Review: "Still time to care" By Greg Johnson
This is a superb book. It includes Johnson’s journey from being an atheist 6-year-old to a “gay virgin” pastor who is now fifteen years clean of porn. It also describes the church’s response since the “gay question” emerged in the early 20th century. He includes a history of conversion therapy in the church, seeing it as a combination of secular reparative theory as well as “over-realised eschatology” (the belief that we should receive all of God’s blessings in this life). Included is also a description of how the alliance of the ex-gay movement with right-wing politicians in the culture wars went wrong. We are then invited to engage with the New Testament texts, usefully being shown the prevalence of consensual adult gay relationships in Graeco-Roman society, demolishing the “committed adult gay relationships are not what Paul was talking about” interpretation. A challenge follows to stop endless debates over whether to describe ourselves as ‘same-sex attracted’ or ‘gay’. He then appeals for churches to be places of grace, as the reality of teenagers being willing to be ‘out’ at school, but not in the church, says it all. Finally, we have Greg’s own testimony of the friendships he has built, along with a call to build churches that do not marginalise single people.
The demise of ex-gay ministries
In describing the rise and fall of the ex-gay movement, he explains that there were few total reversals of orientation, as the flow of ex-gay leaders being exposed as involved in gay relationships brought the whole movement into disrepute. However, he identifies several ministries still endorsing the practice, including Bethel Church in Redding, California.
Nevertheless, his primary concern is the damage that Christians’ expectation of change has caused. This mirage of false hope can encourage others to assume gay Christians just don’t have enough faith to be healed (or even that they are unsaved). When most gay Christians eventually realise their sexual orientation remains unchanged, many sadly give up on Christianity entirely.
Valuing singleness and celibacy
Johnson warns against the perception that the church is entirely negative in its message for gay members: no sex, no dating, no significant other. Instead, he wants celibacy to be elevated as a sign of the kingdom; we will all be as angels in the resurrection (Matt 22:30). As CS Lewis writes, “…in homosexuality, as in every other tribulation, [the works of God] can be made manifest… Every disability conceals a vocation if only we find it, which would turn the necessity to glorious gain.”
This is taking Paul’s description of celibacy seriously as being the better choice, and not just one forced on gay people. He wants to see celibate gay people more visible in our churches to show that we do not hate gay people.
The response of the local church
Johnson includes comments like this one from John Stott: “…if gay people cannot find [mutual love, identity and a longing for completeness] in the local ‘church family’, we have no business to go on using that expression.” I suspect few churches meet this standard. Johnson makes much of the desire of gay people to make themselves lovable, excelling in every field, spending excessive time in the gym or demanding equal marriage. The church's role is to show that we are loved just as we are. The danger is that gay people hear, ‘you are loved, but…’, where the ‘but’ is not there for anyone else. Specifically, Johnson argues that no extra level of ‘policing’ should apply to gay members. He tells of a same-sex attracted man presenting himself for ministry. A panel questioned him about any past sexual sins, whereas they did not interrogate straight candidates in the same way.
Jesus radically challenged the norms of His culture by identifying His disciples as His ‘mother and brothers’. So, the local church should be our family, “with all its mutual duties and obligations to each other.” He offers the refrigerator test; can you raid a friend’s fridge when visiting without embarrassment? Johnson’s primary paradigm is ‘brotherhood’, seeing shared life together without emotional dependency as healthy. For him, this means a regular pattern of intentional time together with several others with whom he can share in depth.
The book is not perfect for a UK audience. He focuses, no doubt because of his experience, on responding to claims that those who remain same-sex attracted are unsaved. Such a mindset is rare in the UK, where our problem is much more with those who have endorsed gay sexual relationships.
Church leaders need to hear the pain this book reveals. If churches cannot show genuine acceptance of celibate gay people in their congregations, then many in the next generation will reject the church for its homophobia.
“Still time to care” by Greg Johnson
(Zondervan, 2021) 291 pages
£16.99 hardback, £9.99 ebook
This article was originally published in the spring 2022 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.
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