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How a gay St. Louis pastor triggered a war within the Presbyterian Church in America

 Greg Johnson, the lead pastor for Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis.
Greg Johnson
Greg Johnson, the lead pastor for Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis

Greg Johnson describes himself as a “gay atheist teenager” who fell for Jesus — and found himself at the center of evangelical Christianity’s internal battles over sexuality.

For nearly 20 years, Johnson has pastored Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, right across from Forest Park. He says he’s been gay and celibate the entire time. When he came out to his church, he said he received a standing ovation and shouts of “We love you, Greg” from congregants.

But since Johnson went public with his orientation in Christianity Today, pastors in his denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, have tried to banish clergy who identify as gay, even if they commit to celibacy.

Johnson has fought that. He says orientation is largely fixed — but believes there is still a place for people like him in conservative churches.

“I spent a lot of years convincing myself that I was a straight man with a disease called homosexuality that could be cured,” Johnson said on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “And, perhaps up to a million of us did that.”

The million Johnson is referring to are people who participated in the so-called “ex-gay movement,” which centered on the theory that one can change sexual orientation. The organization leading the charge, Exodus International, shuttered in 2013 after decades of fruitless attempts. Johnson said those efforts did more harm than good.

“I really believe that Jesus loves gay people, and I want evangelical churches to learn to say that and believe that,” he said.

Gay pastor Greg Johnson is fighting for the future of the PCA

Last year, Johnson released a book called “Still Time To Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality,” which describes the fall of the ex-gay movement. In the book, Johnson offers evangelicals a way forward, arguing that Christians must move from “curing” to “caring.”

When the PCA denomination voted last year on whether to keep gay people from becoming clergy members, one observer wrote that the action was designed to “prevent another Greg Johnson.”

More than 60% of regional church bodies voted in favor of barring people who identify as gay from becoming clergy, even if they do not engage in sexual behavior. The measure narrowly missed the supermajority required to change the church bylaws.

A group of pastors is attempting to put the same amendment up for a vote at the 2022 PCA general assembly, set for June.

For now, Johnson said he remains committed to the PCA denomination. But, he worries his story — he likens his ministry as being a “unicorn among horses” — could be weaponized by conservative Christians, especially his conviction to stay celibate.

“My constant fear is that somebody's going to tell their kid, ‘Why can't you be one of the good gays like Greg Johnson?’” he said. “I don't want that, because they're gonna have to come to their own conclusions about what they believe and how they want to live their life.”

Johnson said there’s a huge need within the evangelical church to train parents and pastors to love gay youth without trying to control them.

“If you're going to be in a denomination that says you can't have gay marriage, then you've got to provide alternate forms of community,” Johnson said. “I can live without sex — but I can't live without intimacy. I can't live without love.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.