a new hope, no longer constrained and dominated by the categories of sexuality. Yet, for Johnson, Worthen demonstrates “an unwillingness to accept the ongoing reality of sexual temptations. That’s identity as erasure” (pp. 196–97).

Again, what I find confusing about Johnson’s book is that he criticizes those who want to conceive of themselves as “no longer gay” and vigorously affirms that same-sex attracted Christians should be allowed to define themselves as “gay,” while at the same time castigating the church for making sexual identity the most important aspect of those people’s experience. For example, Johnson writes of himself, “My sexual orientation doesn’t define me. It’s not the most important or most interesting thing about me. It is the backdrop for that, the backdrop for the story of Jesus who rescued me” (p. 195). He writes similarly of C. S. Lewis’s view: “For Lewis, the gay person could not be reduced to their sexual orientation or to sexual temptation. Lewis understood that the homosexual Christian’s biggest struggle might be not with sexual sin but with despair or pride” (p. 7). I completely agree. But Johnson’s aversion to people not conceiving of themselves as “gay” seems to conflict with this point.

More problematic is the fact that it seems to go against the grain of the New Testament. At its heart, Johnson’s strategy is to discourage people who experience same-sex attractions conceiving of themselves differently. But that is exactly what the Bible encourages us to do when it instructs us to reckon ourselves dead to and alive in Christ Jesus (Rom 6:11). It exhorts us to adopt a change in terminology with respect to ourselves; a change that inevitably carries with it a certain “contrary to fact” assessment. That is, it is not that all the temptations of this life, sexual or otherwise, have abated or that we never sin (1 John 1:8); nevertheless, we are no longer to think of ourselves as enslaved to those things. Is Paul then advocating what Johnson calls “identity as erasure,” or is Johnson at risk of losing something biblical and important?

While some of Johnson’s solutions are confusing and concerning, at least to this reviewer, the chief takeaway from this book is the tremendous harm that was inflicted on many people through the “ex-gay” ministries. I found the stories in part 2 incredibly sad and disturbing. Depressing, too, were the frequent stories of those who had set out to help but who then succumbed to their desires and abandoned biblical ethics. The real problem was false goals—marriage—and also false expectations—notably, promises of permanent and complete eradication of sinful desires this side of eternity. In short, the problem was poor theology. A problem that, in my opinion, Johnson himself has regrettably not quite solved.

Karl Deenick

Karl Deenick
Sydney Missionary & Bible College
Croydon, New South Wales, Australia

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