What Is “Gay”?

Several months ago, I got into a discussion with Wes Hill and Matt Anderson about Wes’s post, Is Being Gay Sanctifiable? At the time, I drafted a post in response to that conversation, but did not have time to polish it for publication. In light of the more recent discussions of language (including Wes’s On Disagreeing About “Homosexuality”: A Thought Experiment and Matt’s Can Christians be gay? An Inquiry), I decided to revise and expand the draft.

I want to reflect on what the word “gay” is about—that is, what experience or set of experiences does it point to? (I also want to ask similar questions about “friendship.”) But before doing so, I want us to think about a very different example: the word “ship.” Consider Eustace Scrubb’s response when he found himself magically transported into Narnia and embarked on the Dawn Treader. He wrote in his diary,

It’s madness to come out into the sea in a rotten little thing like this. Not much bigger than a lifeboat. And, of course, absolutely primitive indoors. No proper saloon, no radio, no bathrooms, no deck-chairs. I was dragged all over it yesterday evening and it would make anyone sick to hear Caspian showing off his funny little toy boat as if it was the Queen Mary. I tried to tell him what real ships are like, but he’s too dense.

For Eustace, “ship” referred to a modern ocean modern liner like the Queen Mary; while for the Narnians, “ship” meant a small sailing vessel like the Dawn Treader. The word is the same, and certain key elements of the concept are the same, but what the word is about is different.

MV Coho in Victoria Harbour. Photo by Steve Voght via Wikimedia Commons.

MV Coho in Victoria Harbour. Photo by Steve Voght via Wikimedia Commons.

When, as a boy, I read Luke’s description of the Apostle Paul’s journey on a “ship” (in Acts 20-21), I imagined him getting on board something like the MV Coho (above), which I rode several times a year from Port Angeles to Victoria and back again. When I got a little older and realized that Paul had been on a sailing ship, my mental imagery tended to be drawn from the ships of the Age of Discovery, because that was the kind of sailing ship I most frequently encountered in my non-Biblical reading.

This is a common source of ambiguity in language. When I projected my own experience with ships into the story, the result was not completely misleading. Certain root elements of the concept of “ship” were shared between the ship that Paul rode on in the book of Acts and the “ships” that I saw sailing past when was on the waterfront, or the ships that I rode on trips to Seattle or Victoria. But there was still a certain significant level of misunderstanding in my reading of the text (though I doubt that misunderstanding led to any erroneous theological conclusions).

I use this example only because I want to discuss a different, though related, question: when someone uses or hears the word “gay,” what set of experiences or dispositions is the word about for them? And I will argue that different life stories produce differences in the word’s content that are probably larger than the differences between my boyhood concept of a “ship” and the concept of a “ship” that Luke had in mind when he wrote the book of Acts. These differences, in turn, make it easy for two people, looking at the same text, to assign very different meanings to the word “gay,” with the result that some readers project meanings into the text that were not present for the author. Here, the differences in meaning are much more theologically significant, and so need much more careful discussion.

I apologize in advance for the length of this post. I can only plead that this is an important topic. Because it has been a source of confusion, I believed it was worth the risk of boring readers to give a careful and in-depth response.

As I wrote this response, at certain points I chose to speak in the plural. When I say “we,” I am trying to present my understanding of what writers at Spiritual Friendship have been trying to say. However, although I believe that most of the writers at Spiritual Friendship would agree broadly with my explanations, this is not a joint statement that has been agreed to by all. I would not be surprised to find differences among us when it came to the details of self-understanding.

I want to begin with Denny Burk’s recent response to Wes:

Wesley says that “being gay” is not “reducible” to same-sex sexual attraction. In a limited sense, I would agree with that. I do not dispute that gay people report heightened emotional connections with the same sex that are non-sexual in nature. So maybe we would agree not to say that sexual desire is the only element that gay people experience as a part of their SSA. Nevertheless, sexual desire does seem to be the defining element. As I mentioned in a recent post, the defining element of same-sex attraction is desire for a sexual relationship with someone of the same sex. If same-sex sexual desire is removed from the equation, then we are no longer talking about SSA—at least not in the sense that modern people mean the term. When modern people talk about SSA, they intend a kind of attraction that includes sexual possibility between persons of the same-sex. They do not mean to label as gay every person capable of emotional bonds with a person of the same-sex. No, it is the same-sex sexual desire that is the constitutive element.

I want to draw attention to Burk’s claim that sexual desire is the defining and constitutive element. I am pretty sure that this is crucial to sorting out our misunderstanding. 

First, I think that this helps to make clear why our critics are so focused on identity. I am, in some circumstances, willing to say “I’m gay.” But when I say this, I am not talking about my identity, in the sense that some of our critics use that term. I think it’s just a fact about myself. As Chris Damian wrote,

There are those who would say that identifying with the word “gay” is a distortion of human identity, that it is reductionistic and confines someone’s entire identity to just one aspect. This is a danger, but this is hardly what I (and my celibate gay friends) are doing. Human language can only work in broad categories. We create words for things, even though words have a danger of confining things. People will always be bigger than the words we use to describe them, and words will always have the tendency to give us narrow views. But this danger shouldn’t keep us from using words. I am a man; I am American; I am single; I am 5’10”; I am hungry; I am tired: I am happy: I am sad; I am studious; I am foolish; I am fallen; I am sinful; I am hopeful; I am inquisitive; and I am gay. I’m not just any one of these things, but I am all of these things. You could ask me to not categorize myself in terms of my sexual identity because I am not just my sexuality; but if you’re going to do that, you might as well not ask me to categorize myself at all.

English speakers say, “I am X” all the time without meaning that “X” is either a defining or constitutive element in their identity. As far as I can tell, our critics are missing this basic grammatical point. And this is at the root of much of their confusion about the way we speak. But I submit that the fault for this failure to communicate does not lie primarily on our side. This is not first time we have tried to point this out, nor are we talking about a particularly confusing point of English grammar.

So when we say “I’m gay,” we do mean to categorize ourselves in a certain way (I’ll say more about this before I’m done), but we do not mean that our sexual attractions are a defining or constitutive element in our identity. 

However, I am not claiming that no one ever uses “I’m gay” to make a deep claim about identity. It’s obvious that sexual desire can be the defining or constitutive element of a person’s identity.

For example, in his autobiography, Not Afraid to Change, John Paulk described a life of promiscuity, substance abuse, prostitution, and sexual encounters so violent he was left bleeding. If we look at various aspects of John’s life at this time, it’s clear that his identity did revolve around his sexual desires. Many of his relationships were merely fleeting sexual encounters. While the picture is probably somewhat complex even for John, it would not be so far off the mark to say that his sexual desires were a defining and constitutive element of his pre-conversion gay life.

If this is the kind of story someone has in mind when they use the word “gay,” then it is not surprising that that person would see “gay” as an all-encompassing identity.

Other stories are very different from John’s, however. Jeremy Erickson recently offered a nuanced explanation of how his attractions to men were connected with but not reducible to sexual attraction.

In my own case, when I first realized I was attracted to a male friend, the attraction was not just an expression of lust or a temptation to lust, even when it included lust. In My Alternative Lifestyle, I wrote about a relationship I had in my later teens, a few years after my first realization that I was attracted to men. Although I certainly had strong romantic feelings for “Jason” (as I referred to him) and found him sexually attractive, I do not recall ever directly lusting after him. Yes, I was attracted to him, and yes, I certainly could have fantasized about him sexually if I had allowed myself to think of him in that way. But I was already convinced that homosexual activity would be contrary to God’s will, and by His grace, didn’t think of Jason in that way.

At the risk of enlarging an already lengthy post, I should point out that reading “My Alternative Lifestyle” could give the reader a false picture of the relationship. The editor who commissioned the article wanted me to talk about faith and homosexuality primarily in terms of my own experiences, rather than in the more argumentative, exegetical mode of my earlier writings on the topic. He also gave me a fairly limited word count. This meant that although I was writing about my own experience, I had to exclude a lot that was most meaningful to me about the relationship, and focus on what was most relevant to the question the editor had asked me to write about.

I could have written at length about our theological arguments about the existence of God or the problem of pain. I could have described long hikes in the Olympic and Cascade mountains, or the hours we spent honing our skills in Microsoft flight simulator. There were the books we read and discussed, the movies we watched, the trips to the Museum of Flight, or the time spent working on his car. We built two different radio controlled airplanes out of balsa wood, and we often went to the airport to watch real planes take off and land.

If I had written about all that, it would have been interesting to me and perhaps others with similar interests, but not very relevant to a short article whose main theme was supposed to be how I accepted Church teaching on homosexuality. No article can cover all bases, and I think “My Alternative Lifestyle” makes a meaningful contribution to the discussion. But it’s also a narrow contribution, focused on addressing one set of concerns, while omitting others in an effort to fit into a few pages in a magazine.

The first thing to assert here is that sexual desires were neither the defining nor the constitutive element of this relationship. It would also be unhelpful to deny that sexual desire was present and colored the relationship.

If I could characterize what I think is one of the unique contributions Spiritual Friendship can make to Christian discussions about homosexuality, it is that we recognize the existence of friendships like this, and are interested in bringing them into dialogue with Christian teaching on friendship. We believe that doing so may help to shift the discussion about homosexuality in a way that is simultaneously faithful to Biblical teaching and has more appeal to the gay, lesbian and bisexual community.

This might seem like something too far removed from mainstream experience to have much relevance to contemporary debates. Yet the experience is not nearly as marginal as some might think. Gore Vidal, in addition to maintaining a prolific homosexual sex life, also had a 53-year partnership with Howard Austen. The secret to their long relationship, Vidal said, was that they did not have sex with each other: “It’s easy to sustain a relationship when sex plays no part, and impossible, I have observed, when it does.” In Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival, Andrew Sullivan explores the way that friendship—often without sexual activity mixed in—was critical for binding the gay community together through the AIDS crisis. And finally, John Corvino, one of the more prominent advocates for same-sex marriage, has written this about a relationship he shared with a fellow graduate student:

The relationship is hard to explain to people who didn’t know us (and even to some who did).  It was passionate but not sexual; full of conflict yet strangely comfortable.  The contradictions suited us.  Most people were unaware that we didn’t have sex, which was fine with us.  (How many of us know the details of our partnered friends’ sex lives?)  Some would say the relationship didn’t “count”, but it counted to us, and that was what mattered.

I want to be clear that I am not saying that these friendships are holy simply because they don’t include sex. Like all human relationships, these friendships are in need of sanctification. But I don’t see any reason to assume that either lust or overt sexual sin is a defining or constitutive element of these friendships. Therefore, any way of talking about them which takes this as central may easily lead to misunderstanding, just as there will be some degree of misunderstanding between those whose mental image of a ship is the Queen Mary and those whose whose mental image of a ship is the Dawn Treader. If you think a “real ship” needs a saloon, radio, bathrooms, and deck-chairs, you are of course going to say that the Dawn Treader isn’t even a “real ship.”

In the same way, if your idea of a gay person is the life John Paulk describes in Not Afraid to Change, then either you will make false (and libelous!) assumptions about us when we say that we’re gay, or you will say that what we’re talking about isn’t “really gay.”

But before we can have productive arguments about what labels to use, we need to make sure that we understand as clearly as possible what we are trying to label. It seems to me that our critics have often rushed to talk about “gay identity” without either making clear what they mean by the term or trying to understand what we might mean when we describe ourselves as gay and celibate. This has been a source of frustration for me for quite some time.

I am therefore gratified to see that Burk, Strachan, and others are trying to spell out their concerns more clearly so that we can respond and clarify sources of confusion. Moreover, I am sympathetic to at least some of their concerns.

Not long after Wes and I met, he was talking about embracing being “gay” as something broader than just “the desire to sleep with men,” something connected with intimacy and joy in chaste same-sex friendships. As should be clear from what I’ve said about my own experiences, I understood the point he is trying to make, and, with proper qualifications, I could agree with much of what he was saying.

But I also thought that there was a real danger of miscommunication (and the fact that we’ve spent so much time responding to critics on this point shows that I was right about that). Here is what I said at the time:

Let’s say you have something—we’ll call it X—which enables you to enjoy greater depths of intimacy and joy in chaste same-sex friendships than most men. Let’s further say that, connected with X, is a temptation toward violations of chastity with men. Why would “homosexuality” be the best label for X? More generally, for any category which has mixed good and bad components, why define the category by the fallen bit?

In the first dialogue of the treatise on Spiritual Friendship, sections 33-49, Aelred distinguishes between three kinds of friendship: carnal friendship, which is focused on carnal pleasure; worldly friendship, based on shared advantage; and spiritual friendship, friendship in God based on mutual pursuit of virtue and perfection.

For Aelred, then, friendship can, in its degenerate forms, give rise to sinful sexual acts, but in its perfected form, it can be a source of greater joy than in either of its degenerate forms, and a great encouragement and help to salvation.

It is not surprising, given the gradual decay of friendship in western culture in the last few hundred years, combined with the rise of the Freudian assumptions about sex, that most of us would be more likely to have first identified what we were feeling as “gay” or “homosexual,” and only later, by swimming very much against the current, begun to articulate the value of chaste friendship.

But it’s not clear to me why, given a traditionally Christian understanding of human sexuality, we would want to make homosexuality primary and friendship part of a larger category that is somehow connected to it.

This is one reason that, when we created this blog, I wanted to make “Spiritual Friendship” as our main theme, rather than using the word “gay” in the title or subheading (Wes, of course, had no objections to this suggestion).

I thought it was important to call the blog Spiritual Friendship because I think—and have repeatedly said—that Aelred’s of Rievaulx’s distinction between carnal and spiritual friendship is a much more helpful way of framing the discussion than the sexual identity language of our culture. I also think—and have repeatedly said—that “vocation” is a more helpful category than “identity” when thinking about how I ought to live. We talk about spiritual friendship because that provided an important epiphany which helped us to escape from the false assumptions about sexuality embedded in contemporary discourse both among conservative Christians and the secular gay community.

So I’m sympathetic to the lament that modern society would regard the kind of friendship I shared with Jason as “gay.” I think that the exaltation of romance and marriage, and the loss of appreciation for friendship, is a very bad thing.

One way that I think I would differ with Wes: I am less inclined to think Burk and Strachan are pre-modern, and more inclined to suspect they are post-Freudian: they focus on “sexual identity” in a way that I have not seen in any pre-modern Christian writing. This explains, I think, the focus on sexual desire as the defining and constitutive element in their thinking about the subjects we write about.

Here is what I think of when I think of a pre-modern response. In the third dialogue on Spiritual Friendship, two young monks ask Aelred of Rievaulx about a passionate friendship. He responds:

This is a carnal friendship, especially belonging to adolescents, as were Augustine and the friend of whom we spoke. However, if you avoid childishness and dishonesty, and if nothing shameful spoils such friendship, then in hope of some richer grace this love can be tolerated as a kind of first step toward a holier friendship. As devotion grows with the support of spiritual interests, and as with age maturity increases and the spiritual senses are illumined, then, with affection purified, such friends may mount to higher realms, just as we said yesterday that because of a kind of likeness the ascent is easier from human friendship to friendship with God himself.

Aelred is quite clear that carnal friendship—the kind of immature friendship he says these monks share—can be a source of sexual temptation. But he does not think that sexual temptation defines or is the “constitutive element” in the relationship. That way of speaking seems to draw more on Freudian ideas about the centrality of libido; Aelred rightly thinks that the deepest human need is love, and evaluates the situation in terms of growth in love. If the monks avoid sin and grow in their relationship with God, then this friendship—which could be a source of temptation—may be sanctified. Not only so, but it can become a source of spiritual encouragement and growth, and a step forward in friendship with God.

I want to be clear that I am not saying that my relationship with Jason was wise, or that I would promote the same sort of relationship now. But it was far from the most foolish of the foolish things teenagers do as they try to sort out their sexual and romantic feelings. It embodied a lot of misunderstandings about Christian love, friendship, and sexuality. It could be a source of temptation. But the relationship did not make us arsenokoitai, any more than an unmarried man and a woman who hold hands or cuddle while watching a movie are pornoi.

I would strongly argue that—whatever word we use to describe it—this sort of friendship is sanctifiable.

Yet this sort of story often produces a more viscerally negative reaction from many Christians than actual fornication, which has been so normalized that it no longer shocks even the Christian conscience. This observation, which I have made over and over in talking about this issue and my own experience with other Christians, does not seem to me to be a credit to the Christian conscience, as it has been formed in the United States in the last couple of generations.

I appreciate the fact that Baptist leaders like Denny Burk and Owen Strachan are trying to clarify questions around sexual desire and friendship. I welcome the opportunity to engage in thoughtful dialogue with them about these important questions.

But it’s also important to stress that this is a more recent development. I grew up Southern Baptist, and for many years, Baptists as a whole did not try to draw these distinctions. They made sweeping condemnations of “homosexuality,” with little, if any, effort to be precise about what aspect of same-sex desire they were referring to or provide helpful pastoral guidance in dealing with those temptations. There was certainly no effort to distinguish between prohibiting same-sex sexual activity, while affirming the positive aspects of same-sex friendship.

The fruit of that sloppy (and often brutal) thinking was a generation with a sloppy understanding of sexuality and very negative experiences with the Church. At the same time, the leaders of the Baptist Church I grew up in—like many other Baptist leaders—hypocritically tolerated divorce and remarriage.

As a Christian whose faith was almost destroyed by Southern Baptist preaching on homosexuality, I would like it if Southern Baptist leaders—and Christian leaders more generally—realized that they will be more likely to persuade gays and lesbians to listen to them if they make sorrow and repentance for past approaches to this issue more central to their present speaking and writing, and make more of an effort to understand before they try to correct.

I am not saying that past hypocrisy disqualifies them from making a productive contribution to this discussion. I am not saying that because they have been soft on other sexual sins, they should be soft on homosexual sin. The writers at Spiritual Friendship affirm that both homosexual sex and homosexual lust are sins to be repented of. The desire for these is a temptation that must, with the assistance of God’s grace, be resisted.

We certainly endorse the possibility of opposite sex marriage as an option for same-sex attracted Christians, and have made that discussion more central to the conversation here at Spiritual Friendship than celibacy ever was at Exodus International. But we also think that modern discussions of sexuality often make an idol of marriage. We think that the neglect of celibacy in the contemporary Christian imagination makes it much more difficult for Christians to offer realistic pastoral guidance to gay and lesbian Christians. Not only this, but this poverty of imagination about celibacy leads to the ridiculous idea that Christ-centered celibacy does not involve healing and internal transformation.

When Wes or I use the word “gay,” it is, at least in part, about relationships which are sanctifiable, precisely because the basis of the relationship is not lust, but Christ-centered friendship, or at least a friendship that can, as Aelred describes, mature in Christ. This way of talking will cause confusion among those for whom “gay” is primarily associated with lustful promiscuity. And it is not meant to deny that temptation to lust may be a struggle for us in pursuing Christ-centered friendship (the fact that such temptations must be dealt with is one reason we continue to talk about our sexual orientation in the context of talking about chaste friendship).

It is unfortunate that our culture has formed such a close association between love and sex. This makes it difficult for many Christians to take New Testament texts on celibacy seriously. And it introduces a lot of confusion into our discussions of friendship: many people think of “spiritual friendship” as a kind of sexless marriage, which is a serious misunderstanding.

Nevertheless, this is the confused culture we live in, and if we want to preach the Gospel at all, we have to preach it to people who have grown up in this culture and been formed by it. Even if a person’s sexual attractions are predominantly directed to the same sex, that does not mean that every attraction they feel to their same-sex friends is lustful. Insofar as it is lustful, it must be mortified. But insofar as it can be directed toward chaste friendship, it is sanctifiable.

Should we use the word “gay” when we talk about this kind of friendship? As I have already indicated, there are good reasons to worry this can lead to misunderstanding. But we can also point to the examples I gave above—Gore Vidal, Andrew Sullivan, John Corvino—to suggest that we are talking about something that is already part of the conversation in the gay community, and provides a better starting point for outreach than the harsh condemnations that have been all too typical of Christian responses to gay and lesbian people in the last couple of generations.

And what about “friendship”? In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis lamented the loss of an appreciation of friendship as a deep and intimate relationship in the modern world. If “friendship” only refers to the often transitory acquaintanceship common in modern life, it won’t mean much as an alternative to the romantic and sexual relationships which often become idols in contemporary culture, including contemporary Christian culture. It is therefore necessary to recover the kind of much deeper, more intimate friendship we see between David and Jonathan, Jesus and the Beloved Disciple, among the monks in Aelred’s dialogues, or between Tennyson and Arthur Hallam.

In invoking these examples, I am not claiming that any of these friends experienced sexual temptation toward each other. I am, however, claiming that properly understanding and celebrating the true intimacy found in these friendships will be a valuable corrective to the false ideas about love and intimacy found in gay culture.

Given the degree to which the sexual revolution has reshaped even Christian thinking, almost any language we use is going to involve risks of confusion and misunderstanding. Most of the important words for articulating the Christian tradition in these matters—”marriage,” “friendship,” “celibacy”—are likely to mislead because the examples we experience are not only distorted by the ordinary twists of original sin, but also distorted by the pervasive influence of the sexual revolution. This is a difficult problem. The only solution I see is to try to translate our message into language that is familiar to the culture, while constantly clarifying what we mean, so that we will counteract misunderstandings.

Thus, while we talk about being gay, we also talk about being celibate—an immediate challenge to those in the gay community who see sexual fulfillment as the defining and constitutive element in their life. I think our approach is open to challenge, but it also opens up important possibilities that should not be casually dismissed.

I end by re-affirming that I do not think that “gay” describes any deep fact about who I am in Christ. But because of the culture we all grow up in, it is an important part of how my experiences were organized growing up. If I want to help others sort out their experiences, and point them towards sanctification, I think it can be helpful to talk about the way that desires that I understood as “gay” growing up are, in fact, sanctifiable. This is not because same-sex lust is sanctifiable: that must always be repented of and mortified. It is rather because not all desire for deep intimacy with the same sex is lust. At least in some cases, the desire for intimacy can, when pursued in obedience to Christ, become a friendship that is not primarily a source of temptation, but rather a source of encouragement in sanctification, as is celebrated in this poem:

Then live, my strength, anchor of weary ships,
Safe shore and land at last, thou, for my wreck,
My honour, thou, and my abiding rest,
My city safe for a bewildered heart.
That though the plains and mountains and the sea
Between us are, that which no earth can hold
Still follows thee, and love’s own singing follows,
Longing that all things may be well with thee.
Christ who first gave thee for a friend to me,
Christ keep thee well, where’er thou art, for me.
Earth’s self shall go and the swift wheel of heaven
Perish and pass, before our love shall cease.
Do but remember me, as I do thee,
And God, who brought us on this earth together,
Bring us together to his house of heaven.

Note: If you’re keeping track at home, the author of this poem was probably thinking of a ship that looked something like this one:

“Caravel Boa Esperanca Portugal” photo by Brazillian Navy.

100 thoughts on “What Is “Gay”?

  1. Thanks, Ron. I enjoyed this immensely.

    I do wonder, however, whether there’s not a bit more here than what the “ship” analogy captures (although I think it’s an effective analogy).

    After all, I don’t think it’s purely an accident that Burk and Anderson have chosen to close their ears to how most of us gay people define the term “gay.” Burk and Anderson are both strenuous proponents of patriarchal heteronormative gender roles. In fact, Anderson wrote, in response to Michael Hannon’s piece in FT, that heteronormativity is implicit in the language of Scripture. When I read Anderson’s averment, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Really? Paul was a closet Freudian? Who knew?”

    I, like many others here, tend to perceive of myself as gay primarily based on the fact that I’m not wired in a way that allows me feel comfortable performing the patriarchal heteronormative gender role that my evangelical culture has demanded of me. For me, desires for gay sex are rather secondary, if not tertiary, and are far from central to my thinking about being gay. To the extent that my being gay is an identity, it’s an identity based on my fellowship with others who, like me, have been unjustly marginalized by patriarchy and heteronormativity.

    So, I suppose it makes some sense that guys like Burk and Anderson would have an interest in seeking to render us invisible, e.g., by misconstruing what we mean when we say that we’re gay. After all, our primary experience of being gay rests on our status as victims of the patriarchal heteronormative program to which Burk and Anderson seek to bind the church. Our scars are the evidence of the bad fruit of “biblical manhood and womanhood.” And that’s a hard pill to swallow for those, like Burk and Anderson, who view adherence to patriarchal heteronormative gender roles as nearly essential to Christian orthodoxy.

    • 1. I didn’t think that the ship analogy could be carried very far; I only wanted to point out that the same word can apply to different realities, and this can lead to misunderstanding. I think it is much easier to clear up confusion about the word “ship” than the word “gay.” But that’s why I chose “ship”: because it offered a much simpler example of the kind of ambiguity I wanted to discuss. But I wouldn’t press the parallel too far.

      2. I think you may be misreading Matt Anderson. While he has raised some questions about our approach, he has not been nearly as critical as Burk and others. In the post I linked in the first paragraph, he mostly defends us and concudes by saying: Either way, Rodgers and co. [that’s us] are on the side of the angels, and conservative evangelicals would do well to listen attentively to their experiences and theorize and reflect along with them. No, I’m quite serious: they are literally on the side of the angels, for they all are all working within their own lives to point toward the resurrection, when we “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” It may sound strange to the evangelical ear that their resolute commitment to the norms of chastity can sit side-by-side with a term that is associated with desires and acts that we have moral objections to. And no, Rodgers and co. are not above critique: I myself have wondered (in private correspondence) whether other terms might serve their ‘reclamation ends’ better than a term already as loaded as ‘gay’, if only because reclaiming terms is hard and making new ones is easy. But at the same time, had they taken my path I suspect that we would not be having this discussion. And how to think about sexual desire is a discussion evangelicals still need to have.

      • @Ron

        The ship analogy was fine. It carried the argument as well as any analogy can. This was an enjoyable piece that, along with the week’s other pieces, says a lot of what I’ve been thinking for the past 15-20 years. Great work.

        Thanks too for directing me to Anderson’s more recent piece. I read his blog in the past, and have generally viewed him (and others who blog at MO) as a fairly comfortable denizens of the CBMW/Acts 29 frat house. His recent piece strikes me as far more helpful than his previous writings on the topic.

  2. Hey, Ron. I wish we could meet some time, sit down, and talk about stuff. Not just this stuff. But all kinds of stuff.

    I thought this post was a helpful volley in our back and forth. I think you’ve done a lot of unwinding here, and that is good. You have so much here that I can’t even begin to respond to all of it. So here are some random reflections in response:

    Let me say first of all that reading about your experience as a Baptist really lays me low. I agree that folks have said some really irresponsible things about homosexuality in the past, all the while overlooking an epidemic of fornication and divorce in the pews. God, have mercy. For what it is worth, I think this is changing among us. No ship turns on a dime, but I think we are getting to a better place. Divorce has done more to destroy and redefine marriage among us than anything that has come from attempts to legalize gay marriage. In fact, I don’t think gay marriage would even have been a possibility without the prior desolation visited upon us by no-fault divorce. Evangelical silence over the last several decades on that issue has been a scandal for which God will require an accounting.

    You wrote: “Even if a person’s sexual attractions are predominantly directed to the same sex, that does not mean that every attraction they feel to their same-sex friends is lustful. Insofar as it is lustful, it must be mortified. But insofar as it can be directed toward chaste friendship, it is sanctifiable.” I think I agree with almost every word of that, and in many ways this gets at the heart of our main concern. I am a pastor, and I am very concerned with how we minister to a brother or a sister who is fighting the good fight against persistent and unwanted SSA. I think my responsibility is to say something to them like what you wrote in the paragraph quoted above. On the one hand, I want them to learn how to make and sustain chaste same-sex friendships. On the other hand, I want to encourage them to repent whenever they feel a sexual attraction to a person of the same sex. I want them to learn that repentance is not a one-time thing, but a way of life (for all of us). I want to strengthen them to fight the good fight at the level of desires. If God’s grace can win the battle for desire, then the rest will follow. If all of the messages from Spiritual Friendship were as clear as the paragraph I quoted above, many of our disputes would probably be less significant.

    Having said that, I still think it is confusing (and possibly misleading) to put “chaste friendship” under the rubric of same-sex attraction. It just seems to be using the term SSA in a way that is not in common use. That is why I think that your conversation about the naming of the website is significant. In your conversation with Wesley, you sensed something important in my view. You wrote: “Why would ‘homosexuality’ be the best label for X? More generally, for any category which has mixed good and bad components, why define the category by the fallen bit?” I read that and thought, “I would have said the exact thing that Ron said here had I been in his situation.” Perhaps we agree that filling modern sexual identity labels with new “sanctified” content can be quite confusing to your readers. I think Matt mentioned something about this in his essay.

    Having said that, I wonder if all the writers here at SF agree with you that sex-desire for the same-sex is sinful and must be “mortified.” It seems like that is not the predominant view here. It seems that some are saying that same-sex sexual desire itself is “sanctifiable”—that it can be “sublimated” to some other end. But this is where the language gets confusing. I agree that it is possible to sublimate desire to holy ends, and perhaps that’s what SF means by this language. But what does it mean to sublimate same-sex sexual desire to another end? Is it same-sex sexual desire now ordered to acts of mercy? What does that even mean? And how is it sanctified if it still includes in it sexual desire for the same sex? As long as sex-desire is fixed on an object outside of marriage, it is by definition sinful. Right?

    You mention that you think we are more “post-Freudian” than “pre-modern.” Did you read the Michael Hannon piece in First Things earlier this year? I agree with him that we would be better off discarding post-Freudian sexual identity labels in order to recover the church’s teleological tradition of sexual ethics. Hannon makes a statement that I think is golden: “The role of Christian chastity today, I argue, is to dissociate the Church from the false absolutism of identity based upon erotic tendency.” For what it’s worth, that’s my view. Would you agree?

    You wrote: “I would like it if Southern Baptist leaders—and Christian leaders more generally—realized that they will be more likely to persuade gays and lesbians to listen to them if they make sorrow and repentance for past approaches to this issue more central to their present speaking and writing, and make more of an effort to understand before they try to correct.” A couple thoughts on this. As I said above, there are probably many who need to repent of unbiblical and hurtful things that they have said about homosexuality. But as we are trying to listen to you (and I really am), I would ask that you try and listen closely to us and the arguments that we are making. Your statement above feels a bit like you are imputing the shortcomings of a previous generation to us. Perhaps that’s not what you meant, but it kind of sounds that way. If you’re seeing a log in my eye that I’m missing, I welcome the correction and really do want to get it out. But I can do very little about logs in the eyes of preachers from a different generation or place that I don’t even know.

    There’s more to be said, but I will save it for later. Thanks for the interaction. I really do appreciate it.


    • Hi Denny Burk,
      I read with great interest what you wrote in response to Ron. You seem like a thoughtful person and I liked much of what you said. A few questions and thoughts came to mind when I read your comment: “On the other hand, I want to encourage them to repent whenever they feel a sexual attraction to a person of the same sex. “
      I think this has been the problem all along for me because it is not lust I am being asked to repent of but something which is a very present component of my being. I experience my same sex attraction as part of my sexuality which is currently and apparently hard wired. In other words it is entwined and tied to my emotions and involuntary responses. This is not something which God has yet either healed or changed about me. I have unconscious attractions which in their most innocent manifestation bring me joy and a desire to honor the woman whom I am attracted to. Secondary to that may come a desire to spend more time time with her. The last thing on my mind would be sex because I hold to the belief that sex is reserved for marriage. The process of attraction and sexuality I assume is similar for those with opposite sex attractions or at least that would be the ideal when we are focused on respecting boundaries and right relationships with others.
      I find peace and acceptance in Christ when I submit my sexual desires to God with the understanding that these desires which are pulling me towards a sexual union with a woman need to be transformed into a desire for friendship and intimacy. In the past when I have called this sin and tried to kill or suppress those desires I was left unable to connect with anyone at a level of intimacy or joy. In other words the baby was thrown out with the bath water. I was left emotionally limping through life. Are we suppose to not feel at all? It was through allowing myself to say “ I love you” to a woman that I have been able to release those pent up emotions in bonds of friendship. Then I am able to live more abundantly and love others with warmth and compassion that nourishes rather than keeping my distance or being shamed by constant repentance and struggle. It is a renovation of my desires- not a gutting of them- in which I have experienced spiritual renewal and life.
      To further expand on this I imagine opposite sex attracted people must have the same kind of desire to be with the opposite sex as I desire to be with someone of the same sex. I see my attractions to women as innocent and sometimes it takes me off guard when it happens. If we label something that occurs from a spontaneous response as sin- is that harmful to the person? For example sexual response can be a reaction that happens in a split second. Is that sin? Is that temptation? or is that just being human? Because sexuality is tied to emotions and intimacy what is left for those who cannot express that through a marriage union? Gay people are taught to check themselves constantly with regards to this. It is highly stressful and causes a separation of self or a dissonance- especially when the reality of who you -know you are- is in conflict with those who tell you what they think you are or should be.
      So I suppose I would ask how would you approach a heterosexual man who has confided in you that he has a crush on a woman. Would you tell him “you need to repent of that?” Would that cause him confusion? Instead I suppose you would encourage him to ask her out on a date. Do you see the impossible situation gay people are in when they are not provided with any options other than repentance for something that is the equation of who they are and something which is so clearly relational? This is the very crux of why spiritual friendship is so vital to those who are gay celibate Christians, because we are not free to date and pursue a same sex marriage, but we are free to form friendships. In that freedom we can experience a way of life that has warm friendships which are loving and sacrificial.
      In the absence of marriage and sexual union there has to be an alternative for someone like me who is not able to marry. First and foremost I desire to follow Christ and pursue a life in which I can employ my spiritual gifts in christian fellowship and the community around me with passion and joy.
      I appreciate your kind words in your post above, God bless

      • Thanks for this thoughtful response, Kathy. You said something worth highlighting and that has provoked some thinking on my part. You write:

        “In the past when I have called this sin and tried to kill or suppress those desires I was left unable to connect with anyone at a level of intimacy or joy. In other words the baby was thrown out with the bath water. I was left emotionally limping through life. Are we suppose to not feel at all?”

        What you are describing here is a real challenge. And I think the challenge to me as a pastor is not to leave anyone in this relationship-no-man’s land. There is an analog that I hear straight Christians report in the dynamic that exists between couples. Let’s say two married men are friends with each other, and that friendship becomes the occasion for the couples to be friends. Now each man is getting to know the other guy’s wife. And each woman is getting to know the other gal’s husband. What does a holy friendship look like between the man and woman who aren’t married to one another? Especially when each one finds the other attractive? In this situation, the first impulse is to put boundaries in place. In some cases, those boundaries take the form of forced indifference and disinterest in the person of the opposite sex that you are not married to. I think fidelity and chastity will always involve boundaries, but I also think that we might explore ways to have boundaries that don’t involve coldness and disinterest.

        When we relate to people that we ought not be attracted to sexually, I think we are looking for the moral space between sinful lust and benign recognition of beauty. And we want to stay on the side of benign recognition of beauty while maintaining a warm chaste friendship. In thinking about these possibilities, I have been greatly helped by the apostle Paul’s exhortation to Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:2. As the pastor, Timothy had to relate to the younger women in the congregation. And Paul told him how to do it with warmth and chastity: “Treat younger women as sisters with absolute purity.” Likewise, Paul is teaching us by way of analogy how to pursue “purity” in such relationships. We should think of such women as sisters. Our relationships to our siblings give us a measuring stick by which to measure our motives in these relationships. We know the moral space between apprehension of beauty and sinful lust because we have sisters. Those relationships teach us what it feels like to apprehend beauty in a person while experiencing no sexual possibility as a component of the relationship. My older sister, for example, was a beauty queen when we were in high school. All my friends got all weird around her when they came over to our house. I think it’s funny looking back on it because they were having feelings that I wasn’t having. I could tell that she was pretty, but sexual attraction just wasn’t even on the horizon. It was simply a non-issue. Those kinds of experiences help us to distinguish benign apprehension of beauty from sinful sex desire. We know the difference because of the common experience of familial love (though some people, sadly, have been deprived of such experiences).

        Bottom line answer to your question: I think it is good and right for you to pursue God-honoring friendships with persons of the same sex. I don’t think that struggling with SSA means a life of holding yourself aloof from every person you might be attracted to. I do think, however, that it is important to know your limits and to set boundaries that make sense—especially with other people who may also be same-sex attracted. I also think that it would be good and right to form close bonds with persons of the same sex who are not same-sex attracted—with those for whom this particular struggle isn’t an issue. Those kinds of relationships can offer a kind of accountability and closeness that might be more difficult with a person who is also experiencing SSA. But no matter who your friends are, it would seem that vigilance is always in order. We want to know our own hearts well enough to be able to tell if they are drifting away from “treating them as sisters with absolute purity.” We would strive always in every relationship to know the difference in our own heart between benign apprehension of beauty and sinful lust. We would be laying hold of the ordinary means of grace to be transformed daily into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). There’s so much more to this, but that is how I would think about things. The last thing that I would want for you or for anyone else is to go “emotionally limping through life.” SSA or no, God’s grace has a better plan than that.

      • Denny,
        I appreciate you sharing your heart. After reading your comment “ When we relate to people that we ought not be attracted to sexually, I think we are looking for the moral space between sinful lust and benign recognition of beauty.” I agree completely. The moral space in my mind would be to not dwell on same sex attractions. It is difficult to do when relationships are a necessary part of life. Sometimes our choices are limited. As well I think it is hard for some of us to let go of the gay because our society is permeated with a constant stream of information and a culture which brings it up constantly. So should we stick our head in the sand? Separate ourselves from interacting with people? Making those decisions will vary from person to person depending on their maturity in faith.
        I know I have a long way to go and I am thankful for every opportunity to engage with other Christians about these questions.

      • Denny: I also think that it would be good and right to form close bonds with persons of the same sex who are not same-sex attracted.

        But these friendships often lack, for want of better word, as sense of “affinity”. Sometimes I just don’t get straight guys – especially when they start talking football!

        Also, the flip-side of accountability is trust. Many SSA Christians will report a frustrating (and from their perspective unnecessary) tension in evangelical churches over how ‘out’ they are, what labels to use, how they talk about these issues etc.

    • Denny,

      Kathy has hit the nail on the head. What is most harmful and upsetting about what you and Owen have been promoting is repentance from any sexual desires and not just lust. What you guys seem to struggle to understand is how fundamentally this is connected with our existence as human beings. I do not say that as an identity statement. Human sexuality and sexual development is a significant aspect of being a creature. You are essentially demanding that we become asexual or heterosexual in order to be okay. And that is impossible for many of us.

      It seems like you also consider normal aspects of puberty in heterosexuals to be sinful. You have mentioned before that a man who experiences any sexual desire (even apart from lust) has to repent. This is really strange to my ears and not mainstream within even evangelical circles. I can’t imagine why people would be repenting for having gone through puberty.

      If you are actually telling young men that they need to essentially become asexual until the wedding night because to feel anything sexual is bad and sinful, I imagine that would create neurosis. That is compounded when you give the same advice to gay people because gay people are not being permitted to date or marry and so never have any way out of the predicament.

      I don’t expect you to understand because you have no idea what it is like to be gay. It would be like someone telling you that all your attractions to your wife are evil and that you need to separate from her and repent. And any sexual feelings whatsoever you have toward women is evil. Seriously, take 10 minutes and imagine that reality and what that would be like. Imagine a pastor telling you that you need to separate from your wife no matter how long you have been together and no matter if children are involved because it is a sinful relationship. Imagine a pastor telling you your love for her is evil. Imagine being told that you cannot have any sexual feeling or desire ever and must repent every moment you experience any sexual feelings. Imagine that you will never be able to experience sexual intimacy again, never kiss a woman again, never go on a date again. And imagine living with serial roommates for the rest of your life while most of your friends enjoy their spouses and families.

      You have to know that you and Owen have raised up a lot of turmoil for us celibate gay folk. I am in a private Facebook group of over 200 celibate gay people and there was no little distress over these posts. We can handle the frustration and debate over things like whether or not to use the label gay. But what we cannot tolerate is someone telling us every sexual feeling we have is evil and that we are constantly in a state of sin. I am a devout Christian, but this past week’s discussion has so upset me that it fills me with temptations to leave the church and get into a relationship with a woman. If this is what Christianity is, it’s crazy and harmful, and I don’t want any part of it. Fortunately, I know these views do not represent Scripture or a good number of Christians in the evangelical world.

      Here is a recent example of where I think such teaching leads:

    • Denny,

      You cannot repent of something that does not involve the will. When my son wells up with anger, I do not tell him to repent. I tell him to exert dominion over his passions.

      If he were to repent of the temptation to anger, he would immediately feel that “he must have abandoned the Lord” every time he was again tempted. But the temptation is the opportunity God has given him NOT to abandon the Lord. Once we have been tested, and found holy, temptation will no longer be needed. But the testing is in the Lord’s hands, not ours.


    • Hi Denny,

      I appreciate your willingness to interact on this site, where you’ll certainly be in the minority. I think others have addressed many of the other points you’ve made well enough. I just want to discuss the last paragraph, concerning sorrow and repentance on the part of Southern Baptist leaders.

      I grew up in the Southern Baptist church. I’m in my late twenties, and it wasn’t all that long ago, so I’m not so convinced that it can all be blamed on a previous generation. And when I return to my hometown each summer, it seems not much has changed since the nineties, early 2000s.

      But even if it could all be laid at the doorstep of the previous generation, is there not wisdom, even Christlikeness in owning that, and reaching out to lgbt people in sorrow over the harm that the institution that you’re a part of has been responsible for? Your response above comes across sort of like this: “well, I’ve not done anything wrong, so I don’t need to apologize for anything. Now, back to my three-point argument.” I’m sure that’s not what you want to communicate. Again, if you really want to reach out, if you want to put forth a winsome argument, this is one big hurdle you’ll need to clear.

      As a model, here’s someone who I think is doing it right. Even though you won’t agree with his language (which is more in line with language used by writers at SF) as he proceeds throughout the rest of the article, focus on the introduction. This posture of owning the failures of the evangelical church, this humility, is powerful.


  3. To me, this whole debate makes me wonder how much self-awareness heterosexuals have of their own sexual orientation.

    Have they never had a crush? Have they never harmlessly flirted after marriage, or at least blushed and gotten an extra skip in their step when a cute cashier tried to flirt with them? Have they never gone out of their way to hold the door for a member of the other sex they found particularly cute? Have they never made a special effort to see a movie featuring a “celebrity crush”? Have they never kept glancing back towards a beautiful person on the subway without their mind immediately undressing them and jumping their bones? Have they never made jokes with friends that rely on a presumption of heterosexuality? Or, again with close friends, ranked members of the other sex or discussed who has the best this-or-that?

    None of this necessarily involves lust/arousal/the specific desire to engage in sexual interaction.

    Where the “conservatives” become disingenuous is that, apparently, none of these experiences have anything to do with “sexual orientation” (or if they do, it’s because they’re all constructed as remotely tending towards sex acts). Allegedly, an emotional infatuation with a member of the same sex that doesn’t involve lust…can be perfectly heterosexual. Allegedly, “noticing the beauty” of a member of the same sex is totally not gay. Allegedly, this all doesn’t fall under the umbrella of “sexuality” then, or “attraction,” but merely “human appreciation” or something like that (even when the appreciation is of someone specifically AS a male in their maleness or masculinity, etc).

    But what their attempts really strike me as…are attempts to essentialize. They want some pretty little scholastic definition of orientation that makes desire to engage in sex acts the defining feature, and where it isn’t present or structural to the given experience, that experience is suddenly “not sexual.”

    But that’s not how emotions work. Emotions aren’t defined “teleologically” like that. They’re defined experientially.

    Take anger, or sadness. These emotional states are not defined by “where they’re going,” by any particular enactment or tendency towards enactment. They defined by “where they come from,” by what causes them.

    Anger is not “a tendency towards” violence, or screaming, or any particular act. Anger is an emotion caused by perceived injustice, and it opens up a whole toolbox, a whole spectrum, of possible responses, from hitting, to yelling, to sitting silently brooding, to constructively addressing the injustice, etc. Sadness, too, is caused by a perceived loss. But there is no particular behavioral “telos” of sadness.

    Attraction is similar. Attraction is not an “act-ive” experience, it’s passive. It just happens. It just is. You get a rush of endorphins upon seeing someone or speaking with them.

    Sure, a straight person can feel joy upon spending time with a friend of their own sex. But differences in degree can BECOME differences in nature when we’re talking about mere social constructs.

    A gay person has simply noticed that in a classroom in high school…their eyes drifted towards their own sex rather than the other. They’ve noticed that they get “butterflies” when the same-sex waiter smiles or complements them, but that they care much less when it is the opposite sex. They’ve noticed that they fantasize about going to the theater or out to dinner with their same sex coworker.

    Can a straight person have such a fantasy too? Sure, there isn’t anything essential to distinguish it. But, for a straight person it’s much more likely to be brief and not all that emotionally charged, a mere “Yeah, going to see that show with my pals would be fun, I look forward to it” and not part of a persistent pattern. Again, it may only be a difference in degree, but when we’re talking about constructs, a difference in degree can be consistent or significant enough to warrant a label or category boundary, especially when the spectrum doesn’t seem entirely smooth, but rather has two poles (bisexuals notwithstanding).

    And, yes, WHEN and IF a gay person experiences a movement of temptation towards lust (as all people do)…it will be elicited by same-sex stimuli rather than opposite. But there is nothing necessary or essential about that for determining orientation. If anything, it tells you which way lust WOULD go IF it happens. But that’s different from identifying it with the lust itself. Both gay and straight lust is presumably bad. Orientation just describes (among other things) which direction it goes. And that’s neutral, when abstracted from the lust itself. It’s like saying IF I over-ate, I’d binge on savory treats, not sweet. It’s not saying that I do over-eat, or that I want to over-eat, or that I’m afflicted with the vice of gluttony. It’s like saying that if I were to get drunk, it would be on wine, not beer. Doesn’t mean I do get drunk or are a drunkard or have any attraction to being a drunkard. It’s just stating a mere preference (more or less hypothetical).

    Little kids have playground crushes and puppy love LONG before they even know what sex is. And presumably, even if someone was so pure as to avoid any movement of concupiscence towards sex acts…they would still know whom they were attracted to. I mean, heterosexual marriage (when it’s not an arranged marriage) requires “finding out” somehow, yet no one would claim that lusting was a precursor or perquisite to desiring to marry someone.

  4. Ron, I really appreciate your essay here. You have a done a great job of showing how “gay” cannot be reduced to simply sex or lust. However, I am concerned that Burk’s and Strachan’s assertion is not being directly addressed by the last few posts here. The response thus far has focused primarily on how gay is not reducible. But the alarming assertion that Burk and Strachan are making is that same-sex sexual attraction in of itself is sin. Not lust. Not behavior. Simply having a sexual attraction. That has not been answered and that is the most problematic point of the entire discussion this past week.

    If Burk and Strachan err on the side of reducing “gay” to sex, the last few posts here have gone the other way of talking about sexual orientation in a way that splices out sexual attraction. I understand the reason for doing so. But in the process, the real issue is not being addressed.

    Burk acknowledges that being gay includes other aspects. He writes: “I do not dispute that gay people report heightened emotional connections with the same sex that are non-sexual in nature. So maybe we would agree not to say that sexual desire is the only element that gay people experience as a part of their SSA.”

    He then says, “Nevertheless, sexual desire does seem to be the defining element. . . If same-sex sexual desire is removed from the equation, then we are no longer talking about SSA—at least not in the sense that modern people mean the term.”

    I understand it may be problematic to say sexual desire is the “defining element” but he is also correct that if a person has no same-sex sexual desire it does not make sense to refer to that experience as gay. In other words, we cannot splice out same-sex sexual desire anymore than we can splice out the deep emotional connections. Sexual orientation is an interconnected phenomenon. In other words, while it might not be correct to say that sexual desire is the defining element, it is correct to say it is an indispensable element.

    Burk believes that same-sex desire in of itself is sin and this is his primary point. It doesn’t matter if you act on it or not. To call yourself “gay” is to identify with sin because the same-sex sexual desire exists as part of the whole. That means if one accepts Burk’s view, those of us who are gay are essentially in a constant state of sin that must be constantly repented of–every single sexual desire we have. Not only do we have to repent of lust and behavior, we have to repent of spontaneous, uncontrolled biological responses. To feel any kind of sexual feeling is sinful. This is beyond toxic in my opinion.

    I would like to know how you would answer that charge. In Burk’s response to you here, he has interpreted you as agreeing with him. In your post you write:”This is not because same-sex lust is sanctifiable: that must always be repented of and mortified. It is rather because not all desire for deep intimacy with the same sex is lust.”

    Burk responds by saying: “Having said that, I wonder if all the writers here at SF agree with you that sex-desire for the same-sex is sinful and must be “mortified.” It seems like that is not the predominant view here. It seems that some are saying that same-sex sexual desire itself is “sanctifiable”—that it can be “sublimated” to some other end.”

    In other words, he interprets you as agreeing with his primary premise that same-sex attraction in of itself is sin. He proposes that any time we feel sexually attracted to someone of the same sex we should repent of that even if we are not lusting. What is your response to this?

    • I’m not sure that I agree entirely. Burk and Strachan certainly proffer that allegation, but they also go a step further: They also allege that a gay sexual orientation is primarily reducible to that same-sex sexual attraction. In other words, their argument goes something like this.

      Premise 1: Same-sex sexual attraction is sinful.
      Premise 2: An LGBTQ sexual orientation is primarily reducible to said same-sex sexual attraction.
      Conclusion: Having an LGBTQ sexual orientation therefore sinful.

      The Burk-Strachan argument unravels if either premise is faulty. You’re right. The discussion this week has focused primarily on the second premise. And for good reason: The second premise simply doesn’t capture the reasons why we gay people generally identify as gay. In fact, it strikes me as a rather forced premise that’s been crafted specifically with the conclusion already in mind. It’s a facially incorrect premise that doesn’t comport with the available evidence of why we tend to describe ourselves as gay.

      The first premise is not as clearly faulty, in my view, as it depends on what one means by “sexual attraction.” Of course, sexual attractions don’t exist in isolation. They exist alongside aesthetic, romantic, emotional, and/or interpersonal attractions, and can influence and be influenced by those other attractions. It can also be rechanneled into these other those other types of attractions, just as those attractions can be rechanneled into sexual attractions. That’s the purpose of foreplay, after all: to rechannel non-sexual attractions into sexual ones.

      I have to admit that I’ve never been a huge fan of the “sublimation” lingo that Burk criticizes. But I think its proponents are probably describing the process of disciplining oneself to rechannel sexual attractions into other attractions at a fairly nascent stage, instead of indulging them to the point where they blossom into full-blown lust. When sin sets in is awfully hard to say. When a sexual attraction ripens to the point that it starts to take shape as a specific sexual desire directed toward a specific person, that’s probably a sin. Besides, if you believe in original sin, even our best desires are discolored in some way sin. That’s why I’m not a huge fan of the pietistic practice of treating repentance like swatting flies.

      My greater concern with the Burk-Strachan argument on this particular point lies in their effort to argue for an asymmetry between same-sex attractions and opposite-sex attractions. (Matt Anderson addresses this point in his piece at Mere Orthodoxy.) It strikes me that Burk and Strachan are willing to permit an unmarried person’s opposite-sex sexual attractions to ripen to a much greater degree than someone’s same-sex sexual attractions before identifying such desires as sinful. For the reasons that Anderson identifies, I find Burk and Strachan to be on rather thin ice with this assertion. Again, it looks like something that’s been injected artificially into the premise to guarantee that one arrives at the desired premise.

      This is just my take, though. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts.

      • Bobby, thanks for the interaction. You write:

        “It strikes me that Burk and Strachan are willing to permit an unmarried person’s opposite-sex sexual attractions to ripen to a much greater degree than someone’s same-sex sexual attractions before identifying such desires as sinful.”

        This is not correct. We argue that any sexual desire that is not ordered to the covenant of marriage is sinful. That goes for both heterosexual desire and homosexual desire. That does not preclude sexual attractions between an unmarried couple who are aiming toward marriage to one another. There is a category in scripture for this. I take it that the Song of Solomon 1-3 is a celebration of the anticipation of the marital bond that doesn’t fully emerge until the marriage in chapter 4. They do not “awaken love before she pleases,” so it is not a celebration of fornication. It is a celebration of the joys of the sexual bond in the covenant of marriage. So it is possible for an unmarried couple to have their sexual attractions ordered to the covenant of marriage.


      • Denny,

        Thanks for the correction.

        Also, I appreciate your interest in engaging these issues. While I only agree with you about halfway, I think there’s a fair bit of profit to be had by the SF crowd and the CBMW crowd via mutual dialogue.

        I also apologize for some critical comments I made regarding CBMW. I had a series of bad experiences with a CBMW-affiliated pastor in Bloomington, Indiana, a number of years ago, and have probably held an unfair grudge against the organization since then. Your efforts to engage folks here have pricked my conscience as to my need to forgive. Peace in Christ.

    • Hi, Karen,

      I do distinguish between temptation and sin. Sexual temptation is not the same thing as lust. Insofar as a particular attraction to someone of the same sex could lead someone to sexual sin—either lust in the heart or overt sexual sin with another person—it is a temptation, but not necessarily a sin. (Obviously, this post spends a lot of time exploring how a person can be drawn to another person of the same sex in ways that are not necessarily temptations at all.)

      People often quote Martin Luther as saying, “You can’t stop birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from making a nest in your hair.” (I don’t know if he actually said this, but the saying has passed into a proverb.) I think this is a good quick summary of how to think about the relationship between temptation (a thought flies unbidden through your mind) and sin (you don’t turn your attention to something else, or you choose to dwell on the thought.)

      As I understand Burk correctly, a significant part of our disagreement lies in differences in belief about concupiscence and sin. However, I do not fully understand exactly where those differences lie.

      I wrote this post because I realized that the claim that sexual desire is the defining and constitutive element was an important part of our disagreement. Having identified a concrete issue, I could write a response that clarified where we were coming from.

      With regard to the questions of concupiscence and sin you raise, I am much less sure what the exact source of the disagreement is, which makes it harder to respond in the same clear way I was ablt to respond in this post.

      In addition, one of the things that has always made writing about sexual desire and adultery in the heart is that temptation and sin are so closely intertwined. If we try to make the difference between the two too great, I think we lose Jesus’ teaching about the redemption of the heart, and end up with a kind of Pelagianism which only looks at the human will, and gives too little attention to the inner purifying work of the Holy Spirit.

      I also think that while some sexual temptation is external (in the way that the Devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness), I do think that our own thoughts and habits often contribute to temptation; when that happens, the temptation is not merely temptation, but also the fruit of sin. Someone who looks at pornography will experience more sexual temptation than someone who does not. The person who looks at pornography cannot point to their temptations and say that they are not responsible for them and cannot be held accountable for them. Chris Damian’s post on Learning to See offers a helpful discussion of the way that our choices shape our desires, and the need to properly form our desires.

      So with regard to Denny’s points about temptation and sin, I agree with you that this is an important point. But it’s not a narrow difference; I am fairly sure that at least in part, it’s connected with deep differences in theological worldview. There isn’t a quick or easy way to respond to that in a blog post, especially when I am not even sure yet exactly where the differences lie.

      Regarding the practical question of what a Christian who feels a temptation to lust should do, I’m not sure that I would say they should “repent” if they have not yet entangled their will with the temptation. However, although I think Burk and I differ with regard to our understanding of temptation, concupiscence and sin, and while I think we are still struggling to figure out what sort of attractions we are talking about, I think we can agree on at least one thing. If a Christian feels tempted to lust after or to sin sexually with another person, that is not a neutral experience. Whether or not it needs repentance, it does require an active turning of the will to Christ and away from sin.

      Burk is right in pointing out that Jesus temptation is not the same as ours. His temptation was entirely from the outside, while for us, our temptations are at least in part caught up in our past sins and sinful habits. All of us, more or less, have built up patterns of lustful thinking over time. Some of these patterns may be much less frequent and less entrenched than others, but all have sinned and fallen short, and lust is, unfortunately, a very popular category of human sin.

      So when I experience temptation, I need to acknowledge the weakness of my fallen human nature, my need to depend on God’s grace, and to turn from sinful habits and choose loyalty to God. The semantics of how we describe this process matter, but not quite in the way you suggest when you link to the story of Lizzie Lowe’s suicide above.

      I think Lizzie’s despair went much deeper than the semantics of her experience of feelings for other women. Whether those feelings are best described as temptation, concupiscence, or sin is not the heart of the matter. She killed herself primarily because she falsely believed her parents would reject her if they knew about her struggles.

      When we are talking about adolescent struggles, I don’t think these fine distinctions are essential to good pastoral practice. Virtually all Christian adolescents sin sexually, whether we use Catholic or Reformed theology for drawing the precise lines where sin starts. If those adolescents are convinced that God loves them, that their parents love them, and that their church family loves them, they will be very unlikely to fall into the kind of despair that was fatal to Lizzie Lowe.

      But this love is not just a matter of carefully distinguishing temptation from sin, because they will sin. What they need to know is a love that can strengthen them in temptation and redeem them from sin. The debates between Catholic and Reformed theologians regarding temptation, concupiscence, and sin are important if we want to fully understand the operations of God’s love and our response to it. But I’m convinced that there are important questions that need to be sorted out here. I don’t want to just dismiss what Burk has to say, even though I don’t think I am in complete agreement with his way of formulating the problem.

      • Thanks Ron! Your response is very helpful. I appreciate it. I agree with most of what you have said here.

        I agree that the disagreement seems to be related to larger theological worldviews. The discussion this past week prompted me to do some research to try to understand what people believe on this and why.

        From what I understand it is rooted in perceptions of what happened during the fall. Catholics believe that human beings lost the gift of righteousness (separation from God resulted in separation from the Source) but the human nature itself was not affected in the same way as the Reformed view. Human beings developed the propensity to sin and the freedom to choose wrong, but the human nature was not made totally corrupt. Whereas Reformed folk believe that original righteousness was not a gift bestowed but intrinsic to the human being as a creation. So the fall resulted in the loss of all intrinsic goodness. Total corruption of the human nature.

        However, I know Reformed folk who do not subscribe to Burk’s and Strachan’s understanding of sin and temptation. Certainly, the idea that same-sex attraction is sin in of itself is a minority view in the evangelical world so far as I know. So I don’t entirely understand that reasoning. Albeit it is not entirely unfamiliar to me having grown up in fundamentalism.

        As for Lizzie Lowe I know bringing up her story might seem abstract and not directly connected. But I don’t believe her death was only because she thought her parents wouldn’t love her. Whatever she heard about homosexuality was that it is more sinister than other things. If she had gotten pregnant out of wedlock, I doubt she would have killed herself. What distresses me so much about the teaching that Burk and Strachan promote is the kind of thing that leads people to think that just having feelings makes them evil. It is like hearing, “You ARE evil.” Some might object that this is because the feelings are conflated with Freudian identity categories. But I don’t think it is as simple as that. And even if identity issues are involved, that is the day and age we live in and we have to conduct our theology and pastoral care accordingly.

        Anyway, thanks again for your response. I don’t know if there is a resolution to the disagreement on sin and temptation between Burk/Strachan and SF because of the larger theological frameworks driving them. But we’ll see where the conversation goes.

        PS: I don’t see Jesus’ temptations as being entirely external. I agree that Jesus would not have had temptations that were rooted in previous sins such as pornography use, etc. But Jesus’ normal biological appetites would have been involved. We see this in Matthew 4 where the devil seeks to manipulate Jesus’ desires to eat. Jesus was hungry. There would have been no temptation if Jesus was not hungry. Also, Burk says Jesus’ temptation was different from ours because Jesus always desired the Father’s will at all times. But the Garden of Gethsemane suggests otherwise. Jesus did not desire to undergo the trial and asked to be relieved of it. But Jesus chose to be obedient despite his desires saying, “Not what I will but what you will.” So, Jesus’ temptations certainly involved internal factors and desires. And that is part of what makes him fully human and fully able to relate to our weaknesses. He experienced actual weakness.

      • Hi Karen,

        For the record, I’m on of those “Reformed folk who don’t subscribe to Burk’s and Strachan’s understanding of sin and temptation.” And I greatly appreciate your passionate responses here.

      • Correction: I meant to say that the view that sexual attractions (including heterosexual) without lust are sin in of themselves is a minority view.

      • I think you’re on the right track with regard to your discussion of the differences between Catholic and Reformed views, but I’m still thinking this through, so I don’t want to jump too quickly in to argue what is a fairly significant theological difference.

        Regarding your comments about Lizzie Lowe, I agree with your point that she probably had gotten the message that homosexual temptions, struggles, and sins were worse than others. It’s important to note, however, that the way that homosexuality is talked about by English Christians is rather different than the way it is talked about over here. We can’t just assume she would have heard the same sorts of things we heard growing up.

        However, it seems to me that the larger theological worldview we’re discussing, with different views of how the fall affected human nature, are not directly relevant to adolescent suicide. That is, one could believe what Burk, Strachan, and others believe about concupiscence and sin without singling out adolescents who struggle with homosexual desires.

        On the Catholic view of this, most adolescents still sin sexually, usually through lustful thoughts or masturbation even if they don’t look at pornography or engage in sinful sexual activity with another person. It is true that for many, there is more shame attached to homosexual sins than there is to heterosexual or solitary sins. But that doesn’t flow from the view of concupiscence.

        So I agree with you that the sort of shame that Lizzie experienced is something that no Christian adolescent should ever feel. But I’m trying to diagnose the problem here accurately, and I think it has to do with singling out homosexual sins for unique condemnation and shame, not with our divergent views of concupiscence and sin.

        On either a Reformed or Catholic view of sexual ethics, same-sex attracted adolescents are in a more difficult position than opposite-sex attracted adolescents, because marriage between a man and a woman is a good vocation, and marriage between two men involves serious sin. This difference certainly creates a danger of youth with same-sex attractions feeling singled out for particularly heavy shame. And it’s possible that the Burk-Strachan view of concupiscence will make this burden feel somewhat heavier. But they also seem to try to apply this view as even-handedly as they can. If a heterosexual desire is directed to an act that would be sinful, then I believe they consider the desire sinful in itself.

        Anyhow, we want to engage fairly here, and make sure that we’re really untangling the root issues, and at least for me, that requires more thought.

        I am pretty sure you’re right that Burk and Strachan’s view is not universal among Reformed folks. But I want to spend more time trying to figure out the view before I respond.

        And it’s important to acknowledge here that Paul does not only condemn homosexual acts in the Letter to the Romans: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1:26-27 ESV). When Paul speaks of God giving human beings up to “dishonorable passions” and men being “consumed with passion” for one another,

        I don’t think what I described in my relationship with “Jason” above or in My Alternative Lifestyle is reducible to the “dishonorable passions” Paul condemns here. So acknowledging the condemnation of passion in Romans 1 does not undo any of the arguments I made in this post. However, discussion of the relationship between desire and sin would need to engage with this passage.

        Finally, I agree with you that things become tricky when we talk about Jesus and temptation. I agree with you that Jesus’ hunger was an internal factor. There is a lot of mystery around the question of how Jesus could be fully God, thus experiencing the ongoing communion of the Trinity, and yet tempted in every way as we are. Many of our temptations stem from the apparent absense of God. There are other passages—like the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane and the prayer on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—which are difficult to understand. So I’m not jumping to agree with Burk here, but I’m also aware that we are in deep theological waters, and that it is better to “keep these things and ponder them in our hearts” than to try to jump quickly to take sides. I think Burk raises questions worth reflecting on, and want to reflect more on them before I try to take a more definite position.

        But I don’t yet think I need to unsay anything that I said in the original post in light of these considerations.

      • Ron, I’ve been reading your stuff here, and I agree with much of what you are saying. I’m not sure that our disagreement is as wide as recent disputes might suggest.

    • Karen,

      Good questions here. I know this was addressed to Ron, but a couple of things occurred to me that I thought might be worth mentioning.

      I have been saying that sexual desire is the “defining” characteristic of SSA. You may be right. I think “indispensable” may be a better word to express what I’m getting at. I can now see that “defining” might imply that sex desire is main aspect of the relationship. That’s not what I mean. For many lesbians in particular, it seems like sex desire becomes less and less of a factor over time. At least that is what I’ve read and what a same-sex attracted friend has confirmed to be her own experience. So I don’t mean to imply that sex-desire is the overriding feature of every gay relationship. I’m sure it is for some. But for many, it’s not. In short, all I mean by “defining” is that it seems to be the indispensable part.

      You write of me: “He proposes that any time we feel sexually attracted to someone of the same sex we should repent of that even if we are not lusting. What is your response to this?” This is actually not quite right. The difference here may be because we are using the terms differently. In the literature, I have observed that same-sex sexual desire often appears as a synonym for same-sex sexual attraction. At the very least, “desire” and “attraction” have an enormous semantic overlap. I could multiply examples of this from the literature, both secular and Christian.

      That semantic overlap is what makes me view same-sex sexual attraction in terms of the Bible’s teaching about sexual desire. Jesus (Matt. 5:27-28), Paul (Rom. 7), James (Jas. 1:13-5) all tell us how we are to think about our sexual desires. That is why I understand those texts to be addressing our sexual attractions.

      So I would not agree with the way you’ve framed it: “He proposes that any time we feel sexually attracted to someone of the same sex we should repent of that even if we are not lusting.” I’m arguing that the moment a person feels a sexual attraction for a person of the same-sex (or someone else’s spouse for that matter) that person is experiencing what the Bible defines as lust.

      I hope that helps to clarify what I mean. Thanks for the interaction.


      • Denny, thanks for the clarification. What I gather from your response here, I don’t believe I have misunderstood you. What you describe as “the moment a person feels a sexual attraction” is what I mean by “sexual attraction.” What you describe is not what I would describe as lust. There is a very clear difference in my own experience and I know many people’s experience between feeling a sexual attraction and lusting. Matthew 5 says not to look at a woman *for the purpose of* lusting. There is intentionality in the Greek. Looking at a person for the purpose of stirring up desire is lust. But if I happen to be in someone’s company and I have an unexpected or uncontrolled sexual attraction it is merely a physiological response. It could lead to lusting if I dwelt on it. But otherwise it is not. I believe the will plays a greater role in what constitutes sin.

        But even apart from that I do struggle to understand what is the basis of your belief. I know that many Reformed folk don’t see the will as a defining factor in what constitutes sin. But beyond that I get the impression that you see the normal effects of puberty as being the result of the fall. I don’t know very many evangelicals who would say that teenagers who go through puberty and have all kinds of new sexual desires as a result of hormonal changes are sinning because they now have sexual attractions to persons that they did not have before these hormonal changes. It is normal sexual development to feel sexual attraction/desire (I am using these synonymously). Perhaps you could clarify?

      • Denny,

        As a scholar who works with the Greek language, let me mention that the Greek “epithumei” — which can be translated “desire” or “lust” — is MILES away from the Biblical notion of a “passion” (pascho) or a “temptation” (peiro). Karen and I are saying that a “passion” (in the Biblical sense) or a “temptation” does not need to be repented of. It is merely a passive experience. We need to respond to it well, submit it to God’s action, and not let it control us; Jesus modeled this for us, in the desert.

        The whole New Testament is infused with indications of passivity and activity that our language does not begin to express. I wrote about this elsewhere: http://mercyst.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/why-desire-is-a-bad-word/


      • Hi Denny, thanks for your thoughtful engagement here.

        In thinking about our experiences as LGBTQ Christians, we would not be inclined to say that sex-desires are “indispensable” to what it means to be LGBTQ. From our vantage point, we appreciate it when pastors can see that LGBTQ Christians may have different needs relative to vocational discernment than cisgender, heterosexual Christians.

        The two of us have been discerning celibate vocations for over a decade, and we’ve been cultivating life in our community of two for a couple of years. We write more about our life together at aqueercalling.com. One of the first posts we wrote involved defining celibacy in a way that moved beyond simply being about avoiding sex. As we’ve spent time trying to cultivate a life marked by vulnerability, hospitality, a shared spiritual life and commitment, we’ve noticed that our understanding of celibacy has grown and shifted over time.

        We’d posit that similar shiftings happen in the lives of our heterosexually married friends as they grow in their understanding of marriage. Yet churches, by and large, seem to do a better job at understanding how pastoral needs of married (and pre-married) people shift over time. As LGBTQ celibates, we are not pre-married people. Our needs are distinct from pre-married people even as we grow in our understandings of the celibate vocation.

        We are often frustrated when heterosexually married pastors decide to tell us that we’re doing something wrong (and spiritually harmful) for asserting that we have different pastoral needs than heterosexual people who want to marry.

      • “I’m arguing that the moment a person feels a sexual attraction for a person of the same-sex (or someone else’s spouse for that matter) that person is experiencing what the Bible defines as lust.”

        I’m reformed, myself, but like Karen, I’m having a lot of trouble with this. I wonder, would you say that all sin is preceded first by a temptation? If, upon initially finding a man attractive, I’m already lusting (sinning), when was the temptation? Seems clear to me that you are taking away the temptation part and jumping the gun by calling it sin, thus removing the ability of the gay Christian to fight sin, as we’re all called to do. It sort of forces one into a depressing, fatalistic hyper-calvinism. Doesn’t it make more biblical sense, considering what we know about a Christian’s responsibility, that the attraction is a temptation (or at least can be) and our response to it is when the sin (lust) comes in?

  5. Ron, I probably don’t know enough about the details of their relationship to have a dogmatic view. From what I do know, I guess I view it like Jayber Crow’s love for Mattie Chatham. I can identify with the pathos of the whole situation. It is sad and tragic and leaves you with this big hole in your heart when you let the story in. But then I also wish that Jayber would not have “married” himself to Mattie in the way that he did. I know the practical effect on Mattie and her husband was negligible, but the effect in Jayber’s heart was not negligible. This may sound heterodox to those who love Mr. Crow, but I really think his allowing that love to progress as it did did not honor the actual covenant of marriage that was there, and it kept Jayber fixated on something that wasn’t his. Maybe it wasn’t quite breaking the 10th commandment, but it kind of felt like it was. So I felt the tragedy at the center of the story, but I also wish that the hero would have held her marriage in higher regard than he did.

  6. // So when we say “I’m gay,” we do mean to categorize ourselves in a certain way but we do not mean that our sexual attractions are a defining or constitutive element in our identity. //

    Herein lies the confusion, that’s how SF tends to come across– as gay being a defining and constitutive element of your identity.

    One’s sexuality is in fact a defining and constitutive element of identity but only when sexuality means maleness and femaleness. Ones’s erotic desires are not constitutive.

    That was the whole idea behind the term SSA. It describes an experience, not an identity.

    It would be good to lay out all the terminology and define the terms. For some gay is merely a descriptor, for others it’s loaded.

  7. The terms describe the concepts, but some of the concepts are sketchy. So even the concepts need to be questioned and examined. For the generation of today’s young people, the notion of a gay orientation is a given. It just is and that’s that. Just a few decades ago this was not so.

    Back in the day, everybody talked about social constructs. It strikes me very much that all this talk about a gay aesthetic is just a construct.

  8. MSM — men who have sex with men — has always been a social reality. It happened in the ancient city of Sodom, it happened in classical times, it happens quite commonly in ultra-patriarchal Afghanistan (apparently this is so). But the post-modern notion of gay orientation and gay marriage which naturally springs forth from it is very new and unprecedented. Why have no societies constructed themselves thus before?

    • I think it’s important to remember that many aspects of modern western society—its family structures, its individualism, its egalitarianism, its wealth, its technology—are unprecedented. Many of the things which are unique to modern western culture played an important role in the formation of gay culture, which in turn led to activism for recognition of concepts of sexual orientation and same-sex marriage.

      For example, prior to the birth control pill, most human societies (including western societies) assumed a much closer link between marriage and procreation than is common in western culture today. And with the development of in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, and related fertility technology makes the idea of gay couples as parents plausible in a way that it could not have been a century ago. There are a number of different ingredients that come together in contemporary western society that make gay marriage imaginable in ways that it could not have been a century or two ago. (To get a sense of how dramatically the pill affected attitudes toward sex, see this blog post by Al Mohler: The Pill Turns 50 — TIME Considers the Contraceptive Revolution.)

      • You make a really good point. I’ll check out that article. We are indeed living in a revolutionary time and culture. I would say that our brave new sexual ethic is going to be our undoing. We have divorced ourselves from the biological realities of our sexuality. There will be and already are consequences, one of which is a darkening sense of truth. This Tower of Babel will fall. Humana Vitae was prophetic.

  9. Hi Ron,

    I think one of the central themes of this essay — in my reading of it — was a description of sanctifiable gay identity which you associate with “Christ-centered friendship” and desires ordered towards “deep intimacy with the same sex…pursued in obedience to Christ”.

    The consequence of this is that you give short shrift to sexual and erotic desiring and intimacy which — when you do mention it — is connected to promiscuity (see ref to John Paulk), inconstancy (see ref to Gore Vidal) and immature carnality (see ref to Aelred of Rievaulx).

    In other words: you seem to present an argument for good and bad gays: holiness on the side of the conservative and celibate gay spirituality that you present and repentence and mortification for the rest of us.

    The problem I have with this vision is that it fails the site’s remit as a “pastoral response to LGBT Christians” by capitulating to a homophobic and depoliticised narrative of sexual identity by trading-off the so-called bad bits of being gay until we’re left with an LGBT identity that reproduces the same binaries of “good and bad” sexual minorities that were so destructive to the gay folk at the time of the AIDS crisis you mention.

    I respect the site’s line re a “traditionally Christian sexual ethic” but I think this essay presents a radically limiting vision to the blog’s title question ‘What is “Gay”?’ and fails to offer any critique of the narrative of “spiritual pathology” that Burk, Strachan et al., exemplify in their writings (a view that Hill rightly points out is “pre-modern” and is responsible for the continued persecution of LGBT folk across the globe).

    I do agree with the beautiful vision of celibacy and holiness that you present and I would stand side-by-side with you in exhorting that: however I will not support this hierarchical and binary vision of gay life that sanctifies celibacy and de-politicises and de-historicises sex as something to be exclusively repented, healed and transgressed (that’s a form of reparative conversion under the aegis of celibacy and it’s why some of those pre-modern conservatives will get on board with it).

    We can do better than this.


    • Interesting points.

      Certainly we should want to avoid any sense of “good gays and bad gays” as if we’re throwing people under the bus to gain acceptance, simply shifting the category of scape-hosting from LGBT to “those sodomites.”

      At the same time, behavior is something chosen in a way orientation is not. And while conservatives seem to have a lot of double standards, groups are allowed to have behavioral norms (though one would think Christianity would focus more on not judging over establishing litmus tests of which sinners are “good enough.”)

      However, the pathology sense is definitely something to watch out for. If there’s a spiritual problem, it’s lust, NOT whether that lust is gay or straight, as if “the lust gays” really can be panthologized and scapegoated and sacrificed to appease the homophobes into sparing the “‘Weird Uncle’ Tom” gays who agree to virtual castration to be not ostracized.

      There has to be a way to talk about chastity and sin without the problems you bring up.

      • But do you think there is spiritual problem with lust? Or just an “excess of lust”? How would you respond to someone promoting a LGBT inclusive purity culture – who declared that all consensual sex outside of marriage, non-exploitative forms of pornography and serial monogamy (divorce and remarriage) are sinful?

  10. But it seems like you are creating two different concepts of gay. Just like the Narnia story Ron uses, where two different actors have two different notions of the word “ship”, objectively, they also have two different referents. They are simply not speaking about the same thing.

    Thus, those who do not believe that homosexuality is a sin and who identify as “gay” do not use the word the way you are using it. They are not merely imagining that “gay” means that they want to be extravagantly hospitable, providing clean sheets for their guests or to be able to openly hug their spiritual mentors. The concept of “gay identity” has had a history of meaning that extends beyond what than either Wesley or Ron are willing to say about themselves. The dialogue here, then, is dishonest toward the gay community in this regard, and dishonest toward the historic Christian faith the in terms of purporting to be biblical.

    This particular highlighted sentence reflects either a radical equivocation by “Gay Christians” here at SF or perhaps an inadvertent, nevertheless tragic, outcome of the effects of post-modern linguistics and hermeneutics:

    “The only solution I see is to try to translate our message into language that is familiar to the culture, while constantly clarifying what we mean, so that we will counteract misunderstandings.”

    Perhaps the best suggestion would be to just drop the modifier “Gay”, since the meaning is so contrary and requires so much redefining?

    • I suppose Jesse, that no analogy is perfect. Sometimes gay is a cruise liner and sometimes gay is a the Dawn Treader- sometimes it is a fishing dory and for some a raft they are clinging to. Essentially they are all the same thing- ‘objects’ which float on water – but they have different purposes and captains at the helm. I guess you want to be precise by not creating a special gay category of christians and dropping all descriptive terms, but sexuality is not precise. If I may use another analogy. When I look at the ocean in Florida as compared to the East Coast, blue, is not sufficient to describe the difference between the two. We have to use modifiers in order to describe them correctly. I think the same is for people. If we want to know people we need to take the time to be in conversation with them. People are unique and have depth to them that does not fit in a neat christian ideal.

      • Kathy, I agree that analogies are never perfect. It makes sense that terms are not necessarily precise in this regard, as both the cruise liner and the dawn treader could legitimately be called ships. However, I would argue that a raft could not. But leaving that aside, and agreeing that multiple referents could occupy the same label, two problems still remain: 1) using the gay modifier with the noun Christian and 2) employing a divergent definition of gay that is not recognized or accepted by either traditionally gay individuals or by traditionally Christian individuals.

        In the first case, I would argue, that since a modifier cannot be incompatible with the object it modifies without changing the meaning or becoming an oxymoron, it seems to me that “Gay Christian” is wholly inadequate.
        1 Cor. 6:11 says, “Such were some of you…” This is an ontological redefinition, reordering, recreation of people in the early church who were born again. It was not to say that they would no longer need to battle desires or mortify their sin natures, but it meant that they no longer are what they were and it applied to a host of different types of people who came to the church with variety of life-dominating sins.

        In the second case, this divergent view of the word “gay” that seeks a middle way is not helpful to Christians or non-Christian homosexuals. Those who reject the Biblical stance that homosexuality is a sin to be repented of mainly see this “Gay Christian” movement as something incredibly repressive that they wouldn’t want in their wildest dreams (perhaps even less so than the reparative therapy approach that wanted to change them into heterosexual couples). Christians in this hyper-sexualized world that we’re in are not helped by being labeled in terms of the sexual orientation (this applies whether that “orientation” is homo-sexual, hetero-sexual, bi-sexual or anyting else — See Michael Hannon in First Things).

        Why is this important and what right to I have to speak?
        Because folks like me who turned from a gay identity twenty years ago, and who walked away from everything tied to it, as Jude says, “even clothing the stained by corrupted flesh”, could never live in a fantasy in-between state of retaining “Gayness” while still claiming to be in Christ. And that is exactly what the Bible calls for. Not a half-hearted, one foot in this world, and the other foot in the kingdom approach. No. This will not do.

        The handful of “voices” on this site do not speak for the vast majority of Christians or gays. Yet they have succeeded in setting themselves up as authorities on the topic based solely on anecdotal opinions and demagoguery. If the site was a discussion among people who are struggling with their own identities and with “fitting in” to the Christian church, it would be of far greater value.

      • Jessinawe,

        The Scripture, to be clear, says “some of you were once arsenokoitai”, where arsenokoitai means “a man who lies with a man”. That’s not the common meaning of the word “gay”, though, and it certainly isn’t what Spiritual Friendship folks mean by the word.

        I’m sympathetic to your emphasis that “the gay identity” is something people need to leave behind. But I don’t think the word, as an adjective, is the problem. If someone calls themselves “gay”, I never assume they see homosexuality as central to their identities, until proven otherwise. I think this is the most charitable way to proceed.

      • Hey Jess

        I just wanted to say that I respect your point of view and your personal experience. I don’t think people here at SF have done anything other than try to help. You may perceive them as misguiding others however they have helped me to move forward and fully commit myself to a celibate life whereas before I was not sure I could do it. So I thank God for them. Jesus said, “ For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.” John 9:40,41. God bless you 🙂

      • Daniel, you are using revisionist hermeneutics in your comments about 1 Cor. 6:11. In addition, my specific point was was an to emphasis 1 Cor. 6:11, not 9 for the very reason I stated — Paul’s conception of being born again means that the person has been ontologically changed – new creations in Christ. You cannot hold onto former patterns – whether they are heterosexually or homosexually disordered. To try to keep one foot in the world and one foot in the kingdom of God simply will not work.

        Saying you’re a “Gay Christian” to me is equivalent to saying you are an “Adulterous Christian”. As I said, by using a modifier that contradicts the object you’ve either changed the original meaning of the word or created an oxymoron.

        (You’ll have to argue with someone else about your other point about the central identity concern_.

        The most charitable way to proceed, it would seem, is for SF to recognize that non-Christian gays and the Christians in general have a common definition of “gay” and that SF is creating a divergent view. Sam Allberry uses SSA for this very reason. But I think SF is greatly misguided in what they are doing and that in the process they are misleading others.

      • I am using no hermeneutic, thank you very much. I speak ancient Greek. The passage in 1 Cor. does NOT use identity-words, it uses action words: “those who steal, those who get drunk, those who revile, those who have sex with men”. None of these are words that fundamentally refer to one’s identity, in Greek. They refer to one’s actions.

      • Kathy, praise God for your testimony and it is great to hear that you’ve been helped here. I will certainly take this into account when interacting with folks associated with SF.

        However, looking at Daniel’s responses (re: “I speak ancient Greek — so there’s what 1 Cor. 6:9-11 ‘really’ says…. as if nobody else has ever studied those verses – or lived them! ), you may also be able see why I am incredibly skeptical.

        In addition, while I appreciate that Ron has engaged here, he hasn’t really addressed any of my concerns & he linked to an article about “divorce”, when my analogy was about adultery.

        Perhaps, I should have drawn it out further: if a married man still experiences opposite sex attraction toward women who are not his wife in such a way that he is prone to fantasize about an adulterous affair, but he seeks help to battle the temptation, would it be proper for him to identify as an adulterous Christian? Of course not, unless apply the reasoning this site here.

        I’m happy for you, Kathy, and would never want to do or say anything to discourage you. My concern is the writers at the site expect to be treated as authorities simply because they have an ‘experience’. Meanwhile, plenty of us who have been walking in the light for decades and who would never think of identifying as gay are being thrown under the bus.

      • Jessinawe,

        You really seem to have no idea where I’m coming from, and you assume I am simply an apologist for all things gay. Either that, or you think I’m dishonest. I’m not sure. If you’d like to understand more about where I’m coming from, please look at my comments in the comments section of the “What Not Reducible Means” post prior to this post on SF. I don’t defend the proposal that “people with SSA should identify as gay”. I simply think we should charitably listen to why a person chooses to use a certain adjective. But I think that both temptation and sin must be wholly rejected.

        Also, I’m just puzzled by your apparent dismissal of my comments about “arsenokoitai”. I’m not practicing sophistry, though you appear to think that I am.

        At any rate, Merry Christmas! Blessings on your Noel!


      • It is all a bit messy, eh?. As for myself I dont think I will be using the word gay to describe myself in the future because it is uncomfortable for me these days, (too many memories). However, I may say I am gay to let people know I won’t be dating men. I wish I could explain more but it is Christmas Eve! Enjoy your Holiday, Jess, may peace be with you and yours 😀

  11. Pingback: What is Gay? - Notes from Mere O

  12. Ron: Why did you link to an article about divorce???
    Perhaps, I needed to draw it out further: if a married man still experiences opposite sex attraction toward women who are not his wife in such a way that he is prone to fantasize about an adulterous affair, but he seeks help to battle the temptation, would it be proper for him to identify as an adulterous Christian? Of course not. But using your reasoning, there would be nothing wrong with it. I suppose someone ‘could’ use the phrase to identify themselves, but it’s highly unlikely that they would be arguing that it is somehow a good thing or a neutral thing. Perhaps someone would want to employ such a phrase as be a way of being penitent for a period of time and to remind them of their weakness, like a scarlett letter. But I hope you would agree that such a label would certainly not be perceived as good or neutral by anyone in the Christian church.

    • Jess, I have read your comments here and you come across a bit aggressive. Perhaps that is not your intention, but to be honest most of what you are arguing is a tired argument that those of us who are side B have gone over many, many times before.

      I also found your dismissal of Daniel’s statements about I Corinthians and arsenokoitai to be odd. What he is saying is not revisionist. He is giving an accurate rendering of the Greek.

      I would also take issue with some of your theological language such as having one foot in the world and one in the kingdom. Scripture says we have been transferred from the dominion of Satan into the dominion of the Son. That is a done deal. There is no one foot in the kingdom and one foot out. Any Christian is fully in the kingdom. The question is whether we are acting in congruence with our established citizenship. Or if we are putting on clothes from our old citizenship.

      As for I Corinthians being ontological–I hear what you are saying. But it also makes assumptions that the fall completely obliterated what is ontological and so being born again is some kind of existence that has no connection to previous human existence. I am not even sure Reformed folk would say that since they acknowledge that the image of God was not lost. In other words, I would probably put it more in the category of restoration of the pre-existing ontological state that has been compromised but not obliterated in each human being.

      I don’t really want to get into the argument re: why using the word gay is not okay. That has been written about in several places on this blog and others here can address it if they have the emotional energy. But, I will just say that adultery is a very different reality than a person who has an unchosen, painful condition that renders life very difficult. Adultery is chosen. Lust is chosen. The condition of being gay is not. And it doesn’t matter if you play semantic games, it doesn’t change that person’s reality or cure them of their same-sex attraction. I don’t use “gay” as an identity nor do many at SF, but we do find it helpful to name our condition.

      Also, the ex-gay movement was deceptive in its refusal to use the word gay, knowingly leading people to believe that “I’m no longer gay” meant that they no longer had same-sex attraction. Using “gay” as a descriptor is very important to me in counteracting that deception.

      I suspect that since your days in gay relationships was 20 years ago and more that part of this is a generational gap. “Gay” was more of an identity and political marker then than it is now. “Gay” is not the same thing as “gay.”

      • But why is it fair to say that if I’m a man who struggles with opposite sex attraction to many women who are not my actual wife, that my issue is relegated to one of simple choice, yet, if someone struggles with same sex attraction, they are said to have a condition? To some this seems like a double standard, but to me it seems like a pertinent point that has blinded many.

        Sorry, if I come off aggressive, but let’s not pretend that Daniel’s so-called Greek argument about 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 wasn’t being circulated back in my day as well. I referred to his comment as an example of how the “Side B” arguments here are really nothing new under the sun; it’s all been said before. I don’t have my commentaries in front of me, but a simple google search brought up this post which contains some helpful information on the topic: http://six11.wordpress.com/2011/11/14/scripture-and-homosexuality-1corinthians/

        As far as the nuances of the ontological change that occurs for born again Christians, I would tend agree with you in some respects. Yes, reformed people do believe that all humankind has the image of God, although it has been marred in all aspects by the fall. So, when we talk about the ontological transformation that occurs as a result of being born again, it is as you say, that we’ve been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. In fact, Paul proclaims this truth to the Colossian church in Col. 1:13-14 when he writes that The Lord “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

        Amen and amen to that!

        Then in the following chapters Paul goes on to lay out his call to the Colossians not to be taken captive by fine sounding arguments or by promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, because they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

        Chapter 3, then, is his crescendo:
        “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

        “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming.

        7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”

        Paul uses the language of being “renewed”, which I think agrees with your description.

        Perhaps we can discuss the way in which he also proclaims that our unity with the Church depends on our common identity in Christ. That all true diversity of persons (ie, personalities, ethnae, stations, and vocations) are united by our common identity in Christ first and foremost?

      • jessinawe,

        Your first sentence struck me as rather surprising. In most conservative evangelical settings I have been in, it has been the straight man attracted to women other than his wife who is understood to have a condition, and the gay man who is understood to have made a simple choice. I find this just as jarring and unfair as you seem to have in the reverse. Or are you saying that what I’ve seen is not a double standard, because temptations to adultery are less problematic than temptations to gay sex in some way that changes the equation?

        For what it’s worth, I tend to see the raw biological attraction as a simple fallen condition in both cases, and the various ways that illicit attractions (for whatever reason they’re illicit) are fed as sinful choices. I’m willing to be corrected if this can be shown to be contrary to what Scripture teaches, but I agree with what I think you’re saying that both cases need to be treated the same way.

        Here’s my question for you: if you want to identify sexual attraction that can’t morally be fulfilled as itself sinful (rather than just a disorder resulting from the Fall), do you apply that consistently to married straight people attracted to those other than their spouses? Some (like Denny Burk) do, and if you’re one of them, then I at least admire your consistency.

      • Jeremy, good catch. Yes, I do agree with you and I think the way you stated it is pretty close to how I would also describe it, re: “I tend to see the raw biological attraction as a simple fallen condition in both cases, and the various ways that illicit attractions (for whatever reason they’re illicit) are fed as sinful choices.” Maybe, I would change “raw biological attraction” to “misoriented biological attraction”… but otherwise, I think we’re close.

      • Jess,

        To clarify, I don’t think a man’s (or woman’s) sexual attraction to multiple people is a choice. Nor is being attracted to multiple people an abnormal “condition.” It is basic biology. Puberty ensures that both men and women will experience sexual attractions to many people in their life-time. There is nothing fallen or abnormal about that. Gay or straight, that is just the natural effects of increase in hormones at puberty. Lust, on the other hand, is a choice. That is intentionally stirring up desire. As Jesus said a man should not look at a woman *for the purpose of* lusting. That would be adulterous.

        I don’t consider the fact that I have the ability to be attracted to different people to be a “condition.” But the fact that I have an inability to experience attraction and arousal with regards to the opposite sex *is* an abnormality. It affects my ability to marry and procreate naturally. That is no small loss. This “mis-wiring” utterly changes the course of a person’s life, especially if they believe celibacy is the necessary consequence of having this condition.

        As for I Corinthians, I am still confused as to what you see problematic about Daniel’s statement. What is it that he has said that makes you think it is revisionist? I suspect you are reading something into his answer that is not there.

        I read the link that you referred to. There is some accurate information as well as some inaccurate information including anachronistic statements. For example, he writes: “Batteau ‘points out that these words (arsenokites and malakos) were used consistently by Greek authors to apply to the full spectrem of homosexuality, both promiscuous and monogamous (Kirk, p. 60).”

        Since Paul is the first extant usage of arsenokoites that we know of, this statement is blatantly false. There were no Greek authors using it to apply to the full spectrum of homosexuality. Perhaps this is a reference to later usage that was adopted later by the church. However, arsenokoites appears to be a Jewish usage and so I doubt Greeks would be interested in the term. In any case, Greeks most certainly were not using it to refer to anything during Paul’s time. As for malakos, it had a range of meaning including referring to someone as overly-indulgent. I suspect Paul is using arsenokoites to refer to same-sex intercourse active or passive since that seems to be the meaning in Leviticus and where the compound most likely is drawn from. Thus, he didn’t need to refer to malakos to include both partners. Malakos as over-indulgence could refer simply to male sexual promiscuity. But it is possible it means passive partner.

        The author of the article is reading more into I Corinthians 6 than we can rightfully say. For example, he suggests that there were Christians who were “gay” (completely anachronistic to read that concept into antiquity–you should understand that since you argue that sexual orientation is a modern concept). And he suggests that these “gay Christians” were indulging in sinful behavior not believing they needed to repent. There is nothing in the passage that indicates that. That is pure speculation. And, in fact, the context completely suggests otherwise. His audience is those who are conducting lawsuits.

        The article is also a bit confusing in its muddling of the concept of “change.” It uses typical ex-gay double-speak and lack of clarity. On the one hand it seems to imply that change should be a change in sexual orientation:

        “Jowett describes ‘washed’ in this manner: ‘[When the apostle writes the word] ‘washed’ he suggests more than the washing out of an old sin, he means the removal of an old affection … more than the cancelling of guilt, he means the transformation of desire” (p. 5).”

        “Many times, gays desire change but attempt to do so on their own efforts. This not only brings about negative results but also causes many to retreat into their former ways and conclude that God made them this way and that scripture really does not say anything against today’s gay relationships.”

        But then, on the other hand, the author says that the behavior is the point and not sexual orientation change:

        “Paul seems to imply no, basically affirming that change in behavior is possible and required for gays and lesbians . . .”

        “What the person, as well as the Church, needs to understand is that a gay person’s overall goal is not to become straight; rather, the overall goal by God’s grace is to be more like Jesus, just as this is every Christian’s ultimate goal in life (Titus 2:11-14).”

        I am not sure what you object to with regard to Daniel and how it relates to this article you have linked to. For example, Daniel *agrees* with you that taking on a gay identity is a problem. He says: “I’m sympathetic to your emphasis that “the gay identity” is something people need to leave behind.”

        He also acknowledges that arsenokoitai refers to men who have sex with men and that this is something Paul objects to. Again, agreeing with you that this is sin.

        I am assuming that you have misinterpreted Daniel as saying that gay people should not leave behind a gay identity because he rightly recognizes that modern categories of sexual identity is not what Paul is referring to. It would be anachronistic to suggest that. You, most of all, should recognize that since that is one of your primary arguments–sexual identity is a modern phenomenon.

        Paul gives the vice list in I Corinthians as a side-note to his main concern which is the Corinthians bringing lawsuits against each other. He pointed out that by doing so they are acting like the “unrighteous” and that the “unrighteous” will not inherit the Kingdom. Vice lists were a common and generic way of referring collectively to unrighteousness. Obviously it was not meant to be a complete list by any means.

        Paul says to the lawsuit folk that they used to do these kinds of sinful things in the past, but they have since been justified (made righteous). They are not among the “unrighteous” but have been made “righteous” and thus, they should not be stupid by acting again in unrighteous ways by defrauding each other in lawsuits.

        So the change that has happened that Paul is referring to is 1) transfer into the dominion of the Son–they have been justified. The transformation is from unrighteousness to righteousness 2) they no longer do these things: steal, engage in sexual immorality etc.

        There is no indication that Paul was referring to modern concepts of sexual orientation, sexual identity, or sexual orientation change. But certainly he meant that each of these people was now a new creation in Christ, under the authority of Christ, and expected to live holy lives, which in the relevant context meant they should not engage in lawsuits. That is the behavior they were currently engaged in, not the generic acts in the vice list.

        Most likely Daniel would agree with you that we are a new creation in Christ and that our primary identity is in Christ. He was not arguing for holding onto a gay identity. And I think your misunderstanding of him exemplifies your misunderstanding of SF. Folk at SF are not arguing for holding onto a gay identity or affirming our same-sex sexual attractions as part of God’s design. We don’t use “Gay” as a noun. As Daniel clarified, we use it as an adjective to describe the experience we have of persistent same-sex attraction.

        You are arguing your point on the basis of identity, but that is not what we are asserting. So you are arguing past us.

        It might also be helpful to note that when we refer to ourselves as “gay Christians” we are not being grammatically correct. We are not intending to modify the word Christian as if to say we are a special type of Christian or a sub category of Christian. What we actually mean is we are gay AND Christian. It is short hand. Perhaps, we should be more grammatically correct and say “I am a Christian who is gay and celibate.” But in discourse, people naturally shorten things so as not to be clunky.

        You should also know that most of us do not go around introducing ourselves as “Hi, I am Bob, the gay Christian.” This a phrase that is primarily used in the public discussion on homosexuality or in formal writing on the subject. Many at SF are actually fairly sensitive to terminology during in-person interactions. We will use “gay” when it will be understood or when we can explain what we mean. Or we are not adverse to saying “I have same-sex attraction” and avoid using the word gay if that helps with avoiding misunderstanding. We have no objection to those who prefer not to use the word gay at all and only say “same-sex attraction.” Unfortunately, we have not always been given the same courtesy in return when we find it helpful to use the adjective gay.

        So, I would encourage you to listen to folk like Daniel better rather than jumping to all kinds of conclusions about what you think he means. And if you are going to make an argument against usage of “gay” you need to make an argument on the basis of an adjective and not an identity marker. And you need to understanding why and how we use this adjective (e.g. we are not actually using it to modify Christian or make identity claims)

      • Karen,

        I have a word for you: bravo!
        I love all your post but the first half is simply priceless. You are gay and brave because you acknowledge that homosexuality is an abnormality. Again I’m going to resort to the example of my daughter that is attracted to little boys. Since she had five or even four and sometimes to multiple boys at the same time. This is a clear show of her sexuality in its purest form. If she were attracted to girls I would be worry. I would love her as much as I love her now but I would know that things would be more difficult because it would be an abnormality and it would affect her life, in every way. I’m not sure if others at SF share your opinion. Nonetheless it is absolutely clear to me that you hit the nail.

        Thank you for being so honest and so brave.


      • Dear Kathy, I’m not sure what you vested interest is in defending Daniel or speaking for him, but I’ll not engage in a third person argument between us on behalf of what either of us think the other meant or is saying. As I stated, I simply linked to another perspective on the Greek meaning of 1 Cor. 6:9-11 that I found by doing a simple google search and which seemed to accord with the historic teaching.
        Whether Daniel was arguing for a traditional understanding or not, the description that he gave accords with liberal arguments that reject the notion that homosexuality as a sin, a view which I and Christians who hold to the Biblical teaching on 1 Cor. 6 in its entirety reject. If you don’t like the Biblical teaching, then you’re not going to be very happy to learn that older translations (prior to the use of the word homosexual) used the word Sodomites. Besides, sexual immorality (porneia) pretty much covers all the categories.

        I think the basis of your argument against me at this point is about the issue over identity. If that is the case, maybe it would be more fruitful for you to look at the rest of my comment, re: Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

        Or if you’d rather stick with 1 Cor. 6, then we could always dig deeper into the next part, where Paul goes into great detail about how sex, union, and identity work:
        “13 The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. 19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.”

        Matthew Lee Anderson writes, “While Paul’s immediate target is the issue of sex with prostitutes, his logic is rooted in Genesis and the nature of union of persons we see there. Paul’s basic belief is that sexual union gives the other authority over our body. Because of that, sexual union outside the covenant of marriage represents a conflict between God’s authority over our body and those with whom we have been joined…Paul’s implicit understanding that how we unite our body with another in sex.. means that sexual sins uniquely affect our sense of the Spirit’s indwelling presence… But because ‘the body is for the Lord’ and the ‘temple of the Holy Spirit,’ unrepentantly uniting with others in ways he has not authorized in Scripture are uniquely corrosive to our sense of his presence.”
        “Does the New Testament, then, sanction same-sex attraction? In two of the major texts on Christian sexuality, Paul’s argument depends upon the sexual complementarity in the original creation. What’s more, in 1 Corinthians 6, he simultaneously affirms a Christological understanding of the body — that is a ‘member of the Lord’ by virtue of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence — and he appeals to Genesis to make his case. The resurrection of Jesus does not destroy the normative male-female complementarity; rather, it establishes it in its fundamental goodness… ‘New creation is creation renewed, a restoration and enhancement, not an abolition…” (ref: Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith, pgs 156-157)

        (These are just some thoughts for your consideration. No need to reply, as the comment thread is already quite long.)

      • Sorry, above should be “dear Karen”. I had been having an exchange with “Kathy” above, and thought this was a continuation with her. I think part of the frustration is thinking that my fruitful discussion with Kathy had gone sour. It makes sense now realizing that Karen is someone else…. if my posts get confusing, then this might explain some of it.

      • Jess,

        I find your response pretty discouraging. Your response doesn’t show much comprehension of my or Daniel’s statements, or any direct engagement with much of what has been said. I have tried to bring some clarity, but I give up.


        Thanks for your response. Just to clarify, I am using the term “abnormality” rather loosely as opposed to making a technical assertion. I think the etiology of same-sex attraction can be diverse. But my basic meaning is that something has gone amiss that departs from God’s design, which is what those who are celibate and gay all acknowledge otherwise most of us would not choose to live celibate lives.

      • Karen,

        That’s exactly the meaning I though you were given to “abnormality”. Basically that something is not the way God intended it to be. Again thank you for displaying such clarity.


  13. But Jesse, you’re comparing apples and oranges.

    Of course he shouldn’t identify as an adulterous Christian, no should someone identify as a sodomitical Christian.

    But it would be fine for him to identify as straight/heterosexual, even though a heterosexual is attracted to the other sex generally and not just a spouse. Heterosexuals don’t have to become purely “spouse-sexual”…they remain generically straight.

    Likewise, it’s fine to identify as gay/homosexual.

    • mradeknal: So, prior to Freud, just exactly what do you think a male “Gay Christian” or “Homosexual Christian” would have been called? Seems you’re contorting already contrived social categories.

      Gotta check out. But Merry Christmas, all. I will pray for the Holy Spirit to continue to grow those who contribute here to be faithful to God’s Word, to be sanctified in knowledge and power by Christ’s mediatorial work, and for the full conviction the sinfulness of sin by the Holy Spirit. Grace and peace.

      • Even before Freud, I’m sure no one would have been surprised that a married man was still attracted to women generally and not just his wife. That’s natural and there’s nothing wrong with it (indeed, it’s what allows widowers to remarry, etc)

        What this demonstrates (and I thought it would be obvious to anyone) is that “attraction” is clearly conceptuslized as different from lust. The fact that a married man continues to be attracted to womankind or womanhood generally was never problematized as some sort of fallen reality, and certainly not as some sort of constant temptation to adultery.

        Why lust/temptation and attraction would be differentiated vis a vis married men and women, but identified as equivalent in the same sex attracted I don’t know.

        What I do know is that a man with same sex attraction who answers “No” when asked “Are you gay/homosexual?” by a modern person…is a willful equivocating liar. And God hates liars. “I’m same-sex attracted, yes, but don’t like the baggage of the term gay” would be honest. But a point blank “No” to gay is a lie. To most people, a strong No to something means you’re the opposite. The opposite of homosexual is heterosexual, which the SSA are not.

        If I ask a guy if he’s black on the phone and he says “No” while in his head maintaining the mental reservation “I’m an African-American”…this is sheer dishonesty. There is a reason the mental reservation theory of lying was rejected.

      • If someone asked me if I was a gossiper, I can and would say, “no”, because I don’t practice gossiping. However, I have repented many times over the desire to gossip about someone, because it reflected a sinful heart toward people made in the image of God. It grieved me that I was inclined toward that sin and thus I wanted my heart attitude changed, so I repent of the root sin and can honestly and legitimately say that I’m not a gossiper, because I didn’t actually gossip.

      • Apparently, we want “gay” to mean whatever the person who uses it expects it to mean, which I find to be dishonest.

        But if I go back to your analogy about the man who answers no to the question about his race, I don’t think it is fair to say that he is dishonest. After all, the distinction of races is a socially constructed label that has no foundational premise in either science or the Bible. There is technically only one race- the human race, so I wouldn’t fault someone who decided not to identify by his or her so-called “race”. Where the analogy is helpful to me is that I would also not fault the man or woman who decided TO identify with their race (except to the extent that it became divisive, exclusive, or a rationalization for sin).

  14. Imprecise terminology creates a lot of disagreement where there may be none. It would be good to define terms as well as varying concepts in some sort of glossary.

    I kind of like how Dr. Roberts (see him in SF’s videos) uses the term “taboo desires” to describe anything outside of desire ordered towards one-flesh union. He says nearly all will experience some degree of taboo desire. For a significant minority it may be an impediment against marriage. And for many others it may constitute a trial.

  15. Jessinawe,

    I have never read any book on homosexuality except Wes Hill’s, and I’m not particularly familiar with the way liberal Christians interpret 1 Corinthians. I do not claim any great theological insight into scriptural exegesis. I do, however, read Greek. I’ve taken 7 or 8 classes on it, and I know what I’m doing.

    So when I tell you that the list of terms including “arsenokoitai” are terms that describe actions, I’m not making things up. They are terms that function like English words with “-er/-ar/-or” endings: fornicator, liar, breaker of oaths, and the like. The passage does not discuss proclivities or dispositions, only actions. Aside from the fact that it can be evangelistically unhelpful, “sodomite” is a decent translation (although male/female sodomy is possible, so “men who have sex with men” is a somewhat clearer, if more clumsy, translation).

    So my point is simply this: (1) The Bible does not explicitly address the issue of whether one might use terms like “same-sex attracted” or “gay” to describe oneself, and thus (2) Non-biblical arguments must be relied upon to make this case. I don’t presume that the case will be answered in the affirmative; in fact, I have spent a good deal of time at SF challenging the rationale some people have for using certain terminology. There may be bad reasons to hold a good view, however — so I always listen with an open mind to people who give new reasons that “gay”, “lesbian”, or “bisexual” might be words that fit into a fully Christian life.

    I like a lot of what Ron said in this post, for example, and I think it’s one of the better explanations I’ve seen. I’m not sure that I agree with it, but I don’t see any strictly *scriptural* reason to disagree.

    Karen, I greatly appreciate your posts, and I’m 100% on board with your comments about “arsenokoitai”. One disagreement, though, is that — on my reading of Paul’s letters — it does seem pretty clear that there were many new Christians who continued to engage in same-sex sex after conversion, and that Paul was saying that they had been changed, and thus that they should no longer engage in the activities they did before. But again, it’s about engaging in activities, not having attractions.

    • Hey Daniel, maybe you can point out where you are seeing the concept of new Christians still engaging in same-sex sex. The context of 1 Corinthians is Paul’s concern about people engaging in lawsuits. So Paul is not even talking about sexual immorality in that pericope. That is not what he is rebuking them for in that moment. He says stop engaging in lawsuits because you have been made righteous and no longer engage in the unrighteous activity that you used to–then he refers to the generic vice list which is a common catch-all genre. So, I don’t see where he is suggesting that people are currently engaging in same-sex activity since he is talking about lawsuits. This is not to say that there probably weren’t people who struggled with temptations to old behavior. But I am not seeing it in the literary context in 1 Cor. 6. Am I missing something?

      • Hi Karen!

        There are a whole set of passages I have in mind, often passages people don’t (for whatever reason) associate with homosexuality. I think these passages resonate with the 1 Cor. passage so deeply that they must be talking about the same general phenomenon.

        So, for instance 1 Thess. 4 says, “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, 5 not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; 6 … The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. 7 For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.”

        How did the “pagans” engage their passionate lusts? Many of them, through homosexual or pederastic relationships. The important point here is that Paul was not writing to neophytes at Thessalonia, but to a group that was already reasonably established in the faith. The Roman culture was so powerful that people of otherwise impeccable moral standing could “when in Rome, do as the Romans”, and try to reconcile grossly immoral sexual conduct with the faith.

        Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

        I don’t have the other passages on hand, right off, but this has just been my general sense through reading Paul’s epistles: that Paul was writing to groups of people more than willing to rationalize gay sex, among other things.


      • Hi Daniel,

        Okay, thanks for your response. It sounds like you are extrapolating from Paul’s use of the word porneia which would have included same-sex immorality. I am open to that interpretation. Although I think its important to acknowledge it as an implicit extrapolation rather than explicit in the Thessalonians passage. But that is still different from the I Cor 6 text which does not seem to have even implicit reference to current practice, but only possible past. In the 1 Cor 6 pericope, Paul is not speaking to them about sexual immorality but lawsuits. And since its a generic vice list, its possible that he may not even have been considering that each of the items in the vice list had been fulfilled by the Corinthians in the past.

        In terms of porneia, Jews used this word more than the Greeks and in the 1st century Jews used it to refer to sexual immorality of all kinds–anything that fell outside of the monogamous marriage relationship. There are a couple attested usages referring to same-sex intercourse. However, pagan sexual immorality was not primarily homosexual above other sexual immoralities. The Romans actually were less approving of pederasty than the Greeks. However, Roman men could have sex with slaves, prostitutes, and concubines in addition to wives.

        In Israelite culture, men were not restricted to wives. They also had sex with slaves and concubines. There is also no explicit law against use of a prostitute, though it is frowned upon. Israelite women’s sexuality, on the other hand, was much more restricted. However, by at least the 3rd or 2nd century BCE, there is a change and Jewish perspectives on sexuality became much more restrictive for men and not only women–setting them apart from the Greeks and Romans. Thus, Philo proudly states that Jewish men do not have sex with women before marriage contra the Romans.

        So, the I Thessalonians passage probably included same-sex activity, but it was likely focused especially on the use of prostitutes, concubines, and slaves for sex outside the marital union. These would have likely been predominately heterosexual relations.

        In any case, Paul’s exhortations about sexual immorality such as in I Thessalonians are important exhortations for all of us regardless of the type of sexual immorality–gay or straight.

  16. Great post, Ron. Some thoughts (apologies in advance for the length):

    1. Doesn’t the way we talk suggest that the label “gay” really does carry implications for identity? “I’m gay” isn’t the only way of putting it. There’re more perspicuous claims of identity (“I am a homosexual”, “Gay–it’s what I am”), which carry certain implications of permanence or immutability (“I was born this way”, “I can’t change the way I feel toward other men”, “I’ll always be (a) homosexual”). This isn’t just language befitting extreme cases of sex addiction or disorder (like John Paulk’s). One’s homosexuality is, no doubt, never any small matter, and will always affect the course of one’s life. But it is not always the dominant element around which everything else revolves. A boy might discover his own feelings of attraction to other boys from young age, but I doubt many people would–even retrospectively–describe this as the dominant theme of one’s childhood. Labels like “gay” are meant to be broad categories, applying to anyone, at any age or stage of life, attracted to the same sex. Nor are they mere self-labels (“I’m a gay man, and you are too”).

    2. What you and others at SF find objectionable about such identity talk, I take it, is the normative import many others take it to have. Ex-gays think that any alleged gay identity is fundamentally at odds with one’s “identity in Christ”. As I understand their view: it is not one’s homosexuality per se that is problematic (since this can’t be changed or helped–though ex-gays used to deny this), but one’s endorsement of his own same-sex orientation, and its ultimate manifestation in sexual behavior, that is supposedly antithetical to one’s identity as a Christian believer. (For this reason, I think the more fitting response to any “sinful” orientation should be renouncement, rather than repentance, of whatever sinful desires appear.) In this sense, self-labels like “gay” are problematic, since they connote an identity (now understood as the endorsement of one’s orientation and all that follows) that is fundamentally at odds with one’s Christian calling.

    3. That said, I’m not sure why you are so keen to object to such claims of gay identity, since you, along with others at SF, don’t believe that one’s same-sex orientation is, after all, at least not entirely, antithetical to one’s Christian faith (so long as it’s not “acted upon” or allowed to lead to sexual behavior); that on the contrary, the desires stemming from one’s same-sex attractions can be channeled toward good, often resulting in enriched, intimate friendships. It seems entirely reasonable then to endorse one’s gay identity and the greater intimacy in non-sexual relationships it offers, without endorsing the rest. (Perhaps it’s helpful–or maybe not–to think of one’s homosexual desires, and all that comes with them–including the necessary act of resisting and surrendering to God the temptations they present–as a sort of sanctifying weakness, much like Paul’s thorn in the flesh.)

    4. Talk of “identity” is always hard to nail down, given its many cognates (essential, defining, constitutive), each equally confusing. Since, these, I think, all mean, or at least connote, different things, Burk’s interchangeable usage of “constitutive” and “defining” is misleading. A ship’s wooden planks constitute the whole ship, but don’t define it; after all, each can be replaced while preserving the identity of the entire ship (though, as you probably well know, some philosophers deny this). Shared experiences, acts of love, etc. may constitute (“form the stuff of”) a relationship, but none of these, even taken altogether, define it (a similar argument is available). Similarly for attraction, which consists in, or is “constituted” by, though not defined by, many things, like enjoying someone’s company, thinking of them or missing them in their absence. Even “defining” is inapt. Defining moments mark some point of significance within a relationship, such as its beginning or end (wedding vows, consummation, childbirth, death). Defining marks make a relationship special or unique (“She’s the boss in that one”). I doubt, however, that Burk intended his remarks to be taken in any such sense. Rather, he wants “defining” to mean something like “indispensable” or “irremovable”. The intended notion appears to be that of essence: that without which something would not be what it is; or that which is necessary for something to be what it is. Hence the claim that the desire for gay sex is an necessary or essential (i.e. irremovable) element of same-sex attractions: you can’t be gay without eventually or ultimately wanting, at some level, to be sexually intimate with others of the same sex, whatever that might look like. (“Eventually”, because children with same-sex attractions may not be mature as of yet to experience sexual desire, but will in time.)

    5. Thus the Burk-Strachan argument has two versions. The implausible one tries–implausibly–to reduce everything to a pattern of sinful behavior.

    (5a) Homosexual orientation is reducible to homosexual attraction, which is reducible to homosexual sexual attraction, which is reducible to homosexual sexual desire–i.e. desire to engage in sinful behavior. Any homosexual person, celibate or not, is hence oriented toward something sinful, and must therefore repent of (or otherwise renounce or relinquish) his homosexual orientation.

    The other is less reductionist, but nonetheless ends with the same conclusion:

    (5b) Homosexual orientation necessarily involves homosexual attraction (perhaps among other things e.g. not just intensified attraction toward, but heightened fear of, the same sex), which necessarily involves homosexual sexual attraction (perhaps among other things e.g. non-sexual physical and emotional attraction), which necessarily involves homosexual sexual desire (perhaps among other things e.g. desire for non-sexual forms of physical or emotional intimacy, like cuddling or intimate sharing)–i.e. desire to engage in sinful behavior. Any homosexual person, celibate or not, is hence oriented toward something sinful, and must therefore repent of (or otherwise renounce or relinquish) his homosexual orientation.

    Your disagreement with Burk and Strachan then ought to lie in the last premise: you deny that SSA necessarily involves the desire for gay sex–not even eventually or ultimately. I suppose this claim is borne out by your own experience, as sexual desire was absent from your relationship with your friend Jason. (Although: Would you say that your romantic attractions and desires toward Jason were at that time being sublimated toward–transformed and channeled into–something else, like friendship? In that case, one might say the sexual desire was still present, or at least latent; it just didn’t warrant repentance, since it was being used toward good ends, to fuel friendship rather than lust.)

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