It has been nearly a month since I posted this article (please consider reading it before progressing), and it has received quite a bit more of a response than I could have prepared for. The response to that article spawned both thoughtful and concerning questions from readers, and it has urged me to write a follow-up post to help answer some of those questions.
I was talking to a friend recently who also writes about the intersection of Christianity and homosexuality. He told me that he does not exactly enjoy writing about these vulnerably conjoined subjects. However he feels like his frustrations with the general “culture war” have left him no other choice. And I would agree, that is essentially where I stand. I do not want this to turn into a blog exclusively about sexuality. Although, as I have stated before, I do think there is a tension mingled throughout most of my writing that will hopefully be recognized even in this discussion. The intersection of my sexuality and my Christian faith is only derivative of what I actually want to write about.
I did promise a follow-up to that post though, and I felt it appropriate to answer those questions with my own knowledge on the matter. I decided to break this post into bullet-points to address these frequently asked questions. I also did not intend for this post to tread tons of new ground on conversations that are currently happening but to hopefully provide a groundwork for those interested in entering and learning from those conversations.
My hope in this post is that it would be helpful to those of you with orthodox, Christian beliefs eager to learn and longing to both love and understand your lgbt friends, neighbors, students, family members, and congregants.
- Should you call yourself “gay” or “same-sex attracted”?
This is a good question, and it is one I have been chewing on myself for several years now. Personally, it is only as of recently that I’ve come to somewhat of an answer. Many find that by labeling yourself as a “celibate, gay Christian“ you are buying into our culture’s tendency of turning sexual orientation into a primary identity. So by even using “gay” as an adjective and not as a primary identity-label, many consider that you would still be undermining your primary identity in Christ.
From a pragmatic standpoint, I find it easier and more helpful to cut to the point in conversation with another and say “I’m gay” (to describe what I experience, not necessarily my identity) rather than having to say something like, “I experience same-sex attraction and desire.” It is unfortunate that the word to describe a same-sex, sexual orientation in our culture implies so much and carries so much baggage. However, I still think it is the simplest yet most nuanced way of describing how I experience my own sexuality. Yet, I am still not convinced that our categories for orientation are even helpful or good.
I do sympathize with those who are against using the term “gay” to describe themselves as I recognize that in our culture it normally implies having sex, whether monogamous or otherwise, so I really do understand where some might say it is like identifying with a word that is synonymous to a dire sin. But I do believe there is drastic distinction between having gay sex and considering yourself gay (please wait til the next bullet-point to hear me out on what I mean by that).
I also feel the alternative of saying “I’m same-sex attracted” carries both personal and theological baggage. Personally, having to limit myself in how I experience others of the same-sex feels demeaning as it does not quite describe all the ways I relate and only seems to describe how I’m erotically attracted. Theologically, there is an implication that I am solely erotically attracted to men which seems to perpetuate the idea that sexuality is only about eroticism. It not only feels demeaning to me, but it seems to reduce the depth and beauty of sexuality.
In all honesty, I find each set of terms beset with their own particular problems. This is where I really must ask that when we have these sorts of conversations with all sorts of people coming from all kinds of backgrounds with different presuppositions that we have these discussions with nothing but the utmost gentleness and respect.
If you do not agree with what I have said, I would ask you earnestly to consider this: if your frustration with word choice is not allowing you to listen to the experiences someone has, please value what that person has to say before you confront their word choice. I’m not asking you to agree but to first listen.
- Is homosexuality sinful in and of itself?
I find this particular discussion tricky but in need of consideration. I have been to several Christian conferences and seminars on sexuality that left me feeling hurt, misunderstood, and frustrated when homosexuality got lumped into the category of hardcore pornography, masturbation, illicit sex and other active sexual sins. Distinctions need to be made between being gay and having gay sex. If homosexuality continues to get labeled as a sin in and of itself, the conversation on homosexuality will continue into the category of active sexual sins. If that is the case, speaking from experience, shame and self-loathing will quickly find a home in that individual.
Imagine for a moment all the things you deeply love about your spouse, girlfriend/boyfriend, opposite-sex/same-sex friend that cause you non-erotic desire for them: wanting to be around them, talk to them, take them out, hug them, etc.. Now consider all of that being inherently sinful or disgusting. I say this to urge you to take this argument seriously as there is much at stake in the emotional lives of gay or same-sex attracted individuals including myself.
If homosexuality in general is sinful, sexuality would seem to be remarkably shallow. It would imply that sexuality is really only about erotic desire and not about other desires — such as relational and emotional intimacy, friendship, companionship, closeness, and a recognition of beauty (I’m only scraping the surface). I urge you to consider this: If when I see either physical or interpersonal beauty in another man, should I call that sin? For that matter, if a heterosexual man sees beauty in another man, should I call that sin? If I see it more frequently and more obviously than someone with a heterosexual orientation and subsequently have to sometimes fight the temptation of lusting or idolizing it, does that make it sinful? Do you see what I am aiming at? Sexuality is much more than just eroticism or a carnal desire for sexual gratification.
With the “homosexuality (in general) as sin” framework, it would seem the only two options for progress in a homosexual would be a complete shift to a heterosexual orientation or a reduction of desire. If it is all bad then our only options are to make it good or eliminate it. However, this framework operates under the assumption that we have no trace of dignity within us. Since I don’t believe that to be true, and I resolutely believe in God’s words that the original creation was “very good” I think this framework is flawed. Let me explain that.
I am not saying a homosexual orientation is not disordered. I recognize it as a result of the Fall. I recognize that sex is only permitted within a monogamous, heterosexual marriage within the boundaries of God’s holy law. Do not hear me saying that any sex outside of this is permissible, but we do need a more holistic understanding of Imago Dei, Total Depravity, and what has happened to our desires between the creation of man and the fall of man. In Reformed Christianity circles, it can be very easy to lump everything into the Total Depravity category and ignore our original dignity and goodness as image bearers of God. Though the Fall disordered good desires for things like friendship, companionship, and beauty, our answer is not to just stop all desire. If depravity assumes, as John Calvin once phrased, “a nature formerly good and pure,” sanctification is a process of restoration and renewal — NOT a process of utter annihilation. John Stott says it well:
“…whatever we are by creation, we must affirm: our rationality, our sense of moral obligation,… our hunger for love and community, our sense of the transcendent mystery of God, and our inbuilt urge to fall down and worship him. All this is part of our created humanness. True, it has all been tainted and twisted by sin. Yet Christ came to redeem and not destroy it. So we must affirm it….”
Yes, it is murky to sift through these hungers and to recognize the good from the disorder of sin, but it is worth it.
To summarize: I do not believe homosexuality in itself is a sin as that would imply our basic human desires for things such as intimacy and beauty would be inherently sinful. However, I do resolutely believe that acting out these desires for intimacy in a disordered way (sex outside of marriage, homosexual sex, lust, viewing pornography, masturbation, etc.) is entirely sinful.
- How do we better welcome gay/SSA people into the church?
There is so much to be said on this, so I will only stick to one (of many) answers. With that said, one way we can better welcome them is by showing them how we suffer.
One of the reasons I think our church’s pews have so few gay or same-sex attracted folks sitting in them is because of this feeling that they are asked to give up so much more than anyone else in the congregation. Speaking from experience, it is difficult watching couples hold hands while their kids tug on their pants after service, knowing that is probably something I will never get to experience. It only worsens when I am then questioned for being single as if I am doing something wrong.
The reality is that as Christians, we all have to suffer in different yet profound ways. We all have massive crosses to bear. Those married and those willingly or unwillingly single, we all are struggling. Still, some crosses are more noticeable than others, and unfortunately, we have a tendency to keep those crosses hidden. One of the problems it seems is that we have idolized marriage as the answer to our need of intimacy and left single and celibate Christians feeling as though they are the only ones who have to really give something up. Clearly, it is untrue that married people are not suffering and do not experience loneliness. So what is hindering us from being more transparent about our sufferings?
People will either look for a community of fellow sufferers or settle for something or someone that immediately satiates their particular suffering.
Without a proper theology of suffering, we will never be welcoming. And it is not enough to have an individual theology of suffering either. Our theology of suffering must be communal. Our masks must be taken off so others might see the hopeful yet battered faces underneath them.
I hope my difficulty with celibacy might encourage a friend to continue to be faithful in a difficult marriage. Similarly, my friend’s decision to not marry an unbeliever, despite being in love with her has encouraged me in celibacy. Both sides of this required the sufficient transparency to let the other into our own personal suffering. How can we bear one another’s burdens if we hide them?
As Christians, it is our belief that this life will be the worst it will ever be for us, that we have a life and future coming that will be the pinnacle of our existence living in perfect intimacy with the Lover of our souls. Contrary to this belief is the belief that this life is the best we will ever have it. If the latter is true, celibacy is essentially pointless. I say this because as we convince others that they must be married to live the ideal Christian life we are buying into the prosperity gospel’s “your best life now” mentality. If we honestly believe in Jesus’ words that state “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” celibacy should not be abnormal, sexual fulfillment should not be an entitlement, and self-denial in general should not be crazy nor foolish but expected.
- Should you expect change (in attraction)?
Again, a difficult question to answer. This has been discussed time and time again, and I can not help but give you a grey answer.
When people ask me if I think homosexuality is a result of nature or nurture, I assume they are looking for a single answer. My answer is that it can be either or both. Human sexuality is incredibly complicated and the answer to this question will likely vary from individual to individual.
If the answer to the nature vs. nurture debate does vary from individual to individual then the question of whether or not change can be expected will probably be just as complicated.
However, I will say that I know far more people who have seen little to no change in their experience of same-sex attraction.
With that said, I want to address a problem that is typically implicit within this question. There is a big issue in expecting change as there’s usually an assumption that at the core of same-sex attraction in every individual is some plaguing, root sin that can be uprooted so that the same-sex attraction could essentially be diminished. Basically, it is a posture that assumes if we become morbidly introspective enough and repent enough our sexuality will be fixed. There must be a distinction between an effect of the Fall and the result of personal sin, and we should pursue wisdom in discerning the difference in different people of different sexualities.
So, should I expect change?
I guess it depends on what is meant by “change”. Is “change” synonymous with continued sanctification, integrity, holiness, wholeness, and awareness of my own story even if that looks like no change in attraction? Or is “change” simply a shift in attraction from the same-sex to the opposite-sex? Like Paul’s thorn in the flesh, I do not know if we have grounds to expect such a change in circumstance, yet that should not cease nor hinder our growth in grace.
Can we survive without sex?
It’s unfortunate that our society has confused intimacy to mean sex and sex to mean intimacy.
For instance, most in our culture would assume these two Biblical figures were in a homoerotic relationship:
“I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant have you been to me [David]; your love to me was extraordinary, surpassing the love of women.”
In no way should we assume Jonathan and David’s relationship was anything more than an incredibly intimate friendship, and I do not believe any culture but our own has ever assumed it to be sexual. I do not doubt that living in a hyper-sexualized culture as the one we are in now has distorted our ability to see intimacy as anything but a desire for sex.
It is saddening that many (especially men) in our culture can barely say “I love you” to one another nor show signs of physical affection (holding hands, touching arms, arm around the shoulders, even kissing, etc.) without others assuming signs of erotic interest. It is interesting to note that when Paul speaks of “greeting others with a holy kiss” many commentators would agree that Paul is speaking of a same-sex kiss. It is uncomfortable is it not? However, it really is essential and good for two people of the same-sex to express healthy physical and emotional affection — think of John the Beloved and Jesus. Our response to a hyper-sexual culture should not be some sort of Gnostic view that our bodies and bodily needs for affection are unholy. God created us with physical bodies to embrace and be embraced like the father and the prodigal son embracing one another. He created us with bodily senses that can (and should) express and receive love. This is a particular difficulty for people who are celibate or single in our culture – one I am painfully aware of. Not only must I go without sex, I often feel I must go without intimacy since the two can rarely be seen apart from each other.
I believe we can survive without sex, but I don’t believe we can survive without intimacy. So here’s where we have our work cut out for us: to cultivate an environment within our churches for single, celibate, and/or widowed people to flourish.
I hope these answers are helpful for you. I do recognize each of these responses alone could be turned into their own blog-posts. There are miles and miles to go on this conversation, so thank-you for being willing to ask these sorts of questions and hear what I have to say even if you do not agree. And I hope to possibly expound upon some these answers in the future.
* For a more in-depth discussion on gay-identity labels, I’ll redirect you to Melinda Selmys’ post on gay identity terminology here.
** If you’re particularly brave, I’d suggest a glimpse at this First Things piece on why even our framework for sexual orientation can be unhelpful at best.
*** I’ve found this article from Gabriel Blanchard far more articulate and profound than myself on distinguishing the dignity and depravity within homosexuality.
**** My friend Stephen Moss has gone into great detail on how to welcome gay people into our congregations right here.
***** Melinda Selmys speaks into ministering to those who are gay or same-sex attracted very eloquently over here.
****** Rev. Brian Habig has a wonderful sermon on physical affection and “holy kisses” here.
******* For further detail on living out intimate lives without sex, I’d highly suggest Wesley Hill’s new book Spiritual Friendship.