Right now, for same-sex attracted Christians in the church, there is a very important discussion going on about what terms can be used to describe one’s experience of being attracted to the same sex.
This has, most recently, been stimulated in the lead up to Revoice conference which is happening this week in St. Louis, US. A significant proportion of those presenting at the conference are same-sex attracted themselves.
There has been much criticism directed towards the conference from conservative American Christians. I would like to address some of that criticism. I can’t possibly talk to everything that has been raised over the past however-long but I’ll touch on the things that will best clarify my position on this battle of terms.
Much of the debate has been over, specifically, terms such as gay, sexual minority, LGBT, sexual orientation and sexual identity. So how about we start there?
Let me get you up to speed with some of what has been said. Here are some quotes from various critics of Revoice.
Much has been written already about the term “gay Christian.” I agree with Rosaria Butterfield (among others) who find the term deeply problematic in that (1) it makes sexual orientation an accurate and essential category of personhood, and (2) it undermines the biblical notion that a desire for something illegitimate is in itself an illegitimate desire in need of repentance and grace.
While I am grateful that so many of those on the other side of this are embracing a biblical view of marriage, I do believe that they have adopted an unbiblical view of human identity—one that treats same-sex attraction as a matter of moral indifference and homosexual orientation as an identity to be embraced.
…the language people would typically and obviously use would be to say, “Well, I’m gay.” But in my own experience that kind of language tends to be used to express, not just a description of what kind of sexual feelings you have, but it tends (to me) to be someone’s identity. It’s an indication of who you are.
The first issue here is that these comments seem to misrepresent the majority of evangelical Christians who identify as “gay”. Most of the presenters at Revoice, including the spokesman, Ron Belgau, would, in fact, say that “gay” is NOT a primary aspect of their identity. Also, nobody has claimed that same-sex sexual desires are morally neutral for the Christian. Belgau has stated, “both homosexual sex and homosexual lust are sins to be repented of. The desire for these is a temptation that must, with the assistance of God’s grace, be resisted… same-sex lust…must always be repented of and mortified.”
So, you might think, what’s the problem conservative evangelical Christians? Aren’t you all on the same page here? Apparently not.
These criticisms seem to boil down to three main points
- Christians who identify as gay are treating same-sex attraction as something of moral indifference
- Homosexual desires are illegitimate and should be repented of
- People who use the term gay are finding their identity in their broken sexuality in a way that conflicts with their identity in Christ
These are all very complicated to unpick, explain and critique. This conversation touches on some deep, central aspects of our humanity and thus we shouldn’t expect clarity and understanding to come easily. Meaning I won’t be able to express the extent of my thinking in this format. Maybe one day when I get to do formal study?
The first point of criticism is easiest to refute, let’s start there. One major reason why a conference such as Revoice exists (or this blog, for that matter) is precisely because we don’t treat our sexuality as something of moral indifference.
We’re trying to figure out how on earth we are to live in light of that.
My understanding is that most “gay Christians” think of their sexuality as something that can produce a temptation towards a moral choice that conflicts with faithful Christianity. It’s an area in which we are broken, not what ought to be and is a direct result of the fall.
But no broken, sinful person is committing a sin simply by existing with a propensity towards a particular temptation.
At the same time, to push against this language of “illegitimate desires” and “moral indifference”, I (and those presenting at Revoice) want to acknowledge that the construct of our sexuality is actually not, first and foremost, defined by sinful corruption.
Common to basically all humans is the capacity for romantic attraction and sexual desire. All humans have a desire for intimacy and biological urges that ask for fulfillment. This is a normal, healthy, image bearing quality that both heterosexual and homosexual people have in common. When language like “illegitimate” is directed at gay Christians it reads as an indiscriminate condemnation of their entire sexual construct. Though our romantic attractions are disproportionately directed towards the same sex, that does not also mean that our intrinsic desires and needs are anything less than legitimate. All the mechanisms function as they should, but, for whatever reason, they produce a disproportionate affection for the same sex. Our psychological and biological response to human beauty is a good thing that shouldn’t be quashed.
Gay, for me, is primarily, simply a short hand way of summarising the above, intricate situation.
This is not moral indifference, this is moral accuracy.
Nuance is always required when dealing with a central aspect of humanity, sexuality included. When aiming for a realistic portrayal, the finest of strokes must be used. In this way, it’s my opinion that critics of LGB terminology misstep and unwittingly dehumanise their same-sex attracted brothers and sisters.
I’ve said it before, allow me to say it again: sexuality and, more generally, personhood are extremely complicated realities. They are this way because we are made to represent an incomprehensibly vast creator.
The other way in which I feel that this nuance is unaccomplished by critics of LGBT terminology is in this important subject of identity. For most gay Christians, gay is purely a descriptor of experience rather than a rooted identity – note that it’s not capitalised. Here’s spokesman Ray Belgau again, “One of the most persistent mistakes made by critics of Spiritual Friendship [an affiliated organisation of Revoice] is the assumption that when we use any language that they don’t like (most commonly, though not limited to, the word “gay”) to describe our experiences, we are using that language to make ontological claims.”
Gay is a descriptor of experience (not necessarily active sexual experience).
But you know what? I do also claim gay as an identifier of who I am. Sam Allberry in the above quote is right – that is how I’m using the term. I have several reasons why.
Having a gay orientation has shaped EVERY SINGLE RELATIONSHIP that I’ve ever had, with both men and women, and not in a negative way in most cases. In my relationships with other men there is a sense of otherness, an awareness of pressures and boundaries that straight men don’t feel in relation to each other. In my relationships with women those pressures are at least partly removed which allows for, potentially, greater solidarity and closeness without overstepping boundaries.
Secondly, having a gay orientation has allowed for a contribution to the Church that wouldn’t have existed if this wasn’t my lot in life. I’m always a little surprised that Sam Allberry doesn’t want to accept that his sexuality has formed his identity in an important way. I mean, the guy spends a great deal of time travelling, speaking explicitly, empathetically and specifically on the topics of same-sex attraction and celibacy. Being same-sex attracted has meant for Sam (and for me and others) a vocation, a somewhat specialised platform from which to explain one outworking of the gospel. It has meant a pastoral insight that is of great value to the Church in our current times.
I’ll explain a little more about the importance of this identification in part 2. Meanwhile, do you see why this might go deeper than simple description?
If something so significantly shapes my relationships, my view of myself, my work, my service then how can that NOT be a matter of identity?
At least, identity in as far as I understand it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not so wedded to the term that I would feel as though I were suppressing my “true, authentic self” if I weren’t to use it. I get that the term isn’t perfect and comes with risks. I also understand that most important to the Christian is an identity found in Christ. Nobody in this debate argues otherwise. But the difference seems to lay in how a Christian should consider the other parts of what defines them.
Being “in Christ” (as goes the biblical phrase) doesn’t mean erasure of other facets of identity, it means the redemption of them and the proper prioritising of them. It also means we are free to use any man-made classification of identity, including LGBT+, for the purposes of advancing the Gospel, precisely because we are liberated from the centrality that they might claim in the secular mind.
For me, “gay” captures the complex reality of image bearing, sexuality and fallenness. It’s nomenclature that does justice to the redemption of brokenness and weakness that God brings about for His glory and the benefit of the Church. It testifies to our state of being washed while still waiting for the culmination of God’s plans for us.