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Still Time to Care: Moving from Cure to Care for Those with Unwanted Same-Sex Attraction

When did Christians move from an ethic of care to an ethic of cure of unwanted, same-sex attraction persons? And what can Christians do to move back towards an ethic of care?

These are the central questions addressed in pastor Greg Johnson’s Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure HomosexualityBefore the aftermath of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, talk about “homosexuality” was largely a taboo subject. But in Johnson’s book, he chronicles numerous anecdotes of Christian leaders caring for persons who experience unwanted, same-sex attraction, in those years.

 

How Christians A Few Decades Ago Cared For Same-Sex Attracted Persons

One of C.S. Lewis’ childhood friends, Arthur Greeves, would have then probably classified himself as a “homosexual.” Lewis, perhaps the most well-known English speaking Christian apologist of all time, greatly treasured his friendship with Greeves, above all others. When Lewis became a believer in Jesus, Lewis first entrusted his story of conversion to Christianity with Greeves. Even though Lewis fully supported the Bible’s teaching on sexuality, and Greeves never experienced a change in his sexual orientation, Lewis never wavered in his friendship with Arthur Greeves.

When Francis Schaeffer first entertained guests at L’Abri in the 1950s, many seekers of truth who struggled with unwanted same-sex attraction were welcomed at the famous Swiss Christian study center. Schaeffer’s focus was on engaging seekers with their larger faith questions, as opposed to singling out issues regarding sexuality. When a high-profile member of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration was outed out of the closet as being a homosexual, Reverend Billy Graham urged Johnson to have compassion on the man as a human being, as opposed to categorically rejecting him out of condemnation.

These are all examples that author Greg Johnson has in his book of Christian leaders, who while upholding the biblical teaching that reserves marriage as being between one man and one woman for one lifetime, nevertheless modeled how other Christians can serve others by choosing to care for those who experience unwanted same-sex attraction.

This all seemed to change by the late 1970s, when such efforts to care for others were replaced by efforts to cure homosexuality, by offering the promise to make homosexuals into becoming heterosexual.  The so-called “Ex-Gay” movement was born.

 

How the “Ex-Gay” Movement Changed the Popular Narrative for Christians… and How It Eventually Failed

At the head of the “Ex-Gay” movement was Exodus International, an umbrella organization encompassing many smaller ministries that sent the message that “change is possible,” suggesting that certain techniques could be followed that could change someone’s sexual orientation. Exodus International was dissolved in 2013, when its then president, Alan Chambers, publicly stated that Exodus had oversold its claim that “change is possible.”

What led to the rise and then ultimate fall of Exodus International? As the story unfolds in Still Time to Care, groups like Exodus International were using reparative therapy (what others call conversion therapy) to try to change someone’s sexual orientation. Reparative therapy is based on a controversial application of Freudian psychology, based on the assumption that homosexuality is a correctable mental health ailment. In 2012 however, Chambers had declared, after years of Exodus trying to use reparative therapy, that “the majority of people that I have met, and I would say the majority meaning 99.9% of them, have not experienced a change in their orientation.” Popular media outlets, like with Netflix’ 2021 documentary Pray Away, features interviews with other former Exodus leaders coming to the same conclusion as Chambers (Unfamiliar with the documentary? Preston Sprinkle interviews Tony Scarcello about it on YouTube).

Author Greg Johnson uses the analogy of a “Potemkin Village” to describe what Exodus had tried and failed to achieve. In 1787, Grigory Potemkin was a provincial political authority in Crimea and a love interest in the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great. When Catherine the Great toured Crimea via boat along the Dnieper River, Potemkin sought to impress the Empress by dressing up peasants as wealthy merchants and setting up temporary village facades alongside the riverbanks, giving the illusion that the area was experiencing prosperity, despite the actual desperate poverty of the region. Once Catherine’s entourage left one of these temporary villages, Potemkin had his hired peasants breakdown the village facades and move them down the river ahead of Catherine, and then reassemble the same village in another location, in an effort to continue to impress Catherine as she resumed her river tour.

Exodus International, collaborating with other ministries like James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, had for years paraded individuals at fund-raising events and conferences as examples of those whose orientation had changed from gay to straight. In many if not most of these cases, those same individuals would later renounce their “conversions” as yet mere facades, repeated examples of a Potemkin Village. Tragically, Johnson also documents other former Exodus leaders who committed suicide, to further hide the shame of such facade conversions to heterosexuality.

The meteoric rise and fall of many Exodus leaders and the rebound effect throughout the larger culture has been nothing short of spectacular, particularly over the last decade. For example, when President Obama first took office in 2009, he was publicly committed to honoring traditional marriage as being between one man and one woman. But by the end of Obama’s second term, the broader cultural views about marriage had dramatically shifted, along with the President’s. Prohibitions against same-sex marriage, at the federal level, were declared unconstitutional. The language of “LGBTQ” was no longer a taboo in polite, civil conversation, becoming an accepted dimension of post-modern culture. All of this happened during those waning years of Exodus International’s dissolution.

Estimates vary, but Johnson notes that about 700,000 persons over a near 50 year period went through some sort of reparative therapy. Various studies over that period indicate that despite recorded claims of high-success rates, the actual success rate for changing one’s sexual orientation has been extremely low, perhaps as low as 2%. That means that some 98% of those 700,000 persons have walked away from reparative therapy with an extremely disillusioned, if not outright angry attitude towards the “Ex-Gay” movement.

 

Changing the Emphasis From “Becoming Heterosexual” to “Becoming Holy”

Pastor Greg Johnson laments the once well-intended yet ultimate failure of reparative therapy organizations. But he is hopeful that Christians can and are returning to an ethic of care, as opposed to an ethic of cure. The goal for ministry with those who experience unwanted sexual attraction should not be to try to “pray the gay away,” and convert someone from being a homosexual to becoming heterosexual. Rather, the emphasis should be on becoming holy.

What makes Still Time to Care so invaluable a resource is that pastor Greg Johnson himself is one of those persons who experiences unwanted same-sex attraction. However, instead of following the cultural trend affirming same-sex marriage, Johnson still believes in the traditional, Christian sexual ethic of marriage being between a man and a woman, for a lifetime. For those like Johnson, this might mean a life of celibacy, surrounded by supportive friends. For others, it might mean living in a mixed-orientation marriage, where one spouse is heterosexual and the other is not.

Johnson believes that even those like himself can flourish as Christians and human beings, while seeking to mortify the flesh against the spiritually devastating effects of sin, and by resisting temptation. However, the key to doing this is by being apart of Christian communities that offer emotional and spiritual support along that journey towards sanctification and holiness. In other words, one can live without sex but you can not live without friends.

While many churches wrestle with the wider cultural trends to affirm same-sex marriage, and entire denominations are splitting over the issue, Still Time to Care offers a vision for historically, orthodox Christians to return to an ethic of care, inviting people to share their stories and be a part of authentic Christian community.

Greg Johnson’s Still Time to Care offers a history of how the “Ex-Gay” movement created a Potemkin Village for almost 50 years, a great facade to look at, but not much really behind it.

Sadly, too many Christians still get hung up over terminology. Granted, most sensitive thinkers tend to shy away from terminology like “homosexual,” as that term sounds too clinical and impersonal. However, when it comes to historically orthodox-minded believers in the midst of the struggle, should such persons be called “celibate gay Christians,” “single gay Christians,” or “Christians who experience same-sex attraction?”

There are some who argue that any of the above language is somehow still a concession to worldliness, and therefore inappropriate for Christians to use about themselves. Thankfully, there are newer Christian ministries, like Revoice, that are trying to help Christians move past such debates over terminology and towards providing supportive communities for believers at all stages along the journey. Greg Johnson’s message is hopeful: Yes, there is still time to care!

 

Moving From a “Sexual Prosperity Gospel” to a Gospel of Care

Lest someone think that books like Still Time to Care represent some type of “trojan horse,” a harmful ideology being injected subversively into the church, one should note that Greg Johnson includes a whole chapter carefully dismantling the revisionist arguments presented by those like Western Seminary’s James Brownson, in his Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, and Karen Keen’s Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships. For example, Brownson borrows from William Webb’s “redemptive-movement hermeneutic” argument to make his case for same-sex marriage. Keen states in her book “The biblical authors don’t write about the morality of consensual same-sex relationships as we know them today…. To say that the biblical authors object to prostitution or pederasty is not to say that the authors object to monogamous, covenanted relationships.”  Sadly, a wide range of evangelicals, including former Christianity Today editor David Neff, author Tony Campolo, the late Rachel Held Evans, and MOPS speaker Jen Hatmaker have embraced such revisionist arguments, thus undermining an historically orthodox sexual ethic. That chapter alone is worth the price of the book.  (See this short essay by Johnson summarizing his critique of this form of revisionism).

Christians, who desire to uphold the historic Scriptural teaching on marriage, may still find themselves at a loss in terms of how to care for persons, experiencing such sexual attractions, who either embrace revisionist views on Christian marriage, or who reject Christianity outright. The old Christian adage of “loving the sinner, and yet hating the sin,” can ring very hollow in the ears of those disillusioned by the unthoughtful efforts of Christians to try to change them. However, one can still have a positive relationship with someone else, even if there is no agreement on the definition of marriage. Learning to care about others does not necessarily entail having perfect agreement on these matters. Rather, caring does require learning how to listen to others, and empathizing with their story.

Is change still possible, for altering someone’s same-sex orientation? I would not want to preclude the idea that God performs miracles (I believe God does), but we must very careful here: My conclusion from reading Still Time to Care is that yes, it might be possible, but not likely. That might sound pessimistic, but it is better to be realistic than misleading people with a false hope, however well-intentioned it is. We can not try to “force God’s hand” to do something which does not appear to be within his sovereign plan and purpose. Furthermore, even if some do claim a radical transformation, in terms of sexual orientation change, it is wholly inappropriate to promise that everyone will have such an experience.

Just as the “prosperity gospel” offers a false hope that any and everyone who follows Jesus will have the best health, the best career, the best automobile, and the best marriage, and so on, so it is with a “sexual prosperity gospel” associated with the “Ex-Gay” movement, that promises that following some religious formula will automatically lead to a sexual orientation change. An inappropriate emphasis on seeking after such change can be a setup for future failure, in a person’s walk with Jesus.

Though some still cling to the optimistic aspirations of the “Ex-Gay” movement, focusing on sexual orientation change, like Andrew Comiskey’s Desert Stream Ministries, Andrew Rodriguez’ PyschoBible, and Stephen Black’s First Stone Ministries, and others affiliated with the Restored Hope Network, the personal failures left in the wake of Exodus International’s demise have left a negative taste in the mouth of thousands and thousands of people, a tragic situation which is difficult to ignore. Admittedly, even those in the Restored Hope Network are shying away from reparative therapy these days, while still pursuing other possible avenues for change. The sad tales that Still Time to Care documents continues to serve as warnings for us all.

On the other hand, efforts like pastor Greg Johnson to promote care, as opposed to cure, are welcomed by those disillusioned with the “Ex-Gay” movement. A renewed emphasis on listening, community, and encouraging friendships is deeply needed, particularly as hostility towards historically orthodox Christians views on marriage increase in our culture. We need a new generation of C.S. Lewis’, Francis Schaeffer’s, and Billy Graham’s who can demonstrate what it really means to care for others in the name of Jesus.

Look here for more information about Greg Johnson’s book, Still Time to Care. I listened to the audio version of the book, but  the print and Kindle versions of the book should be released in December, 2021.

For more posts on this topic, please consider the following blog entries at Veracity:

Looking for more help if you struggle with unwanted same-sex attraction, or if someone you love has that struggle?

  • The Revoice Conference. Sponsors an annual conference where fellow Christians, who experience same-sex attraction, but who want to uphold the historic Christian ethic can find support.
  • The Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender. Directed by author and theologian Preston Sprinkle, the Center provides valuable resources for parents, individuals and churches, in the areas of sexuality and gender identity, with endorsements from trusted authors and leaders like Jackie Hill Perry, Matt Chandler, Francis Chan, and Karen Swallow Prior.

Billy Graham: A Moral and Spiritual Revival

Billy Graham will probably be remembered as the greatest evangelist, if not of all time, at least, of the 20th century. Graham was not simply an exemplary preacher. He was a leader, who helped to define the Neo-Evangelical movement, that rose up after World War 2, in the United States. In the words of historian George Marsden, an evangelical was “anyone who likes Billy Graham.”

My favorite video clip of Billy Graham is the 1969 interview he had with Woody Allen. Graham’s televised interactions with Woody Allen were a remarkable display of winsomeness, warm congeniality, and Scriptural integrity. But a more representative display of Billy Graham’s giftedness comes from an early televised, brief sermon he gave, in the early 1950s. It was a year of a pivotal election in the United States, and yet the direct preaching of Graham pointed listeners towards “a moral and spiritual revival.”

Billy Graham was one of the first evangelists to effectively use television as a medium for Gospel proclamation. Many of Graham’s crusade meetings were recorded, such as his historic crusade summer, at Madison Square Garden, in 1957, New York City.

He was known beyond America, particularly when he preached in England in 1954. This opened up the door for the Billy Graham Evangelism Association to have crusades all of over the world, through the second half of the 20th century:

Graham was not perfect, as he himself readily admitted. His enthusiastic friendship with President Richard Nixon, became a deep embarrassment for him, when audio recordings of Graham were heard, on the infamous Watergate tapes, from the Nixon White House. But it is truly remarkable that Billy Graham was able to avoid other potential scandals, that have derailed a number of evangelists before him, and after him.

In our Internet and social media age, one wonders if there will ever be another Billy Graham, a leader who successfully holds together an evangelical movement, prone to forces of division, that have threatened to undo this tenuous coalition of believers, who gather together under “big tent evangelicalism.” Nevertheless, the Graham legacy is truly a gift to the modern, evangelical church.

One final sermon, to highlight, that Billy Graham preached, back in 1983: “Is there a hell?”  A sobering topic for sure, but observe carefully how he frames his message. How well received would this message be received today, in the 21st century?:

For more on Billy Graham, read this Veracity review of Grant Wacker’s America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation.


Woody Allen and Billy Graham

A great example of warm, evangelistic conversation:


Remembering Billy Graham, America’s Pastor

Grant Wacker's America's Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation, offers a lot to think about.

Grant Wacker’s America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation, offers a lot to think about.

Many young people today do not know the name of “Billy Graham.” But those of us who grew up in the 20th century knew of Billy Graham as probably the greatest evangelist who ever lived. He was easily the most influential Protestant evangelical leader in the 20th century. ChristianityToday, the magazine that Billy Graham helped to found, has an extensive tribute to his remarkable legacy. Last year, I read historian Grant Wacker’s biography of Graham, so I offer my review and personal reflections below. Losing Billy Graham is like losing your pastor. Billy Graham was America’s Pastor.

……….

I was 21 years old, walking towards the main arena in Champaign/Urbana, at the tri-annual Urbana missions conference, then held at the University of Illinois. This would be the highlight evening for some 18,000 college students, where we had the opportunity to listen to the world famous evangelist, Billy Graham. By this time in Graham’s ministry in the 1980s, he had shared the Gospel before millions of people around the world, having an  impact on world evangelization, far greater than any other human in history.

Not only that, but Billy Graham had managed to forge a remarkable alliance of like-minded believers, all united around a common cause of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to others, calling these people to have a living, vital relationship with the Lord, and upholding the Bible as God’s Word of Truth to humankind. What made this so remarkable is that this alliance spanned across multiple denominations, race barriers, nation borders … you name it, Billy Graham transcended them all. Every church and ministry I had been affiliated with looked up to him as a grandfatherly type of figure.

As an aside, a few years after this Urbana missions conference, I would attend a seminary that Reverend Graham helped to found. Furthermore, for nearly the past twenty years, being involved in my church’s music ministry, I have enjoyed a warm friendship with Ted Cornell, who himself was involved in the music ministry of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, traveling with the Graham team for crusade meetings all over the world.

I had been truly impressed with Billy Graham. Now, at this Urbana conference, it would be my first time to see the man preach, in person, aside from watching him on television.

But I soon experienced a moment of anxiety, on that December evening.

As I was crossing the sidewalk by the arena, packed with other college students, an older gentleman approached and stopped me earnestly, “Please take this and read it.” It was a small pamphlet, and the message was direct and to the point: Billy Graham was a “false teacher.” Graham did not insist, that all inquirers for the Gospel, who came forward to give their lives to Jesus at Graham’s crusades, receive water baptism as adults. Graham had substituted baptism, as taught in the Bible, with “coming forward” to the front of the preacher’s podium. This was a grave theological error, according to the pamphlet.

I was puzzled, having grown up in liberal Protestantism, with very little exposure to so-called “fundamentalism,” prior to my years in college. I had dedicated my life to Christ, a few years earlier in high school, and all of my spiritual mentors spoke highly of Billy Graham. Graham taught of having a personal relationship with Jesus, in a manner that eluded my experience in mainline, liberal Christianity.

Most of my mainline Protestant friends still liked Billy Graham. They just did not care that much for his “evangelical” message.

Now, as a college student, I was confronted with a jarring claim that this well-respected man, perhaps the most well-respected man in all of evangelical Christianity, was really a “compromiser” in disguise. Having defended Graham in front of my mainline church peers, and alternatively resisting ridicule from my atheist acquaintances, I felt angry, and a bit confused, by this pamphlet. I promptly dumped the pamphlet in the trash, and proceeded into the arena to hear the popular evangelist speak to a captivated crowd.

Did this man with his pamphlets not have anything better to do?

Listening to Billy Graham preach that evening was incredibly inspiring. He represented what “real Christianity” was all about, from what I knew… at least the “evangelical” kind of faith that I had experienced. Graham either directly spoke of or alluded to the central tenets, or fundamentals, of Christian faith as I understood them. They included having confidence in the Bible as the very Word of God; a belief in the Virgin Birth, signifying the incarnation of the Son of God; a belief in the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, and His atoning work on the Cross to deal with sin; a trust in the work of the Holy Spirit, to give new life to the believer; and an expectation of the Second Coming of Christ. I left the arena that night invigorated and emboldened in my faith.

There were no protestors out on the street, as students poured out from the arena, after the event. The man who gave me the pamphlet had disappeared. But I kept thinking about him. As I went to bed that night, I wondered. Could I have misjudged the “pamphlet man?” Was he trying to “save” me from some errors of Graham’s preaching, that I knew nothing about, or was this merely the Evil One’s subtle attempt to try to confuse me? What was that episode with the “pamphlet man” all about? Continue reading


A Modest Defense of the “Billy Graham Rule”

There is quite a bit of chatter in social media recently about Vice President Mike Pence’s adherence to the so-called “Billy Graham Rule.” Many have mocked Pence’s statement that “he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife.” Briefly, the “Billy Graham Rule” was an unwritten pact between the early members of Billy Graham’s evangelistic team, that they would avoid even the appearance of infidelity. These men pledged not to eat, travel, or meet with any woman alone, except their wives. This rule, which covered more than just the issue of sexual infidelity, served to protect this ministry from the allegations of impropriety, for a long string of decades, that many Christians have admired as basic, common sense.

Surprisingly, the criticism of this rule has come, not simply from secular sources, but from Christians as well. Much of the furor concerns the endless egalitarian versus complementarian debates that consume the energies of many of today’s Christians (I tell some of my story here). Progressive Christian blogger, Rachel Held Evans, tweeted that “Jesus scandalized the disciples by meeting with a woman for a drink,” a reference to Jesus’ meeting of the Samaritan woman at the well, in John 4.

The critics have a point. The “Billy Graham rule” arose during a time when it was relatively uncommon to find women in the work force, in the late 1940s. When I began my career in engineering in 1980s, things had drastically changed in society. For about five years, I shared a large office with three other women engineers. There were times when I was alone with one of these women in the office, and neither of us thought anything about it. It was just part of our jobs to work together. So I get it.

But such critics have obscured something essential, in their defense of seeing women fully integrated in the workplace. The “Billy Graham rule” should not be lost as some legalistic concept, to be discarded as being sexist. Rather, we must be mindful of the principle that undergirds the rule, namely, that all people, men and women, who wish to honor their Lord, should not put themselves in compromising situations.

George Beverly Shea, Billy Graham, and Cliff Barrows, the young evangelists, who sought to live lives above reproach.

Fundamentally, people like Pence and Graham have been simply protecting their marriages, protecting themselves, and protecting those who have come under their familiar influence. As followers of Jesus, we should all do the same. The human tendency towards sin is much stronger than we are willing to admit to ourselves and realize. What often starts off as legitimate and harmless in our interpersonal relationships, business or otherwise, can easily slip into something completely inappropriate, over a period of time. The principle behind the Graham rule is that we should have those checks and balances in place that will keep us honest. All of us need healthy boundaries, to keep us from crossing lines of behavior, that we would soon regret. Just ask those former pastors and ministry leaders who failed to keep an appropriate version of the “Billy Graham rule,” starting counseling relationships privately, with those of the opposing gender, who after a small indiscretion here and there, eventually lost their jobs, scandalized their ministries, and destroyed their families.

The drawings of those specific boundaries will change as cultural conditions change, and such “rules” may still look strange to outsiders. Jesus met with the woman at a public well, not a dimly lit, secluded room. Yet the concept of a public well, in first century Palestine, seems strange, when contrasted with the contemporary American workplace or ministry setting. We will need to tweak certain applications of the principle behind the “Billy Graham rule,” in a culturally contextual manner. But the principle of avoiding compromising situations is a good thing to keep. Let us not mock that.


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