The Answer to Polarization

Polarization is on full display in American society. At the national level, we see the Democratic and Republican parties increasingly unwilling to work with one another on legislation, as opposing the other party becomes more important and compromise becomes a dirty word. Even in our local churches, pandemic measures such as masks and vaccines have similarly created division. People have a tendency to attribute the worst motives of the those they disagree with, whether that’s claiming that opposition to abortion is really about a desire to control women, or that teaching about racism is intended to make people feel guilty for being white.

Even our views on the truth of basic facts can be affected by polarization, with a significant fraction of Republicans believing that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, while outside those circles the consensus is that Joe Biden legitimately won.

There has been much discussion on the causes of polarization, and in particular on the role of social media platforms in creating and exacerbating polarization. Feature documentaries such as The Social Dilemma have explored this topic. Some of the problems with polarization are clear to everyone involved. Without an ability to have reasonable dialog, we just end up yelling at each other instead of making forward progress. However, I think that Scripture sheds light on even deeper issues, especially in the hearts of Christian believers.

As Christians, we ought to recognize the dangers that come with polarization. We should take the time to examine its effects on our witness, our own thinking, and our own hearts. Fortunately, as I hope to describe here, Scripture also gives us the principles we need to respond to polarization. Its teaching is often difficult, but also points to a much needed new way forward. In this post, I will point out some biblical principles that govern how we are to interact with others, particularly those we disagree with. Then I will discuss some of the implications of those principles in how we interact with others.

Biblical Principles

When considering how we are to interact with those we disagree with, let’s consider more generally how we are to interact with others. We know that we are commanded to love our neighbors. When Jesus was asked who our neighbors are, he told the story of the Good Samaritan. Although Samaritans were a group despised by the Jews, the Samaritan was the only person in the story who showed mercy.

But sometimes those who disagree with us don’t actually seem like that Samaritan who showed mercy. They don’t necessarily respect our thoughts or perspectives. They may promote injustice. They seem more like enemies.

What if they are truly enemies? Jesus had this to say (Matthew 5:38-48, ESV):

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

And though we sometimes think of this teaching as a new revelation Jesus brought, it has antecedents in the Old Testament. It was lived out by David when he spared the life of his enemy Saul, trusting that revenge was God’s and not his own (1 Samuel 24 and 26). And Proverbs 25:21-22 (ESV) is remarkably similar teaching to that of Jesus: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.”

A key observation about Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 5 is that he assumes the enemy is evil. The example of someone “forcing you to go one mile” is likely a reference to Roman oppression of Jews. In this case he’s presupposing that those he is teaching are in the right, and their enemy is in the wrong. But amazingly, this does not change his teaching. The response to cruelty must be kindness. We are commanded to love and pray for our enemies.

Of course, people we have disagreements with are not always “enemies.” But if we are called to such a high standard of love even for enemies, how can it be lower for anyone else?

Another radical implication of this teaching is whose responsibility it is to deal with disagreement, polarization, and tribalism. As believers, the responsibility is ours. It doesn’t matter if we think the other side is wrong in any particular debate. It doesn’t matter if they actually are. We are responsible for ourselves, and to be fully obedient to Christ we must love our enemies even if they hate us.

I’ve noticed a tendency to point out that an important aspect of showing love is telling someone the truth. If we do not tell them about their sin, or confront injustice they support, are we truly loving them? However, if that is all we focus on, we miss out on much of the biblical wisdom on what showing love really looks like.

Consider 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (ESV), which uses the same Greek word for love (agape) as Jesus applies to our enemies in Matthew 5:44:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

This is quite a difficult standard to hold for love toward those we see as enemies! I imagine we all know how easy it is to get irritable or resentful at those who disagree with us, especially if they attack us or our beliefs. What God is asking from us is a genuine change of heart, not just excusing our attitudes as loving because we want people to see our perspective.

Of course, this does not mean that we shouldn’t speak out against wrongdoing and injustice. We have many examples throughout Scripture of prophets, and of Christ himself, doing just that. It doesn’t mean that we should just sing “Kumbaya” and pretend like we agree with each other. Even in love, we’ll still have disagreements. But we need to be speaking out in love rather than in hatred or fear of those we disagree with, or we are actually sinning.

So how do we get there? This doesn’t come naturally to us. But consider the wisdom from James 1:19-20 (ESV): “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”

This goes very much against the grain of our outrage culture. While there is an appropriate time for anger at injustice, are we quick to listen to where others are coming from first? When we engage with those we disagree with, are we actually concerned about understanding them, or just thinking about how to argue for our own positions? As James points out, our anger usually just provokes more anger, rather than growth in righteousness. Listening to someone is often the first step to loving them, and the first step to get over the envy and arrogance that Paul warns us against in 1 Corinthians. If we are too fearful and suspicious of those we disagree with, we are unlikely to develop the true love that Christ calls us to.

Paul also offers a helpful reminder in Ephesians 6:12 (ESV): “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Our ultimate battle is not against those we disagree with. It’s not against the “other side,” whoever that may be. It’s against the powers of evil. Obviously human sinfulness has a major impact on how both we and those we disagree with think about things. But this is common to the human condition, and people are often deceived. Our battle should be against the deception and the spiritual forces behind it, not against the people who are deceived.

As we can see, the Bible gives us much wisdom and instruction regarding how we are to treat those we disagree with. But it doesn’t stop there. The Bible also instructs us on how to think about ourselves and those we agree with.

To start, we are more responsible for judging our own faults than those of others. As Matthew 7:3-5 (ESV) says,

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Of course, among believers, we can and should help each other identify faults that need to be confessed to God and repented of. As Proverbs 27:17 (ESV) says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” In practice, this is going to be more effective if we do this within our own “tribe” of people we tend to agree with.

So we need more love and less fear towards those we disagree with, and more willingness to recognize sin in ourselves and in those we tend to agree with.

Where These Principles Are Useful

In many contexts, I have observed that some Christians tend to overlook serious errors among those they identify themselves with. We are too prone to “tribal” thinking, seeing some people as enemies, and the enemies of those enemies as our friends. Then, we may start to excuse the errors of those we have identified as “friends.” This can lead to identifying more closely with a political or social group than with Christ, and embracing the beliefs and attitudes of that group even when they conflict with Christian teaching.

Theologically, this kind of tribal thinking is one of the “noetic effects of sin,” in other words, the effect of sin on our ability even to think. Secular psychologists echo this truth in recognizing it as a human cognitive bias, though they don’t have the same framework to tie it to sinfulness. As believers, we should learn to recognize the ways our sinful nature is at play in how we think about politics and other matters. When this tribal thinking takes the place of reliance on Christ, it even becomes idolatry.

I’ve seen instances of these dangers in Christians affiliating with each major political party in the United States. For example, the Democratic party often emphasizes a notion of “bodily autonomy” that sees no problem with premarital sex and abortion. They also focus on concern for the marginalized and oppressed. Many Christians, recognizing the latter fact, align themselves with the Democratic Party. But this alignment sometimes goes beyond concern for the poor and oppressed. It can lead to changed beliefs not just about public policy surrounding sexual ethics, but beliefs about sexual ethics themselves. I think this is one part of why many in my generation are compromising on premarital sex, the “male and female” nature of God’s design for marriage, and even abortion.

But lest we think that this is just a problem with the Democratic party, I have also noticed serious compromises in recent years from associating with the Republican party. Late in my childhood, as I was beginning to understand politics, Bill Clinton was impeached. Christians in my life insisted that he had serious problems with moral character, both in marital infidelity and in lying about it. As they told it, sexual ethics and honesty were both critically important for a leader to have. Something changed between then and 2016. A video of the Republican nominee surfaced where he bragged about sexual assault. This didn’t seem to deter conservative evangelicals from voting for him. Initially, I thought this was simply a matter of prioritizing certain issues like abortion, and therefore believing that Trump was the better of two bad options. However, in seeing people’s attitudes, surprisingly often this seemed not to be the case. People seemed to actually really like his presidency, rather than bemoaning that this was who the Republicans nominated. Before Twitter suspended his account, I often saw cases where he lied about his past positions. I saw shockingly little concern over this dishonesty from many corners of Christianity. It seems that suddenly the wisdom of looking for leaders of character took a back seat to party alignment, in a way that extends beyond a pragmatic decision to vote for a certain candidate. This is another example of polarization muddling people’s thinking. And it is an example of idolatry of a particular politician and party instead of trust in Jesus Christ.

A similar dynamic often happens in conversations about sexuality and Christianity. People see the LGBT community and conservative Christianity as at war with each other. This perception seems to have strengthened after Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States. Some Christians have reacted strongly not just against political movements, but against people who experience same-sex attraction or those who use certain words like “gay” or “bisexual” to describe themselves. For example, some insist we should focus on even involuntary desire as sin when it comes to same-sex attraction, but remain mostly silent against widespread acceptance of the opposite view when applied to opposite-sex attraction. Or they let debates over the word “gay” or poorly-defined notions of “identity” get in the way of having a more meaningful discussion about what we actually experience and believe. At times, some people seem incapable of understanding what those of us associated with groups like Spiritual Friendship actually believe. For example, I’ve had to respond to slanderous claims by Rosaria Butterfield. Some have acted to remove friends of mine from positions of leadership or employment due to their experiences of same-sex attraction, despite the fact that those friends were publicly defending the view that sexual activity outside of marriage between a man and a woman is sinful. In doing so, they have allowed fear and/or hatred of LGBT people to infect their attitudes even towards their brothers and sisters in Christ who share their theological beliefs.

But the danger of polarization is not limited to this group. Many of my fellow believers who find themselves attracted to the same sex react against this insensitivity by identifying strongly with the LGBT community, including its secular elements. While I think there can be helpful ways to acknowledge what we have in common, there are also serious dangers. Many of these dangers stem from seeing LGBT people as “our tribe” more so than our fellow believers. For example, in an effort to overcome shame, many of us want to figure out what aspects of our experience are actually good gifts from God rather than results of the Fall. But rather than practicing careful discernment, it is too easy to try to bless as much as we can of LGBT culture and experience. At the same time, we disregard the wisdom and appropriate caution from our fellow believers who don’t share our experience of sexuality. This can lead us to bless things that are actually sins we should put to death. And while I and others on Spiritual Friendship have repeatedly argued that using words like “gay” widely understood by our culture can be useful in some contexts, there are also real dangers with letting secular thinking about “identity” play a bigger role in our thinking than Christian reflection about our calling and status as those washed by the blood of Christ. If our thinking about our own identity is too tied to our sexual feelings, it can lead our hearts astray, especially when combined with a desire to distance ourselves from our brothers and sisters in Christ. And I’ve seen this kind of thing lead to people abandoning orthodox doctrine on sexual ethics, and in some cases the faith entirely, far too often.

A key problem with polarization that I’ve seen in all of the above cases is that polarization tends to lead to more polarization. When Christians who lean Republican see Christians who lean Democrat becoming more lax on abortion or sexual ethics, that reinforces their belief that the Democrats are evil and anti-Christian. When Christians who lean Democrat see Christians who overlook Donald Trump’s character issues, it reinforces their belief that support for Republicans is hypocritical and not based on love of neighbor. When those of us attracted to our own sex see Christians who want us to be second class citizens in the Body of Christ, we want to run in the other direction, even into error. When Christians who think we’re compromising too much see people becoming more lax towards sin or being resentful of other Christians, it makes them want to react against us more strongly. The tribe identity grows, and hatred towards the other group grows stronger.

Rather than letting error and idolatry take over either our own hearts or those of others, let’s follow the biblical wisdom I outlined above.

The answer to polarization is not more polarization. It’s not convincing people of the problems with the “other side.” It’s not even getting people to respect our own perspective. The answer to polarization is radical obedience to Jesus’s command to love even our enemies.

Do I always do this perfectly? Not at all. As I imagine is the case with pretty much everyone reading this, my attitudes towards those I disagree with are often still a struggle with sin in my life. It requires constant repentance and the help of the Holy Spirit to avoid hateful or fearful attitudes in my heart towards those who attack me and my friends.

But as the Holy Spirit has increasingly enabled me to learn to love my enemies, I’ve seen more and more wisdom in the teaching of Jesus. If I resent the person I have a disagreement with, that makes me naturally focus on how I can prove them wrong and myself right. If I have a sense of love for them, it’s much easier to recognize when they’re actually in the right about something. This helps me develop clearer judgment and increased wisdom. It makes it easier to see my own errors or those of my “tribe.” In other words, it helps me start to undo the effects of polarization in a more comprehensive way than you might think at first.

So let’s consider how to apply these biblical principles together. When we have a disagreement, start by examining our own hearts. Do we love them with a 1 Corinthians 13 sort of love? Then follow the principles of being quick to listen and slow to speak, looking for areas where ourselves or those we identify with are hypocritical or otherwise getting things wrong. As we do this, we are pursuing faithfulness to Christ rather than a particular tribe. Let’s work together to implement God’s answer to polarization, in reliance on the Holy Spirit. Only then can we heal the problems in our society and our own hearts.

Sanctification is usually not “orientation change,” but it’s still real.

One of the distinctives of the approach taken by Spiritual Friendship and others (including those typically referred to as “side B”) is a rejection of the ex-gay movement’s pursuit of change in sexual orientation. And indeed, even from the earliest days of Spiritual Friendship, we’ve warned about change in sexual orientation as often a false hope.

One of the most common objections to this viewpoint I see, especially in Reformed circles, is a claim that it is a denial of the doctrine of sanctification. In particular, they think we see “bondage to sin” as something from which there is no movement towards “freedom.”

Part of this argument comes from a belief that sexual attraction to someone of the same sex is itself sin, rather than mere temptation. Even between different members of the community of Spiritual Friendship contributors or the “side B” world, this is an area of disagreement. But I believe that we should expect sanctification whether or not we agree with this position, as we already should for heterosexual Christians. Christian sanctification involves our wills and desires approaching those ordained by Christ, however slowly and incompletely, as we practice obedience and as the Holy Spirit works inside of us.

Is this a contradiction? Wouldn’t sanctification in the area of sexual desire be a movement away from “same-sex attraction” or “being gay,” whichever language is used? Isn’t this orientation change, even if slow and incomplete?

No, it actually is not. One of the major problems in this discussion is that people are not taking the time to understand the experience of people with same-sex attraction, in order to understand how theological categories apply. In particular, I see differing understandings of phrases like “same-sex attraction” as well as what “orientation” and “sanctification” really are. And without this understanding, it cannot be clear what sanctification does look like for a person with same-sex attraction. The result can be unrealistic expectations on one end, or a lack of pursuit of real sanctification on the other.

In this post, I will describe some of the terminology and phenomena I am discussing. This will culminate in a discussion of what sanctification can and does look like. I will be primarily discussing things from my own personal perspective, but I hope it is helpful to those thinking through broader implications for others.

Same-Sex Attraction

The term “same-sex attraction” itself is actually taken to mean different things by different people. A lot of people boil it down to something along the lines of “wanting to have gay sex.” For example, the Ad Interim Committee Report on Human Sexuality from the Presbyterian Church in America failed to provide a definition for the term, but came close to a working definition in these sentences: “The desire for an illicit end—whether in sexual desire for a person of the same sex or in sexual desire disconnected from the context of Biblical marriage—is itself an illicit desire. Therefore, the experience of same-sex attraction is not morally neutral; the attraction is an expression of original or indwelling sin that must be repented of and put to death.”

The problem is that this is not how most people who experience “same-sex attraction” would define or understand the term. The earliest cases of what I now call “same-sex attraction” that I can recall were not obviously connected to sexual behavior. I just saw some particular guy and felt like there was something really appealing about him, and that I just wanted to enjoy his presence. As I went through puberty, I found that a lot of the ways my friends talked about increasing feelings for girls (and often the way I myself noticed increasing feelings for girls) also applied to feelings I was developing for other males. Not necessarily “I see that guy and I want to have sex with him” so much as “he’s really nice to look at,” or “it would be nice to get to know him and be his friend.” And it has always been intermingled with healthy desires for male friendship in complicated ways; it’s common for there to be an element of this attraction towards a new friend at the beginning of the friendship.

Furthermore, as I’ve written a bit about before, one thing I discovered in the past is that deep friendships can feel like a fulfillment of my feelings without any sexual or exclusive romantic element being involved. I personally find that, as these kind of friendships develop, desire for sex usually diminishes, rather than increases. I often find that it seems like sex is a less natural telos for my feelings than emotional forms of connection.

Now this attraction is certainly connected with a desire for illicit forms of sex. It didn’t take too long to figure out that my desires for other guys included sexual desires. Though interestingly, there’s a contrast with my sexual desires for women, where there’s an obvious physical act that I desire. The connection between heterosexual desire and procreative union is obvious. Towards men, it is more a vague desire for sexual union without a clear picture of what that would look like. So it’s clear to me the desire is not fundamentally a desire for a specific act. I would imagine things may look different for a guy with sexual experience or who has used pornography, neither of which is true of me.

To be clear, I am not arguing that my experience was clean and sinless. I’m also not saying that on the whole same-sex attraction is really a positive thing to celebrate. However, the experience we refer to as “same-sex attraction” is not precisely the same thing as a desire for illicit sex. And as such, sanctification generally has more to do with how I experience same-sex attraction, and how that experience relates to further desires, than whether or how often I experience it.

Orientation

The concept of “orientation” is not directly found in Scripture or in historic Christian creeds or confessions. And there is criticism of attempting to apply it at all, with a common argument that talking about “orientation” is finding an identity in desires for sin.

Like with “same-sex attraction,” we sometimes see confusing definitions. For example, in a recent post on the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals blog, Calvin Goligher defines the term as “an allegedly innate, unchangeable trait that makes it natural and normal for someone to engage in certain sexual practices.” Goligher does not, however, describe what this trait could possibly be. Rather, he simply makes claims about its alleged philosophical impact on sexual practices, and then makes arguments from these philosophical claims that it must be entirely in the category of “sinfulness” and thus subject to change.

Many of us, however, find the phrase useful for talking about one of the phenomenological realities of the world as it is, without making the sort of philosophical claims Goligher attributes to the term.

Much of what I wrote above about what “same-sex attraction” actually is applies here. For example, if I say that my orientation is “bisexual,” I’m referring to the fact that I often notice both attractive women and attractive men, and that this reality has not substantially changed since I was a teenager. In fact I’d go further and say that the balance of noticing men and noticing women hasn’t appreciably changed, which is what I would say is “fixed” about my orientation. I’m not saying that I’m constantly having sexual fantasies about the people around me, or that  I’d “naturally and normally” have sex with people of both sexes. I just mean that I see attractive people and feel something, and that if I let my mind and heart explore it, sexual desire is at least proximate. But as I’ll describe next, the relationship between this feeling and an actual “desire for illicit ends” (as the PCA committee report put it) is not something I see as nearly so fixed or constant.

Sanctification and “Change in Desires”

With that understanding of what is meant by terms like “same-sex attraction” and “orientation,” we are ready to discuss what sanctification does look like, in contrast to “orientation change” approaches that focus on diminishing same-sex attraction. By saying that my orientation is unlikely to change, I am not making peace with a heart that desires sin.

A necessary piece of context, I think, is what many of us who have pursued “orientation change” were after. I went through a significant time in my life when I was focused on trying to change my orientation. But this wasn’t just about “I desire to do things that God considers sin, and I want my heart to line up with his.” It was as much or more about, “I’m different from my peers, and I’m ashamed of that reality.” My goal was largely to become normal, and not to be associated with those people (gay people) that so many of my peers and fellow churgoers looked down on.

Ultimately, this focus led to disappointment, as I realized my overall pattern of initial attraction really wasn’t changing at all. But a change in focus has led to more real sanctification, including at the level of desire.

For example, it used to be that I was fairly begrudging about avoiding gay relationships and gay sex. I sort of longed to be able to have such a relationship, despite believing that I shouldn’t. Having these desires I couldn’t fulfill was at times frustrating. But over time, I’ve become more content with following God’s plan, whether in the long term that ends up meaning singleness or marriage to a woman.

This has also translated to a change in how I feel about what I’d want to do with the attractions I feel towards specific people. When it’s some random guy in public I don’t have a natural chance to get to know, it’s easier than it used to be to just ignore it and move on with life. When it’s someone I am naturally going to be spending time with or where there is a natural opportunity for friendship, I’m actually quite happy with the idea that I’ll get the chance to know him without it being some sort of exclusive commitment, and without it being a sexual relationship.

In other words, there’s a significant sense where I’ll still notice an attractive guy as I always have, but the actual desire to do something illicit with him sexually is meaningfully smaller. I would not call this “orientation change,” and I don’t think in the terminology used by our broader secular culture this makes me less “bi.” But it does mean that God is working on my heart, and that there is real change and sanctification.

I’m also coming at this conversation from the perspective of a virgin who has never used pornography. I’ve talked to enough other men (and not just same-sex attracted ones) to know that past sexual activity and pornography use both significantly influence further sexual impulses. There are kinds of sanctification that my friends who have used pornography have needed that I haven’t in the same way. And certainly many of the same dynamics apply in the case of those who have used gay pornography or had homosexual experiences, which is a further area of sanctification worth exploring and discussing.

I think one of the larger dangers in this conversation is to set up the wrong expectations for what “sanctification” looks like. I think it does genuinely lead people to believe that sanctification isn’t going to happen, which makes it easier to just accept a sinful state of the heart and desires. Whereas if we were to focus instead upon  how sanctification tends to look in the lives of people who experience same-sex attraction, we could provide hope and encouragement to pursue faithfulness instead of promoting despair.

I don’t think this is all that different from the sanctification that heterosexual people experience. At least most of the men I talk to about this sort of thing still experience attraction to women other than their wives, but as they learn to be content in their marriages, the actual desire for adultery is meaningfully smaller. No one accuses them of denying the doctrine of sanctification for expecting attraction to remain, but people would rightly object if they thought this meant they just had to remain “in bondage” to adulterous desires and had no expectation of sanctification. In short, what we are arguing is simply that Christians with same-sex attraction can and should pursue sanctification that looks similar to what everyone else experiences. Expecting sanctification to look different, and take the form of a change in sexual orientation, is unwarranted. I hope my reflection has helped to clarify what sanctification does look like. Let’s all fight the good fight.

God Loves the Broken, and We Should Too

Among those who affirm gay relationships, I often hear the argument that LGBTQ people are “not broken,” and therefore are worthy of love. One high-profile example of this is the hashtag #BornPerfect, which is used to oppose attempts to change sexual orientation. From a secular perspective, this can make some sense. However, I also see the same argument being made by those who profess to be Christians. This involves a major theological mistake, which is much more basic than sexual ethics.

Instead, we should focus on the Gospel, what it says about humanity’s shared state of brokenness and sinfulness, and how God redeems that.

The “not broken” argument does get some things right: LGBTQ people are made in the image of God, loved by God, and should be loved by others. To say otherwise is a lie from the pit of Hell. But the way it gets there is fundamentally antithetical to orthodox Christianity on several levels. Continue reading

What Does Matthew 5:28 Say about Sexual Orientation?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes how a legalistic interpretation of the law of Moses actually misses the sinfulness of common attitudes of the heart. Matthew 5:27-28 is just one example of this theme. In the ESV, this passage reads, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

The Sermon on the Mount Carl Bloch, 1890

I have often seen this passage used to argue that “same-sex attraction” or a “homosexual orientation” or something similar is a sin. Sometimes the further argument is that we shouldn’t identify with our sin by using words like “gay.”

The thing is, there are major issues with the way I usually see this argument being made. After all, the immediate context of the passage is heterosexual: a man looking at a woman lustfully. So how do people usually understand its application to heterosexual forms of sexual attraction?

Most evangelicals I’ve talked to say that there is some kind of distinction between “sexual attraction” and the “lustful intent” described in this passage. For example, they see a man’s attraction to another man’s wife as a form of temptation that may or may not cross the line into sin depending on how he handles it.

For someone who takes this kind of approach to heterosexual attraction, the passage provides no reason to take homosexual attraction any differently. It’s thus not a reason to see homosexual attraction itself as a form of sin (though like heterosexual attraction, it can lead to sinful sexual activity or lust in the heart).

On the other hand, there are some people in Reformed circles who see sexual attraction towards the wrong person as always a sin, even in a heterosexual context. From this perspective, it is straightforward to see homosexual attraction itself as a sin.

But even in this case, the way it’s used to argue that homosexual attraction is a sin doesn’t make a lot of sense. Specifically, most folks making the argument make a huge deal about homosexual desire, and see the acceptance of it as temptation rather than sin as a crisis. However, they say almost nothing about the common interpretation of adulterous heterosexual attraction as only temptation and not sin.

If viewing homosexual attraction as merely a temptation is a crisis, why is the same view of adulterous heterosexual attraction not an even larger crisis? Alternatively, if it’s good enough to find common ground because the focus is on how to resist temptation, why can the same not be said about efforts like Spiritual Friendship and Revoice? Continue reading

How to Evade the Real Issues

In the weeks following the Revoice Conference, quite a number of critical responses have focused on “identity.” The primary objection seems to be that we make being LGB into an “identity,” which isn’t a biblical way to talk. As I’ve written before, it’s not clear what our critics mean by “identity.” What exactly is the objection? Oftentimes, it just seems to be using words or phrases like “gay” or “sexual minority” in reference to ourselves; the same objections do not usually arise regarding those who use “same-sex attracted” instead.

rosariarevoice

Rosaria Butterfield claims that many of us are “not converted” and “cannot have union with Christ” because we have “made an identity” out of our sexuality. (Source)

This has always struck me as an odd way to argue, and I have wondered why ideas around “identity” and “ontology” are so frequently central to criticism of Revoice and Spiritual Friendship. I do think there are legitimate concerns surrounding identity, and in particular how we are to view ourselves as Christians. And those of us who contribute to Spiritual Friendship are fallible humans who may get these questions wrong at times. But I’ve found that at least in some cases, there is more going on than the “iron sharpens iron” discussion I would hope we can have. Continue reading

The Greatest Commandment

Jesus and Pharisees Cropped

James Tissot, “The Pharisees Question Jesus,” from the Brooklyn Museum collection. Purchased by Public Subscription.

In both the book of Romans and the book of Galatians, Paul offers some insight into the role of the Law in the life of a Christian. For example, in Romans he says,

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10, ESV)

Similarly, in Galatians, he says,

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14, ESV).

In the context of sexual ethics, these verses have long been used to argue for a revisionist view recognizing same-sex marriage as legitimate. The idea is that if we can’t see any way that affirming same-sex marriage is an affront to love of one’s neighbor, it must not be wrong. Much of the conservative response has been to try to show how same-sex marriage fails to love one’s neighbor. Continue reading

Who actually cares whether Jesus said anything about gay relationships?

In discussions on the Bible and gay relationships, a common refrain is that Jesus never said anything about the subject, so it must not have been a priority for him. There are a variety of sound conservative responses, such as pointing to the belief that all Scripture is inspired by God, not just the direct words of Jesus.

In this piece, however, I’m going to focus on a different problem with this argument: those who make it often reject the direct teaching of Jesus on sexual ethics anyway. We do have an authoritative condemnation of remarriage after divorce in most circumstances. For example, see Matthew 19:3-9.

Image result for The Bible's Yes to Same-SEx Marriage

A book making the argument discussed here

When someone points out that we don’t have a direct record of Jesus condemning gay sex, does that person accept Jesus’s teaching about divorce and remarriage? In many (if not most) cases, the answer to this question is “no.” If the person isn’t willing to accept the teaching of Jesus on other similar matters, then the point about gay sex is just a smokescreen.

Continue reading

Is the “Side B Gay Christian Movement” a Millstone?

One thing that has always struck me about Rosaria Butterfield’s story is how different it is from my own. By Butterfield’s account, she initially dated men and had a few bad experiences. She did not start to date women until her late twenties, after becoming involved in feminist academia. From her telling, it seems it was less a matter of pursuing relationships with women because she was naturally attracted to them, and more a matter of rebellion against traditional ideas. And indeed, Butterfield describes her primary sin issue as rebellion against God’s design.

Contrast this with my own story. As I’ve discussed before, I first started to realize that I was attracted to other guys around puberty, though I was in denial about it for quite a while. I was horrified and ashamed over this, because I was committed to following Christianity and never bought the revisionist arguments about sexual ethics. As a result, my primary response was to try to rid myself of my feelings for the same sex. A lot of my questions and difficulties came from the realization that my feelings just weren’t changing, despite my best efforts. I certainly had (and still have) some struggles with sin in terms of things like lustful thoughts, but I’m a virgin, and I never got into porn.

Why should we expect that the same approach that worked for Butterfield would work well in my situation?

It’s definitely true that there’s a single Gospel for all believers. Nonetheless, we usually recognize that people in different situations will need different approaches to bring this same Gospel to bear in their lives. Continue reading

A Response to Rosaria Butterfield

Many of our readers are likely familiar with Rosaria Butterfield, who has a powerful testimony being converted to Christianity while being a professor specializing in queer studies. Although I’ve had certain disagreements and frustrations with her, she had always struck me as a compassionate, honest, and fair person.

Rosaria Butterfield

For this reason, I was surprised when I recently happened upon this video of Rosaria Butterfield talking to a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) church. Starting around the 53 minute mark, she made slanderous statements about several groups near and dear to me—the PCA, Reformed University Fellowship, and Spiritual Friendship. I was surprised by the degree to which she misrepresented these groups, because I was expecting better from her.

For example, at one point Butterfield stated,

Especially today, and I know I’m speaking in a PCA church, so I understand the stakes of this, but especially today, the PCA is smitten in a stupid way, and I’m using a hard word, very stupid way, and to their shame, to the gay Christian movement, both A and B.

She also added, “RUF, I’m talking to you here.”

“A and B” refer to the “sides” of the debate on gay relationships and Christianity. This terminology was originally developed at Bridges Across the Divide and later popularized at the Gay Christian Network. Side A is the belief that the sex of the people in a sexual relationship has no bearing on the morality of the relationship, while side B (the view espoused by the writers on Spiritual Friendship) is the belief that the only appropriate context for sex is marriage between a man and a woman. Rosaria’s claim here is that both sides, including in particular the revisionist “side A,” are well-represented within PCA and RUF leadership. This is an extraordinary claim. The doctrinal statements that PCA and RUF pastors and elders uphold take the “side B” view, as Butterfield herself does.

I am fairly familiar with how the PCA is approaching sexuality. Over the past few years, I’ve been a member in good standing of two PCA churches in fairly liberal college towns (Chapel Hill, NC and Madison, WI). I’ve been close with a pastor at each church, and paid some attention to denominational politics. I’ve had a number of friends studying at Covenant Seminary. In all these settings I’ve had numerous discussions regarding sexuality.

And while I never participated at RUF as a student (having gone to a Christian university for my undergraduate work), I’ve known quite a few students and alumni from the group. Several of my friends have gone on to do RUF internships or to go on staff with RUF. And the work of RUF matters to me, to the point that RUF is second only to my local church in terms of how much money I’ve given.

My experience further solidifies my belief that Butterfield’s claim is patently false. I see no evidence that leadership of RUF and the PCA are embracing a “side A” perspective at all. Perhaps Butterfield is just talking about laypeople in the pews or students who attend RUF events, rather than leadership? But it’s not fair to the PCA or to RUF to blame them for the culture in which they’re trying to do faithful Christian ministry. Unless Butterfield can provide substantial evidence to back up her claim, her statements about RUF and the PCA amount to slander.

She also made some harsh and unfair criticism of Spiritual Friendship:

Or hey, I could go “side B” with Wesley Hill and the Spiritual Friendship gang, where I would learn that my sexual desires for women were actually sanctifiable and redeemable, making me a better friend to one and all, but for the sake of Christian tradition, I should not act on them. Well, if you haven’t figured out by now, I was raised on the wrong side of the tracks. So let me tell you right here, that telling someone like me that I am to deny deep desires because of Christian tradition is simply absurd. Christian tradition is no match for the lust of the flesh.

I think that sexual strugglers need gay Christianity and all of its attending liberal sellouts, including the side B version, like fish need bicycles, to refresh an old feminist slogan. Gay Christianity, touted as the third way for those churches and colleges, is a poor and pitiful option to give someone like me. And while some people see a world of difference between between acting on unholy desires and simply cherishing them in your heart, our Lord would say otherwise. If anger is murder and lust is adultery, then the differences that separate the factions of gay Christianity, the differences between Matthew Vines and Wes Hill, take place on a razor’s edge, not a chasm.

This represents a very serious misunderstanding of what Spiritual Friendship promotes and teaches. Spiritual Friendship has always defended the orthodox Christian teaching on sexual ethics (see here, here, here, here, and here, for a few examples).

Now I do want to acknowledge that much of Butterfield’s view is probably from this post by Wesley Hill. At least Ron Belgau and I have long had certain concerns about this and some of Wes’s other writing. Primarily, we thought it was too ripe for misinterpretation and needed more explicit theological development. We also realized it could come across to our critics as viewing temptation or sin too positively, or could encourage sloppy thinking that would actually cause some of our readers to view temptation or sin too positively. Ron has pushed back against this some and attempted to provide a more rigorous reflection on some of the issues in Wes’s “Is Being Gay Sanctifiable?” post.

To be honest, our readers really need a much fuller explanation of what we’re trying to say than can feasibly be done in this blog post. And we need to figure out within Spiritual Friendship to what degree there is agreement among the contributors. Ron and I have started discussing how to do a longer series of posts to discuss some of the questions at hand, but will want to take some time to develop it carefully. But in immediate response to this video, I want to clarify what we are not saying.

I want to be clear: we are not saying that as long as you’re not having sex, you’re fine. None of us would say that viewing pornography or entertaining lustful fantasies, for example, are morally acceptable, even if those are sins that some of us (like many other Christians) struggle with. We take seriously Jesus’s teaching that lust is adultery.

Additionally, we are not saying that desires to have sex with someone of the same sex are sanctifiable or something to be “cherished.” Wesley Hill was trying to describe aspects of his experience other than the desire for sex, and as I said, the point really demands a more rigorous explanation than he has yet provided.

Another strange notion in Butterfield’s presentation of our view is that we just pursue celibacy “because of tradition.” This isn’t really how we would describe it. We try to avoid gay sex because we believe it’s what God wants of us. The reason I haven’t pursued a sexual relationship with a male isn’t just because I want to respect tradition. It’s because I love Jesus. I believe that pursuing that kind of relationship, as with any other sin, would hurt my relationship with Christ. As a Protestant, the value of tradition for me is that it helps me understand what God has taught in Scripture. But Scripture is my ultimate authority, because it’s where I believe God has infallibly spoken.

And to deal with the sin in my own life, what I need is the Gospel, discipleship, and the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s certainly not just a matter of me doing the right thing in my own power because I trust tradition. We’re pitting the Gospel, discipleship, and the Holy Spirit, rather than tradition, against the lust of the flesh. I’m baffled why Rosaria Butterfield seems to think we claim otherwise.

I hope that Rosaria Butterfield, and anyone else who has seen the video, can come to a better understanding of where the PCA, RUF, and Spiritual Friendship stand. And I think Rosaria Butterfield owes these groups an apology for slandering them.

What is My “Identity?”

Blue Question

In discussions surrounding LGBTQ people, people often talk about “identity” or “who someone is.” For example, people might argue that it’s wrong to prevent people sexually active in gay relationships from participating in certain ministry positions because of “who they are.” On the flip side, there are Christians who argue that gay “identity” is something wrong that we must reject.

At least from my perspective as someone who has studied math and computer science, this discussion is quite confusing. When making arguments, I’m used to having clear definitions of the terms at play, or at least being able to ask for them. So for example, in mathematics the word “identity” is used in a precise sense, like “tan(x) = sin(x) / cos(x)” being an identity because it’s true for all x. But I don’t see such a precise meaning at play here.

What does it mean for something to be “who someone is?” And is that the same thing as it being their “identity?” It seems most people would say that “human” and “male” are components of my identity, but “hungry” is not. Some languages like Spanish have different words for “to be.” Are the rules for “identity” ones that would be familiar to speakers of those languages? What are the rules at play here? Continue reading