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?
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 RUF 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.
The Identity Problem
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:
- My sexual identity is homosexual
- The kind of homosexual identity I have, and its attendant desires, cannot be eradicated
- Expressing homosexual desires physically or by marriage covenant with a man is unbiblical
- I am committed to a biblical approach to sexuality and faithfulness
- Therefore, I must resign myself to never marrying a woman and having a family.
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?