Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” – John 6:68
As other reflections start to trickle in and I’ve had the chance to consider what the past few days of the Revoice conference have meant to me, I keep coming back to the words of Simon Peter in the Gospel of John, words that were echoed multiple times in different seminars, testimonies, and conversations over the weekend. They come after one of Jesus’ hardest teachings—one so difficult that many of his followers turn away: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” Jesus says, using such seemingly uncareful language that later on the Romans would accuse the early church of practicing cannibalism.
In one sense Peter’s confession is not particularly encouraging—in fact it feels like a sort of backhanded compliment. “Yes Jesus we’ll keep following you, because there isn’t any other better option”—the apparent implication that if there was, the disciples would be right there with the rest of Jesus’ followers whose retreating backs were all that remained of their loyalty. And yet Peter’s declaration of allegiance to Christ contains the very thing that holds any of us near to Christ despite sin, suffering, and opposition: “You have the words of eternal life.”
I’m convinced that the work of Revoice is a work of the Spirit. I don’t mean that in some sort of naively subjective sense: “I really enjoyed the conference and felt warm fuzzies during worship, it must have been the Holy Spirit!” Rather, I mean it in the sense that Jesus uses it in John 6:63 when he says, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” The pews of a one hundred and fifty year old conservative evangelical church were packed with Christians from many different traditions united by the confession of Peter. We were there despite another spirit, a zeitgeist which has given us every excuse to walk away. It is impossible to overstate this: in our cultural moment it is so much easier to walk out those doors. For the vast majority of attendees, it would be so much easier to agree with a culture that has affirmed a sexual ethic so different from what is found in the pages of Scripture.
Far too many critics of Revoice have begun by acknowledging the conference’s affirmation of the historic Christian sexual ethic and then quickly moved to “but…” as though affirming this ethic were an easy thing. Plenty of straight conservative Christians in the pews don’t affirm that ethic as it’s been historically understood, or do so only selectively—and many of those who do affirm it might struggle to tell you why it’s actually better than our culture’s alternative ethic. Yet the folks who stood in those aisles did so at great cost to themselves. We are perceived by many in the LGBT community as dangerous traitors because of our adherence to historic Christian teachings on sexuality. Local gay-affirming churches quickly moved to condemn the Revoice conference. Those who imagine Revoice as some sort of subversive tactic of the Human Rights Campaign designed at infiltrating conservative churches are gravely mistaken. I’m convinced that Revoice is a work of the Spirit because those in attendance are seeking to submit themselves to the instruction of the Spirit as given in God’s infallible Word.
Only the Spirit could empower so many to remain in traditions where they have been so grievously wounded by those who were supposed to be the shepherds protecting them. The stories of pain, rejection, and shame inflicted in the name of Christ upon those in attendance should be more than enough to have sent us packing. So many at Revoice could echo the story of Ray Low, who spoke movingly about checking every box his tradition required for pastoral ministry, only to find regular rejection because of simply being a single man attracted to the same sex. There are those who would scoff at the idea that my brothers and sisters have experienced trauma at the hands of their church traditions, but they can only do so because they have not listened to the heartrending stories.
Saying that Revoice is a work of the Spirit does not absolve it of criticism. I’m not seeking to appeal to the Spirit as a trump card that suggests that any with concerns about the conference or individual teachings should simply “take it up with God”. In fact, the conference desperately needs good-faith critics who can offer valuable pushback in places where it has gone too far affirming either spirit of the age or a spirit of self-righteousness. There are important conversations to be had about how to use language with respect to our sexuality at this cultural moment. There are differences among participants about how to talk about our identities as they relate to our orientations (though not a single attendee I met said anything other than that their primary, foundational identity was in Christ). There are important discussions to be had about how to best pastorally care for people who are single and celibate in the church—how can we make space for them to flourish in churches whose primary programs and small groups are often centered around the nuclear family?
Sadly much of the criticism seems to reflect some sort of “culture war PTSD” that assumes that Revoice, its leaders, and attendees are in the wrong tribe, on the wrong side of the front lines. Good-faith criticism doesn’t dismiss the cost of discipleship paid by gay Christians, but rather it rejoices in it, even as it seeks to sharpen the mission and task of a conference like Revoice. It doesn’t assume that affirmations of the historical sexual ethic are disingenuous while treating those who make them with suspicion.
Perhaps the greatest fear from those skeptical of the conference was that it would soft-peddle repentance and obedience, downplaying our identity as those in Christ, while over-identifying with sexual temptation. And yet one of the constant refrains I heard was the costliness of obedience, the necessity of repentance, and the devastating effects of sexual sin. But I also heard the constant refrain of a gospel that is bigger than our sin—and those sins committed against the men and women in attendance—good news for men and women who know better than most the fear that leads to hiding ourselves and even God (Gen. 3:10). As Wesley Hill put it in the final keynote, “Jesus does not combat shame by rewriting the rule book but by removing condemnation and liberating sinners to a new way of life.”
But more than any talk or workshop, what made Revoice special was the community. I had the privilege of sharing several meals with people I hadn’t even met before who for the first time felt like they could have their guard down among fellow believers, not worrying if sharing their story would result in rejection. As my friend Jeremy who attended put it to me, “I heard from person after person that [this] was the most important thing for them at Revoice: finding out that they were not alone, and that there were people who shared their struggles, similar stories, and a deep commitment to be for each other.” Nowhere was this more tangibly present than in our corporate worship. That same friend put it beautifully,
Four hundred plus Christians who find their sexual attractions to be mis-ordered, who long for sexual partnership like all of us, who were made for intimacy, sang songs submitting their sexual lives to King Jesus, committing themselves to lifelong celibacy or to the difficulty of mixed-orientation marriage. These brothers and sisters could all make the easy decision: “I’ll just go to an ‘affirming’ church so that I can pursue the kind of sexual relationship I long for”, but they don’t, they stay in churches holding to the biblical sexual ethic because these gay Christians believe it and submit their lives to Jesus. These brothers and sisters, belting out songs of homage to the kingship of Jesus, are fighting in holiness to keep following the One who gave himself for them and invited them into his family and kingdom.
It was fitting that the conference closed with the singing of the modern classic “In Christ Alone” and its final verse:
No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the pow’r of Christ in me
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand
‘Til He returns or calls me home
Here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand.
Where else could we go? Jesus has the words of life.