The Revoice Conference, which begins tomorrow, has generated a great deal of conversation among theologically conservative Christians. The gathering, according to its website, is about “supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.” Much of the controversy has swirled around terms used by proponents to describe who the conference is for and what its goals are.
Christianity Today editor in chief Mark Galli asked Revoice founder Nate Collins about the dispute. Collins is former instructor of New Testament interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and a leader at the Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender. He is also author of All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Zondervan, 2017).
What exactly is Revoice?
Revoice is an organization putting on a conference, and the idea behind the conference is to provide a place for conservative LGBT Christians, people who are non-straight and perhaps experienced gender dysphoria of some kind, to gather and to be supported and loved in their attempt to live a long and costly obedience. We all believe that the Bible teaches a traditional, historic understanding of sexuality in marriage, and so we are not attempting in any way to redefine any of those doctrines. We’re trying to live within the bounds of historic Christian teaching about sexuality and gender. But we find difficulty doing that for a lot of reasons.
What are the most common misconceptions of Revoice?
Several people try and make the claim that we’re on a slippery slope ethically, which is due in part to the choice of language we use on our website. Right now the conversation on LGBT issues and gender, sexuality, and evangelicalism is fragmented. There’s a lot of groups of people that use language in very specific ways that makes sense to them but doesn’t make sense to people outside of their tribe.
Revoice is trying to be a place where people who identify as gay or lesbian or bisexual feel like they can be encouraged. We’re not pressuring people. We’re not advocating that people use one language over the other. We’re just trying to make space for people for whom the language they use is meaningful, in terms of how they are trying to reconcile their gender and sexuality with their faith.
You clearly state your views on sexual activity outside of marriage, but some are confused about your views about illicit sexual desire. Is that sinful as well?
Sexual desire for someone of the same sex is sinful and something that I should repent from. But in this regard, some people are being too Freudian. They are basically saying that orientation can be boiled down to a desire for sex. And I don’t think that’s a biblical anthropology. I think a biblical anthropology should reflect something that’s more basic to the human experience, like God created us.
What then do you mean by someone identifying as gay or lesbian, or someone having a particular sexual orientation?
Even the phrase “sexual orientation” can be unhelpful because it puts sexuality at the center of orientation. We are sexual beings; God created us to have sexuality; we will inevitably at some point experience our orientation as sexual. But that doesn’t mean that the orientation itself is a sexual orientation. Now what it is exactly I don’t know—that is something that we Christians have a vested interest in thinking about theologically. But to take our cues from Freud and to consistently boil down orientation to a desire for sex—I don’t think that is helpful, particularly for LGBTQ people who are trying to make sense of their sexuality in a cultural Christianity where their sexuality is taboo, where there is a history of stereotyping, mistreatment, and gay jokes in the pulpit—that kind of thing.
When a person considers himself gay, we tend to understand that he means he is sexually attracted to people of the same sex. But you’re saying that’s not necessarily the case?
That’s exactly right. I think that there’s a lot of the ways that we experience intimacy and desires for intimacy. So the desire to not be alone in your life, the desire to have companionship, to have close, intimate, emotional companionship—these are all things that we experience in relation to orientation that are not intrinsically sexual. To the extent that those desires are neglected or that we fail to integrate those into a theological understanding of orientation—we’re going to have unhelpful pastoral responses in trying to explain how Christianity can still meet the real relationship needs of gay and lesbian.
I’m a typical American baby boomer, an older male who’s lonely a lot of the time. So I get the desire for male companionship. But I don’t imagine you would say that’s a sign that I am gay.
I think that a straight man’s desire, the way he experiences desire for intimate friendship with other men, that is obviously real and is a very valid way of experiencing the God-given need for relationships not to be alone.
It’s important to distinguish, though, between the way that a straight person would experience that desire and the way that a non-straight person would experience that desire. Because when gay people experience a desire for intimate relationships, they do it in the context of their orientation. Which, again, I want to say is not intrinsically sexual.
So we’re trying to understand what is at the center of orientation, which I admit requires more thinking. But at this point, what I personally think [is] that at the center of orientation is the perception and admiration of personal beauty. God created us to recognize beauty in other image bearers. When we notice that beauty and when there’s a pattern for that beauty then I think that raises the level of orientation.
For example, when I see beauty in another man and want to have a relationship with that person, it all depends on the context whether or not that is something appropriate that I should follow through on. If I’m visiting a church and I sit next to somebody and am I interested, then I might want to strike up a conversation and perhaps invest in a friendship if we decide to join that church. That’s a very different response from if I’m walking down the street and I notice someone jogging past on a hot summer day not wearing a shirt. It’s a very different perception of beauty, and my response to that perception of beauty is going to be different. Now neither of those on the surface are intrinsically sexual, I don’t think.
While there’s no sexuality involved, at the same time there’s a perception of beauty. There’s a recognition that there’s an image bearer here that is drawing my attention and drawing me into an interpersonal connection with that person.
It sounds like you’re saying that attraction to the same sex is not necessarily erotic attraction.
Yes. One of the main criticisms of Revoice is that we’re trying to blur the distinction between erōs and philia, the brotherly love we’re talking about. There are lots of ways to address that critique.
One way would be to say that erōs is not intrinsically sexual. It’s never how that word is used in ancient Greek. The Greeks had a different word, venus, that was used to describe explicitly sexual love. Erōs is basically the energy of love, the love that drives you [to pursue relationships]. Philia, on the other hand, is the brotherly love of friendship.
But it’s not helpful to drive such a hard distinction between them. We have to recognize that all kinds of loves will motivate us in the way we pursue relationships. And the way to be holy in those moments is to steward those loves well and not to reduce them to things that they don’t mean. Erōs does not mean sexual love.
Some people say talk about being gay as a gift of God, not as disordered or a sinful desire. What is your take on this use of the language of gift?
I’ve heard mostly progressive gay Christians talk about their gayness as a gift, and I don’t think that’s very helpful. It seems to be more rooted in an inability to conceive that there might be something sinful about their orientation. And that feels too aligned with “the spirit of our age”— that gay is good, as humanity is basically good. It’s not compatible with anything the Bible teaches about sin, and the fact that sin is part of everything we do.
One of the ways I talk about the sinful aspect of being gay in my book is calling it a disability. For LGBT people, for non-straight people, gayness can be a disability in at least two regards. It prevents them from exercising their sexuality the way God intended, that is with an opposite-sex spouse you’re married to. And it can be a disability in a sense that it can inhibit chaste friendships from developing between a non-straight person and someone of the same sex.
But I think it’s helpful to keep in mind something C. S. Lewis said. Someone asked him about homosexuality, and he framed it, again, in terms of disability: “Every disability conceals a vocation, if only we can find it, which will ‘turn the necessity to glorious gain.’” The quote comes from “Character of a Happy Warrior” by William Wordsworth, where there’s a vocation in every disability—the perspective that Christians should have that vocation is a stewardship. We steward all of our experiences in life, including our disabilities. And the way we steward them is by submitting them to Christ and to follow the Spirit’s leading in the way we live out our lives in the context of those disabilities.
It brings to mind a quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his Gulag Archipelago, where he talks about how the experience of being in prison, though unimaginably hard and trying, was one for which he was finally grateful: “Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.” He doesn’t use the language of gift, but it comes close, no?
Most of us, when we realized we weren’t straight, we prayed every single night, “God, make me straight. Help me wake up tomorrow and be different.” But at some point, after reconciling our faith and our orientation, many have asked, “Would I want things to be different?” That’s a hard question to answer, because so much of how have reconciled the faith has come through our existential crisis, and we are now thriving in our spirituality and in our relationships (some of us thriving in opposite-sex marriages). So many of us have found joy, actually, and contentment and a quiet confidence in God’s sovereignty. And to question whether or not that should be different, Would I even be the same person?—those are questions we’re really not going to find answers to until we get to heaven, until we see what things are like in the new creation, where things are all the way they should be.
Where have you experienced this crisis in your own life?
In my own life, I discovered that I was not straight when I was a teenager. The first person I came out to was my dad. My dad is one of my best friends today, but he wasn’t always. When I was 15, a lot of things sort of resulted in my dad pulling me and my brothers into his office and apologizing in tears for the way that he had fathered us. So that was an important thing that happened when I was 15.
Then I went off to Bible college. I always thought perhaps I would get married; I didn’t really know if it would be possible, but maybe I’d meet the right person. And I did, and so I got married in 2004, and our marriage has been wonderful. It has its ups and downs like any marriage. We made the decision in 2007 to be more open about my orientation and the way that I experience not just my sexuality but my desires for intimacy and relationships with other men.
I shared my testimony at our church, which had a lot of seminary students and a lot of seminary professors as Sunday school teachers and elders. And I began being more vocal about the need for traditional conservative evangelicalism to understand and better engage this conversation.
I had very few positive experiences when the topic came up. In my book, I tell a story in my book about being in a classroom with about four or five other students. We had been sent out to go to another classroom to do Hebrew drills and someone got on the topic of homosexuality, and they basically told gay jokes for 30 minutes.
Another time, I was walking into the library and one of the librarians was talking to somebody. He pointed to me and said, “That’s the guy you need to talk to.” So the person comes over, and I was about to get on the elevator, and he says, “So, I hear you’re the guy that I need to talk to about LGBT stuff. I guess it’s safe to get on the elevator with you”—what in the world I was going to do to him in an elevator? This person is a PhD student and research fellow. So these are ideas, these are postures, is what I would say, that are very common that I encountered quite a bit at Southern Seminary and that are very common in conservative evangelical circles.
The Revoice conference website uses the phrase “sexual minority” to talk about gays, lesbians, transgender people, and others. Some think this is part of the slippery slope of relativizing this issue.
Some say the word minority is too tied to political discussion, perhaps, civil rights and racial minority issues. I don’t want to be seen as trying to co-opt a narrative that has been meaningful to racial minorities, to make sense of the way they experience marginalization. Race and sexuality are very different issues. At the same time, there is, I think, a degree of overlap between the experience of racial minorities and the experience of non-straight minorities that I think is important to note. Groups form based on social categories, and that just happens. And whenever groups form, a lot of times an in-group and an out-group will form. That’s mainly what this term is meant to suggest.
Another word that comes up often on the conference website is queer. This has sometimes been associated with militant or radical sexual politics. What do you mean by the term?
The word basically points to the experience of people who live on the margins, who don’t experience their gender or their sexuality in purely binary ways, and they don’t want to feel limited to that. What we want to accomplish at Revoice is, again, giving space for people who find value in that language to participate in the conversation, to attend, to even have a workshop, because we sense the need for their voice at the table. Whether or not the conversation that unfolds ends up going in that direction is a different issue, and I think we need to be able to separate the two and live in that tension.
Personally, I think that while the language of queerness can point to real things that we experience and that we’re trying to make sense of, I don’t think it’s the most helpful theologically. But, again, that’s a conversation that I think needs to happen, and I want it to happen in the context of involving people who do use that language. I want there to be consensus about these matters. So that means trying to be a big tent for a certain group of people to participate and come together.
What’s key for you in creating this big tent, so that you don’t go down that proverbial slippery slope?
Our first value is explicitly the historic Christian teaching about marriage and sexuality. And so anybody who adheres to that is welcome at Revoice and, I would say, should find some kind of a home there. As long as it happens within or underneath that value and submission to that value, then the conversation can happen in helpful and truthful ways.
So what we’re talking about is how to develop the historic Christian teaching about marriage, gender, and sexuality in ways that are faithful to Scripture, faithful to our only final authority. And the way that scriptural teaching about gender and sexuality and marriage is applied to our current context where we have this thing that we call orientation and we’re trying to understand it, and we’re trying to understand how it affects the goods in life that God gives us—relational goods, familial goods, in some ways the concrete goods of life that make us feel, help us feel stable and secure.
So in the future maybe the evangelical perspective on marriage, gender, and sexuality will, I hope, be more filled out and rounded out, and some of the things that we experience as tensions right now won’t be tensions then because we’ll have a fuller understanding of what is in and outside the lines.