Christianity,  Theology/Bible

A friendly response to Wesley Hill’s “thought-experiment”

I am really grateful that evangelicals seem to be moving toward a serious conversation about homosexuality. Two articles in particular seem to be driving some recent online discussions. One is a piece in World magazine profiling a lesbian chaplain at Wheaton College. Another is a piece by Michelle Boorstein in The Washington Post about the “celibate gay Christian” movement. Both of these articles have provoked disagreement and spirited discussion about what it means to be a same-sex attracted Christian.

I am not going to try and rehash all that has been said up to this point. I invite you do to take a look at the links in this post if you want to get up to speed on the points of disagreement. My aim is to engage with Wesley Hill’s recent post at the Spiritual Friendship website. He invites feedback to his “thought experiment,” so I am going to offer some.

Before I do that, let me say that I so appreciate the testimony that Wesley shares in his book (which I have recommended countless times), and I think we share the same goal of speaking biblically about homosexuality. I am grateful to have participated with him recently on a panel discussion about these issues, and I regard Wesley as a serious-minded Christian brother. I feel the need to clarify all of that once again because we often disagree with one another on some of these issues.

In a recent post, Wesley seeks to account for the difference between the “” outlook and the one Owen Strachan has expressed in a recent series of posts (here, here, and here). Wesley suggests that maybe the difference is between a pre-modern and a modern view of homosexuality. He writes:

Given that gulf between those radically differing ways of thinking about “homosexuality,” I think it may make sense to view the differences between Julie Rodgers (and others of us here at SF) and Owen Strachan as differences between multiple models/definitions of homosexuality. It seems to me that Strachan is viewing homosexuality much more like a pre-modern Christian might: to be homosexually oriented is to experience discrete moments of temptation, forbidden desire, and (perhaps) to perform certain actions or behavior. When Strachan says that “we cannot glean any positive aspects of our patterns of sinful desires,” it’s clear that he’s treating homosexuality as a particular pattern of illicit attraction. Which is very similar to how almost all Christians would have thought about homosexuality until very recently.

But we live in a constantly changing world, and many modern Westerners—especially, but not only, younger people—recognize that “being gay” today is a cultural identity. It’s a community designation (“gay community”); it names a way of being in the world (“gay culture”); it involves a continuous narrative (“when I came out… my gay friends…”); and it can exist even before or without lust and behavior (think of how many teenagers you know came out before their first kiss). It isn’t identical to “lust” or even “desire.”

I want to suggest—and I do so tentatively, as a sort of thought experiment—that when people like Julie (and I) say that their “being gay” can be the time or the place where they experience redemptive grace, they’re speaking very much within a contemporary framework of thinking about homosexuality. They’re recognizing that not all aspects of this new social construct—”being gay”—are reducible to what the Bible names as lust or what pre-modern Christians (and modern ones) recognized as sin.

Wesley suggests that viewing “homosexuality as a particular pattern of illicit attraction” is a pre-modern way of viewing homosexuality. But is this really accurate? The American Psychological Association defines sexual orientation in terms of a person’s enduring pattern of sexual attraction either to the same sex, opposite sex, or both sexes. In other words, the APA—a modern, secular institution if there ever was one—describes sexual orientation in part as a recognizable pattern of sexual desire. In that sense, I don’t think Owen is being pre-modern. He is trying his best to use the terms as modern people tend to use them.

Wesley argues that “being gay” also comprises a cultural identity. That is true. But I question whether embracing such an identity is morally helpful. It may be that we are using our terms differently. So I will appeal to another writer at the Spiritual Friendship site, Mark Yarhouse. In his book Homosexuality and the Christian, Yarhouse argues that gay identity is a self-understanding that is defined in part by one’s sexual attractions. If I understand him correctly, Yarhouse says that gay identity involves assent to those attractions and to the behaviors that stem from those attractions. He writes, “With the swinging of the pendulum toward identity comes the conclusion that all things homosexual are good and all things heterosexual are questionable” (p. 46, but read all of pp. 44-50). Again, maybe among the three of us (Hill, Burk, Yarhouse), we are using the term identity differently. But that is part of the problem. What do these terms mean? If a gay identity means embracing a self-understanding that is defined by one’s sexual attraction, then the morality of the identity is grounded in part in the morality of the attractions. And now we are right back where we started. What does the Bible say about the morality of same-sex sexual attraction?

Wesley says that “being gay” is not “reducible” to same-sex sexual attraction. In a limited sense, I would agree with that. I do not dispute that gay people report heightened emotional connections with the same sex that are non-sexual in nature. So maybe we would agree not to say that sexual desire is the only element that gay people experience as a part of their SSA. Nevertheless, sexual desire does seem to be the defining element. As I mentioned in a recent post, the defining element of same-sex attraction is desire for a sexual relationship with someone of the same sex. If same-sex sexual desire is removed from the equation, then we are no longer talking about SSA—at least not in the sense that modern people mean the term. When modern people talk about SSA, they intend a kind of attraction that includes sexual possibility between persons of the same-sex. They do not mean to label as gay every person capable of emotional bonds with a person of the same-sex. No, it is the same-sex sexual desire that is the constitutive element.

In that sense (and I think Wesley might agree with this sentence?), same-sex sexual attraction is not a means to better, more holy same-sex friendships. It is an impediment to them. When one feels himself desiring a sexual relationship with a person of the same-sex, the only appropriate response is repentance from sin (2 Tim. 2:22). It is not right or helpful to think of that sinful attraction as the foundation for building holy same-sex friendships.

As I’ve said many times before, to call same-sex attraction sinful does not make gay people less like the rest of us. On the contrary, it makes them more like the rest of us. We are not singling out gay people as if their experience is somehow more repugnant than everyone else’s experience of living with a sinful nature. All of us bear the marks of our connection to Adam. All of us are crooked deep down. All of us have thoughts, inclinations, attitudes and the like that are deeply antithetical to God’s intention for us. All of us need a renewal from the inside out that can only come from the grace of Christ. We are in this predicament together. We do not stand apart.


  • Esther O'Reilly

    Rodgers can’t be so disingenuous as to list “an overall appreciation of beauty” in the same gender as a NON-physical element of SSA. This is part and parcel of the tragic twisting of God’s design for intimacy that is the natural union of man and woman.

    • Esther O'Reilly

      If Julie was talking about “beauty” as in the beauty of a cardinal, or a snowflake, that would be fine, but I don’t think that’s what she meant. The immediate context is of things she appreciates in people of the same gender. Normally, men notice women’s beauty, even innocently, in a way that’s not the same as when a normal woman notices female beauty. If a boy shyly asks a girl to dance with him because he thinks she’s pretty, we go “Awwww” at that because there’s nothing wrong or sinful about it. But for a lesbian woman to feel that similar blushing feeling towards another woman, even if it doesn’t go to the level of sexual fantasizing, is already a sign of something really wrong. So for even a celibate gay Christian to try to imply that there’s nothing broken about the way he “appreciates beauty” in the same gender is missing the point. Because the person is homosexual, because of the way he’s wired, he will never be able to appreciate that sort of thing in a healthy, normal way. But instead of just admitting it, admitting that it sucks, and moving on, they’re trying to act like it’s not a problem as long as you don’t fantasize or act on anything.

    • Esther O'Reilly

      To clarify though, I disagree slightly with Denny on categorizing that impulse or attraction as a sin in itself. If a Christian is trying to leave his homosexual identity behind, but still has moments where he’s attracted to a guy in spite of himself, I don’t think that’s necessarily within his control. I think it’s the sort of thing that comes over a person because our bodies suffer from the consequences of natural sin. The same kind of thing happens with various mental illnesses. So that’s the category I would use for SSA—sickness rather than sin.

      Now what you DO with that feeling is key, obviously. For example, I read one woman who’s bisexual and unabashedly says that she still “has a thing for the ladies” even though she’s married to a man, but she doesn’t think that’s any more of a problem than the fact that she’s also naturally attracted to other guys. Ideally, she should recognize that it’s a sign of mental illness and work to put the thought out of her head instead of shrugging it off.

  • Ryan Davidson

    I believe that the current APA’s current definition differs from what is recited here. The current one is available at:

    It recites in part:

    “Sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic and/or sexual attractions to men, women or both sexes. Sexual orientation also refers to a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors and membership in a community of others who share those attractions.”

    In that sense, those who identify today as LGBT today generally do so by pointing to their failure to conform to the socially prescribed contours of “masculinity” or “femininity.” So, identifying as gay is more of an expression of one’s rejection of heteronormativity than it is an affirmation of one’s desire to have sex with persons of the same sex.

    And that’s where I think Strachan misses the mark. His analysis would make perfect sense in the pre-Freudian culture of the Jane Austen era. But we don’t live in the 1830s. We can’t just pretend that Freud didn’t happen, and that heteronormativity and Oedipal theories haven’t imposed a certain grip on the way that we think about sexuality, even in the church.

    I daresay that most people who identify as gay today would not have identified as such in the 1830s. After all, in the 1830s, gender roles were far more flexible than today and there was much greater social tolerance of same-sex non-sexual intimacy. In fact, at that time, it was much more likely that men felt a closer emotional and social bond to other male friends than they did to their wives.

    One can still see glimpses of this older culture in parts of southern Europe, where Catholicism prevented Freud from ever gaining much of a cultural foothold. Unsurprisingly, few people in those cultured identify as gay.

    I’m all for trying to regain that kind of innocence, which is what Strachan may be trying to do. But we can’t just pretend that Freud didn’t happen. When people say that they’re gay, we have to assume that they are referring to their place in the sex-obsessed, Freudian-Influenced heteronormative culture in which we live. They’re probably not referring to how they would have identified themselves in 1830 or how they would identify themselves if living in Naples. And that’s probably Wes’s point.

    I think it’s important for us to seek to recover the innocence to which Strachan refers. But to do so, we’re first going to have to deconstruct the Freudian way in which we have come to think about sex, even in the church. We can’t hope to simultaneously recover that older innocence while ignoring the countless ways in which Freudian heteronormativity makes that recovery impossible.

  • Dal Bailey

    (Denny Burk)All of us are crooked deep down. All of us have thoughts, inclinations, attitudes and the like that are deeply antithetical to God’s intention for us. All of us need a renewal from the inside out that can only come from the grace of Christ. We are in this predicament together. We do not stand apart.

    Denny, thank you for that last part. I fully agree, that my sins are no worse then others and that the “Gay” person is not any worse then myself. I also thank you for pointing out that change comes from the inside and to only do it halfway, is to remain outside the circle.

  • Ryan Davidson


    I was merely pointing out that the APA’s current definition is different from that upon which Denny’s thesis relied. If you’re going to say that there’s something problematic with someone’s identifying as gay, then you need to understand what that person means. In my experience, the APA definition lies much closer to what most gay people today would cite as the basis of their identification.

    I understand your point. But we’re not going to get there without deconstructing the ways in which the church has improperly valorized particular social expressions of gender. Many who identify as gay do so as a protest against the church’s demand for them to perform within fairly narrowly construed gender roles. Because we’ve arbitrarily defined those roles as normative, that identity is presumed and need not be stated by those who elect to perform according to those normative roles. But that person is still claiming an identity in addition to his or her identity in Christ.

    • Ryan Davidson


      Those who perform according to the normative script are claiming an identity. They’re just not expressly saying that they are. It is fairly well established that one of the ways that the in-group maintains dominion over the out-group (and thereby seeks to ensure that their claimed identity remains normative) is by refusing to admit that they are claiming an identity.

      In my view, much of evangelical teaching on gender comes more from Freud than anything in Scripture or the Christian tradition. Until the church is willing to examine and ween itself from these extrabiblical teachings, it’s not going to have much credibility to speak on these issues.

      Many of us who identify as gay do so because we’re not willing to be incorporated into the church on the proffered terms, i.e., by making peace with extrabiblical heteronormative gender roles. But because we are committed evangelical Christians, we are seeking to renew the church by leading it back to Paul and away from Freud.

      I hope that a day comes when it will be unnecessary for me to identify as gay. But that day can’t come until the church eases its grip on the heteronormative teachings that marginalize me and exclude me from full participation in the life of the church. So, in that sense, I identify as gay as an indicator of that improper exclusion. When the improper exclusion of chaste gay people ceases (or, better yet, when the valorization of heteronormative gender roles ceases), I’ll have no need to identify as gay. After all, there is no homosexuality without heterosexuality.

      For a more robust discussion of these issues from a conservative Christian standpoint, I would commend Michael Hannon’s two recent pieces in First Things.

      I’ve enjoyed engaging with you. Peace.

      • Jeremy Erickson


        It does seem you’re attributing an incorrect idea of “identity” to folks like those of us at Spiritual Friendship who sometimes find adjectives like “gay” or “bisexual” useful. At least for those of us I’ve discussed this with, these are just adjectives that are sometimes useful.

        I think the post Ron Belgau put up on Spiritual Friendship yesterday does a lot to help clarify how we’re using words. It’s long, but I think it’s worth reading if you want to understand where we’re coming from. I’m generally in agreement with what Ron says here. Ron and I, and I would guess most of the other bloggers on SF, share your frustration with the modern notion of “identity” and the way it often displaces Biblical categories in modern discussion. Nonetheless, we do find that using common terminology is often the most effective way to minister to the culture in which we find ourselves.

        Ron’s piece is at

        For what it’s worth, I think that the local church is ultimately the proper place for Christians to be ministered to, and hope to see my fellow LGB Christians committed to traditional teaching participate fully in the local church. One of the places I think Spiritual Friendship can be most effective is as a resource for local churches to be able to minister more effectively.

        • Jeremy Erickson

          I wasn’t very clear – sorry about that. I just meant “incorrect” with respect to the way I’ve seen most of the SF writers speak and think. We often get criticism based on the approaches of other people who happen to use the same words, and it gets frustrating to see this criticism directed at us when our approach is actually not the same. That’s a big part of why I’m grateful to Ron for writing a detailed post to help clear this up. I just wanted to make sure you had an accurate picture of where we are coming from, since the article you are commenting on was about one of our bloggers and you mentioned us in one of your comments. The way I wrote my comment didn’t get that across – my bad.

          I’m not extremely familiar with Harvest USA’s approaches, so I won’t offer a judgment on that. I do want to say that if we at SF are saying anything contrary to Scripture, I want to know about it. We’re actually a fairly diverse group (as evidenced by the fact we have both Catholic and Protestant writers), so I don’t agree with everybody on everything, but I think my fellow contributors have been doing a lot of important work to move the conversation forward. I’m hoping we can help the Church respond to LGB people in a way that is both effective and faithful to the teaching of Scripture.

  • Don Johnson

    I fundamentally disagree with Denny’s last paragraph.

    People like him ARE fundamentally putting gay people in a special category of sinners. This is because he chooses to interpret the Bible to say that having SSA is in itself sinful, whereas being OSA is not in itself sinful. He will not even let these people be celibate and not express their attraction, that is not enough for him.

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