Note: Given the recent discussions about Revoice–a conference at which I am speaking–I asked Jake if he would republish the two chapters from my first book that are directly on questions of sexual desire. Today’s essay takes up the question of homosexuality. Yesterday’s essay is available here. Tomorrow I plan to publish a new essay on these themes, for which these essays serve as the background. 

It was an awkward conversation when it started, but I wasn’t prepared for the turn it took.

A new friend and I were sitting on the patio of the cafeteria at our conservative evangelical university, enjoying our lunch and debriefing our philosophy class. We eventually found ourselves talking about what the conversation often turns to among college men: women. We discussed past relationships and future prospects, but the conversation proceeded in fits and starts. It was clear my new friend wasn’t very interested, and I wasn’t about to pry.

I was ready to move on when the conversation took a more serious turn toward the nature of sexuality. It wasn’t that surprising, given that we were both philosophy students. The conversation progressed and my friend slowly opened up, but I wasn’t prepared for what came next. He was attracted to the same sex.

I grew up in small-town America where I had very little interaction with people who identified as gays or lesbians. I didn’t join the party scene as a high school student, and generally kept to myself, so I have no idea if my friends were curious or experimenting back then. The only significant contact I had with the issue was when Ellen Degeneres came out as a lesbian and the discussion about its significance made its way into the classroom. And there were the snide insinuations by classmates that I was gay because I was happily celibate (well, happy most of the time).

So when my friend in college told me he had struggled with same-sex attraction, I was at something of a loss. I had access to the platitudes about homosexuality I had picked up through the years, but they suddenly struck me as counterproductive to any sort of decent or interesting conversation. So I listened. He talked of the confusion that he felt and his feelings of alienation and isolation. He spoke of anger toward God and of a bitter frustration with how he had been treated by others. Though we have lost contact, I have always appreciated his willingness to be forthright with me.

If there is an issue that separates the generations of evangelicals, it is the question of homosexuality. I suspect my experience is typical of many of the younger crowd: we grew up in a world where the way we thought about the question was primarily shaped by politics and the media. But as we have grown older, we have met and known people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (GLBT). The proximity of the issue to our personal lives and friendships has prompted us to seek ways to reframe Christianity’s public witness on this issue so that it is, if nothing else, more hospitable and charitable toward those with whom we disagree.[1]

Inasmuch as this shift represents an attempt to ground the conversation within the context of personal friendships, it’s a welcome development. The fundamental humanity of GLBT people is obscured when celebrities or the media are setting the terms of the discussion, as it inevitably reduces what should be thoughtful dialogue to sloganeering. When we get to know those who identify as gay or lesbian, our need to be constantly reminded of their fundamental human dignity and our equality as children of God recedes into the background.

But these newfound relationships and the increasing awareness of homosexuality within the church have made many younger evangelicals aware of our inability to respond to the questions the issue raises with confidence, clarity, and love. Even those who want to hold on to conservative positions on the question are often uncertain as to how to voice them in ways that won’t contribute to the already negative perception of evangelicals among the gay and lesbian community.

Here, perhaps more than any other issue, evangelical inattention to the body has left us woefully underprepared to understand and respond to this question with grace. And as a result, evangelicals are in danger of allowing secular categories to dominate our discussion, undermining our witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. While our individual witness should be placed within the context of our personal relationships with gays and lesbians, we also need to ensure that our speech corresponds to the Word of God, which bears witness to the one who is “full of grace and truth.”

One note: There are few books I would recommend more highly to you than Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting. I realize my own limitations on this issue, as I am not someone who struggles with same-sex attraction. Hill, however, is, and his book is a profound and thoughtful meditation on why he has chosen celibacy and how his struggles have played out in the church.

Homosexuality and Christian Ethics

In the past three decades, mainline Protestants have watched—and talked—while the question of homosexuality has ripped their denominations apart, leaving a string of divisions and lawsuits in its wake. Hostility and animus aren’t vices that restrict themselves to one side of the issue or the other; there has been plenty all around.

While evangelical churches have been mostly immune to these challenges, the dispute is now racing toward us. When Jennifer Knapp came out as a lesbian in the pages of Christianity Today, she was met with widespread acceptance by younger evangelicals, even while LifeWay (the Southern Baptist chain of bookstores) dropped her music.[2] Soul Force, an organization dedicated to equal rights, has been making bus trips to evangelical college campuses to raise awareness since 2004. Andrew Marin, the most prominent younger evangelical thinker on the question, has drawn international attention by reaching out to the gay community in Chicago. His book Love Is an Orientation is an important and impassioned plea for more civil conversation with the gay and lesbian community. Additionally, the past decade has seen a full-court press to legalize same-sex marriage, a movement that younger evangelicals have met with either indifference or a warm embrace.

In her book The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle suggests that the coming conflict will be a “battle to the death” over the understanding of Scripture that Protestants have affirmed since the Reformation. As she puts it, “When it is all resolved—and it most surely will be—the Reformation’s understanding of Scripture as the base of authority will be dead. That is not to say that Scripture as the base of authority is dead. Rather it is to say that what the Protestant tradition has taught about the nature of that authority will be either dead or in mortal need of reconfiguration.”[3]

While I don’t think the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura is in as much jeopardy as Tickle does, her decision to frame the debate over homosexuality within the church in terms of authority is precisely right. Near the heart of the question is whether or not there is an authority that should govern our experiences, and how that authority wants us to shape our lives and desires.

For much of the past thirty years, the tendency within the burgeoning subfield of theology known as “body theology” was to treat our experiences—in either the narrow sense of what we feel and desire or in the broad sense of what psychology and sociology reveal—as authoritative alongside Scripture. This was the strategy of James Nelson, a liberal Lutheran theologian who was one of the most prominent advocates for body theology. In a line that was written thirty years before Brian McLaren would sound a similar note in A New Kind of Christianity, Nelson boldly proclaimed, “There are times when we must challenge specific moral traditions of our heritage in the light of new empirical knowledge, new experience, and God’s ongoing revelation.”[4]

Though at this point I have no way of proving it, my suspicion is that mainstream evangelicalism will prove fertile soil for letting experiences be the authority in our moral discussions. One of the standard critiques of evangelical theology has been its purported Biblicism, or worship of the Bible. But evangelical piety is still often shaped by experience, even among those who are most wary of the charismatic movement. The emerging church’s success in moving practices more toward the center of many people’s theological reflection provides some evidence that this shift is already underway.

That said, the insistence by liberal critics that Christian churches have been inhospitable to those who identify as gays and lesbians strikes me as fundamentally correct. When professional number-cruncher Bradley R. E. Wright questioned whether Christians have “warm, charitable attitudes toward gay people” in Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites, his answer was a blunt no.[5] And Wright is the guy with the most generous and sensitive reading of the state of evangelical Christianity.

The gospel does reach across barriers, but evangelicals haven’t shared that very well with the gay and lesbian communities. When Jesus was lifted up on the cross, he stretched his arms in an open embrace that drew all people to himself.[6] As Brian McLaren points out in A New Kind of Christianity, Philip welcomes a eunuch into the kingdom of God by proclaiming the good news of the salvation of Jesus to him before baptizing him (Acts 8).[7] The eunuch probably castrated himself for religious or political purposes, and would have been revered among pagans, but rejected in Jerusalem, where he was returning from. McLaren’s point that the good news of Jesus touches the sexually marginalized is fundamentally right.

But the gospel also leaves no one alone—including the eunuch. It transforms each of us into the image of Jesus, a transformation that reaches down and reworks every aspect of our humanity, including our sexual lives and practices. The question of Christian ethics is not what we were but what we are to become once we have heard and responded to the gospel call.

Appeals to the authority of experience are insufficient for our ethics to bear witness to the love Jesus demonstrated on the cross. The Bible is the authorized witness to the reality of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, and it stands as merciful judge over our experiences,[8] helping us discern the shape in which God wishes to mold our bodies and our lives. When our ethics are faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ, they challenge the patterns and habits of our hearts and our world.[9]

Yet while ethics cannot be subordinated to our experience, they do need to be attentive to experience. We need to listen to the voices of those who wrestle with same-sex attraction in our midst, if only because moving from Scripture to our lives requires a sensitive and careful understanding of the world in which we are called to live. The more we understand both the nature of same-sex attraction and the shape of Christian theology, the more welcoming we can be without compromising Scripture.[10]

One word of caution: Locating our experience under the authority of Scripture cuts both ways, as it means we cannot make the heterosexual experience of the world normative on psychological or social scientific grounds either—at least not within the church, whose proper objective is to bear witness to the gospel and the life that it inaugurates.

In other words, we are all under sin. As many have pointed out, as heterosexuals our first duty is to pluck the log out of our own eye. Scripture speaks to us as much as anyone else, calling us to reform our disordered desires and to confess our sins. Whatever else we make of Romans 1, in Romans 2 Paul spares no one: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” It is what theologian Richard Hays calls a “homiletical sting operation.” As he puts it, “The radical move that Paul makes is to proclaim that all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, stand equally condemned under the just judgment of a righteous God.”[11] And, we might add, heterosexuals, gays, lesbians, and everyone in between are included.

At the heart of human sexuality is the question of authority. Whose body is it? And what is its proper shape? The experience of same-sex attraction within our late-modern world poses that question to us all. It is not only a question for those who are friends with people who struggle with same-sex attraction; it is a question about the church’s public witness in the world.

A Conversation That Can’t Go Forward

Part of the difficulty of discussions on this topic is that while they operate under a veneer of neutrality, the presuppositions and expectations of the participants establish tacit criteria for what is and is not permissible speech and conduct.[12] Many of the lay-level conversations about the relationship between homosexuality and Christianity are based on assumptions that not only undermine the possibility of a straightforward, civil dialogue but also do not fit with Scripture’s teaching about the nature of sexuality.

The gospel proclaims that because of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, Christians have died and their life is hidden in Christ with God.[13] Galatians 3:28 indicates that those aspects of our identity that we treat as core have been pushed to the margins by the encompassing love of Jesus Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The basic equality of humanity that existed in our original innocence is reestablished by the person and work of Jesus Christ. Paul’s logic identifies us with our Savior. He writes in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

The good news is that our relationship with God himself determines our fundamental identity as humans—not our sexual desires or actions. And as Christians, locating our identity in the person of Jesus Christ undermines all other attempts to claim the center of our being. In doing so, the gospel establishes the possibility of civil dialogue on sexual ethics. In Homosexuality and the Christian, Mark Yarhouse points out the fact that discussions about homosexuality often conflate three different categories: same-sex attraction, homosexual orientation, and gay identity. In the first category, people experience attractions to the same sex, but they are not nurtured. In the second, those attractions are frequent enough and sustained enough that the persons are oriented toward the same sex. In the final category, people have incorporated their sexual orientation into their identity, making it a feature of who they are in such a way that “being gay means not only that you are attracted to the same sex, but you are personally fulfilled through engagement in same-sex behavior.”[14]

In other words, labeling oneself gay or lesbian treats sexual orientation as a core part of one’s identity as human persons. Unfortunately, this narrative of sexual identity stops any dialogue about the morality of same-sex desires and practices before it can even begin; any disagreement goes against the core of the other person’s identity. Andrew Marin writes:

Since the GLBT person’s mindset attests that same-sex sexual behavior is the dominating characteristic that sets them apart from everyone else, their sexual behavior is who they are . . . their same-sex sexual behavior is their identity. As a result, when gay and lesbian sexual behavior is challenged or questioned, they perceive their entire being as a person—their whole identity—as being under attack.[15]

This means that as long as those with same-sex orientations treat the fulfillment of their sexual desires as a necessary part of their identity, the most sensitive traditional responses to same-sex attraction and acts will inevitably be reduced to bigotry. The possibility of real conversation is over before it begins.

But what of the log in our own eye? The language of “sexual identity” (rather than attraction or desire) glorifies sexual expression by establishing it as necessary to our humanity. And as I suggested in the previous chapter, it is heterosexuals who first took this step and made sexual expression a “need” on which human flourishing depends. With some modifications—like taking over the language of the civil rights movement, for instance—the gay and lesbian communities have simply followed our lead, using the language of sexual fulfillment and identity that heterosexuals have been using since at least Freud.

Evangelical attitudes about our own sexuality, then, are part of the inability of the church to speak firmly on this issue without being heard as spiteful and to speak charitably without ceasing to be clear. And unfortunately, the stalemate undermines Christianity’s public witness, which does not depend only upon what conclusions we come to about homosexuality but how we come to those conclusions. For if we speak with the tongues of truth and exegesis but have not love, we are little more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

None of this yet approaches the question of whether same-sex acts can be practiced in faithful conformity to the gospel. But the prefatory material is more than throat-clearing. My suggestion is that discerning the proper expression for our sexual desires can only happen in response to the good news that God has given us a new name in Christ, and that the primary reality about who we are in the world is that our lives are hidden in God with him.

The Possibility of Original Sin

Where does homosexuality come from?

Until recently, evangelicals found themselves embroiled in a debate over whether gay and lesbian tendencies are chosen or inherent. Yet as gay has slowly ceased to designate a lifestyle and instead marked out a sexual orientation that may be expressed in a variety of lifestyles, this debate has receded into the background. For Christians of any position on this issue, the question of how our orientation is formed should be irrelevant to the question of what order it should be conformed to.[16] The focus on whether sexual orientation is a choice or not distracts us from the deeper, more fundamental questions about the proper shape of human desire, and it unnecessarily alienates us from those non-Christians who have accepted their same-sex attraction as their identity.

What’s more, the psychological, environmental, or social factors behind a tendency are always imperceptible to us, as St. Augustine understood. In a famous episode in his writings, he spends a good bit of time reflecting about why he stole a pear. He examines most of the plausible options, such as peer pressure or hunger. But at the end of the analysis he is no clearer than when he began—suggesting that desires, sinful or otherwise, are the sorts of things that are particularly resistant to unraveling.[17]

In chapter 5, I argued that we shape the world and then the world shapes us. Our desires and embodied experiences are inevitably formed by the environment in which we place ourselves.[18] We cannot simply force ourselves to desire something through a superhuman exertion of our will without placing ourselves in the proper context and engaging in the sorts of practices that cultivate those desires.[19]

The reason advertisers carefully choose colors, sounds, and other sensory stimuli is because they work. Stare at enough Victoria’s Secret catalogs, and that will be your vision of the ideal of female beauty—regardless of what you affirm when asked.

This account is an oversimplification, of course. While the raw material for our interior lives is shaped by our presence in the world, we also have the freedom not only to “take every thought captive,” but to place ourselves in environments that may be more conducive to our formation in the kingdom of God—such as worship in the church, which should be a regular part of the Christian life for this very purpose.[20] If we denied this, we would be ignoring our individual freedom before God and transferring the responsibility for our formation over to the environments that produced us.[21]

But even if environmental factors were completely responsible for causing heterosexual or gay desires, that would have no bearing on whether such desires are proper or not.[22] We are all formed by the same fallen world and all have disordered desires as a result. To quote Oliver O’Donovan:

Desire is, however, one aspect of what Christian doctrine used to speak of as “concupiscence,” a brokenness of the world reflected in a confusion of desire that our human society itself instills in us. A recovery of the length, breadth and depth of the doctrine of original sin would rid us of a lot of misunderstanding at this point. The gay Christian who complains that the good news is difficult to hear because his position is treated as compromised from the outset could learn that it is not his position, but the position of the human race, that is compromised from the outset.[23]

O’Donovan’s suggestion here is subtle. Rather than simply locate concupiscence—or disordered desires—in the individual, he suggests that they “reflect” the “brokenness of the world.” Under this account, homosexuality is—as Wesley Hill writes—“a tragic sign that human nature and relationships are fractured by sin.”[24] That fracture, though, extends beyond our sexuality into our relationships with food, money, and every other sphere of human life. From this standpoint, desires of any sort cannot tell us whether they are properly formed or not. That can only come from outside us, from the counsel of the Scriptures.

The basic irrelevance of the biological dimension to the question of our formation should also be noted.[25] In fact, the push to find a “gay gene” represents the moral schizophrenia of the scientific establishment. On the one hand, the slim evidence for a genetic basis for same-sex attraction is put forward as evidence that it is normal. On the other hand, the slim evidence for the genetic basis for alcoholism is put forward to find therapies to change it.[26]

The question of how same-sex attraction is formed is important for discerning the pastoral response to same-sex desires and acts. But it has no bearing on whether gay and lesbian activities are a faithful expression of the life we have in Christ, or whether those desires are themselves properly ordered toward the gospel. The more important questions are whether same-sex attraction can be incorporated into Christian ethics without alteration, how those Christians with same-sex desires can bear faithful witness to the gospel, and how the church can incorporate those with same-sex attraction into its midst in a way that faithfully submits to the authority of Scripture.

How Does the Body Matter?

In a provocative and profoundly meditative article, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes:

Same-sex love annoyingly poses the question of what the meaning of desire is in itself, not considered as instrumental to some other process, such as the peopling of the world. We are brought up against the possibility not only of pain and humiliation without any clear payoff, but, just as worryingly, of nonfunctional joy—of joy, to put it less starkly, whose material “production” is an embodied person aware of grace. The question is the same as the one raised for some kinds of moralists by the existence of the clitoris in women: something whose function is joy. If the Creator were quite so instrumentalist in “his” attitude to sexuality, these hints of prodigality and redundancy in the way the whole thing works might cause us to worry about whether “he” was, after all, in full rational control of it. But if God made us for joy . . .[27]

Williams’ suggestion is an interesting one, but his case also rests upon the supposition that sexual pleasure in heterosexual acts is “instrumental” to procreation. Yet that simply isn’t the case. The pleasure of sex serves no other purpose than to enhance the delight and the joy that the husband and wife take in each other.

Nor is pleasure itself a sufficient justification for a desire or action. To use an extreme example, the pleasure that someone takes in sadomasochism seems irrelevant to the morality of the action. In fact, the pleasure that people take in sadomasochistic acts is itself wrong. Pleasure may not be instrumental, but it’s not neutral either. It reinforces the desires and behaviors that it accompanies and so contributes to their moral status.[28]

What’s more, the separation of sexual pleasure from the sexual complementarity —“male and female he created them”—that is revealed in Genesis 1–3 is grounded in an impulse that borders on minimizing the importance of the body.[29] As Williams says later in the same essay, “In a church that accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous biblical texts, or on a problematic and nonscriptural theory about natural complementarity applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures.”[30] Or as Gerard Loughlin, another progressive Christian writes, “Indeed it may be suggested that only when theology begins to think of sexual difference starting from the homosexual couple as its paradigm of sexual difference will it be possible to think of the difference not in crudely biologistic terms . . . but in more properly theological ones.”[31]

The contrast between the “crudely biological” and the theological highlights the difficulty with which theology understands the body’s role in relationships of love. The tendency within liberal sexual theologies to ignore the sexual complementarity evident in humanity’s original creation rests upon an ethic that minimizes the differences in male and female bodies—and between Christ and the church, which is the pattern for marriage.[32]

Gilbert Meilaender offers a helpful corrective:

The body is the place of our personal presence. And moral significance must therefore be found not only in the spirit that characterizes our relationships with others, not only in mutuality and communion, but also in the bodily relationship itself. To suppose that mutual love is all that is needed to make a relationship right is to ignore the moral significance of the body. It is, in fact, a kind of dualism that separates our true self from the body. If we want to know how rightly to use the body, therefore, if we want to distinguish between fulfilling and corrupting sexual relationships, we cannot talk only of love, consent, and mutuality. However much my neighbor’s wife and I are drawn to each other, our bodies are already promised to others. However deep and intense may be a father’s affection for his adult daughter, to give himself sexually to her is a perversion of love, not a fulfillment.[33]

In other words, for Christian morality, the types of bodies we have and who our bodies belong to matter. Even while we evangelical Protestants emphasize the covenantal nature of marriage, we must not overshadow the other dimensions of marriage, namely the physical union that ratifies the covenant and the procreative aspect that depends upon sexual complementarity. Marriage bears witness to the original creation, and the first commandment is to “be fruitful and multiply.” Marriage is a covenant between two persons, but it is a covenant that is sealed in a physical union of the kind that produces children.

It is for this reason that Jesus joins together the two creation narratives in Matthew 19: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” The affirmation of the union of marriage flows immediately upon the affirmation of the original creation as male and female. The suggestion that scripturally, sexual complementarity is insignificant to the morality of Christian marriage simply does not hold up to scrutiny.[34]

At the extreme end of the tragic undermining of the “moral significance of the body,” as Meilaender puts it, are transsexualism and gender dysphoria, or “gender identity disorder.” GID is a psychological condition wherein people believe they have a body that is the “wrong” sex. This sometimes leads those who suffer from it to pursue hormonal treatments or sex-change operations to conform their body to their psychological state.

The pastoral questions raised by transsexualism are extraordinarily complex, and as Christians we need an extraordinary measure of grace and discernment in knowing how to respond to them. The central issue, though, seems to be whether the body establishes limits on how our sexuality takes shape in the world. Can we receive our bodies as created gifts that are loved by God rather than reshaping them according to our psychological state? It’s very true that such a position may make some people feel as though their bodies are “damaged goods” upon delivery. But it is the Lord’s pleasure to make damaged goods his temple, a temple that he himself destroyed, only to raise it again.

The Body for the Lord

Does Scripture sanction, then, same-sex sexual acts or desires as appropriate expressions of the life to which we have been called in Jesus Christ? I realize that addressing the question head on inevitably runs the risk of overinflating the problem. After all, our sexual desires are only one way in which the sinfulness of our hearts plays out in our world. And as Richard Hays suggests, “The Bible hardly ever discusses homosexual behavior.”[35]

Yet as even liberal theologian Walter Wink acknowledges, “Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it.”[36] The explicit rejections of gay and lesbian practices are not “clobber verses,” but rather the tip of an iceberg sticking above the surface: they reveal a much larger and deeper understanding of human sexuality and its relationship to our lives before God.

The center of the debate is the relationship between creation and new creation, between the revelation of marriage in Genesis 1–3 and the affirmation of celibacy in Jesus. In other words, does the New Testament give a different answer than the Old Testament? I have argued that marriage reveals the original goodness of the created order, a created order that presupposes “male and female he created them.”

Yet the “created order” is a theological revelation, not a scientific or empirical reality.[37] And the gap between what is and what should be is the tragedy of living in a fallen world, a world where the disorder introduced by sin goes all the way into the very bones and chemicals of the bodies we are born with. The pastoral question of how this gap is bridged is a matter of prudential judgment that has been shaped by Scripture—but it must be bridged in ways that do not undermine our Christian witness to the truth of the Christian life.

The first chapter of Romans, which is probably the central and most controversial passage about homosexuality, reinforces this point. Paul argues that we are all guilty before God, but as Richard Hays argues, the sins he lists are not the reason for God’s wrath but the result. Paul is “presenting an empirical survey of rampant human lawlessness as evidence that God’s wrath and judgment are already at work in the world.”[38]

Although Paul lists same-sex sexual practices among the sins that Jesus’ death paid for, that is no sanction. Instead, Paul’s point is that it is grounded in humanity’s rejection of God as Creator. In verse 25, it is precisely because they “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” that God gives them up to dishonorable passions. This is clearly a reminder of Genesis 1, where God establishes Adam and Eve in the garden as male and female. As Richard Hays puts it (arguing against Rowan Williams above):

Thus the complementarity of male and female is given a theological grounding in God’s creative activity. By way of sharp contrast, in Romans 1 Paul portrays homosexual behavior as a “sacrament” (so to speak) of the antireligion of human beings who refuse to honor God as Creator. When human beings engage in homosexual activity, they enact an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality: the rejection of the Creator’s design.[39]

There is an enormous debate, though, over what sort of same-sex practices Paul is referring to in Romans 1. The scholarship of Robin Scroggs has perpetuated the notion that Paul is not referring to long term, committed monogamous relationships but is challenging the practice of pederasty.[40] Unfortunately, the claim has all the advantages of a good story without the benefits of being true. As Mark Smith argues in his devastating analysis of bisexuality in the ancient Near East, the evidence suggests that same-sex relationships then and now had more in common than we usually hear. Paul’s mention of lesbian relations in Romans 1:26 suggests he knew of non-pederastic same-sex relationships that would have shared the level of commitment that contemporary lesbian relationships share. As Smith writes, “When it comes to sexual behavior, there are only a limited number of options, and the evidence demonstrates that the Greeks and Romans were busily engaging in almost every form of expression known to us, with perhaps some variation in emphasis.” And Paul would have certainly known this.[41]

Additionally, when Paul writes that women exchanged their natural function for that which is “against nature,” he is not taking his cues from the animal world or the environment we see around us. Instead, he is suggesting that bad theology is inextricable from sinful sexuality. Our worship of God himself is inextricable from the form our sexuality takes. When we align our sexual desires to God’s revealed order in Genesis 1–3, we confess our belief that God is indeed “maker of heaven and earth.” Paul writes in Romans 1 that God gives those who reject him up to their sinful passions “because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!”[42]

Yet things get trickier at this point, if that’s possible. Eugene Rogers, who is one of the more sensitive theologians attempting to defend the idea that same-sex orientations are compatible with Scripture, points out that Paul describes the engrafting of the Gentiles into the covenant people of God as being “contrary to nature” in Romans 11:24.[43] The very Gentiles whose idolatry had led them into gay and lesbian relationships have been engrafted—by God!—into the people of God. As he puts it, “The community of the baptized must be open to the possibility that the Holy Spirit is able to pour out holiness also on gay and lesbian couples, without erasing the distinction between gay and straight, as the Holy Spirit rendered the Gentiles holy without circumcision and keeping the Torah.”[44]

Yet God’s acceptance of those who act contrary to nature does not necessarily mean that such desires and actions would still be approved or normative within the community. After all, if same-sex sexual acts are a manifestation of a society’s idolatry in Romans 1, then the community of those who worship the Creator rather than the creature would view same-sex acts as wrong (in the same way that it would view adultery or divorce as wrong).[45]

And that is precisely the sort of logic we see Paul use elsewhere. In 1 Corinthians 5:7–9, Paul argues that we should separate ourselves from those who claim to be Christians but sin sexually and are unrepentant. Paul’s logic depends upon an “in-group” and an “out-group” distinguished by an aggressive promotion of sexual purity. As Alistair May writes, “Christian social identity is, for Paul, symbolized in assumptions about moral difference. ‘We’ differ from ‘them’ in regard to ethics, and particularly sexual ethics. Believers are [‘holy’]: unbelievers are [sexually immoral (‘pornoi’)].” Unrepentant sexual immorality reveals that someone is an unbeliever.[46]

Sexual purity is a communal concern within the church because what each person does with their body affects everyone else. As the place of our personal presence in the world, our bodies and what we do with them are inextricably bound up with the lives of those around us—a fact that is true especially among those who are “members one of another” through the Spirit’s indwelling presence (Ephesians 4:25). Stanley Hauerwas writes, “How we order and form our lives sexually cannot be separated from the necessity of the church to chart an alternative to our culture’s dominant assumptions.”[47]

Yet for Paul, sexual immorality also has a unique effect on our sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence within us. In 1 Corinthians 6:13–20, he writes:

The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body

While Paul’s immediate target is the issue of sex with prostitutes, his logic is rooted in Genesis and the nature of the union of persons we see there (3:16). Paul’s basic belief is that sexual union gives the other authority over our body (see 1 Corinthians 7:3 as well). Because of that, sexual union outside the covenant of marriage represents a conflict between God’s authority over our body and those with whom we have been joined.[48]

Yet the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit means that our bodies are not our own to do with as we please. The body is “for the Lord” and so we do not have the authority to live in it according to our own desires. Our bodies—both the physical substance and our lived experience—are to be conformed to the person of Jesus (“take up your cross!”) and submitted to the authority of the Father. The submission, as I have pointed out before, is grounded in our response to the gracious presence of God himself in us. The body is a temple, the place where God dwells. And the one who dwells in the temple shall act for its welfare: “the Lord is for the body.”

Paul’s implicit understanding that how we unite our body with another in sex—a point fundamentally motivated by his affirmation of Genesis and the “one flesh” union there—means that sexual sins uniquely affect our sense of the Spirit’s indwelling presence. “Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18). Every sin is subject to the judgment of grace at the cross. But because “the body is for the Lord” and the “temple of the Holy Spirit,” unrepentingly uniting with others in ways he has not authorized in Scripture are uniquely corrosive to our sense of his presence.[49]

Does the New Testament, then, sanction same-sex attraction? In two of the major texts on Christian sexuality, Paul’s argument depends upon the sexual complementarity in the original creation. What’s more, in 1 Corinthians 6, he simultaneously affirms a Christological understanding of the body—that it is a “member of the Lord” by virtue of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence—and appeals to Genesis to make his case. The resurrection of Jesus does not destroy the normative of male-female sexual complementarity; rather, it establishes it in its fundamental goodness. As Oliver O’Donovan puts it, “New creation is creation renewed, a restoration and enhancement, not an abolition…God has announced his kingdom in a Second Adam, and Adam means human.”[50]

Same-Sex Attraction Within the Church

“You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).

Whatever our sexual sins or our sexual past, as the redeemed people of God we have been washed clean and have entered into the love, freedom, and joy of the Holy Spirit. The causes of our sinful desires may be ambiguous to us (“Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults”).[51] But the clarity of grace transforms all those whose lives are hidden in Christ alone. The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead dwells within his temple, patiently and lovingly preserving and sanctifying it until our long-awaited adoption as sons and daughters, “the redemption of our bodies.”

The gospel is good news for those with same-sex desires, just as it is good news for those who are addicted to masturbation or who have committed adultery or who have in any way put their own interests above those of their spouse. But as the wisest among us know best, the gospel does not always work its way into the marrow and bones of our lives quickly. Sometimes progress seems easy—other times it is nonexistent. And occasionally, it feels as though we are going in reverse, as the Lord shines his light on the hidden, unknown reaches of the human heart and calls us to confess and repent. The fruit of the Spirit is patience, and often the Lord uses our own sanctification to remind us just how much we need it.

Our identity in Christ takes shape within the church, the community that is formed in response to the gospel and whose practices reform our own desires. And it is precisely the church’s obligation to discern how the gap between our lives now—sexual or otherwise—and the life to which we are called can be lessened. The need for prudential judgment shaped by grace among our pastors and leaders has never been more pressing.

But the path to closing that gap may not always seem straight, especially as same-sex relationships become more embedded in the structures of American life. For instance, what would happen ten or twenty years from now if an atheist lesbian couple and their eight-year-old adopted daughter became Christians and affirmed traditional sexual morality? Should the home be broken up so the child can have a father? Should the couple live together as celibates so the child’s stability is preserved? And do the answers change if the child is six—or sixteen? The questions are but variations on a theme: How does the gospel pervade cultural institutions that are inhospitable to its presence? Does Paul’s suggestion in 1 Corinthians 7 that each person should “remain in the condition in which they were called” provide a template for a sensitive pastoral response, one akin to that which some missionaries have taken in polygamous cultures?

These are hard questions, and my point is not to legitimize same-sex relationships. But as these relationships are normalized, navigating changing social conditions that will accompany them requires an incredible amount of pastoral prudence and wisdom.

I am convinced that voluntary celibacy and heterosexual marriage are the two patterns of sexual expression that Scripture reveals. But in saying this, I want to suggest that we should be wary of reducing celibacy to a corrective to same-sex attraction. Christian celibacy, as I argued in the previous chapter, is a life uniquely oriented toward our eschatological transformation, a life that bears witness to the kingdom of heaven in a unique way. And it needs to precede same-sex attraction in our order of proclamation if we wish to authentically present the good news of the gospel.

Our hospitality as evangelicals toward those with same-sex attraction depends upon recovering this idea of celibacy as a vocation if we are going to support and sustain them beyond their initial introduction into the community. One of the benefits of monastic orders is their visibility; they serve as a reminder both to the church and the world that “the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31). Whatever form it takes within our local churches, we need to provide systems and structures of care for those who wish to lead celibate lives, regardless of whether they struggle with same-sex desires.

Sanctification is a community concern, for it is a matter of retelling the story of the gospel to each other and reminding one another of the holiness and purity to which we are called in grace. It is a matter of bearing one another’s burdens, of fulfilling the law of love, and giving ourselves away to others for the glory of God and the good of the world. We “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep,” for the gospel calls us to carry the burden of a joy we did not earn and a grace we did not deserve, a burden too heavy for us to carry alone. It is an invitation open to all.


[1] Eugene Rogers, Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Oxford, UK; Malden MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), 318–319. Pew Forum, “Religion Among the Millennials,” accessed March 9, 2011, at:

[2] Mark Moring, “Jennifer Knapp Comes Out,” Christianity Today, accessed March 9, 2011, at:; See also Mark Moring, “Radio, Retail React to Jennifer Knapp, Christianity Today, accessed March 9, 2011, at:

[3] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008), 101. Tickle later suggests that the Protestant notion of sola Scriptura is that Scripture is the “sole authority.” That, of course, is not the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura but rather a weak and problematic imitation of it. See James Payton’s excellent chapter on the subject in Getting the Reformation Wrong (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010).

[4] James Nelson, Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1978), 199. Brian McLaren writes, “If a Christian today experiences gay friends, neighbors, colleagues, or relatives as healthy, sincere, and morally equal, she or he must similarly marginalize and discredit this experience.…” McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 177.

[5] Wright, Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites, 172.

[6] John 12:32.

[7] McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, 181–182.

[8] Judgment has negative connotations, as it has become an emotionally laden term. But law courts tend to be given more to moral discernment than anything else, and that concept is lurking behind the Bible’s use of the term.

[9] This also means that we cannot be more inclusive than the gospel without subverting it. And a Christian ethic does draw lines around the community—see, for instance, 1 Corinthians 5:9–13; Matthew 18:17.

[10] I cannot recommend Wesley Hill’s book Washed and Waiting (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010) highly enough on this score. Hill has same-sex attraction, but has chosen celibacy because of his reading of Scripture. Additionally, I might have made the same point about listening to those disciplines that study the human experience—sociology, psychology, anthropology, biology, genetics, etc. None of those provide normative categories for moral deliberation—they do not tell us how to live in the world. But they do provide the raw material for discerning how the authority of Scripture should shape our experience, and in that context need to be heard.

[11] Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 389. This does not entail, of course, that Paul is sanctioning what he critiques in Romans 1, or eliminating the possibility of making moral judgments from within the gospel’s confines. See Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 277–283.

[12] This is not a point about any particular participant in the public dialogue but rather how such dialogues operate in the public square. I presume no maliciousness on either side of the issue.

[13] Colossians 3:3.

[14] Mark Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010), 48. See also his work with Lori Burkett in Sexual Identity: A Guide to Living in the Time Between the Times (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2003).

[15] Andrew Marin, Love Is an Orientation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 38.

[16] I take it that everyone in the debate wants to conform sexual desires to some sort of normative account, as “liberal” Eugene Rogers argues in Sexuality and the Christian Body (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999).

[17] See Augustine, Confessions, Book II, chapters 4–10.

[18] This is not simply to say that same-sex attractions are entirely environmental in nature. The relationship between our body and the world is far more complex.

[19] For a broader account of this, I recommend James Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom.

[20] Smith, Desiring the Kingdom. Buy it and read it!

[21] In other words, while social environments may shape us, we ought not to be social determinists—a temptation, I think, of sociologies of the body that deconstruct the human person into the various social forces that compose us.

[22] This is a point that Albert Mohler makes in his essay “Homosexual Marriage as a Challenge to the Church” in Sex and the Supremacy of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 121–122.

[23] From Oliver O’Donovan, “Good News for Gay Christians,” available at:

[24] Hill, Washed and Waiting, 15.

[25] See Mark Yarhouse and Stanton Jones, Homosexuality: The Use of Scientific Research in the Church’s Moral Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

[26] Norman Doidge writes of “sexual plasticity” with respect to the brain in The Brain that Changes Itself (New York: Viking Books, 2007). While I have some reservations with his account, the basic point of biological plasticity undermines the moral case based on nature. The pertinent question is what mold the plastic is conformed to. Regarding alcoholism, the notion of its being a source of therapy floats about. See for example, Hal Kibbey’s writeup of the research being conducted at Indiana University, accessed March 9, 2011, at: There is also a helpful roundup of the news stories pertaining to the question at the page, accessed March 9, 2011, at:

[27] Rowan Williams, “The Body’s Grace,” in Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings, Eugene Rogers, ed. (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), 318–319.

[28] See Robert George and Patrick Lee’s discussion in Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics, 186– 187.

[29] The frequent use of “crude,” “narrow,” etc., to refer to sexual complementarity strikes me as something like hand-waving. It dismisses the position without addressing it. In Genesis 1–3, for instance, it’s hard to see how sexual differentiation is “non-scriptural” considering that the first commandment Adam and Eve are given is “Be fruitful and multiply” (1:28). I would be curious to hear from Williams or others how this command could be fulfilled on any account of human origins except through something like a “crude” sexual complementarity.

[30] Williams, “The Body’s Grace,” 320.

[31] Gerard Loughlin, “God’s Sex” in Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, John Milbank, ed. (London: Routledge, 1999), 158. I could list five or six more similar claims, but I will limit myself to one more: “Reducing what is going on here to a crude theology of ‘parts that fit’ will simply not do,” William Stacy Johnson in his book A Time to Embrace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 120.

[32] The notion of sexual complementarity has slowly been overwhelmed by the conclusions of contemporary science, which have pointed to a range of sexualities. We speak, for instance, of those who have both male and female sexual organs at birth (called “intersex”). My case here is one regarding what is normative as revealed in Scripture.

[33] Meilaender, “Homosexuality in Christian Perspective,” accessed March 9, 2011, at:

[34] The insight comes from Oliver O’Donovan’s essay “Transsexualism and Christian Marriage,” Journal of Religious Ethics, 11–1 (Spring 1983): 135–162.

[35] Hays, Moral Vision of the New Testament, 381.

[36] Walter Wink, “Homosexuality and the Bible” in Homosexuality and Christian Faith (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1999), 47. Wink at one point intimates that traditional Christian morality is built on “the basis of bad science,” 46. Yet that seems to misunderstand the nature and source for the dogmatic claims of Christian moral teaching.

[37] The phrase “created order” is controversial, as critics associate it with abuses throughout church history. Such abuses are tragic failures of the church’s moral deliberation. But abuse does not invalidate proper use.

[38] Hays, Moral Vision of the New Testament, 385. In that sense, if desires are formed in and through our social environments at all, Wesley Hill’s line that homosexuality is a “tragic sign” is exactly right. Robert Gagnon modifies Hays’ argument here in The Bible and Homosexual Practice based on Romans 2:3–5. But the “coming judgment” that he points to does not seem specifically tied to the particular manifestations of sin in Romans 1, but rather the universality of the judgment in 2:1.

[39] Hays, Moral Vision of the New Testament, 386.

[40] See Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1983), 126. Contra Scroggs, if Paul had wanted to refer to pederasts, he had the word at hand.

[41] Mark Smith, “Ancient Bisexuality and the Interpretation of Romans 1:26–27” in Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64, no. 22 (1996): 244. Much of the emphasis on pederasty has to do with (ironically) making Plato’s Symposium a stand-in for all Greco-Roman views of sex rather than one strand. Contra Brian McLaren and others, it is not Hellenism that was pushing for male-female relationships as normative.

[42] See John Piper’s two essays on this in Sex and the Supremacy of Christ.

[43] See Eugene Rogers, Sexuality and the Christian Body, 61–66.

[44] Ibid., 65.

[45] If I understand Rogers correctly, I think his point rests upon the supposition that sexuality is socially constructed for Paul in the same way that Jew/Gentile relationships might be, and hence the same rules of inclusion apply. Paul, however, seems to draw a line between inclusion based on dietary laws (1 Corinthians 10) and on sexuality (1 Corinthians 5).

[46] Alistair May, The Body for the Lord (UK: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd, 2004), 58. The point is also made by Stephen Barton in his entry on 1 Corinthians in Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, James Dunn and John Rogerson, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 1324. As he puts it, “incest threatens the boundary between the church and the world.”

[47] Stanley Hauerwas, “Sex in Public,” The Hauerwas Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 496.

[48] Alistair May, who makes this case, also points out that Paul warns against Christians being married to non-Christians for this reason. See 1 Corinthians 7:39, where he says that a widow can be free to marry whom she wishes, “only in the Lord.”

[49] Given that we are members of each other within the church, this unique corrosiveness explains the strength of Paul’s commandment in 1 Corinthians 5:9–13 that believers should separate from those who are sinning sexually and are unrepentant.

[50] Oliver O’Donovan, Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2008), 99. The attentive reader will note that I say nothing about the terminological debates regarding 1 Corinthians 9:9, etc. I will simply affirm that I think Paul’s practical invention of “arsenokoities” is a melding of “arsenos koiten,” which the Septuagint uses to refer to Leviticus 20:13. Here, a “Jewish” reading of the New Testament actually reinforces the reading that Paul is incorporating Jewish teaching about sexuality into Christianity and grounding it in the person of Jesus Christ.

[51] Psalm 19:12. See also Psalm 90:8, where Moses affirms that God sees our “secret sins.”


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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. This was surprisingly good and balanced, but I had some follow-up thoughts:

    I think we should be analytically critical about the conceptual division of homo- and hetero-sexual, and sexuality itself as something discrete. The reason St. Paul is not crystal clear about condemning homosexuals is that such a thing did not exist. There were no homosexuals until the 19th century, when a category of sexuality was created, and its inverses were targeted as perversions. That is not to say that desire for adult men, teenage boys, etc. did not exist, rather it was not invested with a discrete social category.

    And much of this problem of “gay communities” is blowback from Western social control. In the same way that black was created as the inverse of white, so homosexuals were created from a social norm that was designed to pathologize behavior and lock it away, and any set of behaviors that was in proximity. Homosocial bonding could degenerate into homosexual urges, and thus as companionate marriage was linked to emotions of “romance”, so was a dark-side very much possible. In a way, western civilizations are eating their dessert, with the oppressed embracing the categories to throw off the shackles. The shame is that churches were part of building this social policy, of which, falling from political clout, they will be hammered. It’s not to say buggery, or any other such behavior, is anything but unrighteousness, but the quest of power has polluted churches. And it is perhaps right that judgement begins with the people of God. However, even so, we should recognize that in the long run these social revolutions run themselves out. It was Augustus, not Constantine, who cracked down on abortion, infanticide, and (open) sexual promiscuity for fear of Rome being out numbered by the barbarians. Let the dead bury the dead.

    And in our atmosphere of personal fulfillment, part of the reckoning of the gospel is suspended hope. The Age to Come has arrived, but not fully. The tragic still is present, and I think it should be the hardpill to swallow for all, including those with desires for the same sex, that things are not as they should be. Warped desires are a testament to the tragic. The Lord seems despondent when He says that some are born eunuchs and some are made eunuchs, and that even some live as eunuchs. And yet such is, and can be done, for the Kingdom of God.


    1. Well said, Cal. The invention of homosexuality as a social identity was the work of conservative Christians, carried out as part of an effort to establish another social identity, heterosexuality, as a social norm. The goal was to create and pathologize a certain social identity for the goal of pathologizing certain types of homosocial conduct associated with that identity. That goes along with my doubts concerning “effeminacy” on another thread. The dreaded traits of “effeminacy” are simply those traits in men that did not support and legitimize those who sat in places of power.

      I’m a shorter, slender guy who tends to dress reasonably well. When I go to a bar in the US, I invariably receive only attention from gay guys. Women, especially white women, avoid me almost entirely. I’m just too effeminate for them. But, when I travel abroad, especially in Southern Europe and France, I have no difficulty attracting the attention of straight white women. Perhaps attraction and desire aren’t entirely social constructs. But social environment appears to play a major role. Because conservative Christians in the US were so effective at patholigizing “effeminacy” by associating it with the newly invented peril of homosexuality, women in the US still internalize that message and reject men whom they perceive as “effeminate.” Catholic countries in Europe did not go down this neo-Freudian road to the extent that American Protestants did, so women choose men on different bases.

      Along the same lines, a friend recently got married. We run together. He, like me, is a smaller, slender guy. His wife asked him to start wearing boxer shorts instead of briefs because she thought that briefs made him look gay. Meanwhile, hunky soccer players all over Europe are wearing briefs. She was responding to the messages that conservative Christians were so successful at programming into people’s heads in the middle decades of the past century.

      I’m not saying this because I’m a frustrated guy who can’t find dates. My dating life is just fine. Even so, with the social power of conservative Christianity on the wane, those who were previously marginalized have enjoyed the opportunity to flip the Christians’ scripts on them and repay the favor. I think it’s hard to see where “homosexuality” will end up. The predominant social scripts for being gay are all heavily influenced by a history of marginalization. It’s unclear how those scripts will evolve as marginalization of “effeminacy” subsides.

      All that to say, I agree that Matt’s piece opens up a helpful discussion. Even so, conservative Christians have to accept responsibility for creating the very script that’s now being turned against them. Thus, the marginalization that conservative Christians now experience is fully merited. It is God’s righteousness at work as repayment for their past cruelty to those they deemed to be “effeminate.”

      Bear in mind too that, while there are changes within evangelicalism, any perusal of the blog posts criticizing Revoice demonstrate that the old beliefs are still alive and well within evangelical circles. Matt’s piece is a refreshing break. But evangelical thinking as a whole is still quite infected with old prejudices and bigotry. Extirpating that will be no easy task.


    2. I don’t know where hoosier_bob’s comment went, but this is in response to it:

      While you’re right that effiminacy, in the US at least, depends upon many dispersed Victorian-era and then Freudian notions that, through a complex structural process, became popular, I don’t want to wash my hands of thinking about whether it’s all just contingent irrelevance. I am of the opinion that when Paul condemned “effiminacy”, he was targeting something specific that did not disappear with the Mediterranean-Hellenic world of the first century. Hence, while the puritans may have gotten what the relations between men and women *should* be, I don’t think they were wrong that Scripture had *something* to say in regards to how men and women related.

      Thus, while what Evangelicals assume is normative may, in fact, be wrong, I don’t want to think that such is irrelevant altogether. Yet, the Evangelical platform, like the congregational puritans, was keen to not give up winning a national audience, even if the whole nation was not, in fact, elect and were playing the hypocrite. The desire to win the world, rather than to witness to the world in the world, ended up with the mess that Evangelicalism lives and breathes. And like the puritans of New England, we’re in the midst of a transition, where later generations will consign the movement to the dustbin. Like you said, it’s God’s judgement, but the remnant still remains.


      1. I’m also not sure where my comment went.

        I agree that Paul was condemning something that roughly translates as “effeminacy.” But that doesn’t mean that he was necessarily condemning the culturally constructed notion of effeminacy that white conservative Protestants have perpetuated and sought to pass off as a kind of pathology. And, yes, many conservative Christians likely went along with the program because opposing it would have put them at odds with the popular culture in the early part of the 20th century, when the effort to pathologize “effeminacy” began. Even so, conservative Christians have stuck with this program, even after the broader culture began to reconsider its merits. After all, at the time when these notions were popularized, they lent a certain credence to the WASP social hegemony and the patriarchal order that sustained it.

        I suspect that me comment was deleted because it sets forth inconvenient facts that conservative white Christians would rather ignore. There’s a tendency within evangelicalism to look at these issues through a narrative that begins with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s and views it through a lens of an increased social tolerance for sexual immorality. And while there’s some truth to that, it misses the broader story. That broader story is the story of our movement from a traditional patriarchal social order to one governed by what we’ve come to know as neoliberalism. In many ways, neoliberalism rescued conservatism, but it did so at the expense of the traditional patriarchal social order.

        But this is not a particularly remarkable point, which is why it puzzles me why several comments of mine in this vein have been deleted. James Davison Hunter makes much the same point in Culture Wars in the context of discussing abortion. In particular, Hunter notes that public debates on abortion go nowhere because neither side comes clean on its true motivations. Som we don’t end up debating the issues on which we have actual differences of opinion. As Hunter notes, for abortion opponents, the real question relates to the merits of feminism and the deconstruction of the traditional patriarchal social order.

        Many of us support gay rights because we see it as a movement whose positives outweigh its negatives. The narrative that evangelicals spin on the Sexual Revolution focuses almost entirely on the negatives. That narrative glides over the fact that many of us who experienced unjust marginalization under a traditional patriarchal social order stand to benefit from the advance of gay rights in ancillary but significant ways. As someone who, because of my French ancestry, finds myself on the margins of the WASP patriarchal order, there is a tangible benefit to our culture’s shift to a meritocratic order based on neoliberal principles. And women, Jews, blacks, and Asians stand to benefit even more than I do, as they faced even greater marginalization under the WASP regime.

        So, as inconvenient as it may be, any discussion of homosexuality in the US has to account for the fact that the term primarily arose in connection with an effort to justify and perpetuate the social henegmony of a traditional conservative Protestant order. Sure, neoliberalism tends to commodity things and push us to a kind of consequentialist ethics. But it also undercut a patriarchal social order that tended to keep many of us on society’s margins for no other reason that we were deemed to be “effeminate” by our WASP overseers.


        1. C’mon, Hoosier Bob! You’ve been commenting here FOR YEARS, and now one comment disappears and you say we deleted it because it said some ‘inconvenient facts’? Give us a little credit, man.

          The reality is that I have no idea what happened to your comment. It’s not in Disqus (in the ‘rejected’ pile or anywhere). I saw it come through yesterday, and read it with *particular* interest….because you said a nice thing about my essay, which to my memory is a first. : )

          Here it is again, in full. Next time your comment disappears, try reaching for an explanation that doesn’t presume the worst of the people you are criticizing.

          Well said, Cal. The invention of homosexuality as a social identity was the work of conservative Christians, carried out as part of an effort to establish another social identity, heterosexuality, as a social norm. The goal was to create and pathologize a certain social identity for the goal of pathologizing certain types of homosocial conduct associated with that identity. That goes along with my doubts concerning “effeminacy” on another thread. The dreaded traits of “effeminacy” are simply those traits in men that did not support and legitimize those who sat in places of power.

          I’m a shorter, slender guy who tends to dress reasonably well. When I go to a bar in the US, I invariably receive only attention from gay guys. Women, especially white women, avoid me almost entirely. I’m just too effeminate for them. But, when I travel abroad, especially in Southern Europe and France, I have no difficulty attracting the attention of straight white women. Perhaps attraction and desire aren’t entirely social constructs. But social environment appears to play a major role. Because conservative Christians in the US were so effective at patholigizing “effeminacy” by associating it with the newly invented peril of homosexuality, women in the US still internalize that message and reject men whom they perceive as “effeminate.” Catholic countries in Europe did not go down this neo-Freudian road to the extent that American Protestants did, so women choose men on different bases.

          Along the same lines, a friend recently got married. We run together. He, like me, is a smaller, slender guy. His wife asked him to start wearing boxer shorts instead of briefs because she thought that briefs made him look gay. Meanwhile, hunky soccer players all over Europe are wearing briefs. She was responding to the messages that conservative Christians were so successful at programming into people’s heads in the middle decades of the past century.

          I’m not saying this because I’m a frustrated guy who can’t find dates. My dating life is just fine. Even so, with the social power of conservative Christianity on th e wane, those who were previously marginalized have enjoyed the opportunity to flip the Christians’ scripts on them and repay the favor. I think it’s hard to see where “homosexuality” will end up. The predominant social scripts for being gay are all heavily influenced by a history of marginalization. It’s unclear how those scripts will evolve as marginalization of “effeminacy” subsides.

          All that to say, I agree that Matt’s piece opens up a helpful discussion. Even so, conservative Christians have to accept responsibility for creating the very script that’s now being turned against them. Thus, the marginalization that conservative Christians now experience is fully merited. It is God’s righteousness at work as repayment for their past cruelty to those th ey deemed to be “effeminate.”

          Bear in mind too that, while there are changes within evangelicalism, any perusal of the blog posts criticizing Revoice demonstrate that the old beliefs are still alive and well within evangelical circles. Matt’s piece is a refreshing break. But evangelical thinking as a whole is still quite infected with old prejudices and bigotry. Extirpating that will be no easy task.


          1. Thanks, Matt. That said, this is not the first instance when a comment of mine setting forth such ideas has been deleted.

            Traditionalists like Dreher often wonder how it is that something that benefits the 2-3% of the population that identify as LGBTQ rose to social prominence. Since the end of WWII, we’ve undergone a seismic cultural shift from a traditional patriarchal social order to one governed largely by neoliberal principles. Such shifts create winners and losers. I well recognize that my advance is due in some measure by the fact that neoliberalism wiped out some of the social stigma that had previously been cast onto people like me. Those of us whose lot in life was improved by these social changes are going to resist any effort to take away what we’ve gained. In that sense, we see battles over homosexuality as merely one skirmish in a larger effort by evangelicals and the alt-right to delegitimize neoliberalism and undo the cultural shift to meritocracy that allowed our advance.

            Focusing narrowly on issues concerning the commodification of sex make for a narrative framing that doesn’t tell the complete story. I share your dismay at the way that sex has become commodified in our culture. Even so, it’s not lost on me that the same social trends that led to that also led to a world in which people like me can advance socially without our “effeminacy” being held against us.

            I also think that evangelicals easily forget how differently they talk about these issues today than they did just 20 years ago. Take a tour through Tim Bayly’s blog. Much of what he writes seems outrageous to many today. But that was standard white evangelical fare until the last 10-15 years. Never mind that most of what Bayly praises as “masculine” finds more basis in John Wayne movies than it does in the Bible. Bayly may be the exception now. At least his tone is. But we forget that this was standard evangelical fare not too many years ago. Any discussion of homosexuality has to account for that, especially for those of us who suffered under that kind of garbage.

          2. FWIW, the gap between ‘deleted’ and ‘lost’ is real. I’m the only one with access to Disqus, and I don’t think I’ve ever deleted a comment. If it happens again, let me know. But this idea that we’re out to get you because….I dunno….what you’re saying is ‘dangerous’ or whatnot is beneath your (obvious) intelligence.

          3. I saw another comment complaining about lost comments. Sorry for making unwarranted assumptions.

            That said, Cal is right. This was a surprisingly good piece, and takes the kind of broader view that evangelicals need to be taking. I don’t buy into your theories concerning eros. And I disagree with your objections to Michael Hannon’s FT articles a few years ago.

            I also admit that I’m a bit sensitive on these issues because of a lot of terrible pastoral advice I received on these issues when I was younger. I’m asexual, or at least demisexual. Even so, what sexual attractions I experience are typically directed to the opposite sex. I’m also a small, thin guy who looks much younger than I am. Dealing with those issues with pastors drunk on CBMW ideology was a scarring experience.

          4. matthewleeanderson I agree

          5. I think MereO, or Disqus in general, has a filter for long-ish comments. I’ve lost a few of mine in the dragnet, as well as finding some permanently ‘under moderation’.

          6. That chronology isn’t right. Part of the assault on the WASP orders was to accuse them of unmanliness, a tactic to unsettle and buy-in into the circuits of governmental power. McCarthy was a bit of an outsider when he punched his way into the halls of government, using lavender-scare tactics. The John Wayne type was its own sort of innovation, and so on. The problem here is not that gender has some ultimately compelling or formative logic, or that it matters much, but that it has a kind of rhetorical force. The fact is that you’ll get accepted if you can marshal the goods, whoever you are, even if you’re resented by those you’ve knocked down a few pegs. Clearly you’re a part of the substantial reconfiguration of the American elite class, maintaining the aristocracy but reshuffling the norms and values that made WASP, well, WASP.

            Freudianism was a conceptual overhaul of the masculine and feminine, moving away from external and biological to internal and psychological/psycho-social. It has to do with principles and a spirit which translated into external roles, not the other way around. In many ways, the Freudian conservatism of the 50s was the radical shift, a reconstitution of traditional positions, that allowed the sexual revolution, second-wave feminism, etc. to push on an already open door.

          7. Cal,

            I agree that the neo-Freudian shift paved the way for where we are today. But that doesn’t take away from the point that evangelicals used those categories to marginalize “effeminate” men when it suited their interests to do so.

          8. Please Bob, not LGBTQ

    3. Sorry, I couldn’t read past your “surprisingly.” It cracks me up.


  2. I’m curious as to how/why MLA settled on the GLBT acronym? I realize this is taken from a 2013 book, but I’ve only seen the acronym written as LGBT.


    1. I doubt there’s any reason for it, besides making the reader pay attention by surprising them.





  4. We have made this issue way too complicated. Newsflash: God creates some humans to be attracted to the same sex. No one has ever decided such a thing. Therefore, since it is a part of my DNA, the church’s refusal to accept me is a)cruel b)sinful and c)goes against God’s will. For the church to say, ok we accept that you’re gay but you’re not allowed to have sex means that they are more concerned with my behavior than they are about my emotional and mental well being. We don’t care how you feel, just don’t make us uncomfortable by having sex with someone you love in the privacy of your own home and with God’s blessing. This issue also bothers evangelicals because it proves to the whole world that they don’t actually worship a real and living God. They worship an old idea of God and demand that the Bible be read literally, proving that they worship an idol: the bible, but they don’t worship a real time God. They believe that God, before He moves or makes any decision first consults the bible and never ever changes and never does anything different or is aware of the natural evolution of human beings. They forget one very important thing: He’s God and can do whatever the FUCK He wants to do, thank you very much.


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