In a recent post (caution: contains some graphic language) over at his blog on The Gospel Coalition, Thabiti Anyabwile reflects on his participation in a think tank discussion about homosexuality some years ago. He concludes that one of the chief mistakes Christians have made in discussing homosexuality in the public sphere is avoiding the “gag reflex” that some people have when talking about homosexual sexual activity. He contends that instead, Christians ought to play up the “gag reflex” as much as possible.
I don’t know Thabiti. I don’t know how he typically talks about the issue of homosexuality as a pastor in his church. In fact, from what I’ve read from Thabiti, he and I probably agree about most things. But as a member of the same tribe, broadly speaking (conservative, Reformed Protestant, affirming a traditional Christian sexual ethic), I find his post deeply disappointing. The appeal to the “gag reflex” is simply not a good argument—it’s not good reasoning; it’s not good ethics; and it’s not good pastoring.
The reasoning behind the “gag reflex” is that it is a manifestation of the human conscience burned into us as those created in the image of God. Natural repulsion to certain actions is a reflection of God’s natural repulsion to those things that he finds abhorrent. If our repulsion is really an echo of God’s repulsion, then surely it is an authoritative moral verdict. But the problem with this reasoning is that there is no way to determine where imago dei conscience ends and societal norms and taboos begin. A gag reflex could be a part of a God-given conscience, or it could be a sign of a misplaced cultural stigma. We do, after all, misplace cultural stigmas.
There was once a “yuck factor” associated with interracial marriage and sex, but I cannot imagine anyone holding that up as part of a God-given conscience. While Scripture affirms that homosexual sexual behavior is sinful, it does not stigmatize that behavior, but rather places it in the context of other types of sexual sin, most of which is heterosexual. So there really is no basis for claiming the “gag reflex” as a type of moral imperative. As usual, Carl Trueman has made the same argument more eloquently. There are good reasons to view homosexual sexual behavior as sinful, but they are rooted in the testimony of the Scriptures, not in a subjective gag reflex.
But would an appeal to the “gag reflex” work? Would it persuade people? I have my doubts. We do, after all, live in a culture where graphic content is always instantly accessible. The perceived “shock” value of describing gay sex is not what it once was. But my point is not to weigh in on that question so much as to get at what seems to be the utilitarian ethic behind using the “gag reflex” as an argument at all. It seems as though the suggestion is, if this line of reasoning would be more effective in winning over the public, we should be using it.
But is that the primary criteria for how Christians ought to conduct public discourse? Sure, others may be manipulative, deceptive, caustic, or mean-spirited to win public debates, but our conduct ought to be different. We should be the winsome ones, speaking with a nuance that recognizes the complexity of the issue at hand. We should not have to resort to shock tactics that are meant to use blunt force where more care is required. We cannot invite the condemnation of others with our tone and then dismiss them as being spiritually blind.
““Gay” and “homosexual” are polite terms for an ugly practice.”
This type of statement is incredibly problematic. Setting aside whether the terms “gay” and “homosexual” necessarily refer to a practice at all (hint: it depends on who is using them and how), this way of speaking reinforces the stigmatization of anyone who is attracted to the same sex. Perhaps the greatest mistake that conservative Christians have made on the issue of homosexuality is a failure to consider the issue pastorally. We are quick to run to the political issues, especially worried about the gays that are “out there,” but have we spent time considering how we should care for our own—for those in our pews that only hear condemnation and despair.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this approach is its dehumanization of gay and lesbian people. In the comments, Thabiti says, “I wouldn’t reduce any person to their sexual orientation or behavior.” Sadly, this is precisely what his article functionally does for a reader who is attracted to the same sex. This type of rhetoric has a human toll, and it’s not just on those outside the church.
The church does not need to add any more stigma to homosexuality. We must preach the gospel to this issue, the same as any issue. But we must also take time to consider how we might make the church a place where people who are attracted to the same sex can flourish. What place do celibate, single people have in our communities? In our leadership? What vision can we cast for deep and abiding friendships? For marriages that honestly acknowledge the ongoing struggles of one spouse with same-sex attraction? If there’s anything my tribe needs to do better, it is engage in creative, constructive reflection on how the church can be a family for anyone, including gays and lesbians. This doesn’t have to mean abandoning our ethical convictions, but it does mean that we have to care enough about the gay brothers and sisters in our midst to reduce stigma rather than incite it.
Thankfully, the gospel has no gag reflex.
Kyle Keating is a M.Div. candidate at Covenant Theological Seminary and teacher of Bible and Theology at a small Christian school in St. Louis, Missouri where he lives with his wonderful wife Christy. He can be followed on Twitter: @KyleAKeating.