Ascendant gender ideology undermines group trying to balance homosexuality and Biblical orthodoxy
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Under the hot Texas sun, four men from different parts of the country sat munching wraps, mopping their brows, and mulling their struggle with same-sex attraction. All are professing Christians. Normally, they talk online, but on that recent Friday, their group was one of a dozen or so in loosely formed circles gathered under 20-foot tall Chaste Lilac trees outside a Plano megachurch.
Others grabbed chairs and joined their circle as the men discussed why they prefer to call themselves “gay Christians.” Even though they are attracted to other men, they remain celibate out of obedience to Scripture. These men said they feel caught in a battle of extremes, as one of them described it, between the cultural push to affirm homosexuality and transgenderism—and churches that are unsure what to do with people like them.
The conversation is not new, and neither is Revoice, the conference that brought these men and about 400 other people together in early October at Chase Oaks Church, Legacy Campus.
John Blessing came from Kansas City. At 44, he’s balding and bespectacled, wearing a blue polo shirt and a 5 o’clock shadow at noon. He’s single, works as an electrical engineer, and is pretty sure he is the only one in his conservative 1,400-member Lutheran congregation who calls himself a gay Christian. This is Blessing’s second consecutive year at Revoice, and he described it as a “mountaintop experience.”
Revoice began five years ago to provide a support network for people like Blessing. It offered a different take on the argument that churches should affirm homosexual behavior and same-sex marriage. “Side B,” as it became known, maintains a belief in Biblical orthodoxy related to sexuality, while viewing same-sex attraction as part of a person’s identity that should be treated similar to race or nationality. Revoice says on its website it “exists to support and encourage Christians who are sexual minorities so they can flourish in historic Christian traditions.”
The first conference in 2018 generated a wave of criticism, prompting the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) to investigate Revoice speaker and pastor Greg Johnson, who says he is same-sex attracted and celibate. Johnson’s congregation, Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Mo., hosted the first Revoice event. Last year, Johnson survived a challenge from PCA members and presbyteries to his status as a TE, or teaching elder. (More on that in a moment.) But a recent amendment could disqualify him from ministry. While the denomination’s regional presbyteries consider ratifying the amendment, the leaders of Johnson’s church have recommended withdrawing from the PCA. They’ve invited the congregation to a fireside chat and prayer gathering on Oct. 24, and again in early November, to discuss the recommendation. In a letter sent Tuesday, church leaders said, “We believe this decision to be the most loving option for Memorial, for same-sex oriented believers, for our pastors and, yes, for the PCA itself.”
Despite the blowback, Revoice has continued to host its annual gathering. And in the last five years, the cultural landscape around sex and sexuality has changed. Homosexuality has been normalized, increasingly codified into U.S. law, and celebrated by the wider culture. More people are assuming alternative sexual and gender labels, even in the church. More than 7 percent of U.S. adults now say they are something other than heterosexual, according to a recent Gallup poll. That is double the percentage who said the same when Gallup first asked the question 10 years ago.
Revoice has changed, too. Speakers have always emphasized homosexuality as an identity, not just a behavior. But this year, such assertions from the dais seemed more insistent, with speakers assiduously using civil-rights language to present radical change as settled truth. That identity rhetoric extended to transgender ideology. Speakers frequently referred to “sexual and gender minorities” and used preferred pronouns, along with terms such as women “assigned female at birth.” The group’s reach and influence are growing, but leaders now emphasize parachurch activities. Speakers frequently referenced ongoing rejection within the church and encouraged attendees to form their own spiritual communities in local Revoice chapters.
Critics have long warned that Revoice’s messaging is deceptive and erroneously conflates Biblical teaching and the good news of the gospel with cultural messages about sexuality and gender. Now, they say those seeds of error are leading Revoice further from Biblical orthodoxy and undercutting the Creation ordinance, “male and female he created them.”
“Sin is progressive, and what we’re seeing with Revoice is the progression of that sin,” said Rosaria Butterfield, a former lesbian feminist and tenured English professor at Syracuse University who is now a pastor’s wife and mother of four.
On the conference’s first night, attendees formed lines at registration tables. Organizers handed out name tags and instructed them to select a circular sticker letting others know their preferred pronouns. A father with short, graying hair stood in line with his teenage son, who wore a black hooded sweatshirt and headphones. They had driven 12 hours straight from Denver. The boy said they began attending Revoice two years ago after he told his dad he was gay.
Just inside the lobby, organizers and other groups had placed folding tables piled high with books and swag—T-shirts, totes, and water bottles. They included slogans such as “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made,” “be loving, be kind, be bold,” “Queer today, Queer tomorrow: Like God, Some Things Don’t Change,” and “Chosen Family.” Partner organizations sold resource materials for helping churches and schools adopt a more accepting posture toward LGBTQ people in their community.
Inside the large auditorium, the crowd included people of all ages, from young children to grandparents. Some groups gathered by race: Asians, calling themselves “B-sians,” clustered in one section near the front of the auditorium.
The conference kicked off with a live band playing popular Christian worship music. Many in the crowd stood, swayed, and raised their hands amid the glow of neon lights. Blue clouds floated on a giant screen behind the musicians. In response to a question from the stage, at least one-third of the audience raised their hands to say it was their first time at Revoice. Only a few had attended all five years.
Conference organizers had chosen “Fullness” for this year’s theme. On Friday morning, Johnson, who publicly shared his same-sex attraction in 2019, talked about fullness in Christ without marriage or sexual activity. He noted that Jesus and Paul were celibate and drew applause when he said, “There is nothing that calls out the idols of Western culture more powerfully than a gay person not having sex because he loves Jesus.”
Beginning in October 2018, the Missouri Presbytery investigated four allegations against Johnson related to similar rhetoric. Summarized, the allegations stated that Johnson’s teaching on same-sex attraction, Biblical identity, and sexual orientation were “seriously out of accord with our doctrinal standards, strike at the vitals of religion,” and rendered him “unfit for the office of elder.” In July 2020, the Presbytery issued its report, finding the “allegations to be untrue…We exonerate TE Johnson of these allegations and restore him to his good name, finding no warrant for a trial.”
In Presbyterian polity, a body called the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) functions similarly to a secular appeals court. In March 2021, the Presbytery’s judgment in the Johnson matter was presented to the full SJC. After further investigation, the SJC in October 2021 issued its opinion:
“The Record demonstrates Presbytery sought to exercise the requisite ‘due diligence and great discretion’ in seeking explanations from TE Johnson regarding the four allegations. There is no evidence that Presbytery committed clear error in its procedures in this area.”
SJC commissioner David Coffin told WORLD that the SJC’s ruling dealt with the soundness of Presbytery’s investigative procedures and with “Johnson’s doctrine to the degree that it was represented in the record at the time the decision was made.”
Back at this year's conference, Johnson encouraged attendees to seek out family-like bonds within a local church but urged them to find a church that “support[s] your orientation as a sibling.” Other speakers and emcees used familial terms such as “chosen siblings” or “chosen family” when talking about churches and relationships where they felt welcomed as gay or transgender Christians. One virtual presenter, Lesli Hudson-Reynolds, who also spoke last year, was introduced using “they/them” pronouns and wore a black T-shirt with the inscription, “Imago Dei” in transgender flag colors. During the presentation, Hudson-Reynolds spoke with a therapist about the ways churches and pastors cause trauma by the way they handle LGBTQ people.
Several Revoice speakers told conference-goers that if their local church does not support sexual and gender minorities, they should consider finding a new one or even moving to a different city. To provide opportunities for connection, Revoice organizers announced the formation of new local chapters.
“It’s like youth group for gay adults,” quipped director of care Art Pereira, drawing a laugh. So far, Revoice has eight chapters. Pereira said leaders expect to have 22 by next year, and eventually, one in every state. He also described a new church partnership program for pastors seeking “to grow in their capacity to disciple sexual minorities” that now includes about 20 congregations.
During the conference’s two-hour lunch breaks, Revoice offered “affinity groups,” broken into various categories: gender minorities, family/loved ones of LGBTQ+, bisexuals/pansexuals, asexuals/aromantics, women “assigned female at birth,” mixed-orientation heterosexual marriages where one spouse remains same-sex attracted, and celibate partnerships where those who are same-sex attracted but celibate live together. In Side B circles, those are called “spiritual friendships.” Other affinity groups were categorized by race: BIPOC for black or indigenous people of color and AAPI for Asian American or Pacific Islanders.
Opponents say that with each conference, Revoice is misleading more people into believing their same-sex attraction and gender confusion are a fixed part of their identity—and more, by singling them out as an oppressed group within the larger church. Becket Cook is formerly gay and the author of A Change of Affection: A Gay Man’s Incredible Story of Redemption. “Sexual minority is not a Biblical category. Only sexual sin,” Cook tweeted on Oct. 10. “This is the result of the successful co-opting of the civil rights movement by the gay movement. And evangelicals are buying it hook, line, and sinker.”
Cook, Butterfield, and author and speaker Christopher Yuan have been outspoken about problems they see with Revoice and Side B. Each has written books and spoken publicly about their personal stories of abandoning homosexuality when they came to Christ. “There are remnants of sin that we will battle until we are glorified when we die, but that does not mean [homosexual orientation] is part of my nature,” Butterfield noted. “That’s not what Revoice says.”
Earlier this year, Cook retracted his endorsement of Greg Johnson’s 2021 book, Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn From the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality. Cook said when he read the book he did not understand Side B. Johnson’s book outlines the downfall of the ex-gay movement, culminating with the 2013 closure of Exodus International, and efforts to cure Christians from homosexuality using reparative methods. Johnson purports that caring for gay Christians must factor in the “relative fixity of sexual orientation.”
In Cook’s retraction, he critiqued what he described as a Freudian framework for understanding personhood in terms of “sinful sexual behavior becoming a full-blown identity—LGBTQ.” Cook argued that Revoice and Side B present being gay as unchangeable and not in need of sanctification—thus, “orientation” is celebrated.
Butterfield said the idea of sexual identity is so ingrained it’s hard to get people to think about it any other way: “At this point, we’ve so normalized homosexuality, that when I say something like homosexuality is harmful, or that it’s changeable, people are like, wow, you’ve really lost your mind.”
Denny Burk, an author and professor of Biblical studies at Boyce College, said he had not heard the term gay Christian until he read Episcopal priest Wesley Hill’s 2010 book, Washed and Waiting. Hill is popular in Side B circles and spoke at this year’s Revoice.
In subsequent years, Burk began to notice other Christians using new categories for homosexuality—same-sex attraction or orientation, temptation, desire, and behavior. In 2016, when Burk became president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, his team drafted the Nashville Statement, intended to bring clarity to the issue and, more broadly, address Western culture’s “massive revision” of God’s design for gender and sexuality. The statement was released in 2017 and garnered signatures from numerous prominent Christian leaders, such as Russell Moore, J.I. Packer, John Piper, R.C. Sproul, Albert Mohler, and WORLD founder Joel Belz. In Article 7, the statement denied that “adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.”
Revoice founder and president Nate Collins said on Twitter earlier this year that the Nashville Statement was a form of spiritual abuse for “sexual and gender minorities who adhere to the historic, Biblical sexual ethic.” He suggested those who signed the statement repent and remove their names. So far, Burk said two have removed their names, but 59 more people signed it, bringing the total to 24,000.
The PCA, meanwhile, has continued to clarify its stance on sexuality. Its leaders endorsed the Nashville Statement in 2019 and formed a study group that produced a 62-page report on human sexuality the following year. The report states that “to juxtapose identities rooted in sinful desires alongside the term ‘Christian’ is inconsistent with Biblical language and undermines the spiritual reality that we are new creations in Christ.” It also rejected exclusive, contractual, marriage-like partnerships among same-sex attracted celibate couples and said same-sex attraction or any sin struggle should not be celebrated in the church.
Stephen Moss surprised himself when he read the report and found himself jotting “Hallelujah” in the margins. Moss says he grew up an “evangelical poster child” in the Bible Belt but secretly struggled with same-sex attraction. He began blogging about it in 2014 while attending Covenant Theological Seminary. Then in 2018, he helped found Revoice and served as conference coordinator and vice president of operations. But two years ago, Moss left the organization. He declined our interview request, but last year talked for over an hour with two PCA pastors for the podcast Everything Just Changed.
Moss describes years of wrestling with what he believed about same-sex attraction, which was, essentially, “it’s only a sin if you act on it.” He says in conversations over coffee with a local pastor, reading the PCA sexuality report, and attending the General Assembly, he felt convicted to repent of his inclination toward that particular sin and the way that he had attached his identity to being a gay Christian within Revoice and Side B circles. He had also distanced himself from the church.
Moss expected to feel greater shame when he realized that even his inclinations were sinful. Instead, he realized repentance “actually leads me to freedom … there will be progress as you’re sanctified by the Spirit, and like, those desires and inclinations will have less and less of a hold.”
Back at the Plano megachurch, Revoice speakers doubled down on the idea of sexual and gender minorities and used Scripture as a justification.
Misty Irons, a Reformed seminary–trained theologian who blogs about faith and sexuality, likened gay people as modern examples of the Gentiles, citing New Testament examples such as Paul’s disagreement with Peter over circumcision and Peter’s lesson on unclean foods. “The tension of being gay and the tension of being Christian perfectly illustrates the mystery of the gospel, even the glory of the gospel,” Irons said.
Ray Lowe, director of communty engagement for LGBTQ nonprofit Kaleidescope, referred to Moses withstanding grumbling and criticism from the Israelites to illustrate how gay Christians should respond to their critics. He talked about being “queer culture natives” and his vision to see “LGBTQ people be the missionaries and the ministers of our generation.” Another panelist said he was interested in the idea of polyamory, “not just sexual lovers, but just lovers.” He suggested polyamory had “a Side B quality.”
Near the end of the conference, Greg Coles, author of Single, Gay, Christian, likened shedding his gay identity to assuming an “artificial fullness” as a Christian.
“Following Jesus hasn’t made me less gay and it hasn’t made me more gay. I’ve been riding steady at a Kinsey 6 for the last 20 years,” Coles said, referencing sexologist Alfred Kinsey’s 1948 scale for rating homosexuality. Six is the highest.
Cole still maintains the current Side B position that acting on homosexual desires violates Scripture. But not everyone in the audience at Revoice shared that belief. Conference organizers on the last day acknowledged one group of attendees from the other side—those who say God endorses same-sex marriage and sex. They clapped when speakers recognized them as “disagreers.”
Anglican pastor Aubrey Spears of Harrisonburg, Va., attended Revoice with his wife and 21-year-old daughter who says she is queer. Spears is open about his struggle to navigate the difficult strait between Bibical teaching on sexuality and his daughter’s rejection of Scriptures that call homosexuality a sin.
In his church, Spears has been teaching on sexual ethics in the Bible. When he returned from Revoice, he urged his congregation to be gracious to LGBTQ people in the church and uphold Biblical marriage and sexual behavior. But he offered less clarity on the notion of gay identity.
Stephen Moss said doctrinal clarity and compassion are key to handling new challenges that sexuality now presents to the Church.
“If we don’t have our doctrine right, if we don’t know what we believe in … we’re not ultimately helping people,” Moss said. “But my gosh, we have to lead with compassion. We have to lead with listening. And we have to make sure our churches are places of family and belonging.”
Editor's note: This story was updated on Oct. 28, 2022 to clarify actions taken related to Teaching Elder Greg Johnson by the Missouri Presbytery and the Standing Judicial Commission of the PCA.
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