Sanctification is usually not “orientation change,” but it’s still real.

One of the distinctives of the approach taken by Spiritual Friendship and others (including those typically referred to as “side B”) is a rejection of the ex-gay movement’s pursuit of change in sexual orientation. And indeed, even from the earliest days of Spiritual Friendship, we’ve warned about change in sexual orientation as often a false hope.

One of the most common objections to this viewpoint I see, especially in Reformed circles, is a claim that it is a denial of the doctrine of sanctification. In particular, they think we see “bondage to sin” as something from which there is no movement towards “freedom.”

Part of this argument comes from a belief that sexual attraction to someone of the same sex is itself sin, rather than mere temptation. Even between different members of the community of Spiritual Friendship contributors or the “side B” world, this is an area of disagreement. But I believe that we should expect sanctification whether or not we agree with this position, as we already should for heterosexual Christians. Christian sanctification involves our wills and desires approaching those ordained by Christ, however slowly and incompletely, as we practice obedience and as the Holy Spirit works inside of us.

Is this a contradiction? Wouldn’t sanctification in the area of sexual desire be a movement away from “same-sex attraction” or “being gay,” whichever language is used? Isn’t this orientation change, even if slow and incomplete?

No, it actually is not. One of the major problems in this discussion is that people are not taking the time to understand the experience of people with same-sex attraction, in order to understand how theological categories apply. In particular, I see differing understandings of phrases like “same-sex attraction” as well as what “orientation” and “sanctification” really are. And without this understanding, it cannot be clear what sanctification does look like for a person with same-sex attraction. The result can be unrealistic expectations on one end, or a lack of pursuit of real sanctification on the other.

In this post, I will describe some of the terminology and phenomena I am discussing. This will culminate in a discussion of what sanctification can and does look like. I will be primarily discussing things from my own personal perspective, but I hope it is helpful to those thinking through broader implications for others.

Same-Sex Attraction

The term “same-sex attraction” itself is actually taken to mean different things by different people. A lot of people boil it down to something along the lines of “wanting to have gay sex.” For example, the Ad Interim Committee Report on Human Sexuality from the Presbyterian Church in America failed to provide a definition for the term, but came close to a working definition in these sentences: “The desire for an illicit end—whether in sexual desire for a person of the same sex or in sexual desire disconnected from the context of Biblical marriage—is itself an illicit desire. Therefore, the experience of same-sex attraction is not morally neutral; the attraction is an expression of original or indwelling sin that must be repented of and put to death.”

The problem is that this is not how most people who experience “same-sex attraction” would define or understand the term. The earliest cases of what I now call “same-sex attraction” that I can recall were not obviously connected to sexual behavior. I just saw some particular guy and felt like there was something really appealing about him, and that I just wanted to enjoy his presence. As I went through puberty, I found that a lot of the ways my friends talked about increasing feelings for girls (and often the way I myself noticed increasing feelings for girls) also applied to feelings I was developing for other males. Not necessarily “I see that guy and I want to have sex with him” so much as “he’s really nice to look at,” or “it would be nice to get to know him and be his friend.” And it has always been intermingled with healthy desires for male friendship in complicated ways; it’s common for there to be an element of this attraction towards a new friend at the beginning of the friendship.

Furthermore, as I’ve written a bit about before, one thing I discovered in the past is that deep friendships can feel like a fulfillment of my feelings without any sexual or exclusive romantic element being involved. I personally find that, as these kind of friendships develop, desire for sex usually diminishes, rather than increases. I often find that it seems like sex is a less natural telos for my feelings than emotional forms of connection.

Now this attraction is certainly connected with a desire for illicit forms of sex. It didn’t take too long to figure out that my desires for other guys included sexual desires. Though interestingly, there’s a contrast with my sexual desires for women, where there’s an obvious physical act that I desire. The connection between heterosexual desire and procreative union is obvious. Towards men, it is more a vague desire for sexual union without a clear picture of what that would look like. So it’s clear to me the desire is not fundamentally a desire for a specific act. I would imagine things may look different for a guy with sexual experience or who has used pornography, neither of which is true of me.

To be clear, I am not arguing that my experience was clean and sinless. I’m also not saying that on the whole same-sex attraction is really a positive thing to celebrate. However, the experience we refer to as “same-sex attraction” is not precisely the same thing as a desire for illicit sex. And as such, sanctification generally has more to do with how I experience same-sex attraction, and how that experience relates to further desires, than whether or how often I experience it.

Orientation

The concept of “orientation” is not directly found in Scripture or in historic Christian creeds or confessions. And there is criticism of attempting to apply it at all, with a common argument that talking about “orientation” is finding an identity in desires for sin.

Like with “same-sex attraction,” we sometimes see confusing definitions. For example, in a recent post on the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals blog, Calvin Goligher defines the term as “an allegedly innate, unchangeable trait that makes it natural and normal for someone to engage in certain sexual practices.” Goligher does not, however, describe what this trait could possibly be. Rather, he simply makes claims about its alleged philosophical impact on sexual practices, and then makes arguments from these philosophical claims that it must be entirely in the category of “sinfulness” and thus subject to change.

Many of us, however, find the phrase useful for talking about one of the phenomenological realities of the world as it is, without making the sort of philosophical claims Goligher attributes to the term.

Much of what I wrote above about what “same-sex attraction” actually is applies here. For example, if I say that my orientation is “bisexual,” I’m referring to the fact that I often notice both attractive women and attractive men, and that this reality has not substantially changed since I was a teenager. In fact I’d go further and say that the balance of noticing men and noticing women hasn’t appreciably changed, which is what I would say is “fixed” about my orientation. I’m not saying that I’m constantly having sexual fantasies about the people around me, or that  I’d “naturally and normally” have sex with people of both sexes. I just mean that I see attractive people and feel something, and that if I let my mind and heart explore it, sexual desire is at least proximate. But as I’ll describe next, the relationship between this feeling and an actual “desire for illicit ends” (as the PCA committee report put it) is not something I see as nearly so fixed or constant.

Sanctification and “Change in Desires”

With that understanding of what is meant by terms like “same-sex attraction” and “orientation,” we are ready to discuss what sanctification does look like, in contrast to “orientation change” approaches that focus on diminishing same-sex attraction. By saying that my orientation is unlikely to change, I am not making peace with a heart that desires sin.

A necessary piece of context, I think, is what many of us who have pursued “orientation change” were after. I went through a significant time in my life when I was focused on trying to change my orientation. But this wasn’t just about “I desire to do things that God considers sin, and I want my heart to line up with his.” It was as much or more about, “I’m different from my peers, and I’m ashamed of that reality.” My goal was largely to become normal, and not to be associated with those people (gay people) that so many of my peers and fellow churgoers looked down on.

Ultimately, this focus led to disappointment, as I realized my overall pattern of initial attraction really wasn’t changing at all. But a change in focus has led to more real sanctification, including at the level of desire.

For example, it used to be that I was fairly begrudging about avoiding gay relationships and gay sex. I sort of longed to be able to have such a relationship, despite believing that I shouldn’t. Having these desires I couldn’t fulfill was at times frustrating. But over time, I’ve become more content with following God’s plan, whether in the long term that ends up meaning singleness or marriage to a woman.

This has also translated to a change in how I feel about what I’d want to do with the attractions I feel towards specific people. When it’s some random guy in public I don’t have a natural chance to get to know, it’s easier than it used to be to just ignore it and move on with life. When it’s someone I am naturally going to be spending time with or where there is a natural opportunity for friendship, I’m actually quite happy with the idea that I’ll get the chance to know him without it being some sort of exclusive commitment, and without it being a sexual relationship.

In other words, there’s a significant sense where I’ll still notice an attractive guy as I always have, but the actual desire to do something illicit with him sexually is meaningfully smaller. I would not call this “orientation change,” and I don’t think in the terminology used by our broader secular culture this makes me less “bi.” But it does mean that God is working on my heart, and that there is real change and sanctification.

I’m also coming at this conversation from the perspective of a virgin who has never used pornography. I’ve talked to enough other men (and not just same-sex attracted ones) to know that past sexual activity and pornography use both significantly influence further sexual impulses. There are kinds of sanctification that my friends who have used pornography have needed that I haven’t in the same way. And certainly many of the same dynamics apply in the case of those who have used gay pornography or had homosexual experiences, which is a further area of sanctification worth exploring and discussing.

I think one of the larger dangers in this conversation is to set up the wrong expectations for what “sanctification” looks like. I think it does genuinely lead people to believe that sanctification isn’t going to happen, which makes it easier to just accept a sinful state of the heart and desires. Whereas if we were to focus instead upon  how sanctification tends to look in the lives of people who experience same-sex attraction, we could provide hope and encouragement to pursue faithfulness instead of promoting despair.

I don’t think this is all that different from the sanctification that heterosexual people experience. At least most of the men I talk to about this sort of thing still experience attraction to women other than their wives, but as they learn to be content in their marriages, the actual desire for adultery is meaningfully smaller. No one accuses them of denying the doctrine of sanctification for expecting attraction to remain, but people would rightly object if they thought this meant they just had to remain “in bondage” to adulterous desires and had no expectation of sanctification. In short, what we are arguing is simply that Christians with same-sex attraction can and should pursue sanctification that looks similar to what everyone else experiences. Expecting sanctification to look different, and take the form of a change in sexual orientation, is unwarranted. I hope my reflection has helped to clarify what sanctification does look like. Let’s all fight the good fight.

Two Surveys: One for LGBTQ+ Persons Who Came Out to Christian Parents; One for Christian Parents Who Had a Child Come Out to Them as LGBTQ+

We recognize that this is a very stressful time for us as a country and the world community as a whole. During this time, we feel it is important to continue with research that is important for our families and loved ones as it helps us to become closer and understand each other better.

By participating in this research, you help us better understand the experiences of LGBTQ+ persons who at one time came out to a Christian parent(s), or you help us understand the experiences of Christian parents who had a loved one come out to them as LGBTQ+.

In the first study, the researchers are specifically investigating the quality of relationship with their parents before, during and after coming out.

If you decide to participate in this anonymous survey of LGBTQ+ persons who came out to a Christian parent(s), then please follow this link to the survey to review the informed consent form and then complete the survey, which should take about 20-30 minutes.

The second study we are conducting is for Christian parents who had a child come out to them as LGBTQ+. In this study, the researchers will specifically investigate the quality of relationship with their LGBTQ+ loved one before, during and after coming out.

If you decide to participate in this anonymous survey, then please follow this link to the survey to review the informed consent form and then complete the survey, which should take about 20-30 minutes.

Thank you,

Mark Yarhouse & Olya Zaporozhets

A New Measure of Congruence

Dr. Olya Zaporozhets and Dr. Mark Yarhouse (co-authors of Costly Obedience) are interested in learning about the path of reconciling sexual and religious identity conflicts. To aid in our understanding, we are developing and validating a new measure of Sexual and Religious Congruence as well as validating an existing measure of religiosity.

This is an anonymous study. Your identity will not be recorded or disclosed and your answers to questions will not be shared with others.

For the purposes of this study, we seek people who are both a “sexual minority” (people who experience same-sex
attraction regardless of behavior or identity) and Christian for whom faith and spiritual values are important. To learn more about the study and to participate, please go to this link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/7YXFXCV

On Proper Pride

In a quickly-deleted tweet last June, a prominent Catholic priest responded to our nation’s annual season of LGBTQ celebrations by asking: “If we’re celebrating Pride this month, what sin are we celebrating next month?” On a superficial level, this was a very silly question; after all, if earnest critics desire to associate LGBTQ Pride celebrations with one of the seven deadly sins, surely lust would be the more appropriate candidate. But on a much deeper level, this sloppy critique betrayed a profound blindness to commonplace equivocation of what the term “pride” can signify. For although “pride” in one sense certainly corresponds to vice and sin, there are equally legitimate senses in which “pride” can correspond to nothing other than glory and a crowning virtue. Moreover, and for precisely the same reason, it follows that a certain form of pride is nothing less than the virtuous response to unjust oppression and discrimination. It seems worthwhile, therefore, to embark on an exploration of the philosophical and theological tradition surrounding these issues, in order to arrive at a better foundation for reflecting on modern “pride” movements in general, and LGBTQ Pride specifically. Continue reading

Cardinal Dolan, Courage Leadership, and the Sexual Abuse Scandal

Cardinal Dolan

Last Thursday, Catholic New York, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York, published a notification that Fr. Donald Timone has (at long last) been removed from priestly ministry. He was suspended in December of last year, and the Archdiocesan Review Board only just determined that allegations that he sexually abused minors were credible and substantiated, though the diocese had paid for two six-figure settlements after abuse allegations in 2017.

The story obviously implicates Cardinal Dolan. Last December, the New York Times reported that even after the Archdiocese of New York had paid out the settlements for sexual abuse of teenage boys by Fr. Timone, Cardinal Dolan kept him in ministry, despite the clear requirements of the Dallas Charter [pdf], and the fact that these were particularly egregious allegations: one of Fr. Timone’s victims, Timothy Murphy, had committed suicide.

And just after the New York Times revelations, the Catholic News Agency reported that the Archdiocese of New York had issued a letter to John Paul the Great University. The letter [pdf], written just a few weeks before the Times article, stated “without qualification” that Fr. Timone had “never been accused of any act of sexual abuse or misconduct involving a minor.” The University, quite reasonably, called the letter a “lie.” (Notably, Msgr. Edward Weber, who signed the letter, remains in charge of New York’s Priest Personnel office; he also remains Vicar for Clergy.)

But the story goes beyond Cardinal Dolan and involves Courage, an official ministry to same-sex attracted Catholics. Continue reading

A Note on Courage and Language

One of the most consistent criticisms of Spiritual Friendship by those associated with Courage has been our use of language, particularly the word “gay.” One of the earliest criticisms was Dan Mattson’s July, 2012 First Things article, “Why I Don’t Call Myself A Gay Christian.” This article launched Mattson’s career as one of the most visible spokesmen for Courage, until they parted ways in January.

Why I don't call myself gay

The criticism which has frequently been directed our way, by Mattson and others who speak for Courage, is that by using the word “gay,” we were making our sexuality the defining aspect of our identity. We have explained that this is not our intent on numerous occasions (see below for further examples).

I recently read Courage founder Fr. John Harvey’s 2007 pamphlet, Same Sex Attraction: Catholic Teaching and Pastoral Practice [PDF], and thought the following paragraph shed valuable light on the rather absurd mentality behind Courage’s critique:

The time has come, however, to refine our use of the term homosexual. A much better term than “homosexual person” is the following: a person with same-sex attractions. The distinction is not merely academic. Instead of referring to “homosexual persons,” which implicitly makes homosexuality the defining quality of the people in question, we can put things in clearer perspective by referring to men and women with same-sex attraction. A person, after all, is more than a bundle of sexual inclinations, and our thinking about same-sex attraction (hereafter SSA) is clouded when we start to think of “homosexuals” as a separate kind of human being. “The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation . . . every person has a fundamental identity: the creature of God and by grace, His child and heir to eternal life” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 1986, no. 16)

This criticism illustrates, I think, just how radical Courage’s view of language is, and how far it has departed from the language of the Church itself.

Continue reading

God Loves the Broken, and We Should Too

Among those who affirm gay relationships, I often hear the argument that LGBTQ people are “not broken,” and therefore are worthy of love. One high-profile example of this is the hashtag #BornPerfect, which is used to oppose attempts to change sexual orientation. From a secular perspective, this can make some sense. However, I also see the same argument being made by those who profess to be Christians. This involves a major theological mistake, which is much more basic than sexual ethics.

Instead, we should focus on the Gospel, what it says about humanity’s shared state of brokenness and sinfulness, and how God redeems that.

The “not broken” argument does get some things right: LGBTQ people are made in the image of God, loved by God, and should be loved by others. To say otherwise is a lie from the pit of Hell. But the way it gets there is fundamentally antithetical to orthodox Christianity on several levels. Continue reading

CT: How a gay atheist teenager discovered Jesus and stopped living undercover

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In Christianity Today, Greg Johnson, the pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, shared his testimony of growing up gay, finding Jesus, and eventually becoming a Presbyterian pastor committed to upholding the unchanging Christian sexual ethic:

The gospel doesn’t erase this part of my story so much as it redeems it. My sexual orientation doesn’t define me. It’s not the most important or most interesting thing about me. It is the backdrop for that, the backdrop for the story of Jesus who rescued me.

Read the full testimony at Christianity Today.

Photo credit: Karen Kallberg

“We All Belong Together”

Yesterday was my friend and housemate Aidan’s first Sunday to serve as the priest at a new parish. I attended the service along with Melanie, Aidan’s wife, and their daughter (my goddaughter) Felicity, sitting in a pew near the front and helping Mel with the fidgety two-year-old.

During the announcements, Aidan introduced himself to the congregation and then pointed to our pew. “This is my family,” he said. He asked Mel and Felicity to stand up and said, “Mel is my wife, and Felicity is my daughter.” And then he indicated that I should stand too. “And this is our friend Wes. We live in Christian community. Wes shares our home and is Felicity’s godfather.”

When I told another friend about what Aidan did, he replied that it was “a public declaration that ‘We all belong together.’” Precisely.

People sometimes ask me what I envision when I say we need more public recognition and honor for friendship, “thicker” practices of belonging and kinship with one another, and even vows to seal those things. I don’t want to say my particular form of belonging is the best answer, let alone the only one, but what my friend Aidan said and did yesterday is the kind of thing I have in mind.