In contemporary Western culture, it’s common to describe oneself as gay, straight, or bi, depending on whether one’s sexual attractions are primarily directed to the same sex, the opposite sex, or both sexes. This way of thinking is so pervasive that it is difficult to avoid either the terminology or the assumptions behind it.
As I have said before, I think that the contrast between carnal and spiritual friendship, as described by Aelred of Rievaulx, ultimately provides a more helpful framework for understanding Christian teaching on same-sex friendship and homosexuality than the framework that categorizes people based on sexual orientation. However, sexual orientation categories are difficult to avoid. It’s not just a matter of words used: it’s also a matter of much deeper assumptions that shape the way people interpret their experience.
In this post, I want to examine these categories more closely. Doing so will, I hope, provide insight into why the writers at Spiritual Friendship have been willing to engage with—and how we have tried to challenge—the categories of sexual orientation and sexual identity in contemporary culture.
This post reflects on broad themes that have come up again and again in posts on Spiritual Friendship. I have therefore included a large number of links to relevant posts to provide context. A reader who has questions about the way we talk about sexual orientation may find this post—and the posts it links to—helpful for gaining a broader, more in-depth perspective on what we’re trying to accomplish.
What is Sexual Orientation?
It’s helpful to begin with what is, I think, a reasonably uncontroversial descriptive account. With the rare asexual exception, the overwhelming majority of people experience sexual attraction to various people during the course of their life. Most people’s sexual attractions are directed exclusively to persons of the opposite sex; some experience some mixture of sexual attractions to persons of either sex, and a few experience sexual attractions only to persons of the same sex. In common parlance, those who fit the first description are straight, those who fit the second bi, and those who fit the third, gay. (For simplicity, I will use the term gay to include both men who are primarily attracted to men and women who are primarily attracted to women.)
Now, what is the significance of these categories? How much will we have in common with others in the same category? How much, if at all, should membership in one of these categories shape our behavior, our vocation, our sense of self?
It’s a common assumption that sexual desires are so important that we need to act on them in order to have a fulfilling life. If this were the case, then these categories would be extremely important. And this assumption is why many see moral or legal opposition to same-sex relationships as discriminatory: it denies a fundamental aspect of a good and flourishing human life to gay people (and, to a lesser extent, to bisexuals).
How Have Even “Conservative” Christians Exaggerated the Importance of Sex?
However, the assumed importance of sexual desire is also widespread in Christian circles. I have heard a number of Christians say that “homosexuality” must be a choice, because if people were exclusively attracted to the same sex through no fault of their own, it would be unfair of God to forbid gay sex. And the naive promise that those who pray faithfully will experience orientation change and fulfillment in marriage is a (misguided and frequently dishonest) attempt to hold onto the form of traditional Christian sexual ethics while uncritically accepting the assumption that fulfillment of sexual desires is an important part of a good human life. By claiming that God would miraculously change sexual desires, it becomes possible to affirm this assumption while holding to the traditional Christian teaching that God intended for sexual intimacy to occur only between a man and a woman.
This is probably part of the reason that celibacy, which had such a rich place in both the Eastern and Western branches of the Christian tradition, had such an awkward place in the exgay movement. Its value was usually not fully denied, but was relegated to an awkward afterthought. It could not be integrated into the heart of the message.
This is also probably the reason that a number of prominent exgay leaders—John Paulk and John Smid come most immediately to mind—lied outright about the extent to which their sexual desires had changed. Others simply used obscure jargon or questionable statistics to hold out unrealistic hopes of healing. It is also probably the reason why organizations like Focus on the Family preferred to put exgay leaders like John Paulk forward, rather than other leaders who were more honest about ongoing struggles and less willing to make categorical promises of orientation change. It is, of course, embarrassing that men who offered such confident testimonies to total healing have now left their wives to pursue gay relationships. But Christian idolatry of sex and marriage made the demand for such testimonies inevitable.
What Sort of Category is Sexual Orientation?
At Spiritual Friendship, a number of us have tried to make clear that although we are willing to start with the common language and categories of sexual orientation, we do not think that these describe us at an ultimate level. As Chris Damian pointed out,
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.
Like Chris, I describe myself as gay because my sexual attractions are almost always directed toward someone of my own sex. Jeremy Erickson describes himself as bisexual because his sexual attractions have been directed toward persons of both sexes.
For myself, one of the reasons that it is important to simply and straightforwardly acknowledge that I am gay is that I have seen how much damage was done by the strange semantic games many in the exgay movement have played to conceal ongoing homosexual attraction.
The first definition for the word “gay” on Dictionary.com is “of, relating to, or exhibiting sexual desire or behavior directed toward a person or persons of one’s own sex; homosexual.” Although I am celibate, I still fit that definition with regard to sexual desire, so I accept the label.
How Has Spiritual Friendship Tried to Nuance This Category?
However, along with a number of other writers at Spiritual Friendship, I have tried to point out that the experience of attraction to another person is more complex than just lust or an attraction to body parts or desire for sexual pleasure. Jeremy Erickson, Chris Damian, Nick Roen, Julie Rodgers, and Wesley Hill have also written about experiences in which their attraction to someone of the same sex is not reducible to lust.
It’s common to unthinkingly equate attraction to other people with sexual attraction (this is one reason I don’t think the term “same-sex attraction” is nearly as clear or helpful as some Christians involved in conversations about homosexuality think). I think that the more nuanced exploration of the different ways in which we are drawn to other people is helpful for separating out the desire for healthy, Christ-centered friendship from temptations to lust.
What Alternatives Do We Offer?
Another fruit of this more nuanced understanding of attraction can be found in the testimonies of married writers like Melinda Selmys, Kyle Keating, Mike Allen, and Nate and Sara Collins. None of these writers describe themselves as straight; Melinda describes herself as “queer”; Mike, Nate, and Brian describe themselves as “gay.” Yet each is also in love with their spouse and speaks of a meaningful emotional, spiritual, and physical relationship with their spouse.
We have also tried to shed new light on the practice of celibacy. Classic discussions of celibacy have focused primarily on those who voluntarily choose celibacy. But I have written about the need to look at not only those who “make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom,” but also those whose celibacy is forced by circumstance. And Aaron Taylor has drawn attention to Pope Pius XII’s encouragement to those who are “called to a celibacy unchosen”:
When one thinks of the women who voluntarily renounce matrimony in order to consecrate themselves to a life of contemplation, sacrifice, and charity, immediately there comes to one’s lips a luminous word: vocation!
[But] this vocation, this call of love, makes itself felt in very diverse ways . . . The young Christian woman who remains unmarried in spite of her own desires may”if she firmly believes in the providence of the heavenly Father”recognize in life’s vicissitudes the voice of the master: Magister adest et vocat te ”the Master is at hand, and is calling you . . . . In the impossibility of matrimony, she discerns her vocation.
Chris Damian has written about how Blessed John Henry Newman’s words helped him to deal with the fear of celibacy, and how prayer teaches us to see each other with chaste eyes. Gregg Webb reflected on how the cloud of witnesses helps to inspire and sustain him in living a celibate life, and Julie Rodgers has explored celibacy and the freedom to love.
What these stories—whether of marriage or of celibacy—have in common is our willingness to honestly acknowledge our sexual attractions, and our unwillingness to listen to those attractions as the last word about who we are or how we ought to love. Instead, we explore the different ways that God calls us to our particular vocation or calling in the world—whether married or celibate.
A lot of people in our culture are trying to make sense of their feelings—including but not limited to sexual desires—for the same sex. And there are a lot of scripts out there for how to do that. In our discussions of Christ-centered friendship, marriage, and celibacy, we have tried to offer different scripts which are more congruent with the historic Christian faith. Our stories begin with experiences not unlike what other gay and bisexual people are going through, but lead toward the truths about human love and human sexuality revealed in the Bible and safeguarded by the people of God for thousands of years.
I hope that what ultimately guides the conversation at Spiritual Friendship is not sexual desire, or sexual orientation: it is Christ-centered friendship. One of the things that is striking to me about the stories that married couples have shared is how much the success of their marriage is grounded on an attraction that grew out of friendship. Thus Mike Allen, for example, writes,
This part of my life was marked by periods of real spiritual growth and close communion with Christ, as well as times of faithlessness and desperate grabs at happiness outside of God’s design. And through it all, there was Anna right beside me. We became close confidants and shared everything with each other. Our bond grew as time passed, and I think we both gradually understood that such a relationship between a man and woman (one that I had never before experienced) would inevitably lead to marriage, though the idea seemed impossible, and we couldn’t see how that transition would actually take place.
And in our fragmented, couple-centric society (and churches), it’s easy to fear that celibacy will equal loneliness. The original reason Wes and I created Spiritual Friendship was to explore how recovering a Christian understanding of friendship could provide a helpful framework for ministry to gay/bisexual/lesbian Christians.
At the same time, we recognize that both marriage and friendship are arduous goods. In addition to talking about the value of friendship, we have tried to speak honestly about all the ways friendship can involve significant disappointment and struggle. And we have tried to present a similarly honest picture of the joys and struggles of marriage.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I would like to provide a more satisfactory conclusion which wraps everything up in a neat summary. But I see what is happening here more as an ongoing conversation about how to recover an authentically Christian understanding of things like love, friendship, vocation, marriage, and celibacy. I think that what we have said so far has made a useful contribution to recovering the counter-cultural message that love is not the same as sex, and reminding a Christian community that idolizes marriage of the scandal of celibacy. We have created space for the sort of sometimes difficult conversations about theology that help us to clarify and correct our ideas, and to sort out truth from error. And to acknowledge this is to point out why this conversation can’t yet be wrapped up with a simple summary: we still have a lot to sort out.
One might wonder why, if we think the concept of spiritual friendship is so much more helpful, we don’t spend more time talking about it directly, and less time talking about sexual orientation. I think it’s important to see, however, that we haven’t simply accepted the assumptions of sexual orientation language at face value and then tried to use those concepts to talk about Christian discipleship. Rather, as we have engaged with the concepts, we have also sought to challenge the assumptions behind them in a way that opens space for Christian discipleship.
In a recent post, Aaron Taylor pointed out that, in contemporary culture, questions about our “sexuality” have become interchangeable with the question, “who are we?” Freud thought that all human action was ultimately motivated by the desire for pleasure, particularly sexual pleasure. If this assumption were correct, then my sexual attraction would be the most powerful force shaping me, and thus the most important piece of information for answering the question, “who am I?” But, as Aaron ably points out, this over-focus on questions of sex—which is a problem for “traditional” as well as “progressive” Christians—ends up distorting the Gospel.
In trying to present a traditionally Christian understanding of vocation, friendship, celibacy, and marriage, I have tried to engage with the language and assumptions of our culture. But I don’t take those assumptions as givens about human nature. Rather, what I have tried to do, and what I think other writers at Spiritual Friendship have tried to do, is to critically examine those assumptions in light of our own experience. In doing so, I hope, we have helped to challenge some of the assumptions that most of our contemporaries bring into discussions of love and human relationships. However, instead of constantly referring to a medieval abstraction, we have often challenged those assumptions in light of our own experience—an approach which is likely to have much more appeal to the average reader.
At the same time, the existence of books like Aelred of Rievaulx’s dialogue on Spiritual Friendship suggests that we are moving in the direction of something that has much deeper and older roots in the Christian tradition than the kind of “conservative” Christianity which Chris and Aaron have recently criticized. There is a lot more work to be done to make this model a credible alternative in the modern world. But it is, I think, a task worth pursuing.
Ron Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion. He can be followed on Twitter: @RonBelgau.
I appreciate this post and agree with much of what has been said here. I value Spiritual Friendship for how it has tried to help people realize that being gay is more than just a desire to have sex.
However, my concern with this post, especially after the last one and the conversations that have been coming up in dialogue with ultraconservatives like Denny Burk is what this post leaves unsaid. It doesn’t clearly and plainly address the threat that the ultraconservative movement poses, namely, that gay people are sinning just for having a same-sex orientation. This is no small threat. Ultraconservatives are currently the most vocal on the issue of sexuality right now. Moderate traditionalists are largely staying out of the debate. I know of at least three books coming out very soon by the more conservative side including one from Denny who will be promoting his view that sexual attraction in of itself is sinful.
No one has any problem with the fact that gay people want platonic love and friendship. Even Denny doesn’t have any issue with the platonic friendship that SF is trying to promote. But that is not the whole of what it means to be gay. Just as the whole is not exclusively sexual, so also the whole is not exclusively platonic. The posts written here trying to splice out the platonic piece and promote that while avoiding clear discussion of the sexual aspect is problematic. It leads to artificial splintering of what reality really is: both platonic and sexual. In other words no discussion is adequate without recognizing the whole. When conservatives only see the sexual, it leads to problems. When SF only talks about the platonic, it leads to problems. We need a robust theology that recognizes we are not splintered people, but in fact, gay people who are sexually attracted to the same-sex while simultaneously desiring more than sex.
I am calling on Ron and Wes as the primary leaders of SF to clearly and plainly address the assertions made by Denny Burk and other conservatives that having sexual attraction in of itself is sinful. And not merely in a comment section, but an actual post. The fact that this has been the issue at the center of debate of late and yet you don’t clearly acknowledge it and address it in this post makes me very nervous indeed. I have to wondering if you and Wes are reluctant to address the threat head on because you are feeling some sympathy to Denny Burk’s views.
Karen, there are a number of posts directly addressing that question (some of which refer directly to Denny Burk), including this one: https://spiritualfriendship.org/2014/02/26/is-being-gay-sanctifiable/
Do you have any more info on the forthcoming books?
Aaron, the post says essentially the same thing as Nick Roen’s post. It is okay for gay people to have platonic friendships. There is no controversy there. Of course we can have chaste friendships, even if they happen to have a heightened emotional aspect to it for gay people. Even Burk is not going to object to this platonic friendship. This is not my concern as should be evident from the lengthy debate in the last post. My concern is regarding where SF stands on sexual desire.
Burk asserts that having a sexual attraction in of itself is sinful unless in a marital context. By implication a gay person who most likely cannot marry heterosexually is forced to try to be asexual since having any sexual feelings outside a marital context is sinful. Burk doesn’t just say lust or behavior is sin, he says even the spontaneous sexual attraction is sin.
However, the post you linked to seems to confirm my worst suspicions about SF. The article states: “Butterfield, Burk, and others seem to be saying that I need to die to, repent of, renounce, etc. every last aspect of “same-sex attraction” or “being gay,” and I think I agree with them.”
The only exception to this statement is for platonic, sibling, spiritual “attraction”. Thus, in essence a gay person has to repent of every sexual feeling they have and essentially try to be asexual. That is a message no different than the ex-gay message to try to become heterosexual.
I would like to know how SF proposes that a gay person live as a *sexual* being. The above statement sounds very Reformed in suggesting the concupiscence is sin. Is that the stance of SF? Not just active lust and behavior is sin, but also spontaneous sexual desires for the same same-sex in sin that has to be repented of?
I don’t know that we necessarily have a unified stance as a group. I talked some about my beliefs in https://spiritualfriendship.org/2014/08/11/a-three-tiered-framework-for-thinking-about-sexuality/
I think Nick and Matt, at least, have similar beliefs, based on the conversations I’ve had with them, though they’re free to clarify themselves. When it comes to the Catholic writers, I believe the Catholic church teaches pretty explicitly that concupiscence is not sin, so I would expect them to hold to that idea.
I do agree that this would be an area where I’d like to see more clarity and thinking on the blog.
Are we operating out of a similar definition of sexual attraction? So, I would say sexual attraction, the experience of noticing and being struck by the beauty of a person, is not sinful – involuntary and biological as it is – but that in our culture such attraction can easily become lustful (which I see as an objectification of the other for the sake of our own pleasure). Here’s my reflection on it. http://www.matthewfranklinjones.com/2014/10/23/just-like-everybody-else/
So I’m pretty sure the SF writers would say that attraction to the same sex is obviously not sinful, but that it does pose the question, “Now what?” and must be responded to faithfully. We’ve said that so many times that I’m thinking there’s a disjunction between definitions of the “sexual” part of sexual attraction, as I’m not quite sure where else your criticisms may be coming from. I spend so much of my time arguing against people who think gay sexual orientations are inherently sinful that your persistent assertions both catch me off guard and make me think we might be talking slightly past each other.
I’m sure you’ve made it clear in one of your other comments that I may not have read, so I apologize if you’ve already addressed this.
Hi Matt –
When both Brownson and Gagnon agree, I think it’s a point worth considering. If gay sex is a perversion, then gay sexual attraction is also a perversion. That which motivates us toward sin is itself sinful. I think the objection is raised over volition. The argument goes that if same sex attraction is not volitional, then it can’t be sinful. But that’s a position that denies the sanctification of the Spirit. Envy, anger, and covetousness are often not volitional either, but we repent and pray for God to transform us – even though our coveting didn’t lead to theft. I believe our interior lives matter to Jesus.
I personally affirm the sanctity of gay relationships, so I don’t believe gay sexual attraction is sinful. But I’m baffled by arguments that say, essentially, gay is bad, but gay is not bad.
I agree wholeheartedly with Karen that teaching gay sexual attraction is sinful is a damaging and dangerous message. I disagree with her that this teaching is theologically problematic. To the contrary, I find the “it’s the behavior not the orientation” perspective to be a pastoral accommodation not supported by the theology.
My best to you as always
“Envy, anger, and covetousness are often not volitional either…”
That’s completely false. If they were not volitional, then the phrases “tempted to envy” or “tempted to anger” would be meaningless. Obviously one can be tempted to envy without envying.
Ford1968: “When both Brownson and Gagnon agree, I think it’s a point worth considering.”
Maybe. But see C. S. Lewis:
Hi Daniel –
As a human being, that simply hasn’t been my lived experience. While it may be true sometimes that I face temptations, there are other times when I spontaneously act out in ways that are clearly sinful. Because human.
Peace and blessings
But when you spontaneously act in sinful ways, this is because you have a HABIT. These habits are not intrinsic to your nature. They have been developed over time. Once, however long ago, you made conscious choices to engage in those sinful behaviors — either that, or you were habituated to sin before the age of reason, which is one of the worst tragedies imaginable. But either way, the spontaneous action was caused. It was not innate.
I’m Catholic. Whenever someone says “Peace be with you”, I instinctively say “And with your spirit.” This is spontaneous and unchosen. But it is rooted in training, not in nature. The same with spontaneous sins.
I think we need to distinguish three claims: (1) sexual attraction to the same sex is sinful, (2) accepting that one is attracted to the same sex is sinful, and (3) accepting/embracing one’s sexual attractions to the same sex is sinful.
I think that all the writers for SF reject #1 and #2. Many of them, however, seem to accept #3. So suppose I might find my friend Bob sexually attractive. The conventional view at SF is that there is nothing sinful in my finding Bob attractive, and that I ought to fully accept the fact that I do find him attractive. I don’t need to stress out about that. But I should try to limit the ways that my *sexual* attraction to Bob affects the way I relate to Bob, even if Bob is also attracted to me.
When it comes to spiritual friendship, sexual attraction is a barrier, not a help. That was Aelred’s view, and I think it’s a view I see reflected on this site, as well.
Daniel, I can’t say that I understand your three distinctions. They don’t make any sense to me. It sounds like you are saying the same thing three times.
A couple of distinctions needs to be made with regards to sexual desire.
Sexual desire in of itself is not sinful. All human beings have sexual desire as a result of going through puberty (unless something has gone amiss). This is the result of God-given hormones and represents the procreative drive. Wanting to have sex is not sinful. Sexual desire is not sinful. Burk argues that all sexual desire is sinful unless one is married or engaged. By that he does not mean lust. He means normal hormonal desire. Since he considers the effects of normal sexual development to be sinful, he believes that Jesus must not have had any sexual desires that normally come with puberty. Jesus somehow circumvented normal human sexual development. I find that absurd and docetic. And I don’t want to reiterate all of that since it is well spelled out in the comments of the last post.
So my first contention above is not even about same-sex desire. It is about human beings as sexual beings created with a procreative drive that releases hormones in our bodies. This is true even for me as a gay person. For example, even though my sexual desires are “mis-wired” toward women, my body still acts like it wants to get pregnant every month. Women typically have varying degrees of sexual desire during the month based on their menstrual cycle. So my body at certain times says, “Hey, get pregnant right now!!” That hormonal insistence comes in the form of wanting to have sex. Of course, since I am not attracted to men that normal desire to have sex is geared toward a gender where procreation is not possible.
When it comes to thinking about same-sex attraction (and I don’t mean platonic), my primary concern is that possible influences of Reformed theology is leading SF to confuse categories of temptation and sin. That seems pretty evident in the quote I provided above from a post on SF: “Butterfield, Burk, and others seem to be saying that I need to die to, repent of, renounce, etc. every last aspect of “same-sex attraction” or “being gay,” and I think I agree with them.”
You don’t repent of something that is not a sin. This statement is saying that concupiscence is sin. Simply having a desire even if no lust is involved is an act of sin. That is the Reformed view. That is the view that I am concerned is infiltrating SF. I am concerned because it conflates temptation and sin. In this theology there is no opportunity to resist temptation, you are already doomed just for experiencing any kind of arousal. I think that is an incredibly damaging theology that harms people and leads to futility. You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
This is why I find Burk’s ideas so problematic (and he goes beyond normal Reformed theology in his view that even heterosexual attraction is sinful for single people). I believe Jesus like any normal male experienced attractions, but these desires were not sinful because he did not lust. Jesus teaches us how to handle sexual temptation. Temptation is not sin. Temptation is only the invitation to sin. That is where I see same-sex desire–in the realm of temptation. When I experience a *sexual* attraction to a woman, I am not sinning. I am only tempted to sin. If I allow that attraction to become active lust, only then have I sinned.
Let’s see if I can clarify the three claims, which you said you couldn’t distinguish. Here they were:
(1) sexual attraction to the same sex is sinful, (2) accepting that one is attracted to the same sex is sinful, and (3) accepting/embracing one’s sexual attractions to the same sex is sinful.
Let’s use a comparison. Suppose my kids do something really stupid, and I experience a vehement internal response: we might call this an inclination toward anger. Is my internal response sinful? No. I can’t control it. Should I accept THAT I have such an inclination? Yes, absolutely. Otherwise the inclination will control me.
Should I accept or embrace the inclination, and say that this inclination toward anger is something important about me? No.
That’s all I’m saying, with the necessary adjustments to talk about homosexual feelings. The purely sexual aspect of these feelings is nothing but a bad inclination. We should accept THAT we have it, but reject IT.
I have a question for you Karen, how would you categorized the feeling a child may have for children of the opposite sex usually called “a chrush”?
I think I am starting to understand what you are saying. It sounds like you are saying:
Spontaneous response is not sinful (because concupiscence is not sinful)
But affirming concupiscence as good simply because we experience it is not a good thing. I think the word “affirming” is more helpful than “accepting” because I think it is really healthy and important for gay people to come to terms with (i.e. accept) their reality so that they can respond to to it appropriately as opposed to being in denial.
As for as rejecting the inclination–I am not sure how one can really reject something that is unchangeable. If I have a temper, then hopefully I will be growing and learning how to manage that better. Similarly one should seek to manage a sexual appetite. But the idea that I can reject my same-sex attraction is a bit of odd wording to me, and I think leads to self-loathing. Part of coming out of denial and accepting my condition is realizing God has allowed it. So there really isn’t anything I can do about it or ways I can really reject my same-sex attraction. But I can reject lust and actively seek to avoid lust.
I don’t find it particularly helpful to fixate on how “bad” same-sex attractions are. I personally don’t put them in a moral category. I see them as natural fallenness not moral fallenness. It is a mis-wiring of an unknown etiology, perhaps a congenital condition. I choose not to be in a same-sex relationship primarily because I believe procreation is an essential definition of marriage, not because there is something so “evil” and “terrible” about same-sex attraction. Although I don’t believe same-sex attraction is how things are supposed to be. Just like I don’t think people born blind is how things should be. But it is kind of like asking a blind person to “reject” their blindness. I suppose they might wish for healing but rejecting something that is unchangeable in this lifetime is not a helpful concept in my mind.
But in any case, I am not how your comments are directly related to my concerns I am raising, namely, certain Reformed doctrine is going to have a negative impact on the celibate gay movement. Not even those in the ex-gay movement believed that same-sex desires in of themselves are sinful. There has always been a healthy distinction between sexual feelings related to an unchangeable orientation vs. active lust. As well as a healthy distinction between temptation and sin. I am concerned that these distinctions are not longer being maintained clearly.
I’m sorry to push you but would you answer my question? It is important because our Lord told us to be like children and because sexuality starts at the mother’s womb.
Rosamim, this has come up in a previous thread. I don’t find it germane to what I am raising here. I am not speaking about prepubescent romantic crushes, I am speaking of post-puberty sexual desires. I don’t want to get on a bunny trail unrelated to the concern I am raising.
This is not a bunny trail. The Lord did tell us to become like children and as such it is pertinent to explore sexuality in all stages of life particularly during childhood. It is a worthy endevure I think. It is quite unfortunate that people don’t want to explore sexuality in all stages of life. And what it means for our well being spiritual and physical.
I just want to be clear with you, in the matter of Deny I have opinions that lean towards you. Your concerns are also mine.
In other words do we want to be holy and please God? Then we need to become like children. Is one of SF goals to help gay AND straight people become holier in relation to their sexuality? Then it has to explore sexuality in all its aspects. I include heterosexuals because I have been enriched by SF. My understanding of sexuality has been enriched. For that I’m grateful. So I see SF as a means to help me live a holier life.
Ron, I appreciate your post and the efforts by you and this group to help everyone to move to a place where we can truly love one another well.
I think that the married voice seems to be missing from this discussion and perhaps should be added as not everything that you believe marriage to be, really is!
I have experience a full sexual orientation change from same sex to opposite sex but believe me my life is complicated. I’ve been married for almost 27 years and I’m still learning how to relate to my husband.
Over the lifetime of our marriage my husband has had to learn that even in the married relationship, it’s not all about sex. For woman our sexual desire is greatly impacted by our emotions, our energy, weather we are feeling heard, how much strain the children bearing and raising is going, etc.
My husband has had to learn that just because he is married to me, that doesn’t mean that he can have sex anytime his body is driven to do so. He has had to not only learn to be self controlled in this area of his life but also to subjugate it to the circumstances at hand.
Sometimes we walked this dance well and at others not so well.
Now both in our mid to late 50’s still with 3 children to finish raising I actually have hardly any sex drive at all. That means most of the time that my husband is interested and in need/want I’m not interested. That’s just the reality of our lives. We have learned to work this part of our relationship from a whole person point of view. There are times that I just can’t meet his need and he has learned that this is OK, because he loves and and knows that when I can, I will.
I think that some of this reality of marriage and sex needs to be better understood in the context of your discussion here. Because what my husband has learned to practice in our marriage where sex is not only allowed but anointed and fruit bearing, needs to be learned also by those that are walking in a place of celibacy.
The reality is we have to consider that our sexuality is in the process of being redeemed along with everything else about ourselves. Everything we have is God’s and is subject to his will. There is a fallen part of our nature which works against God and which Jesus did not experience even though he was fully human. He experienced temptation but was fully in God’s will. This is a mystery but it can be something we catch a glimpse of as we turn over our lives to God as new creations in Christ. There is no simple formula because we are organic beings but the Spirit leads us to the truth about ourselves within our own individual hearts according to God’s will. What we really need from each other and the christian community is encouragement and support.
First let me introduce myself with a very brief summary of my life experience. From my very earliest sexual awaking, I was always attracted to other guys. This attraction resulted in a life of increasing homosexual activity beginning at age 15 until I was about 30. I knew both loving relationships and unrestrained promiscuity during those years. Then I heard the gospel, believed it, and became a follower of Jesus Christ. This resulted in my turning away from my gay life and within a few years marrying a Christian woman with four girls from a previous marriage. We have been married now for over 30 years. I have never had another gay relationship from the time of my conversion until now and have developed a more and more satisfying sexual relationship with my wife.
These years have not been without difficulty and struggle as I moved from a life of complete same-sex attraction, desire, and activity to one redirected more and more into what I believe to be the God-approved course of monogamous, other-sex marriage. I believe change takes place gradually along a scale with complete same-sex attraction on one end and complete other-sex attraction on the other. Unlike many ‘ex-gays’ I do not believe that complete change will necessarily occur in this life. My own grappling with remaining same-sex attraction is something I openly and honestly admit. But I also can testify to a reduction in the intensity and frequency of homosexual attraction and desire as I move along that scale by the sanctifying grace of God.
This all leads to what I want to say in response to what you’ve written here. I’m trying to understand your burden and objective in what you write on this site, and I do agree with much that you say. There is indeed a sex-saturation in our culture that has given sex a place in our lives that God never intended it to have. And Christians may well have been infected by that perspective. There is also a Christian doctrine of celibacy that must be hammered out from scripture lest we give marriage a place that goes beyond what even God says about it. And there certainly are non-sexual factors involved in our attractions to other people of the same sex that result in deep friendships. David and Jonathan would be a good example of this.
But what I’m not getting is what all this has to do specifically with the question of same-sex, or gay, attraction. You admit that these attractions are fundamentally sexual in nature. Here’s what you say as an example:
“Like Chris, I describe myself as gay because my sexual attractions are almost always directed toward someone of my own sex. Jeremy Erickson describes himself as bisexual because his sexual attractions have been directed toward persons of both sexes.”
You say this in a context of sexual orientation, which I understand as the direction of our sexual attractions and desires. So we are talking about sex.
Now I believe we are agreed that there is only one kind of sexual desire and activity that is approved by God, and that is sex within the confines of monogamous, other-sex marriage. So if we’re all agreed conversely that any other sexual desire and activity is contrary to the will and purpose of God, then doesn’t it follow that the orientation that produces same-sex attraction, desire, and activity is necessarily displeasing to God also? Putting it into biblical imagery, bad fruit comes from a bad tree. And all the fruit that comes from a bad tree is bad – including same-sex attraction and desire as well as conduct.
What particularly confuses…and troubles…me is how we get from this same-sex sexual attraction to same-sex friendship. There is nothing sinful or wrong about friendships between people of the same sex. Same-sex friendships are non-sexual experiences that can be very deep and intimate. People with no same-sex sexual attraction have had very close same-sex friendships. But if a same-sex friendship is being sought as a kind of redirection of same-sex sexual attraction, then I’m not persuaded that we still don’t have a big problem to deal with.
Maybe some personal anecdote will help me explain what I’m driving at here. When after 15 years of living a gay life I was convinced of my sin by the preaching of the gospel, my renunciation of homosexuality included more than just stopping same-sex activity. I had to also renounce same-sex thoughts, same-sex desires, and the same-sex attraction that generated them. It seemed fairly straightforward to me that everything and anything associated with homosexuality had to be turned from. I was also convinced from the Bible that all desire for and temptation to same-sex thoughts and actions had to be resisted by the grace of God. And I also believed that biblical holiness entailed the replacement of sinful desires with their opposite correct desires. After all, Paul told former thieves in the Ephesian church that it wasn’t enough to stop stealing. They also were commanded to get a job and be able to give to people instead of taking from them like they used to.
Now I don’t want to give the impression that all this happens instantaneously and without great struggle and difficulty. I don’t even want to imply that there will be a complete change from a same-sex orientation to an exclusive heterosexual attraction in this life. But I do believe the progressive and gradual change we experience in ongoing sanctification can produce a moving away from a same-sex direction into more and more of an other-sex direction by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 7:1). And I can say with some confidence that if I had thought in the ways you are advocating here, I would never have made much progress in mortifying same-sex sin and would very likely have gone back to the gay life. Thus my concern with what you say here.
Well, I’ve rambled on enough. I don’t want to come across as belligerent or unsympathetic to what you have to deal with in your life. I’m not here to pick a fight or to be unkind. I’m here because of the concerns I’ve expressed. And I fear for others who may be struggling deeply in this area and may be hindered in their progress because of what appear to me to be less than biblical ideas of sin and sanctification that they may encounter here.
Peace to you.
Thank you Dennis for sharing from your life’s experiences. Blessings to you.
I am glad to hear that God reached into your life and has blessed you in some wonderful ways. I praise God along with you for that. However, I do want to point out that your post is actually quite condescending toward those who have not experienced change in their same-sex attractions. It is also patronizing in its assumption that SF and side B people have not wrestled hard with their attractions. You credit yourself (unwarranted) with a superior moral and spiritual maturity.
Your testimony would be beautiful if you simply told what God has done in your life. But when you turn it into a weapon to denigrate others, it becomes ugly. This is why ex-gay testimonies of change caused so much damage. They were used against those who hadn’t changed (i.e. “Why can’t you just be like him? You must not be trying hard enough”). The conservative church loves radical promiscuous conversion stories. It is much more entertaining than the testimony of someone who never lived a wild life and has been faithful day in and day out even when their hard circumstances don’t change. I suspect because your shift in thinking on homosexuality happened at the same time as your conversion, that it is hard for you to understand the life experience of those of us who were raised in the church and have been living faithfully without the wild past. You do realize that there are side B leaders here who are virgins or have had limited sexual involvement? Perhaps you might learn from them about what it means to live a life of faithfulness despite lack of change instead of judging them.
Below I highlight some of your quotes to further point out the problems:
You write: “Then I heard the gospel, believed it, and became a follower of Jesus Christ. This resulted in my turning away from my gay life and within a few years marrying a Christian woman with four girls from a previous marriage.”
Would it have been enough if the result had simply been turning away from gay relationships? You seem to equate your conversion with resulting in marriage.
You write: “I moved from a life of complete same-sex attraction, desire, and activity to one redirected more and more into what I believe to be the God-approved course of monogamous, other-sex marriage. I believe change takes place gradually along a scale with complete same-sex attraction on one end and complete other-sex attraction on the other.”
Naturally, you believe that change happens because that is what occurred in *your* experience. The problem is when you universalize *your* experience and assume that is what will happen to everyone and start preaching a doctrine that this is what should happen (i.e. there is something wrong with the person if it doesn’t).
You write: “But I also can testify to a reduction in the intensity and frequency of homosexual attraction and desire as I move along that scale by the sanctifying grace of God.”
Do you not think the sanctifying grace is working in our lives too? Do you think it’s possible that God’s grace works in other ways besides making our difficulties go away?
You write: “Now I believe we are agreed that there is only one kind of sexual desire and activity that is approved by God, and that is sex within the confines of monogamous, other-sex marriage. So if we’re all agreed conversely that any other sexual desire and activity is contrary to the will and purpose of God, then doesn’t it follow that the orientation that produces same-sex attraction, desire, and activity is necessarily displeasing to God also? Putting it into biblical imagery, bad fruit comes from a bad tree. And all the fruit that comes from a bad tree is bad – including same-sex attraction and desire as well as conduct.”
This falls into the same problems as Burk’s teaching which I won’t rehash here. It leads to Docetism by denying the unmarried Jesus any sexual desires. It is also a fairly pre-scientific understanding of sexuality. Our sexual desires can be the result of many different factors including congenital conditions. Or for women it can simply be a more natural sexual fluidity than what men experience.
But what is most problematic about this statement is that you have just called all those who have not experienced change a “bad tree” bearing “bad fruit.” That is pretty dehumanizing and slanderous.
You write: “And I also believed that biblical holiness entailed the replacement of sinful desires with their opposite correct desires. After all, Paul told former thieves in the Ephesian church that it wasn’t enough to stop stealing.”
Again you insinuating that we don’t have any concept of biblical holiness and that if we simply were more spiritually mature as you then we would experience change. Also, your analogy with Paul does not work–it is entirely action based. One action is ceased and another action taken up. This would suggest that you think stopping same-sex relationships should be followed by another action, namely getting married. It also assumes that people have been involved in same-sex relationships to begin with–again an erroneous universalizing of your personal experience.
You write: “But I do believe the progressive and gradual change we experience in ongoing sanctification can produce a moving away from a same-sex direction into more and more of an other-sex direction by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 7:1).”
So the Holy Spirit is not doing a transformative work in those of us who do not experience change? We are not experiencing sanctification?
Your whole discussion is nothing more than a prosperity gospel. God does not always choose to remove the thorn. Instead of laying heavy burdens on our backs perhaps humble yourself and see how you might learn from those who are faithful even when God chooses not to make everything better. You are like Job’s friends.
If I had spent my youth constantly caught up by the desire to be violent, and the Lord freed me of that desire, would that be any condemnation against those who still struggle with the desire to be violent? Of course not.
And yet, it’s surely true that violence is bad fruit that comes from a bad tree: the temptation to be violent. That doesn’t mean that the person so tempted is a bad tree. It means that the TEMPTATION is a bad tree.
So let me ask you a point-blank question: Would you, Karen, be better off without the temptation to have sex with women? Suppose that you could either enter into heaven with that temptation, or without it. Which would be more appropriate? Are you a better or worse person for that particular temptation?
No one is saying that we can “will away” same-sex attraction. I can say that it’s a bad tree without saying that I have a good axe for it.
Daniel, you have completely missed my point. As it should be clear from my primary concerns expressed in my comment, I object to Dennis insinuating that those who do not experience any change in their same-sex attraction in this lifetime are somehow less spiritually mature and that if one truly seeks holiness they will experience a change in sexual orientation. That is what the ex-gay movement often preached and part of the reason for its demise. “Change is Possible!” is not actually possible for everyone in this lifetime. Some will not experience healing until the eschaton.
“If one truly seeks holiness they will experience a change in sexual orientation.”
He didn’t say that. I don’t think he insinuated it either. Perhaps you read him completely differently than I did.
“Those who do not experience any change in their same-sex attraction in this lifetime are somehow less spiritually mature…”
Well, in that one respect, I would guess that we are less mature. I say “we”, because I haven’t experienced such change. Biblically, “mature” means “finished” or “complete” (the Greek is “telios”). If I still have earthly sinful attachments, I am obviously not finished, not complete. If Dennis lacks some of these attachments, that is all to the good. I don’t understand how that could be offensive. If it means that I am less mature than Dennis, I’m not sure why that matters. Again, unless one claims that same-sex *sexual* attraction has some POSITIVE role, it’s obvious that we would be better people without it. That is not the same as saying it is sinful, not by a longshot.
“Lead us not into temptation…”
I haven’t had time to assimilate the whole discussion. But although we all know that Exodus often spoke imprecisely, I think it’s important for us to speak precisely.
“Change is possible” does not mean everyone will change (however we define “change”). It means it’s possible.
Consider an analogy. Not everyone who goes to grad school gets a tenure-track job. Two points can be made here. First, getting a tenure-track job is not necessarily the only good outcome from grad school. Indeed, the over-specialization and secularization of academia means that the usual path to academic “success” may be a waste of the intellectual gifts and talents God has given, and that a non-academic calling is God’s best for some people. And even if aa tenure track job is a good option, it’s not going to happen for everyone, often due to factors beyond individual control (anyone who knows anything about academic hiring knows that many factors other than the candidate’s native intelligence and work ethic play into who is selected for a given job.
It’s possible to get a tenure track academic job. There’s nothing wrong with ardently pursuing tenure track jobs or encouraging others to do so. But we also shouldn’t assume that those who choose to pursue a different path, or who are unable to secure a tenure track job, are necessarily less worthy than those who do (there are some very odd ducks in academia, and there are a number of “failed academics” who have gone on to contribute far more to the Church and to the world than some who did get tenure.
Unless “change” (however defined) is impossible, then there’s nothing wrong with saying that it’s possible. However, saying that it’s possible is not the same as saying that it will happen for everyone. Maybe if I’d followed the conversation more I would understand the issue here. But it seems to me that “Change is possible” is unthreatening. The problem is the assumption that “change” always happens to those who are faithful, and the only reason that “change” wouldn’t happen is due to lack of faith on the part of the person.
I must be a very poor communicator, because you have accused me of many things that I never meant to convey in what I wrote. I could respond to each of your statements in turn, but that would take a lot of time I don’t have and would make for a tedious post. So let me just make some comments that might help clarify things. You may never see this, but I’ll say it anyway for the sake of others who may find it helpful:
1. The point of my personal testimony was not to be judgmental or to be ‘a weapon to denigrate others.’ I was very simply relating my experience as a former homosexual to show that I was not speaking in a vacuum. Many opinions about same-sex attraction are expressed by people who have never experienced it and consequently are unable to speak to the issue with any real understanding. I can because I know what it’s like to be gay, as my testimony makes clear.
2. I do not think that my experience is the touchstone for everyone else’s experience of same-sex attraction. I have had enough interaction over the years with same-sex attracted Christians to know that we all experience it differently. I have Christian friends now who never lived the kind of ‘wild’ and ‘radically promiscuous’ life I lived, but who have very intense same-sex attraction even though they have never acted on. I do not minimize their difficulties or think I somehow have a more spectacular conversion story than they do. In other words, I do not ‘universalize’ my experience.
3. I really don’t like to associate myself with the ‘ex-gay’ movement as you have in what you wrote. I call myself ‘ex-gay’ because the word essentially expresses what I am – a former homosexual. But I admit it’s encumbered with a lot of bad ‘karma’ that I don’t agree with. I think the approach to SSA/homosexuality embodied in NARTH, reparative therapy, and the former Exodus International is fundamentally flawed and has done much damage to people. I should probably avoid the term, but it is a quick shorthand for ‘I’m a guy who used to live a homosexual life until God delivered me from it to follow Jesus Christ.’
4. I refer to my marriage in my testimony because that’s my story. I don’t intend to imply by this that I think everyone converted from a same-sex attracted experience will be or necessarily has to be married. My only point here is that most people are still going to have strong sexual desires after coming out of a homosexual background, and the only way those desires can be biblically satisfied is in marriage, and marriage to the other sex.
5. True, what I wrote is ‘my’ experience. And what you wrote is ‘your’ experience. But experience is not the determining factor in this discussion. If it’s just a matter of what we experience, then we can never determine what is right and what is wrong. It’s just your opinion, my opinion, and anyone else’s opinion who feels the need to express it. The subject of human sexuality must be discussed from the perspective of scripture if any authoritative conclusions are to be made by which our experience is to be evaluated.
6. I agree with you that sanctification progresses differently for all of us. God deals with us as individuals and not us products of a holiness assembly line. I know a few guys who claim that after God saved them from a gay life they have lost all same-sex attraction. I personally can’t identify with that at all. But I don’t deny their experience or think they’re universalizing it. However, I do contend that the biblical teaching on sanctification does include the idea of change and transformation, though that may progress differently for each individual. If you are telling me that a person can have been regenerated by God but know absolutely no change in how they think and feel and talk and behave, initially and progressively, then we do have a fundamental disagreement.
7. I have no idea where your charge of ‘docetism’ comes from. That was an early Christian heresy that taught that Jesus did not have a real body and that his sufferings and temptations were imaginary. I don’t believe that at all. If you’re applying that concept to some idea you may have that I think sexual attraction and desire are not real, but imaginary, let me assure you that I affirm that we are all created by God as sexual beings, usually with strong sexual desires. But I do not affirm that all sexual desire is equally legitimate or approved by God. It might be real, but it may also be wrong.
8. My ‘bad tree’ analogy appears to have been misunderstood. I was applying it to the idea of sexual orientation as the source of sexual desire and activity. I was trying to get my head around what Ron is trying to clarify in his article. If I were calling out people as ‘bad trees,’ I would begin with myself.
9. The point of my quote from Ephesians was to give a biblical example of what I was contending for. That is, the biblical teaching on sanctification includes the idea of replacement. It’s not enough to stop thinking or feeling or acting a certain way, but we have to also learn to think and feel and act in opposite God-approved ways. I agree that Paul often focuses on actions when he speaks about these things (1 Cor. 6:9-11 is another example), because sin generally shows itself in what we do. But a proper reading of Pauline hamartiology shows that when he referred to sinful actions, he also included the sinful disposition that produced them. And his view of sanctification has the same emphasis. See 2 Cor. 7:1 for an example.
10. Prosperity gospel? I don’t know where that came from. I have no delusion that the saving and sanctifying work of God in us guarantees that dealing with our sin is going to be an easy and effortless endeavor that results in no more deep struggle in our lives. If you had read me a little more carefully you should have seen that. Here’s one quote from what I said: “Now I don’t want to give the impression that all this happens instantaneously and without great struggle and difficulty. I don’t even want to imply that there will be a complete change from a same-sex orientation to an exclusive heterosexual attraction in this life.” So I really don’t know where your charge comes from.
Well, this is already way too long. So I need to quit. Please, before you make these kinds of accusations, learn to ask questions for clarification before assuming you have understood what was said. I admit I could probably have done a better job expressing myself, but this isn’t a place for scholarly essays. If you still take offense with what I said, at least be offended by what I really said and not by what you think I said.
I certainly wish you the best in the struggles of this life.
Dennis, thanks for taking the time to respond. Since you have put the effort into clarifying, I just want to pop back in for a second. I agree that I came on a little too strong. That is part of the reason I am extracting myself from the conversation because I feel too upset about things to discuss them in a calmer way as I would like (more broadly upset not so much about you, but more related to Burk).
However, I guess I need more clarification because I still see the same problems in your response. Perhaps I am misinterpreting you. But let me point out a few quotes here and let you know how I am hearing them. Then you can tell me whether or not I am hearing you correctly.
You write: “It’s not enough to stop thinking or feeling or acting a certain way, but we have to also learn to think and feel and act in opposite God-approved ways.”
It is not enough to stop acting a certain way. This suggest that stopping same-sex behavior is not enough, that a person needs to “feel . . . in opposite God-approved ways.” That sounds like you are saying that a person needs to develop heterosexual attractions. It is not enough to stop gay behavior, the gay feelings must also stop or at least partially move toward more heterosexual desire. Is that what you are saying?
You write: “But a proper reading of Pauline hamartiology shows that when he referred to sinful actions, he also included the sinful disposition that produced them.”
This sounds similar to what you have just said. It is not enough to stop gay behavior, one needs to address a “sinful disposition” that produced the behavior. The behavior is produced by same-sex attraction. Are you equating the “sinful disposition” with same-sex attraction? And therefore, suggesting that sexual attractions must also be changed?
You write: “However, I do contend that the biblical teaching on sanctification does include the idea of change and transformation, though that may progress differently for each individual.”
What does “change” and “transformation” mean to you? As I am sure you know in the ex-gay world that is lingo for change in sexual attractions. Is that what you mean? Sanctification will necessarily entail a change in sexual attraction even if only a partial change?
“Now I don’t want to give the impression that all this happens instantaneously and without great struggle and difficulty. I don’t even want to imply that there will be a complete change from a same-sex orientation to an exclusive heterosexual attraction in this life.”
This statement also gives me the impression that you are speaking about change in sexual attraction. It may not happen “instantaneously” but it does happen. And it may not be a complete change. But it is a change toward heterosexual attraction.
So, all these statements give me the continued sense that you believe that the sanctification process should involve at least some change in sexual attractions, and that if a person doesn’t experience any change in feelings whatsoever that something is amiss in the sanctification process. Is that not accurate? What about the person who has *zero* shift in their attractions? How does that square with your assertion above that changing behavior is not enough?
I got the impression from your original testimony that you were objecting to Ron because he doesn’t seem to emphasis change in sexual attractions. You write: “But if a same-sex friendship is being sought as a kind of redirection of same-sex sexual attraction, then I’m not persuaded that we still don’t have a big problem to deal with. Maybe some personal anecdote will help me explain what I’m driving at here. When after 15 years of living a gay life I was convinced of my sin by the preaching of the gospel, my renunciation of homosexuality included more than just stopping same-sex activity. I had to also renounce same-sex thoughts, same-sex desires, and the same-sex attraction that generated them.”
In light of your primary objection and your reason for sharing your testimony in the first place, and in light of all the other statements I have pointed out above, you can see perhaps why I am interpreting you as saying that a person should expect to experience a change in their sexual attractions if they are truly embracing the sanctification process–even if it is only a partial change in attractions. Is this what you are saying? And if not, I am not sure how it squares with your other assertions that change in behavior is not enough, feelings must also change. I would appreciate your clarification. Thanks!
Gosh Karen you were harsh!
I read him completely different than you. I don’t see Dennis as insinuating anything about those who do not experience a change. He only talks about his own experience.
I do disagree with him as far as his statements agree with Burk’s but that’s it. The rest was all about his own experience without any implicit or explicit comparison with anyone else.
I am going to sign out of the this conversation and also take a break from SF. I am becoming increasingly disturbed by the conversation here.
I do think that Burk’s teaching if it influences the church, in addition to the suggestion that a person is sinning just because they have same-sex desires (regardless of lust), will set us back 40 years.
And I am disturbed that SF leaders are not doing more to address this influence.
And I am troubled to be faced with yet another ex-gay testimony telling me that if I tried harder I could experience change. I suggest those who didn’t think Dennis was saying that to read a little more carefully. I quoted several statements of him saying exactly that.
Anyway, I have been in this conversation on sexuality for years. Normally I can maintain a civil manner. But this new ultra-conservative influence is incredibly distressing to me. And I am speaking forcefully because having been around a good long time in this whole conversation I have an eye for seeing problems. I was sounding the alarm regarding the ex-gay movement for years before it finally all came to light. And I am continuing to sound the alarm when I see serious problems that I believe will have a detrimental impact on the lives of real people. Ultimately that is what I am concerned about—not being right about some particular doctrine–but the real lives of real people who end up bearing the brunt of the impact of bad teaching.
If I have offended anyone, I am sorry. At the same time, I stand by my concerns. Having said them, I am bowing out of this conversation and future ones for a good while.
For my part, Karen, I’m sorry if I’ve offended you, as well. I think you’re 100% right about your opposition to anything that smacks of the prosperity gospel, and I think you’re 100% right that God sometimes doesn’t take away the thorn. Getting those beliefs wrong are fundamental sins of those who mislead gay people who are looking for help. I didn’t see Dennis making those mistakes, but I guess you did. That may be because you have more experience than I do.
Don’t sign out Karen. Your posts are appreciated.
Well, I would respond to Karen, but it seems she has taken her leave. So I guess there’s no point.
For some reason there’s no ‘reply’ option on your last post. Hope you see this.
I had a busy weekend, so I just saw your reply. I do intend to respond. You’ve asked a tough question that I want to answer carefully when I get some time.
Peace to you.
Thanks Dennis. I look forward to your response.
Sorry for the delay in responding. I’ve had a lot of things happening all at once. Life gets crazy sometimes.
Your main question to me is whether or not I am saying that the process of sanctification necessarily entails a change in sexual attraction. That, of course, is perhaps the most difficult question when discussing the issue of sexual inclination, and it’s one I’ve been reflecting on for years and still am thinking about.
Let me say first of all that I do distinguish between outward behavior and the inner disposition (or whatever you want to call it) that produces it. It is certainly one thing to stop doing something and quite another to stop feeling a certain way. To use my own case as an example of what I mean, when I became a Christian I immediately stopped engaging in gay sexual activity. But my same-sex attraction didn’t immediately stop. In fact, it’s still with me to this day. I only say this to emphasize that I do distinguish between sexual behavior and sexual attraction and therefore don’t believe a change in one (behavior/activity/conduct) is the same as a change in the other (attraction/orientation/desire). I think that’s an important distinction to make.
I also want to say that I don’t see things quite the same way as Denny Burk does regarding sexual desire. If I understand his position correctly, he sees any sexual desire that is outside of marriage as sinful or wrong. I would say that sexual desire is something that God created us with, since he did make us sexual creatures (Gen. 1:27-28), and that desire in and of itself is morally neutral. It’s what we do with legitimate sexual desire that determines rightness or wrongness. I also see things a little different here than Nick Roen does, because I’d say our sexual attractions proceed from this innate sexual desire, and those attractions are right or wrong depending on their object. So when discussing same-sex attraction, I see it as proceeding from this God-given neutral, but very real, sexual desire. I mean, we’re not going to be sexually attracted to someone if we don’t have any desire for sex in the first place.
And I want to make clear that when talking about a change in sexual attraction, I am speaking of it as something that results from the work of the Holy Spirit in us. That is, it’s a supernatural activity. So I do not support attempts to effect change in sexual attraction that are based on therapy or other psychological efforts. I therefore have no affinity with ‘ex-gay’ therapy or NARTH. The harm and failures produced by it are the result of a faulty view of the nature of same-sex attraction.
I say these things that may appear to be irrelevant to your question because I want to make clear exactly what I’m going to say about change: I’m not saying that altering behavior is the same as altering inclination, and I’m not saying that dealing with same-sex attraction means repressing legitimate sexual desire.
So now to your question: Does the process of sanctification necessarily entail a change in sexual attraction?
My succinct answer is, yes, I believe the work of sanctification changes us from what we are into what God wants us to be. This is usually a gradual work that will not be perfected in this life. I know you will not like this answer, so let me offer some thoughts to explain what informs it.
First, what I think about this whole issue is driven by what I believe scripture is teaching about it. I certainly can’t go into a detailed presentation here of what I believe the biblical teaching on sanctification is, but a couple of passages give the gist of it. 1 Th. 5:23 says, “Now may the God of peace himself make you completely holy and may your spirit and soul and body be kept entirely blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And 2 Cor. 7:1 says, “Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that defiles the body and the spirit, and thus perfect holiness out of reverence for God.” These verses emphasize that our sanctification is a work of God, that it requires our effort, that it is progressive, and that it affects our whole person, not only our conduct. This is what controls what I think and say about this.
Second, the word ‘change’ has different connotations, so I really don’t think it’s the most apropos word to describe what I mean. I use the term, but have thought lately about dropping it. Change can mean complete transformation from one thing into another, but that’s not how I’m using the word. I do not think that a change in same-sex attraction implies transformation into complete heterosexuality. But change can also mean modification, or a partial change from one thing to another. So when I talk about a ‘change’ in sexual attraction, I am thinking more in terms of the idea of modification than I am of transformation.
Third, I do not think or want to imply that same-sex attracted people will ultimately and necessarily need to enter into heterosexual marriage in this sanctification process. When Paul deals with the subject of sexual desire in 1 Cor. 7, he says that marriage is necessary if a person cannot control sexual passion and burns with sexual desire. But if a person has self-control over this part of his or her life, then celibacy is a good option.
So putting this all together, I do believe that the biblical teaching on sanctification inevitably includes a gradual process of change from what is contrary to God to what he approves. Same-sex attraction is not something that meets God’s approval, so it must be included in the sanctification process. But I don’t believe this necessarily means an elimination of all same-sex attraction or a reorientation to predominant heterosexuality. I don’t think it even means a change to a general other-sex attraction. For those who will need to be married for the fulfilment of sexual desire, all this means is the development of sexual attraction for one particular person of the other sex.
I do know what it’s like to experience same-sex attraction that is persistent and seemingly impervious to any attempts to change. But there is not a single New Testament moral obligation that is predicated on the assumption that believers must first lose all innate desires to violate the obligation in question. Indeed, the greatest Christian triumph comes not when all contrary desires are eradicated, but rather when obedience persists in the face of strong desires to the contrary. That, in a nutshell, is Christian discipleship: losing one’s life, taking up one’s cross, denying oneself, and following Christ.
I’m sure you will have some things to say about what I’ve written, but I hope this helps to clarify what I said earlier. I haven’t said everything I could about this subject, and I’m still working it out. But this is where I am now.
Thanks for listening.
Thank you Dennis Michael, I enjoyed reading you very much and I agree with most of what you said…
Dennis, thank you for your cogent and articulate response. I think I agree with certain key points (If I understand you right) especially:
1. sexual desire in of itself is not sin outside marriage (it is a natural God-given drive)
2. same-sex attractions even though they are ordered to the wrong object stem out of this basic natural procreative drive (basic sexual desire) and so are not sin in of themselves.
3. There is a distinction between sexual attraction vs. behavior. One can stop same-sex behavior and still have same-sex attraction.
4. I would also say that some people might experience a shift in their same-sex attractions and that this might be related to sanctification for *some* people.
5. This change need only be partial to be significant and not complete 100% shift to heterosexual attraction.
Where I disagree with you is that it *will* happen to everyone. You write: “So now to your question: Does the process of sanctification necessarily entail a change in sexual attraction?
My succinct answer is, yes, I believe the work of sanctification changes us from what we are into what God wants us to be. This is usually a gradual work that will not be perfected in this life.”
This goes beyond “change is possible” to “change in attraction should occur.” My concern is that this is an incredibly shaming message to those who experience zero changes in their sexual attractions in this lifetime. Your thesis holds every person who does not experience any shift as suspect. Somehow they are less spiritually mature. Somehow they are not acquiescing to the sanctification process. That is a big accusation (even if you don’t feel like you are framing it as an accusation).
I think the root of our difference is in how we understand the etiology of same-sex attraction. I have no problem agreeing with you that some people might experience a shift related to sanctification. But I don’t think that will happen to everyone or necessarily most. That is because I don’t think the etiology of same-sex attraction is purely spiritual, inner issue. I believe it can be biologically rooted.
Scripture says we are being renewed *inwardly* day by day even as our body is wasting away (2 Corinthians 4:16). So sanctification is not the same for the body as the inner spirit during this lifetime. Rather that is the hope of the eschaton when our groaning and longing for the redemption of our body comes to an end (Romans 8:23). Paul says he disciplines the body to make it submit (1 Corinthians 9:25-27). He doesn’t say the desires of his body go away, but that he makes his body obey him. Scripture says by the Spirit we put to death the *deeds* of the body (Romans 8:13). It doesn’t say by the Spirit we put to death the desires of the body. So, I do not see that sanctification necessarily means a change in bodily desire. But rather sanctification is growing in self-control and other fruit of the Spirit.
Since sanctification or theosis is the process of gradually conforming to the image of Christ (the Imago Dei) in process of restoration that will reach its completion in the eschaton, it will be helpful to look at the Scriptures that describe this process of theosis. Notice Colossians 3:4-14. Here Paul says consider the *members of your earthly body* as dead to evil desire. Again the focus is on what the body/members of the body are doing. It is putting to death the deeds of the body rather than giving into sinful desire. He doesn’t say consider your desires dead. He doesn’t seem to think we can escape certain desires, but rather it is a matter of making the body obey the Spirit.
See also Galatians 5. Paul says “But I say walk by the Spirit and you will not *carry out* the desire of the flesh.” He doesn’t say walking by the Spirit eliminates the desire but that we will be able to succeed in not carrying it out. “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh.” When we carry out desires of the flesh it results in *deeds of the flesh*. Notice also that Paul uses the past tense when he says “Now those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” That is a done deal for the believer. Past tense. What happens after crucifixion? Resurrection. That is where the Spirit comes in. The Spirit is the resurrected life in us. That resurrected life does not result in cessation of sinful desire but rather mastery over desires such that one no longer obeys their commands. One is no longer a slave to those desires. Crucifixion and Resurrection has freed us from *slavery*. That is why “self-control” is always listed as part of the fruit of the Spirit. So sanctification is especially about not being in slavery to obey and carry out desires, not necessarily the cessation of desire or even less sinful desire.
I do think we actively pursue holiness, by putting to death the deeds of the body and fixing our minds on whatever is lovely, whatever is true, whatever is pure. But I don’t think that will necessarily result in a shift (even a slight one) in sexual orientation for a good many people. Rather sanctification is about making the body submit to the Spirit, growing in self-control and treating other people’s bodies with the love of Christ.
On another note, I see same-sex attraction for some people as being a birth defect and so in order for a shift to happen one would have to experience a physical healing. For example, if someone has same-sex attraction because of hormonal factors in utero, sanctification is not going to heal that. It is hard-wired. While physical healings can occur, God does not always promise physical healing in this lifetime. I am concerned that your view does not seem to leave any room for biological etiology and the necessity of physical healing. As such it can come across a bit gnostic in ignoring the realities of our body–which Scripture says will not be redeemed until the eschaton. Not without a miraculous healing.
I am also reminded of something one of my seminary professors said once. He told the story about how two men struggled with drinking two much. They were both convicted to become sober. One man quit drinking cold turkey and didn’t go back. The other one struggled and struggled and could not fully beat the habit. Everyone praised the first man because he seemed to be more spiritually mature and disciplined since he was successful and the other guy was not. But in reality the first man had no physiological addiction so it was much easier for him to quit. The second man’s desires and behaviors were more entwined with biological/physiological processes. One might say that the second man was even more mature in his faith because he persevered under a much bigger burden than the first even if from all outward appearances the first man looked holier for not continuing to have the same desires and behaviors as the second.
It is such a shame when we create theologies that judge the second man as less sanctified. While the analogy of addiction is imperfect, my point is that we can be affected by biological realities. That means some people may experience zero shift in their attractions–not because they are not growing in the sanctification but because the redemption of our bodies is a different matter. Sanctification is not so much about shift in same-sex attraction but about: “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with each other, forgiving, love”. This is what Paul says it looks like to cloth ourselves with the new self which is being renewed to the image of Jesus. That is what sanctification looks like.
PS: Sometimes people might experience a so-called “change” in their sexual attraction when they stop *inciting* desire for something. In fact, I think a lot of what people have claimed is “change” is really just the absence of inciting. If you are having regular sex or regularly viewing porn those same-sex desires are being inflamed. But if you stop those things then one is not fanning the flame. This “decrease” is not a decrease or change in same-sex attraction. It just means one is not hyping it up and inciting it.
“However, along with a number of other writers at Spiritual Friendship, I have tried to point out that the experience of attraction to another person is more complex than just lust or an attraction to body parts or desire for sexual pleasure. Jeremy Erickson, Chris Damian, Nick Roen, Julie Rodgers, and Wesley Hill have also written about experiences in which their attraction to someone of the same sex is not reducible to lust.”
Thank you thank you so much for saying that. I agree completely and could not have put it better.
Hi Ron, I appreciate a great deal of what you’ve written here and actually quite agree with most of it.
The one area where I have a difficult time is with a couple of the categories. In my day, sexual orientation was the starting point. I could say that I was sexually oriented or inclined toward the same sex in a general sense, but where the nature of sin entered in was when that inclination became a specific attraction toward a particular person. It was considered at the point of a specific attraction (whether it was erotic, romantic, or emotional) that one had to flee temptation, and repent, if necessary.
I totally agree with you that any ex-gay ministry that focused on changing someone from gay to straight was clearly unbiblical and probably driven by a whole world of false assumptions about sexuality by fundamentals in the church (the remnants of which are still alive and well). However, the Biblical counseling ministry that I encountered never had such a view, but rather was focused on helping people properly deal with the issue at the level of desire (just like they did with other sins like anger and greed).
The whole point I’m driving at here is that in my faith tradition, we would not have a problem with someone acknowledging that their sexual orientation (inclination) was toward the same sex, but we would not counsel them to embrace same sex attraction as a viable status. I understand your point that the same sex attraction is not always erotic or even romantic, but we must be honest with ourselves. Over the years, I’ve come to know when the attraction is “different” and I’m vigilant about it.
Anyway, I hope this helps in some way to understand another theological take on this one. Thank you! God bless.
Pingback: Spiritual Friendship: Even Celibacy Is Not Enough For Some Christians | The Wartburg Watch 2015
Pingback: A Note on Courage and Language | Spiritual Friendship