Here we go again. I might just be a glutton for punishment in bringing up this topic yet again. However, I really think that the inability to at least consider helpful uses of LGBT language has the potential to impede gospel proclamation in certain contexts.
The specific question that seems to keep coming up is whether it is ever appropriate to use the term “gay” or “homosexual orientation” to describe the experience of a Christian who is same-sex attracted. Is the label “I am gay” ever a wise use of language, or is “a Christian who experiences SSA” the only appropriate wording? These are only some of the words and phrases that are being debated.
I do admit that there is good reason for this conversation. Eternal consequences are at stake in the practice of same-sex sexual activity (1 Cor. 6:9), and we who hold to a traditional sexual ethic do not want to unintentionally communicate otherwise. At the same time, language is complicated and we need to operate in such a way as to be fair to the words themselves as well as the people using the words.
Therefore, it seems that we need to ask two different questions when considering our vocabulary in this discussion of sexuality: “Is it possible to use a particular term?” and “Is it wise to use a particular term?” As a case study, let’s take the phrase “I am gay” and examine it in light of these considerations.
If it is not possible to use a term in a biblically faithful way, then the wisdom question becomes a moot point. Therefore, lets consider a few helpful guidelines that will aid us in determining the possibility of using the phrase “I am gay” in a way that is faithful to scripture.
The first thing we need to consider is that determining the definition of a word or phrase is not always easy. Often, there are multiple legitimate uses for the same term. We call this “range of meaning” or talk about a word’s “semantic range.” For example, the word “trunk” can mean “the rear compartment of a car”, “the base of a tree” or “a large hinged box used for storage”. All of these fall within the range of meaning.
The same is true of “gay”. Many thoughtful Christians assert that “gay” denotes a sinful lifestyle or behavior. It is true that some could use it to mean that. However, in current usage, gay can legitimately refer to a persistent attraction to the same sex and say nothing about behavior one way or the other. Unlike “lying Christian” or “fornicating Christian”, which describe sinful acts, gay might simply label an experience of attraction. That is a legitimate use of the word.
Second, we need to recognize the inherent complexity of language. In English, a certain phrase or idiom can signify multiple distinct realities depending on its use. The phrase “I am” is a prime example of this reality. The sentence “I am a man” is typically understood to indicate an identity, a statement that defines who a person is. However, the sentence “I am allergic to ragweed” would typically be understood as a simple description of experience. We would not normally read that sentence and assume that the author is trying to define their personhood by what happens when pollen enters the nasal cavity. “I am allergic” is an effort to label an experience, not stake an identity.
The same is true of “I am gay.” Many thoughtful Christians have taken issue with this terminology because it seems to be an identity statement, and as Christians we are not to find our primary identity in anything but Christ (Galatians 3:26–28). But we must remember that “I am” statements can just as easily describe an experience, set in context, rather than stake an ultimate identity. Saying, “I am gay” can simply mean that this Christian experiences persistent same-sex attractions, and not say anything about a core identity. This does comprise one part of the person as a whole, but that does not mean it is ultimate.
Therefore, it seems to be possible to say, “I am gay” in a way that fits within a traditional sexual ethic.
However, the real goal of Christian communication is to speak in such a way that is wise and helpful, not simply possible. The conversation must move past possibility to the question of whether it is wise to use the phrase “I am gay.” Here are two guiding principles that might help in our quest for wisdom in language.
In wisdom issues, there is often not an easy “one size fits all” answer. What might be a perfectly acceptable and helpful way to talk in one context might be unclear and confusing in another. Therefore, in deciding on vocabulary, context should be king.
For example, if I am speaking with someone who carries significant baggage associated with the word “gay”, or an audience who would automatically assume a determinative identity or behavior within the term, I would happily describe myself as “experiencing SSA”. Although “I am gay” is possible, helpfulness wins out. It is also important to note that the helpfulness of a term like gay rises or falls proportionately to ones ability to clarify a specific meaning. Take a Twitter handle, for example. Simply stating something like, “Nick, from Minneapolis, Christian, gay, loves Thai food” without defining a context for what “gay” means would leave open the possibility for a host of problems.
However, what if I am speaking to someone who has never considered that sexual desires do not need to be determinative of actions. This is the mindset of our culture today. How powerful might it be to say, “Yes, I’m gay, but my sexual urges do not rule my life because Jesus is better and the Bible is my authority.” That will turn some heads. This is how many of us have decided to talk here at Spiritual Friendship; we are speaking to an audience that may not have previously considered celibacy for Jesus’ sake as a life giving, fulfilling way of life. So for us, the rhetorical impact of “gay and celibate” can prove very powerful.
Second, we must define our terms. The bottom line is that there is no term that is above misunderstanding. I think this is really important. So many people just assume that using SSA instead of gay automatically removes confusion. But that just isn’t true. Simply avoiding the term gay and substituting it for “SSA” does not guarantee understanding. For example, it is possible to say, “I experience SSA” and still find an ultimate identity in sexuality apart from Christ. Furthermore, our sex obsessed culture–for whom sexual activity is simply a given–would probably still assume someone who identifies as “SSA” to be sexually active. The term itself does not automatically speak to these deeper issues.
So, what are we to do? For those of us describing our sexual experience, we must define our terms. In the midst of a bunch of terms that are all ambiguous to a point, we must work for clarity. Consider the sentence, “I am a Christian who is gay and celibate.” This simple statement communicates not only a sexual orientation, but also an ultimate identity in Christ and a commitment to a traditional sexual ethic. In many contexts–especially those where SSA language is unfamiliar–this could be a wise and helpful way to speak.
Therefore, given the above conclusions, there seems to be a natural application that flows from this discussion. Since it is possible to use terms like gay in a faithful way, and since the wisdom of such usage requires contextual considerations, then let us be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19, NIV). In speaking and listening in this conversation, we love others well to not write them off simply because they’ve used a label we don’t like, but to ask what they mean and listen carefully to their response.
Furthermore, it seems kind of arrogant to me when people who do not experience a certain reality make it their duty to tell people who do experience that reality how they should talk about it. A person who experiences SSA has probably thought 10 times more about what and how they are trying to communicate than someone who doesn’t. If they use the term gay, it is probably (not always) intentional with good reasoning and logic behind the decision. Perhaps the default should not be to instantly challenge, but to listen carefully with the intent to understand.
And that really is the end game, isn’t it? In our acquiring of wisdom, our goal should be to seek understanding (Pr. 4:7). Therefore, even if we disagree on what terms and phrases we’re willing to use, let’s be readers and friends who make such listening and love our main goal and not lose allies in biblical fidelity by prematurely jumping to judgments about terms.
Originally posted on Hope Invisible.
Nick Roen is currently pursuing a M.Div. with an emphasis in worship at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He previously graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Lacrosse, receiving a bachelors degree in Music Theory and Composition. He can be found on Twitter @roenaboat.