I’m sure the last thing that most of us want to read is yet another pontification on the term “gay”. Hear me out.
In his book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, the great Reformed theologian John Murray makes a helpful observation that sheds some light on our modern discussion of LGBT terminology. Discussing the Calvinist teaching of Limited Atonement, he asks whether or not the title of the doctrine is a fair representation of the content. He concludes, “But it is not the term used that is important; it is that which it denotes.”
I bring this up, not to discuss controversial doctrines, but because John Murray has unintentionally put his finger on one of the main issues in the gay debate. It seems that one of the questions of perennial interest in this conversation about sexuality is, “What does the term ‘gay’ denote?” Does it denote a particular behavior or sinful lifestyle? Or does it simply describe an experience of sexuality, and say nothing one way or the other about how that experience is lived out? Many conservatives insist on anathematizing the term because they argue it necessarily entails a sinful expression of sexuality. They assert that people who label themselves as gay usually mean to say that they also engage in gay sex.
We here at Spiritual Friendship are living testaments to the fact that this is a false assumption. There are many people that mean no such thing by labeling themselves as gay. In fact, I truly believe that most people in our culture, even unbelievers, do not normally give the term “gay” such a meaning that would denote sexual activity. So why, then, is it such a widely held assumption?
Here’s what I think is happening. We live in a hyper-sexualized society, so much so that it is widely assumed that everyone is having sex. Indeed, from sitcoms to birth control mandates, the prevailing cultural script is that sexual fulfillment is a must for a happy, liberated life. This means that there are many gay people who are indeed having sex. However, it also means that there are many straight people who are having sex. This reality gets at the fundamental issue: the problem is not with the term “gay”; the problem is with our sex-obsessed culture.
I think that many conservatives look around and say, “See? Those gay people are having sex. Therefore, gay means having gay sex.” But that is category confusion. They see the sexual ethic of our culture and import that ethic into the term. In reality, however, gay simply means attracted to the same sex, and straight simply means attracted to the opposite sex, and everyone is having sex quite apart from the term.
To put it slightly differently, I could tell a person I randomly meet on the street that I “experience same-sex attraction”, and their assumption would still be that I was sexually active with men. Simply avoiding the term “gay” does not combat our cultures idolization of sexual activity. Indeed, the real scandal is not, “I’m gay,” but rather, “I’m celibate.” Embracing celibacy will get people looking at you sideways.
I understand the impulse to be set apart as Christians. But in rejecting a straw man of the term “gay”, we are setting ourselves apart from something that doesn’t actually exist. In order to send a truly redemptive, countercultural message to a watching world, our cry should not be, “Don’t call yourselves gay!” but rather, “Celibacy is a life-giving path to joy and fulfillment and community in Jesus.” Now we’re getting somewhere! How powerful would it be if gay and straight Christians, together with one voice, testified, “Yes, I have sexual urges, but they do not rule my life because Jesus is better. And celibacy is not primarily a lack, but an invitation to deep relationships, intentional community, and sacrificial love.”
It seems to me that this narrative is more effective in addressing the very issue that the “don’t use gay” folks are trying to tackle. The intentions are noble, but the focus is misguided. Focus on celibacy. It is good. Get on board.
Nick Roen is currently pursuing a M.Div. with an emphasis in worship at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He previously graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Lacrosse, receiving a bachelors degree in Music Theory and Composition. He can be found on Twitter @roenaboat.