By Preston Sprinkle
There’s been a lot of talk over the last few weeks about the upcoming Revoice conference. Revoice is a conference and community for LGBT+/SSA Christians—Christians who experience same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria—who are committed to a historically Christian sexual ethic. Every person presenting at Revoice believes that marriage is between a man and a woman, that all sexual relationships belong within marriage, and that same-sex sexual relations are sin. Many people at Revoice, therefore, are submitting their sexuality to the Lordship of King Jesus as they pursue a life of celibacy in allegiance to Christ. They also believe that LGBT+/SSA Christians often have a hard time finding community and care in the church, so Revoice wants to provide a gospel-centered community for those walking this narrow road of faithfulness. As many of my gay friends tell me: “Non-religious gay people don’t know what to do with me, because I’m pursuing celibacy; my Christian friends also don’t know what to make of me, since I’m still attracted to the same sex.” Yet they still press on toward the upward call, living with the sting of a thorn in their flesh, throwing themselves on the hope that suffering will one day be crowned with glory.
However, several have raised concerns over Revoice, most of whom come from conservative Christian circles. One critic writes: “the conference's underlying theory…strikes me as a Really Bad Idea (and a patently unbiblical opinion).” Another critic even more forcefully says: “the biblical Christian” can clearly see that “this event is biblically unfaithful and fundamentally unsound.” (Other critiques from conservatives can be found HERE, HERE, and HERE.)
This latter accusation hits home, since it was made immediately after the critic quoted me. That is, the author believes I’m “biblically unfaithful and fundamentally unsound.” On what basis? Because I believe that same-sex attraction, while part of the Fall, is not a morally culpable sin. That is, I make a distinction between same-sex attraction and same-sex lust and same-sex sexual behavior. (I also make a distinction between opposite sex attraction, lust, and sexual behavior, and you do too.)The latter two are sin, while the first one is a temptation to sin.
Another reason why I am “biblically unfaithful and fundamentally unsound” is that I don’t think it’s intrinsically immoral to describe oneself as gay rather than same-sex attracted. That is, for many people today, the term gay is basically a synonym for same-sex attraction. “Gay” doesn’t mean gay sex, or gay lust, nor does it have to refer to one’s core identity or fundamental essence as a person. “Gay” simply means that someone is attracted to the same sex and not to the opposite sex.
Some people, of course, might use the term “gay” as a central identity ahead of all others. Others might also use the term gay to imply that they are hungry for a gay lover. Still others—I’m thinking of my late grandmother—might have images of half-naked men donning leather thongs and pink feather coats when they hear the term “gay.” But no one at Revoice uses the term gay this way. Whatever one’s taste of attire, the term gay simply means that one is attracted to the same sex and not the opposite sex.
For instance, Ron Belgau, a Revoice presenter and co-founder of the Spiritual Friendship blog, writes: “when we say ‘I’m gay’…we do not mean that our sexual attractions are a defining or constitutive element in our identity.” Again, Belgau says: “I do not think that ‘gay’ describes any deep fact about who I am in Christ.” Belgau represents others at Revoice when he says that “both homosexual sex and homosexual lust are sins to be repented of. The desire for these is a temptation that must, with the assistance of God’s grace, be resisted.” Indeed, “same-sex lust…must always be repented of and mortified.”
From my vantage point, critics seem to misrepresent what Revoice advocates actually believe, when they say things like: the term “gay” is “deeply problematic in that…it makes sexual orientation an accurate and essential category of personhood.” This critique addresses something that Revoice has never said. Had the writer said “could make,” or “might make,” and followed these claims with at least some awareness of how Ron and others actually use the term, then this might have been a constructive dialogue. Instead, the author doesn’t appear to represent what Ron and others have actually said when they use the term gay. Again, most (if not all) presenters at Revoice explicitly deny that they mean an “essential category of personhood” they say they are gay.
Another critic cites 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 to show that Revoice is “a perversion of biblical teaching.” This passage addresses people who consistently engage in same-sex sexual behavior (with the Greek words malakoi and arsenokoites) along with several other sinful life-patterns (adultery, drunkenness, idolatry, etc.). Let me say it loud for the people in the back—Paul is addressing same-sex sexual behavior. Paul is explicitly not talking about Jesus-followers who are resisting the very temptation of this sin. Imagine that you experience unwanted same-sex attraction, and out of allegiance to King Jesus, you commit yourself to a life of celibacy precisely because you believe Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6 are true and good and beautiful. Now imagine that a fellow Christian cites this very same passage to show that you are “perverting biblical teaching,” are being “biblically unfaithful and fundamentally unsound.” That’s like citing Paul’s prohibition “do not get drunk with wine” (Eph 5:18) to condemn a Christian who’s tempted to drink but has been twenty years sober.
I find it disheartening that fellow Christians would throw such uninformed (and, can I say, biblically unfaithful) accusations at other brothers and sisters in Christ. To say that Christians who still experience same-sex attraction, while resisting lust and sexual immorality, are being “biblically unfaithful” because they use the term gay as a synonym for same-sex attraction is disheartening. Think about this logically: It’s because they love the Bible, it’s because they cherish the supremacy of Christ, it’s because the gospel has so invaded their lives, it’s because they found the pearl of great price, it’s because they are so adamant that marriage is between a man and a woman that many of them are committed to a life of singleness and celibacy. If that’s not the epitome of biblical faithfulness, I don’t know what is. Instead of sitting in the stands lobbing linguistic critiques, we should be rushing to the field to bring them water.
Still, I understand some of my critics’ concerns. I really do. (Okay, well, some critics represent a brand of Christianity that I can hardly recognize, and they’d probably say the same of me. Let’s not worry about names here. You wouldn’t know them anyway.) I’m not at all saying that some critics of Revoice haven’t raised some good points. After all, terms aren’t always neutral because language is not inert. Language creates and shape reality and can move the human heart. Or in the words of Jamie Smith: “no habit or practice is neutral” (Desiring the Kingdom, 83). Jamie is not talking about the term “gay,” but his point is quite relevant. Whether one uses the term gay as a primary or secondary identity, or merely as a description of one aspect of their lived experience, such language can shape desires. One of my friends, who’s also a presenter at Revoice and attracted to the same sex, often tells me: “When I call myself gay it sends me to unhealthy places, not-so-distant memories when I was not living faithfully for Jesus. I therefore say I experience same-sex attraction, because the term gay brings me to a place I don’t want to go.”
That’s my friend’s personal perspective and the reason why she doesn’t call herself gay (or lesbian). But I have several other friends who don’t have the same experience. It’s important to understand, therefore, that Revoice is not some monolithic movement that demands that same-sex attracted Christians identify as gay. Revoice is a diverse gathering of sold-out Jesus followers who believe in God’s design for marriage as a union between two sexually different persons.
The fact is, in this cultural moment, the term “gay” might mean 11 different things to 10 different people. Just because one of those meanings might be an essentialist identity—“being gay is the essence of who I am and my central identity,” etc.—doesn’t mean that proponents of Revoice use the term this way. Indeed, they’ve clarified many times over that they do not. Again, Belgau’s perspective seems to represent many presenters at Revoice (and Spiritual Friendship, a likeminded org):
One of the most persistent mistakes made by critics of Spiritual Friendship is the assumption that when we use any language that they don’t like (most commonly, though not limited to, the word “gay”) to describe our experiences, we are using that language to make ontological claims.
I’m sure there will be several things stated at Revoice that I won’t necessarily agree with, which is why I want to have the discussion. After all, this is an in house discussion for those who agree with a historically Christian view of marriage and sexual expression.
For instance, I’ve been rethinking the whole category of sexual orientation (as have many scientists and scholars who have done research in this area). If sexual desire exists not in airtight categories, but along a spectrum (which it does), and if sexual desire is more fluid than we realize, not just for women but also for men (which it is), and if scientists are more or less settled that nature and nurture both play complex roles in shaping, forming, and nurturing sexual desire (which they are), then what exactly is sexual orientation? And what sort of ideological commitments are we implicitly endorsing when we use and assume categories like sexual orientation? (More on this in a forthcoming blog.) I suspect that some people at Revoice may not agree with me, nor I with them. And that’s fine.
Again, Revoice is not some monolithic movement that dots every “I” and crosses every “T” exactly the same way. We are all united around the gospel of Jesus Christ and a historically Christian sexual ethic.
To be clear, then: I have publicly endorsed and will be presenting at Revoice not because I’m going to agree with everything that will be said. I’ve never attended a Christian conference where I agree with everything that everyone else is saying. I endorse Revoice out of a deep admiration and profound appreciation of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who are walking the narrow road in the midst of so much misunderstanding and critique. I’m going to be blessed and challenged by my LGBT+/SSA brothers and sisters in Christ—heroes of the faith, in my honest opinion—even if some of them (not all) might use of acronyms like LGBT+, to the chagrin of my more conservative brothers and sisters. We don’t all need to agree on these finder points of a very complex and nuanced discussion. But, can we have this discussion over some bread and wine? Let’s come to the table and, with a posture of humility and mutual respect, try to understand (and challenge and encourage and learn from) each other.
Let me remind us again: everyone at Revoice agrees that marriage is between a man and a woman and that same-sex lust and sexual behavior are sin. In this day and age (at least in the West), these are radical claims. Do we really want to ostracize those who have questions about the finer linguistic nuances within this historically Christian perspective? What is needed—and desperately so—is not a posture of “you’re biblically unfaithful until you stop using an acronym,” but “because you’re my brother or sister, help me understand where you’re coming from—and here’s a cold bucket of water to refresh your soul.” Despite the dozens of clarifying articles written over the past several years that explain what Wes Hill, Ron Belgau, and others mean when they say “gay,” critics continue to rehash the same old points—ones that have been either clarified, corrected, or refuted. I can’t help but wonder whether Revoice critics are not listening to understand, but listening only to critique—or not listening at all.