At the 2019 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, the denominational delegates considered a number of official overtures (requests for action from the regional parts of the denomination) relating to issues of gender and sexuality. The PCA is conservative. As evidence of this, the assembly passed a resolution to commend the contents of The Nashville Statement, a product of the conservative evangelical parachurch that affirms biblical regulations about sexuality. Yet the discussion that led to this resolution’s adoption revealed that the assembly holds a diversity of views on the nature of sexuality.
During the debate over whether to recommend the Nashville Statement, a PCA pastor from St. Louis, Greg Johnson, entered the line for one of the microphones provided to delegates desiring to speak, pro or con, on the overture. The moment was dramatic. Other delegates offered to let Johnson proceed to the microphone. Because his testimony had been recently published in Christianity Today magazine, and because of his church’s involvement in a controversial conference about sexuality in 2018, the assembly leaned into the tension of the moment.
A bit of background. Pastor Johnson is a serious, accomplished man. He earned a Ph.D. in historical theology from St. Louis University. His stimulating doctoral thesis investigated the origins of the “quiet time” in evangelical theology. He holds an M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary, the PCA’s denominational seminary. Johnson pastors Memorial Presbyterian Church, a congregation in St. Louis, that, when the PCA was formed, managed to exit the national, modernist Presbyterian church with ownership of her beautiful, historical church building located in the heart of the Forest Park area of St. Louis. Johnson’s formal preparation for ministry, especially ministry in the context of a congregation able to serve the highly selective nearby Washington University and the large arts community of St. Louis is impeccable.
Johnson’s speech took issue with a particular article of the Nashville Statement. Article 7 relates to homosexuality as an identity. From Johnson’s point of view, the clause declared a homosexual or gay self-identity to be, itself, forbidden to a Christian, no matter the Christian’s dedication to a life of obedience.
Johnson related his own identity as a homosexual, covering some of the same material contained in his Christianity Today article. The Nashville Statement clause was painful to Johnson, implying that there was no place in the denomination even for him, a true son of the PCA, having been converted to Christianity in college, and encouraged to attend the denominational seminary by his campus minister.
A few items stood out in his comments. Johnson spoke of his identity, and his commitment not to act on this identity, in sacrificial terms. He repeated the refrain that there is a cost to his faithfulness. One of Johnson’s premises, based on conversations with people in many ministries to gay men, was that it would be impossible for his desires to change; to be other than exclusively attracted to men would be impossible. Based on this, and coupled with his belief in the sinfulness of homosexual activity, Johnson’s sexuality would be unable to be expressed. Johnson professed to have lived a life of celibacy, and never to have acted on his inclinations. This meant, he concluded, a life of loneliness and no way to build a family. This has resulted in no family with whom he could celebrate holidays and, were he to be cremated, there would be no one to receive his ashes.
After the speech, anyone using his or her heart could not but respect Johnson’s words, life, and ministry.
Here was a man faithful to his calling, going so far as to sacrifice romantic love and the prospect of family life in order to remain faithful to the Bible. Perhaps these were the words of a living saint, with the credibility of a Paphnutius, the Confessor at the council of Nicaea who lost an eye for the name of Christ and who alone had the credibility to forgive those Christians who pinched the incense or signed a false license of allegiance to Caesar over Christ. This interpretation of Johnson’s life and confession was the inclination of all those who used their hearts to listen to a brother in Christ to whom pain had been caused by the assembly’s consideration of adopting the Nashville Statement.
Engaging the mind, however, in the weeks of sobriety following the assembly, has created a much different reaction. The heart remains soft towards Greg Johnson, brother in Christ, but with regard to Greg Johnson, minister in the PCA, the mind cannot help but find several fundamental problems.
First, consider the identity problem. Much of the pathos of Johnson’s speech relied upon his self-denial, based on the assumption that he could not have what God says generally is his holy will for a man’s happiness and flourishing in the world. In Genesis, God recognizes that it is not good for a man to be alone (Gen. 2:18). Johnson recognizes the same problem. And God’s solution is that each man should be united to a wife, created to be a helper for him in his role of wisely ruling and filling the earth (Gen. 1:26; 2:24). Johnson has apparently not, from the details in his speech and article, found a sense of family among his own nuclear family. And it is God’s will for men to leave father and mother and be united to a wife (Gen. 2:24). Thus he is trapped; no family behind, no family ahead. Johnson believes that he must pay this cost of faithfulness–that family cannot happen for him. How does Johnson reason to this point? Here is the logos, the implicit, theoretical underpinning of Johnson’s conclusion expressed as a series of logical steps:
Johnson’s implicit argument seems logically valid and, again, the heart finds this argument compelling. But the overall truth of this argument rests upon whether the first premise is actually true. So far in his life, Johnson has reflected on his romantic desires and found them exclusively to be directed toward men. As a young person of eleven, Johnson attended a wedding and found himself more attracted to one of the groomsmen than the bridesmaids. From this observation of his own tendencies, Johnson has reified something fixed and unchangeable – a “homosexual identity.” He is a “gay man” and this is not likely to change.
After the fall, God never held out the promise that all men will find it easy to find a suitable helper. It is generally God’s will for a man to find a wife of his youth, graceful as a doe, with breasts that satisfy him and give something more to life than he can have on his own (Prov. 5:18-19). After the fall, men must leave all kinds of situations and desires behind – things that make loving difficult.
God is not calling Johnson, or any man, to desire and love women in general.
God calls Johnson, and all unmarried men, to remain open to loving a particular woman. Other than his own wife, all women are a man’s daughters, sisters, and mothers (1 Tim. 5:1-2) and all men are a man’s fathers, sons, or brothers. Each man is to drink romantic water only from his own cistern (Prov. 5:15). Yet Johnson’s extra-biblical assumption, one that turns the general orientation he has experienced into a fixed identity, seems to have resulted in a kind of fatalism. Like a Pharisee, placing a hedge around a law, Johnson has placed a thick hedge around the possibility of marriage. Staying true to his own complicated laws, he must love women in general before falling in love with a particular woman.
Surely Johnson already knows, because of his own Christian conversion, that attraction comes when another loves us first. Isolating oneself from the love of others towards us isolates one from the attractions that love may induce. Christians do not first learn to love divine persons, an entire class of beings, and then learn to love to Christ. Christ loves them first, and their hearts respond.
By implicitly reducing the preconditions for marriage to romantic or sexual attraction, Johnson risks reducing the purpose of marriage to answering attraction or alleviating loneliness. Yet God intended the creation of women and marriage as a broader gift, to help in the accomplishment of man’s vocation. Perhaps Johnson must discipline himself to consider each unmarried, adult woman he meets from the perspective of God’s intentions for his vocation. Perhaps an initial attraction to how a particular woman may help him to participate in God’s mission in the world may lead to an attraction to the woman herself. Seeking first the kingdom of God in marriage may lead to the adding of sexual attraction and all other gifts that attend marriage.
If Johnson has founded his house of self-denial upon rotten beams, then how can the heart maintain an unalloyed respect for Johnson’s predicament and his reaction to it? He has created a theory about the fixedness of sexual identity, related this theory to a theory of what makes marriage possible, imposed a rule to harmonize the Bible’s clear prohibitions of homosexual sex with these theories, and constructed a life of self-denial that brings him pain with no hope of remedy.
Given this first problem, Johnson’s speech sounds less like the confessions of Paphnutius and more like what psychologists call depressive realism. Depressive realism is the tendency of depressed persons, at their lowest points, to logically state their own predicaments, and the implications of these predicaments, in as bold a relief as possible. This stark way of thinking amplifies the negative and may increase hopelessness. Depressive realism can be a kind of wallowing or over-scrupulosity. This is fatalism.
Johnson serves the King of heaven and earth. He ministers and blesses his congregation every Sunday in the name of the good Shepherd-King of the World, Jesus. Is it too great a task for God to help Greg Johnson love a particular woman, even in the midst of his general inclinations? Would any pastor in attendance at the General Assembly encourage a parishioner to approach his or her life in the way Johnson has chosen to walk—sure of what God cannot do, constraining hope to what Professor Experience tells us about our lives by sight rather than basing hope on the mighty arm of God by faith? Is this how Pastor Johnson counsels members of his own flock when they face sins (or temptations to sin) that alienate them from God’s good plan for us?
Second, consider the ministerial vocational problem. Johnson’s confession now gives the denomination quite a predicament. Rather than practicing graceful reticence about his inclinations, Johnson has made them known to his elders and to his congregation, and, now, to the ends of the earth This raises the stakes on what would otherwise be a private struggle.
Why did the assembly’s heart initially receive Johnson’s speech as salutary? Johnson’s revelation came in the fullness of time in four respects.
First, the people of the PCA, like many in 2019, have experienced several decades of subtle, increasingly intense reeducation on the subject of homosexuality. Johnson’s inclination is toward a sin shared by glittering members of the artistic community, by CEOs of beloved American corporations, and by characters on countless network and Netflix shows with whom most Christians spend more time than with their brothers and sisters in Christ in the local context. Unlike any other sexual sin, homosexuality has become domesticated, de-pathologized, and brought into the mainstream. Johnson’s inclination fits in with an entertainment-industrial complex promoting its respectability.
Second, Johnson’s confession enters the PCA after many years of an emphasis on grace in the Christian life. This emphasis has been a wonderful antidote to legalism, but it has left many with the impression that all sins are alike in their severity—that a pastor who confesses a temptation to laziness has confessed a sin just as severe as a confession of persistent homosexual feelings. Yet the denominational standards, with the scriptures, do not hold that all sins are alike in all respects. Some sins are “more heinous in the sight of God than others” (WSC, Q. 83, WLC, Q. 150). According to WLC 151, there are three dimensions to the “aggravations” that cause a sin to be more heinous than another in God’s sight. The first aggravating dimension relates to the standing or character of the individual committing the sin (e.g., when it is committed by a person of authority or a teacher). The second aggravating dimension relates to the party harmed by the sin (e.g., against a vulnerable person). The third aggravating dimension relates to the very nature of the sin itself (e.g., a sin against many explicit commandments or against the light of nature). In fact, Question 151 both explicitly and implicitly through scripture proofs, identifies sexual sin, especially same-sex sin, as more heinous with regard to the latter two dimensions (1 Cor. 5, Jude 8, Col. 3:5, Prov. 5:8-12; 6:32-35, Deut. 22, Rom. 1:26-27; 1:32, Num. 25, 1 Sam. 22). If all sins are not alike in God’s sight, how then can an inclination toward every sin be alike? With respect to God’s grace, no doubt all sins are alike (WLC, Q. 152). But with respect to many other things, including whether a man may serve as a pastor, all sins are not alike. All repentant, bad fathers may be forgiven. But not all repentant, bad fathers may be ministers if their households have the marks of being managed poorly (1 Tim. 3:4-5).
Third, Johnson’s revelation of his homosexual temptations comes in the context of an emphasis on authenticity through openness in the PCA. As a popular book by an RUF campus minister argues, openness leads to awkwardness, yes, but the reward is a more authentic connection with others, with self, and with God. An encounter-group frankness has brought the confessions expressed in the privacy of the pastor’s office into the small group and now, even to the pulpit and presbytery microphone. Thus, many in the PCA respect the honesty and openness of a given confession even prior to an examination of the contents or context of the disclosure.
Fourth, there has been an emphasis in recent decades on the dignity of singleness. Many fine articles, such as one by Paige Benton, have emphasized that single people are not defective. This true recognition, combined with a growing delay of marriage age, has led to an easy equation of the legitimacy of Johnson’s deliberate celibacy with the legitimacy of natural singleness.
Given at least these four factors, Johnson’s confession warmed the denominational heart like a swallow of brandy. The ethos of the speaker was instantly secure. Johnson spoke as a single man, a member of a respected and suffering sexual minority, confessing and triumphing over temptation, with an awkward openness. He was a man in full for the PCA in 2019.
Johnson did not merely confess to a temptation; he owned an entire worldview about what marriage is and what it means when one’s sexual inclinations are built into a coherent and fixed identity. He implicitly trained the rest of the pastors in the denomination in a method for counseling those who struggle with temptation to sin. He has promulgated a theory that reifies temptation-ness.Persistently tempted to homosexual sin, Johnson has self-identified as a “Gay Christian” who nevertheless remains faithful. Yet Johnson’s confessions have created a denominational predicament.
Who, building a tower, does not consider the costs (Luke 14:28)? Who plants a field before knowing whether he is using good or bad seed (Matt. 13:24-26)? Johnson’s confessions raise the necessity of studying the trajectory of denominations who, in the past, have ordained openly gay, yet celibate Christians as ministers—not because of a slippery slope fallacy, but to learn what kind of seeds we are planting.
Johnson’s confessions raise the necessity of considering the wisdom and impact of placing a “gay Christian” minister in a PCA pulpit. What does it mean to ordinary church members or visitors for a PCA pastor to have made known his proclivities in this manner? In Johnson’s own context, St. Louis has more than a dozen PCA churches; the denomination has not left PCA Christians in St. Louis unable to choose a church without the complications that having a gay minister may raise. But what about in smaller towns? Are we sure this will not harm the PCA’s ministry?
Would we have any doubt that a minister open about his temptations would ruin his ministry were he to confess experience with many other types of temptation—ones that have not (yet) been domesticated by Professor Experience and his handmaiden, Professor Netflix? What if Johnson’s ministry and openness attract to his congregation other godly men afflicted with the same temptations who are convicted by the same theory of identity? As these men rightly desire the office of overseer, what if a congregation ends up with 40% of its elders who identify as gay Christians? 60%? 80%? At what point do we become concerned that there may be negative pastoral implications? While we currently work to understand the implications of a self-avowed gay Christian, might we not soon be studying what it would mean to have a gay congregation?
In his published testimony and during his floor speech, Johnson narrated his life in the PCA and spoke of his college conversion, his precocious facility for theology, and the prompting by his campus minister to attend seminary. Possibly recognizing the appearance of having run afoul of the Pauline “he must not be a recent convert” criteria for eldership, Johnson pointed out that he did not become a minster right after his conversion (1 Tim. 3:6). Yet he did become a seminarian right away, and Paul’s concern about recent converts is that they will be “puffed up.” Consider that Johnson’s theory of sexuality, the one that led to the hedge around his personal life that gives his personal story such emotional punch, differs greatly from that of other prominent Christians (e.g., Rosaria Butterfield) who have found love in a heterosexual marriage whether or not they have lost homosexual attractions.
Why is Johnson sure that he is right? Does his confidence warrant the morally aggressive steps he has taken to support the cultivation of a formal movement of celibate, gay Christians? Perhaps Johnson’s most problematic temptation—the one that has put family and sexuality out of reach—has been misidentified and he is, like many of us, simply intellectually arrogant. Perhaps becoming a pastor has been counterproductive to his finding God’s path both for his vocation and for his denomination; perhaps Johnson should reexamine whether he is called to pastoral ministry at this moment. Do any of these considerations also lead to the necessity of considering the wisdom of deterring men with homosexual inclinations from entering the pastorate in the first place? Could there be some benefit to protecting men who self-identify as gay Christians from the temptation to pastoral ministry that an ordination-route Master of Divinity program may present?
As a self-described “46-year-old virgin,” Greg Johnson has never acted upon his homosexual desires. He possesses a biblical understanding of the basics of what the PCA considers biblical and ethical with respect to sexual activity. And yet Johnson has constructed a theory of sexual identity from which he has derived a theory of the Christian life that has rendered him incapable of experiencing both the joy and practical benefits of God’s plan for human sexuality in marriage. Johnson speaks in the register of depressive realism and has narrated a tale of futility and exasperation–the constant paying of the costs of faithfulness. All of this elicits our concern for a Christian brother.
The heart is right to resonate with Johnson’s microphone speech and the details of his published confession. Yet the head sees in this, upon reflection, a series of problems.
In his speech, Johnson expresses the belief that he has paid the costs of leaving “house and wife” for the sake of the kingdom of God (Luke 18:29). Yet leaving one’s house and wife to follow Jesus is much different than denying oneself the very possibility of house and wife on the basis of a peculiar theory of sexual identity.
Johnson’s theory of sexual identity brings a perfectionism to the pursuit of family life. His theory implies that unless Johnson is miraculously transformed into a lover of women qua women, he does not believe he can love, marry, and begin a family with a particular adult woman. Though Johnson himself, like all Christians, did not love God until God first loved him, he is resigned never to experience what it is like for a woman to love him first. Perhaps one must put himself in the position of understanding, as Mr. Darcy expressed it, the great pleasure that a pair of fine eyes, brightened by exercise, and turned toward one in love can provide. Many men, even generally heterosexual men, must be loved by a woman in order to love her. And all men must first be loved by God before they can love him.
Johnson’s confessions, now public, have now put the PCA in an awkward position. He has, in effect, institutionalized the discussion of how we must wisely approach the sexuality of pastors. He has suggested a model of human sexuality. He has suggested a model for the Christian life. He has suggested a model for how self-identity intersects with God’s will for human happiness and vocation in marriage. What should the PCA’s response to these suggestions be?
To bring together the heart and the head, pastors and elders in the PCA, beginning with the elders of Johnson’s church and presbytery, have a great deal of work, both pastoral and intellectual, to do. No doubt, this work is probably already underway.
First, Johnson must be loved as a fellow believer and counseled out of his resignation and fatalism. He currently speaks like a sexual pessimist and must be called to hope. If not for the initial reaction of the heart, perhaps the General Assembly itself should have paused to pray for a brother who is in great pain and anxiety, regardless of whether these are caused by a theoretical straitjacket of his own design. Perhaps a fellow presbyter could have hugged Johnson and told him that all will be well. God loves Greg Johnson and has a wonderful plan for his life that may involve the privilege of an entirely different kind of Christlike suffering that he will face together with a wife whom he loves. Johnson should be encouraged to reconsider his vocation. Just as repentance is a lifelong duty of every Christian, the pastor must continually recognize the seasons and judge whether he is prepared. Those who teach are called to a stricter judgment; it will be a kindness to Johnson to help him examine the situation soberly and in the context of the entire church (James 3:1).
Second, there is intellectual work to do along with the application of wisdom. Johnson’s presbytery has published several statements about homosexuality and about the conference held at Johnson’s church in 2018, but it has not yet been able to consider the wisdom of Johnson’s remaining as pastor given his public confession. No one in the presbytery has yet to wrestle, in print, with the sure censure that would have resulted had Johnson confessed temptation to any number of other, less socially acceptable sexual sins and even non-sexual sins. What if Johnson had confessed to an ineradicable, lifelong temptation to animosity towards people from a particular racial or ethnic group? To temptations for sins that could affect the church’s insurance or safety policies? Can one simply resign to be a Racist Christian and give up on God’s plan to bless those who call all men “clean?” How will the PCA deal with this homosexual exceptionalism? The denomination has already decided to create a study committee to examine these issues. How will the members be appointed? Will these very practical, pastoral, and ecclesiological questions be considered?
So far, when the church’s heart and head have hit the rocks it is because these organs have been captained by Professor Experience and his living by sight. Now, the grace of faith must be employed to put experience in its place and to reteach our hearts to love the right things. In that way, we will both love well and think well. Greg Johnson has bravely put forward an implicit argument about the Christian life that simply does not work and, when deployed from the pulpit, may have negative pastoral and ecclesiastical implications. Now, the church must lovingly and rationally respond. The PCA’s head and heart must enter into the fray for the glory of God and the good of his people with respect to the sexual confusion that is plaguing the church. And, as our membership vows bind us to do, all PCA members must pray for the peace and purity of the PCA in these matters.
Editor’s note: An earlier edition of this article mistakenly claimed that Rev. Johnson was encouraged by his Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) campus minister to attend seminary. We have made a correction and apologize for the error.
Jonathan Barlow (M.Div., Covenant Theological Seminary; Ph.D., Historical Theology from Saint Louis University) is a lifelong PCA member from South Mississippi. Get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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