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Assorted Thoughts after Revoice

August 14th, 2018 | 7 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

The controversy surrounding Revoice meant that the surrounding questions occupied more mental space this summer than I had intended. But before I move on to prepare for my fall teaching and other responsibilities, I thought I’d add one or two thoughts about related matters, perhaps as an appendix to my existing contributions to this whole affair.

Near the end of her talk, Johana Finegan observes that many of the critics of Revoice and Spiritual Friendship offer a pro forma acknowledgment of their adherence to traditional marriage, before moving hastily on toward the more pressing business after the inevitable “However…” The phenomenon was familiar to me — but Finegan put far better words to my vague sense of unease with it than I ever could, by articulating the extraordinary cost such a commitment means for gay Christians. (The argument was echoed by Kyle Keating here.)

I have continued to reflect upon that, and upon the nature of the criticisms this conference received. Many of those criticisms are founded upon the claim that ‘identity’ is a modern category, and hence incompatible with Scripture. (Albert Mohler makes such a criticism here.) I understand the worries about such speech; but I would be more persuaded with the criticisms of this particular conference if they were interested in undoing the grammar of identity altogether, rather than anxiously fretting about this particular deployment of it. It was in evangelical churches and through evangelical books, after all, that I first learned to speak of identity at all.

To be sure, there is a serious question about how identity-theory relates to the grammar of Scripture. Mohler contends such language is unbiblical, though he provides no reasons for the conclusion. I suppose that is simply one point at which gay Christians and their critics disagree: the language of identity is not obviously or clearly contrary to Scripture, while the affirmation of same-sex marriage or sexual acts is. I’ve offered my own way of trying to navigate all of this, and won’t repeat it here. But I think it’s intriguing that argument against identity-theory seems to require going beyond Scripture in a way that the argument about marriage does not. If such talk is acceptable, it is a way of filling out or translating Scripture’s understanding of the person with reference to contemporary discourse. Something is doubtlessly lost in that process, but something might also be gained — but such a way of speaking seems, at least to this observer, to be commensurate with what is unambiguous within Scripture about marriage and sexual ethics.

The divide about whether ‘identity’ is obviously or clearly unbiblical relates to why the conservative acknowledgment of gay Christians’ affirmation of biblical marriage seems to diminish its significance. I take it that for Mohler and those with him, identity-talk is on the same doctrinal and moral plane as marriage. Expanding the category of “essentials” this way inherently marginalizes gay Christians’ commitment to sexual orthodoxy, and allows such Christians to be depicted as false teachers who are outside the orthodox camp — or very soon will be. One question for conservative critics, it seems to me, is whether there is good biblical reason to put marriage and identity-talk on the same plane of importance. I have yet to see an argument that persuades me they are.

As Mohler observes, though, words are important. Yet one thinks of Hamlet in the midst of all this: “Words, words, words.” Words are sometimes leading indicators, but at other times lag behind our practices. A description draws our attention in certain directions, to be sure — but it does not determine what we do within that description. For that, we need practices. It seems to this outsider there is something valuable to some individuals about the freedom that comes from naming oneself as gay which enables and motivates practices of chastity in their lives. Others find such descriptions less valuable. It is characteristic of my position that the use of such identity-talk is nearer to ordering regular fasting than the doctrine of the Trinity: there may be more or less helpful ways of implementing such a discipline, but nothing that requires one path or the other.

Whether this is the right standard to adopt is itself part of the debate, of course. But it is, at least, motivated by similar concerns that critics of the conference have. It’s unfair to single out a footnote from an essay that deserves attention, but Brad Littlejohn’s suggestion that critics of this conference are “motivated by pastoral concerns” was intriguing to me because it lacked an acknowledgment that the conference itself is motivated by the same. Many of the Spiritual Friendship writers can quote ex-gay writers and speakers with alacrity, and have serious and sober criticisms of the theological and psychological assumptions at work within that movement and the pastoral counsel which emerged from it. I think there are serious questions about how gay Christians who are currently in high school are being formed, which the Spiritual Friendship community will have to take up at some point — yet the debate about the form such pastoral counsel should take can only proceed seriously, on my view, if critics are willing to honestly evaluate what gay Christians have been offered for the past thirty years, and whether it is closer to stones or bread.

There are plausible reasons, then, for the astonishing acrimony from conservative Christians toward gay Christians on this issue that do not boil down to homophobia or a serious pastoral concern, which are the two options Littlejohn mentions. My own argument has been that evangelicals are hostile because they are inconsistent, and so cannot say “no” in this instance with grace because they have not said “no” to themselves on these same questions. The question of identity-talk is a fine example: few evangelicals have questioned whether they should welcome Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or more explicitly Christian versions of the same in their facilities, despite the pervasiveness of identity-speech in those contexts.

Or consider Mohler’s rejoinder to Nate Collins’ suggestion that the ‘nuclear family’ is an idol within evangelical communities. Mohler suggests that Collins “claims that gay people are called to a prophetic role to correct the church for believing in the normative nature of the nuclear family” — which is precisely what Collins does not say. Collins suggests that we should very clearly correct the idolatry of the ‘nuclear family.’ As Mohler himself notes, the term has a historical meaning and context — one which is quite modern. Yet on the standard that Mohler adopts for the modern category of ‘identity theory,’ we ought reject any talk of the “nuclear family” precisely because it is not that which Scripture names (which is the ‘natural’ family). Why would Mohler invest in defending one modern category, though, while rejecting another? It isn’t hard to see how one could critique a contemporary iteration of the nuclear family while simultaneously affirming the indispensability and exclusivity of marriage between a man and a woman. The racial and technological “self-conceptions” that the ‘nuclear family’ generated have done incalculable damage to American Protestantism, as Amy Laura Hall so persuasively argues. I would be far more impressed, then, if critics of the conference were to undertake more than a pro forma acknowledgment of our community’s complicity in creating the conditions which make a conference like Revoice necessary, much less possible.

However, seeing our communities’ complicity in such idolatry requires somehow getting outside the pervasive hold our contemporary arrangements have on our imaginations. And here, Mohler fails to even try. As he notes, Collins refers to being gay as an “aesthetic orientation,” a formulation that is very similar to the approach I have defended. (Nate and I were developing our thoughts on this at the same time — I disagree with certain aspects of his book and approach, but on this I obviously think he’s right.)

For Mohler, though, this is insufficient: “Same-sex attraction is not limited to sexual attraction,” he writes, “but it strains all credibility to argue that this ‘aesthetic orientation’ can be non-sexual.” Mohler doesn’t supply an argument here so much as simply suggest that it is impossible. But why? It strains all credibility to think that someday we shall neither marry nor be given in marriage, but be like the angels in heaven. What we shall be like in the resurrection is indeed impossible to imagine — and yet, one thing Scripture seems to be relatively explicit about is that the particular complex and cluster of sexual desires that so captivate us now will not then. Mohler knows this — but rather than work out Collins’ position along these lines, and so present it in a fair light, he opts to simply dismiss it as defying imagination.

That is not to say any of this is easy. Questions of personal identity across the eschatological state are challenging, to say the least. I think it does not behoove us to be too dogmatic that various conditions or traits which determine our experience here below will necessarily endure in some form there above. It seems plausible that my grandfather, who spent most of his life suffering from the effects of polio, will have in the resurrection the kind of personal identity that will allow him to tell a unique set of stories about what his life was like as a result, stories that others with the same challenges will resonate with and I will listen to. And so with other forms of experience, which may be not how God originally created the universe in ways moral or otherwise . The narratives of grace we tell in heaven need not all be uniform, as the conservative focus on expunging every dimension of being ‘gay’ seems to require.

Yet I think one thing we can say will endure are certain scars that we bear for faithfulness to the cross. And here I close somewhere near where I began: what sorts of scars will gay Christians bear because of their faithfulness to Scripture on the question of marriage, sexual acts, and sexual desire — and what response to such faithfulness must we give? Revoice and the writers at Spiritual Friendship are not above rebuke. Gay Christians need, as Kyle Keating judiciously observes, “good-faith critics who can offer valuable pushback in places where [they have] gone too far affirming either spirit of the age or a spirit of self-righteousness.” Is it possible for such critics to argue as though gay Christians are not false teachers, but friends? Is it possible to see within such Christians not the beginnings of apostasy, but the outworkings of grace — as manifested by their steadfastness in holding on to doctrines the world would have them jettison for convenience and self-gratification?

Does adherence to marriage by gay Christians—in practice and in speech — matter at all?