I wrote the following to clarify my own thoughts and also to (indirectly) respond to some recent discussions and developments within my own denomination (the PCA). But at present here are my own reflections on homosexuality today as a pastor (and professor).
All Scriptural quotations are my own translation. At the end is a bibliography.
1. Confusion over terminology is primarily an opportunity to learn and love. Let’s take every thought captive (not every word).
It goes without saying that words matter. But sentences and paragraphs matter far more.
In fact, as you can ask any linguist, any given usage of a word (e.g., “gay” or “straight”) derives its meaning from the sentences and paragraphs in which it is found (unless that word is a so-called “technical term” like kilometer or neocortex). That is, different people use (and interpret) the same words differently at different times and places (and especially in different subcultures, timeframes and generations).
And so when discussing this topic, rather than just assuming we know how (or why) other people are using terms or being dogmatic about terms, letters, or descriptions whose meanings (or, at least, nuances) are imprecise and ever-changing, it’s best to learn from those in our circles and from whomever may cross our path (i.e., our “neighbor”) —how? We can (1) suggest that the terms regularly used are imprecise and even highly charged and then (2) simply ask:
“What do you mean by that term? What terms do you yourself use (or avoid) and why?”
In biblical interpretation (as in every act of interpretation), we should never assume that, say, the Apostles Paul and John use a word in the same way; e.g., John can use the word world (κόσμος, kosmos) in one way (e.g., Jn. 15.18), and Paul in another (e.g., Rom. 1.20) and elsewhere in a way similar to John (e.g., 1 Cor. 2.12).
How can we tell? Again, only by the immediate context of a particular usage of the word.
Further, Paul can use terms from his own culture, even quasi-technical terms used in other philosophical traditions (e.g., φρονέω, phroneō, “to set one’s mind on” [Rom. 8.5; Phil. 2.5]) or δικαιωσύνη, dikaiōsunā, “justice, righteousness” [Rom. 1.17; 14.17], which would have been readily recognizable — “triggering” even — to anyone who followed contemporary Roman Stoics (guys like Seneca, Musonius Rufus, or Epictetus), so much so that today highly regarded scholars of Paul skillfully (if, in my opinion, rather unsuccessfully) interpret the apostle in the light of those very philosophical traditions (e.g., Enberg-Pederson’s classic Paul and the Stoics). In short, there’s a temptation to read into Paul’s words, philosophies, or ideologies what may or may not be there, and so it demands a careful, listening ear, not one that’s ready to be triggered by some key word.
My point: while an entire ideology or theology may be assumed or intended in a given usage of a word or phrase, it may well not. For example, when one of the world’s foremost Christian ethicists, the conservative Anglican scholar Oliver O’Donovan, writes (brilliantly) on this issue, he uses the phrase “gay Christian” (and other phrases) simply to mean… a Christian who is sexually attracted primarily or exclusively to the same sex — with absolutely no cultural or ideological strings attached to the word gay.
And that’s how I’ll be using the phrase in what follows.
Undoubtedly, some may well be using terms like “gay” (or, e.g., “same-sex-attracted”) as a Trojan Horse. But others aren’t, while still others frankly don’t know what other terms to use. So let’s ask.
The alternative of simply declaring certain words or phrases to be anathema will understandably be received as adolescent and will quickly be out-of-date.
In my opinion, at present there simply are no ideal terms to use: “homosexual,” “gay,” “same-sex attracted,” “queer,” etc. — all of them have their offensive backstories and inaccuracies, as anyone who’s taken the time to study the matter would know. Very understandably, then, Todd Wilson states, “I recognize that labels carry deeper meanings and implications. And I’m sensitive to the pros and cons of different designations; in fact, I’ve gone round and round about which labels to use” (MereSexuality, p. 20).
Exactly. So what do we do?
We make the best out of it by humbly listening to others and by gently explaining why at present we use the terms we do (while avoiding others). “Again, defining our terms is crucial, as is discerning how others are using the same terms” (DeYoung, Homosexuality, p. 146). Terminology really does matter (and more work needs to be done here), but ideology and theology matter far more. It’s best to practice the latter, without neglecting the former, lest we strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.
Again, it’s about “taking every thought [vs. word] captive unto obedience to Christ” (2 Cor. 10.5).
2. Christians are to interact with everyone first and foremost with commendation and compassion.
God doesn’t make junk. There is an indelible nobility and capacity to every human (see Ps. 8.3-8, which riffs on Gen. 1); indeed, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made;” or, perhaps better translated, we are each “awe-inspiringly extraordinary [from other creatures and from one another]” (Ps. 139.14; Goldingay writes, “In general and in particular, then, humans are set apart; they are distinctive creatures. And the way Yhwh has formed them makes them great wonders” [Psalms, 3: 634]). When Jesus was invited to the house of Simon the Pharisee and a woman “who was a sinner” came to see Jesus, Simon could see only what was wrong with her. Jesus actually has to ask him, “Do you see this woman?”
Whereas commendation admires another’s divinely imparted nobility and capacity, compassion involves and invests itself in another’s plight. Do we struggle to do the latter for gay persons? Try reading this or maybe even this.
Starting with commendation and compassion isn’t some faddish “outreach strategy,” much less a watered-down doctrine of human depravity. Rather, it’s a robust doctrine of creation that is a pre-requisite for grieving the tragedy of our (shared) great depravity. But no less importantly, it’s an imitation of Israel’s God, whose self-revelation to Moses begins, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate…” (Exod. 34.6).
A quick story: At the end of this past school year one of my kids announced at dinner who their favorite teacher was and presented various reasons for their decision. They then said, “He’s gay, but he’s a great teacher.” Self-righteously, I over-reacted and blurted out, “Of course he’s a great teacher.” Obviously, I’d failed as a parent to teach my children that the Bible easily holds together human nobility (and capacity) and human depravity, as the Bible demonstrates (from the patriarchs to Paul).
In sum, as great as our unworthiness surely is, we are surely still of great worth. All of us.
3. As with every ethical matter (but especially this one), it’s vital to consider it through the framework of creation, fall, and redemption.
Addressing this topic, O’Donovan writes, “The narrative of creation and redemption has accompanied and disciplined Christian attempts to think about the moral dilemmas thrown up by every age…. In each dilemma, they have asked, what gifts of the Creator are to be rejoiced in here? What evils are to be repented of and lamented? What transformations are yet to be hoped for?” (Crisis, p. 87).
All three of these questions are essential to ask, and none should be quickly answered, not least the third. To give an important, if elementary, pastoral example, Francis Schaeffer, in a letter to two Christian women who were in a lesbian relationship, writes, “…it would seem to me from the Bible that these two things — your love for each other and the physical relationship — must not be confused” (Letters, p. 242). Schaeffer rightly celebrates the former while graciously censuring the latter.
Rosaria Butterfield, a former professor of literature, speaks of how, both before and after conversion, she prefers “the company of women,” labelling this preference as “homosocial” and defining it as “an abiding and deep comfort afforded in keeping company with your own gender and finding within your own gender your most important and cherished relationships;” she insists, rightly of course, that this homosociality is “not a sin” (Openness, ch. 1). However, when her “homosocial preference morphed into homosexuality” (a shift she describes as “subtle, not startling”), she states that she was clearly sinning. Such distinctions and subtleties are vital, because they account both for how “very good” His creation is and for how that created “good” can be tragically hijacked to become a counterfeit “god.”
Here I respectfully depart from, say, the Southern Baptists Denny Burk and Heath Lambert, whose often helpful discussion of homosexuality (very fairly) cites numerous Reformed theologians who speak rightly of how created humanity has become fundamentally corrupted. However, their discussion risks losing sight of the created goodness of what has been corrupted, for evil (in the Augustinian and Reformed tradition) is always and ever parasitic of the good. To say that “If you desire something evil, then the desire itself is evil” (Transforming Homosexuality, p. 46) is at best too simplistic: one must consider not only (or even primarily) the object but the ordering of desire. The object, when considered at a behavioral, superficial level (e.g., homoerotic behavior), is undoubtedly, but unsurprisingly, evil. But when considered more profoundly and humanly — i.e., pastorally, (e.g., to consider what is truly being longed for in erotic behavior, whether hetero- or homosexual), the object(s) of desire are often very good and yet are pursued in a manner that has dangerously departed from divinely ordained means.
Thus, once again O’Donovan (Conflict, 113) astutely says that “it is perfectly possible to think of desires as no matter for blame, and yet be persuaded that their literal enactment cannot be their true fulfillment”, forcing one to ask, “Where in relation to this desire does true fulfillment lie?” Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well (in John 4) captures exactly what O’Donovan is getting at.
Importantly, “rejoicing” in “the gifts of the Creator” and “repenting / lamenting evil” are not in tension. In love the latter must unquestionably be discussed in depth, but, given the relentless struggle with shame that so many gay Christians have, the former is vital to communicate, often on an ongoing basis. So when, as one gay Christian man heartbreakingly writes, “I know what it feels like to hate the sight of yourself, to hate the thought of yourself” (Coles, Single, Gay, Christian, p. 116), if our first word to gay persons is how fundamentally corrupt they are, we’ve simply lost the redemptive-historical plot: it’s the “very good” Creation first, then the very great Fall, then…
Yes, it is absolutely true that “it is not loving to minimize or deny sodomy’s shame” (so T. Bayly, J. Bayly, and J. von Hagen, The Grace of Shame, ch. 10); we must never understate the gravity of any sin (like, e.g., greed or gluttony). But regardless of the sea change in attitudes toward homosexuality outside Bible-believing churches, the shame presently experienced by gay persons considering or converting to Christianity is, generally speaking, too great, not too small. Further, the shame experienced by gay persons outside the church today hasn’t so much receded but rather relocated itself in the relentless pursuit of social, vocational, and sexual validation, as Alan Downs persuasively argues in The Velvet Rage. (As an aside, unfortunately, there’s little else in The Grace of Shame to be commended, rather only to be critiqued and even condemned as misleading caricature, unsubstantiated conspiracy, and unfortunate misquotation of Scripture).
Theologically, pastorally, and missionally, it is essential to seek to clarify for gay persons — as we would for all other persons — both (i) the particular ways that they are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made,” along with the genuinely good longings and desires that their Creator has wisely and lovingly given them and (ii) the particular ways that sin has deceptively (and, thus, dangerously) disordered and distorted those longings and desires, in order that by the Spirit they might begin to perceive and pursue, negatively, the mortification of the flesh and, positively, the restoration of their true humanity.
This ethical framework of creation-fall-redemption then invites further consideration of how to think about the gay Christian’s redemptive status: are they a sinner, a saint, or something in between?
4. As with any professing Christian, there is no comprehensive, one-size-fits-all description or “identity” that can do justice to a gay Christian’s present state or trajectory. Rather, when describing any particular Christian (homosexual or otherwise), both the fixed realities of the Gospel and the fluctuating particularities of that person’s (or community’s) spiritual condition and calling are essential to consider.
So much ink has been spilt lately over the proper way to describe the “identity” of gay Christians, and the conversation has too often drifted into the shallow waters of arguing over words and phrases.
A safe way forward is to take our cue from Paul.
The apostle readily and repeatedly applies the fixed realities of the Gospel to his churches and to individuals e.g., he describes them as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor. 1.2), as “enriched in every way in Christ” (1.6) or as “called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1.6) or as “no longer under the law but under grace” (6.14); he speaks of a radical and irreversible change in status: “that is what some of you were” (1 Cor. 6.11). Hence, we find all-important imperatives like “consider yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6.11). In addition to this we find occasions in which Paul actually considers it necessary to name various “old humanity” (i.e., radicalized ethnic, cultic, legal, and socio-economic) identities precisely in order to relativize them: “Here [in the body of Christ] there is no ‘Greek and Jew,’ ‘circumcision and uncircumcision,’ barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all” (Col. 3.9-11).
Given Rachel Gilson’s astute observation that “in our hyper-individualized and hyper-sexualized culture, there is more and more pressure to give a name to and identify with our sexual feelings” (Born Again This Way, p. 131), it is all the more urgent to declare and embrace these fixed realities as fundamental, not to mention freeing, for daily Christian life.
And (not But) Paul also describes these same Christians in terms of the fluctuating particularities of their respective situations: when Paul had previously come to the Corinthians, he “could not address them as spiritual but as fleshly, as infantile [νήπιος, nāpios] in Christ” (3.1; cf. similar thematic language in 2.6; 13.11; 14.20; 16.13; Eph. 3.13-14); indeed, this last phrase “infantile in Christ” captures both what is shiftingly situational [“infantile”] and what is unshakably salvation-historical [“in Christ”]). He then laments that even now as he writes they are “still fleshly” due their jealousy and strife (3.3). Clearly (and caringly), Paul describes, or “identifies,” them in part according to their sin, and it’s crucial that they begin to do the same (rather than remain in a self-deluded, self-important, strife-creating triumphalism — see 4.8-10). He goes on to say that while he has laid a Gospel “foundation” of Christ that is fixed (3.10a, 11), care must be taken in choosing the still undecided type of material with which one will build (3.10b, 12-15).
In short, a fundamental problem at Corinth concerned Christians who wrongly saw themselves as “spiritual” and “mature” but who were in fact “infantile” and desperately needed to embrace the countercultural “wisdom”/values of the Cross in order to come to a place of greater “maturity.” Indeed, Paul even says there are among some who are “ignorant of God” (15.34).
But even more than this, just as Paul finds it necessary at times to relativize “old humanity” identities (as mentioned above), he can also find it necessary at other times to remind Christians of those very same identities. Why? Because they had forgotten where they’d come from (just like the forgetful Israelites who were often told, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt…” [e.g., Dt. 15.15]). He must exhort the Corinthians, “Consider your calling… not many [of you] were wise by worldly [i.e., “fleshly”] standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth” (1.26). Paul must remind Peter (in front of a group of Gentile and Jewish Christians) that both of them “are Jews by birth and not sinners from among the Gentiles” (Gal. 2.15); that is, precisely as an ethnic-religious insider, Peter of all believers should “know that a person is not justified by works of the law” (2.16).
Why does Paul at times identify himself as a Jew (e.g., Acts 22.3) or as a Pharisee (23.6)? Why does he on certain occasions recount his “former manner of life in Judaism,” including his persecution of the church (e.g., Gal. 1.13-14; Phil. 3.4-6; 1Cor. 15.9-10; 1Tim. 1.12-14; Acts 22.4-5; 26.9-11)? Why describe himself in these ways?
Because the occasion calls for it, pastorally or apologetically or evangelistically: the former practices and pedigrees of a given community or person serve in part as the “jars of clay” that disclose the origin of that alien and “all-surpassing power” presently at work in them, so that the resurrection life of Jesus might be revealed “in our mortal flesh”–i.e., in our weak, passing, public selves (2Cor. 4.7-10). In sum, the fixed realities of the Gospel can redeem (vs. merely rescind or eradicate) “old humanity” identities, demanding that each person repent of (and/or reprioritize) various practices and pedigrees.
In describing any particular Christian person or community, it is misleading to marginalize either the fixed realities of the gospel (in the name of “authenticity”) or the fluctuating particularities of a person’s (or community’s) present spiritual condition/situation and calling (in the name of the Gospel’s “finality” or “authority”). The former will lead to fleshly and frivolous sentimentality, while the latter to a docetic and deceptive triumphalism.
Go ask faithful pastors to describe their present congregations (or individual persons within them): will not their descriptions contain fixed salvation-historical realties at work in the fluctuating particularities of their situation?
5. In today’s hyper-sexualized world, our sexuality often plays far too great a role in how we define both ourselves and others — to our great detriment.
This can be true in both the broader culture and in Christian communities: many of us, regardless of our ideology or religion, are “drinking the Kool-Aid,” simply assuming that our sexuality is definitive of who we are. And, not surprisingly, this can be especially true for gay persons. As one woman wrote, as she grew up into early adulthood, “being gay…became central to who I was as a person.” Indeed, announcing an alternative sexual identity can be a status boost in the right context, as Rebecca McLaughlin reveals: while an undergrad at Cambridge University, she states, “I could have increased my credibility (significantly) by confessing that I was quietly falling in love with a succession of girls” (Confronting, p. 17). My teenage twin daughters, who attend a public school, would attest to the same: on more than one occasion one of them has tellingly described various classmates as follows: “Perhaps she really is bi [or: pan or ____ ], but I suspect she’s saying it just to get attention.”
Against this hyper-sexualized culture, Scripture liberatingly declares that, while human sexuality is integral to our collective humanity (Gen. 1.26-28), it is hardly essential to one’s individual identity (Mt. 19.12; 1 Cor. 7.6-7, 24-27, 32-34; to clarify: chastity and celibacy are powerful expressions of our sexuality). Jesus’s and Paul’s teaching and example (as single persons) challenge our culture’s assumption that sex, heterosexual or homosexual, is “the most direct path to personal fulfillment and self-realization — to being truly human and fully alive” (Wilson, Sexuality, p. 48).
Consider: i we made a list of the persons in our life who’ve made the most significant positive contribution to our personal growth and fulfillment, how many of them have we hopped in bed with? And even of those we did, was it primarily the sex that produced our growth and fulfillment?
As McLaughlin observes, “In modern society, we are led to believe we cannot live without sex. In fact, I believe we are more likely to wither without friend and family love” (Confronting, p. 160).
In truth, while most all of us undoubtedly want to be sexually desired (and/or sexually “skilled”), in our heart of hearts we desire someone who will want us even when we are not sexually desirable (or when we cannot sexually satisfy them). As Lana Del Ray wonders (in song) of her lover, “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?”
But if we simply succumb to today’s sirens of hyper-sexualization, sex becomes supreme, so that in our culture sexuality is often tragically centralized (becoming an essential yet elusive criterion of social worth), while in the Christian community sexuality is unjustly stigmatized (yesterday’s scarlet letter “A” is today’s scarlet — er, pink? —letter “G”). The tragic result is that for both “everything is at stake,” and sexuality becomes over-politicized and the “other side” vilified: we’re now in a culture “war” with those whom Jesus would have us welcome into our home.
But if human sexuality is to be neither centralized (so our culture today) nor stigmatized (so many religious communities today), how are we to understand it?
6. Scripture sacralizes human sexuality; that is, it discerns its inescapably sacred and mysterious nature. Negatively, for Christians, sex is never “about” just sex.
Whether it’s a simplistic religious fundamentalism that stops at merely forbidding sex “before” or “outside of” marriage, or it’s a secular advocacy of unrestrained sexual “liberation” (hetero-, homosexual or otherwise), both fail to grasp the inescapably intimate, enjoining and intangible dimensions of sex, as encapsulated in the highly suggestive phrase “…and the two shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2.24; cf. 1 Cor. 6.16). Again, the majority of both “Christian” legalists and secular liberationists have missed this, perhaps especially when it comes to homosexuality.
Writing with keen insight into the history of the gay community in America, the highly influential and insightful political commentator Andrew Sullivan observes:
“For at least two generations, the defenders of gay sexuality have been as indiscriminate in their defense as its [religious fundamentalist] opponents have been in their attack. One side has excoriated promiscuity; the other side has glorified it. And both have in the process erased the human being in the middle, erased his real dilemma, erased his real responsibility, erased the pull of his yearning and the reality of his self-control” (Love Undetectable, p. 51).
It’s precisely in the name of “the human being in the middle” that the late Anglican minister and theologian John Stott, when addressing homosexuality, focused on the humanity that inescapably underlies our sexuality, maintaining, “At the heart of the homosexual condition is a deep loneliness, a natural human hunger for mutual love, a search for identity and a longing for completeness” (“Same-Sex Relationships,” p. 476).
That is, sex is always about far more than sex.
Similarly, Wes Hill, in his book Washed and Waiting, thoughtfully and humbly describes his experience of being a gay Christian, speaking of “three main battles” in his “effort to live faithfully” as a believer: (1) what precisely is the cost of discipleship for him? (2) how can he “live with this loneliness?” and (3) what is to be done with the “shame” that is a “constant struggle” for him and, he suggests, is “endemic to much homosexual Christian experience”? (p. 19). Apparently, underlying the particular sexual struggle are deeper (and, importantly, more universal) human struggles.
This should be no surprise to the Christian who, instead of fearfully and foolishly stigmatizing homosexuality, sacralizes human sexuality, recognizing that inescapable intangible realities are still at play for anyone who departs from God’s design for human sexuality.
This leads to a seventh extremely important reflection.
7. Perhaps surprisingly, faithful theological consideration of this topic today is actually quite complex in at least three ways — socially, historically and etiologically (I’ll explain what that last one means).
Many Christians today simply do not know — and wouldn’t have reason to know — why this issue, which might seem so straightforward, is actually very complicated. Here are three complicating factors that, I would urge, should give Christians serious pause before drawing conclusions, theologically or pastorally:
a. The social factor:
The explicitly social dimension of human sexuality means that sexual sin — and especially most kinds of non-heterosexual sin — has social ramifications that are far more immediate and obvious than those of other sins.
To be clear, all kinds of sin have serious negative social ramifications: for example, the father who never expresses affection to his children, the fretful, doting mother, the self-righteous pastor, the consumeristic layperson — all of these will in time have disastrous and enduring social consequences for their families and congregations.
But for sexual sin (and especially homosexual sin), the social ramifications are immediate: from the time a person first recognizes their attraction to the same sex, which can be very young (and most unwelcome), it quite simply rocks their social world. From there on out, their struggle usually shapes how they relate to their family and usually significantly defines their social circles in a way that most other sins do not.
And should such a person become a Christian, the social consequences are often altogether cataclysmic–in a twofold manner: There can be a significant rupture with their already established (non-Christian) circle of friendships and community, while there is a very awkward and uncertain participation in a local Christian community (usually composed primarily of families, not singles), a community that, sadly, may well wrestle to embrace, much less understand, their struggle.
Because of these immediate and unavoidable social ramifications, we should hardly be surprised at the presence of an entire gay subculture (or subcultures, really), complete with its own vocabulary, norms, ethos, etc. Sadly, this is arguably more true of gay Christians; if only 1-2% of humans experience (exclusively) homosexual desire, then the minority of those who profess faith in Jesus is smaller still: just how many of us are familiar with their experience?
The bottom line is this: given the immediate social ramifications of homosexuality and how much socialization influences our self-identity, it’s hardly surprising that for many gay persons, including those who profess faith, their sexuality plays a defining role in their narrative and self-identity in a way that will be altogether foreign, even unsettling, to the other 98-99% of humanity, not least (and perhaps especially) to heterosexual Christians, the overwhelming majority of whom haven’t (yet) recognized — and, in fairness, may not have had occasion to recognize — the unique social dimension of the homosexual experience.
It is precisely this social dimension of homosexuality — i.e., the unique immediacy of its social ramifications — that accounts in part for the impetus that many gay converts to Christianity have to continue to refer to themselves using phrases like “gay Christian.” This is not an argument for using the phrase “gay Christian” for that reason, but rather a vital explanation for it. That is, to argue, “No one uses the phrase ‘angry Christian,’ so why use the phrase ‘gay Christian’?” fails to discern how the social dimension of homosexuality makes it different from — that is, more complicated, if you will, than — many other sins.
Consider an imperfect analogy: Western Christians who have some familiarity with missionary efforts to Muslim majority countries will be familiar with what are called Muslim background believers (or MBBs; or, alternately, “believers from a Muslim background” [BMB]). A central reason for the phrase’s emergence is the widespread recognition of how deeply embedded Muslims are in their religious communities and how strong, even inviolable, are the social bonds of their religious community (or ummah). That is to say, the social ramifications of being a Muslim are legion, so that the social implications of converting to Christianity are also legion — indeed, potentially lethal.
The respective bodies of literature giving advice on pastoral care to MBBs and to gay Christians both repeatedly emphasize the central role of the Christian community as the new family for the convert. For example, in literature on Christianity and homosexuality one repeatedly encounters reference to Mark 10.29-30 (“Truly I tell you, no one who has left house or brothers… [i.e., one’s socioeconomic support system] for my sake…will not fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age…”; so, e.g., Hill, Friendship, p. 56; Shaw, Attraction, p. 47; Butterfield, Openness, mentions it twice; Coles, Christian, p. 112, concludes his book with the text). The question of whether or not converts will receive greater comprehensive support in their new Christian community (vs. their former community) is a very real one for both MBB and gay converts. Why? Because of the uniquely acute social dimension that both have.
It is interesting to note: while I’m admittedly no expert whatsoever in missionary efforts to Muslims, it appears that the attaching the phrase “Muslim-background” to “believer” is generally accepted without objection.
b. The historical factor
If the social aspect of homosexuality makes addressing the matter more complicated than one might realize, so does the historical aspect. When in Rev. 2-3 the resurrected Christ addresses the seven churches, he does so with a keen awareness of each church’s context: he knows their geographical, socio-political, economic situations — i.e., their contextual “backstories”, enabling him to speak not only with the authority of a king but with the compassion of a priest. Christ’s example speaks to the absolute necessity of addressing pastoral matters like homosexuality in light of “today” — e.g., of where we stand in the history, or backstory, of the (Anglo) church’s pastoral care for gay Christians.
Grievously, it is a history generally characterized by unjustified stigmatization, gross oversimplification, inexcusable theological and therapeutic syncretism, and pastoral outsourcing, often rooted in heterodox views of sin, sanctification, and the church, resulting in the marginalization, exclusion, and demoralization of thousands of gay believers over (at least) the past 4-5 decades. As Stott devastatingly summarized, “love is just what the church has generally failed to show to homosexual people” (“Same-Sex Relationships,” 475; see also the critique of the church in Schaeffer, Letters, p. 194).
Echoing Stott, Nate Collins states that the church’s history of “public engagement” regarding homosexuality has “communicated…that Christians would rather fight LGBT people than love them and welcome them into the body life of their churches. Joe Dallas, one of the most popular and powerful speakers in the later years of the ex-gay movement, frequently [said]… that Christians ‘spent millions fighting gay people in the courts, but pennies ministering to them in churches” (Invisible, p. 276). But Collins also sees strategic opportunity for believers today — and that without capitulating to the relentless onslaught of the sexual revolution:
“…the time we live in today is ripe with opportunity for Christians to come alongside gay people who are forging lives of faithfulness on their own, in silence. Acknowledging this doesn’t require Christians to cease lamenting the havoc wrought by the sexual revolution on the nuclear family and society in general. It simply points us to the providence of a loving heavenly Father who cares for all of his children” (Invisible, p. 137).
If interested in a 3-page summary of this troubled history, click here (and go to p. 20). For an outstanding in-depth comprehensive history, see Greg Johnson’s forthcoming Still Time to Care.
This tragic history undoubtedly calls for both lamentation and confession, one of the things tragically missing from my own denomination’s recent report on human sexuality (which, otherwise, has some real strengths).
c. the etiological factor
If both the social and historical dimensions of homosexuality contribute to its complexity today, at least one more dimension must be added, one that flows directly from the historical: the etiological dimension — i.e., the cause of homosexuality: why are some people gay?
In Christian circles over the past 20-30 years the answer to that question has been significantly influenced by the field of psychology, specifically by what is called reparative therapy, which posits a largely (but not exclusively) developmental cause to homosexuality: a person is gay, it maintains, primarily because of early childhood dysfunction in the relationship between the child and their parent of the same sex, although biological (i.e., temperamental) factors are involved. The implications are twofold: first, homosexuality is primarily the result of poor parenting; second, just as it was mostly acquired developmentally, it can quite probably be cured therapeutically: heterosexual desire can be restored.
This secular psychological approach was widely (and rather uncritically) adopted by the American church: “It’s almost impossible to overestimate the influence that reparative therapy (RT) has exerted on the shape of Christian conversations about homosexuality during the past several decades” (Collins, Invisible, p. 137). In his forthcoming book Still Time to Care, Johnson states that “By the 1990s, nearly all ex-gay ministries were experiencing a powerful influence from the secular world of psychology”; that “powerful influence” was reparative therapy. The church “baptized” — and, in fairness, at times bastardized — this secular psychology, asserting that conversion and sanctification would inevitably lead to heterosexuality: those who took their faith seriously would in time become “straight,” marry, and have kids.
Importantly, many gay Christians today deplore reparative therapy — and understandably so. Its promise of restoring heterosexuality, which, to countless gay Christians, seemed too good to be true, in fact was. For, as it turned out, reparative therapy’s success rate in this regard was indeed deplorable. The expectation it created not only for gay Christians but (no less significantly) for the wider Christian church was that heterosexuality wasn’t just a possibility for “committed” gay Christians but a high probability. It’s difficult to overstate the devastation caused by this expectation.
However, it’s worth saying that even though the promised ‘conversion’ to homosexuality did not take place in the overwhelming majority of cases, reparative therapy did in many cases offer its recipients with real insight into their condition and subsequent personal sanctification. This should not be too surprising: not unlike “the wisdom of the Egyptians” in which Moses was trained (Acts 7.22) or the proverbial wisdom of the ancient Near East adopted by the OT wisdom literature, secular psychology, due to its incredible amount of human observation and reflection, can be immensely informative and yet incomplete and even grossly erroneous. Discerning which is which can be extremely difficult.
The bottom line, however, is that reparative therapy (and its adoption by much of the church) set up an expectation that homosexuality could be cured.
But as Johnson documents, before the arrival (in the mid-1980s) of this therapeutic “paradigm of cure” now deeply rooted in the evangelical church today there was already a far more biblically-rooted “paradigm of care,” with diverse advocates like John Stott, Francis Schaeffer, C.S. Lewis and Billy Graham.
These Christian voices were more reticent about determining the cause(s) of homosexuality. Indeed, Lewis went so far as to say, “our speculations on the cause of the abnormality are not what matters and we must be content with ignorance” (found in Vanauken, A Severe Mercy, p. 147). Without naively ignoring or uncritically embracing the latest research of their time, these voices pleaded ignorance as to the precise causes of homosexuality, while seeking to locate the daily walk of gay Christians in the rich soil of Scripture and the Christian tradition. While agreeing that “the homosexual condition, being a deviation from God’s norm, is not a sign of created order but of fallen disorder,” they also readily acknowledged “the fact…that, though Christian claims of homosexual ‘healings’ are made, either through regeneration or through the subsequent work of the Holy Spirit, it is not easy to substantiate them” (Stott, “Same-Sex Relationships,” p. 472). While recognizing that homosexuality was “surely a part of the abnormality of the fallen world,” Francis Schaeffer wrote that “…we must face the fact that it is so ingrained in some that they have to live a celibate life” (Letters, p. 235).
Here are humility, charity, sobriety and hope.
In my opinion, Lewis’ instincts are right: in its discussion of human deviancy (of any kind), Scripture is breath-takingly rich in description and yet instructively short on explanation, perhaps in part because sin is itself inexplicable, even irrational: Jeremiah declares, “The heart is deceitful above all things and incurable — who can understand it?” (17.9), and Paul admits, “I do not understand what I do” (Rom. 7.15). Scripture profoundly (and sufficiently) illumines human deviancy and even adopts “common grace” wisdom from its contemporary cultural contexts, yet it warns against any venture which would seek to exhaustively grasp or “master” the fallen human condition, whether generically or specifically (e.g., sexual immorality). The silence of Genesis 3 in regard to explaining our first parents’ sin is telling, even pregnant, if disappointing to our very modern desire to “diagnose” and cure — or is it control? — everything. As Plantinga concludes (echoing Pascal?), “At bottom, the heart wants what it wants, and the heart has its reasons that reason does not know.” In this vein we can truly appreciate how in his Confessions, Augustine twice — once before his conversion and once after it — says, “I became a great riddle to myself” (4.4; 10.33).
This third complicating factor actually provides an example of the journey that many (myself included) travel on the path toward faithful theological consideration of this issue. Let me provide one example.
Al Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in a 2014 address to the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, available here, states (at around 29:00):
“One of the embarrassments that I have to bear is that I have written on some of these issues now for nearly thirty years, and at a couple of points I have to say, ‘I got that wrong’…. Now early in this controversy [re homosexuality] I felt it quite necessary, in order to make clear the Gospel, to deny anything like a sexual orientation…. I [now] repent of that. I believe that… a robust biblical theology would point [out] to us that human sexual, affective profiles, [i.e.,] who we are sexually, is far more deeply rooted than just the will—if only it were that easy. [T]his complex of same-sex challenges…is something that is deeply rooted in the biblical story itself, and something we need to take with far greater seriousness than we have taken it in the past…”
In a blog post following up on this conference (found here), Mohler writes, “The concept of sexual orientation is not only helpful, it is in some sense essential. Even those who argue against its existence have to describe and affirm something tantamount to it.”
Whether or not we agree with Mohler’s statements, here is a major evangelical figure humbly conceding that this issue, at least from the perspective of etiology, is more complex than he previously realized. Crucially, he recognizes what anyone who calls themselves “reformed” should recognize — namely, that human depravity reaches far deeper than the individual will. There is a collectivity, solidarity and even a “heredity” to sin that has tainted our very constitution.
As I read Scripture with this issue of etiology in mind, I’m inclined to say at present that it’s vital to keep in focus the Bible’s view of humanity in both its solidarity and individuality: whereas in our (created) individuality, we are each “wondrously set apart” with respect to our temperaments and talents, in our (fallen) solidarity (i.e., “in Adam”) our hearts are cut from the same corrupted cloth; that is, in our shared fallen humanity we all have what Paul calls a “mindset [under the sway] of the flesh” (Rom. 8.6, 7). The result is that the corruption that is ours collectively manifests itself in “me”distinctively — i.e., in accord with each person’s (wonderous, if mysterious) individuality: a shared “mindset of the flesh” reveals itself distinctively in the various “works of the flesh.”
In this way of thinking, we will (1) all struggle (2) and all struggle deeply but (3) in different ways, advancing the battle lines rapidly in some areas while mired in endless trench warfare in others. The crucial question is this:
Is such trench warfare indicative of the Spirit’s presence or absence?
Must the long-abstinent alcoholic learn to drink responsibly, even festively (or on their own), to prove the Spirit’s work, or is mere abstinence (accompanied perhaps by the occasional relapse?) something in itself to be gloriously celebrated? Must the gluttonous believer (or pastor?) who has curbed (or slowed?) his weight gain become a chiseled portrait of (21st-century Western?) fitness, or should we rejoice in his relative moderation? Must the anxious or controlling Christian become a beacon of peace and confidence, or should we rejoice in a decline of anxiety attacks and manipulative maneuvering? Must the gay Christian marry and have kids, or is celibacy (perhaps with the occasional relapse?) something to be celebrated as sure evidence of the Spirit’s presence?
The answer to this last question was obvious to Stott, Schaeffer, Lewis or Graham. And it is also obvious to a rather discordant diversity of contemporary theologically conservative writers on this topic — e.g., from Wes Hill to Greg Johnson to Sam Allberry to Ed Shaw to Rosaria Butterfield to Denny Burk and Heath Lambert, et al.; to cite the last two: “What the Bible commands…is not heterosexuality but holiness. Christians are called to pursue purity… [Those who experience no heterosexual attraction] have the biblical option of pursuing the high calling of Christian singleness and celibacy” (Homosexuality, pp. 75-76). Others — such as Shaw and Butterfield (Openness, ch. 1) — plead with the church today not to place the expectation of heterosexual desire upon gay Christians. Shaw, himself a gay Christian, writes:
“What has so often encouraged me to give up on the Christian life has been my lack of progress in becoming heterosexual…. That’s when it has felt least plausible to keep going as a Christian…. So this attitude that godliness is heterosexuality is a very dangerous one. It is spiritually life-threatening for people like me. We need to discourage it whenever we meet it…. Am I saying that no one who experiences same-sex attraction should seek to change their sexual desires? No… We know that with God, all things are possible…. I have heard enough convincing stories to know that changes in sexuality can happen (to some extent) for some, while remaining seemingly impossible for others” (Attraction, p. 100).
But what about Scripture? My answer will be brief and thus incomplete: Jesus says, “If your hand or foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away” — with one’s eternal destiny at stake (Mt. 18.8). Here Jesus brilliantly describes sin as a body part in need of amputation: what is altogether intrinsic or therefore feels essential (“I was born with this hand”) must nevertheless go, says Jesus. Importantly, what is in view is not the hand or foot’s rehabilitation but its amputation; that is, permanent cessation is both essential and sufficient, if not ideal: “it is better [but hardly ideal!] to enter life crippled or lame than….” Of course, here cessation looks like celibacy, not heterosexuality.
Turning to Paul, I find 1 Cor. 6.13b to be highly instructive: “The body is not for sexual immorality but for…” what? Paul doesn’t say “for marital fidelity” or even “celibacy.” He says something more radical: “the body is for the Lord.” Long before the body is an instrument of human sexuality or even human sociality, it is an instrument of holy service (for Paul and not a few others in the ancient world, the “body” [σῶμα, sōma] was understood to be a domain in need of governance by a “lord” (thus, the frequent comparison of the human body to a household as in, e.g., 2 Cor. 5.1ff; Mt. 12.43-45; indeed, in Greek σῶμα (sōma) can mean “slave” [e.g., Gen. 36.6 LXX; Rev. 18.13]). In sum, when a person fully surrenders their body — i.e., the visible, public aspect of their person–to their Lord Jesus, they are enabling it to do what it is supremely made “for” — i.e., service to Jesus, irrespective of the arrival of either marriage (for the single) or of heterosexual desire (for the gay person).
Such a reading fits well with the experience of many faithful gay Christians who have fully surrendered their bodies to Christ but have not yet experienced heterosexual desire: “My story was not gay or straight. My story was that my heart had been captured by Jesus. He had rescued me, and so I deeply loved him and wanted to obey him…. My plan remained celibacy unless God led otherwise….” (Johnson, Care, forthcoming).
I cannot overstate how convicting, edifying and equipping it has been for me to research this topic and to interact with my gay sisters and brothers. In many ways this topic is a “perfect storm” for the church today, because it exposes so many of its weaknesses. However, precisely because of this, to study the issue in-depth is to strategically empower oneself to equip today’s church, which struggles deeply with heterodox views of, e.g., creation, sin, ecclesiology, sanctification, sexuality, chastity and singleness.
In sum, recognizing these complicating factors requires our careful consideration and compassion, if we seek to be faithful in this matter. But faithfulness also requires courage, which leads to the next point.
8. While the above factors complicate this matter, in one very important sense homosexuality remains very simple: Scripture’s ethic is in truth very clear.
The past 40+ years have seen vigorous attempts to reconsider the central biblical texts that address homosexuality in ways that encourage — or at least allow for — some expressions of homosexual behavior (e.g., committed, monogamous same-sex relationships). While these new readings have at times helpfully highlighted the cultural and cultic embeddedness of these texts (over and against a simplistic reading that rushes to decontextualize and universalize the text), they have not won much credibility.
Instead, the most formidable scholars today — including those who themselves vehemently disagree with these ancient texts’ negative assessments of homosexuality — will conclude that, for all their cultural specificity and particularity, the Pentateuchal and Pauline texts undoubtedly forbid any and all same-sex sexual relations. A few examples of such scholars: Luke Timothy Johnson, E.P. Sanders, Dale Martin (who identifies as gay), and William Loader. (For quotes by each, see the bibliography below.)
So at one level homosexuality is relatively straight forward: in the biblical text, it belongs on the list of all the other carnal sins, of which the entire church today (myself included) is so guilty — like fornication (including pornography and masturbation), adultery, drunkenness, vanity, laziness, and (not least) gluttony (the last of which the church today, it seems, has chosen to ignore among its leaders).
But if Scripture regards homosexuality as sinful, just how serious of a sin is it?
9. While Scripture regards both heterosexual and homosexual sins as serious, nowhere does it say that they are the worst or most “heinous” sins.
Leviticus speaks of homosexuality as an “abomination” or “detestable act” to Israel’s God. This must not be minimized or explained away. However, while the concept of an “abomination” has nuance, it’s fair to say that homosexuality is hardly the only detestable act; others include: idolatry (e.g., Dt. 13.12-14), unjust business dealings (Dt. 25.13-16; cf. Pr. 11.1), scheming and craftiness — i.e., being a control freak (Pr. 3.32; 6.18a; 11.20), lying lips (Pr. 12.22; cf. 6.17b), arrogance (Pr. 16.5; cf. 6.17a), defamation or perjury (Pr. 6.19a) and “spreading strife in the community” (Pr. 6.19b). The exodus generation was barred from the Promised Land for grumbling (Num. 14), not for sexual sin, which they would later commit (in Num. 25). The homosexual sin of Rom. 1.26-27 is preceded by the heterosexual sin of 1.24, which itself is a consequence of idolatry and human folly (1.22-23) that are in turn rooted in dishonor and ingratitude toward God (1.21).
It’s not surprising, then, that Stott writes, “sexual sins are not the only sins, nor even necessarily the most sinful; pride and hypocrisy are surely worse” (“Same Sex,” p. 444). Similarly, Lewis writes, “If anyone thinks Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong…, the pleasures of power, of hatred…. A cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute” (Mere Christianity, p. 102).
10. Today God is at work in incredible and exciting ways among many young gay persons, who upon conversion have such incredible potential both as members of Christ’s Body and as His emissaries to a post-Christian culture.
The Apostle Paul insisted that in the body of Christ all members are essential (1 Cor. 12.20-21). He makes this point — why? — because we Christians can foolishly assign too little (or too much!) value to certain believers, leading Paul not only to underscore the necessity of every believer but even to say “how much more true it is that the parts of the body that seem [to us fleshly-minded believers] weaker [i.e., less important] are indispensable!” (12.22). In my pastoral experience I have found this to be so incredibly true of gay congregants: they have been absolutely indispensable to the growth and mission of the local church.
Further, it would be wrong to think that gay people are somehow less likely to be interested in the gospel; in fact, nothing could be further from the truth, as Johnson explains:
“We have a culture that tells the gay young man what the good life looks like. You experiment sexually in your teens. You let men buy you drinks in bars. You spend way too much time at the gym trying to build the body that will make you lovable. Gay people excel in every field, driven by a never ending need to accomplish enough, to be successful enough to become lovable. We decorate our lives to poster over our shame in the hope that we will become lovable. And when those efforts fail us, we turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. No community in the world longs so strongly for what the gospel alone can give” (Care, forthcoming; italics mine).
As I’ve written elsewhere, it is becoming evident that in recent years more and more gay persons are emerging who are wholeheartedly seeking to walk in faithfulness to Christ and sincerely trying to figure out how to do that. In 2013, when reviewing books by Wes Hill and Sam Alberry, Tim Keller wrote, “I’m glad to see the beginning of something crucial here.” In 2015, Kevin DeYoung wrote that “more and more Christians who experience same-sex attraction are, in a powerful picture of God’s grace, choosing to live celibate lives” (Homosexuality, p. 144). In 2017, Wes Hill wrote, “There are so many of us, from such varied cultures, races, Christian denominations, and family backgrounds, who have come out as gay and Christian in recent years. And each of us is seeking to learn…how to flourish as we embrace intentional Christian singleness” (in his Forward to Coles, Single, p. 2).
Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, a whopping 86 percent of persons identifying themselves with LGBTQ+ community today say that they were significantly involved in church life at some point in childhood or adolescence (Marin, Us vs. Us: The Untold Story of Religion and the LGBT Community, p. 1). May God grant grace to these prodigals to return home, and may God grant grace to us, their elder brothers, to welcome them home in the same manner as the Father.
Allberry, Sam. Is God Anti-Gay? (Good Book, 2013)
Anderson, Matthew Lee. Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith (Bethany House, 2011)
Bayly, Tim; Bayly, Joseph; von Hagen, Jürgen. The Grace of Shame (Warhorn Media, 2017)
Butterfield, Rosaria. Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ (Crown and Covenant, 2015)
Butterfield, Rosaria. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Crown and Covenant, 2012)
Coles, Gregory. Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (IVP, 2017)
Collins, Nate. All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender and Sexuality (Zondervan, 2017)
DeYoung, Kevin. What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? (Crossway, 2015)
Downs, Alan. The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World, 2nd ed. (Da Capo, 2012)
Gibson, Rachel. Born Again This Way: Coming Out, Coming to Faith, and What Comes Next (Good Book Co., 2020.
Hill, Wesley. Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian (Brazos, 2015)
Hill, Wesley. Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan, 2010)
Johnson, Greg. Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality (Zondervan, 2021 [forthcoming])
Johnson, Luke T. “Homosexuality and the Church” in Commonweal (15 June 2007); available here.
Johnson calls for “intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says?”
Jones, Robert; Cox, Daniel; Navarro-Rivera, Juhem. “A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues,” (Public Religion Research Institute, 2014)
Konstan, David. Friendship in the Classical World (Cambridge University Press, 1997)
Loader, William. Making Sense of Sex: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Early Jewish and Christian Literature (Eerdmans, 2013)
Upon completing a five-year Australian Research Council Professorial Fellowship exploring attitudes toward sexuality amongst Jews and Christians in the several centuries before and after Jesus, he concludes, “in all the literature which I examined the assumption is that such [homoerotic] actions and the attitudes [and] passions which produce them were abhorrent…. In fact, along with idolatry, same sex relations were a major target in Jewish criticism of the depravity of the world in which they lived” (146). Similarly, the late Louis Crompton, a pioneering scholar in the field of Queer studies, himself gay, wrote in his magisterial Homosexuality and Civilization, “Nowhere does Paul or any other Jewish writer of this period imply the least acceptance of same-sex relations under any circumstances” (114).
Loader, William. Sexuality in the New Testament: Understanding the Key Texts (Westminster John Knox, 2010)
Marin, Andrew. Us vs. Us: The Untold Story of Religion and the LGBT Community (NavPress, 2016)
Martin, Dale. “Heterosexism and the Interpretation of Romans 1:18-32” in Biblical Interpretation 3(3): 332-355.
Responding to two articles by NT scholar Richard Hays, Martin sharply critiques traditional readings of the text as “heterosexist” and yet concedes, “My purpose is not to argue that Paul approves of homosexual sex or would consider it acceptable behavior for Christians.”
McLaughlin, Rebecca. “Is Christianity Homophobic?” in Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Crossway, 2019)
Mohler, Al. We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking Truth to a Culture Redefining Sex, Marriage, & the Very Meaning of Right and Wrong (HarperCollins, 2015)
O’Donovan, Oliver. Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion (Cascade, 2008)
Oliver O’Donovan. “How Can We Frame the Right Questions?” in Human Sexuality and the Nuptial Mystery, ed. Roy Jeal (Cascade, 2010): 9-26
Sanders, E. P. Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters and Thought (Fortress, 2015).
He freely states, “I agree with the liberal attitude toward homosexuals in much of contemporary Christianity”; yet he also insists that “We should let Paul say what he said, and then make the decisions that we should make, which should take into account the modern world” (p. 370).
Schaeffer, Francis. Letters of Francis A. Schaeffer (Crossway Books, 1985)
Scruton, Roger. Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986)
Shaw, Ed. Same-Sex Attraction and the Church (IVP, 2015)