I’ve been working behind the scenes to help organize a small gathering (about which I hope to say more in due course) on the topic of Christianity and homosexuality, and I had an insight today, as I was working on this, that I’m not sure I’ve had before.
I was discussing with the other event coordinators the title for the gathering. We’re pretty sure it’s going to be “Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction: Finding Paths to Ministry.”
But just as the flyers are about to go to press, someone pointed out an ambiguity in the title. It’s not clear whether “ministry” in the subtitle refers to the ministry Christians have towards and for gay Christians or the ministry gay Christians themselves have in the body of Christ (and the world at large). Should we, this person wondered, alter the title so as to remove the ambiguity or should we leave it as it is?
I ended up making the case for leaving it as it is and hoping that the ambiguity will be provocative and productive. But as I stepped away from the email thread and thought about it more, I wondered if maybe this exchange between the other organizers and me was a microcosm of some of the larger patterns of miscommunication and misunderstanding that we in the Christian world have around the issue of homosexuality. Is our goal to try to find a way to help a certain subset of broken, struggling Christians find healing and hope? Or, even if something so limited isn’t our goal, do we often talk in such a way that people might have that impression? Or, alternatively, is our goal to try to encourage gay people in our churches to recognize the way their (our!) “particular mix of the Fall” (as Francis Schaeffer called it) and their equally particular experiences of grace and redemption may have uniquely positioned them to bring gifts to the church and the world that no one else has?
It struck me today that perhaps what we’re doing here at Spiritual Friendship could be captured in the ambiguity of that word “ministry.” Yes, we want gay people who are lonely and hurting to find sheltered spaces where they can receive forgiveness, the binding up of wounds, and the comfort needed to go on hoping. We want them to be ministered to. But we also—and perhaps even more prominently—want gay people who are in Christ to follow their callings, impart their stories, offer their insights, and exercise the full range of their gifts in the church and for the sake of the world. We want them to do the work of ministry.
A wise Christian mentor said to a group of us recently that perhaps many celibate gay Christians have (among other gifts) a particular genius for cultivating and sustaining close friendships. If so, that can be understood as a ministry—not so much anyone’s ministry to us but our ministry to others. It’s a ministry we are called to and equipped to perform, not simply a ministry we receive.
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Yes, yes and YES !!
Let the ambiguity remain. We have a lot to offer as we remain in the hands of God.
“A wise Christian mentor said to a group of us recently that perhaps many celibate gay Christians have (among other gifts) a particular genius for cultivating and sustaining close friendships.”
The thing is, when I was an adolescent and young adult (I’m about to attend my 50th college reunion), I thought that it was sinful to be attracted to other males, or at least to think about those to whom I was strongly attracted — even though my thoughts did not include anything explicitly sexual. That and a general shyness made me incapable of cultivating and sustaining close friendships.
Even as I became more relaxed about my attractions, I never developed an aptitude for friendship.
So I think that modeling friendship is something that can be valuable for gays to see as much as for straights.
It sounds like your problems were liked less to your attractions and more to your ego dystonic orientation. I am ego syntonic and have never had problems setting firm boundaries with male friends while, also, being able to touch without getting weird about it or get past our gender issues that plague most straight folks. As men outside of the gender system, we do have a privileged space to form closer friendships that aren’t as bound to these unhealthy restrictions than our straight brethren, I think.
Double what Kevin Browne said!
Yes, we do need help (everyone does), but yes, we have purpose in God’s world, and it’s not someone else we need to become, but rather the best ourselves we can be. All things work together for good to them that love the Lord … That includes my strengths, my weaknesses, and my flaws.
Here is my difficulty with designating a person a ‘gay’ Christian. If homosexual actions, that is, having a romance with a same sex person or sexual intercourse, are sinful and not God’s will, then, to me, it is akin to having a temptation with lying, cheating, pre marital sex, adultery, stealing, pedophilia, or even things like greed, gluttony, coveting, worry, meanness, or the wrong type of anger. Most of us struggle with several of these things. So should we come up with another word to designate one of these other behaviors as gay is to homosexuality? Perhaps we could we could call a person with greed and meanness, a meany greeny, or something like that. Of course I am using overstatement here. What do you think?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, and I think what I’m arriving at is that it just depends on what you mean by “sexuality.” If, when you talk about sexuality, you mean “what turns you on, more or less,” then “gay” just means “being turned on by the same sex,” and I think it’s hard to build a Christ-centered identity on that.
However, it looks like Wes and a lot of the others here who apply the “gay” designation to themselves see sexuality as much bigger than that. Sexuality, in this sense, is something that suffuses our whole experience. It affects how we see the world, how we relate to other people, how we make friends, what we value in relationships. In other words, it’s broader than the Biblical teaching on sexual behavior. If this is how you see sexuality (and subsequently homosexuality), then designating yourself as a “gay Christian” makes just as much sense as designating yourself as an “introvert Christian.” Are there introverted behaviors that are sinful? Sure. But are there ways that God can use my introverted personality to build the Kingdom? Absolutely! So maybe there are parts of my sexuality that, being outside of Biblical teaching on sex acts (though not, of course, outside of God’s law), can be integrated into a Christ-centered identity and can be used to build the Kingdom.
This ambiguity- sexuality (reductionistic) vs. sexuality (holistic) – seems to me like it causes almost as much confusion as the ambiguity between homosexuality (orientation) and homosexuality (behavior), although I would consider them to be different ambiguities. I would love to have more succinct language to talk about sexuality, if anyone has any ideas.
This is a very helpful comment!
I agree with Kyle — this is a very helpful comment!
Ryan I agree with the others, this was helpful.
You express this quite well, Ryan, but something still puzzles me. It’s not clear to me why we should call these non-behavioral aspects of being gay “sexual” at all. Suppose that gay people are gifted in building friendships, or in being artistic, or whatever you like. How are these things manifestations of a *sexual* orientation, since they have nothing to do with sex?
People who object to calling oneself “gay” object to it because homosexuality is a *sexual* descriptor. If our defense of using the word involves no sexual aspects of the word, it’s unclear that we are talking about the same word. In fact, it reminds me of the debate about “marriage”, where the two sides are clearly working with diametrically opposed ideas about what marriage is.
Many conservative Christians think that “gay” is a term about sex and sexual desire. They have no problem with the non-sexual ways we desire same-sex friends. Is the issue here that we are talking past each other — talking about different things? Or is the use of “gay” as a *specifically sexual* term defensible?
One possible explanation for why it might be reasonable to talk about these things as “gay” is that boys who hold hands or embrace on the elementary school playground, or boys who happen to be artistic, are likely to be condemned as “gay” for those displays long before they develop any specifically sexual interests. If two adult men come to Church and one puts his arm around the other while sitting in the pew, many in the congregation will leap to the conclusion that they are gay.
Getting taunted, beaten up, excluded, or threatened with death for these things, under the labels “gay” or “queer” or whatever, does tend to cement a link between the experience and the term, and in some cases, leads to push-back of the kind that you get here at Spiritual Friendship.
I think that’s right, Ron. Sharing a common experience forms a common identity — this is why African Americans have very little in common with Africans, despite “being the same race”. So I think that the impulse to *name* the experience many gay people feel (to call it “being gay”) is natural and good. But this “gayness” is a very fuzzy category, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable for people on the outside to be puzzled by our use of it.
I myself, for example, experienced same-sex attraction from a young age, but didn’t really get singled out or picked on for anything related to it. And many straight kids get picked on for being gay. So sometimes the connection between the “common experiences” you’re talking about and the sexual orientation isn’t very close at all.
My overall point is just a point about language. If we at SF are using the term “gay” to mean “attracted to the same sex”, then conservative Christians are bound to say we’re “defining ourselves by our temptation.” I think they’re wrong about that — at most, we are *describing* ourselves by our temptation, and there might be very good reasons to do that, in a culture which doesn’t think same-sex sexuality is wrong.
However, if we at SF are — as Ryan suggests, and you expand upon — using “gay” to mean something else, then we need to understand that conservative Christians are not likely to “get” it unless we explain it to them. But of course, we can’t explain it if we don’t (among ourselves) get on the same page about it. In essence, we are redefining “gay” for our own purposes, so let’s get clear on the new definition. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with co-opting words, but failing to point out that one is doing so could lead to a lot of confusion. (This is why I love same-sex marriage advocates who explicitly state that they are redefining “marriage” — it just makes for much clearer communication).
I think that is right, up to a point. But I also think that a lot of conservative Christians are guilty of bad faith if, on the one hand, they assume that all sorts of non-sexual gestures of affection are “gay,” and make judgments based on that, and then accuse us of confusing them by talking about “gay” as a term that embraces more than immediately sexual desire.
I agree that it is good for us to try to clarify this. But this is not a confusion that we introduced into the conversation. This is a confusion that we have lived with and suffered from at their hands long before any of us even began to articulate our experience, it is not a confusion that we introduced into the conversation by founding Spiritual Friendship.
I certainly agree that people often argue in bad faith, especially online. We see this among all populations.
As for who is to blame for the miscommunication, I wouldn’t blame anyone. Surely the fact that gay people often behave in certain (nonsexual) ways that are culturally uncommon causes other people to think of these actions as “gay”. The sinful step comes in when some such people think that the “gayness” of those actions is morally censurable. (Surely the intentions of such actions are sometimes subject to moral censure, but to censure the actions themselves is presumptuous.)
But there is a corresponding bad faith that *some* gay people have introduced into the dynamic, whereby they engage in such actions in Christian contexts partially out of a desire to rile people’s feathers — because such a thing is enjoyable. (It is. I’ve done it myself, and it is fun).
Maybe it’s OK for me to eat pork. But I shouldn’t bring my bacon cheeseburger into a gathering of Messianic Jews and then get offended when they express impatience with me.
So bad faith, on both sides, poisons the well of discourse.
This comment gets a STAR!
I wonder what the “receive forgiveness” means in this context, where we’re talking about celibate gay Christians.
I ask this because I recently parted with my evangelical PCA church because the pastors kept wanting me to feel shame (and presumably to seek forgiveness) as a result of my sexual orientation. When I asked folks to demonstrate to me why I should feel shame, I was pointed to an article by a guy named Denny Burk, entitled “Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?” I found Burk’s argument to be unpersuasive, but I think it’s pretty consistent with what many evangelical churches are teaching.
So, I was wondering if this is what is meant by “receive forgiveness” in the above piece. If so, I’m not sure that I can agree.
I think, in this case, receiving forgiveness is used more in terms of the broad experience of the believer, that our relationship to Christ is that of “being forgiven.” I don’t think Wesley Hill was addressing homosexual orientation as something that is a sin.
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Often ignored is the special ministry gay Christians are called to promote the heterosexual family to other homosexuals.
Could you expound on what you mean by that?
Wow. Profound. I am a rockstar at making and sustaining friendships. Its not always reciprocal, but we are gifted differently. I actively see part of my ministry as to stand in the gap for my married friends. To help and support them. Listen and encourage. I’m also that safe friend to hang out with. Singleness and celibacy are not struggles for me. This, I know, Is a blessing.
What a bledsing Bo!
May God keep blessing you now and always…
I wonder what it is about us that makes us good at making friends and developing intimate relationships with others. Obviously that’s not true of all gays but in my experience it’s true of most of the ones I know (including myself). What’s tough about that is that most straight people seem to drift off after marriage and sometimes become each other’s only true intimate friend. To me that’s scary because I feel like eventually (I’m in my late twenties) most of my friends will drift off and I’ll be alone. What’s also frustrating is that I honestly feel like I’m the only gay one in my very large group of friends. The ones I think are gay always end up getting married (lol!). Regarding a special ministry. I think that the Christian world at large will never be able to understand this. It is hard for most traditional Christians to see being gay as morally neutral. Just the orientation is suspect and calling oneself gay is the same to them as saying “I’ve slept with twenty guys”. Christians have a hard time accepting a middle path of understanding. Either they outright condemn or totally condone. Add to this the general Protestant dislike of celibacy and things make more sense. Catholicism offers a much better theological framework yet we still have the same two poles in the Church. I’m one step from coming out of the closet to my conservative Catholic group of friends and just letting them make their choices regarding me. It’s getting tiring. Problem is I’m a ministry leader. And everyone knows that in the Catholic Church you can be queer as a three dollar bill and head a ministry (especially music/liturgy!) but as long as you don’t officially say anything you’re ok. And that guy you’ve been living with for ten years? Well as long as you call him your roommate you’re a-ok! Honestly, the CC is so hypocritical when it comes to this issue that it’s a constant struggle to take our teaching seriously.
We have to take our teaching seriously. It isn’t that the teaching is wrong. The problem isn’t there, but with the misunderstanding which you so clearly illustrate. What we need is to try to promote a clearer understanding that being “out” does not equate to being sexually active (nor does being closeted equate to chastity).
I wish there were a quick fix, but I’m afraid this may be a generational thing.
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