On Disagreeing About “Homosexuality”: A Thought Experiment

As Mark Yarhouse pointed out yesterday, Julie Rodgers (and by extension many of the rest of us who blog here at Spiritual Friendship) has recently been facing criticism from her fellow Christians for the way she describes her sexuality and her faith. She writes:

A gay orientation can be understood as an overall draw toward someone of the same sex, which is usually a desire for a deeper level intimacy with those of the same sex. Just like a heterosexual orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for straight sex, a gay orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for gay sex. This longing for intimacy is usually experienced as a desire for nearness, for partnership, for close friendship, rich conversation, and an overall appreciation of beauty. The best way I can describe my experience of “being gay” is that with certain women I feel the “it” factor: that sense of chemistry that longs to share life with them, to know and be known by them, to be drawn outside of myself in self-giving love for them. When I feel all Lesbiany, I experience it as a desire to build a home with a woman that will create an energizing love that spills over into the kind of hospitality that actually provides guests with clean sheets and something other than protein bars. Most women feel that chemistry or longing for other men (even though it can’t be reduced to a desire to have sex with other men), while I usually feel like “bros” with men. This causes me to see the world through a different lens than my straight peers, to exist in the world in a slightly different way. As God has redeemed and transformed me, he’s tapped into those gay parts of me that now overflow into compassion for marginalized people and empathy for social outcasts—he’s used my gay way of being for His glory rather than making me straight.

Here’s an example of the kind of pushback Julie has received: Owen Strachan, an assistant professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College, has argued that this way of speaking

is deeply problematic. It is flawed at the core. Our sins do not enrich our perspective on life; our sins twist God’s good gifts and obscure the purposes of our bodies and our world. Sin never improves your outlook on the world. It always distorts it. Please hear me: there is nothing redemptive about sin. Grace, on the other hand, is the very substance of redemption. But sin has nothing to do with goodness. As far as the east is from the west, so far is sin from any positive moral component.

You can read the rest of his argument here, which can be summarized in three points: “1. The Bible never speaks of positive components of our sins… 2. Homosexuality in Scripture is not neutral. It is evil… 3. Homosexual orientation, therefore, does not yield an enhanced Christian spirituality.”

I’m still trying to understand for myself exactly where the disagreement lies, so this post isn’t going to be my last word on the subject. For now, I just want to try out a thought experiment. I want to suggest that these sharply differing views—Julie’s and Owen Strachan’s—are, in part, the result of different understandings of what “homosexuality” fundamentally is.

As I pointed out a few weeks ago, depending on which historical era you lived in, you thought about same-sex desire and same-sex sexual expression differently. If you were a Christian in the medieval era, for instance, you probably thought of same-sex sexual behavior as an instance of lust giving birth to passionate transgression. What was in your sights wasn’t “gay culture” or “being gay” but acting wrongly or desiring wrongly (i.e., being tempted, nurturing lustful imaginations, etc.). You thought about sex between persons of the same sex as a vice that could potentially befall anyone, and you knew that Christianity condemned it categorically, no matter who committed it or what extenuating circumstances there might have been.

Now fast forward a thousand years or so. If you are a Christian in the modern West, you’re now swimming in a culture—including a Christian culture—that doesn’t share that way of thinking about sexuality. Here’s how Steve Holmes has recently summarized where we find ourselves now:

[I]f we truly understand the cultural situation in which we find ourselves, we have to accept that being gay/lesbian is a matter of human identity, not a matter of performing (or desiring) certain erotic activities. Thomas Aquinas could properly treat (male) homosexual activity as one amongst many species of lust, because culturally, that was how he and his readers experienced it; we experience our sexual desires as identities—gay, lesbian, or straight [footnote: Or indeed bi, trans, queer, or asexual…]—and so as something far more profound and basic to our sense of self than merely another experience of desire, whether disordered or not.

Given that gulf between those radically differing ways of thinking about “homosexuality,” I think it may make sense to view the differences between Julie Rodgers (and others of us here at SF) and Owen Strachan as differences between multiple models/definitions of homosexuality. It seems to me that Strachan is viewing homosexuality much more like a pre-modern Christian might: to be homosexually oriented is to experience discrete moments of temptation, forbidden desire, and (perhaps) to perform certain actions or behavior. When Strachan says that “we cannot glean any positive aspects of our patterns of sinful desires,” it’s clear that he’s treating homosexuality as a particular pattern of illicit attraction. Which is very similar to how almost all Christians would have thought about homosexuality until very recently.

But we live in a constantly changing world, and many modern Westerners—especially, but not only, younger people—recognize that “being gay” today is a cultural identity. It’s a community designation (“gay community”); it names a way of being in the world (“gay culture”); it involves a continuous narrative (“when I came out… my gay friends…”); and it can exist even before or without lust and behavior (think of how many teenagers you know came out before their first kiss). It isn’t identical to “lust” or even “desire.”

I want to suggest—and I do so tentatively, as a sort of thought experiment—that when people like Julie (and I) say that their “being gay” can be the time or the place where they experience redemptive grace, they’re speaking very much within a contemporary framework of thinking about homosexuality. They’re recognizing that not all aspects of this new social construct—“being gay”—are reducible to what the Bible names as lust or what pre-modern Christians (and modern ones) recognized as sin. There’s a whole raft of experiences and social connections and relational histories and aesthetic sensibilities that go under the rubric of “being gay” for many of us moderns. And when we suggest that our coming to Christ doesn’t simply erase all that but instead purifies and elevates parts of it, we’re not suggesting that the inclination to have gay sex somehow gets sanctified. Rather, what we’re trying to articulate is that much of who we were as gay is somehow made Christian, somehow made the occasion of Christlike love and service: my connections with my gay friends, my discovery of deep friendship in a specific gay community, my awakened artistic sensibilities that I discovered through my involvement in gay culture (etc. etc. etc.)—those things aren’t simply discarded or displaced when I get baptized. Like the grass and the air in C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, they’re somehow made better and more real and more tilted toward self-giving love.

As I say, I want to think more about all this, and I’d really welcome your comments. For now, I’m posting this more as a provocation and a suggestion than anything else. Do you think this is a useful way to understand this particular disagreement?

UPDATE 12/17/14: Just to be sure you don’t miss it, I’m re-posting here a comment that Alan Jacobs, professor of literature at the Baylor University Honors College, left on my post earlier today. I think it’s very insightful, and Alan has definitely understood what I was trying to say:

I like this line of thought very much, Wes. And I’m going to bring Auden into this, ’cause that’s what I do. When Auden said that he was thankful for being gay — though he believed it sinful to act on his sexual desires — one of the reasons that he usually gave was that it “saved him from being a pillar of the Establishment.” That is, he understood that being heterosexual is also, and to some degree always has been, a social construct, one that, while it certainly involves sexual (biological) desires, also involves a way of performing the self in public, of being a particular kind of public person. (I take this as a Steve Holmes point *avant la lettre*.) It is, among other things, among *many* other things, a means of gaining and maintaining social acceptance, which is of course why so many gay people have married over the centuries: for “cover,” and because getting married is just the thing to do. So if being gay presented Auden with some temptations, it also insulated him from others.

And why shouldn’t we think this way? It strikes me as a thoroughly and properly Christian thing to ask, “In the midst of this trouble or temptation or confusion or affliction or weakness, what blessing does God have for me?” And if, as you suggest, we think of our sexuality not simply as a set of biological urges but as a complex interweaving of the biological, psychological, moral, and social, then it becomes easier to discern this seeking for the hidden blessing as a necessary thing, not as an evasion of moral responsibility.

Now, Owen Strachan would want to say that to seek this hidden blessing is wholly different than to be thankful for sin — and he does not distinguish between people who experience homosexual desire and people who “practice homosexuality,” nor, I suppose, between people who want to get drunk and drunkards. I think he’s interpreting Paul in an extravagantly eisegetic way there, and conflating things that Paul did not conflate, but let’s set that aside for now. (The relationship between the desire to drink and drunkenness is not, I would argue, exactly like the relationship between wanting to have sex with someone and having sex with that someone. But that’s too complicated to get into here.) Right now, I just want to tell a story about my father, who was a drunkard.

My father’s drinking made him abusive to me and my sister; it also landed him in jail. It was a terrible thing. *But*: my father was also a deeply proud, arrogant man who never did wrong in his own eyes. I suspect that these two things are related: that the burdens of pride and arrogance played a role in tempting my father to drink. But whether that’s right or not, in the end it was his drunkenness, and the collapse of his whole life due to drunkenness, that finally and violently shook my father out of his self-satisfaction. For the first sixty years of his life he did little good to anyone; for the last twenty, which he spent devoted to serving people in Alcoholics Anonymous, he did a great deal of good to many people. My sister and I, who had known him primarily in his arrogance and anger, stood stunned at his funeral, greeting person after person who told us that our father had changed their lives.

It was drunkenness that broke my father, and therefore drunkenness that opened the door to his transformation. Now, he had to overcome it, to get past it, but in the long run, what would he have done without it? As I look at his life — his *whole* life, not just a particular moment in it, I don’t know how *not* to be thankful for his drunkenness. Perhaps God could have used some other and less destructive a way to bring my dad around; but I don’t traffic in counterfactuals. Drunkenness was the means God did in fact use.

And isn’t this a Christian — especially an Augustinian — concept? *O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem*. We have to be very careful here, because we have been warned by the Apostle against sinning the more, that grace may abound. But being careful does not mean rejecting the *felix culpa* idea altogether. Perhaps the correct note is struck by Milton’s Adam, in *Paradise Lost*:

> full of doubt I stand,
> Whether I should repent me now of sin
> By me done and occasioned, or rejoice
> Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring,
> To God more glory, more good will to Men
> From God, and over wrath grace shall abound.

“Full of doubt I stand” — thus Adam confronted with a vast and impenetrable mystery. Maybe *this* is part of what is meant by that strange phrase “the mystery of lawlessness”: the role sin and temptation play in the economy of salvation. This is not something about which we can make simply definitive pronouncements. God works in all sorts of mysterious ways, His wonders to perform.

These thoughts lead me to dissent from those who say that if you call yourself a gay Christian you “foreclose the possibility of transformation.” First of all, the statement is just illogical: if I call myself an American Christian I do not thereby forclose the possibility of emigration. But more important — and I’m sure Wes or Ron or Eve or someone on this blog has said this before — this way of thinking dramatically circumscribes what *counts* as transformation. In this way of thinking, transformation is made to equal having your sexual desires directed towards people with certain genitalia, and this strikes me as woefully unimaginative at best. As Mark Y. commented the other day, when Paul stopped praying for the thorn in his flesh to be removed, he wasn’t giving up on the possibility of being transformed. We don’t get to dictate in advance to God *how* he shall transform us, and a person whose sexual desires continue to be directed towards people of their own sex but who directs his or her energies into building communities of spiritual friendship has surely been transformed in deeper ways than the person whose biological desires are merely redirected.

52 thoughts on “On Disagreeing About “Homosexuality”: A Thought Experiment

  1. I agree with you wholeheartedly, but I don’t see how this would be compelling to anyone from the other viewpoint– mostly because when you describe gayness as a lifestyle, you’re (in their eyes) either not repenting hard enough of the things that attach you to this particular sin or you’re describing things that are more peripheral, like someone who would say that they’re an artist and a Christian.

    As someone who (as best as I can remember) used to buy the Strachan&co line about identity and doesn’t anymore, I honestly think that your article about your friend with a child who has Down’s (http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/04/on-bilingual-pastoral-theology) was the most helpful to me in understanding this subject (in addition to, of course, having gay Christian friends of various persuasions for years before I read it.) The idea that some elements of ourselves could be immutable, reflective of our fallenness, and redemptive only through careful stewardship is a really compelling one.

    • @Matthew

      I think Alan’s comment below is helpful. Many of us gays tend to see our identity as having more to do with a rejection of the social privileging of the heterosexual script than with a desire for gay sex.

      I’m not sure that hard-core patriarchalists like Strachan are going to bite, given that patriarchy rests on the notion that the church should force people into performing one of two narrowly prescribed gender-role scripts. But that difference has little to do with what it means to be gay. Rather, it rests on whether the male-female sex binary necessarily requires a corresponding gender-role binary (with restrictive scrips for manhood and womanhood). Strachan would say that it does; most folks here would probably say that it doesn’t.

  2. I like this line of thought very much, Wes. And I’m going to bring Auden into this, ’cause that’s what I do. When Auden said that he was thankful for being gay — though he believed it sinful to act on his sexual desires — one of the reasons that he usually gave was that it “saved him from being a pillar of the Establishment.” That is, he understood that being heterosexual is also, and to some degree always has been, a social construct, one that, while it certainly involves sexual (biological) desires, also involves a way of performing the self in public, of being a particular kind of public person. (I take this as a Steve Holmes point *avant la lettre*.) It is, among other things, among *many* other things, a means of gaining and maintaining social acceptance, which is of course why so many gay people have married over the centuries: for “cover,” and because getting married is just the thing to do. So if being gay presented Auden with some temptations, it also insulated him from others.

    And why shouldn’t we think this way? It strikes me as a thoroughly and properly Christian thing to ask, “In the midst of this trouble or temptation or confusion or affliction or weakness, what blessing does God have for me?” And if, as you suggest, we think of our sexuality not simply as a set of biological urges but as a complex interweaving of the biological, psychological, moral, and social, then it becomes easier to discern this seeking for the hidden blessing as a necessary thing, not as an evasion of moral responsibility.

    Now, Owen Strachan would want to say that to seek this hidden blessing is wholly different than to be thankful for sin — and he does not distinguish between people who experience homosexual desire and people who “practice homosexuality,” nor, I suppose, between people who want to get drunk and drunkards. I think he’s interpreting Paul in an extravagantly eisegetic way there, and conflating things that Paul did not conflate, but let’s set that aside for now. (The relationship between the desire to drink and drunkenness is not, I would argue, exactly like the relationship between wanting to have sex with someone and having sex with that someone. But that’s too complicated to get into here.) Right now, I just want to tell a story about my father, who was a drunkard.

    My father’s drinking made him abusive to me and my sister; it also landed him in jail. It was a terrible thing. *But*: my father was also a deeply proud, arrogant man who never did wrong in his own eyes. I suspect that these two things are related: that the burdens of pride and arrogance played a role in tempting my father to drink. But whether that’s right or not, in the end it was his drunkenness, and the collapse of his whole life due to drunkenness, that finally and violently shook my father out of his self-satisfaction. For the first sixty years of his life he did little good to anyone; for the last twenty, which he spent devoted to serving people in Alcoholics Anonymous, he did a great deal of good to many people. My sister and I, who had known him primarily in his arrogance and anger, stood stunned at his funeral, greeting person after person who told us that our father had changed their lives.

    It was drunkenness that broke my father, and therefore drunkenness that opened the door to his transformation. Now, he had to overcome it, to get past it, but in the long run, what would he have done without it? As I look at his life — his *whole* life, not just a particular moment in it, I don’t know how *not* to be thankful for his drunkenness. Perhaps God could have used some other and less destructive a way to bring my dad around; but I don’t traffic in counterfactuals. Drunkenness was the means God did in fact use.

    And isn’t this a Christian — especially an Augustinian — concept? *O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem*. We have to be very careful here, because we have been warned by the Apostle against sinning the more, that grace may abound. But being careful does not mean rejecting the *felix culpa* idea altogether. Perhaps the correct note is struck by Milton’s Adam, in *Paradise Lost*:

    > full of doubt I stand,
    > Whether I should repent me now of sin
    > By me done and occasioned, or rejoice
    > Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring,
    > To God more glory, more good will to Men
    > From God, and over wrath grace shall abound.

    “Full of doubt I stand” — thus Adam confronted with a vast and impenetrable mystery. Maybe *this* is part of what is meant by that strange phrase “the mystery of lawlessness”: the role sin and temptation play in the economy of salvation. This is not something about which we can make simply definitive pronouncements. God works in all sorts of mysterious ways, His wonders to perform.

    These thoughts lead me to dissent from those who say that if you call yourself a gay Christian you “foreclose the possibility of transformation.” First of all, the statement is just illogical: if I call myself an American Christian I do not thereby forclose the possibility of emigration. But more important — and I’m sure Wes or Ron or Eve or someone on this blog has said this before — this way of thinking dramatically circumscribes what *counts* as transformation [from the editor: see Celibacy and Healing]. In this way of thinking, transformation is made to equal having your sexual desires directed towards people with certain genitalia, and this strikes me as woefully unimaginative at best. As Mark Y. commented the other day, when Paul stopped praying for the thorn in his flesh to be removed, he wasn’t giving up on the possibility of being transformed. We don’t get to dictate in advance to God *how* he shall transform us, and a person whose sexual desires continue to be directed towards people of their own sex but who directs his or her energies into building communities of spiritual friendship has surely been transformed in deeper ways than the person whose biological desires are merely redirected.

    • Yes! This is exactly what I was thinking when reading this post. Thank you for expressing it so well. I thank God that I am weak and small and filled with fear and lust and covetousness, because I need him every moment and I can do nothing but cling to the hem of his garment. Would I still need him so desperately if I was “pretty much okay”? I am thankful to be “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked,” because it shows the glory and mercy and majesty of God to take a prostitute and declare her his bride.

      “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” 1 Cor 1:27-29

      “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” Luke 7:44-47

    • @Alan

      Thanks for this thoughtful comment. I especially appreciate the reference to heterosexuality as a means of gaining and maintaining social acceptance.

      I’ve considered myself to be gay ever since I was a teenager. Even so, a desire for gay sex has never figured all that prominently in my life. For the most part, I identify as gay because I reject the heteronormative path to social acceptance that my culture has set before me, preferring instead to connect with other men at a level more intimate than what our culture accepts as within the range of acceptable masculinity.

      In that sense, it strikes me that it’s no accident that Strachan and others associated with CBMW would resist the SF narrative. After all, the whole point of CBMW is to create a Biblical justification for cowing Christians into performing according to two narrowly constructed gender roles.

      • It seems to me that you made a conscious decision to label your self as gay. But I thought that being gay is something that you do not consciously pick…

      • @Rosa

        I believed that you’ve asked people this question about two dozen times on this blog, so it’s starting to occur to be that you’re being disingenuous and are merely a concern troll.

        That being said…

        I didn’t choose to be wired in a way that falls outside of my culture’s prescribed definition of masculinity, i.e., such that I have a stronger aesthetic and emotional attraction to other men than what is deemed to be acceptable. Put another way, sexual orientation has both a biological component and a social component. The first factor is beyond my control, and the second factor is largely out of my control (unless I want to emigrate from the US).

        That says little about what social script I elect to follow, although it may make certain scripts easier or harder to follow. In that sense, me decision to identify myself socially as queer is tied to my desire to adopt a social identity that comports more closely with my sexual orientation. Others like me may elect to conform themselves to the normative script for masculinity in the US, while others may elect to conform themselves to the twink or bear scripts. And others of us may experiment with different identities until something feels right.

        As a Christian, there are certain social scripts that I elect not to adopt or even experiment with. That being said, I think there are a larger number of acceptable social scripts available to Christian men than the patriarchal heteronormative “biblical manhood” script that’s rigidly promoted in nearly all evangelical and Reformed churches in the US (e.g., PCA and SBC churches). That’s why I visit this site: I’m interested in exploring with other Christians what those other possibilities may be. That’s also why I think this whole line of thinking is viewed with suspicion by patriarchalists. They would prefer to cow us into choosing the script they’ve written for us rather than permitting us to explore alternate ways of being gay and Christian.

        For the record, I also find the Vines approach to be equally as constricting. While Vines rejects the patriarchal script, he responds by proffering an equally narrow and confining script (i.e., the anti-patriarchal script) that feels no less rigid and unforgiving to me than the patriarchal script.

        So, no, I didn’t choose my sexual orientation, but I can exercise some control over what social identity I adopt.

    • Dr. Jacobs, I can relate to much of what you share in this comment. Yet, I wonder if it would help to be more precise about the nature of our gratitude. You wrote about your father’s alcoholism that you were “thankful for his drunkenness”; however, I suspect that you might rather mean that you are thankful for the grace of God redeeming his drunkenness. For if your father had been left to his drunkenness, there would never have been a final 20 years of love and service in his life for which to be grateful. Instead, your father. like most AAs, would likely have hit rock bottom at the end of his drinking career in order to become willing to “turn his life and his will” over to God. The drunkenness in itself contributes merely the humility necessary for full repentance and absolute surrender to a holy God.

      Likewise, the positive contribution of same sex orientation is the humility to recognize our absolute dependence and desperation for the mercy of our Lord and the work of the Holy Spirit in us as we endeavor to walk in the light as members of Christ’s body.

  3. There is a lot of value to be had in this take on who we are and seeing value in some of our unique qualities. I think our felt need for masculine connection causes us to have something to teach men who due to the fear of homosexuality fear emotional connection and expressions of affection between themselves and other men even if deep down they know they need and crave them, but I also find that much of my tendency toward deep desire for connection is closely linked to a vulnerability to rather unhealthy emotional dependency in my relationships with men. I am exploring the nature of this and determining how to find a deeply intimate nonsexual but physically affectionate connection to other men while staying whole and connected enough to self to avoid dependency but that dance is particularly difficult for myself and many other gay christians. I believe this is probably one of the things that needs to be “healed” “redeemed”, “addressed in therapy” or however you might want to describe it. My own journey in reparative therapy has been extremely beneficial in helping me construct a sense of self that has allowed me to do this.

    I will say that I too was involved in Exodus ministries and found that they did nothing, absolutely nothing to assist me in change, and neither did their recommended therapist (who called himself a reparative therapist) or their recommended 30 week living waters course. What actually did work to cause some change in me was an actual reparative therapist that had worked with Dr. Nicolosi and used his Body Work and EMDR processes. These helped me overcome my emotionally dependent pattern of friendships and reduced my ssa and helped me to see myself as more like other men. I’m therefore never surprised that men go through Exodus ministries and come out disappointed that they have experienced little or no change.

    I have experienced enough healing of past hurts and enough tools that when I connect to a man emotionally that I can do so without fear of sexualizing him and I can do so without becoming emotionally dependent on him. But I don’t think I could have gotten to this place without the therapy. This “gay” aspect of myself needed healing and I find that self identification as “gay” hasn’t been helpful in my own journey. Feeling like a man, like a man like other men, has been something that has helped me more than feeling like I was different.

  4. As if that wasn’t long enough, I just realized that I cut off my final word, which was this: that, in sum, my chief problem with the view of people like Owen Strachan is that they are insufficiently Pauline and Augustinian.

  5. I think one of the primary miscommunications that is happening is how we understand what exactly is “good.” I think it becomes confusing when we celibate gays refer to being gay itself as “good.” What is often being described, however, is that there are *redemptive consequences* that are good.

    I see being gay like a disability. Not a moral fallenness, but a natural fallenness. I do not bear personal culpability for having same-sex attraction. I am not sinning every time I have a sexual desire for a woman. It is simply a condition I live with. I also am hard of hearing. But I don’t consider the fact that I am hard of hearing to be “good.” I don’t see it as something to be ashamed of either. It is simply a condition that I have and it causes challenges in life. Similarly, I don’t see being gay in of itself as “good.” It is not the way things are supposed to be and it has made life much harder. So it is not being gay that is good, in my view. Rather, it is how God redeems the situation. Every situation can be redeemed by God.

    I feel like the celibate dialogue has not made a clear enough distinction between gay as good and gay as redeemed (redeemed NOT healed). On the other hand, I don’t feel Owen Strachan gives any credit that God can redeem a situation–not by removing it–but by the way God shapes us in responding to it. Instead of responding in bitterness, I can allow God to teach me godly perseverance because of what I must endure. Instead of anger, I can allow God to shape me into a more compassionate and humble person because of suffering. Like Paul, I can see this unfortunate circumstance as a thorn that God uses to demonstrate that his grace is sufficient for me. God did not send the thorn. The thorn is not good or neutral. But God did not choose to remove it. God even seems to *want* to intentionally use the thorn for his purposes.

    So, Strachan overlooks that God may not be removing people’s same-sex attraction because God has a different agenda than Strachan. God is not concerned with eliminating struggle, but with shaping us through the endurance of it. In this way Strachan works against the purposes of God.

    But, I do think we celibate gay folk could help the conversation by being a little more clear on what it is that we are calling “good.” I would argue it is not our same-sex orientation that is “good” but how God redeems and works through our circumstances. The redemptive effects are what are “good.”

    I think part of the problem is the conflation of same-sex desire with other aspects of friendship. I understand this. It is true that being gay is not just about sex any more than being straight is just about sex. There are romantic inclinations, and falling in love is very emotive and not necessarily experienced as sexual feelings. It is desire for legitimate things like intimacy and companionship. At the same time, I think trying to say gay is good based on these things obscures the issues. It is not wrong to have companionship or friendship etc. We can act on those. But it is wrong to have a sexual relationship, and so it is the sexual attractions that really distinguish something from being permissible or not.

    I personally have not resonated with this attempt to obscure the fallenness of same-sex attraction by placing other elements into it like friendship. Rather, for me, the draw to women I feel is redeemed and channeled into godly interaction. And that sublimation is what is “good.” It doesn’t remove my same-sex attractions, but it harnesses that energy and uses it for redemptive and good purposes rather than for sexual fulfillment.

    • @Karen

      I have fairly deep problems with your line of reasoning.

      As I noted above in my response to Rosa, sexual orientation has both a biological component and a social component. Unless you live in a cave, it doesn’t do a lot of good to speak about the biological component apart from the social component. For example, if I lived in a culture that had a different or less rigid view of normative masculinity, I would likely experience my biological dispositions very differently.

      For example, if I lived in a culture where having aesthetic and emotional attraction toward other men was accepted and encouraged (e.g., southern Italy), I would likely view myself very differently. After all, I wouldn’t feel nearly as much of a disjunction between my biological wiring and what is expected of me in my social surroundings.

      Therefore, I don’t think it’s remotely useful to analogize being gay to a disease. Doing so implies that the social expectations that cut against my biology are to be hallowed. But this can’t be. Standards for normative masculinity and femininity vary widely from culture to culture and from generation to generation. So, what may appear like a disability to me right now as an American may not be a disability at all in another culture (or may be much less of a disability).

      And that’s what I think folks mean when they are seeking the good in their sexual orientation. They recognize that much of the perceived disability is just that: a perception. We perceive it that way because we are wired in ways that are at odds with our culture’s rigid scripts for normative masculinity and normative femininity. So, they’re seeking to explore alternate social scripts that remain true to Christian orthodoxy while ameliorating the disjunction we may feel between our biology and our social context.

      In contrast, the disability model you propose necessarily valorizes the patriarchalism and the concomitant patriarchal views of normative masculinity and normative femininity.

      I prefer to analogize it to being a French-only speaker living in rural Ohio. In that social context, speaking only French would be a disability. But if that same person were to relocate to New York, it would be less of an issue (as there is a sizable number of French speakers in New York). If that same person were to travel north on I-87 to Montreal, it would be even less of an issue. The disability model simply doesn’t account for the social fluidity that is an essential aspect of assessing one’s sexual orientation.

      • Bobby, I don’t disagree with you. I think there can certainly be social factors as you describe. But I think you err in presuming one etiology. People can experience various sexual desires for a variety of reasons and its different from person to person. For some it may be related more to social constructs. But, there are also studies like the one that shows men with more older brothers is more likely to be gay in proportion to number of older brothers. There seems to be something going on in utero. If there is some kind of hormonal or chemical deficiency in the womb then that could be called a birth defect and therefore technically a disability. Studies also show that women in general compared to men seem to have more natural sexual fluidity. In this case its not social construct or disability, but just natural wiring more common to women (albeit not all women have sexual fluidity).

        For myself, I do think there is a biological component. I was sheltered from any kind of influence of gay culture or exposure to gay people growing up in Baptist fundamentalism. The only thing I heard about gay people was that they were these godless monsters. It wasn’t something I would ever dream could relate to me. So it was quite traumatic and unexpected when I realized my same-sex attraction. I can remember when I was 16 sitting on the bed of one of my female friends chatting and feeling attracted to her. Only because I was sexually inexperienced and because I had no concept that I could be gay, I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate my feelings. It wasn’t until in retrospect that I could name the feeling I had which was sexual desire.

        Many gay people seem to experience same-sex desire around puberty also. So there seems to be a biological connection. All that to say, I think you go too far in trying to peg everything on social factors. That may be true for some, but certainly not for everyone.

  6. I would also say that a large part of this discussion is driven entirely by one’s theological tradition. Reformed folk often see concupiscence as sinful in of itself, but Roman Catholics tend not to do so. Also Reformed folk believe that the fall completely obliterated any good. And so we are all terribly, wretched, awful sinful creatures. Thus, every little thought or feeling is piled with judgment as sinful in a way that theological traditions that don’t see the image of God totally marred would not. Strachan is a product of Calvinism. So anything he says about same-sex attraction is really about certain Reformed theology and not homosexuality.

    • As someone who grew up in Calvinism and rejects a good amount of it, my understanding was always that the notion of “total depravity” (the T in TULIP) was contrasted with “utter depravity”, which they don’t hold to. “Total depravity” says every part of us is tainted by sin, the physical, spiritual, mental, sexual, and so on; “utter depravity” is what you’re saying – that something is as evil as it can possibly be. The devil is utterly depraved. The world and people are not. We still bear the image of God, marred by sin, and can still do good things, twisted by sin.

      That being said, there are probably many who do believe that people are utterly depraved, so you may be right!

      • Ivy, I hear what you are saying and I have had Calvinist suggest that as the correct meaning. However, I am currently reading evangelicals writing on this subject and they will say exactly what you said while simultaneously saying that an unregenerate person cannot truly do anything good. Their motives must be sinful in some way. I find that to be a diabolical teaching. So, in practice, I find that total depravity really ends up meaning there is nothing good a person does and even when one is regenerate you have to be utterly suspicious and paranoid of your emotions or desires lets your deceitful, evil heart trick you. This is why I walked away from my fundamentalist Baptist upbringing.

      • @Ivy

        That’s right. Karen has misrepresented what Reformed churches teach.

        I too grew upon a Reformed church and have come to reject a fair amount of it. But I never once heard anyone suggest the view of depravity that Karen misidentifies as Reformed.

      • Bobby, you are a regular pill. Your cocky assertions remind me of my experiences with Reformed fundamentalism. Here are some quotes from modern evangelical writers. These are from standard text books from the seminary I attended:

        From the “Evangelical Dictionary of Theology”: “Appealing to the witness of Scripture, Augustine maintained that sin incapacitates humans from doing good, and because we are born as sinners we lack the power to do the good . . . Luther powerfully reaffirmed Pauline and Augustinian doctrine of the bondage of the will against Erasmus, who maintained that humans still have the capacity to do right, though they need the aid of grace if they are to come to salvation. Luther saw humanity as totally bound to the powers of darkness . . .” (pp. 1104-05). This only changes upon regeneration–receiving the Holy Spirit at conversion.

        Evangelical Millard Erickson in “Christian Theology” writes: “Further, total depravity means that even the unregenerate person’s altruism always contains an element of improper motive. The good acts are not done entirely or even primarily out of perfect love for God . . . thus while there may appear to be good and desirable behavior and we may be inclined to feel that it could not in any way be sinful, yet even the good is tainted” (p. 645).

  7. If ‘gay’ does not mean ‘same-sex attracted’ (with the obvious sexual implications implied), then we have completely redefined the term and removed it from any meaningful discussion of the issue at stake.

    Having a desire for friendship or companionship with the same sex is not ‘gay’ in the generally understood meaning of the word. To designate oneself as ‘gay’ has historically and culturally meant to be sexually attracted to someone of the same sex with the concomitant desire to have sex with that person, whether that actually happens or not.
    It’s hard not to see this redefinition as an attempt to muddy the discussion and deflect from the real point under discussion.

    As a post-gay man who is now a Christian, I would not want to be identified in any way as ‘gay’ in identity or orientation. That’s what I was.

    • Isn’t it possible to be ‘captivated’ by someone’s good looks and not desire to have sex with that person?

      I also think it’s important not to forget that heterosexuals can experience (unwanted) same-sex sexual impulses and then assume that homosexuals are people who cultivate (or do not suppress) these impulses and allow them to become “desires”.

      • Well, if you can be captivated by someone’s good looks without any sexual attraction being involved, you’re a better man than I.

        I would agree that it’s possible to have an appreciation for the good looks of someone of the same sex without any sexual interest involved. Men tend to know if another man is good-looking and women to know that another woman is beautiful. But that’s not what we normally think of when speaking of same-sex attraction, or being gay.

        Also, suppressing unwanted sexual impulses assumes those impulses are sinful, which is all I’m arguing for. The only distinction I’d make is that there are proper male/female sexual impulses. Male/male or female/female sexual impulses are never proper, but are contrary to God’s creative design.

  8. I think you’re absolutely right Wesley. I hear lots of people talk about what “people generally mean” by the term gay, but this definition seems to vary pretty widely. And I’ve noticed that it often seems to be a generational thing, pretty much as you suggest.

    I wonder if it would ever be possible to say “what people generally mean when they use the word gay”, as it can have such a wide range of meanings. Surely it’s better to hold off assuming what people mean and then to figure it out by talking to them?

  9. Wes, as always appreciative of your care and consideration as a theologian. I lean toward an understanding of LGBT as a way of being a body-in-the-world. This entails distinctiveness in perceptions as well as pains and peculiar temptations to sin. But this seems to me to be a universal truth: All our distinctions, such as one we affirm in sexed difference in all its complexities and particularities, offer opportunities for God’s gift to flow through us to the world. No such gift is unproblematic.

    I am puzzled why his own presumed “hetero” status thus isn’t a problem-opportunity. Or does he refuse to identify as “not-gay,” recognizing his shared status as a sexual person in process of redemption? But if he does identify as particularly embodied as [mostly?] hetero, then surely his own way of being remains as it is to all of us: its own complicated gift, partly through how he honestly names his temptations and longings as well as how he opens himself to the goods the might come to his body. As for all of us, even in wrong longings truthfully examined, God beckons us to himself, hiding as the good sought despite sin’s dishonest wrapping. Thus the comments by Alan Jacobs are right-on: Not nearly Augustinian enough.

    All our bodies present us with unique struggles and opportunities as you note in the Downs article. Temptations to despair as we age, as things don’t work as we wish; sexual desires that surprise us and encourage us to venture consciously and unconsciously sometimes without regard to propriety or norms; ethnic or racial bodies that like LGBT ones bear a legacy wherever we go and usually not a history of our own choosing, yet such bodies cannot be evacuated for some “pure” experience of faith nor can we deny Christ’s ability to redeem even this honest entangling of bodies, wrongs, faithfulness, and power.

    I can imagine the world in some ways like men might experience it, but I will never quite get it. Thus I continually need men to help me see and imagine rightly — even when this also brings with it a legacy of personal and systemic sins. I can imagine the world from the perspective of Black Americans, but I cannot fully imagine this nor know completely how we might become a different sort of nation unless I continue to be welcomed and welcome these friends into a shared life. I can only come alongside others to concretely pursue God’s good kingdom in my white American woman body — but I cannot pretend this doesn’t make a difference for what I bring, challenges I face, gaps I must have filled in by others, graces they must extend to me in my finitude as well as in my sinful patterns of thought and action.

    Thus lives are subject to the socio-historical realities you name here about “being gay.” “Being American” is not a Christian or biological designation, but it is quite real and inescapably shapes who I am and how I experience the world — and how the world experiences me. No choice there. But of course, such an identity also has to be redeemed; part of that redemption entails naming what it means to be an American, opening up dialogue about its goods, bads, and amoral difference from other bodies.

    So, too, seems to me LGBT friends come together into the body of Christ in the same way we all do, sharing universal gifts of particularity that make us “other” — and we then offer ourselves in our muddled otherness to neighbor, to God. Thus the LGBT Christian community again and again reminds us in their commitment to such particularity the ways each must examine the complexity of peculiars, so each might be redeemed and each become a gift for the good of all.

  10. I think we in our 21st Century Western Culture has confused gay sex with same sex intimacy. Let me explain.

    The traditional view on Leviticus 21 believes that gay sex is outside of God’s best for us. However, the experience of same sex intimacy experienced by David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naiomi, or Jesus and the Apostle John, are be definition same sex intimacy, which doesn’t involve gay sex.

    In my opinion, the deep friendship between David and Jonathon confirms that while gay sex is outside of God’s best for us, two men, or two women, need and yearn to have deep friendship with one another. It is the way we’re wired by God.

  11. Pingback: A friendly response to Wesley Hill’s “thought-experiment” @wesleyhill @ostrachan | Denny Burk

  12. Yes, Karen K, it’s like a disability. That’s a very good way to look at it.

    If being homosexual were good, its bodily expression would also be good. It would not be forbidden. That wouldn’t make any sense.

    Among today’s generation, it’s just a given that homosexuality is an orientation. But there’s no examination of this notion. Is it not, in fact, a disorientation?

    All that said, I would certainly not judge all of this young woman’s desires to be disordered. It’s rather nice that she’d like to put fresh sheets on the guest bed and serve things other than granola bars.

    None-the-less, it does seem like she’s drawn towards a type of co-dependency with another woman. In fact, that may be what lesbianism is.

    But what do I know, I’m neither a woman or a lesbian.

    • “Among today’s generation, it’s just a given that homosexuality is an orientation. But there’s no examination of this notion. Is it not, in fact, a disorientation?”

      That would be because the leading scientists, neurologists, and doctors say it is an orientation not a disorientation. They back up such statements with evidence. Those who deny this evidence (Scott Lively, NOM, FRC, and so on) consistently get caught in lie after lie. So much so they are largely accepted to be hate mongers.

      It isn’t that the modern generation hasn’t examined the situation. We have examined the fruits you offer. We have found them wanting.

  13. Too much is being made of gayness as if it were something. There is no gay culture, no gay music, no gay art, no gay style. Whatever gays may create or do is good in so far as it’s good. Look at what Michaelangelo created.

    What isn’t good is a disordered eroticism, whether in romantic or carnal passions.

  14. I just spent a hour and a half writing out what I “thought” were 3 very important points for your consideration. But when I went to post it, my son had forgotten to log off his fb account and so when I attempted to change it, I lost what I had written. And I really had some concerns and was hoping you would address them. Argh!!!!! Well, I suppose I will fall back on my reformed heritage with a hyper-sovereignty view…”I guess it wasn’t meant to be.”

  15. Pingback: What “Not Reducible” Means | Spiritual Friendship

  16. I think a crucial distinction between Rodgers and Strachan is that between sexual identity as a mode of sharing and expressing moral solidarity in community with each-other, and non-heterosexuality as an individual spiritual pathology.

    The Christian exegetical approach to sexuality is crucial but it fails to acknowledge the present socio-political moment and thus erases the experiences of many LGBT+ folk whom Strachan et al., would seemingly repatriate back into the closet.

    The wonderful thing about the Spiritual Friendship project is that we hear authentic voices, speaking from experience, re-defining the possibilities of gay sexual identity away from the conservative and homophobic narratives of ‘spiritual pathology’ and also the secular, obligatory sexual and neoliberal discourse that has done so much damage to the gay community.

    In short: I sympathise with Strachan et al., and I appreciate their voices but I think we’re discussing an issue on completely different registers and we need to avoid letting non-LGBT+ folk setting the agenda for how we pray, think, speak and share with each-other if we’re to continue evangelizing and bearing witness to the intersection between faith and non-heterosexuality.

    Well done, Wesley — what a great post!

    • The theology that underpins the traditional sexual ethic is grounded in the idea that being gay is a pathology (i.e., gay people are flawed in a way that makes us unsuitable for the blessings of romantic intimacy). This modern idea that one can view gay sex as sinful but gay orientation as morally neutral is illogical. If there’s no sanctified way to express same sex attractions, then they are cannot be morally neutral because they point us toward sin.

      Envy is not generally a volitional impulse; envy is sinful none the less. Covetousness is not generally volitional, but it is sinful even if it doesn’t lead to demonstrable sin like theft. And so it goes with being gay. If gay sex is sinful, then the attraction toward gay sex is necessarily sinful and should be repented of just like envy or covetousness.

      If, on the other hand, gay orientation is morally neutral, then there must be a postive way for it to be expressed (i.e., covenantal partnership).

      “Gay is bad” cannot mean “gay is not bad”.

      My sense is that those who are opting for this recent, heterodox notion do so either as a pastoral reaction to our modern understanding of the fixed nature of sexual orientation, and/or they are choosing a belief that doesn’t require them to see gay people as inherently contempable.

      Either way, it’s an accomodation belief which begs the question: If this accomodation is acceptable, why is the accomodation of covenental partnership still beyond the pale?

      • Ford, it doesn’t make sense from a Reformed perspective perhaps. But from a Catholic perspective it is different. Reformed folk view concupiscence as sin, but Catholics do not view it as sin.

        Also, if something is a birth defect, like being blind, then it is morally neutral even as we recognize that it is not how things are supposed to be. Natural fallenness vs. moral fallenness.

        You are making this argument on various blogs, but I don’t see that you have considered the other options. And I sometimes wonder if you are continuing to bring it up because if you can make your case, then it might argue for the affirming side–which is why Brownson presses this point.

        But Brownson is Reformed and so are Burk and Strachan. But as I have said before Reformed theology ain’t the only theology out there. Nor has the Reformed side adequately addressed the charge of docetism or the distinction between natural fallenness and moral fallenness.

      • Hi Karen

        I agree about the difference between Protestant and RCC conception of sin. I subscribe to the former for a variety of reasons.

        I kinda hate you’re insistance that being gay is a birth defect. First, it insinuates that people with non-normative traits are somehow deformed rather than being wonderfully made just as they are. (I’ve recommended in the past and do so now, if you haven’t read it, Far From the Tree). Second, no one is telling people with cognitive disabilities that they are morally obliged to refrain from thinking. So the analogy fails on a fundamental level. Third, being gay is a normal variation on human sexuality the same way being left handed is a normal variation on handedness. Fourth, there is objective blessing that comes from covenental partnership which, in your attempt to pathologize us, you deny our capacity to receive and live into. People with “birth defects” also have the capacity to receive God’s blessings.

        I think you’re way off base and, candidly, dehumanizing in your perspectives. In my experience, living into the blessings of covenental partnership has been a part of the redemptive work of the Spirit.

        I would hope that you can look into the lives of gay couples, see past theological difference, and recognize the noble and virtuous aspects of mutually self-sacrificial, sexually and emotionally intimate relationships.

      • Ford, a birth defect is only one possibility. And I take this for purely scientific reasons. There are studies that show there may be hormonal/chemical issues in the mother’s womb during pregnancy after carrying multiple male fetuses. If this is true, then from a purely scientific perspective there is a medical cause. That does not mean that I would say that every scientific basis for same-sex attraction is indicative of a birth defect. There are scientific ways of distinguishing between natural biological phenomena (however rare) and actual disruptions or problems in a biological/physiological process. It is not intellectually persuasive to me when the gay affirming side wants to deny all possibility of a congenital condition.

        I do believe that some women’s sexual fluidity is natural and not a birth defect. And I am not opposed to acknowledging that it could be natural among some men. Science has not given definitive answers. But, from a theological perspective, what are considered disordered desires are usually framed as being the result of the “fall.” It’s more humanizing to acknowledge that gay people have their attractions because of natural fallenness and not moral fallenness. Moral fallenness has a sinister connotation to it. It is obvious that most people do not have same-sex attraction because of devious hearts. Rather it is an unchosen, inexplicable condition. As such it makes sense to put it in the category of natural fallenness.

        I will say that I don’t think focusing on attractions is very fruitful. I am only engaging on that level because of the arguments that have been presented.But in reality I suspect that basic human biology allows for attractions of all kinds that are considered immoral if acted upon. I see little point in people fixating on judging attractions. The real issue is what activity a person engages in (including active lust which objectifies the person). I believe sexual activity is meant for marriage and marriage has a particular function that supports biological family structures. The issue is not whether gay people can have loving, sacrificial relationships. Of course we can. But we don’t need to have sex to have loving, sacrificial relationships.

        In any case, we will just have to agree to disagree on broader theological grounds as I find Reformed theology to be problematic in its articulation of human nature.

  17. Pingback: What Is “Gay”? | Spiritual Friendship

  18. The fatal subtext in postmodern thinking and analysis is sin. This is what Strachan is saying in his “premodern” way. Even the new way of thinking about homosexuality falls on this sword. The Bible is right; postmodern thinking–even that done by Christians–is wrong.

    To say that an omniscient, all-powerful God did not understand or could not express all the truth about homosexuality borders on the blasphemous.

    The alternative is that God did know and did express the truth about homosexuality in His Word, the Bible: homosexuality is an expression of fallenness and sin. It is a perversion of sexuality as God created it.

    • You’re leaving out at least one option: That God does understand homosexuality and that Scripture is rather silent on these issues. After all, I’m sure that God understands plenty about quantum physics, but, in His wisdom, has given us the opportunity to discover it rather than revealing it through special revelation.

  19. Pingback: Julie Rodgers former Wheaton Employee Blogs About SSM | Leadingchurch.com

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