Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Eikon.
From October 7–9, 2021, Dallas’s Chase Oaks Church hosted the fourth annual convention of Revoice, a conference conceived “to support and encourage Christians who are sexual minorities so they can flourish in historic Christian traditions.” The conference has been the focus of intense debate and controversy since its 2018 launch, with voices to the right offering concerned criticism of founding work by “Side B” writers like Eve Tushnet, Wesley Hill, and Ron Belgau. (For the unaware, “Side B” and “Side A” are shorthand terms for self-described Christians who comfortably self-identify as “gay” but are divided on the ethics of gay acts. “Side B” abstains from gay practice, while “Side A” includes affirming revisionist voices like Matthew Vines or Justin Lee.) With the exception of Tushnet, most of the original Revoice voices did not speak at the 2021 convention, which featured a new mix of laymen and active ministry workers.
For those of us familiar with the debate, the conference proceeded along some predictable lines. Eve Tushnet opened the event by affirming attendees’ grievances even against church people who “may have loved you well in many ways,” because (she takes as a given) these mentors were incompetent to address same-sex attraction (SSA). By contrast, she encourages attendees to explore what it would mean if they were “grateful to be gay.” Airing grievances would be a recurring theme throughout multiple sessions, as speakers alternately expressed anger, frustration, and sadness over perceived hurts at the hands of other Christians. Exploring the positive facets of same-sex attraction was likewise a topical staple.
But controversies specific to 2021 hung over this particular convention, particularly the PCA’s recently proposed constitutional amendments on gay pastors and church officers. From beginning to end, the core message was the same: While there may be individual exceptions, the church writ large has handled this issue horribly wrong, but Revoice has the antidote.
Still Time to Care
PCA Pastor Greg Johnson was the first pastor to host Revoice, at Missouri’s Memorial Presbyterian Church. He came out as gay himself the following year, and much of the PCA controversy has subsequently swirled around him. His book Still Time to Care is pending a December release with Zondervan. The title functions as an implicit litmus test: Do you care about LGBT people, or do you not? The answer depends on the extent to which one agrees with Pastor Johnson.
But in his session, Pastor Johnson tells his detractors to take up the debate with older voices, including C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, John Stott, Billy Graham, and Richard Lovelace. For these “spiritual forefathers,” he claims “what today is called Side B Christianity was just called biblical Christianity.”
This is a sweeping statement, to say the least. Johnson’s appropriation of Lewis is especially strained, as he draws non sequiturs from the mere fact that Lewis’s best friend Arthur Greeves was same-sex attracted, or that Lewis acknowledged a man could be “pious” and homosexually inclined at the same time, or that he was sensitive and compassionate towards such men as they wrestled with a deep sense of inadequacy in their brokenness. Johnson draws a direct line between Lewis’s musings on what “the positive life” of the homosexual should be and Eve Tushnet’s declaration that homosexual vocation can and should be “a vocation of yes” — not merely saying “no to gay sex,” but saying yes to all the good things into which a gay orientation could be channeled. Johnson has additionally made an anti-anti-Obergefell parallel to Lewis’s comments on divorce law, as part of a broader thesis that if evangelicals had only heeded the wisdom of their forefathers, they would never have gotten down in the mud of the gay vs. Christian culture wars.
Much of Lewis’s thinking on the issue was captured in letter form, so it’s odd from the start to speak of it as “laying a foundation” for a whole school of Christian thought about homosexuality. It’s particularly odd to claim him in a cultural moment where concepts such as “preferred pronouns” wouldn’t even have crossed Lewis’s mind. The top-down redefinition of the institution of marriage would likewise have shocked him, even if the concept of ersatz marriage wasn’t new to him (as he explores in letters with Sheldon Vanauken). Granted, his thinking on divorce was flawed and vulnerable to critique (which none other than J. R. R. Tolkien drafted in an unsent letter). Indeed, several of Lewis’s “gay proof-texts” are vulnerable to some measure of critique. But why should Christians be afraid to critique C. S. Lewis?
The same question applies as Johnson runs through his litany of other names. Some, like Stott and Lovelace, could more accurately be said to have been working out theology and church praxis around the issue. It may be apt for Johnson’s purposes to highlight quotes where they insist that churches must ordain gay men to the ministry as a token of repentance for their homophobia. But this is then an opportunity for thoughtful Christians in 2021 to make their own measured evaluation of these comments in hindsight, not to accept wholly and blindly every word that once proceeded from the mouth of an old evangelical superstar.
A Matter of Discernment?
One of the conference’s more complicated sessions was a presentation by Nashville-based counselor and non-profit director Pieter Valk (later published in transcript form on Valk’s website). Valk is an ACNA member who spearheaded a dissenting letter to a new official bishops’ statement on homosexuality in early 2021. His session named and attempted to address the problem of “gay Christian incels” — gay Christians who are involuntarily celibate. After sharing stories of gay friends who had drifted away from a traditional sexual ethic, Valk said he was afraid “we’re gonna lose more if we don’t do something.”
Valk’s appeal was sincere and driven by a concern to better resist temptations which he expressly framed as satanic. But this concern was framed by blame-shifting onto conservative churches and church leaders. Specifically, Valk blames churches for “romance idolatry,” for not cultivating vocational singleness, and for not giving gay incels “space” to “figure out” if they affirm a traditional ethic. “Instead,” he complained, “we’re pressured to choose quickly, choose correctly, and become public apologists for a traditional sexual ethic.”
Valk proposes that “discernment” can provide a helpful alternative frame that allows the gay incel to “own” his celibacy: “Discernment can help us move from seeing our celibacy as involuntary to seeing our celibacy as chosen.” But the language of “discernment” is misapplied in a context where one’s very position on the traditional ethic has not yet been “figured out.” Such language is only meaningful for a firm Christian deliberating between equally biblical vocations. Valk shifts to this context when he talks about discerning between celibacy and “Christian marriage” (between man and woman), and this is the language used on the official site for his Family of Brothers monastery in Nashville. But Valk’s setup makes it clear that he believes the term is cross-contextually apt, an improvement on the flawed church leadership model of “pressuring” gay incels to “choose quickly.”
This is deeply misguided. It is one thing to encourage the church to handle seekers patiently, but it is quite another thing to insist that church leaders not take swift, biblically indicated steps to address destructive heresy in the body. And while it may be that in some individual cases, leaders have regrettably not taken similarly strong steps with heterosexual sin, this is an argument for raising standards across the board, not relaxing the ones related to homosexual sin.
Ultimately, the whole attempt to press SSA singleness into the mold of vocational singleness is based on a category error. The singleness of priests and monks who give up marriage is different in kind from the singleness of a same-sex attracted man who eschews marriage out of respect for a would-be spouse who deserves romantic consummation. The former is a considered supererogatory sacrifice, whereas the latter is a tragically necessary function of privation — a privation which could follow from other limitations besides same-sex attraction, but in all cases is a wound to be lamented.
Valk concludes by saying “gay incels” will need to come up with their own strategies for embracing celibacy instead of “waiting” for straight leaders to help them “make our celibacy good.” He places special emphasis on seeking and building “permanent family” as he shares about his modern-day monastery. Had he not built this “brotherhood” for himself and other men, he confesses he probably “would have already abandoned celibacy, and probably a belief in God altogether.” While this may be an honest statement of fact for Valk personally, such “permanent family” structure may be neither available nor wise for many “gay incels.”
Valk’s genuine desire to encourage fellow gay celibates in chastity is commendable. And pastors could be more careful in language that presupposes God will provide a spouse for every faithful Christian. But they are not required to lose all language which treats marriage as any kind of a norm or places it on any kind of a platform. Nor are they required to help establish the kind of “permanent family” structure Valk envisions. To insist on such conditions betrays a fragile foundation for a sexual ethic that desperately needs sturdier support. We who are single in Christ must recognize that while our faith may be subject to shifting moods, it is the single Christian’s task to strengthen it so that it can sustain us through seasons of companionship and profound loneliness alike, grounded in the Word of Scripture and the Word made flesh. It cannot and should not be dependent on the accessibility of particular kinds of relational human comfort, comfort which may be a blessing, but may also be a temptation, and in any case is never promised.
Introducing the “T”
In one of the conference’s most delicate sessions, a mixed panel of men and women took the stage to share their experience of gender dysphoria as Christian believers. All currently present themselves in keeping with their biological sex. I was especially moved by Kyla Gillespie’s story of detransitioning after decades of alcoholism and six years of “passing” as a man. Another woman who preferred to go only by her first name, Lo, shared touchingly that her bonding with an eccentric small boy at church had given her a glimpse of how God might see her — a little strange, but still loved. A man going only by his first name confessed his struggle with autogynephilia and shared about the support and accountability he had found in a group of male Christian peers.
Christians should not be dismissive about mental illness, and it is valuable to hear testimonies of God’s work in the midst of profound brokenness. But, sadly, when it came to “T,” the conference sent mixed signals. On the website’s speaker page, two panelists gave their preferred pronouns as “he/they” and “she/they,” while panelist Lesli Hudson-Reynolds gave “they/them.” The panel was moderated by Bill Henson, whose Posture Shift ministry aims to restructure the church’s response to LGBT issues, publishing curriculum that explicitly instructs Christians to use preferred pronouns for dysphoric adults. (It stops short of telling parents to use preferred pronouns for minor children, but for adult children, parents are instructed to “Love. Include. Accept. No matter what.” As a case study, the curriculum praises and showcases a letter from a proudly female-to-male transitioned daughter who “forgives” her parents’ “mistakes” without repenting of her own.)
Hudson-Reynolds, whom Henson referred to as “they” during the conference, is Posture Shift’s Gender Identity Ministry Director. She recalls that at age four, “I realized that I was a boy. I wasn’t saying I felt like a boy, I was saying I am a boy. And that’s language that’s important [for a parent] to hear when a young person is coming out.” When Henson asked each panelist to name the “moment of realization” that they were trans, all gave ages between 4 and 8.
Meanwhile, some attendees were apparently choosing to wear their own “they/them” stickers, as indicated by speaker Elizabeth Black in the intro to her session. Ironically, her topic was “growing into sexual maturity,” but she didn’t appear to see a tension between this goal and the affirmation of a self-identity that erases one’s God-given sexual individuality. Offering such affirmation to professing believers lacks even the “missional” logic used to excuse the choice with non-believers, though neither should be seen as an acceptable compromise. Tellingly, Black said she was excited to see these name tags along with various “fabulous” haircuts and wardrobe choices. The pronouns were thus subtly framed as accessories, something that could be tried on or shrugged off, mixed and matched, subject to change.
This is dangerous and disturbing talk even from a non-believing perspective, let alone a biblical one. It’s ironic that Revoice sees itself as a “missional” endeavor, when many self-identified gay people outside the church strongly oppose “pronouns in bio” culture. As Revoice continues to shape itself to increasingly far-left fads, it is unclear what its representatives have left to offer them.
Preston Sprinkle, in his session, proposed that until the LGBT person’s “knee-jerk response” to “What do you think of when you think of the church?” is “kindness,” then “the church is failing to embody the presence of God as we ought.” But while kindness may be a necessary condition for a faithful church presence, it is not a sufficient one. By either dismissing or straw-manning legitimate concerns as “unloving,” Revoice proponents have made it clear that they will only consent to have the discussion on their terms, thus closing themselves off to the warnings of many faithful believers, including believers who openly navigate their own crosses of same-sex attraction.
Contrary to what many speakers at the conference seem to presuppose, its critics do not speak from a place of ignorance or bigotry. Indeed, to use Bill Henson’s language, some of us are deeply familiar with the history and culture of gay people as a “people group,” and we have seen fruit as we apply that knowledge missionally. But the “posture shift” proposed by Henson and his co-laborers, so far from aiding this good gospel work, would leaven it in ways that are neither truthful nor ultimately loving.
Furthermore, we stand and always have stood ready to lament with fellow believers as they carry crosses they did not ask for, including the cross of persistent same-sex attraction. Orientation change is not a guaranteed fruit of faithfulness, and heterosexuality is not a pre-condition of holiness. Revoice proponents say nothing that isn’t trivially true when they repeat these things. Our concern is that they say a good deal more beyond this. It is no longer sufficient for us to join the same-sex attracted believer in lament. We are being asked, indeed, instructed, to deny that there is anything to lament.
Kindness is necessary. But it is not sufficient. It must flourish together with biblical fidelity, or else our gospel witness to a perishing world will wither and die on the vine. Revoice may claim the mantle of biblical fidelity in this endeavor. But if its 2021 incarnation is any indication, that mantle is an increasingly uncomfortable fit.
Bethel McGrew is a widely published essayist and social critic. She holds a doctorate in mathematics and makes her living as a high school teacher.
 Eve Tushnet, “Opening Session,” 03:40 (talk presented at Revoice, Dallas, Texas, October 7–9, 2021).
 Ibid, 10:20.
 Greg Johnson, “Still Time to Care,” 28:40 (talk presented at Revoice, Dallas, Texas, October 7–9, 2021).
 Ibid, 20:20.
 “Same-Sex Attracted, Sexually Pure, and…Unfit for Ministry? Dr. Greg Johnson,” Preston Sprinkle, June 29, 2021, YouTube video, 37:00, https://youtu.be/BuULNCBaoiY.
 EQUIP, “From Involuntary Celibacy to Thriving,” accessed October 21, 2021, https://equipyourcommunity.org/blog/from-involuntary-celibacy-to-thriving.
 Pieter Valk, “Discerning and Embracing Celibacy,” 08:00 (talk presented at Revoice, Dallas, Texas, October 7–9, 2021).
 Ibid, 12:00.
 Ibid, 28:30.
 Family of Brothers, “Discern Your Call,” accessed October 21, 2021, http://familyofbrothers.org/discern-your-call/.
 Valk, 25:30.
 Ibid, 36:00.
 Revoice, “Speakers and Sessions,” webpage accessed October 18, 2021, https://www.revoice21.com/speakers/.
 Bill Henson, Guiding Families of LGBT+ Loved Ones: Expanded Edition (Acton: Posture Shift Books, 2020), 83.
 Ibid, 93.
 Bill Henson, “A New Church History,” 21:00 and following (talk presented at Revoice, Dallas, Texas, October 7–9, 2021).
 Lesli Hudson-Reynolds comments in Panel: Gender Minorities, 13:20 (panel held at Revoice, Dallas, Texas, October 7–9, 2021).
 Ibid, 21:55.
 Elizabeth Black, “Growing in Sexual Maturity,” 00:10 (talk presented at Revoice, Dallas, Texas, October 7–9, 2021).
 Preston Sprinkle, “Faith, Sexuality & Gender,” 04:00 (talk presented at Revoice, Dallas, Texas, October 7–9, 2021).
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