One of the best things about the Revoice conference is that it is making us work through some issues that we manifestly need to work through. This does not make the Revoice conference a good thing, most certainly not, but the Revoice conference presents us with a good occasion to state the straight alongside the crooked. And it presents us with an opportunity to do this in a time and day when it will cost us something to do so.
There are many Christians who say jeepers when they hear about this thing, but the conference does seem to follow from premises we granted earlier, back when too many of us all asleep at the switch. We need to go back and retrace our steps.
In that spirit, I have sort of a rag bag set of responses here, and so please read accordingly.
Matthew Lee Anderson
Matthew Lee Anderson presents an extended argument here, in defense of a logic that could be behind something like Revoice. Without defending the conference in every particular, he weighs in with the sentiment that the critics are being too hasty, and have some compromised assumptions themselves. What he does is issue an invitation to an argument, which I think could be a very good idea—had not this crisis already been precipitated by the organizers of the conference. Some of the issues he raises (e.g. the theology of contraception) really are worth pursuing. But what he is trying to do is hold together two disparate groups in the evangelical world that have already gotten their divorce. There is no way that this is going to work out smoothly. People are going to have to decide on this one—this way or that way, left or right. The fight that is coming is not the divorce—it is the custody battle.
And the image of a custody battle doesn’t really do justice to the situation we are facing. Mark it well. If this Revoice conference happens, if it actually goes down, it will be treated by the faithful for what it is—a declaration of war.
The basic problem with Anderson’s approach is that he keeps it high-minded and theoretical in a way that a number of the other representatives of this movement do not. He does this in a way that makes the gay identity Christians seem a lot more put together and well-adjusted than you would think from their own statements about what they are doing. For example, early on in Spiritual Friendship, Wesley Hill tells an extended story of a close friendship he once had with a heterosexual man. When that man found a girl, Hill fell completely apart. He fell apart because, as he came to realize, he had been in love with his friend, and he was going to lose him, which he of course did. This break-up story had it all, down to the uncontrollable sobbing. But a friendship that cracks up because one of the friends found a girl was never really a friendship, regardless what one of the parties may have thought about it.
The lesson that Hill did not draw from this was not that he had a terrible definition of friendship—which should have been the lesson. This was not a story of something beautiful that mysteriously blew up later. It was cock-eyed from the start. Hill was clearly being clingy and needy and self-absorbed, and you would never guess at that kind of quiet desperation and sadness from the stately prose of Anderson.
Incidentally, I just made some personal remarks about Hill (clingy, etc.) that I would never ordinarily make in the course of a debate—but in this instance the problem is that this is the point. If you enter your pig in the fair, at some point the judges are going to say something about it, including the fact that they think it might actually be an anteater. We cannot talk about what they are doing without talking about what it is they are doing.
In short, when you read Anderson, and when you hear the testimonies connected to speakers and organizers at Revoice—one speaker recounting how the shooting up of the Pulse nightclub left him sobbing—you get a very different impression.
There is one other thing that Anderson needs to take into account. The reason conservative opponents of this conference see it as the tip of the secularist spear is not because of an overheated imagination. Where are all the Revoice speakers on women’s ordination? Wesley Hill is clearly fine with ordained women. Where are they on the shamefulness of the “Side A” arguments? Where are they on whether reparative therapy ought to be legal? Note that I am not even asking about whether reparative therapy is always and everywhere efficacious. I am asking whether it ought to be legal in a free country. Where are they on that? Where are they on whether Obergefell ought to be considered settled law? Where are they on the infallibility and authority of Scripture? Why has the gay identity issue been given the passing lane here?
There is no way to establish a bunch of gay identity folks as spokesbipedalcarbonunits for the church, and not have them be in that same position when we are talking about the next big issue to confront the Church of Today—which, by the way we are going, may soon be the inclusion of support animals in the diaconate.
I know that some might not want me to be the one asking questions, but that is too bad. Some might think that I actually need to be doing is getting dragged down a gravel road behind a truck, but still, the practical questions do need to be asked. Is hand-holding a part of spiritual friendship or not? Is cuddling off limits for spiritual friends or not? If two spiritual friends sleep in the same bed, is that part of this program? Or do we have different answers to these questions depending on the people involved?
If we are modeling this spiritual friendship project off the words of the monk Aelred of Rievaulx, then we should recognize that oath-bound friendships need to be defined by a monastic rule. Not that I am a big fan of monasticism, but at least the decision on whether showering together was okay would not be made on the basis of an individual whim.
Ron Belgau has added his voice to those defending the Revoice conference. Like Matthew Lee Anderson, he spends a great deal of time interacting with Denny Burk, and says that the choice is between Augustine or Freud.
Augustine or Freud, which way should we go? Is this a trick question?
I will tell you frankly—the very worst thing to find living in the basement of my id would Freud, not to mention creepy. And ironic.
But taking the discussion to such high theoretical levels is an unnecessary distraction. It is totally beside the point. Hill and Belgau say that same sex lust must be mortified. I agree with them. They say that true friendship would be a powerful blessing and aid for people in this predicament. Again I agree. But it is plain from the way spiritual friendship is being discussed by them that their ideas about what would constitute a healthy friendship is terribly skewed. They haven’t an earthly clue, and I am not indebted to Freud for this observation.
I know that Wesley Hill is committed to celibacy. I know that he is committed to mortification of any explicit form of same-sex lust. But that is not what he needs to mortify. What needs to be mortified is his effeminate understanding of friendship. He doesn’t need to mortify what he knows to be his lusts. He needs to learn how to mortify what he believes to be his virtues.
If you believe, as I do, that a godly approach to friendship would be an enormous help to those afflicted with same sex temptations, it seems to me that the people you should go to would be heterosexuals with a healthy understanding of biblical friendship. You should not go to those whose past struggles mean that their motives could reasonably be considered suspect.
As my daughter Bekah pointed out, all of this is an odd do-over of the courtly love tradition. That medieval weirdness happened when some bright fellows came up with the idea of celibate adultery. But what matters to God is that you don’t actually “do it,” right?
A gallant knight would select his lady fair, somebody else’s wife, would dedicate himself to her, take a token from her, and then ride off to do great feats on her behalf and in her name. As these things often go, the celibate part of this project was sometimes honored in a less than stellar fashion, but what can you do? It was still a noble idea, right? The fact that we often wound up with four bare legs in a bed should not be allowed to dampen our youthful idealism
Take all the arguments for spiritual friendships between same-sex attracted individuals, and take all the boundaries that have been set up for them to honor, and then plug them into a different scenario. A married man is best friends with another woman. He and this other woman are (for some reason) passionately committed to the idea of avoiding the sex act, but short of that they share an intensity of feeling rarely found anywhere. His wife regrettably doesn’t share his interests, and so when he goes off to cuddle with his new friend and talk about their shared passion for depth psychology, she has no grounds for complaint. He says (and she believes him) that there is nothing explicitly sexual in their doings. But that doesn’t keep it from being a weird, demented, and transparently rationalized form of infidelity.
When the same kind thing goes on between two homosexuals, it is not rationalized infidelity, because there is not a wronged spouse in the picture (although there might be if the wandering spouse is bi), but it is rationalized sexual uncleanness nonetheless. It is an exercise in walking along the precipice with your eyes closed, whistling and kidding yourself. It is not adultery proper because there is no marriage vow involved, but make no mistake. The Westminster Larger Catechism would still group it under adultery, even if everybody managed to keep it orgasm-free.
Mortification of What Exactly?
As we walk through these issues, we constantly need to make careful distinctions, and we must make them over and over. So we begin by noting (again) that while temptation need not be sin, there are some temptations that are sin in their very nature from the first moment of their first appearance.
We know that temptation need not be sin, because we know that our Lord was tempted (Heb. 2:18), yet without sin (Heb. 4:15). We know also that it is possible for us to be tempted, and to withstand the temptation without sinning. In this sense, we are commanded to resist sin—coming at us from outside—and to do that to the point of bloodshed (Heb. 12:4). Doing this is possible.
At the same time, certain temptations require an antecedent corruption. The temptation would not work unless there was some complicity already. Can a man be tempted to knock back his fifth whiskey sour? Can a teenaged boy be tempted to approach his sister sexually? Can a man be tempted to lie about a theft that occurred ten years ago? Yes, yes, and yes, and in each case, something is already wrong.
When Peter tells us to abstain from fleshly lusts that war against the soul (1 Pet. 2:11), he is telling us that we have an enemy within. That part of me which is hostile to my soul is not my friend, and is my enemy all the time. This means that these fleshly lusts are sinful from the get-go. Not all temptations are sins, but these are. And they are part of me.
When Adam was tempted, there was nothing that was already wrong. When Jesus was tempted, there was nothing that was already wrong. During the course of those temptations, which were real temptations, they were dealing with the world and the devil, but they were not dealing with the flesh in the same way that we must deal with it. The fact that they had a body meant that the world and the devil had something to appeal to, but what they were appealing to had nothing bent in them inherently. Jesus was hungry, and that was used against Him, but there was nothing wrong with that hunger. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil appeared to be good for food, but there was nothing inherently wrong with seeing and recognizing that.
So it is possible for us to be tempted in the same way—where the temptation flies in from the world and the devil, and our body is a place where they try to land. But it is also the case that we are frequently tempted by the world, the flesh, and the devil. And the flesh in this particular sense already has a kink in it.
Notice this from Ephesians. We have all three here—the world, the flesh, and the devil.
“And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Eph. 2:1-3).
They are all there—the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, and the lusts of our flesh. The taint of these lusts do not magically evaporate just because we came to Christ. Consider this from Colossians. Here we see that Christians, saints in Christ Jesus, are still in possession of something bad—members which are on the earth—something that is essentially sinful. It is not something that might turn into sin down the road, but rather is sin.
“Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5).
Christians are told to put certain things to death—inordinate affection being one of them—and they are not told they may skip if they have been affirmed in St. Louis.
All the gay identity Christians, and all of their opponents, have this viper still within us. That being the case, we ought to be far more careful about any glib affirmation of “sin-free status.” It just makes you want to say golly. If God were to mark iniquities, who would stand (Ps. 130:3)? If God can find blemishes in the stars, how do you think we will fare (Job 4:18)? Apart from the free grace of Christ’s righteousness imputed, the godliest opponent of the Revoice conference would be thrown into Hell for one of his good days. That being the case, Christians with disordered or inordinate affections should master Owen on mortification before undertaking to school the entire Christian tradition about the mistake they supposedly made centuries ago on gay identity, a mistake that was only discovered in this, our lust-ridden generation—and on top of that, discovered in a quadrant of the church that was most interested in what the world has to teach us, as evidenced by the hipster glasses.
In short, we should not speak rashly. In the course of this debate, one advocate of gay identity said that the opponents of the conference wanted to put a sign up on the church that said “gays not welcome.” Well, actually, that’s garbage. Every penitent is welcome, but it still bears mentioning that the New Jerusalem, God’s image for the church in her glory, does have a sign that a certain kind of person would categorize that way.
“For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie” (Rev. 22:15)
Dogs was an ancient biblical epithet for Side A Christians (Dt. 23:18).
Distinctions Remain Important
And so now it is time for another distinction. When a man is tempted to lust, this is a temptation that can occur in two completely different settings—which is why they have to be handled in two completely different ways.
The first situation is when a man is tempted to lust outside the context of an actual relationship—the temptress is on a billboard, or in a pop up ad, that kind of thing. Now when a man walks by that kind of snare, and he averts his eyes, he does have the right to puzzle later on over whether or not there was any sin in the temptation itself. Where is the line, and did he cross it?
My thought is that if he rejects it immediately, whether physically or spiritually, then he has not sinned. But if he sits at his computer for ten minutes, deciding whether or not to click through, it is good when he decides not to do it. He avoided sinning more grievously, but his dalliance with the temptation was in itself sinful. He ought to confess it as sin to God, while at the same time thanking God that he was spared from making it any worse.
But in all of this, the problem is straightforward. Was he or was he not giving room to this particular and discrete temptation? If he did not get into sin, where is the line where he would have gotten into sin?
However, when the temptation is in the context of an actual relationship, the number of variables has been multiplied by a couple thousand. If you want a simple problem to analyze, you won’t find it here. If the source of temptation is your best friend’s wife, or a roommate (if you have same sex temptation), or your co-worker at the office, you have entered a realm where rationalizations, duties, ambition, innocent remarks, loaded remarks, competition, mimetic desire, envy, microflirtation, regular old flirtation, everyday exchanges, and so on, along with every man’s inability to see himself in a mirror in real time, get hopelessly tangled up.
When you are navigating your way past the skanky ad, you are talking about five minutes out of your day. When you are dealing with your co-worker at the office, the temptation is constant, 24/7, and the plausible excuses and grounds for denial are multiplied right along with the temptation. In fact, all the built-in excuses are an essential part of the temptation. She really did need a ride. You really did need to get that report turned in, and she is an essential part of that team.
Gay identity celibates have acknowledged that they are walking through a minefield. Yes, quite. So why are you attempting it with cross country skis strapped on? And by the way, “because I don’t want to be lonely” is a terrible (and counterproductive) answer.
Unrolling the Carpet
Let me us an illustration that I use all the time in premarital counseling. The intimacy of marriage is like an unrolled Persian carpet. Running the length of the carpet are all the various forms of intimacy that a husband and wife share—emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical. When a Christian couple first fall in love and get engaged, they want to wait until after the wedding for the physical intimacy, and to help them cope with that daunting challenge, they often try to compensate by cultivating the other available “legal” intimacy options. Spiritual intimacy is not expressly forbidden, so they spend a lot of time talking deeply, praying together, and so on.
But what they are doing is unrolling just the left side of the carpet. All they are doing is creating a ferocious amount of torque on the right side of the carpet. Whenever you do anything like this, the whole carpet wants to unroll. At some point, if you are really foolish, the whole carpet will insist.
Five years after the Revoice conference, the whole carpet will insist.
I used the word microflirtation earlier, and was deliberately riffing on that hot new word, micro-aggression.
All gods are jealous. The true God is jealous also, but because He is the true God His jealousy is also true. The petty gods are false, which means their jealous demands are also false—but no less jealous for all that.
The same principle applies to those who have been bound together in covenant. Husbands and wives are supposed to be jealous, not in a way that accuses falsely, but in a way that earnestly desires the purity of the other.
The reason I kick at the trendy new objection to microaggressions is not because I object to jealousy at that level, but rather because I am not covenantally bound to the god who is issuing those decrees. I don’t serve the baals of humanistic social justice. I don’t care what they say.
And the reason I am pressing the advocates of this Revoice conference with their impudent infidelities is because they are bound, together with me, to the triune name. This means they have no right to be doing what they are doing. The apostle Paul wanted Covenant Seminary to be a pure virgin, and not to be seduced by Satan’s wiles.
“For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2-3)
Thus far it is not looking good.
But if you belong to Christ, the wayward glances are a big deal. You adulteresses! Don’t you know what friendship with the world is? The answer is enmity with God (Jas. 4:4). The microflirtations, which have been batting their eyes for quite a long time, have now blossomed into this, a very great wickedness.