Is it Time To Change Ministry to LGBTQ People? Book Review Still Time to Care by Greg Johnson (Zondervan, 2021)

Article ID: JAR2112JD | By: Joe Dallas

A Book Review of

Still Time to Care by Greg Johnson

(Zondervan, 2021)


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​For more than four decades, organizations like Exodus International, Courage, and Homosexuals Anonymous have provided counsel and support to people who realized they were attracted to the same sex, considered homosexuality a sin, and wanted help dealing with their desires. These groups and the people they served made up what’s often called the “ex-gay movement,” a phenomenon that has always gotten its share of supporters and critics. Its critics have tended to be pro-gay, some producing books and documentaries hoping to persuade others that their accusations against the ex-gay movement validated their gay-affirming position. But Greg Johnson’s book Still Time to Care (Zondervan Reflective, 2021) is a unique addition to these criticisms because, unlike others, he writes from the position of a traditionalist who views homosexual behavior as sin. His objections to the movement that he decries are not, therefore, over its theological stance but the way it practiced and promoted that stance. As a former president of Exodus, and one who remains closely aligned with the ex-gay movement, I was interested in Johnson’s assessment of our work, his conclusions, and his recommendations to the church at large.

It Seems We’ve Stood and Talked Like This Before. Reading Still Time to Care reminded me of the years I spent in the Jesus movement, and how they parallel to the time I spent with Exodus International. Fifty years ago, I converted to Christianity, joined Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, and became identified as a “Jesus Freak” who was part of the “Jesus movement.” Both names were misleading. After all, none of us had signed up for a cause, and our conversions hardly made us freaks. We were simply new believers active with a church where Jesus was unquestionably moving, but no official “movement” was recognized.

To be sure, we had our distinctives: long hair, hippie garb (it was the early 1970’s), folk rock Christian groups, and casual worship style. But our essentials, in contrast to our modern distinctives, were so old fashioned they could be called quaint. Emphasis was placed on the need for salvation and personal evangelism, didactic Bible study, spiritual growth, and the anticipation of the Lord’s soon coming. This was nothing new, albeit packaged in something contemporary.

In hindsight, shortcomings within the movement aren’t hard to spot. Many of us believed Christ would come any minute, an end-times sentiment leading some into premature marriages, abandonment of college, and entrance into full-time ministries for which we were ill-prepared. Our personal evangelism style could be aggressive and inconsiderate as we button-holed strangers on the street. Parents were often viewed as unenlightened materialists; traditional denominations were at times, directly or indirectly, spoken of with condescension.

So, detractors — many of them former “Jesus People” — have spoken critically of those times in the subsequent decades, and websites exist for “survivors” who now identify as ex-Christians.1 Some of them left the faith entirely; some remain Christian but reject, in part or in whole, a movement they used to embrace.

Yet the Jesus movement’s contribution is undeniable, evidenced in transformed lives, the legacy of Calvary Chapels world-wide, modern worship and ministry approaches, and the leaders it produced who continue to build up the modern church. So, was it essentially good with elements that could have used some tweaking, or was it a phenomenon we’d have been better without?

The same could be asked about the ex-gay movement, something largely identified with but not limited to Exodus International. It was also called a movement without meriting the label, since it consisted of people wanting sanctification in general, and more specifically, freedom from a life-dominating struggle. Apart from people experiencing a movement within their own consciences, it lacked the social or political goals associated with movements.

Like the Jesus movement, the ex-gay movement had its distinctives, including emphasis on the power of personal testimony, encouragement toward accountability and some form of counsel or group ministry, and utilization of secular theories if and when appropriate and harmonious with biblical orthodoxy. But its essentials were traditional, including adherence to biblical authority, orthodox beliefs about marriage and sexuality, the need for daily prayer and study of the Word along with regular church fellowship, and a desire for ongoing personal transformation coupled with the belief such transformation would come.2 Hindsight offers easy access to some of its shortcomings, many of them detailed in Johnson’s book, but all of which (like criticisms of the Jesus movement) should have been qualified with the phrase “at times” or “by some.”

With those qualifiers, I would agree with Johnson that at times the concept of “change” (what changes a person might expect when repenting of homosexuality) has been referenced more often than it has been explained; that marriage was viewed by some as an endgame; that at times cultural traits of masculinity or femininity were taken as markers for (or evidence of) wholeness; and that secular theories on homosexuality’s origins were applied by some to all people instead of to those whose experience fitted them.

Yet despite Johnson’s description of it as “the church’s attempt to cure homosexuality” that “failed,”3 many former Exodus leaders (Exodus itself having closed in 2012) and subsequent ministers in this field continue to make undeniable contributions to the modern church, offering relief and direction to individuals and families impacted by homosexuality, and support to pastors wanting to offer similar help to their own congregants. Many of them have continued in ministry for decades, offering services while producing books and online resources with faithful consistency (a point Johnson himself graciously makes in a section titled “Many Godly Leaders Persevered”4). That being the case, the book’s criticisms should be considered.

Assessment and Conclusions. Johnson’s primary complaint is that, more than forty years ago, the Christian church abandoned the discipleship approaches of Francis Schaeffer, John Stott, and C. S. Lewis (all of whom are cited as advocates for “care” rather than cure”) and adopted the “ex-gay script” in an attempt to change homosexuals rather than simply love them.

That “ex-gay script” is described as having been birthed by the ex-gay movement, a rather sinister trend conceived in the mid-1970’s by Exodus International, a para-church organization linking ministries around the country who ministered to same-sex attracted people.5 Exodus would soon be joined by similar referral agencies like Courage (for Catholic believers) and Homosexuals Anonymous, an adaptation of the 12-step model.

For nearly 30 years, according to Johnson’s analysis, Exodus and its ilk encouraged same-sex struggling believers to pretend they were something else — either completely cured of homosexuality, or at least changed more significantly than they really were.6 He also charges its leadership with adherence to questionable psychological theories to back its claims of “cure” and to wordsmithing concepts of change with phrases like “ex-gay” or “same-sex struggle.”7 All of which constituted a ministry approach Johnson assesses as destructive, leading people to assume that if they repented of homosexual sin, they would thereby be cured of homosexual temptations. These raised expectations and in turn gave birth to disillusionment and deep psychological harm, a harm Johnson describes as a massive failure providing a new opportunity.

Recommendations. Johnson’s closing chapters explain how he feels the church should respond to this opportunity. Yet while he raises some legitimate concerns about the ex-gay movement, his recommendations for future ministry approaches raise more serious concerns, and this is where Still Time to Care veers from a sometimes accurate diagnosis to a very bad prescription.

His chapter “Picking Up the Ball We Dropped Forty Years Ago” begins with some good ideas, such as revisiting and taking a cue from the works of C. S. Lewis, Billy Graham, Francis Schaeffer, and John Stott, while developing a better understanding of homosexual people and emphasizing care more than cure. He’s right, and we should.

But when advising us to shift from cure to care, Johnson’s prescribed form of care includes the philosophy and approach of the Revoice Conference, which encourages believers who are same-sex attracted to identify themselves as “gay Christians” and as members of a “sexual minority.”8 The annual conference bills itself as an event “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.”9 Presentations have included some good teaching on doctrine and purity, to be sure. But workshops at Revoice trigger alarm bells too loud to ignore — such as “Redeeming Queer Culture: An Adventure,” which lamented the fact that “Christians have often discarded the virtues of queer culture along with the vices” and posed the questions “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 (Revelation 21:24–26)?”10

It also seems unbiblical to classify a group of believers as a “sexual minority,” identifying them with a sinful tendency using terms like “gay” that are, in essence, positive. It is one thing (and a good thing, at that) to admit, “I’m a Christian with this or that particular area of weakness.” It’s another to frame that weakness with positive labels.

The downward spiral that reframing creates is evident in a church’s willingness to first host a “Gay Christian” event while claiming to be orthodox, then later hosting a blatant celebration of sexual confusion accompanied with an “adult content” warning. It is also evident in the troubling endorsement given to this book by openly gay psychotherapist Dr. Ralph Blair,11 who for decades has advocated the pro-gay interpretation of the Bible; as a nationally recognized gay leader, through his teaching, speaking, and conferences, Blair promotes a revision of the church’s position on marriage and sexuality.12

Here is where the care Johnson extols seems to morph into something else. All of which led Albert Mohler, responding to Revoice, to comment: “We should lament the brokenness and understand the many failings of the Christian church toward those who identify with the LGBTQ+ community. But we dare not add yet another failure to those failures. We cannot see Revoice as anything other than a house built upon the sand. Revoice is not the voice of faithful Christianity.”13

Johnson was right to assess and critique the ex-gay movement. After all, it’s the responsibility of each Christian generation to scrutinize the ministry approaches of the prior generation, rejecting what was wrong and preserving what was right. But when making that determination, sound doctrine trumps cultural compatibility, and that is where Still Time to Care errs. It also errs in assuming that the ex-gay movement was an essential failure, and that an entirely new rather than improved approach is called for. Because when a “new approach” revises what is not meant to be revised, it can hardly be called an improvement. Here the warning from Proverbs 22:28 seems apt: “Do not remove the ancient landmark / Which your fathers have set” (NKJV).

The authors of Scripture, apostles, and early church fathers laid doctrinal boundaries — lines drawn and clearly spelled out in Scripture. If and when truth has been expressed imperfectly, then let the expression be criticized. But don’t let the truth be blurred, because in the end, it’s better to express the truth imperfectly than to propose a truth that is, under examination, something less. —Joe Dallas

Joe Dallas is a pastoral counselor, seminar teacher, and a contributing writer for the Christian Research Journal. His latest book Christians in a Cancel Culture (Harvest House, 2021) is available through the Christian Research Institute. 

Notes

  1. For example, see DustyLady, “From a Jesus Person to a Real Person,” Exchristian.net, February 18, 2013, https://new.exchristian.net/2013/02/from-jesus-person-to-real-person.html#.YbT4ir3MJPY; and SockFleet, “My Ex-Girlfriend Is Going to a Calvary Chapel Bible College,” Ex-Christian: A Support Community for Ex-Christians,” https://www.reddit.com/r/atheism/comments/cfea2/my_exgirlfriend_is_going_to_a_calvary_chapel/.
  2. For the history of Exodus International, see Joe Dallas, “Homosexuality and Modern Ministry: Examining Old Approaches and Assessing New Ones. Part One: A History of Ministry and Missteps,” Christian Research Journal, December 10, 2018, https://www.equip.org/article/homosexuality-and-modern-ministry-examining-old-approaches-and-assessing-new-ones-part-one-a-history-of-missions-and-missteps/.
  3. Greg Johnson, Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Reflective, 2021), 243.
  4. Johnson, Still Time to Care, 115–116.
  5. Johnson, Still Time to Care, 39–44.
  6. Johnson, Still Time to Care, 68–76.
  7. Johnson, Still Time to Care, 101–103.
  8. For a review of the Revoice Conference, see Joe Dallas, “Homosexuality and Modern Ministry: Examining Old Approaches and Assessing New Ones, Part Two: Identity, Terminology, and the Revoice Conference,” Christian Research Journal, December 10, 2018, https://www.equip.org/article/homosexuality-and-modern-ministry-examining-old-approaches-and-assessing-new-ones-part-two-identity-terminology-and-the-revoice-conference/.
  9. Revoice 2018, https://web.archive.org/web/20180615231009/https:/revoice.us/.
  10. Revoice 2018, https://web.archive.org/web/20180615231009/https:/revoice.us/. See also Dallas, “Homosexuality and Modern Ministry: Examining Old Approaches and Assessing New Ones, Part Two.”
  11. See endorsements for Johnson’s Still Time to Care at https://www.amazon.com/Still-Time-Care-Churchs-Homosexuality-ebook/dp/B08P3ZSRMT/.
  12. See Evangelicals Concerned Inc. website, https://ecinc.org/dr-ralph-blair-founder-of-ec/.
  13. R. Albert Mohler Jr., “Torn Between Two Cultures? Revoice, LGBT Identity, and Biblical Christianity,” Albert Mohler website, August 2, 2018, https://albertmohler.com/2018/08/02/torn-two-cultures-revoice-lgbt-identity-biblical-christianity.
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