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.

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

An Important Translation Issue

An important passage* in the 1986 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons was translated into English as follows:

The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation. Every one living on the face of the earth has personal problems and difficulties, but challenges to growth, strengths, talents and gifts as well. Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life. (§16)

The official text of the Letter is in Latin, promulgated in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (79 [1987], pp. 543-554). In the Latin text, there is a word—unice, often translated as ‘only’—which is missing from the English translation. Thus, a more accurate translation of the last sentence would be:

Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person only as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.

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True and False Friendship

Suzzallo Library - University of Washington

I saw the Graduate Reading Room in the Suzzallo Library for the first time during freshman orientation at the University of Washington—just a few hours before the fateful party where Jason and I discovered our mutual love of planes. As it turned out, the reading room has proven a happier and longer-lived companion.

The reading room has always been a kind of academic cloister for me. As an undergraduate in the mid nineties, I had no cell phone, no laptop, no WiFi internet access. Once I settled into one of the comfortable armchairs at the end of the reading room, I was almost cut off from the outside world, left alone with my thoughts and my books.

The architecture called to mind the great halls of Europe’s castles and sanctuaries of Europe’s cathedrals. It was easier to conjure up the past there than it was in the more utilitarian modern spaces of the libraries at Saint Louis University and the University of Notre Dame. I could feel people, places, and events come alive as I read there, in a way that they did not in my dorm room or a coffee shop or in the the fluorescent glare of the Hesburgh Library.

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Is Adultery Natural?

From time to time, I see conservative Christians argue that homosexual acts are significantly worse than other forms of sexual sin—like fornication or adultery—because at least those other sins are “natural.” Often the same argument is applied even at the level of temptation: temptation toward homosexual sin is worse than temptation toward heterosexual sin. (For example, Matt Moore recently made such an argument, despite arguing that it not sinful simply to experience temptation.) This argument seems to be based on an exaggerated conclusion from Paul’s use of the phrase “contrary to nature” in Romans 1:26-27.

William Dyce, "Francesca da Rimini." Based on the story of Paulo and Francesca in Canto V of Dante's Inferno.

William Dyce, “Francesca da Rimini.” Based on the story of Paulo and Francesca in Canto V of Dante’s Inferno.

In order to evaluate this argument, it’s important to understand what makes something “natural” and what makes it “contrary to nature.” From a Christian perspective, this must come down to God’s intent when He created the world. Something is “natural” if it is in line with God’s created order, and “contrary to nature” if it rejects some part of that order.

Some people’s contention seems to be that the description of homosexual practice as “contrary to nature” is intended to set homosexual practice apart from other sins. However, I don’t think that Paul would describe as “natural” the more general “lust” and “impurity” in Romans 1:24, the idolatry in Romans 1:25, the various vices in Romans 1:29-30, or the judgment discussed at the start of Romans 2. And in the other passages where Paul addresses homosexuality, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11, he includes it on a list with several other sins, including generic “sexual immorality.” Romans 1 is the only case where Paul singles out homosexuality as “contrary to nature,” but he does not say that it is unique in that category even there.

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True Fulfillment

During my conversation with Julie Rodgers at City Church last weekend, the moderator voiced a question that our friend Tim Otto had posed. If people like me are celebrating committed spiritual friendships, is there any good reason to think that that vision couldn’t include sex for gay couples? In other words, if I’m celebrating spiritual friendship so intensely, why not also celebrate the physical consummation of that love in committed same-sex partnerships? Here’s how Tim put it in his review of my book a while ago:

[I]f Wesley is encouraging people of the same sex to “go all the way” in spiritual, emotional, and intellectual ways, why not “go all the way” with the body as well?…

I’m curious as to how Wesley would respond to concerns that by singling out physical intimacy as wrong, his proposal is dualist or even gnostic.

Tim’s question, I think, is in some ways a deepening of Julie’s. Why should “Side B” be a part of what we’re all about here at SF, and, perhaps more poignantly, isn’t “Side B”—i.e., asking gay Christians to refrain from gay sex in faithfulness to Scriptural teaching—potentially curtailing many rich forms of friendship that gay Christians may be called to?

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Some Clarifications Regarding Sexual Orientation and Spiritual Friendship

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.

School of Athens

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.

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Same-Sex Attraction in Real Life

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).

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Wait a Minute, A Mixed What?

Mike AllenMike Allen lives with his wife and daughter in Shanghai, China, where he teaches English at a private Chinese school. He volunteers with an international youth group, and he blogs in his spare time about faith, sexuality, and life as an expat in China at Adventure in Shanghai.

To most people most of the time, I’m just married. They see me with my wife and daughter, and just see a normal family. Every so often, however, I mention that I’m in a mixed orientation marriage. Then, the response is usually something like, “Wait a minute, a mixed what?” accompanied by a befuddled gaze. I elaborate, and the person then stumbles awkwardly through the conversation, asking in several different ways if, by that, I mean that although I’m married to a woman, I am gay. Once I’ve confirmed that they’ve understood correctly, the befuddled gaze doesn’t always go away.

It’s hard enough for many people to get past the gay-and-Christian part, let alone the gay-and-married-to-a-woman bit. Most people just don’t have a category in their minds for something like this. How in the world can a marriage even exist under such circumstances? Why would either party want it to? Upon what is such a marriage built?

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