The following post, written by Misty Irons, is adapted from her presentation at the Revoice conference on October 8, 2021. Because her argument offers fresh insight into much-debated questions about sexual identity and Christian faithfulness, we’re grateful for her permission to publish her words here. Misty is a graduate of Westminster Seminary California (M.A., Biblical Studies) and a member of the Presbyterian Church in America. She has maintained a blog on faith and sexuality since 2000. Over the years Misty has served the LGBT Christian community in various capacities, as conference speaker, seminar leader, and podcast guest, representing a straight ally perspective.
In 1988, I was a college student in Los Angeles when I heard my pastor preach against homosexuality from Romans 1 at the height of the AIDS crisis. In that sermon, he barraged us with one statistic after another on the rampant promiscuity in the gay community, drawing a direct line from their sexual excesses to the consequence of death for so many by AIDS. Then he closed our time with a prayer for the salvation of these sinners—though I didn’t believe God would answer it. Didn’t he just preach that God had “given them over” to their unbridled immorality? There wasn’t much hope for these homosexuals. But I bowed my head in prayer, along with everyone else, going through the motions of asking for a miracle. All I really expected was judgment.
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Now let’s pretend college student me back in 1988 got into a time machine—Marty McFly style—and I travelled thirty years into the future. I’m in St. Louis in 2018, where a certain conference called Revoice is being held. This conference is being organized by self-professing “gay Christians.” Wait, I thought God abandoned homosexuals to their lifestyle so that they had no interest in spiritual things? Then I find out Revoice is about gay Christians encouraging one another to follow in the traditional Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality —even being willing to live celibate or in a mixed-orientation marriage. From promiscuity to celibacy and abstinence? Well, this is a miracle! God answered our prayers! Has anyone invited my old pastor to Revoice as a keynote speaker? Surely he’d be thrilled to see so many people we thought we were lost following in this costly path of Christian obedience.
I turn to Christian media to hear what people are saying about this amazing turn of events, but I am stunned to discover everyone is outraged by Revoice. The church is exploding with indignation. The President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary even accuses Revoice of being responsible for “the chaos and confusion which are the inevitable products of the Sexual Revolution.” I didn’t know following in the traditional Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality was now considered by Southern Baptists to be a product of the sexual revolution. 2018 sure is a strange year.
There are times when God answers our prayers, but we fail to recognize it. Why is that? Why does that happen? Quite often it’s because the answer we got didn’t fit in with what we expected. Our wrong expectations blinded us to what God was doing.
Remember Naaman the Syrian, the captain of the Aramean army who was also a leper? He heard there was a prophet in Israel who could heal him, so he arrived at the doorstep of Elisha with his entourage of servants, horsemen, and chariots. He envisioned Elisha would come out and wave his hands over him and call upon the Lord in a dramatic fashion. But instead, Elisha didn’t even come out of the house. He sent a messenger out to tell him to wash seven times in the Jordan River. Well, Naaman was offended. This was not what he signed up for, and he was not going to wash in that mud puddle of a river. He was about to turn around and leave when his servants stopped him. “Please sir, just do what the prophet says. It’s not asking much.” So Naaman listened and did go wash in the Jordan, and he was completely healed. But the way it came to him was by design. He could not receive the answer to his request until he first humbled himself and let go of his own expectations.
Somehow, we straight Christians missed out on the work God has been doing among gay Christians these past 30+ years. We’ve missed out on understanding what this gathering of gay Christians is all about. Is it not a positive response to the moral stand the conservative church has taken in this country all these years on sexual purity, on God’s design for marriage, on sexual responsibility and self-control? This gathering is a way of saying to the conservative church, “You know what? We agree with you. You’re right.”
Maybe the reason straight Christians have been blind to what God is doing among sexual minority Christians is because, like Naaman, we have had the wrong expectations. And setting those expectations aside means humbling ourselves. In other words, to enjoy the satisfaction of being right, we first need to admit that we’ve also been wrong.
The ex-gay movement held out the promise that gay people could become straight. Yet the past 40+ years of ex-gay ministry are filled with stories of one failure after another to achieve genuine sexual orientation change, crescendoing in 2013 with the collapse of Exodus International. According to the former president of Exodus, gay people did not become straight 99.9% of the time. They could not pray the gay away, nor could many of the straight family members and friends who prayed along with them. The God who gives life to the dead, who calls into being that which does not exist, apparently did not exercise His power to effect orientation change. Gay people are still gay.
Normally, when Christians pray for something for a few decades and get this kind of non-result, we call it a “closed door.” The burden of proof would lie with anyone who still thinks it’s worthwhile to keep on trying, right? So it’s interesting that instead of letting go and adjusting our expectations, we straight Christians have immediately turned from the disappointment of ex-gay ministry to perfecting arguments for why a Christian can’t identify as gay.
We say it contradicts your identity in Christ. It’s like calling yourself a murdering Christian, or an adulterous Christian, or a lustful Christian. These arguments only work if we redefine the word “gay” to mean “someone who is either actively having gay sex, or is in a continual state of lust or sinful desire.” And when gay Christians tell us that’s not what they mean by “gay,” we rather perversely insist that we know better than they do what they mean. Some gay Christians try to explain that while their sexual orientation is fallen, the human experience of being gay is actually not too different from the experience of being straight. But our response is to be offended that they would compare themselves to us, and accuse them of buying into secularism. It seems to me we aren’t interested in improving our arguments beyond the straw man and the ad hominem variety, but we are very interested in the goal of getting these Christians not to identify as gay. Just don’t say the word “gay.”
But our self-imposed confusion over the term “gay” has blinded us from making one very important observation. Since God has providentially refrained from changing people’s sexual orientations, then He is the one who has chosen not to change their identity. That’s why gay Christians (properly understood) still call themselves gay. Why are we taking issue with them, when all they have done is read the hand of Providence and bend the knee—sometimes bitterly, sometimes tearfully—to God’s sovereign will over their lives? We are the ones who have remained unbending. So is our quarrel really with gay Christians, or is it with God Himself?
“The identity of a Christian cannot be with any culture defined in its essence by the rejection of God's design and command." So wrote one prominent critic of the 2018 Revoice conference. Because the secular gay culture celebrates what is contrary to God’s design and command, no Christian should ever identify as gay even if they themselves don’t celebrate or practice gay sex.
This critic’s description reminded me of another group of people. According to the Bible, the culture of this people was lawlessness, their history was hostility to God and his people. They are described as characteristically lustful, sexually immoral, hard-hearted, idolatrous, hedonistic, greedy, ignorant, and estranged from God. Who are they? They are “the Gentiles,” and today we often use the phrase “Gentile Christians” to refer to non-Jewish converts to the faith.
We are apparently comfortable with the term, but is it an oxymoron? “Gentile” was used interchangeably with the term “sinners” by both Jesus and the apostles. Jesus said in Matthew 18:15-17 that if your brother sins, you should confront him in private; if he doesn’t listen to you, and doesn’t listen to two or three witnesses, and doesn’t even listen to the church, Jesus concludes, “Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax gatherer.” A Gentile: a person who is unrepentant, someone who is hardened in sin. Jesus was simply following Jewish cultural norms when he used the term “Gentile” in this derogatory way. In Galatians 2:15, Paul says, “We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles.” Gentiles equal sinners in the Jewish mind.
Why? Well, it’s because their culture was permeated with idolatrous practices, unclean foods, and every kind of sexual immorality. Not to mention Gentile history: Seventeen centuries of hostility toward the Jews, including their enslavement under Pharaoh and the Egyptians; Sihon king of the Amorites and Og king of Bashan, who opposed them in the wilderness; the Moabites who tried to curse them; Goliath of Gath and the Philistine army; Nebuchadnezzar, who carried them into exile; Haman the Agagite, who ordered the extermination of the Jewish race; and Pontius Pilate, who delivered up the Christ to execution.
It makes the Stonewall Riots, ACT UP, and a bunch of gay pride parades seem like nothing by comparison.
Imagine being a first-century Jewish believer and hearing the term “Gentile Christian,” with the scandalous adjective “Gentile” tainting the noun “Christian.” Actually, the term “Gentile Christian” doesn’t appear in the New Testament, because the apostle Paul was even more scandalous. He just called Gentile Christians “Gentiles”—the noun, not even the adjective! Paul—and other early church leaders influenced by Paul—allowed context to show whether they were speaking of Christians or non-Christians. We read about “the Gentiles who have believed” (Acts 21:25), as opposed to “the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thess. 4:5). Today, this would be the equivalent of saying, “Let’s encourage the gays who have believed to attend Revoice so they can be equipped to reach out to the gays who do not know God.” Assuming we understand the term “gay” correctly, that would be proper language to use, according to New Testament standards.
Paul knows he’s swimming upstream with this language. There were a lot of Jews who didn’t want Gentile believers to be received into the church as Gentiles. They wanted them to change their identity. They wanted to send them to ex-Gentile camp. And there was such a thing back then—it was called circumcision. They wanted to Judaize them, which is why we refer to this faction today as the Judaizers.
To see the parallels to our controversy today, let’s go ahead explore some first-century context a bit more. Sometimes we think the divide between Jew and Gentile was about race or culture or ethnicity. But to the Jews at that time, it was really about one thing: their identity, specifically their relationship to the Law of God. The Jews were a people under the Law. The Gentiles were a people without the law—the law was written in their hearts, but they were a people outside the law covenant given to Israel. Getting circumcised is how you put yourself under the Law. For Gentiles, circumcision was the rite of passage to a Jewish identity.
The apostle Paul refused to send Gentile Christians to ex-Gentile camp. Yes, he had Timothy circumcised, because Timothy was Jewish through his mother’s line. But he refused to have Titus circumcised, because Titus was fully Greek. Circumcision isn’t inherently bad. It’s all about the motive. To circumcise Titus would have been saying that he needed to take on a Jewish identity to be saved—that faith in Christ wasn’t enough. It would have implied that he needed to put himself under the Law, identifying with all the practices, standards, and attitudes of Judaism.
Keeping his Gentile identity didn’t mean Titus was free from moral standards. Remember the Council at Jerusalem in Acts 15? They laid out plenty of moral standards for Gentile Christians: abstain from sexual immorality, from food sacrificed to idols, from blood and things strangled. But circumcision was not on the list. And the Gentile Christians received the letter from that council with rejoicing. They were already eager to live holy lives, but now they wouldn’t have to be treated as second-class citizens in the church.
Were there advantages to being a Jew? Yes, great in every respect. Paul concedes this in Romans 3:1-2. One advantage is that the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. But the Judaizers weren’t demanding circumcision because they expected people to keep that Law perfectly. Instead, they believed that being Jewish was simply better than being Gentile. The Gentiles didn’t have the Law, and their entire culture reflected it. At least the Jews had the oracles of God. “Sure, we don’t keep the Law perfectly, but at least we’re in the ballpark. The Gentiles aren’t even in the ballpark.”
But Paul knew that while being in the ballpark was good, it was not good enough. And it might even become a stumbling block that blinds you from what really matters. Because when it comes to the gospel, what matters is not the privilege you start out in, but where you ultimately end up—and for the Jews, that was at the exact same place as the Gentiles, at the foot of the cross, as Law-breakers. In fact, Paul said that his identity as a Jew ended up in a rubbish heap in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ. He was “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, as to the Law a Pharisee . . . But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ . . . for whom I have suffered the loss of all things and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:5-8).
As if that weren’t enough, Paul goes even farther. In Galatians 2:15-17, he starts out by saying, “We are Jews by nature, and not sinners from among the Gentiles.” See, this is our nature, that’s their nature. “Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus…. But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be!” Wait, Paul is now calling himself a sinner—even though he is Jewish? I thought the Gentiles were the sinners. It’s one thing for Paul to toss his Jewish identity in the trash heap, but it’s quite another to identify himself with a label he reserved for the Gentiles. Why?
It’s because the Gospel is not: “You Gentiles, come up to our level of righteousness and get circumcised. Give up your identity and take on ours.” Rather, the Gospel says: “In view of the surpassing glory of Christ, we Jews find ourselves identifying with you Gentiles, because you tell us something about who we are. Fellow sinners. Fellow law-breakers who are in need of the exact same grace.”
Are there advantages to being heterosexual? Why yes, great in every respect. For one thing, the institution of marriage, as God originally designed it, is something that we find suitable to our needs and satisfying to our natural desires. It demands faithfulness to one another in thought, word, and deed. Where the husband loves his wife as Christ loved the church and laid down his life for her, and where the wife submits herself to her husband as to the Lord. Where single men and single women must treat each other with all purity, knowing how to possess their own bodies in sanctification and honor.
Do we straights do these things perfectly? No, of course not. But at least we are making the attempt to do them while being attracted to the right gender. We’re not like the gays, right? I mean, they can’t even get out of the starting blocks without heading in the wrong gender direction. At least we’re in the ballpark; they’re not even in the ballpark.
But when it comes to the gospel, what matters is not the sexual identity privilege you start out in, but where you ultimately end up—which is in the exact same place as everyone who is not straight: at the foot of the cross, as sexually broken human beings. Because straight people aren’t always faithful to our marriages in thought, word and deed. We don’t always lay down our lives for our wives as Christ did for the church, and we don’t perfectly submit to our husbands as to the Lord. We might even have moments where we wonder: What happened to the love we once had for each other? When will I stop being so angry at him, so resentful of her? I’ve been married ten years—why isn’t my porn problem going away? Or, if we’re single: Will I always be attracted to the wrong man? Will I ever be good enough to attract the right woman? How come every relationship I’m in follows the same dysfunctional pattern as my parents’ marriage?
The gospel does not say, “You gays, come up to our level of righteousness with the help of ex-gay ministry. Give up your gay identity and become straight like us.” Rather, the gospel says, “In view of the surpassing glory of Christ, we straights actually find ourselves identifying with you gays, because you tell us something about who we are. That we can’t change our sexual orientation toward brokenness any more than you can. And we need you to encourage us, that the grace you have found to be sufficient for your lives can be sufficient for our lives too.”
The circumcision controversy in the New Testament church still speaks to us today, doesn’t it? Our modern issue of sexual orientation change and arguing about identity language turns out to be an echo from the past. Both are about demanding identity change, for the sake of a human righteousness we can boast in. Both are about Christ plus something else. And the ones who have the more privileged identity—the identity that seems more righteous from a human perspective—often fail to understand that not only does that identity need to be tossed in the rubbish heap in view of Christ, but it could even become a stumbling block, a point of boasting that distracts us from putting our trust in Christ alone. For Christians today, it’s not the gay identity that is the issue of concern, but the straight identity.
If we straights are supposed to identify with gay people, does that mean gay sin is okay? Well, when Paul identified himself with Gentile sinners, he was accused of something similar: of making Christ a minister of sin. The fact that the accusation comes up shows we’re at least starting to think like the apostle.
But of course, Paul’s response was: “May it never be!” If Christ uses the Law to reveal our sin, that doesn’t make Christ an advocate of sin. And if Christ uses our marriages or failed relationships to reveal our sexual brokenness, then that simply enables us to look at our gay siblings next to us at the feet of Jesus and realize that, if we both need the same remedy, it must be because we both have the same ailment.
Does this mean marriage is bad? It’s only good for showing us our sexual brokenness? Well, Paul wasn’t saying the Law was bad—the Law is holy and righteous and good, and so is Christian marriage. But we are of flesh, sold into the bondage of sin. We want to obey but lack the power to do it. That’s our fault, not the fault of God’s good gift.
Is sexual orientation change wrong, then? Of course not. But just like with circumcision, it’s all about the motive. If a gay person desires to change and God happens to answer that prayer, there’s nothing wrong with that. But let’s say you are straight, and you push someone out of the church or dismiss them from serving as a Sunday school teacher, worship leader, or even a pastor, not because of scandalous sexual behavior, but simply because they have not experienced sexual orientation change. How is that not the heresy of the Judaizers? How is that not a “Christ plus something else” formula? Having begun by the Spirit, are we now being perfected by reparative therapy?
Perhaps there is a reason why God has not answered so many of our prayers, of our gay Christian siblings’ prayers, for sexual orientation change. Maybe it’s because He didn’t think it was necessary.
Jesus is not ashamed to identify with gay Christians. We are. And if we are ashamed of them, we are ashamed of the Christ who accepts them, and of the gospel that calls them. My straight brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s follow the example of Paul, the ex-Pharisee, who understood this temptation to be ashamed. But after he encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, he was able to proclaim victory when he said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Gentile.”