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.