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 “SpiritualFriendship.org” 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.