A movement to endorse gay identity has sparked controversy among one of the country’s last remaining influential conservative Protestant denominations.
These believers are discussing homosexual desires and whether it’s okay to call oneself gay or queer as long as you regard gay sex as sinful. Approving same-sex relationships is off the table—at least for now. But plenty of congregation members worry the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) could eventually go the way of mainline denominations and approve gay sex and other behaviors along the LGBT spectrum.
Formed in the early 1970s, the conservative PCA is quite distinct from the liberal mainline Presbyterian Church (USA), but in recent years has seen growing contention between conservatives and progressives on a range of issues. The debate in the PCA about gay identity isn’t new, but is now in conflict because of a conference set to be held at a PCA church in St. Louis, Missouri, at the end of July.
Called Revoice, the conference is billed as a forum for “supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historical, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.” Because keynote speakers and presenters come not only from the PCA, but also from other Christian groups, the conference has attracted attention far beyond denominational circles.
Queering the Church? How About Churching the Queer
More evangelicals are leaning toward fully embracing homosexuality, including same-sex relationships. Even within the PCA, 49 percent of members say homosexuality should be accepted and 40 percent say they are in favor of same-sex marriage, according to the Pew Research Center. However, denominational leaders in mid-June took steps to shore up commitment to traditional marriage in their Book of Church Order.
The Revoice conference website is soaked in secular LGBT language, including talk of “sexual minorities,” “homophobia,” and “straight allies.” A description of a workshop called “Redeeming Queer Culture: An Adventure” says:
Christians have often discarded the virtues of queer culture along with the vices, which leaves culturally connected Christian sexual minorities torn between two cultures, two histories, and two communities. So questions that have until now been largely unanswered remain: what does queer culture (and specifically, queer literature and theory) have to offer us who follow Christ? What queer treasure, honor, and glory will be brought into the New Jerusalem at the end of time?
A workshop titled “How To Be A Straight Ally” will include discussion on “learning how to own the weight of the straight white evangelical tradition and its sins against gender and sexual minorities.” Other workshops focus on coming out as gay and celibacy, which many associated with Revoice promote over efforts to change one’s desires and marry someone of the opposite sex. They consider the latter unrealistic, while others believe real change is possible. Another workshop will include discussion on “equipping and empowering sexual minorities for their own ministries and callings in the Church and world.”
Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at the influential evangelical Liberty University and a research fellow with the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), is among those defending Revoice, describing it as a movement “calling the church community to come round those with these struggles to help and support them to live biblically.”
But critics say identifying as gay encourages Christians to identify with sin, undermining biblical exhortations to leave the old life completely behind, such as found in 1 Corinthians 6:11: “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God.”
Let’s Celebrate Homosexual Desire?
While they say they’re committed to not having gay sex, some Revoice leaders argue there are good things about homosexual desire itself, such as bestowing a greater capacity for friendship and for appreciating beauty. That belief has raised alarms that Revoice proponents with same-sex attraction see themselves as part of the larger gay community to a degree that throws whole-hearted commitment to Christian orthodoxy on sex and marriage into question.
Eve Tushnet, a Catholic lesbian writer known for upholding orthodox doctrine about sexuality, will be a keynote speaker at Revoice. Gregory Coles, the worship leader for Revoice, writes in his book “Single, Gay, Christian” about attending a Christian LGBT event at which he became so awed by the worship experience that he stopped caring what those around him believed. He writes, “God would not be thwarted – not by our wrong answers, not even by our unrepentance or disbelief. Whether the twelve people gathered in that tiny chapel chose to receive God’s grace or to reject it, we could never diminish it.”
Conservatives in the PCA and elsewhere think a debate over fully endorsing homosexual behavior is likely inevitable for a growing number of conservative churches despite efforts to prevent that day from coming. They’ve noted that accepting homosexuality as a fixed orientation and embracing LGBT terminology are steps others have taken before arriving at full approval.
They don’t have far to look to see how this trajectory keeps playing out. Former Wheaton College staffer Julie Rodgers, once a champion of gay celibacy, is now engaged to a woman. Revoice supporters will have to make sound scriptural arguments for why Revoice is not simply lower on a slippery slope towards renouncing Christianity. Their perception is frequently bolstered by experience within Christian denominations.
For example, in April the Southern Province Synod of the Moravian Church approved allowing gay and lesbian ministers to marry. “We have not had restrictions about gay and lesbian members being ordained,” the Rev. David Guthrie told the Winston-Salem Journal. “Prior to this decision, they would have been expected to be single and celibate. This Synod’s decision would allow them, along with all members, to be married.”