Pastor and author Dr. Greg Johnson discusses themes from his new book, Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality in which he chronicles the history and failures of the ex-gay movement.
As Johnson explained during his live Q&A, he believes there is a better approach of “care” for LGBTQ people who turn to Jesus.
Johnson is the lead pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church, a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) located in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Saint Louis University and an M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary.
The transcript below has been edited for clarity. Jump to the bottom of the article to watch the interview.
Your book, Still Time To Care, has a very personal dimension to it. It interweaves a lot of your own story of walking with Jesus. Can you share with us a bit about how you came to faith in Christ, and also how that journey intersected with recognizing your own same-sex attraction?
Yeah, it’s quite a story. I was not raised in the church. I was raised outside. I remember in middle and high school, people telling me I was an atheist, and I certainly didn’t agree with them, or didn’t disagree with them. I never knew what box to check on demographic studies when it came to religion. It was usually whatever the last box was, is probably the one I’d checked.
It was the summer of 1984, I was 11 years old, when I realized I was gay. And that was a hard time to realize that you’re gay, because that was right as the whole AIDS crisis was blowing up and everybody a little bit older than me was getting sick and dying, and all the kids were cracking gay jokes about how “skinny the faggots get when they pop off” and stuff like that. It was a horrible thing. And to be a middle schooler, going into seventh grade, I tried to hide it, but I was never good at it.
And then, late in high school, I started to have something of a moral awakening. It started with questions of justice, and is there right or wrong? Is human life valuable inherently? If so, on what basis? And if not, then what are the implications of that? And really thinking through those questions of, “Is there any meaning?” And I was slipping down the slippery slope of the moral argument for the existence of God without even realizing it, because I ended up realizing there actually had to be a God for anything to make sense, for there to be any way to distinguish a head of cabbage from the head of a child and why do we eat one and not the other, there has to be a moral order and that means there has to be a God.
And it was in college at University of Virginia, studying architecture, that I became a Christian through Campus Crusade—Cru, today they call it—and it was a conversion that, you know, I knew exactly what I was getting into and dove in. Because for the first time in my life, not only was I confident there was a God, but for the first time in my life, after two years of wrestling with God and whether he’s there, I realized that Jesus only came to save sinners, and he didn’t come to call the righteous and I knew I was a sinner. No one ever told me that.
And, in fact, my same-sex attraction is one of the things that God has used more than any other to keep me humble and broken and dependent on him. I mean, I can’t imagine, you know, if this is the thing that God’s going to use to keep me dependent on him, then I’m not one to complain against his sovereign will. And what I found in becoming a Christian, is the shame that I had always had, a great deal of it lifted.
And I know, for folks raised in the church, that’s hard to imagine, because they think of the church often if it’s a legalist background, you’re thinking, “Oh, man, churches throw shame on people.” But I had all the shame inside of me. Gay men in particular excel in every field. They’re at the top of so many different spheres of culture and art and fashion and everything. Because there is this internal drive to make ourselves lovable, in order to cover over that shame that we feel, and it can be quite crippling. And it’s that built up rage of shame and self-loathing, it’s very destructive.
And so we have the best cocktail parties, the most fashionable wardrobe, the most beautiful, decorated condominiums, the best cocktail party, you name it, everything. We have to go over the top in order to address that internal longing to be loved in order to try to take away that shame. And what the gospel gave me, what Jesus tells me, is not that I need to be lovable, but that I’m loved, and being loved is far more powerful than being lovable.
Who did you have in mind when you were writing Still Time to Care?
There are a couple different audiences. On the one hand, I was really wanting to speak to Christian leaders, pastors, elders, deacons, campus ministry staff, people who have the capacity to do the most damage when a gay person comes to Jesus, and who also have the potential to do the most good and blessing to do the same. And yet, I also felt like there were a lot of people out there who had watched for years the church’s attempt to minister to people who aren’t straight, and would had watched us bungle it pretty badly, and yet they weren’t ready to walk away from their biblical convictions.
And so they were thinking there has to be a better way. You know, we’ve watched this whole ex-gay thing, we’ve seen all the emotional abuse and the scars, we realize we’ve left so many people broken and bleeding along the way. And yet, we’re not ready to go affirming. We can’t do that and stay faithful to our biblical convictions about biblical marriage and sexuality. And so there’s got to be a better way. And so I wrote this book to try to really point us backward to an earlier path that predates the ex-gay movement so we can pick up that ball and get back onto the path of care.
You spend some time early on in the book talking about the different kind of terms that are used. I’ve already used the term “same-sex attracted.” You’ve used “gay.” We’ve heard “LGBTQ.” When someone refers to themselves as “same-sex attracted” or “LGBTQ” or “gay,” what often gets lost in translation when a non-same-sex attracted Christian hears those terms?
Yeah, well, the thing is, there is no non-problematic term to describe people who aren’t straight. There’s just none. Because if you use the old school term “homosexual,” that as a noun has been out of permitted usage in general in our culture for the past 30 years since about 1990 because of its history in criminology and its clinical background in psychotherapy. And so you can’t really call somebody a homosexual. That’s offensive. And that leaves us only certain other options. There’s the term gay, which for somebody who’s 30 years old, probably just means not straight but the other one, it’s the opposite of straight, and it just refers to sexual orientation without any other assumptions. Just because you’re assuming that everybody is not a Christian sleeping around with someone.
But for an older generation, they immediately go back to the 1970s and they immediately think, gay bath houses and all of this other kind of stuff, what they called back in the day, “the gay lifestyle,” which, you can’t really use that phrase anymore either, because for a lot of gay people, their gay lifestyle is going to brunch on Sundays. So then there’s the language that a lot of conservative Christians prefer that I’ve generally used for the last 15-20 years of same-sex attraction. But that language was developed by reparative therapy as a part of conversion therapy, and so for anybody who’s been through reparative therapy, that can really trigger massive amounts of trauma.
I know of campus ministers in our denomination who can’t use the term same-sex attraction on campus anymore because it’s so perceived as coming out of conversion therapy, and so that language becomes problematic for a different category of people. And then for young secular people, the new term is queer. They like queer because—and in fact, gay studies departments or gay and lesbian studies departments are often being rebranded queer studies departments now in universities – because queer doesn’t bias the experience of gay men the way the term gay does, as opposed to lesbians and bisexuals and transgender women, and so it’s confusing.
And of course, part of the problem is that you’re trying to describe it… Some Christians just want to say why don’t we just use the biblical term “homosexual temptation?” And that sounds smart and clever until you realize that a homosexual orientation is larger than the presence of same-sex sexual attraction. My sexual orientation implies that I’ve never been tempted to lust after a woman. I’ve never objectified; I haven’t even had the thought. It seems dirty and unclean and wrong for me to undress a woman in my mind. I’ve never dealt with storing up her image for later retrieval. I see billboards and they do nothing for me. And I don’t think we want to call that temptation.
So there’s a bigger category that sexual orientation brings with it that includes certain kinds of sexual temptation that are a little different and gendered from the way straight people experience sexual temptation, but it’s complicated.
My advice is just when you’re listening to somebody, please don’t ever, ever, ever, ever, ever tell them what language to use. They will always experience that as emotional abuse, because it’s emotional abuse. You can’t talk to a minority group and tell them how they have to define themselves when you’re in a majority group. It’s not the Christian loving thing to do. But rather ask questions. Find out what they need. Understand what they mean by the terminology they use and respect their choices. Even if it’s not the language that you would use, if you could imagine yourself in their position. It’s that judgment of charity. Because for some people, they’re going to call themselves “gay Christian” and what they mean by that is that they think that God made them gay, and it’s a good thing, and there’s nothing wrong with it, and they’re looking for a same sex spouse someday.
And others who call themselves by the same term are viewing their sexual temptations as a battle to fight against, and they are committed to celibacy or some to marrying somebody of the opposite sex, if God enables that. Whatever term they use, just substitute whatever term you’re comfortable, because different ages, different experiences, we’re all pushing back against a different enemy.
In your book, you begin with talking about the ministry of care that was actually very common amongst prominent evangelical figures such as John Stott, Francis Schaeffer. They had a ministry of care towards LGBTQ Christians. Can you explain the difference between a ministry of care and a ministry of cure?
Yeah, ministry of care, which is what you see expressed in like you said, CS Lewis, John Stott was the one who articulated the most, Francis Schaffer and Billy Graham, they all had the assumption that sexual orientation was not likely to change in this life for most people, certainly not for somebody who is exclusively attracted to the opposite sex.
And so for them, care meant, as Francis Schaeffer said, when a Christian realizes that because of their sexual orientation, they may never marry. He said that the Christian can weep with them, mourning with those who mourn because the effects of the fall are such that certain blessings for which we were created are deprived to some of us. And Shaeffer’s L’abri ministry in the 1960s was a haven for both gay men and lesbian women trying to wrestle with Christianity and many of them believing and trying to figure out, “What does it look like? How do I live?”
And Schaeffer was incredibly compassionate. He defended gay people consistently. He’d never compromised the biblical sexual ethic, but he believed their stories, which not many people in the 1960s did. He lamented the homophobia that was present even then in the churches. He had one European pastor who had had five or six different people who were gay commit suicide recently, and he sought Schaeffer’s council and Schaefer lamented the way that he said the “homophile,” which meant that the gay person is not practicing homosexuality, “is pushed out of life and specifically orthodox church life.” And he said “This, I believe, is wrong.”
When Schaeffer met for the first time the founder of the Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell Sr., they talked for a while, and Falwell leaned in and said, “What do you think about homosexuals?” And Schaeffer leaned back and he said, “Well, I think it’s a complicated issue.” And Falwell shot back this rejoinder and said, “If I had a dog that did what those people do, I’d shoot it.” And he wasn’t joking. Schaeffer walked out of that meeting and turned to his son and said, “That man is disgusting.”
Care involves making the church and family for people who are unable to marry or don’t marry, whatever their sexual orientation. Straight single people also need the church to be their family, and not trying to change. Now, what happened in the late 1970s, with the birth and growth of the ex-gay movement, as one of the founders of Exodus International said, “When we founded Exodus International, the idea was that you could convert from gay to straight. And the goal was to shift sexual temptations by gender, so that you would no longer be tempted by the same sex but you’d be tempted by the opposite sex, and therefore, be able to marry” and all this other stuff.
And at first, he claimed a 70% success rate in turning people straight and that became 50%, and then 25%. Eventually, after almost 40 years, 35 years later, in 2012, the last president of Exodus International admitted that the success rate of Exodus affiliate ministries from his perspective, the failure rate was 99.9%. Almost negligible results. The one person he had in mind at 0.1% was a woman that he later learned was still bisexual. She just happily married her husband.
But this paradigm of curing homosexuality, which we were on for decades and decades and decades, had such a powerful impact upon conservative Christian spaces. And it still is, even though the movement is basically dead after 700,000 of us came through it. The movement died with negligible results and false hope, and a lot of lives just destroyed, deeply damaged, by throwing false hope. It’s like a faith healer. He says, “You’ll beat your leukemia if you just trust God. If you believe God, you’ll be free,” and then it gets worse and you think God has abandoned you, because somebody lied to you in the name of Jesus by giving you a promise the Bible didn’t give.
And so yeah, that’s what we’re dealing with now is the aftermath. Because there are all sorts of ways that that dead ex-gay movement still walks about undead among us, shaping the way we expect people to talk and categorize. And it’s leading to a lot of real emotional abuse for non-straight people who follow Jesus.
One thing you mentioned that’s really interesting about the ex-gay movement was the idea that the end goal for someone who is gay was heterosexuality. And I believe in your book, you talk about the fact that biblical sexuality is not some sort of general heterosexuality, just simply being attracted to all people of the opposite gender. Can you help provide us with a better biblical understanding—both of a biblical sexuality of right here and right now and also of the world to come?
Certainly in this age, marriage is normative. Marriage between one man and one woman, we see that as normative within the narrative creation of Adam and Eve, with complementary reproductive systems that only work when joined together, that the idea is that one man or one woman would develop and foster their sexual longing and desire only within that covenant of marriage and not outside of it.
And the concept of heterosexuality is the concept of being sexually attracted to people of the opposite sex, meaning plural. And the question is, was Adam designed to be sexually attracted to multiple women? Or was he designed to be sexually attracted to his wife? And I think, biblically…If somebody wants to prove me wrong, they can please do so. I’d want to be set straight about this, but so far, nobody has. What I see in the Bible is not heterosexuality but uni-heterosexuality.
But this notion that the sexual attraction of a married man to his neighbor’s wife is not morally neutral, that his sexual attraction to his wife is right but to everyone else, it’s a indwelling sin to be resisted, not something to be just passed off as no big deal. And I think that paradigm means that straight people don’t get a pass, which, in many Christian spaces, they get a pass. And so very often what Christians expect is that when the sam- sex attracted person grows in Christ, they expect that they just become asexual or something, like they no longer experience sexual temptation, or that they become straight. And that’s not been anybody’s story, but the same-sex attracted believer’s expectation of spiritual growth should be about the same as a straight believer’s expectation, which is that, through discipline and whatnot, you might get to a point where you are less distracted by a beautiful man or woman than you used to be, but the temptation is never going to go away.
What we have to hope for though, is in the coming age when Jesus said we’ll be like the angels. There’d be neither marriage nor giving in marriage, He said, when questioned about a woman who’s had multiple husbands. Which one…? Will they all be together? That’d be disgusting. You can’t do that. So the Sadducees were arguing against the resurrection along those lines. And that’s when Jesus pointed out that the trajectory of history is that we’re all going to be celibate someday. Just as marriage is sort of the norm in this present era, celibacy is the norm in the age to come.
And for some of us, there is this intrusion ethic of the ethics of the age to come breaking into this age that some of us are already living under the ethics of the coming age in celibacy. It’s why Jesus said of singleness, that the one who is able to do this, ought to do it, and talked about those who are single or celibate for the sake of the kingdom, eunuch’s for the kingdom. That’s why St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7 says that he wishes everybody could be celibate like he is, but one has this gift, one has that gift.
And I’ve never heard anybody other than me preach on it, but later on in that same chapter, he says that the man who marries the virgin, does well. The man who does not marry, does better. And I think what he’s doing is he’s looking at that through the lens of what Jesus has taught that in the coming age all be celibate. For those who are given that gift in this present age, it’s a gift. There’s certainly a loss that comes with it. There’s mourning and grief and really a need for the church to step up and be the family of God and not just worship service programs. But it is a good calling of God and one that I don’t think anybody should spurn.
I think Pieter Valk hit the nail on the head in an article in Christianity Today when he said, “The real lever for gay people being able to walk out celibacy in the church is for them to be able to look around and see straight people who are also choosing to live celibate lives for the glory of God, because then it just won’t be them, they’ll be able to look around and see others.”
You also talk about in your book this idea called “identity in Christ.” If anyone has had any sort of familiarity with conservative Evangelical Reformed circles, we probably heard that said left and right, especially in the way that it’s been weaponized against LGBTQ Christians. Can you talk about why this idea of “identity in Christ” may not be very helpful for this discussion?
Yeah, the phrase “identity in Christ” was almost never used outside of some small kind of Keswick circles, which was a particular approach to sanctification that was popular in the middle of the 20th century. But basically, you don’t hear much about it, it’s just never discussed, until the 1990s.
And Neil Anderson, who was very much Keswick in his theology, started taking some of those ideas, that we only have one identity and that identity is in Christ and it’s our only identity and such that literally Christ is living His life through us and anything else is to be renounced. This kind of radical idea which misinterprets, I think, some key biblical passages. And he wedded it with some ideas coming out of pop psychology and identity theory and stuff. And he wrote a bunch of books in the 90s, and then suddenly, it was an avalanche. Everybody had a book on identity in Christ, which was a theological concept that didn’t exist before 1990 in some very obscure circles.
And so what happens is, often, when we talk about identity in Christ, we often use it to shut down negative emotion or experience. Somebody says, “Oh, man, I lost my job today.” “Don’t worry, your identity is in Christ,” which just shuts down all their need to critique the fact that God called them to work. Adam worked in the garden and they experienced this loss that’s depriving them, a part of what is God’s image they were created to do and they’re sorry that you just shut it down with your little smack on of, “Your identity is in Christ.” Or, “My marriage is falling apart,” “Don’t worry, your identity is in Christ.”
And then what’s happened is that’s just climbed to overdrive with people who aren’t straight who follow Jesus in lines of obedience. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard an interaction goes something like this. Some Christian says, “Well, I’ve tried to be faithful to God and I’m walking in obedience but I am gay,” and some well-intentioned Christian says, “You can’t be gay and be a Christian. Your identity is in Christ.” And what you’ve done is you’ve just reinforced the first step of conversion therapy, which is that you deny that you’re gay. You deny your sexual orientation and you claim your new reality “believe in God and the miraculous power that He can actually make you straight.”
You can then say, “No, no, I understand that this is affecting all and I understand that certainly anytime I feel homoerotic temptation toward anybody, that’s indwelling sin and I work with them to death, but, you know, it’s just this is my sexual orientation, it hasn’t become straight, and I’m still gay.” “No, your identity is in Christ.”
And I’ve watched this weaponized against so many people, it’s just lightning strike every single time, to the point where a lot of Christians just walk away, because churches become such unsafe places. They can’t be honest without people weaponizing their identity in Christ to prevent them from talking about their actual experience. It’s one thing if somebody is celebrating their gayness and saying it’s awesome and wonderful that I’m sexually attracted to the same sex, that’s a different problem. But if it’s somebody who they’re honestly trying to walk with God, it’s cruel to do that.
And when you tell somebody that they can’t be gay and be a Christian, understand, they’re not going to hear that the way that you think they’re going to hear that. Because what you’re wanting to say is we really want you to build your core identity in Jesus. But what they’re going to hear is, as a gay person, the gospel of Jesus Christ does not apply to me. And surely, these things must come, but woe to the one through whom they come. Jesus warns us about that kind of thing.
As I listen to your book, there seem to be a lot of parallels with the way that identity in Christ language is weaponized even against people of color.
Yeah, the goal, it seems like is to make the marginalized group disappear. And, unfortunately, that’s certainly what the ex-gay movement gave the church.
Can you provide a general survey of LGBTQ Christians today? People may have heard the terms like Side A Christian, Side B Christian, lots of other terms. Can you just talk about the diversity of LGBTQ people who want to follow Jesus but have different convictions on a diversity of views?
Yeah, there are a lot of different approaches, because what you had was the ex-gay movement from the late 1970s until 2012 or so. But over against those groups, you had Christians who never really bought into conversion therapy or the ex-gay model, that never really thought you can change your sexual orientation for most people who are exclusively one way or the other. Among those folks, there were really different perspectives. They realized they weren’t all the same because some of them were affirming, what we call Side A or affirming and believe that a gay marriage could be a good Christian option, if monogamous.
And then there were others who were still held to the biblical sexual ethic, that historically it’s been understood that sex is really designed to be within a lifelong monogamous marriage between two people of diverse genders or sexes, where the coming together of the two is what makes the whole with complementary reproductive systems and all that. And they became known as Side B Christians because they weren’t Side A and they weren’t Side X, they weren’t ex-gay.
Between the ex-gay and the Side B, you’ve got some other folks who sometimes are called Side Y. Basically, they’re Side B except they don’t ever, ever, ever use the word “gay” and they may not be completely comfortable with the concept of sexual orientation. But you’ve got that spread of different perspectives. And among kind of Side B Christians, there are some who feel more affinity towards Side A folks because they’re thinking that the shared experience they have of being ostracized in the church and that for others, they feel much more close to an ex-gay Christian just because of the biblical conviction, because for some of us, we really do believe that when Paul says that men who have sex with men will not inherit the kingdom of heaven, that he’s being very clear in terms of what he wants from us. But yeah, there is a spectrum of use.
How can a church become a safe place for LGBTQ people to be able to both be honest about themselves and also to come to follow Jesus? What are some specific things that a church should avoid doing? What are some specific things that a church should also proactively do that would be beneficial?
Yeah, start by getting rid of every Rosaria Butterfield book from the church library because it won’t help because she’s somebody who calls herself a former lesbian, but she’s still attracted to the same sex but never tells anyone. And so that’s not helpful. That’s the whole ex-gay paradigm of saying you’re not gay, but still having the same attraction you had before.
I would say the biggest thing more than anything else, and it’s not unique to sexual orientation things, but having a gospel culture in your church. If your church is a safe place to be a sinner loved by Jesus, where somebody can confess anything and nobody’s going to shame them, nobody’s going to shun them, nobody’s going to step away, they’re not going to gossip about the person behind their back. Where, whatever is said, whatever’s confessed, people were like, “I’m the same way, I’m worse than that. But Jesus loves me and he’s wild about me, and God isn’t angry, ever shaking a stick at me. He’s my dad, he’s wild about me. I’m covered in the blood of Jesus, He’s forgiven all of my sins and clothed me in His righteousness. And that means that the imputed righteousness of Christ is credited to me. And that meant that it’s as if I fed the 5000 and I raised Lazarus from the dead, and I always did please the Father. That’s having Jesus’ resume and there’s nothing you’re going to do to embellish that resume and there’s nothing you’re going to do to ruin it because it’s imputed.”
And when a church has that gospel culture where it’s a safe place to be a sinner loved by Jesus, then that’s a safe church for a gay person to follow Jesus. That’s a safe church for somebody to open up and talk about their struggle with pornography. That’s a safe church for people with issues that aren’t even moral but can be very hard.
So yeah, that’s the biggest thing, is that having that gospel culture so it’s a safe place to be a sinner loved by Jesus. If that’s there, then you can really make a lot of mistakes and not ruin it.
Another is, don’t police terminology. That’s just the old ex-gay script that needed to die with the movement, and so don’t do that. And then of course, proactively, you have to be the family of God. Your church cannot be a worship service with programs. That is not what any person needs, and certainly not a person who may be single for their entire life.
When Jesus was teaching, there’s a point at which a whole bunch of folks came to him and said, “Jesus, your mother, and your brothers are waiting for you, they need to talk to you.” And in an honor and shame-based culture, He would be honor bound to drop everything and go take care of His dear mother, and what He did instead, as He kept teaching, He said, “Look around you. These are my mothers, and brothers and sisters and fathers, those who do the will of My Father in heaven.”
And in so doing, Jesus redefined families, the core family commitment, is not the nuclear family, and is not the extended clan family of an honor-based society. It is the church, such that, as believers, we are responsible for one another. In the ancient world, if your family member, if your sibling got into trouble, you would come to his defense publicly, and then chew him out later when no one else was looking. If he was in debt, you’d pay his debt, if he was in jail, you’d bail them out. You took care of your family.
And so we need somebody who knows when our plane is landing. We need somebody who knows when we’re sick, or when we don’t show up for something, notices when we’re not there and calls and finds us and tracks us back into the family. And we need refrigerator rights in somebody’s house. That’s the right to open the door of your refrigerator and take something out without asking permission. That’s when you’re really family, is when you have refrigerator rights. So yeah, those are kind of some of the big things.