“Giving away the store” on same-sex attraction?

On Thursday, The Gospel Coalition posted an excerpt from Ed Shaw’s new book Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life. Yesterday, Doug Wilson took issue with the excerpt, saying that it “gives away the store” on the issue of same-sex attraction. Wilson writes,

The upshot of the article is that Christian parents should care about whether or not their children grow up to be godly, and that they really ought not to care — provided the godliness is there — whether or not their children grow up to have same sex attraction.

This is presented so smoothly, in an evangelical cliche sort of way, that it almost seems sweet, and yet it is so wrong-headed as to be stupefying. In other words, there is a way to take this that is not only defensible, but absolutely necessary to defend. That way of taking it is why the article might have some sway among unreflective Christians. The right way to take it, however, is not the path the article encourages.

Wilson later posted a follow-up which you can read here.

Anyone who has read my book, this article, or this blog for any length of time knows that I agree with Wilson that same-sex attraction is sinful. I think we are on the same page as far as that is concerned. I also agree with Wilson that “there is a way to take [Shaw’s excerpt] that is not only defensible, but absolutely necessary to defend.” But I also agree with Wilson that this excerpt as a stand alone is at best ambiguous on some points. And the most salient point is the ethics of same-sex attraction.

Having said that, I think the wider context of Shaw’s book mitigates some of the concerns that Wilson raises. In other words, there are grounds for interpreting Shaw’s words in a way that may not leave much daylight between Wilson and Shaw on the issue of same-sex attraction. Let me make three observations about the rest of the book that lead me to that conclusion.

1. The American title of Shaw’s book is a bit unfortunate: Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life. That title foregrounds the issue of same-sex attraction and backgrounds “the plausibility problem.” The title is unfortunate because the point of the book is not a detailed treatment of the ethics of same-sex attraction. To be sure, that is a part of the book, but it is not the goal of the book.

The point of the book is to explain why many same-sex attracted people find Christianity so implausible. The requirement of celibacy is so devastating to them that they simply cast aside the faith altogether. Shaw is trying to highlight “missteps” that churches often make that make Christianity seem implausible and that thus alienate same-sex attracted Christians. The British title expresses this better: The Plausibility Problem: The Church and Same-Sex Attraction.

2. The excerpt on the TGC site is from the chapter dealing with reparative therapy. Shaw is arguing that reparative therapy has led many same-sex attracted persons to believe that Christianity is implausible. On page 97 in the British version, Shaw writes:

Many same-sex attracted children of evangelical parents have been signed up for reparative therapy or sent off on residential courses that will “heal” them of their same-sex attraction. Often the children (and sometimes the parents) have then given up on evangelical Christianity when these attempts have failed. If godliness is heterosexuality, what’s the point of trying to be a Christian when you’re not heterosexual?

Again, Shaw’s main point here is to show that the frequent failure of reparative therapy to change sexual orientation has led many to believe that Christianity is implausible. The church’s error, Shaw argues, is the idea that the goals of reparative therapy and Christian sanctification are the same. They are not. And we unnecessarily alienate struggling sinners when we tell them that they are.

I think Shaw is absolutely right about this, and it’s the exact argument that I made in my debate with Rob Gagnon two weeks ago at ETS. And I think it’s a point that all of us would do well to hammer home going forward.

Having said that, I do believe that many of the terms used in Shaw’s excerpt are ambiguous. In fact, there are a number of things about this chapter not included in the excerpt that are at best ambiguous and that might be taken in an unbiblical direction.

For example, Shaw talks about the “wrong presumption that same-sex attraction and godliness… don’t ever mix” (p. 98). I think Shaw would agree that sinful attractions and holiness are fundamentally at odds with one another and can no more “mix” together than light can mix with darkness (1 John 1:5). But I don’t think that’s the kind of “mixing” that Shaw has in mind. I think that he means that both same-sex attraction and godliness can “mix” in the sense that they can exist in the same person. The language of “mixing” confuses the point, however, and it would be better to stick with the terms of scripture to describe this reality (e.g., Rom. 7:21).

But that begs the question as to why I would want to read this entire chapter within a more charitable frame—even the parts that I would recommend changing in a second edition. And that leads to my final observation.

3. In the fifth chapter of the book, Shaw clearly links same-sex attraction to original sin. In fact, it seems Shaw is arguing from the same theological framework that Heath Lambert and I are arguing from in our recent book and that Wilson says he agrees with.

Shaw contends with those who say that because “my same-sex attraction is natural… it can’t be wrong to express it sexually” (p. 55). Shaw even says that the attractions themselves can’t be absolved simply because they come “naturally” to some people. Why? Because of original sin. Shaw believes that original sin explains why our attractions—even the ones that seem natural to us—can be sinful. Here’s Shaw in his own words:

‘How can being same-sex attracted be wrong if you were born gay?’ Very easily, in the light of Bible teaching—I was not born perfect… I was born with loads of other things wrong with me, some of them unique to me. One of these things was the beginnings of a uniquely flawed sexuality… I was born with no choice about whether to sin or not. And yet sin is still wrong… Our knowledge of what is right and wrong cannot be derived from what comes naturally to us, because everything that is wrong with this world came naturally from us (pp. 59-60).

When I read the excerpt in the context of the rest of his book, it seems to me that Shaw has a robust doctrine of original sin that does not absolve same-sex attraction in the way that Wilson thinks it does.

In conclusion, there are a number of things that I would change in the excerpted chapter from Shaw’s book. To put a fine point on it, we need to be clear about the underlying problem with reparative therapy, and I question whether the phrase “Godliness is Heterosexuality” is the best way to frame the issue. Here’s how I would frame it.

Homosexual persons often report experiencing two realities: (1) the presence of same-sex attraction and (2) the absence of heterosexual attraction. Reparative therapy treats both of these as problems. But the Bible only treats number one as a problem. In fact, I believe that I could make the case (as I did at ETS two weeks ago) that the Bible sometimes treats number two as a gift (e.g., Matt. 19:11; 1 Cor. 7:7).

And this is precisely where the aims of reparative therapy and Christian sanctification diverge. Christian sanctification means daily repentance from same-sex desire. Christian sanctification does not necessitate the creation of heterosexual desire and marriage. Reparative therapy is trying to achieve both and treats it as a problem if one fails to achieve heterosexual attraction and the potential for marriage.

I don’t want to speak for Ed Shaw, but I’m guessing that is precisely what he was trying to communicate in this chapter. He was trying to say that Christianity seems implausible to same-sex attracted sinners because they thought they had to become heterosexual to become Christian. I think Shaw is saying that we need to stop making Christianity seem implausible in that way. Or to put it in biblical terms, we need to stop putting stumbling blocks in our brother’s way (Rom. 14:13). And I think he’s right about that.

5 Responses to “Giving away the store” on same-sex attraction?

  1. Kent McDonald December 5, 2015 at 9:12 am #

    Thank you for clarifying a long term issue for me. I have often been concerned about what might be called long-term ‘besetting sins’ in the life of a Christian. I don’t know if Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ was his poor eyesight, or an actual SIN as referred to when he discusses knowing to do good and not doing it vs not wanting to do evil and finding himself doing it anyway. His lament “who will deliver me from this body of death” makes more sense given your clarification. I, like many Christian have my own ‘besetting sin’ that seemed at one time an almost DAILY struggle, but over time is not as much of a struggle in my life as it once was. But make no mistake, my propensity to this particular sin still lingers. It just doesn’t have a seeming strangle hold on me like it did when I was young. Original sin (or this carnal body of death) presents dilemmas to living the Christian life. But Praise GOD I can do ALL things through Christ Who strengthens me. I long for the day when Christ returns, (the TRUE DELIVERER from this body of death) as we are transformed into that which is immortal and Holy in His Sight in reality, instead of the Hope of His coming.

  2. Bill Combs December 5, 2015 at 7:18 pm #

    Kent,
    I don’t think Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” can be a sin. It is a thorn IN the flesh, which, I think, can only mean a thorn in his physical body. A thorn in his flesh, that is his sinful nature, would be something to be welcomed.

  3. Alistair Robertson December 6, 2015 at 6:49 am #

    Thanks for addressing this, Denny. I first saw it on the Bayly blog – I believe not favoured by some – and then on Doug Wilson’s blog. I wondered whether anyone else would address it.

    I thought from the get go that it could be read far less extreme depending on the context. The fact that TGC published it without context was not helpful.

    And because you brought it up again, I thought I’d respond once more…your comments about reparative therapy, the accuracy of which I’ll take at face value, would not mean rejecting RT as an evangelical option, but would instead lead to agreeing with Robert Gagnon that RT is not evangelical Christianity, but is one tool to deal with gender (not necessarily to lead a person toward heterosexual behaviour) within overall sanctification, and that there are varying levels of success, as with all sanctification.

    I think, using what you’ve said here, that you could argue that there are all-or-nothing attitudes that need addressing, and perhaps you could argue that the use of RT needs refinement, but your comments (and Shaw’s as I’ve read here) really don’t take the argument further than that.

  4. groovyman67 December 7, 2015 at 11:09 am #

    I agree that original sin and the Fall explain our distorted desires, but the argument that same sex is good because it is a natural desire is logically untenable, original sin notwithstanding.

    I don’t understand how any Christian, or even moral person, can submit that a particular sexual preference or ‘desire’ is natural and therefore good to express. This argument must, without any basis, intend to limit sexual preference/desire to only hetero or same sex. But they are many other sexual desires, no examples needed, that are simply heinous and evil. Yet if sexual attraction, if desire and preference is inborn and therefore natrual how can any of these desires be wrong? The only way to say they are wrong is to change the basis by which you judge, to ‘how it affects other people’ or some other standard. by doing so it proves that the original assertion (inborn desires are natural and therefore good to express) is meaningless. Or to be consistent you must say all desires are equally inborn, natural, and good.

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  1. Questions About Same Sex Attraction - Kuyperian Commentary - December 5, 2015

    […] posts, here and here, expressing his concerns about the way the TGC articles approached the issue. Denny Burk added his voice, which adds some context to the TGC articles from Shaw’s book. Outside of […]

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