Is Being Gay Sanctifiable?

I haven’t yet been able to read Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert cover to cover, but I do want to highlight one portion of it that I’ve been thinking about recently in relation to our project here at Spiritual Friendship. Towards the end, Butterfield writes:

What good Christians don’t realize is that sexual sin is not recreational sex gone overboard. Sexual sin is predatory. It won’t be “healed” by redeeming the context or the genders. Sexual sin must simply be killed. What is left of your sexuality after this annihilation is up to God. But healing, to the sexual sinner, is death; nothing more and nothing less.

From the context, I think it’s clear that Butterfield is making an anti-Pelagian point. She’s saying that what we sexual sinners need is not a touch-up operation that amounts to little more than a project of moral self-improvement. What we need, instead, is total, absolute surrender—death to the entirety of our old ways of thinking and living, and rebirth on God’s terms. So, for instance, she goes on to say that a lot of young Christians think their pornography addictions will be cured if they can just get married. (A misreading of 1 Corinthians 7:9, I might add.) But no, Butterfield says, “Marriage does not redeem sin. Only Jesus can do that.” The project of self-salvation, even with something sanctified like marriage, is doomed from the get-go.

Now, the reason I’ve been thinking about this is that it could be read as antithetical to the work we’re trying to do here at SF. We say things like this: Our same-sex love can “express itself as chaste friendship or mystical approach to God rather than as gay sex.” Which could imply that we think our being gay shouldn’t be surrendered to daily death so much as it should be reinterpreted or redeemed or reformed.

And I get emails from readers who, for that reason, wonder if what we’re saying is really true and faithful. One person told me recently that if gay sex is sinful, then surely everything else about being gay is equally problematic. Surely it’s not enough, this person told me, for you to give up having gay sex; you should also, if you’re consistent, feel the pressure of trying to tweeze out every last part of you that’s gay and repent of it and renounce it too. Surely, if you’re consistent, he said, you can’t say no to the behavior and the think the orientation is redeemable. And I can imagine Butterfield’s words, regardless of her original intention, being read along those lines.

No doubt there are many ways to approach this particular conversation and problem, but here’s the way I’ve been thinking about recently. It seems to me that Christians, like my friend Denny Burk, who criticize the whole behavior-orientation distinction—who say that both are equally sinful, equally fallen, broken, corrupt (pick your preferred negative adjective here)—and thereby deem the entire experience of “being gay” as in need of renunciation may not be considering carefully enough how what we, in modernity, have chosen to call a “homosexual orientation” (or “being gay”) includes much of what Scripture and the Christian tradition commend as Christian virtues. When we contemporary folks start talking about a sexual orientation as what causes us to form deep bonds of closeness with other members of our same sex, for example, quite apart from any genital sexual expression of that closeness, we are using an overarching category—“being gay” or “having same-sex attraction”—that Scripture and the tradition has other language for. Scripture commends friendship or spiritual siblinghood (think Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, Jesus and Lazarus, Euodia and Syntyche, Paul and Timothy) as a way of speaking about especially close same-sex bonds. Scripture and the Christian tradition do not use the language of sexual orientation or, obviously, “being gay,” and so we’re left with the task of figuring out which parts of our experience and behavior that we put in those categories maps (or doesn’t map) onto Scripture’s way of categorizing reality.

We, for reasons that could be, by turns, highly useful and highly misleading and problematic, have chosen to speak of certain same-sex bonds under the label of “sexuality.” When I, for instance, form close friendships with men, I often attribute my original impulse to do so, and my continuing efforts to maintain those friendships, to my sexuality. (That paradigm seems to make sense of my experience: as I once said in an email to a friend, “A sexual orientation is such a complex and, in most cases, it seems, intractable thing; I for one cannot imagine what ‘healing’ from my orientation would look like, given that it seems to manifest itself not only in physical attraction to male bodies but also in a preference for male company, with all that it entails,” such as conversation and emotional intimacy.) But the point is that Scripture would use other language, other categories, for describing what I’m doing in forming chaste same-sex friendships, and it wouldn’t describe it in negative categories. On the contrary, Scripture celebrates same-sex love. Although it is keenly aware of a difference between what Aelred of Rievaulx would call carnal friendship and spiritual friendship, Scripture never says that we need to die to same-sex love.

So, notice a distinction here. Butterfield, Burk, and others seem to be saying that I need to die to, repent of, renounce, etc. every last aspect of “same-sex attraction” or “being gay,” and I think I agree with them almost entirely as long as we’re using their definitions of those terms. For them, I think, “same-sex attraction” or “being gay” or “homosexuality” is something that is defined by its culmination in same-sex genital expression. But many of us (though perhaps not all?) here at Spiritual Friendship are using the terms differently. We’re understanding “same-sex attraction” or “being gay” as broader, more inclusive categories that can’t be reduced to the behavior, or even the desire for, gay sex. Just as chaste chivalry, to take just one example, can be an expression of heterosexuality, so we’re suggesting that chaste friendship (or a number of other ways of expressing love) can be an expression of homosexuality. Having gay sex is one way of being gay, but, if we’re taking our cues from the Christian tradition, it need not (must not) be the definitive way.

My main worry with some of the “renunciation” and “surrender” and “death to self” language that Christians use in relation to homosexuality is that, for most people, it will end up implying that we believe all aspects of “being gay” are sinful. This is a devastating burden for many same-sex attracted Christians to bear, since it then leaves them trying to parse, ever more minutely and obsessively, how much of their desires for friendship, intimacy, companionship, community, etc. are a result of their sexual orientation. Then, if they think that those desires are a result of their same-sex attraction, they’re left feeling that they must repent of things that, surely, God intends for blessing and good in their lives—and things that have a rich history of commendation and sanctification in the history of the Church.

(This is related, I think, to the reasons some of my Catholic friends balk at the language of “intrinsic disorder.”  As Aaron Taylor puts it, “the claim that homosexual acts are disordered obviously entails the judgment that the inclination to those acts is disordered. However, this is usually heard as the Church calling the sexuality of gays and lesbians disordered in toto. Given that the Church teaches that sexuality ‘affects all aspects of the human person,’ it is almost impossible for the layman to distinguish this from the claim that the entire personalities of gay people are disordered.”)

So, yes to death and resurrection. Death to the old Adam, and new life in Jesus Christ. But let’s remember that much of what contemporary Christians would classify under the label “being gay” is part of what Scripture describes under the heading of that new, resurrection life in Christ.

This is more of a thinking-out-loud post than I sometimes write, and I’d be grateful to hear your thoughts in response.

63 thoughts on “Is Being Gay Sanctifiable?

  1. I appreciate your thoughts, as always. I think you’re right to note the difference in definitions. I think Burk et. al. would probably want to ask you why for you these bonds of deep friendship are included in what you consider your orientation- I can imagine him saying something like, scripture assumes a heterosexual norm in its portrayal of same-sex friendship, and it seems problematic to associate that drive towards deep same-sex friendship with your orientation. To my mind that is the point that needs to be fleshed out more. I could also imagine him saying something to the effect that surrendering one’s sexuality to Christ, done “rightly” (i.e. with a right understanding of the gospel) produces freedom rather than obsessive self-evaluation, and I think he’d say that to any heterosexual person as well. Although surely the challenge toward that sort of unhealthy introspection is much more pronounced in a gay Christian uncertain how to parse her various desires.

  2. So I may be skating on thin ice here (or this might just be the part where I crash through to the freezing water beneath!)

    I have found the homosexuality-as-disability viewpoint most helpful in this discussion, as I spend a lot of my time working with people of various disabilities and have seen how that plays out differently with different people. On one extreme, disability is a catalyst as part of a spiritual struggle that forms lives like Joni Eareckson Tada or one of my own brief mentors, Allan Tibbels (a quadriplegic doing urban ministry in one of the most dangerous parts of Baltimore.) At the other end are people whose organic deficits are minimal and their traumatic experiences or own sins (e.g. addiction) have disabled them– to the point that even collect a disability check for their somatized back pain. And everything in between.

    Among the “in between” are people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses– and while I realize that calling homosexuality a “mental illness” is a very politically incorrect to do, I think that there are some advantages here to using that lens.

    We have come a long way to recognize that mental illnesses have roots in both genes and environment, that they are not normative, and they usually require a more intense level of spiritual management to live a holy life. We’ve also recognized that people with mental illness are often blessed/cursed with different ways of looking at the world and that often fuels a unique & beautiful sense of community (not to mention many great works of art and acts of service to others!) Bipolar disorder is, in many ways, stretching out the normal highs and lows of life in catastrophic ways, perhaps akin to how gay desire (or any unchaste desire) is stretching the normal love we ought to have for brothers and sisters. We recognize that having bipolar disorder inclines people to sin more often when they’re manic or depressed, but putting sin to death in those circumstances embracing your identity, recognizing your pitfalls, and fighting temptation.

    The main point where this analogy falls apart is in the sense that we not only try to equip people with mental illness through counseling to deal with the ups and downs for being ill, we also usually give them medication so that they hear fewer voices or get depressed less often. The only sexual sin that we even consider pharmacological management with are compulsive sexual aggressors, and even that has mixed results. However, I think that the overall schema– this is part of who a person is, gives them opportunities that others don’t have, gives them struggles others don’t have, and needs to carefully worked out with help from community– is applicable for both mental illness and homosexuality.

    • Thank you Matthew for your comment. As some one who deals with same sex attraction and bipolar disorder, it feels sometimes like an insurmountable burden. Like you’ll never, ever, be good enough for God. However, your comment brought a new perception, that the extra challenge could bring one closer to God. Thank you.

    • Matthew I appreciate your perspective. I too take a disability model. However, I believe a mental illness label is a grievous misdiagnosis. Having been a mental health therapist, I would not diagnose someone who is gay as having a mental illness simply for being gay–because having same-sex attraction is not an illness. Even though it was not removed from the DSM until the 1970s, already by the late 1950s Evelyn Hooker’s study had demonstrated that when two groups of men–one heterosexual and one homosexual–were given psychological tests for which the evaluator had no knowledge of their sexual orientation–the evaluators were unable to discern a difference between the two groups. These findings were replicated by Freedman in 1971. So contra the usual story, it wasn’t just the pressure of gay activists that prompted the removal. There were studies indicating that mental illness was not an appropriate diagnosis before 1973.

      Even most of the efforts to pin same-sex attraction on developmental factors have proved problematic (e.g. bad mother or father). There is a study that suggests men, but not women, have somewhat higher rates of being bisexual or gay if they were sexually molested as children. However, this would be more of a neurochemical issue where the brain associates the stimuli with particular circumstances, rather than typically understood mental illness.

      Our sexual attractions seem much more connected to biological factors that are then “helped along” by environmental factors. I think of, for example, the study that shows men with more older brothers are more likely to be gay (the percentage increasing proportionally to the number of older brothers). There appears to be something going on in utero. I also think about how many gay people, not all, but many can be gender atypical–again suggesting biological aspects not mental health. There is a higher rate of left-handedness among both gay men and lesbians, etc.

      I realize mental illness can be caused by organic factors as well, but I see a distinction in what would normally be classified as mental illness and what we see in the psychological health of a gay person. Of course, etiology is diverse so there is always the possibility the mental health issues may play some role. But unless there are other factors going on, a gay person can be perfectly psychologically well-adjusted.

      The mental illness label has been used to demonize gay people in the past so that is a problem too. Just read some of the religious right propaganda about how gay people have personality disorders etc. Really awful stuff. And in Uganda there was some talk for awhile about forcing psychological treatment on gay people to “cure” them. Or we can also recall forced shock treatment and other atrocities of the past.

      • Karen K,
        Thanks for your thoughtful analysis. I would not go so far to say that homosexuality *is* a mental illness, but that the attitude we ought to adopt towards homosexuality & sinfulness is similar to the one we adopt towards mental illness & sinfulness– that is, recognizing that both homosexuality & mental illness have strong organic origins but can be shaped by choices, that both grant added struggles with sin but also unique & beneficial views on the world, and that both will usually require more community and personal effort for vigorous sanctification. This only pertains to the question of “eradicating sin,” not overall sexual identity. I hope that is a helpful clarification!

    • I’m a bit skeptical of the disability model, as it implies the existence is “abled” persons. In contrast, Scripture tells us that we are all broken sexually; it’s just that we are all broken in different ways.

      Given the complexity of human sexuality, I’m not sure that it makes sense to isolate one aspect of that complex equation and insist that it defines the essence of who we are as sexually. For example, sinful lust doesn’t merely spring from one’s orientation. It also requires that there be a specific drive to commit sexual acts with someone. I’d argue that the sex drive is more essential to one’s sexuality than orientation. After all, I pass by hundreds of guys every day, yet only about once a month or two do I pass a guy and am led to think, “Wow, I like to….”

      As an additional example, consider pedophilia. The overwhelming majority of same-sex pedophiles are not generally attracted to the same sex: Sexual orientation plays no role at all in their sexuality.

      So, I think it’s hard to make the analogy that the disability model assumes: That is, that sexual orientation is to sexuality as leg movement is to walking.

      I haven’t read Butterfield’s book, so I hesitate to comment on it. I suspect that she is simply saying that all of us–regardless or orientation–need to recognize that we’re broken sexually in any number of ways and that our sexuality needs to be redeemed. For too long we as Christians have excused certain forms of heterosexual lust as natural. It’s not. A single guy’s sexual lust is always sinful, whether it’s directed to the guy net door or the girl next door.

      I’m not sure that we can expect sanctification to shift our orientation, although it ought to shift the way it expresses itself. Marriage won’t effect a post hoc cure of sexual sin any more than remaining celibate does. We have to work to redeem it and channel it in directions that reflect God’s grace and holiness.

  3. I think that any perspective that sees homosexuality as uniquely disordered/”disabled” etc. without realising that the exact same is equally applicable to heterosexuality – in the terms sketched by Steve Holmes’ Queer Hippo piece – ends up in dangerous waters. []

  4. I just wonder about this statement: “When I, for instance, form close friendships with men, I often attribute my original impulse to do so, and my continuing efforts to maintain those friendships, to my sexuality”. I would wonder, on the other hand, whether your desire for close friendships with men has so much to do with your sexuality. If it does then why do heterosexual men desire such friendships and I believe well adjusted men comfortable with their heterosexuality, do desire such relationships (David and Jonathan). Maybe such relationships would be more evident in all heterosexual men if we didn’t live in such an over-sexualized, individualistic culture. So, maybe your sexuality plays a part in those friendships but isn’t at all the driving force or the sustaining power. Maybe by attributing your desire for these relationships to your sexuality, you are simply giving your sexuality too much credit.

    • I think this comes out more thinking about health heterosexual cross gender friendship. Gender is always there, but sexuality is not always central. I would guess that that is the same for you. Your relationships with other men always have the reality of the fact that you are attracted to men in general. But among the particular friendships that sexuality may not be the central place in the friendship.

  5. This is an excellent post that makes an important point.

    The primary thing I would add is closely related to what Matthew Loftus and ladenheart have already mentioned – I think it’s pretty clear there’s a biological component even to problematic sexual temptation. We know that the Fall affects our bodies in numerous ways, and I think sexual same-sex feelings are often part of that. I understood some of this as the “Waiting” part of “Washed and Waiting” – while God will ultimately redeem all that is wrong with our bodies, it may not happen in this life.

    I think it’s important to focus on our heart and our will, and I’m not sure it makes any sense to repent of something that doesn’t come from that. In other places Karen K has made a good point – if Jesus was fully human, his sexuality would have the same biological wiring as another person’s, and he must have experienced sexual attraction in that sense even though he wasn’t to be married. To say otherwise amounts to docetism. And because Jesus did not sin, that means there is a non-sinful way to experience sexual attraction towards a person that it would be inappropriate to pursue a sexual relationship with. (This obviously doesn’t mean that *my* response is free of sin.)

    Now in practice it can be difficult to figure out exactly where the will becomes involved, and pointing to biology could easily become an excuse to harbor sinful thoughts and attitudes. But as ladenheart points out (and as Denny Burk acknowledges in his article), this isn’t fundamentally different than continued opposite-sex sexual attraction that a married person feels towards people other than his or her spouse. I tend to think that rather than calling the sexual component of the orientation something itself to be repented of, we need to work on our own sinful responses and the sinful heart and will that lead to those. I think that the pastoral thinking that has already been happening for straight people is useful when it comes to this particular component of same-sex attraction.

  6. I deeply appreciate your article and as you said you are thinking a bit out loud. You are also touching on what could be the catalyst for dialog between the different stakeholders in this discussion because you are asking more questions than you are giving answers and you are asking so many questions at once.

    I relate to the judgment that my sexual inclinations are influencing my choice of friends. When I walk into a room of strangers it impacts who I want to connect with. I want to connect to the good looking guy. I used to not allow this to bother me because I realized that this is a fairly common tendency among people regardless of orientation. But I would invite you to consider the possibility that this tendency although common is not serving you well as a window onto deeper friendships

    The definition of terms also matters and is key. It is perhaps why the word gay can be problematic because of all it carries.

    On of the questions at the root of what you are asking is, can I love all of me or are there aspects of me I simply must not accept and must root out. In my experience and I believe this is consistent with Church doctrine, God loves and accepts all of me. I cannot take a part of me and reject and hate it. There is a very young part of me, a precious part of me, that is pretty desperate for male affection and has sexualized men. I need to have compassion on that part of me.

    The second issue is the parsing of same sex attraction. I believe ALL healthy men have same sex attraction. Not all men sexualize that attraction. Of those that do some have come to welcome it and for some that is unwanted. I also think that many men with unwanted sexualized same sex attraction interpret much of their healthy normal same sex attraction as being “gay” when it is in fact normal and God given. Normalizing that aspect of same sex attraction is an important part of coming to terms with my own unwanted sexualization of men.

    I have done a great deal of work on how the sexualization of men was impacting my friendships. How it impacted my choice of friends and how it impacted who I worked to go deeper with. It raised a series of questions that to me indicated that the impact of my sexuality was not a healthy one and that in fact it indicated that the attractions themselves caused a disorderedness that was impacting me in every aspect of my my relationship.

    Why do I prefer the younger friend to the friend my age? Why do I prefer the attractive friend to the unattractive friend? Why do I prefer the friend with the square jaw and the flat abs to the friend with the round chin and a few extra inches on the waist?

    Although I have many good chaste friendships, why do I prefer the friend who fits a sexual ideal over the friend who doesn’t. That seemed to me to be intrinsically disordered. My value system tells me I should prefer friendships with men of character, wisdom and who are capable of emotional accessibility. Physical beauty really should be irrelevant or at least far less important than they are.

    It isn’t just that I prefer them. I intuitively feel safer, feel more emotionally connected, feel more at ease, have fewer boundaries, am more open and vulnerable, and am vulnerable to becoming enmeshed with the attractive man.

    But the thing that most reminded me of gay sexual patterns was one more question. Why do I prefer the “new” friend to the “old” friend. The quest for novelty among most gay men is close to a mania. The number and variety of sexual partners is well documented. That I have this same tendency to be drawn to novelty in friends I found particularly disturbing.

    In doing my own self exploration around this issue I have discovered that the man I am drawn to tends to have a certain appearance, but he also has a certain personality. I have tended to project aspects of my own personality on him and rather than being a door to deeper friendship, my own disordered way of relating interferes with true intimacy by obscuring the real man behind the things I am projecting on him.

    In addition, when I begin my friendship on this basis I have a tendency to build a friendship that is based less on mutuality and more on dependence, viewing the other man as an ideal.

    I have found that the less my attractions control who I befriend and who I pursue deeper friendships with the less they are obscured by these projections.

    I suspect that the kind of disorderedness that I am speaking about may be fairly common among both homosexual and heterosexuals who are drawn to others for surface reasons like appearance. If I was more Christ like, when I scanned a room I would be using criteria other than appearance.

    • Seems to me that this is a real danger. I try to constantly examine my conscience on this issue. Most of my close friends are straight men. What attracted me to seek out their friendship was more about shared values and interests. Later on as our friendships have grown I now see some attractiveness, physical and just personality, that I had not seen before. I don’t sexualize the attraction, or at least try not to, but I know it’s there. We are all naturally inclined to beauty. We shouldn’t fear that. Even with women I tend to cultivate friendships more readily with those I find attractive. And I have little sexual attraction to women. I would bet that straight guys are also more inclined to form friendships with men they find attractive even if they would never say it like that.

      • Seems to me that the opposite is true as well. That the more we know a person the more that they become attractive to us. And not only in a sexual way. Relationship binds us to people. And we are attracted to them in part because we are friends.

        As a heterosexual male, I hear many other heterosexual males sexualize relationships with women who are not their spouse in a similar way. I think we need to allow ourselves to have a category of ‘attracted, but not sexually’ for people that we are friends with.

        I don’t think I am trying to de-sexualize the other, but rather see the relationship as more than sexual attraction because the attraction is personal, not sexual. And in our sex saturated culture we don’t have categories for attraction that is not sexual.

    • I think you raise some good points. Good things to attend to–that our attraction and desire for friendship is not being driven by superficial things. A struggle I think is universal apart from sexuality. There is a reason why virtually all the Fortune 500 men are taller than average, for example. Beautiful people have advantages. Studies show parents are more likely to treat their more attractive children better than homely ones. If you are a beautiful woman you are more likely to get roadside assistance than if you are not attractive. If you are a tall man, you are going to have advantages in life simply for being tall as a result of people’s perceptions.

      I do believe, however, that the excitement we feel about someone can be very positive. And in fact, most people feel a certain excitement about someone they are drawn to for whatever reason. I suppose some of this might be a little bit different for women since sexual attraction is often connected to emotional attachment. So, sexual attraction could actually occur because the relationship has deepened and is based on respect for character and genuine shared interests.

  7. Wes, I really appreciate your insight that many things we may call “being gay” are actually lauded in the New Testament as being a part of the Kingdom resurrection life. For example, Paul writes, “I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.” (Phil 1:8). Perhaps American evangelicals have so protected and exalted the nuclear family that we are uncomfortable with this kind of friendship language of affection?

  8. I appreciate this post, thank you, Wesley! I read Denny Burk’s post last week, and did feel somewhat burdened by it as you say. I am encouraged by your words regarding using same-sex attraction/love to form edifying and close relationships with people of the same sex, but my one concern (knowing myself a I do) is that my motives and thoughts could become sinful, that they not be totally I would pray for deliverance from this aspect of my gayness, but I would hope that it could also be redeemed in my friendships with other women as you say.

  9. Really interesting and helpful piece!

    A few thoughts and questions:

    1. I appreciate the attention given to the definitions of the terms being used by different parties here, because that is where I believe that many of the key differences lie. One of my concerns is that the term ‘gay’ is being stretched in a manner that undermines communication. While I can agree with the claim that the desires associated with ‘being gay’ can be expressed (or sublimated) in chaste friendship with persons of the same sex, to claim that this is just another form of ‘being gay’ seems to me to be pressing the terminology beyond the point of clarity. ‘Being gay’, for better or worse, is generally associated with explicitly sexual desire, so to present chaste friendship as a way of ‘being gay’ strikes me as an affirmation of the desire in its unsublimated form. Perhaps if the language of the asexual community were borrowed and we were speaking about being ‘homoromantic’ and were talking about ‘romantic friendships’, we might be on different territory.

    2. I think that the language of ‘intrinsic disorder’ still has its place, but needs to be handled with considerably more care and precision than one usually encounters, and with the sorts of qualifications that you raise. It strikes me that, in response to the concerns raised in these debates, a number of Christian writers are edging towards a sort of ‘queering’ of human sexuality more generally (the Steve Holmes piece linked in the comments below is an example of this, as is Michael Hannon’s recent First Things article). I believe that these movements, while they rightly expose the fact that ‘heterosexuality’ is shot through with concupiscence (hardly news to any of us, I am sad to say) and is corrupted in every part by sin, fail to take seriously the fact that, despite the ubiquitous reality of sin, there is still place for a discourse concerning the natural or created order and that, while grossly distorted, the natural is never completely erased or rendered inoperative. Rightly to acknowledge that we are all ‘disordered’ or ‘disabled’ throughout is not the same thing as saying that we are all disordered or disabled in the ‘exact same’ or ‘equal’ manner.

    3. I also think that there is a need for a place for recognizing departures from the natural pattern that are not thereby labelled as ‘disordered’, sinful, or excluded from being the sites and sources of incredible grace. Recognizing both dimensions of this strikes me as potentially important. I do not believe that the attempts that I encounter to ‘naturalize’ or ‘normalize’ things such as physical disability of various forms or diverse psycho-sexual identities are typically appropriate (i.e. we need a discourse about the ‘natural’, but we should recognize that Christian spirituality and ethics exceed its bounds). Nor, more importantly, do I believe that they are necessary in order to discover these things as the paths of Christian gift and vocation.

    4. Finally, I am concerned about a general internal shift in the locus of our identities and believe that gender and sexual diversities are a prominent instance of this (some of my comments here are tangentially relevant, I think). As a ‘cisgendered heterosexual’ (albeit celibate) Christian, I receive my story and identity primarily from without, rather than as self-ascriptions. Within the work of Spiritual Friendship and others, I see a sort of implicit struggle between the primacy of two modes of identification: an identity narrated from without and one narrated from within. It seems to me that, in the absence of the Church’s provision of a robust narrative within which Christians with same-sex desires can recognize themselves—the emphasis upon spiritual friendship as an established and protected form, not just a self-given identity—a less healthy emphasis upon self-ascribed stories and identities name the ‘wound’.

  10. Hi Wesley,

    For a while now I’ve struggled with the term “same-sex attraction” when it is used negatively. It seems to me that often in Christian evangelical circles in the UK “SSA” is used as shorthand for “same-sex sexual attraction” which I suppose would be the rather more clumsy SSSA. I know this is primarily a language distinction but in one sense I see being attracted to members of the same sex (in the sense of seeing good things in them and liking them) as a good thing. The opposite of “same-sex attraction” would then be “same-sex repulsion” which is clearly not a good thing! In UK evangelical churches though it seems that terms such as “same-sex attraction”, and “same-sex relationships” are seen as entirely sexual in nature, which worries me. So I am pleased to see that you describe “same-sex love” as something which can be, in its platonic sense, a good thing. Personally, I can’t bring myself to say to people “I am same-sex attracted” – because it seems absurd to me that I wouldn’t like people of my own gender, which is why I use the label “I am gay and celibate” instead.

  11. Hey Wes,
    Along with some of the other commenters above, I don’t understand why you would attribute your desire for male friendship to your orientation. Don’t heterosexual men desire male friendship? I know I desire female friendship.
    In fact, don’t the old-school stereotypes of gay men portray them as more comfortable in friendships with women? You know, the stereotype of a woman’s gay best friend? Since their relationships with men are sexualized, friendships with women are safer.
    Have I misunderstood what you are saying?

    • I suppose what is called a “bromance” between straight guys can actually have a genuinely romantic component/spark when it’s a friendship between a gay guy and another guy (gay or straight). My reading is that Wes is saying this could be a positive as long as it’s chaste.

      The the old-school stereotypes of women and their gay-best-friends hold but gay men can sometimes be far more misogynistic than straight men (and a similar misandry can be found among gay women) because they don’t feel they need friends of the opposite sex.

      I know Christians should rise above all of these social divisions!

  12. I read the Burk article linked from this site.

    One thing that article demonstrates is that if one is going to use Greek to prove a point, one should be able to actually read Greek rather than just looking up word meanings.

    The construction of the sentence in Matthew 5 that Burk uses to demonstrate that homosexual orientation is “pros to” plus the infinitive, which is consistently used throughout Matthew as a construction of intention (at least, when the subject of the verb is a person). Had Christ wanted to condemn mere desire rather than intentional desire, He could more easily have used a participle & verb (“a man, while looking at a woman, lusts…”) or a simple kai (and) construction (“looks and lusts”). Both are fairly common constructions in the NT. Christ is quite careful to specify intentional lust, “…looks after a woman IN ORDER to lust after her.” Which pretty much undoes Burk’s argument that the verse condemns the mere experience of desire.

    The fact is the Burk is reading his opinion back into the text here, as well as later when he deals with adultery, etc. beginning in the heart, and in his treatment of Romans 1. He is really just proof texting rather that dealing with the actual Scriptures and that is always a dangerous thing to do, especially when the result is the condemnation of people for merely experiencing temptation.

    So, while part of what Burk cautions is legitimate according to his definitions of homosexuality, his approach destroys the distinction between sin and temptation – a distinction which must remain or else we will eventually deny the incarnation. For part of the doctrine of the incarnation is that Christ Himself was tempted, even as we are, yet without sin. If one is to beginning defining temptation as sin, then Christ could not have been tempted and, therefore, Christ could not have assumed a fully human nature. And, if this is the case, then no one, of course, can be saved.

    • Matt,

      I’m not even sure that I’d go so far as to say that sexual orientation is “experiencing temptation.” Sexual orientation often expresses itself in relatively benign ways. For example, when I walk through the aisles of Whole Foods on Saturday morning, there are any number of attractive men and women. Invariably, in that context, an attractive guy is more likely to catch my gaze than an attractive woman. But there’s nothing sinful about acknowledging mentally that someone else is attractive. (Mentally undressing them is another story.) So, the mere fact that my gaze is more likely to be captured by an attractive guy than an attractive woman isn’t a temptation to sin, even though it’s a reflection of my orientation.

      That being said, I agree that temptation to sin is not sin. But it’s worth acknowledging that sexual orientation expresses itself in ways that are even more benign than that.

    • Both Burk’s and Augustine’s arguments appear to depend on knowing things that were in the mind/thoughts of Christ rather than explicit dependence on scripture. So, it would not be surprising to find that both of them were reading into scripture what they thought they could find there.

  13. I can understand Wes’ comment on friendship. The friends I make are female – I feel more connected and secure in the relationship. I tend to find myself wary of male company because I feel like they may become attracted or misunderstand my friendliness (which I learned the hard way). I know that I should be able to befriend any sex, but I find that this is the way things fall out naturally for me.

  14. Wes: as I read your thinking-out-loud I was reminded of something Stephen wrote on his Sacred Tension blog, FLling in Love. “It suddenly became impossible to tell what a ‘homosexual act’ was. Was a quick kiss a homosexual act? Was holding hands a homosexual act? When does a hug become sinful? When you are hugging the gay man you want to spend the rest of your life with? The one you want to share your body with? Sometimes, even looking at him was a sexual act..” I guess our more standoffish North American customs protect you against the kiss and holding hands; you might have problems I. Countries where two heterosexuals can greet with a kiss or hold hands while walking. But hugging is becoming popular here in Christian circles. And then there is always “just looking.” Have you run into dilemmas like this.

  15. Corrections: 1) you might have problems in countries where two heterosexuals..2) I meant to put a question mark after the last sentence.

  16. Interesting post Wes. Definitely thought provoking. Its interesting how some of this stuff is resurfacing. In some ways it feels like a throwback to an earlier church era and I worry that it will push things back a little. At the same time, I think it can help us to really think through some of these ideas more thoroughly.

    I feel that most people who consider sexual orientation sinful and put this issue in the sanctification basket are committing a bit of a category error. If you just take your thoughts captive and think on whatever is lovely then you can overcome the attractions. But that ultimately, for the gay person, would be the eradication of sexuality. Its a demand to become either asexual or heterosexual which is pretty much impossible for most gay people. So the demand is not something that can be met, and as a result it causes tremendous despair. One cannot achieve what one is being told s/he must do.

    This is why I also think the disability model is helpful. There are some people, for example, who have disabilities that affect judgment–like Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. You can tell a person with FAS until your blue in the face that they need to grow in their ability to make sound judgments. After all, having sound judgment is a Christian virtue. But that person’s brain does not have the same capacity for that.

    In my own experience, I can tell the difference between what areas are capable of being sanctified and which areas are not. I have been celibate for more than 12 years because of growth in sanctification. I took me several years to attain celibacy. And I am certainly weak and susceptible to faltering, but I am much different on many levels than when I was younger. I actively take my thoughts captive if they are turning toward lust, etc. So the sanctification aspect is there. At the same time I am a sexual person and I can’t change the fact that I am attracted to women. It is what it is. It only causes despair to try to change something I am unable to change (which, incidentally is why I got off the ex-gay track).

    I would like to see those who conflate orientation with behavior to think through more clearly what it is they are asking. I feel they are operating under faulty notions of what it means to be gay including ignoring potential biological/disability factors. The disability model is helpful because it acknowledges something is amiss and needs to be redeemed but also recognizes that a disability cannot be repented of or sanctified. It would require a physical healing.

    On another note, I wonder how Butterfield would clarify her statement. I know much of her thinking on this comes from John Owen and what she means by “kill” is the more theological term “mortification.” Mortify the flesh and its sinful desires. Put to death the deeds of the body. As I understand it she does believe there is the window of temptation where something has not yet become sin. In this she would differ from Burk, I think. But I also believe she was using her own life experience to think through the issues and because she has some sexual fluidity she could still be a sexual person while “mortifying” same-sex desire. She could channel sexual self toward her heterosexual attraction. I am not sure how she would frame it for someone who doesn’t have that option.

    PS: In regards to thinking about gayness in relation to friendship. I might need to rethink that. I agree with some of the others that perhaps we should not be labeling some things as “gay” when its just platonic love. I know in my own experience I can tell when I have a romantic attraction to a woman and when I don’t. Its the same with straight people. Straight people are not attracted to all members of the opposite sex. So, I know when there is a romantic feeling and when there is not. But, I don’t think falling in love with someone is sinful or even necessarily sexual. Mothers of newborns often describe the feeling they have as the same as feeling in love. I wonder though if straight people also feel some of that with their same-sex friends? I think women do. Even straight women can have crushes on other women–its just a really strong emotional connection with someone. Not sure how it is with men. Might be a difference between the sexes.

    But in any case, I don’t have any control over my romantic or sexual attractions. They just are. And I just make sure that whatever feeling I choose not to exploit the person in my mind or show favoritism. I also remind myself that it takes time to really get to know someone. Crushes often fade as I come to know someone better. So not trying to assume closeness too quickly. Trust and true friendship take time to build.

  17. “Sexual sin is predatory. It won’t be “healed” by redeeming the context or the genders. Sexual sin must simply be killed. What is left of your sexuality after this annihilation is up to God.” Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

    I am left hanging on the phrase “ What is left of your sexuality after this annihilation is up to God” This hits me like a ton of bricks. I think we forget that Butterfields’ story happened over the course of many years, not overnight. Perhaps surrendering of our sexuality is a more palatable description than killing sexual sin but this is the dramatic course it took in her life and the context she gives it. It is not inconceivable either that Christ would like to do something about whatever might be sexually broken in us. Therefore my take away from what Butterfield is saying here is that we need to leave it in God’s hands. Perhaps the adversarial environment surrounding all that is gay gets in the way. So I hold on to the belief that Jesus is always present with the believer and working to bring us closer to Him.

  18. One more thought in terms of gayness as positive. What if a studied showed that gay men really are more gifted in music or the arts, for example. I know it seems true anecdotally. I don’t know if its been shown in studies yet. But hypothetically if it were true that certain gifts came with this, in what sense could we consider gayness wrong? Or for example some studies have shown that lesbians have higher IQ rates and greater perceptivity skills. How can these be considered negative or fallen? I suppose someone would say its not the result of the gay/biological disposition, but rather these qualities of being different interacted with environmental factors that made same-sex desire more likely. Thus environmental theory. But that to me doesn’t seem to explain the absolute persistence of these attractions. It seems if it was environmental we would see more sexual fluidity as environment could shape in different ways. Also, the fact that the onset seems so closely tied with puberty for many is telling.

    Of course anecdotes are not the same as scientific evidence, but I feel like there is a lot more that needs to be wrestled with theologically in relation to science that we haven’t gotten to yet.

    • Karen,

      I’ve wondered about this as well. If having a gay orientation is intrinsically disordered (i.e., utterly absent of God’s common grace), it would be so because participation in the institution of procreative marriage is required of all of us. But if this is the case, what do we make of the fact that Jesus was single? If Christ lived a sinless life, then, by necessity, there cannot be a universal duty to participate in the institution of procreative marriage. And, if that’s the case, then I have no idea what the basis is for condemning a gay orientation as intrinsically disordered.

      Perhaps sexual orientation, at its most generic level, is as benign as height.

  19. Woah, my mind is spinning. So glad to finally have found some perspectives (in the article, but also in the comments) that take a much broader view of the topic, rather than just “We’re all broken, don’t make it your thing”. Which i tend to find a lot

    Personally i’m really interested in anomalies like children with gender identity disorder and intersexual people. Can they teach us something I wonder>?

    Also very interested in the distinction between physical affection/closeness and sexual contact. A celibate life is one thing. A life without physical affection is another thing entirely.

    • I agree that there is a difference between a celibate life and one without physical affection. I’ve struggled with this quite a bit though as I was taught growing up that homosexual attractions were nothing other than a pattern of sinful attraction, and the natural advice I took from churches was in areas of temptation to avoid “treading too close to the line” by getting into situations where temptation might arise. So physical affection, being alone with other men and forming close friendships were seen by me as “danger areas” and I discovered that I was becoming more and more aloof, independently minded and generally colder in how I related to people of the same gender, which really distressed me. I do remember when I was 19 though, at my first year of uni and really upset that a male friend hugged me and it felt really natural and wasn’t in any way sexualised. But since that one incident I have never had a male friend who has felt bold enough to do that, particularly if they know about my sexuality.

  20. I know that this is barely on-topic. However, I had been meaning to share this thought. I am sorry that certain people have worked to ruin your reputations among self-appointed Defenders of the Faith. Now who will take you seriously besides your circle of followers? Who will look to you for insight? Your work to build bridges will be even more difficult. As I typed this I prayed for God to guide your work. God bless you all.

  21. I think Wesley is on to something vital that we all should be asking ourselves, whatever our desires or our struggles. What about heterosexuality is sanctifiable, if by that I mean culturally mainstream masculine and feminine cultures? For there is much that is predatory about them. Why are we not worked up at least as much about how much straight male culture encourages competition and domination, over how normal it is for men to kill each other? About the normalcy of militarism, machismo and misogyny in mainstream masculine culture? There may be comparable things in straight female mainstream culture, but as a man, my plate is full dealing with the stuff that comes with the mainstream straight male identity that is my social inheritance.

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  23. Wes, I read your post moments after you posted it a few weeks ago and have been thinking about it ever since. I think I’m finally able to explain some of my thinking. I’ve scanned the comments to see if this issue has come up, and I don’t think it has. I apologize if I’ve missed something and this is duplicative.

    First, a few disclaimers. I’m not a theologian. Or a psychologist. I’m heterosexual and do not have personal experience with homosexual feelings or homosexual relationships. I have not read Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s book, nor have I heard her speak. I’ve read a couple articles about her. So, perhaps I am disqualified, on all counts, from commenting!

    There is one thing I bring to the table, though, that is relevant to my comments. I am female, and any friendships and thoughts and feelings and sexual experiences I’ve had have been experienced through a female mind and heart.

    So, here’s what I’m wondering: is it possible that Butterfield’s thoughts and feelings on the subject of “being” gay and “becoming” sanctified are, in fact, viewed through the lens of being female . . . and is it possible that the experience of being female and “sanctifying” one’s “gayness” is a different experience than that of being male and “sanctifying” one’s “gayness?”

    All the quotation marks, of course, draw acute attention to the point you and others have addressed: definitions are critical here. I certainly don’t have any answers. I do wonder, though, if the ways that the sexual experiences of men and women differ would impact precisely the issues that you and she are talking about.

    I’ll try to elaborate a bit. Anecdotally (I won’t try to quote research here . . . it’s not my field), men (both hetero- and homo-sexual) are more capable of physical affection in the absence of commitment than women are. Anecdotally, women seem to associate physical affection with connection and emotional intimacy in a way that men sometimes don’t. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that women’s sexual feelings go deeper, but they certainly seem to be experienced differently than men. So, isn’t it possible that a woman seeking to “sanctify” her “gayness” might have to dig deeper, to “kill,” to “annihilate” those sexual feelings, while a man might experience that very differently?

    This, too, is a thought experiment. I may be way off base. Those with direct experience may disagree, and I would gladly defer to them. So, let’s just consider this a wondering. I wonder if this might be the difference between your thinking and experiences, Wes, and Rosaria’s.

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  38. Hello,

    It was stated in the article:

    “So, for instance, she goes on to say that a lot of young Christians think their pornography addictions will be cured if they can just get married. (A misreading of 1 Corinthians 7:9, I might add.)”

    Could you expound on that misreading of 1 Corinthians 7:9?

    Thank you,

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