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.
Thanks Nick! That was a really well thought out post that very clearly and accurately describes how I feel about this issue.
Thought to ponder … (but first a biblical passage)
28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.
The above passage … among other things … shows that what we say is not as important as what we mean. Thus all of this linguistic legalism on how someone identifies seems to really miss the point. Someone could say all the right things in someone else’s eyes as for how to identify but still not be living a Christ honoring life. Its a shame anyone would try to declare to another the right way to describe themselves
I tried to post this response to Nick Roen’s article, “And Again…More Thoughts on LGBT Terminology , but I had problems (probably on MY end, not yours). It is important to remember that what one says, and what one means with the words one uses, one’s facial expressions, and body language, is not always what comes across to the hearer. Face-to-face communication is best, and there isn’t anything that can match it, in value. In college, I had a professor who had a habit of touching her thumb with her index finger, with the other three fingers extended, to add emphasis that she heard and/or experienced something she considered good. She told us about a time she had gone on vacation to a country in South America, and was embarrassed to find that that same hand gesture, in that culture, was obscene. I am a man who has dealt with homosexuality, and *not* as an outside observer. I wish such were not the case, but it is. It is indeed possible to live victoriously over homosexuality, or anything else God said to not do. In my case victory does not mean an absence of temptation and a desire to do that to which I was in self-imposed bondage. Homosexuality is a sinful expression/acting out of a problem that is inside one’s heart. Everyone is broken; everyone is dysfunctional; (Romans 3:10) “…all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” I do not believe that God would deliberately “hardwire” a person to be homosexual, while still inside their mother’s womb, and then, in His Word, forbid them, after their birth, to engage in behavior in line with what He created them to be. I am aware of the beliefs of others, who disagree. I love and respect them. But that’s not the scope of my reply. We live in a time when LGBTQ activists are waging war against the traditional family, and Christian values. When one says, “I am gay,” one might come across as implying consent and approval of something that God, in His Word, specifically said was a behavior in which we are not to engage. One might be totally in line with what the Bible says, about sexuality, but be completely misunderstood by the hearer. There are many immature Christians who, being tempted by the enemy, would gossip about the speaker. One can gauge the results of gossip by cutting open a feather pillow, and, on a windy day, going outside, tossing the feathers high into the air, and then trying to gather up all the feathers and put them back into the pillow. We need to remember that all of us have fallen in several areas, not just one. Of the Ten Commandments, all of us have broken the 1st one: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” There isn’t any need to go any further. Even if we’ve broken only one commandment, we’re equally guilty with someone who has broken all of them. In my case, I’ve been very disrespectful of my parents – I would have been stoned. I’ve lied. I’ve been envious of my neighbor. In the past, I definitely didn’t love others the way God wanted me to love them. The point is that there isn’t any reason to use an adjective to qualify our identity as Christians. Second Corinthians 5:17 – “If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation; old things are passed away, and all things are become new.” Regardless of whatever it is that is our “thorn in the flesh” we are not what we once were. Feeling the old desires does not mean one has fallen back into sin and/or genetically predisposed to a certain behavior. We must obey the exhortation in Ephesians 6:10-17, “Stand in the power of God’s might….” Larry
Re: “… the rhetorical impact of “gay and celibate” can prove very powerful.”
The point is not to make a rhetorical impact, but to communicate clearly the true nature of sexuality and identity. Christians need to use the right words, but before we can do that we need to have a right understanding of our nature.
The term ‘gay’ implies something that’s not compatible with a Christian anthropology of sexuality. In our culture and time, when we say gay, when we hear that term, we understand it to mean that homosexuality is a normative sexual orientation. You’re born that way. You’re supposed to be that way. It’s good. You’ve got a gay gift. Whether we’re in favor of gay sexuality or opposed to it, that’s how we understand the term. It doesn’t just mean having sexual feelings for members of your own sex. It carries with it a positive judgment.
For Christians, not to mention many others, sexuality is viewed as being determined by our bodies, not subjective feelings. Male and female He made us. This is our sexual identity, our essential human identity — not being gay, or even SSA. Identity is pre-determined by the Creator, or by nature. It’s not something we get to determine ourselves based on our feelings. To do that is to reduce ourselves to something less than what we are. Joseph Ratzinger says it like this:
“The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation. Every one living on the face of the earth has personal problems and difficulties, but challenges to growth, strengths, talents and gifts as well. Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.” (Pastoral Letter on the Care of the Homosexual Person)
Christians should be careful when using the culture’s vernacular. When it fails to communicate our understanding of faith and reason, or worse distorts it, we need to use different terminology. The term ‘gay’ is more suited to queer theory than Christianity. Let’s cut through the confusion and speak with clarity.
The first definition for “gay” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “sexually attracted to someone who is the same sex.” No one at Spiritual Friendship is saying that we are “adequately described by a reductionist reference to our sexual orientation.”
We are trying to communicate clearly to the culture by using language the way the culture uses it to communicate Christian teaching about sexuality. You are reading things into our language that aren’t there.
What terminology do you suggest using?
Spiritual friendship is a good term. Friendship works too. Chaste friendship.
Men and women seeking chaste friendship with other men and women.
Attracted to same sex as a consequence of the fall.
How about gay as a consequence of the fall but chaste. Maybe I could stomach gay with context around it.
Actually, gender dysphoria is a good term, clinically speaking.
Man or woman works best of all, generally there’s no need to describe one’s sexual feelings, broken or properly oriented. Granted, sometimes you DO!
“Celibate” doesn’t count as context for you?
Also, “gender dysphoria” doesn’t regret to someone who is same sex attracted. It refers, according to the DSM-5, to people whose gender at birth is contrary to the one they identify with.
We are trying to respond to the situations where it is necessary to refer to ordered or disordered attractions. So, man and woman aren’t enough in those situations, as you recognize.
Saying one is a gay Christian and a celibate Christian does NOT mean they think homosexuality is necessarily and always wrong. Saying one is an SSA Christian implies that theological position.
Gay emerged as an ideology to say same-sex attracted people or inverts as they where earlier known where good and their homo-sexuality as well…
Why use terms that are almost sure to mislead or hide ones witness?
Just because the culture promotes pornography do I turn up naked to preach?
I do concede that there may be times and contexts when speaking in terms of ‘gay and Christian’ may be useful, but only as a starting place. If you have the chance to take people further, this language will be inadequate.
Sure, but Spiritual Friendship doesn’t just stop with “gay and Christian.” The basic anthropology of this site is taken from the Christian tradition of friendship, not the contemporary idea of sexual orientation.
When I first stumbled on your site I was intrigued, thinking you saw ‘orientation’ in different terms than the culture. But it seems to me that you don’t — the difference being that you abstain from sexual acts, whereas they don’t. Maybe I’m not reading you right. I’ll keep reading…
Here’s the bishops take on this:
What the language of “sexual orientation” does, anthropologically, is separate one’s identity from one’s bodily nature as a man or woman, placing a premium on one’s desires and inclinations. The body then becomes a “bottom layer”—essentially meaningless matter—over which one’s “real” identity—comprised of desires and inclinations—is super-imposed.
And Dan Mattson’s:
“Why would I call myself a gay man, then, simply because I find men sexually attractive? This is in opposition to the way God made me and the nature he gave me. Regardless of what my feelings might tell me, my body reveals to me the truth that I am not gay, but rather a male made for a female. The Catechism is clear about our sexual identity: “Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity…”
Read the whole thing. What insight and clarity!
I think what Nick is getting at here (and what Ron was alluding to an an earlier comment) is that we sometimes choose to use the word gay when speaking to non-Christians because that’s the language they’re familiar with. For most Christians, the word gay has a very negative connotation and implies sinful sexual actions and therefore, we often won’t use the word when speaking to people who may read those things into the use of the word.
The idea that identity comes from sexuality.. .is a very recent phenomena propagated by the LGBTQ community and is in contrast to the Tradition of the Church and human history.
What identity would you give a man who is attracted to a 8 year old boy or girl? would u find it acceptable that he go around calling himself a pedo celibate Christian?
Another thing I want to point out about the conversation we’re having at Spiritual Friendship in particular is that our audience is quite mixed. Our blog is public. Some of our readers are Christians who read things into the word “gay” that we don’t intend. Others of our readers would be likely to dismiss us out of hand if we avoided the word “gay.” So there’s no wording that would be acceptable to everyone, and we have to pick our battles.
We’ve mostly decided to use the wording that will be most familiar with our broader culture, and the most likely to make people think who aren’t necessarily on the same page theologically. This does have the effect of increased criticism from many who share our basic theological convictions, but it does allow us to reach people we otherwise couldn’t. I think this is a good tradeoff to make.
I’ve also found that most people I know in person don’t make a big deal about wording, even if they disagree with my choices in that regard. Once they understand what I mean by what I say, they’re usually willing to look past the terminology to the substance of what I’m saying. It often frustrates me that this is less likely among those who don’t know us in person, but it is what it is.
Hey everyone, thanks for all the comments! Just for clarity, the main reason that I wrote this is not to require one use of terms over another. I have too often seen people read a book like “Washed and Waiting” who would agree with and be helped by the content, but simply write off the book as a whole because of Wes’ use of “gay”. That is incredibly sad, and I want people to be able to look past the term to the meaning behind the term. Use whatever terms you find most helpful, and be charitable to others. That is the main point!
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