I am cross-posting this from Patheos because, well, it’s been a ton of work. I’ve been laboring away with the amazing editors at CRI on an article long in the pipeline about Revoice21. I started watching the talks in November, and then watched them again, and then wrote, scrapped it, and wrote again. This is what, I believe, is called “long-form.” As in, it is quite long, and there is a lot of information in the notes. And the podcast is long. Believe me, I would have written something shorter if I could have, but I wanted to work methodically through what they are saying and what some of us have been hearing them say.
Already there is some controversy about whether or not speakers use the term “Side A Siblings” or “Side A brothers and sisters.” I would merely point you to Nate Collins (founder of Revoice) using that terminology in his Nov 5, 2021, RNS article, “‘There is this undercurrent of, who do Side B people feel more connected to or in solidarity with?’ said Collins. ‘Do people have more shared ground with Side A people who are Christians or with the old ex-gay approach?’”
My prayer is that those associated with Revoice will read what I have to say and consider it, that those who are critical of Revoice will listen to what they have to say, and consider it, and that God will heal this growing division. If it can be done, only he can do it.
I’m going to cut in the beginning of the article as a teaser, but first, here is the podcast, and here is something I wrote for CRI a while ago about why it’s necessary to engage with the public writings of people in a public way. It’s called “Naming Names.” And finally, here is the article:
“The Gospel is for men as they are and as they think they are,” writes John Taylor in The Primal Vision: Christian Presence amid African Religion.1 He wrote in the middle of the last century, half a world away from the debates and controversies surrounding Revoice — an “annual gathering for Christians who are sexual minorities” seeking to “flourish in historic Christian traditions.”2 Taylor asks, “What has the Christian, present in such a world, to share or to learn about the self?” He posits one answer to that question — which is ours as well — with a line by Dr. J. H. Oldham: “The individual self has no independent existence which gives it the power to enter into relationships with other selves. Only through living intercourse with other selves can it become a self at all.”3 As if to take up that very work, Revoice’s 2021 theme was “Together.”4 That word encompasses, for them, the extraordinary communion they share because of their various sexual identities. Though they cannot engage in the actions associated with those identities5 — sex — experiencing sexual identity provides a deeper and richer sense of what it means to be human in relationship to other people. Their LGBTQ posture toward the world offers a baptism of affirmation to those of every sexual orientation.
With calls to be fabulous, to worship and adore Christ, but overall to be obedient, the speakers at Revoice, though at times defensive in their articulation of frustration and pain, positioned themselves as the new theological mainstream. Rather than continuing a protracted and contentious argument with critical voices in the church, they see themselves both as forging a way forward that reaches out evangelically to a world soaked in LGBTQ assumptions, and as uniquely called to minister to a too long ascendant Christian sexual majority culture.
I was by turns heartened and troubled as I watched the Revoice21 Together conference,6 the fourth conference since its founding in 2018.7 To stand publicly for sexual fidelity in celibacy and marriage and to proclaim the universal need for repentant belief in the gospel in a decadent time such as this is, to understate it, courageous. And, from that exposed and isolated position, especially when considering the grief represented in a room full of people who also feel rejected by other Christians, it is understandable that the leaders and speakers of Revoice would say that purely semantic matters of identity are settled. Continued disputes threaten to destroy the witness and mission of the whole church.
Nevertheless, I fear that rather than establishing a faithful path for Christians, Revoice is precipitating a grievous division in the American church. They do this first by grounding their reading of the Scriptures in secular ideology, second by insisting the disagreements about identity are purely semantic, and third by claiming to uphold a biblical sexual ethic while at the same time embracing those who reject this ethic, calling them Christian brothers and sisters.
If Revoice were to listen, however painfully, to what their critics are trying to say, it might be possible for the fissures to be mended and unity in the church to be restored. However, from the murky theological and philosophical assumptions articulated by many speakers, as well as the repeated reference to people who call themselves “Side A Christians” (people who believe that God has created and blessed monogamous homosexual relationships)8 as “our Side A brothers and sisters,” I fear it will not be so.
I AM TRIGGERED BY MY OWN BODY
Bill Henson, opening the panel on “Gender Minorities,” explained that this would be “the first time our trans siblings are going to be heard at Revoice.”9 The purpose of the discussion wasn’t to offer a theological or philosophical framework for the transgender experience but rather to hear directly from those suffering excruciating gender dysphoria — both what it is like to live in a body that doesn’t agree with one’s sense of who one is, and the pain of being a Christian in a church that doesn’t know what to make of that experience. All of the testimonies were moving, but I found two particularly weighty. Lesli Hudson-Reynolds described (with chosen pronouns “they/them”) her experience this way:
My voice is one of my biggest triggers, and so hearing my voice on a zoom call, which we live on zoom six to seven hours a day, is incredibly difficult for me. I have one mirror in my entire house….Immediately after getting out of the shower I cover up. I don’t want to look at my body. If my dysphoria is too bad, I cut on my chest because that is typically what causes it. I have a safety team that I call….I’ve heard people say that it feels like having electricity — painful electricity going through their body, not like an energizing thing. I wouldn’t recommend having it.10
By the grace of God, she is no longer isolated and cast off, but has a community helping her live as a Christian in a body that will never feel comfortable or safe to her, and to minister in meaningful ways to those who have the same experience. Kyla Gillespie shared a similar, moving testimony:
And so in 2011 I did, I fully transitioned from female to male and I lived as Bryson for six years….My whole life fell apart. I saw God starting to strip away everything in my life. And then I remember one day being so desperate and broken I fell on my knees in my room and I was crying out to Him. I said, “God, what do you want from me?” And I heard Him say, “return to me Kyla.” And I said, “Can’t I follow you as Bryson?” and for me in my personal story He said, “No.”….And He said, “Will you trust Me?” and I said, “Yes.” And so for four years I’ve detransitioned and I’m just living in obedience for what He’s calling me to in my life. And in the little things He’s calling me to in obedience He’s transformed me.”11
In the final round of the discussion, Gillespie concluded this way: “When I think of the verses where it says, ‘you’re wonderfully made,’ and I’m like, ‘no I’m not,’ like, I don’t even love myself, but He loves me so much. So in that I was just able to accept His identity, and His love in my life, and I was able to surrender it”12 — “it” being a life lived as a man.
GNOSTICISM AND SUFFERING
The second and third centuries saw the early church afflicted by the Gnostic heresy. This beguiling false teaching tempted Christians to accept the prevailing pagan assumption that the body was a problem. The troublesome and corruptible flesh needed to be cast off so that the pure soul could shine through. For Gnostics, the body was not considered the glorious tabernacle of God through the indwelling of Holy Spirit. It would not one day be restored incorruptible and immortal, it was a prison. Transcending, escaping, or somehow undoing the body’s limitations was the way of salvation. A similar evocative idea is at the very heart of what many are calling the Trans Ideology.13 Although listening to the experiences of suffering people is not only necessary, but part of the kindness that leads to repentance, I was disappointed not to hear what self-acceptance might actually mean for a person who feels trapped in the wrong kind of body. What does unconditional love look like? Does Revoice accept the prevailing idea that a person can choose opposite sex pronouns? Do they think that the writers of the New Testament are calling the church to sexual maturity and sexual identity, as Elizabeth Delgado Black claims in her talk, “Growing Together Toward Sexual Maturity”?14 For a movement that positions itself within the orthodox mainstream of Christianity, crucial questions arise that lack substantial and satisfying answers.
HOW CAN I MORE FULLY ACCEPT MY SEXUAL SELF?
What is “self-accepting obedience?” This is the first of the many questions I asked myself as I watched, and then rewatched, Revoice21. The term comes from Eve Tushnet’s15 opening talk, “God’s Answers Deserve Better Questions.” “When it came to sexuality,” she said, “the people you looked up to in the church were simply unable to educate your desires and guide you into a self-accepting obedience” (emphasis added).16
To provide some context, the theme of self-acceptance, though not of obedience, is deftly traced by Carl Trueman in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. A surprising number of Christians today are losing their footing in the disorienting cultural shifts of what it means to be a person. The western moral conscience has been deconstructed and reimagined by philosophers like Nietzsche, scientists like Darwin, psychiatrists like Freud, poets like Shelly, and artists like Salvador Dalí. The intellectual genealogy Trueman traces is critical for believers to grasp, because — and Revoice is a striking illustration — Christians unfamiliar with this history are vulnerable to culturally ascendant assumptions about selfhood and sexual identity that people two hundred, let alone a thousand years ago, would not have recognized. As we begin to look at what some claim is a purely semantic disagreement among people who all worship the same God and read the same Bible, we must weigh the emotional cargo the words we use carry and discern how once commonly shared notions of self and sex have been transformed. In the concluding pages of his book, Trueman writes, “To abstain from sex in today’s world is to sacrifice true selfhood as the world around understands it. It is to pay the price of not being able to be who one really is” (emphasis added).17
The speakers at Revoice assume that everyone has a sexual identity. A person is either straight — attracted to people of the opposite sex — or something else, meaning gay, bisexual, or trans with an assortment of variations in between. That the “straights” have enjoyed several thousand years of “majority” doesn’t make their sexuality less broken, as Misty Irons asserts in her talk, “The Church and the Gay Christian: A View from the Pew.”18 Nor does it mean that they have a corner on obedience or faithfulness to God, as New Testament scholar Preston Sprinkle claims in his talk, “Faith, Sexuality, and Gender.”19 And all of these assumptions and assertions find their yes and amen in Tushnet’s phrase “self-accepting obedience.”
What part of the self needs to be affirmed? And what does that have to do with obedience to Christ…read the rest here.
And, because of the readings for today, a bonus video: