We’ve been around “the ‘gay’ identity label” block so many times before — see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here — but I had a conversation this week that made me wonder if one more post just may be worthwhile.
The basic question is this: Should Christians who experience sexual and romantic desire for members of the same sex, and who want to live chastely in accord with biblical and traditional Christian teaching, describe themselves with identity labels like “lesbian,” “gay,” or “bi”?
The Bible knows nothing of the concept of “sexual orientation” — so no-one is ever referred to in the Bible as being gay, lesbian, straight, or bisexual. God’s word speaks only of sexual practices, i.e., those which are pleasing to God (sex within marriage, which is between one man and one woman) and those which are not (all other sex, whatever the context). I now have a new identity, one which is based not on who I’m sexually attracted to, but rooted in my most important relationship of all, that is my relationship with Jesus Christ…. “If anyone is in Christ,” writes the Apostle Paul to Christians in Corinth, where some had been converted to faith in Christ from a background of same-sex practice, “he is a new creation; the old has gone the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). For me, part of the “old” that “has gone” is this idea of identifying myself and describing myself according to my sexual attractions. If I were to hold on to that label “gay”, as if it’s somehow intrinsic to who I am now, then by denying myself a same-sex relationship it would feel as if I’d be denying who I really am (an accusation some of my gay friends already level at me). If my true identity is in Christ, however, then denying myself a same-sex relationship seems like a much more positive outworking of my commitment to follow Jesus Christ and to put him first in my life.
I don’t want to rehash my case for a Yes answer — you can follow the links above if you want to see some examples of such a case. Instead, I want to ask you, dear readers, about a different reason entirely for answering the question in the negative.
Today’s Office of Readings includes a meditation from St. Augustine on Jesus’ saying that “No one can come to me, unless the Father draw him” (John 6:44). Augustine thinks that we are not drawn to God by necessity or under compulsion, but by love, even by desire: “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
Augustine reminds his readers of how lavishly the Scripture appeals to our sense of delight: “How precious is thy steadfast love, O God! The children of men take refuge in the shadow of thy wings. They feast on the abundance of thy house, and thou givest them drink from the river of thy delights. For with thee is the fountain of life; in thy light do we see light” (Psalm 36:7-9).
And this of course echoes what may be his most famous saying, found in the Confessions: “You have made us for Yourself, oh God, and our hearts are ever restless until they find rest in You.” The Confessions are an extended meditation on desire, on the many false objects of desire that Augustine pursued until he discovered that they could not truly satisfy the desire of his heart.
In January of this past year, the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity (ISSI), under the leadership of Dr. Olya Zaporozhets and Dr. Mark Yarhouse, conducted a study concerning psychological factors and the spirituality of celibate gay Christians that relate to the wellbeing of “Side” B gay Christians. One of the student members of ISSI, Christine Baker, recently completed the analysis and write-up of the collected data in her dissertation, which is entitled, “Attachment, Well-Being, Distress, and Spirituality in Celibate Gay Christians”. We would like to first begin by expressing our gratitude to everyone who participated in the study. We are thankful for your time as it is very valuable, especially in such a busy world. We, therefore, truly want to thank you all for taking the time to complete the survey. We would also like to provide you all with a short summary of the results, as part of the debriefing process and in appreciation for the contribution to the research you all provided through your participation.
One of the most prominent arguments for the so-called “full inclusion” of LGBTQ people in the church is the analogy of the early church’s inclusion of Gentiles as Gentiles. In the book of Acts and in the Epistles in the New Testament, Gentile people—despite their ongoing violation of the clear biblical command for those in the covenant family of Abraham to be circumcised—were welcomed and affirmed in the church precisely in their uncircumcised state. In Christ, as St. Paul says, Abraham became “the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them” (Romans 4:11). Likewise—so the argument goes—LGBTQ people today, despite their ongoing violation of supposedly clear biblical precedent, are also included precisely as sexual minorities. They don’t need to “become straight” (always a losing battle) or give up having sex with a partner of the same sex in order to be full-fledged members in good standing in Christ’s church.
As Lent moves rapidly towards its close, I’ve been trying (and mostly failing) to make space in my life for some more meditative reading, and right now I’m inching through Frances Young’s God’s Presence: A Contemporary Recapitulation of Early Christianity. It’s a remarkably unclassifiable book, as Young weaves her work in Patristics (the study of the church Fathers) together with personal, pastoral reflections, largely revolving around her disabled son Arthur. Today this passage struck me in an especially forceful way:
Arthur’s limited experience, limited above all in ability to process the world external to himself, is a crucial element in who he is, in his real personhood. An ultimate destiny in which he was suddenly ‘perfected’ (whatever that might mean) is inconceivable—for he would no longer be Arthur but some other person. His limited embodied self is what exists, and what will be must be in continuity with that. There will also be discontinuities—the promise of resurrection is the transcendence of our mortal ‘flesh and blood’ state. So there’s hope for transformation of this life’s limitations and vulnerabilities, of someone like Arthur receiving greater gifts while truly remaining himself. Perhaps the transformation to be hoped for is less intellectual or physical advance and more the kind of thing anticipated in the present when the fruits of the Spirit are realized in relationships.
Not only am I intrinsically interested in what Young says here—in disability and resurrection theology—but I also can’t help but be struck by how this relates to my situation as a gay, celibate Christian believer. As readers of this blog know, I (and others) sometimes reach for the metaphor of disability as way of thinking about our sexual orientations. In my book Washed and Waiting I used the metaphor of “healing” to describe how I thought my sexuality would be transformed when Christ returns. In my chapter on Nouwen, I wrote, “I expect to stand with Henri Nouwen at the resurrection and marvel that neither of us is homosexual anymore.”
Well, here we are, talking about labels and identity. Again.
[throws taupe confetti in the air]
Among those who think people shouldn’t describe themselves as ‘gay’, the most common objection is that it intrinsically compromises one’s core identity as a Christian (or, in some cases, as a man or woman). The supporting claims are varied and come from a few different directions, but near their center is a belief that saying ‘gay’ identifies one too closely with one’s sexuality or certain possible sins.
The thing is, those of us who are fine with using ‘gay’ as a social label are similarly concerned by the way many people’s self-perception, regardless of orientation, is dominated by their sexuality. The difference, of course, is that as far as we can tell it is this obsession over language and labels that is one of the primary causes of this myopia in churches.
I never feel more defined by my sexuality than when Christians obsess over how I sometimes describe myself. In my current communities, where people are pretty chill and understand how and why I occasionally describe myself as gay, I find my self-perception has much more balance and integrity; I feel like a whole person with various facets held together by my relationship with God rather than any one particular label. Thus I don’t only find the fervent ‘don’t say gay’ movement socially harmful and theologically errant but also practically self-defeating.
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.
The great evangelical preacher Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “You can be so interested in great theological and intellectual and philosophical problems that you tend to forget that you are going to die.” At the heart of this admonition is, I think, a reminder that ideas and issues and controversies are only relevant as they relate to people, human beings with real lives and real souls.
Nowhere is this reminder more needed in our day than within the Christian conversation regarding same-sex attraction and homosexuality. It is so easy to discuss the “issue” of homosexuality in our culture while forgetting that gay people aren’t simply an “issue” to be sorted out. Furthermore, when we quarantine the conversation to the theoretical realm divorced from the lived experience of folks with SSA, the conversation inevitably becomes blurry, ambiguous, lacking in clarity. This is no knock on philosophy or theory; these things are needed and helpful. But pushing our musings from the realm of hypothetical reflection toward concrete examples of everyday life tends to blow away the haze and bring the fuzzy corners into focus.
Therefore, I want to take many of the ideas often discussed here at Spiritual Friendship and apply them to a real person: me. In doing so, I am not claiming that I have everything figured out or especially that I am representing the views of everyone who writes for Spiritual Friendship. I simply know my own experience best, and my hope is that this exercise will help clear up a lot of what I am and am not saying about SSA.
For this example, I will use a composite of many of my real friendships and combine them into one specific story. That story is about my friendship with Rick (fake name, real experiences).
“The demand for an identity, and the injunction to break that identity, both feel, in the same way, abusive.” — Michel Foucault.
From 1979 to 2000 John Shelby Spong was Bishop of Newark in the Episcopal Church. Spong denied that Jesus is the sole savior of humankind and rejected the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. Rubbishing traditional modes of belief in God’s existence, he once claimed that “theism, as a way of defining God, is dead.” Spong was a noted social liberal who affirmed the equal legitimacy of homosexual relationships, though he was not himself gay.
In 2003, Gene Robinson, who is gay, was consecrated Bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson’s consecration precipitated a schism in the Episcopal Church. Why, we might ask, was it Robinson’s consecration, and not Spong’s, that precipitated a schism?
Take another case: In Minnesota last year Catholic school teacher Kristen Ostendorf was allegedly asked to resign after she came out to her colleagues as a lesbian. After refusing to resign, Ostendorf was fired for an “unspecified reason.” Ostendorf’s case followed fast on the heels of the resignation of Bill Hudson—President of another Minnesota Catholic school—after he admitted to being in a same-sex relationship. Elsewhere in Minnesota, at least one Catholic parish appears to be celebrating non-Christian rituals, blessing stones which are claimed to be the bones of the “Earth Mother.” I don’t want to start a discussion about the politics of liturgical inculturation. But its worth asking why Catholic authorities in Minnesota appear much more anxious to remove homosexuals from positions of influence than priests who practice what seems to be a form of paganism (since I cannot imagine that the Archdiocese is keen on either).
Cases like these can be multiplied ad nauseam. It would be easy to posit simple hypocrisy as the explanation. Too easy, in fact. Something more insidious and complex is at play.