I have received quite a few emails and messages about the forthcoming Revoice conference at Memorial Presbyterian Church (Presbyterian Church in America), in St. Louis. This conference is a long way from me both geographically and denominationally but, like many other people, I have been paying some attention to the controversy surrounding it. Though it is likely to be a fairly modest event (at least during this age of megaconferences) it seems to be serving as a kind of bellwether for one of the most controversial issues in the church today: same-sex attraction.
The mission of Revoice is “Supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.” The organizers promise three benefits to those who attend:
- New Community. “Gather together with other gender and sexual minorities and those who love them and experience a new kind of gospel community.”
- Better Conversation. “Listen to, learn from, and participate in conversations with speakers who bring a nuanced perspective to the table of discussion.”
- Diverse Collective. “Benefit from curated presentations on a wide variety of topics related to LGBT experience and the historic, Christian sexual ethic.”
The conference is framed around three keynote speakers (Wesley Hill, Eve Tushnet, and Nate Collins) and a host of breakout speakers. Some of the breakout sessions have titles like, “Redeeming Queer Culture: An Adventure,” “Journey To Embrace: A Conversation On Empowering the Church To Embrace the LGBT+ Community In Fresh Ways,” and “Coming Out In the Shadow of the Cross: Queer Visibility as Redemptive Suffering.”
It is important to note that, in part at least, the Revoice conference has gained so much visibility because it is being hosted at a PCA church and includes a number of PCA speakers, including one of its seminary professors. The PCA is a historically conservative denomination, but one that is currently in some flux between conservative and “progressive” camps. For this reason the event is primarily of concern to members of that denomination, but because of the urgency of the topic, many others are paying close attention.
The Revoice conference has raised issues that are becoming more and more urgent among Christians: How do we think and speak about same-sex attraction, especially when it is experienced by professed believers? The conference is advocating the position that sexual orientation is a core part of human identity so that we can speak of “gay Christians”—Christians who profess faith in Jesus Christ while maintaining a homosexual orientation or identity (but also a commitment to celibacy). The deeper questions are along these lines: is it sinful to experience same-sex desire and attraction, or only to act on it? Is there even a legitimate category of “sexual orientation” so we can say that some people are oriented toward members of the same sex while others are oriented toward members of the opposite sex? Is our hope for same-sex attracted Christians that they pursue gay celibacy or that they struggle to put their same-sex attraction to death? The Revoice conference has drawn all of these concerns to the surface and taken a stand on them through its use of words and language.
Jim Shaw, pastor of a PCA congregation, wrote a tremendously helpful article on clarifying what the conference is and is not about. He points out that both those who advocate the conference and those who do not have this common ground: 1) no party is currently advocating for changing the view on the sinfulness of homosexuality in the PCA; 2) all agree it is appropriate to call on people to be celibate rather than act out in a way that is sexually sinful; 3) all agree that homosexuals can be redeemed and both parties earnestly desire to see such happen; 4) all have an orthodox, evangelical desire to minister the gospel to those with same-sex attraction. The real source of disagreement, then, is language and terms such as “gay Christians,” “sexual minorities,” and “LGBT+ Christians.” “These concerns are not small or limited to our denomination, nor are they trivial. Therefore, we can recognize that the debate is about the propriety of some of the Revoice Conference’s chosen language and terms.” And, of course, behind the language and terms are those very different ways of understanding homosexual desire.
Jim Shaw continues with six critiques of the conference and what it stands for: Using these terms gives the impression that Revoice (and the PCA) accept and approve of words that describe a sinful lifestyle; the effect of using these terms will be devastating to the minds and hearts of our congregants regarding this biblical matter; one cannot be “gay” or “LGBTQ” and a Christian; the term “sexual minority” is grossly out of order; those who struggle with sin cannot be encourage to identify themselves by their sin; and it brings shame and reproach upon our denomination. His proposed solution is for the conference to retract such words and language.
Kevin DeYoung (who is also within the PCA) wrote “Words, Labels, and ‘Sexual Minorities’” to specifically address the conference’s use of the phrase “sexual minority” to describe those who experience non-heterosexual desires. He looks at its troubling origins, its ambiguity, the way it makes disordered sexual desires essential to personhood, the way it makes some inclinations minority and others majority, and the way it may normalize what ought to be a struggle. “In short, words matter,” says. “It’s not alarmism to point out that indifference to words and definitions has often been one of the first steps to theological liberalism. I hope we in the PCA, and in the broader church, will pay more careful attention to the words and terms we use in these controversial matters. Once the labels stick, they become sticky indeed.” (Recommended Reading: What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?)
Denny Burk, who is not in the PCA but does head up CBMW, has written extensively on this subject, so mostly pointed to his existing material, including his lengthy journal article “Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?”(PDF). But he did say this, which is key: “evangelicals have not come to a consensus about these issues, and this lack of consensus cannot hold. We will either unify or splinter. I think there is evidence that some splintering has already occurred, and I think that is inevitable given the importance of the issue.” Thus his concern is that Revoice exposes a significant fault-line within conservative or Reformed Christianity. He also says this: “While I am grateful that so many of those on the other side of this are embracing a biblical view of marriage, I do believe that they have adopted an unbiblical view of human identity—one that treats same-sex attraction as a matter of moral indifference and homosexual orientation as an identity to be embraced.” (Recommended Reading: Transforming Homosexuality)
Richard Phillips, a prominent pastor and professor within the PCA, asked “Can the ‘Welcoming Church’ Speak the Truth?” He said that the buzzword ahead of the PCA’s annual General Assembly is “welcoming” and expressed concern that the Revoice conference raises concerns about how such welcoming will eventually work itself out at the level of the local church. “Can the welcoming church tell the truth? Amen to us welcoming sinners of all kinds with an open heart and ready embrace. On this point, progressives and conservatives sincerely agree. But, having welcomed one and all, do we then speak biblical truth about sexuality, gender identity, sin and repentance?”
There have been many other responses, of course, but these ones will at least orient you to the controversy surrounding Revoice and the much wider discussion it has brought to the surface. We are the first generation who has to deal with some of these very new notions of sexuality (transgenderism, homosexuality as an orientation rather than as simply behavior, and so on). Discussions like these are how we eventually come to a consensus on what honors God and what dishonors him. I believe the truth is becoming ever-clearer.