Revoice theology or the tenets of Side B celibate same-sex attracted Christianity are, at the same time new and not new. They are strikingly current and redolent of revivalism and of the theological liberalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Revoice and Side B do not seek to destroy Christianity or cripple the church. Rather (as with the liberals of yesteryear), they seek to save the church’s mission for a new generation and for some very specific segments of society.
A helpful shorthand term for the clunky terms “Revoice theology” and “Side B celibate same-sex attracted Christianity” is Johnsonism, after the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) pastor Greg Johnson who personifies the movement. Surely there is range, lexical and doctrinal, in the movement—Greg Johnson is not Revoice and all Side B folk do not agree on every point. But just as Rosaria Butterfield represents one way of dealing with and speaking to believers who struggle with homosexual desires or sexual confusion, Johnson represents another.
Reading Johnson’s 2021 book Still Time to Care (an attack on conversion therapy and an appeal for compassionate ministry to gay Christians) is one way to understand Johnsonism, but now there is another: a very brief booklet meant to supplement the longer work called On Mission with the LGBTQ+ Community . In barely seven pages of text Johnson has given us “some thoughts on ministry to the LGBTQ+ community…and a lot of this is personal experience,” per his introductory Facebook post.
On Mission is Revoice applied, and it starts with Revoice. Johnson begins by recounting the opposition to the inaugural 2018 Revoice Conference (hosted by Johnson’s church—he also spoke at the conference) from the local homosexual activist community, who denounced the celibacy encouraged by Revoice, but quickly turns his shame guns to the right: “There is no community on the planet that longs more deeply for what only the gospel can give. But there is no community on earth that feels more threatened by biblical Christians.”
Biblical Christians are presumed guilty and Johnson has strategies to help the conservative church make amends. Johnson points to the Posture Shift curriculum which pretends to be a “missiological framework” for outreach to “nonstraight people,” but which reminds those versed in church history of the Social Gospel and the ethos of Protestant liberal missionaries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Posture Shift pithily exhorts:
Offer enhanced inclusion. Prove justice through visible care. Level the playing field. Collaborate. Be humble. Resist the theological hammer. Avoid trigger words/clichés. Never lead with theology. Avoid politics.
There is not much original there. In fact, the above sounds like a general primer on outreach to cities, college campuses, or culture-making leaders in the arts, business, and culture. Further, given the degree to which homosexuals have penetrated these elite circles, the overlap is natural: The culture is gay so you must be gay (in some way) to reach the culture.
From the familiar “for the city” tropes, Johnson turns to the insights of cross-cultural, international missions for help with mission to (or with , per the title) the LGBTQ+ community. In quoting a missiologist Johnson clearly implies that the Western “sexual minorities” (many of whom enjoy great privilege and favor at the moment) are as different from conservative Christians as are tribal folk in New Guinea. The quoted missiologist mentions a number of sexual perversions that missionaries encounter in certain parts of the world. Somehow, the tolerant, gentle approach of missionaries to tribal people’s bizarre sexual mores is supposed to be helpful since missiology is “attentive both to the possibilities of syncretism with cultural ideology on the one end, and healthy contextualization on the other.”
Contextualization is key for Johnson, who also makes much of the Holy Spirit’s role in calling out the elect but does contextualization mean pausing (indefinitely?) at “pre-evangelism”? Is the Spirit utterly dependent on our modern methods and cultural sensitivities? Johnson says that, in outreach to the “LGBT+ community” being “all about Jesus” means:
We have to repent of our fear and disbelief. Repent of our adversarial posture. Repent of our complicity in North American society’s idolization of marriage and romance. And we have to be ready to learn. We have to learn from the LGBTQ community in a way that does not threaten their safety within the queer spaces they create. We enter their spaces by invitation. We enter to learn and love, not to ram our theology down their throats. God is the one who is on mission. He is the one who awak-ens a soul to spiritual life in Christ. He is the one who saves sinners. This is the mission of God.
Apparently what the Persons of the Trinity really need to save sinners is for Christian missionaries to adopt a range of quite modern and suspiciously socially-acceptable terms, techniques, and concepts—especially when the sinners are in communities built around the practice of (or attraction to) a particularly egregious form of sexual sin.
Contextualization is key for Johnsonism, but what form or degree of contextualization can a conservative denomination like the PCA accept? Is contextualization the harmless, small, common-sense adjustments of form and and language that Christians have always made when reaching out to people unlike themselves? Or is it something far more radical and dangerous?
Helpfully, Johnson tells us about his vision for contextualized outreach, describing how his own church allows an unused chapel building on their property to be used as an arts and performance venue. The chapel (called “The Chapel”) hosted for at least two years an annual festival of short plays by transgender non-Christian playwrights.
Our pastors each took a different night to bartend. We provided the drinks for free. After the final night’s show, one of the members of the theatre company went up to one of the pastors at the bar.
Johnson describes the ensuing conversation as a great example of outreach and bridge-building. A more sober assessment might call the whole enterprise a highly-questionable attempt at best at pre-evangelism. Johnson says the “pastor-bartender” apologized a lot, seemingly for other Christians. This form of contextualization seems to mean “we can do whatever we want in the name of outreach in our context.” Such an approach might be acceptable for independent or liberal churches, but for a confessional, connected presbyterian church such an approach is bound to raise red flags.
In the PCA, Johnsonism has raised more than flags of warning, Since 2021’s General Assembly the flags have become banners of war. The antagonists in this ecclesial conflict are not conservatives vs. liberals, Christians vs. post-Christian pagans, or even confessionalists (broadly construed) vs. non-confessionalists. The conflict is between radical contextualizers on one hand and advocates of simple, ordinary means-of-grace ministry, subject to the plain reading of the denomination’s standards on the other.
Another way to understand this struggle: the presbyterian vs. evangelical paradigm. Evangelicals are the heirs of revivalism and broad Protestantism. Revivalists require new and ever newer measures to accomplish their goals. Accommodation and change are the only constants for evangelicals. Johnsonism as a strategy and ethos are best viewed as the natural outcome of evangelical-revivalist cultural accommodation. Johnsonism is missionary contextualization gone wild. This paradigm, at least, avoids the “You aren’t even Christian!” assessment in favor of “You’re a different kind of Christian.”
Some elders in the PCA believe Johnsonism is essential to the future of the church. Others are willing to give it the benefit of the doubt for now, watching to see where it goes. These men were those who applauded Johnson’s revival-style testimony at the 2019 General Assembly in Dallas. Votes from those in this group likely defeated the proposed PCA constitutional amendments that might have clamped down on same-sex attracted officers.
Is it wise to wait and see? Remember, Johnson uses the acronym “LGBTQ+” when he describes the context the church must reach. He identifies with the “G,” of course, and the “L” goes with the “G.” The bisexual “B” presents a different type of confusion. The transgender “T” is all over the news, and what elder relishes parsing the issues that the “T” presents. And what is the “Q”? The really troubling character is the plus sign (+). The plus sign means the sexual chaos and lexical expansion may never end. What is next? Could it be the p’s of pedophilia and polyamory? Another “B” for bestiality-attracted church members? How many conferences and parachurch groups will the future’s deviancies du jour require?
Some may accuse hesitant or hostile conservatives of cowardice or homophobia(+?) as they look ahead, brows furrowed or maybe the most that those skeptical of radical contextualization are guilty of is possessing a most inconvenient commodity in 2022—sanctified common sense. There used to be no law against that.
©Brad Isbell. All Rights Reserved.
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