The Gospel Doesn’t Have a Gag Reflex

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.

Reasoning Problems

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.

Ethical Problems

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.

Pastoral Problems

““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.

What now?

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.

kyle50Kyle 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.

37 thoughts on “The Gospel Doesn’t Have a Gag Reflex

  1. I’m so glad you’ve written this post and taken this stance, Kyle. I read Thabiti Anyabwile’s post earlier and agree wholeheartedly that it wasn’t loving or helpful. I felt it represented many of the stereotypical problems presented (or, at least, perceived to be presented) by those whose attitudes towards homosexuality don’t extend to actively loving those with SSA. This is a gracious yet challenging response which is much appreciated.

  2. Pingback: The Gospel Doesn’t Have a Gag Reflex | Apoblogia

  3. Thanks for this Kyle. I, too, was thoroughly disappointed. Well, in fact, I was more disgusted by Anyabwile’s remarks. I found them to be entirely ideologically driven rather than theologically and ethically substantive.

    • I think Thabiti Anyabwile’s post is all about politics. He appears to be having a difficult time accepting that nations that once identified themselves as “Christian” no longer do so. As a consequence of this, their laws have changed to reflect who they really worship – themselves. This brings to mind Melinda Selmys article about the grieving process Thabiti Anyabwile seems to be still grieving this loss. May God help him through this process. Even so, I am grateful he is not my pastor.

  4. Thank you for this thoughtful response. I too have generally known Thabiti to be a reasonable and honorable man (granted, this is limited to a few conferences messages, a book, and his networking with other solid men) – but you (and Carl indirectly) are spot on in this analysis: that post is not speaking the truth in love, and deeply saddens me.

    As I’ve recently rediscovered (interacting with comments on another Gospel Coalition blog), many well-meaning Christians do not yet have a functional category for the celibate gay Christian, nor a pastorally responsible approach to these issues. I’ve recently become convicted that I, as a Christian with homosexual attractions & committed to celibacy, need to seriously consider being more open about this, to gracefully challenge these misconceptions, in part for the sake of those who struggle silently and feel alone & confused.

  5. Pingback: The Problem with the “Gag Reflex” » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  6. Thank you for this! I would ask Thabiti where he finds evidence of Jesus having a “gag reflex” towards anyone. He mingled with prostitutes, adulterers, thieves, and very likely people who practiced some homosexual acts, none of whom seemed to induce His gag reflex. The only time we see Him exhibiting what might be considered “disgust” was with those who lead others astray with a false gospel (pharisees) and those who used religion for profit (merchants in the temple).

    • Agreed, Ginny. Why are people of Christ using their own feelings rather than the example of Jesus’ life, his words and his actions, to decide who they think should be ostracized and shamed?

  7. This response to Thabiti Anyabwile’s article is well said and gives a much needed understanding of how we, as Christians, need to see our fellow Christian brothers and sisters who deal with ssa. The longer I live, the more I see that there are Christians who struggle with ALL sorts of sin – some hidden from view (homosexuality being just one of them); some very public and obvious. Sadly for the Christian who deals with ssa, and at the same time recognizes gay sex as sinful, they cannot be open with that sin struggle in their own church because of the stigma attached. What’s wrong with THAT picture? Isn’t the church supposed to be a place where we can bring our broken selves and be honest with one another and the sin/temptations we deal with? “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” James 5:16
    Christians often unintentionally shame and hurt their own brothers and sisters in Christ with their words when they discuss the “gag reflex” and how “gross” and horrid a sin homosexuality is, thus driving the (silent) struggling brother/sister further into silence and shame. This is the VERY THING they need to be free to discuss and ask for support and prayer for! Don’t we as a body encourage each other to live chaste, pure lives? Then WHY does the church as a whole, insist on pretending that godly, loving Christians could never struggle with THAT sin? I don’t get it!
    Forgive my simple words…I’m not a theologian by any means. Just a Christian woman trying to be honest and real, and one who desires the church to grow in this area.

  8. I read Thabiti’s post too and i agree with him that there maybe a ‘gag reflex’ to homosexual sex. (Especially the way he portrayed it). However, i don’t agree with him that the ‘gag reflex’ is caused by some internal moral compass. Rather, i think it can exist in me (i’m being very honest here – not proud of my gut reaction) simply because i am not gay and therefore gay sex is not attractive to me. I get the same reaction ‘gag reflex’ gut reaction to soggy cornflakes. There’s no moral internal compass in regards to that. It’s a simple, ‘i don’t like soggy cornflakes’ gut churning reaction and nothing else.

    I think it’s awful when Christian men have to resort to spurious shock tactics for the sake of winning an argument. If you believe homosexuality is wrong then say it’s wrong because you believe the Bible says it’s wrong. Don’t go down the line of some subjective physical reaction to prove your point. Its embarrassing and rude.

    I feel that this kind of post (Thabiti’s) furthers the alienation of gay people from experiencing the love of God. If i read that as a gay woman, would i ever want to go to Church? Nope. Would i think God loves me and accepts me as i am? Nope. This kind of continuous, thinly-disguised hatred from the conservative christian camp prevents people coming to Christ as far as i am concerned and i feel it has to stop.

  9. Richard Beck has written a book (‘Unclean’) on the usefulness/dangers of ‘yuck’ reactions. He’s not entirely dismissive of them in moral contexts but shows that they are in psychological tension with Jesus’ hospitality commands (contra several commenters above who seem to think the latter cancel the former). It may be worth your time to give Beck’s book a read.

    • Really appreciate your pointing out the tension here. All sin in unnatural in someway, and Christ’s mingling with us sinners through the Incarnation had to be an offense to His nature at some level. But the greater goal of restoring us to relationship with the Godhead compelled Him to seek us out in love and compassion. That is the mystery. That is what makes His love so profound. Not that our sinfulness is not offensive but that He overcame the offense and became sin for us.

      • Hannah, thanks for the response. The debate as I understand it is not over whether it is a wonderful mystery that Jesus loved shamed/unclean/’yucky’ sinners but over what is the appropriate way to say/acknowledge the truth about that sin that he offers salvation from. My view would be that we, in the end, do damage to our doctrine of redemption (that you so wonderfully celebrate) if we excise ‘yuck’ from Christian public discourse.

      • Hannah, please ignore my comment from 5:59AM (“Hannah, thanks…public discourse.”) I misread your comment from 8;48AM. I see that we are saying precisely the same thing – apologies!

  10. No gag reflex? Seriously? Did you miss where Jesus interacts with scribes and Pharisees? Or is this simply addressing those few instances where Jesus interacted with sexual mores?
    After all, it’s true that Jesus never outright condemned homosexuality, a la his apostle Paul.
    Of course, Jesus also never said a word about pedophilia. Or bestiality. Or necrophilia. Or incest.
    ….all taboos roundly condemned by Jesus’ Bible, the Torah, and by Yahweh, Jesus’ father.
    Jesus accepted all the folks you speak of, typically when they demonstrated repentance. This is what Paul speaks of when he talks about those who previously engaged in such behavior. I think that unrepentant sin is what’s being considered for this “gag reflex” of the gospel you’re struggling with.
    The logic you’re using here doesn’t quite follow, though I can see how you’re pursuing an emotional angle, to cancel out any “damage” you perceive Thabiti to have done. His points are creating a “gag reflex” within you, it seems, since you’re trying to reach out to such folks. I get that.
    Did I somehow miss the gist of what you were getting out? If so, please let me know. I want to engage with your thoughts, even if I think they miss the mark.

    • My reading of the post is that 1) He acknowledges the Pharisees, 2) the focus is on how Jesus treats people. So while we don’t need Jesus to say he is opposed to pedophila to know that he would be against pedophilia, I also don’t think that had Jesus interacted with a pedophile in the gospels his primarily reaction would have been a gag reflex. Jesus’ primary reaction to sinners is to love them toward repentance.

      Being opposed to an argument because it is pastorally inappropriate and/or unhelpful is not a gag reflex Instead it is pointing out that a method of argument is unhelpful or inappropriate.

      If we cannot call out Christians for being unhelpful or inappropriate in a way that is non-accusatory and gentle (as I believe this post is) then what are we supposed to do. I know we could simply ignore Thabiti’s post, but ignoring it does not make inappropriate and unhelpful beliefs go away.

      Most of the posts that I have read in response are not mean and hateful toward Thabiti. Most people genuinely respect is work, but this is an area I (and lots of others) believe he is wrong.

    • This statement contains a falsehood:

      “Jesus accepted all the folks you speak of, typically when they demonstrated repentance.”

      There are many instances in the Gospels of Jesus eating and otherwise associating with people who would have been considered unclean / sinners apart from some demonstrated or spoken commitment to repentance on their part. There are also places in which Jesus is taken to be a “friend of sinners” and one who associates with unclean persons by people who do not know him, which implies that he spent enough of his time purposefully being around people like that so as to be known for it. I am certain that he had as his *goal* that they seek repentance, but I am equally as certain that your statement–that Jesus typically spent time with people upon demonstrated repentance–is not true.

  11. Sorry to comment again, but I think it is important for readers to know that this whole area of disgust and morality has been a very hot topic in philosophical and theological ethics as of late. Whether disgust should be employed by Christians is not a topic that can be easily pinned in one blog post. There are more than two sides to this debate, but just to simplify the discussion a bit: Martha Nussbaum represents the view that disgust/yuk should not have a place in law or punishment. Richard Beck is among those who thinks ‘yuk’ has a place in moral discourse, and he notes passages of Scripture where ‘yuk’ is still at work in a positive way in the church and world. Perhaps a more helpful way to engage Thabiti’s post would be to outline Beck’s reasons for retaining ‘disgust’ and his ways that it can go wrong. Then, analyze Thabiti’s usage and see if it has ‘gone wrong’ according to Beck’s view. This would beg the question of whether Beck is correct, but at least we would not end up with an unhelpful and overly simplistic gospel vs. yuck type of discussion. Another approach would be to outline Nussbaum’s account of how disgust can go wrong and then analyze whether this is the case with Thabiti’s post. I think this discussion calls for a bit more rigorous thinking…perhaps reading a new book or two, before commenting or blogging further about it.

    • It seems to me that the “yuck factor” equates to using shame to discourage unacceptable behaviour. This works on a short term basis but doesn’t produce lasting change on an individual basis much less on a society. Resorting to shame, in fact, does long term damage. If people are too ashamed to speak about various areas of sin, those sins will continue to dominate their lives and the lives of their families. This is not the life that Jesus died to give us. Reference Brene Brown’s extensive research on the topic.

      • Felicity – thanks for this response. I have only recently come across Brene Brown’s writings and haven’t delved into them in the kind of depth that would warrant a comment. So I’ll do some more work before jabbering on! // About your comment: “…using shame to discourage unacceptable behaviour.” From reading the Psalms I have learned that shame is not a reality that we get to intellectually dismiss. It is a reality that we must take seriously, especially in prayer. Thus, it is also a reality that moral discourse properly acknowledges. Thabiti’s argument was not that we should “shame” people (thereby creating shame) but that we should not fail to acknowledge when something is shameful.

    • Agree completely. This discussion is not as simple as many are approaching it. There is shame in sin–all of our sin–and Christ comes to free us from that shame. But not because the shame does not exist, but by becoming sin’s shame for us and removing it from us. You can’t get around the unnaturalness of sin; you have to go through the Gospel.

      • Hannah-I definitely agree that shame is a real consequence of sin, and pretty much everything you write in your comment. I think the issue I take with Thabiti is more on the side of using shame as a political tool and what seems to be a stigmatizing of one type of sin over others.

    • I appreciate your point that the discussion of “yuck” in ethics is far more complex than I allow for here. I suppose my defense would be that I’m trying to specifically deal with it as it’s used in Thabiti’s post, where it is supposed to be the main tool to win a public debate. I also think that his use of it in his post serves to stigmatize one type of sin over any other—and I find that very problematic.

      “I think this discussion calls for a bit more rigorous thinking.”

      Agreed. Just touching the tip of the iceberg here.

      • Kyle, thanks for taking time to respond and to genuinely think through my comment. I think you’re right that when we use “yuck/shame” in moral discourse there is a danger of actually generating more shame instead of truthfully and helpfully acknowledging its presence. Blessings!

  12. Pingback: Biblically-Inculcated Gag Reflex | Colvinism

  13. Agree wholeheartedly with your point of view. “The Church” needs to move out of its narrow-minded, judgmental and even hateful attitude. It is beyond me how a Christ follower can decide that the sin of another is worse than any of his own. It breaks my heart to see people hurt by this kind of thinking, even in my own church.

  14. In fairness to Mr. Thabiti Anyabwile, I believe it would be good to take under consideration his background. Since I had never heard of him, I googled him and found this article
    Years after his father left the family, he was strongly influenced by Muslim men in college who outwardly exhibited a rigourous moral code.He converted to Islam. Mr. Anyabwile has obviously become a Christian since that time. In effect, he’s coming from a totally different cultural perspective than myself. I don’t agree with him but I think I understand him a little bit more.

  15. The problem with the ‘yuck factor’ is that it makes people seem yucky. When you do that you devalue human beings and we end up worse than before. It’s articles like these that remind me why so many gay men and women leave the church with guilt and shame and never come back. They find acceptance in clubs and bars that exploit them. We should be the accepting ones, not bars and clubs.

  16. Besides moral compass and social conditioning, I think there’s a third possible reason for our gag reflex: to protect us from things that might be pestilent, e.g., body fluids, excrement, dead and rotting things, etc. The fact that we have the instinct is not bad, but it does drive an impulse to avoid anyone associated with the thing that disgusts us, which is why there were leper colonies and suchlike. So ‘love the sinner, be disgusted by the sin’ is unlikely to compute with the lower regions of the brain whence this instinct comes.

    • Camassia, you might want to read Richard Beck’s book ‘Unclean’ which deals with the ‘yuck’ factor from a psychological perspective like yourself. He acknowledges that there is a tension between ‘yuck’ and hospitality but shows that we can’t collapse the one into the other.

  17. Pingback: C. S. Lewis on Homosexuality and Disgust | Spiritual Friendship

  18. Pingback: Instincts, Ethics, and the “Yuck Factor”: A Tentative Consideration | Spiritual Friendship

  19. Pingback: Gagging on the Truth - Kuyperian Commentary

  20. Pingback: Thabiti Anyabwile on Church and Culture | Spiritual Friendship

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