On Greg Johnson’s Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality
Greg Johnson is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and has served as a pastor for many years. In his new book, published by Zondervan and entitled, Still Time to Care, he repeatedly proclaims his love for Jesus Christ and his gratitude for Christ accepting him. At the same time, Johnson also asserts that his ongoing experience of homosexual attraction and his ongoing gay identity is a reality that the church has not handled well. He dedicates the book to, “Every gay person who has ever heard the call of Jesus and found life.”
The body of the book is divided into four parts, but the introduction provides essential framing for the arguments to follow. In the introduction, Johnson recounts what he now considers to be early indications of his homosexuality: his desire for an Easy-Bake Oven when he was young; his lust and curiosity over groomsmen at weddings; the fact that he never fit in in with stereotypically masculine or heterosexual identity with his peers (xvi). After an encounter with the gospel, however, all this seemed to have changed. His story became: “Gay atheist falls for Jesus” (xvi).
The change he experienced was so significant that Johnson recounts telling people that he used to be gay, that he was “an ex-gay” (xvi). He did not believe he was lying at the time, though in hindsight he does not believe he was telling the truth. Looking back, he sees his earlier declaration as a failed attempt to understand how his faith informed his sexual urges. Now Johnson says he “used to be an ex-gay” (xx).
The burden of the book, then, is to advocate for a paradigm of caring for those in similar situations. Its intent is to “cast a gospel vision for gay people” (xx). Part of this vision consists in convincing those who might consider calling themselves ex-gays, as Johnson once did, that the terms and ideas behind this label are false. The ex-gay movement, according to Johnson, was a “Potemkin village” (85).
Throughout the book, Johnson writes in a discursive and personal manner. His own story, told succinctly in the introduction, figures prominently in the arguments to follow, as do the stories of many others. Also, although the exact statistical estimates change, Johnson treats as axiomatic throughout the book that only a very small percentage (1% is suggested at one point) of people attracted to the same sex experience change in the orientation of their sexual desires. The majority need to be protected from “unsafe churches” (53); and churches themselves need to embrace a paradigm of care, not cure. He writes, “After four decades, the path to cure was a dead end. The ex-gay movement had died” (133). Near the conclusion to the book, Johnson puts it this way: “The church’s attempt to cure homosexuality failed” (243).
To cast his vision for a new paradigm in the absence of a cure Johnson begins by turning to four Christian leaders from the past who will be known to most evangelicals: C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, John Stott, and Billy Graham. Each of these figures, according to Johnson, provides a model for how homosexuals should be treated within the church.
He begins with C.S. Lewis. Johnson notes that Lewis had a close friend who was tempted and often succumbed to homosexual urges. Lewis treated him with sympathy as a friend. In addition, Lewis apparently did not believe that the ultimate societal solution for homosexuality lay in criminalization of homosexual behavior. He also did not see homosexuality as having been the most prevalent or serious sin in his unhappy boarding school. This is all beyond dispute and comes from Lewis’s own writings.
Johnson finds another key in Lewis’s writing on marriage. Lewis advocated that civil and Christian marriages be viewed differently. Johnson reaches the following conclusion: “In the world we inhabit, after the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges case that legalized same-sex marriage in the United States, Lewis’s perspective on marriage law may provide a paradigm for Christian political engagement (or disengagement) on sexuality” (9).
This goes far beyond what Lewis wrote. It is anachronistic at best to suggest that Lewis would have favored the reasoning in Obergefell; but employing Lewis in the service of movement toward so-called gay marriage is more sinister than that. Christians like Lewis have always acknowledged the validity of marriages between non-Christians, and they have always understood that the demands of biblical Christianity place a high premium on marital fidelity (Lewis’s basic point); but the underlying issue in the debate surrounding Obergefell was whether a homosexual union could in any real sense be considered a marriage. On this, the Bible, our confession, and the entirety of Christian tradition—Lewis included—is quite clear. What Johnson is advocating is less clear, but it appears that he is extrapolating from what Lewis wrote to suggest that Christians should consider another approach to the debate over what is called same-sex marriage. If this is what Johnson is proposing, and it seems that it is, then it is both highly significant and greatly troubling.
The section on Francis Schaeffer centers on his ministry to students at L’Abri. Johnson portrays Shaeffer as fostering an environment, “where homosexuals—both lesbians and gay men—are welcomed…no one is telling them they have to change” (13). One problem with these historical memories is that they come via Francis’s son, Frankie. This does not mean they are inaccurate, but a note of caution might be in order. Frankie’s published recollections paint a negative portrait of Francis, his ministry, and his family. If one were to accept Frankie’s accounts, his father would hardly be considered a public example. Notwithstanding these historical questions, it is also the case, as Johnson points out, that Schaeffer distinguished between temptation and action, and warned against pride when dealing pastorally with homosexuality. He was also quite clear that homosexuality was sinful, seeing it as a “breakdown in the biblical distinction of the sexes” (11).
Billy Graham is probably the best known of Johnson’s positive examples, but it is hard to understand why he was included in the argument. What Graham’s example boils down to is that he cautioned President Lyndon Johnson against reacting too harshly when one of his advisors, Walter Jenkins, was caught engaging in homosexual sex in a public restroom in Washington DC in 1964. It seems as if Graham was careful in doing so, but all we have is the record of one phone call.
While Johnson commends Graham for this phone call, he also regards Graham’s behavior in other circumstances to be concerning:
But the learning curve would be steep for Graham. In response to one 1973 letter from a young Christian woman asking about her attraction to another woman, Graham bluntly warned her that such a path leads to destruction. He warned her of judgment and pointed her to conversion and regeneration, even though she seemed to indicate that she was already converted. I can only imagine that his comments might have left her questioning her salvation. (17–18)
Isn’t it surprising that Johnson, a presbyterian minister, would find Graham’s words here in need of correction? Was it a problem that Graham issued a warning spelling out the fact that sin leads to judgement? Should he have avoided calling this woman to repentance and faith rooted in the new birth? According to Johnson, Graham should not have written these things at all. It was part of Graham’s steep learning curve, because “I can only imagine that his comments might have left her questioning her salvation” (18). If the fact that Graham may have caused this woman to question her salvation presents such difficulties, one wonders how the warnings and commands directed at professing Christians within the New Testament might raise similar concerns.
When it comes to Stott, the picture becomes murkier, although Stott is regarded by Johnson as the “architect” of the paradigm he is advocating. The confusion stems from the fact that most of the chapter on Stott is taken up with an anonymous book that he did not write, but that he was rumored at times to have written, entitled, The Returns of Love. This book apparently spoke with great feeling about homosexual longing. It was written in the form of letters between two men who expressed love for Jesus Christ and trust in His Word, but who lived in deep pain because of their celibacy in the midst of homosexual urges.
Again, it must be said (and Johnson eventually acknowledges this), John Stott did not write the book. But Stott apparently did later indicate that he found the book a helpful resource in understanding the pain of homosexual longing (28). This statement, combined with the fact of Stott’s unmarried celibacy and the false rumors that he had written the book, set the stage for the other strand of evidence in Johnson’s case, which is that Stott was emphatic that sinful pride should never enter in when dealing with homosexuals. He was not a culture warrior in this sense, and he cautioned Christians against a culture war approach, while still maintaining a consistent witness to biblical sexual ethics.
The point of Johnson’s uneven and anachronistic presentation of these four men is to hold them up as examples of a “paradigm of care” (33). What does this consist of? Johnson writes a kind of staccato manifesto on page 33, with a list of ideas which encapsulate this vision of Christian ministry taken from the examples of these four evangelicals: “[Avoid] hammering at them with your theology.” “Instead feel empathy toward sexual minorities.” “Defend gay people when under attack.” “Be honest about the relative fixity of sexual orientation for most people. False hope doesn’t help anyone.” “Like Lewis, commend gay people who follow Jesus. Tell their stories. Hold them up as models to follow” (33).
All these statements need to be questioned seriously and critiqued biblically, and they hardly seem to follow from the historical material Johnson presents. There is no indication that these men believed what Johnson assumes throughout—that deep internal change in sexual desire is impossible. They cared, but they did not explicitly set this in opposition to the possibility of change.
In the context of the book, both the examples and the conclusions serve as a contrast for what is to follow. What comes next, and what takes up the bulk of Johnson’s book, is a recounting of the “ex-gay movement,” a constellation of groups which developed in the 1970s from both the “Jesus People” and from the growing charismatic and word-of-faith congregations that were emerging in the United States during that time. What held the movement together was that each group, in its own peculiar way, offered a technique to cure homosexuality.
Johnson diagnoses some significant problems in this “ex-gay movement.” He notes its roots in a growing focus on “power religion,” seeking after miracles and believing them to be normative (44–45). He observes the ways in which, despite the embrace of the immediate and supernatural, the groups were founded upon models of homosexuality taken directly from secular psychology (45–47). These are worthwhile points, and they highlight the extent to which the “ex-gay movement”—at least as Johnson defines it—was built on uncertain foundations.
The fruit borne by this movement was also quite uneven. Johnson points to bizarre and damaging types of so-called conversion therapy (60–65), and the emotional dependance which this kind of treatment produced (76). There were tragic stories associated with those caught up in this movement, and Johnson recounts several of them movingly (92). There was significant conflict within the movement (105), and its history is riddled with leadership failures and the exposure of frauds.
Perhaps Johnson’s account of this movement is unfair. Maybe more good came from the movement than he acknowledges. In general, though, his analysis seems correct. While his biblical and theological critique is thin (the first appeal to Scripture appears on page 129), he is nonetheless convincing. The “ex-gay movement,” as presented by Johnson, appears unbalanced, theologically weak, and, in many places, corrupt. It is sad to hear the extent to which it was embraced in circles with which Johnson is familiar, and Johnson’s evaluation should serve as a cautionary tale for the evangelical church in America, which has often succumbed to the temptation of a quick-fix and a shorter path to repentance. The “ex-gay movement” described here bears the marks of this kind of quick-fix mentality, and many were damaged by it.
The central tragedy of Johnson’s book, however, is that these are not the lessons he draws from the “ex-gay movement.” Instead, Johnson conflates this movement with the church, and, more specifically, with traditional Christian teaching on the new birth, union with Christ, repentance, and sanctification. In other words, he seems to equate the “ex-gay movement” with traditional Christian teaching on holiness.
Because of this, Johnson’s prescriptions in reaction to the “ex-gay movement” include warning against using certain biblical and theological terms. He includes an extended hypothetical conversation between a well-intentioned person and a gay man or woman in which biblical terms are employed and profound misunderstanding ensues (197). The first interlocutor is named “Well Intentioned,” and the second (gay man or woman) is called, “Christian.” The point, according to Johnson is this:
Well Intentioned [the name of the interlocutor] has not made any attempt to understand, let alone move toward and accept, the Christian in question. Without realizing it, Well Intentioned is functioning to police terminology, not to empathize or understand. Even if the intention is to help someone, the effect is that the sister or brother in Christ feels judged or controlled instead of feeling seen and know. I guarantee a Christian will experience such conversations as emotional abuse. (197)
One cannot help but wonder how this reaction fits the description of someone who has experienced the new birth. Would we expect that Christians who delight and meditate on God’s law would hear biblical terminology as emotional abuse? This is hard to square with the picture of regeneration and its effects found in the New Testament.
But this ever-present threat of emotional abuse encompasses much of the instruction that Johnson gives. The Christian church is instructed not to distinguish between homosexuality and other sins. “When we treat the temptation to overeat differently than we treat the sexual attraction to a person of the same sex, it’s the ex-gay movement walking among us” (211).
Westminster Larger Catechism, Questions 150–151 are worth consulting on this matter, since they speak specifically of greater and lesser sins. More to the point, however, it is Johnson himself who classifies homosexual sin differently than all others, particularly when it comes to terminology. There is an extensive section in the book affirming many of the clear biblical prohibitions against homosexual acts (159–162). This is laudable, but when it comes to biblical terms with respect to conversion, sanctification, and union with Christ, he argues that Christians are at risk of committing emotional abuse in using them because of the historical failures of the “ex-gay movement.”
It appears that it is to the sin of homosexuality alone that Christians must exercise such caution and censorship of the biblical and theological language. As Johnson puts it: “Our children and grandchildren are watching… I am not saying we are at risk of losing Christians who are attracted to members of the same sex. That’s a given. I am saying we are at risk of losing the next generation” (216). Care, not cure is the only acceptable approach to homosexuality for the Christian minister. Johnson writes, “The question then [in the time of Lewis, Shaeffer, Graham, and Stott] as now was not how to cure gay people. The question was how to care for gay people who want to follow Jesus who promises abundant life” (216). In other words, “In the absence of a cure, what does care look like?” (216).
Traditional Reformed teaching on sanctification begins with the fact of the new birth. J.C. Ryle describes sanctification as “that inward spiritual work which the Lord Jesus Christ works in a man by the Holy Ghost when he calls him to be a true believer. He not only washes him from his sins in his own blood, but he also separates him from his natural love of sin and the world, puts a new principle in his heart, and makes him practically godly in life.” Those born again by the Spirit have new life and a new relationship to God’s moral law and the commands and example of Jesus Christ. They are sanctified positionally (1 Cor. 1:2, 30; Heb. 2:11). There is a desire for true inward holiness at work in the believer by God’s power (Phil. 2:12–13), and the positional change is the beginning of inexorable growth. This progressive sanctification is a work of God in believers as well, but it involves effort and struggle on the part of Christians because of the deep and abiding nature of sin (1 Thess. 4:1–3; Gal. 5:17). In this struggle, God’s commands give guidance and direction and expose areas in need of growth. Christians are commanded to meditate on God’s law and they love to do so, using it as a guide to making sense of themselves and defining their need. This is not a hopeless exercise: God’s seed is planted in us; Christ’s power is at work transforming us into his image; and the One who began a good work will complete it (1 John 3:9; 2 Cor. 3:18; Phil. 1:6). The Word of God comes and is used by the Spirit for the true care of our souls.
What is offered in this book, however, is not that kind of care. It is not care aimed at growth; it is more like the palliative care offered to a hospice patient. It is care when there is no hope for a cure. It is care for those who have been judged to be dying and beyond help. The best it can offer is kindness and pain relief, coupled with the hope that one day soon it will all be over.
Within this palliative framework, it is not surprising that classic biblical teaching on sanctification is hardly referenced, except to show how it can cause confusion. The new birth, the very fountainhead of progressive sanctification, goes unexamined. The reader is instead introduced to Side-B Gay Christianity, Spiritual Friendship, the Living Out curriculum, or Revoice (216–219).
Given Johnson’s appeal to figures from evangelical history earlier in the book, it is ironic that his approach to sanctification relies upon such novelties. But these are presented as examples of the positive programmatic attempt to care, not cure. They presuppose, “the relative fixity of sexual orientation for most people” (33). The key, according to Johnson, is this: “Until we know that our Father actually likes us, we will lack the ability to get outside of ourselves enough to see the beauty of God’s law, particularly at the point at which it tells us we are defective” (185). This perspective explains Johnson’s omission of the traditional categories of conversion and sanctification.
The root of these omissions can be seen in the Revoice Conference of which Johnson writes so positively (218–219). The stated mission of the conference is this: “To support and encourage gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other same-sex attracted Christians—as well as those who love them—so that all in the Church might be empowered to live in gospel unity while observing the historic Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.”
This mission statement is worth considering. First, it is premised on the immutability of the orientation of sexual desire and on the unlikelihood or impossibility of any internal change at the level of the heart. This, according to Johnson, is the fundamental assumption shared by the Side-A and Side-B movements (217). It directly undercuts the Bible’s teaching about the work of the Holy Spirit. But apart from that, the statement has as its focus the psychological experience of sin in relation to the self. The mission of the conference is support and encouragement in the cause of empowerment. This goal reflects Johnson’s own basic approach: We must avoid offering a cure to those in search of abundant life with Jesus; we need to know that God likes us before we can be addressed by His commands.
In his 1998 book, Losing Our Virtue, David Wells contrasts what he calls a “classical” view of spirituality, with a “postmodern” view. Wells writes:
Wherein, then, lies the difference between a classical and a post-modern spirituality? The latter begins, not so much with sin as morally framed, but with sin as psychologically experienced, not so much with sin in relation to God, but with sin in relation to ourselves. It begins with our anxiety, pain, and disillusionment, with the world in its disorder, the family or marriage in its brokenness, or the workplace in its brutality and insecurity. God, in consequence, is valued to the extent that he is able to bathe these wounds, assuage these insecurities, calm these fears, restore some sense of internal order, and bring some sense of wholeness.
This describes almost perfectly the assumptions behind the paradigm of Johnson’s book: it is therapeutic rather than objective, palliative care without a cure. To address the objective problem is to risk emotional abuse; to address the cure is to offer false hope.
But if gospel preaching means anything, it means proclaiming Christ and calling for repentance and faith even at the level of sexual desire. The Holy Spirit comes as more than a hospice nurse. The Lord offers new birth, salvation through “the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5b–6).
The older ministers knew this and clung to it. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it this way: “The position of Christians is not that they remain what they were, somewhat better, perhaps, but now called children of God. No, no! They become the children of God. Something happens to them…. This is real transformation.” John Bunyan, in his final sermon, put it this way: “There is usually some similitude betwixt the father and the child. It may be the child looks like its father; so those that are born again, they have a new similitude—they have the image of Jesus Christ (Gal. 4). Every one that is born of God has something of the features of heaven upon him.” The Canons of Dort conclude, “[God], by the efficacy of that same regenerating Spirit, pervades the inmost recesses of man.”
It is because of this comprehensive internal work of the Spirit that the apostle Paul can state, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). When giving his own testimony of salvation, Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). This new life is not just about behavior, it addresses the appetites: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:25).
It is because of this new life that we must directly target the notion of identity, saying to those who are born again, “Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ” (Rom. 6:11). To those in Christ who formerly held onto their sin as an identity, Christian preachers must declare: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9, 11, emphasis added). We must ask questions, such as: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Cor. 6:9a). Because we know that sin is deep and pervasive and must be fought, we teach: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body” (Rom. 6:12).
The stakes could not be higher. Life and death hang in the balance. There is a broad way and a narrow way, and therapeutic comfort comes by the former. “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:13–14).
This is what we have to offer as Christian ministers, not a palliative substitute. None of it can be omitted or modified or cast aside. We proclaim Christ with all His demands and promises, knowing that those who come to Him in repentance and faith will not be cast out. With man it is impossible, but not with God. His Holy Spirit gives new life and pervades the inmost recesses of those truly born again. We all struggle in many ways, but His Word gives us the vocabulary to understand ourselves and the scope of our need. It demands that we give no quarter to sin. That same Word proclaims Christ’s gracious offer and command to all: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:29).
We must preach the whole Christ. Those who ask, receive; those who seek, find; to those who knock, the door is opened. What greater news for sinners could there be?
 J.C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2018), 22.
 David Wells, Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 42.
*Image Credit: Unsplash
**This article was originally published at the Gospel Reformation Network and is used by permission.