Gay Christianity: Toward a Theological and Pastoral Response

The very helpful article by Julie Roys for WORLD magazine has offered a fresh opportunity to clarify the muddled evangelical conversation over “gay Christianity.” Yesterday I responded briefly to the blog of a Wheaton chaplain. Today I want to push further on this matter in order to try and move the discussion ahead. My particular interest is pastoral, for this is where all the theological issues come to a point.

Here are ten points that I hope can move us ahead in some small way.

1. The commitment to sexual chastity on the part of many “gay Christians” is biblical, laudable, and encouraging. I’m so thankful that folks like Julie Rodgers and Wesley Hill have embraced the gospel and turned away from sin. This is no small thing. It gladdens my heart and showcases the power of redeeming grace. Praise God for that!

2. We need more definitional clarity in our terms. This is clear in online engagement over these issues. Here is a working list of a few of the most important terms.

Orientation: the desires that, according to the American Psychological Association, cluster into a pattern, even an identity. If we are considering homosexual orientation, then as I said yesterday, we are considering a pattern of desires oriented toward an end, a telos, that is described in the Bible in sinful terms. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Temptation: a temptation is an opportunity presented to us for sin. Temptations, in point of fact, do not always involve sin on our part. Sometimes, something pops up in our daily life–a disgusting sexual advertisement, for example–that we did not ask for and that we do not countenance. Jesus was tempted in every way, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). What an encouragement this is to us. It means that all the power Jesus possessed over sin and suffering, we possess over sin through the indwelling Spirit, given us through union with Christ. This is awesome, world-overcoming stuff.

Desire: our desires constitute what we want. Here’s where we must step very carefully. It is true that Jesus was tempted by sin but without it. But Jesus was not a fallen man. He was not sinful, right? He never committed a sin, and he never wanted to commit a sin. This is where we see the clearest difference between Christ and us. He never desired sin; we regularly desire it. Denny Burk has said it like this: Jesus was tempted externally, but we are tempted not only externally but internally.

In other words, our desires are corrupted by the fall. Jesus’ desires were not corrupted by the fall. But Jesus experienced the effects of the fall by living in a world that externally placed temptations in his path. We face this predicament, but our state in Adam is much worse. Sin is not only outside us (bad ads on the web, debauched movies beckoning to us on Netflix), but inside us. This is the major contribution made by Augustinian, Reformed, and Protestant theology on the subject of hamartiology (our doctrine of human depravity). Sin is not only external, and the act of a positive, conscious choice. Sin is inside us. We carry a monster in our heart.

3. If that was bad news (if true news), here’s the very good news: the power of the cross is such that we Christians can resist sin both internally and externally. Grace has triumphed in our heart. The cross of Christ has broken the reign of Satan in our affections. We are crucified with Christ, and we are a new man with a new nature to such an extent that we can by rights be called a new creation (see Romans 6:6; 8:16; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 2 Corinthians 5:17).  This means that though we still have the instinct and ability to sin post-conversion, we are never left without power to overcome sin.

To use Jonathan Edwards’s language, we now have the power to choose the contrary. We once did not; our desires ran in one direction–toward hell. Now, in Christ, our desires run toward heaven. We have new desires that are stronger–and that become ever stronger thanks to sanctification–than sinful desires. So, when we are faced with the opportunity to lust after someone innately attractive to us, we can resist. When an ad pops up online, we can overcome it. In these and 10,000 other ways, we can resist sin.

So this means that being tempted is most assuredly not the same thing as sinning. If we struggle with SSA and are presented with a chance to sin by sexually desiring someone of the same sex, but resist that desire, then we give great glory to God. We are tempted, but in a James 1 way, we do not capitulate. By the Spirit’s power, we turn away from sin and instead choose holiness.

Let no one think, then that to be tempted is to be sinful. This is most assuredly not true. By God’s grace, we can, do, and will overcome temptation, not allowing sin to form a desire within us for it. But it is true that temptations do lead us to desire their object, and that is when sin happens. (Updated)

4. Our desires being new means that, though sin is still in us, we cannot ground our identity in anything immoral. This is why it is so important that we not identify as “gay Christians” or “alcoholic Christians” or “pedophilic Christians.” It’s not that we aren’t tempted until the end of our days by sin. We surely are–all of us. The fall has disordered us all. We are a new man, but we must fight sin. But this is key: we are a new man. As Paul says in that hugely important section in 1 Corinthians 6: Such were some of you. This is very nearly the most important sentence in Scripture for the entire matter at hand. Such were some of you.

The context here matters, right? The Corinthians were not living gilded lives. They were morally compromised, falling prey to the temptations of a pagan, sexually-charged culture. Yet it was these very believers, struggling as they were, that Paul pronounced transformed. You used to find your identity and joy in homosexuality, stealing, gluttony, and adultery, Paul says. But that’s not who you are. You are changed.

We cannot undersell this text, as we are sorely tempted to do today. It is formative. We might be tempted internally and externally to sin. But that’s not who we are. That is not our identity. We have overcome our sinful identities because of Christ crucified and risen. If this is not true, if Christianity is not transformative, then the gospel is just spiritual Tylenol. We swallow it on a daily basis to feel a little better, but it offers no long-term aid. It cannot heal. It cannot renew. But this is not what the gospel is. It is the word of life that brings out the obedience of faith.

5. Being “gay” is nothing other than feeling a pattern of desires for homosexual activity. This is what it means to be a gay or a lesbian. You are attracted to the same sex. Being gay is not wanting friendship with the same sex; it is not having a powerful interest in companionship that is non-sexual in nature. Being “gay” is by definition attractional. It means that you experience same-sex attraction (SSA) and want to commit homosexual acts.

There are many other components to people who experience such attractions. They might like literature, they might love close friendship, they might yearn for spiritual intimacy, they might enjoy mountain-climbing, they might love great coffee, they might prefer classic rock, they might have a strong desire to travel the world. Like all people, believers with SSA have myriad interests. They are people. They are not a different species. Their “gayness,” however, has nothing to do with such interests. It has everything to do with experiencing same-sex attraction.

It is nonsensical to say, in other words, that a person is “gay” but doesn’t mean by such a designation anything about sexual desire or practice. If same-sex attraction is sinful, and the Bible says from numerous texts that it is, then this means in turn that being “gay” is not morally neutral. One is only gay if one experiences same-sex attraction. SSA is evil. Like heterosexual lust, drunkenness, jealousy, and 1,000 other sins, it is a result of the fall.

6. This means that celibacy is biblical, but also that we must not embrace a sinful orientation. Working off of the previous point, there is no sense in which the Bible gives us moral capital to a) renounce homosexual acts but b) retain a gay identity. If you renounce homosexual acts, seeing them in scriptural terms as sinful, you are by necessity and nature renouncing any sense of identity grounded in homosexual acts or SSA.

I don’t think I can put it any clearer than this. You cannot logically or biblically have A but not B. The biblical ordering of the renunciation of homosexuality, as with all sinful patterns of desire, is this: a) you renounce homosexual acts and b) renounce any identity grounded in such acts. So, to use a different temptation: a) you renounce pedophilia, and b) you renounce any identity grounded in pedophilia. Another example: a) you renounce bestiality (on the rise in our paganized culture, by the way) and b) you renounce any identity grounded in bestiality. You are not a bestial Christian in Christ. You are a new creation.

There is nothing about a perverse attraction to animals that informs your love for them. Bestiality, like pedophilia, like heterosexual lust, like drunkenness, is the distortion of God’s good gifts. There is nothing about it that helps us, enlightens us, or blesses us.

7. When we transpose this to heterosexuality, we must be clear that heterosexual attraction is God’s original design for men and women. I do not enfranchise reparative therapy. But we must not lose sight of the fact that God’s creational order is one man and one woman bound in covenant marriage. Not every person is called to this state. But this is God’s design for human sexuality. There is no other context in which we are enfranchised to act sexually.

Heterosexual attraction is not inherently flawed, then. It is God-glorifying and God-honoring. It is God’s gift, and it drives many–most–of us toward marriage. We never want to lose sight of this, minimize it, or underplay the possibility that any person of any background might discover joy in heterosexuality. But if heterosexual attraction is not inherently flawed, it is corrupted by the fall. By this I mean that alongside virtuous heterosexual desires, many–most–of us experience immoral heterosexual desires. Heterosexuality, therefore, is not inherently flawed in the way that homosexuality. Heterosexuality has been influenced by the fall, however.

8. But here we must be careful: attraction or interest is not the same thing as sinful desire. It is right for a man to want one-flesh union with a woman, and vice versa. But there is only person with whom such love may be consummated (Genesis 2: Matthew 19:3-6). All who are not our spouse, therefore, must be treated like a brother or a sister. We might be oriented to be attracted to the opposite sex (this is God’s creational purpose, after all), but this does not mean that we desire in an actional way all women. In fact, regeneration means that we actively fight our desire for all members of the opposite sex who are not our spouse.

So here we see the distinction that must be drawn between heterosexual attraction or interest and homosexual attraction or interest. Heterosexual interest is God-glorifying. It is right in terms of God’s creational purposes for men, in general, to have an interest in women–to be drawn to them in some way. This interest must be bounded, though, by Paul’s admonition to treat all non-spousal members of the opposite sex as “sisters” or brothers with absolute purity (1 Timothy 5:2). So there is an appropriate outlet for heterosexual interest, which is not necessarily wrong but must be directed toward a God-glorifying end.

Heterosexual attraction or interest is not by nature wrong. But when we cross over the “treat women or men as sisters or brothers” line, then such morally praiseworthy interest has become sinful. A man may find his sister pretty, for example, but he is never able to sexually desire her. The same is not true for homosexual interest; there is nothing creationally right about it. The woman was made for the man, as Genesis 2:18 shows. There is no appropriate outlet for homosexual interest. It is not morally praiseworthy by its nature. A man who desires another man, for example, is morally complicit. Of course, a man might find another man to be handsome, but this is not the same thing as desiring him; it is by definition not SSA or “gayness.” The presence of desire, which is the very nature of SSA and “gayness,” indicates that we have crossed the line into sinful behavior.

9. In pastoral practice, we must make clear that the experience of SSA is an occasion for repentance, even as the experience of heterosexual lust is an occasion for repentance. We must also make clear that the gospel renews and transforms us. Some believers who experience SSA will find that they have the desire to be married to the opposite sex; others will find that they do not have such a desire. But both groups have left behind their sinful ways and identities.

We’re not trying to convince all people with SSA to be married. We are working to help them and all other members of Christ’s church to overcome temptation, both internal and external. There is no hierarchy of sinners in the family of God. We are all perverse, corrupt, and lost in Adam. Every last one of us. We all need Jesus equally, and in him, we are all made new. We are one new man with a new nature such that we are in reality a new creation.

10. All of the foregoing speaks to the importance of understanding complementarity. God created the woman for the man, as Genesis 2 makes clear. The sexes are made to image God together. Man was not made for man; woman was not made for woman. The union of a man and a woman, the New Testament reveals, is not only creationally right, but pictures the love of Christ for his church (Ephesians 5:22-33). Every Christian who upholds the uniqueness of manhood and womanhood and the goodness of marriage, then, is by necessity a complementarian. You can’t escape it–much as some might like to!

Even if we are single all our lives, we are a part of a complementarian relationship that reaches into the cosmos. And on this earth, if single, we do not remake human sexuality as designed by God. By being a single man or a single woman and not giving in to the sin of homosexual desire or practice, we display the complementarity of the sexes. We are a man, and if not bound to a woman, then we are single to the glory of Christ. We are a woman, and if not bound to a man, then we are single to the glory of Christ. Even without a spouse, we live as a complementarian, respecting the boundaries of our manhood and womanhood, finding delight in being a man or a woman. This is not a lesser call. Finding one’s identity in God’s creational design is a matter of worship and doxology, whether married or single.

Joyfully living for God, then, as a man or a woman is itself deeply honoring to our Creator and Redeemer. Pursuing Christ is the call of every believer. Some do so as a single person, others in marriage. All of us must remember, foundationally, two key principles: who we were designed to be, and who we have become in Jesus.