This summer, a conference for same-sex attracted (SSA) and gender dysphoric Christians stirred quite a bit of controversy in the evangelical world. The goals of this conference, named Revoice, included “supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.” In this article, I offer six points to guide our discussions about Revoice and its precursor blog, Spiritual Friendship.
1. Let’s begin by considering the pain and suffering of its participants.
Few of Revoice’s critics have acknowledged the painful experiences recounted during the conference. During the conference, I noticed disparaging comments on Twitter; one individual mocked Revoice’s attendants as “limp-wristed.” I have also yet to see a critique of Revoice that acknowledged two painful experiences Nate Collins, one of Revoice’s founders, had in seminary. Having experienced similar episodes, many involved with Revoice feel stigmatized and rejected by conservative evangelicals.
Highlighting this aspect doesn’t mean I don’t have concerns about the implications of Revoice’s presentations and language. But, I think we need to acknowledge the pain and suffering its participants have experienced.
2. It’s important that we consider the trajectory of Revoice from a bird’s-eye view.
In 2001, former Southern Baptist Justin Lee started the Gay Christian Network (GCN) as an alternative to Exodus International. At the time, Exodus was the largest ministry for the same-sex attracted. Lee believed that Exodus sent a “mixed message” about the changeability of one’s attractions. He also questioned the psychological theories promoted by some ex-gay leaders. An empirical study published in 2007 soon revealed modest sexual orientation change among Exodus’s participants. Some evangelicals have also questioned the validity of these psychological theories and emphasized heart-change and obedience instead.
Eventually, GCN started an annual conference. Most GCN participants (Side A) affirmed same-sex marriage and the permissibility of same-sex intercourse. A smaller minority (Side B), argued against the permissibility of same-sex marriage of same-sex intercourse. The two sides were united in their distrust of Exodus’s psychological theories and in owning the reality that they were still same-sex attracted. Following secular culture, they used terms like “gay” to communicate their experience.
Ron Belgau, another former Southern Baptist, was one of the side B proponents; he later founded the blog Spiritual Friendship. Spiritual Friendship emerged as an alternative voice to the Side A-dominant GCN, and Revoice emerged this year as an alternative to GCN Conference (now Q Christian Fellowship) for Side B adherents. To many on the evangelical scene, I’m sure it seems as if Revoice represents a progressive shift.
However, in the context of its GCN origins, Revoice was a shift toward a conservative sexual ethic. Any new movement has weaknesses, some of them glaring and possibly hazardous. But, we should be encouraged when participants like Kyle Keating welcome feedback on their weaknesses saying, “the conference desperately needs good-faith critics who can offer valuable pushback in places where it has gone too far affirming either the spirit of the age or a spirit of self-righteousness.”
My hope for Spiritual Friendship and Revoice is that they will continue in their trajectory toward faithful Christianity and take the good-faith challenges of the evangelical world seriously. I also hope they will discern the wisdom cultivated by an older generation who have dis-identified as LGBT and devoted their lives and ministry to these issues.
A biblical sexual ethic has more cost for the same-sex attracted than most people realize.
3. Being same-sex attracted and committing to biblical, sexual purity in a same-sex-marriage-promoting-culture is a big deal.
I, like many conservative evangelicals, fear that the erosion of sexual ethics in Western culture will eventually infiltrate our churches. Many of us have sought to protect our religious liberty and the transformative implications of the gospel in a post-Obergefell-v-Hodges-world by codifing our beliefs in by-laws, constitutions and membership statements. But documents and statements are not living arguments. When SSA people like Ed Shaw live out our conservative beliefs about sexuality, our sexual ethics become living arguments. These living arguments are essential to preserving our values.
When it comes to biblical ethics, we should be most concerned about those who are reinterpreting Scripture to allow same-sex marriage. We should direct a proportional amount of our attention to the dangers of the Reformation Project, an organization actively training its members to introduce false teaching in their evangelical churches.
I agree with Matthew Lee Anderson and Kyle Keating that a biblical sexual ethic has more cost for the same-sex attracted than most people realize. Among other discussions, the participants of Revoice are discussing how to thrive and flourish with this core value. They and many single, SSA folks are plagued with loneliness in a married-person’s culture.
Perhaps when us married folks spend time with our families on Friday night or go on dates with our spouses on Saturday night, we might do well to offer up quick prayers for our single (same-sex attracted and not) brothers and sisters or consider how to integrate them more into our family life.
4. The Revoice folks need to acknowledge that LGB language causes problems.
I agree with Denny Burk that terms used in our discussions of sexuality mean very different things to different people. My continuing concern with the term “LGBT Christian” is the ease in associating it with Q Christian Fellowship (the successor of GCN) and the difficulty of associating it with a conservative sexual ethic. I should note too that when the folks at the Revoice conference use “LGB” terminology, they see it as interchangeable with “same-sex attracted.” However, I do think it’s important that both Revoice and Spiritual Friendship teach their communities more critical engagement with the concepts and language of secular LGBT culture.
To their credit, Spiritual Friendship has been fighting to strip “gay” of its sexual connotations. But most evangelicals are only familiar with “gay” in terms of what a Google image search produces (I don’t recommend this search). Adding the modifier “celibate” eases the difficulty but excludes the same-sex attracted who are married. “Same-sex attracted Christian” is understandably clunky, ambiguous, and is, perhaps, outwearing its welcome.
Wherever this discussion lands, our ideas and language should facilitate our union with Christ and incorporation with His church, not hinder it. My hope for Revoice and Spiritual Friendship (and the larger community of SSA Christians) is to give us new language for communication among Christians that avoids the problems of the current terminology.
Overall, I hope Revoice will help the same-sex attracted flourish in their churches, not just in a sexual ethic.
Terms used in our discussions of sexuality mean very different things to different people.
5. Conservative evangelicals need to acknowledge that experiences behind LGB language are real.
As I see it, Revoice shifts the discussion from sexual identity to social identity (see more here). Mark Yarhouse has observed that when someone calls himself “gay,” he may be referring to what he intends to do with his sexuality.
Many of us are concerned that Revoice participants have taken on sexual identities that will lead them and others into sinful sexual practices and relationships. But, I think Revoice’s use of LGB language communicates who they feel like they belong with more than how they conceive of themselves sexually.
I think the fact that they are gathering together under a biblical sexual ethic signals that they don’t feel like they belong with the secular LGBT community. Further, social identities communicate shared experiences. Many of Revoice’s participants can relate to Nate Collins. They too recount the pain of discovering their own same-sex attractions, navigating who to confide in and risking rejection every time they disclose these experiences they didn’t choose. Notice that Revoice’s mission statement reveals that many same-sex attracted Christians often feel unsupported, discouraged and weakened in their journey to the kingdom of God.
Social identities still come with their own problems. I’m concerned Revoice could become an echo chamber that lessens the fellowship SSA Christians experience in their local churches. But many of Revoice’s attendees might respond: “We have no other place to go.”
My hope for conservative evangelicals is that we will learn to acknowledge the concerns of Revoice’s participants (and all SSA folks) in our challenges to them. The marginalization these Christians feel and experience should cause us all to think about how we can make our churches safer for confessions of sin and weakness.
6. It’s important conservative evangelicals support, encourage and empower the same-sex attracted to follow Christ.
In 2001, Bob Stith introduced a motion concerning the Southern Baptist care of the same-sex attracted at the SBC annual meeting that eventually became both a task force and a gender issues office. Stith, a seasoned pastor, was convicted that his attitude toward the same-sex attracted was not helping his pastoral ministry among them. Denominational interest in this endeavor failed to take hold, and the gender issues office Stith helped create exhausted its funding in 2012. To this day, no SBC denomination office exists solely to equip churches in their ministry to the same-sex attracted or gender dysphoric.
I hope Christians will learn to disciple and care for their own with greater sensitivity. I hope churches will have thriving evangelistic ministries to secular LGBT communities. I hope Spiritual Friendship and Revoice will take good-faith criticism seriously. Lastly, I hope the stakeholders in Revoice will one day find churches so full of love and truth that they see no compelling reason to keep offering this conference. Until then, denominations, churches and para-church ministries have a significant and rewarding work ahead of them.
Correction Statement (Aug. 28, 2018, 2:15pm)
A knowledgeable reader confirmed for me that my paragraph about Exodus International was misleading. His overall experience of Exodus was that they promoted realistic change. I also believe the cause and effect relationship I set up between the Jones/Yarhouse study and the response of some evangelicals was inaccurate. I have rewritten that paragraph to be more factual and less interpretive. Also, the gender issues office stretched its funding out to 2012, not 2013, as originally stated. — Gene