What Is a Gay Christian?

I just saw Rachel Held Evans‘ notice of a forthcoming interview with a “gay Christian,” and at once I was struck again by the use of this peculiar phrase—”gay Christian.” For some people, this term will appear immediately to be an oxymoron. For others, it represents a view of Christian morality that has moved beyond the heterosexual norm of scripture to embrace all manner of sexual expressions. But what does this phrase really mean? When you hear it spoken or read it in print, what do people mean by it? And is it a helpful term for Christians to use?

We can observe at least two definitions of the phrase gay Christian—the descriptive and the normative.

1. The Descriptive Definition of “Gay Christian.” In this sense, gay Christian is merely a description of a Christian who experiences homosexual desires but who may nevertheless agree with the Bible that homosexuality is sinful. In this sense, to say that one is a gay Christian is to recognize a genuine disciple of Jesus who sincerely and honestly struggles against this particular sin. This is the way that Wesley Hill uses the term in his book Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan, 2010). He calls himself a gay Christian, but he affirms the biblical teaching about human sexuality and remains celibate in spite of a life-long struggle with homosexual desires.

2. The Normative Definition of “Gay Christian.” In this sense, gay Christian means to describe a person who is both a genuine Christian and who has embraced homosexuality as consistent with Christian faith. Those who use the term in this sense either argue that the Bible’s moral teaching on this subject is mistaken, or that the Bible’s apparent condemnation of homosexuality has been misunderstood. Brian McLaren uses the term in the normative sense, and he is clear in his book A New Kind of Christianity that homosexual acts and desires are compatible with being a Christian.

So there are two different senses in which people employ this phrase. But is it a helpful phrase for Christians to use? Clearly the normative sense of the phrase is incompatible with scripture. But what about the descriptive sense? I love Wesley Hill’s book, and I admire his devotion to Christ while living with such a heavy burden. At the end of the day, however, I don’t think the phrase is a wise one for a couple of reasons.

First, the phrase designates an unbiblical identity. Christians are new creations. They are those who have died with Christ and whose lives are hidden with Christ in God (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:19-20; Colossians 3:3). Our primary identity, therefore, is not any sin but Christ. For this reason, Christians never speak of “lying Christians,” “adulterer Christians,” “fornicating Christians,” “murderer Christians,” or “thieving Christians” even though we know sadly that Christians are capable of all kinds of sins. It’s unseemly to create labels that define Christians by sins that they are supposed to repent of. We can be honest about our sin without speaking of it as if it were our identity. The phrase gay Christian creates an identity category that we would not accept for any other sin.

Second, the descriptive sense of gay Christian is not well-established. The dominant sense of this term is the one denoted by Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, and a host of other “Christians” who have distorted in various ways what it means to be a Christian. Because the normative sense is the most common sense, Bible-believing Christians who use the phrase risk being misunderstood. And in fact, some people who don’t want to be pinned down on the issue take refuge in the ambiguity of such expressions. Christians who want to be clear about what the Bible teaches should steer clear of this phrase (2 Corinthians 2:17).

There is no good reason to risk being misunderstood when alternatives are available. At best, gay Christian risks ambiguity. At worst, the phrase might be taken as a wholesale sanction of homosexuality. For these reasons, I would argue that Christians committed to the Bible would be wise to drop the phrase altogether.

14 Responses to What Is a Gay Christian?

  1. Kamilla September 13, 2011 at 11:42 am #

    Thanks or this post, Denny. Often the most fascinating thing about such writings is the way people often say more than they realize. Mrs Evans has been skirting around the language of “story” and other terms which are also used by proponents of narrative ethics to justify the use of embryo-destructive reproductive technology. And yet both Mrs. Evans and the narrative ethics folks would object to the contention that story trumps eternal moral principles in their world. Given that, I found this descriiption of Justin’s evolving beliefs telling:

    “Justin was a conservative Southern Baptist who firmly believed that being gay was a choice and a sin—until he discovered he was gay himself, turning his whole world upside down.”

  2. Chris Blackstone September 13, 2011 at 11:42 am #

    You raise the only concern I had with Wesley Hill’s book. I think a far more appropriate description, although not as succinct, is “a Christian who struggles with/experiences same-sex attraction”

  3. Mark September 13, 2011 at 1:02 pm #

    I have trouble calling someone a “gay” Christian. I appreciate this post which reflects the question I posted at Evans’ blog. I wrote the following:

    “The Apostle Paul writes the following to Timothy.

    [8] Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, [9] understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, [10] the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, [11] in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. (1 Timothy 1:8-11 ESV)

    In light of the above listed descriptives, do you think it acceptable for others to identify as “enslaving, lying, perjuring, etc. Christians” since you identify as a “Gay Christian”? Why or why not?”

  4. Paul September 13, 2011 at 1:54 pm #

    wow. Denny and I agree on something.

    • Denny Burk September 13, 2011 at 2:12 pm #

      Cue the the Hallelujah chorus!

  5. Don Johnson September 13, 2011 at 2:12 pm #

    One term I use for myself is redeemed sinner. Everyone is a sinner, some do not realize it, some do not care, and God in His mercy redeemed me by offering a gift that I accepted. The more I live the more I see that I am a sinner saved by the grace of God.

    And a part of my being a sinner is something that some deny, I realize that I am fully capable of any sin and there but for the grace of God go I.

  6. D.R. Randle September 13, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

    We do Celebrate Recovery at my Church, which is a 12-Step program designed after AA that takes its cues from the Bible. In distinction from AA, where you introduce yourself as “I’m Billy and I’m an alcoholic”, CR folks are taught to introduce themselves as “I’m Billy and I’m a grateful believer in Jesus Christ who struggles with (fill in the blank)…” I have heard more than once people note that this distinction helps them to remember that they are not defined by their sins and struggles, but rather by Christ. So while I applaude Wesley Hill in the same way that many here do, I think he would do well to learn from those who struggle like he does, but with other sins.

  7. Justin F September 13, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    I don’t think anyone need fear that people will be confused on the Christian message on homosexuallity.

    33 For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ 34 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ 35 But wisdom is proved right by all her children.

    Luke 7

    Maybe being misunderstood is not so bad . . .

  8. Matt Lnyn September 28, 2011 at 12:24 pm #

    I do have an issue with your stance. No where in the bible is the orientation of homosexuality described as a sin. No more than being a heterosexual person is a sin. The sin issue comes into play once a person chooses to give into lust in whatever form it comes their way. We live in a broken world where no one is made perfect. We all face different temptations. Some people’s temptations are not temptations to others. But the sin issue comes in when we give into those temptations.

    Being gay isn’t a sin anymore than being straight is. It is the decision of whether or not you give into lustful thoughts that enter your mind that is the sin. That is something on which all straight and gay people can agree.

    A person calling themselves a gay christian is no different than someone calling themselves a straight christian. Although I do think the term is very important living in a society that seems to put homosexuality on a pedestal of wrong. Christians often think that just because you label yourself as gay means you’re in an active lifestyle of sin. It can be argued that just as a straight person abstains from sexual temptation and lust a gay person can. That does not, however, change the fact that they are gay.

    These are my thoughts while on my lunch break so I apologize if they are not completely thought through and supported.

    • Denny Burk September 28, 2011 at 1:21 pm #

      Matt,

      I believe the Bible does in fact hold sinners accountable both for their deeds and motives. All of us are predisposed or oriented toward certain behaviors. These predispositions are sometimes sinful, and they can be feelings that we are born with. It was David who that that, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and conceived in sin” (Psalm 51). This is the Christian doctrine of original sin, and it is taught in various ways throughout the Bible. We are born sinners, and we are all predisposed to sin.

      In Romans 1 in particular, this principle is applied to homosexual behavior:

      Romans 1:26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural,
      27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.

      Notice that the judgment falls not only on behavior (abandoning the natural function of the body), but also on inner predispositions (passions, burned in their desire). It isn’t just the behavior that is sinful, but also the motives driving them.

      This is not unlike Jesus’ denunciation of heterosexual immorality in the Sermon on the Mount.

      Matthew 5:27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’;
      28 but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.

      Notice that it is not just the act of adultery that is sinful, but also the desiring of adultery. So it is also with homosexuality. Scripture paints both the behavior and the desiring of it as sinful.

      Thanks for taking time to comment!

      Denny Burk

      • Don Johnson September 28, 2011 at 1:33 pm #

        Whatever is not a choice simply cannot be a sin, you might as well claim that being a redhead is a sin. One can sin in thought, word or deed.

        I am hetero. I can have a bodily response to a woman, this does not mean it is a sin until it becomes a choice what I do with that response. If I choose to lust it is a sin; if not, not. I can choose to turn away and think about other things, etc.

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