In the last week, I have been thinking and conversing about the topic of “gay Christianity.” In reading the thoughtful reflections of a number of fellow believers, I’ve realized that the possibility of finding common ground between those who have advocated for “gay Christianity” and those who do not may be greater than we might initially think.
Here are several reflections that I hope can in some small way foster further conversation and, ultimately, unity in Christ.
1. Homosexual sexual acts are wrong. They are sinful. This both sides already agree on. The very idea of being a “celibate gay Christian” signals agreement with this point. I’m thankful for this. Already, the two sides are united in a crucial biblical conviction.
2. Same-sex sexual desire is wrong. If it is wrong to commit an act, it is wrong to desire that act. The Augustinian term for this is “concupiscence.” The Protestant tradition, following Augustine, has called on believers to repent not only of sinful acts, but sinful desires. We think of James 1 on this topic:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:13-15)
We note the language describing desire here. We have sinned when it has “lured and enticed” us; Doug Moo notes that James speaks here of “fleshly, illicit desire” (The Letter of James, 74). We see here that our desires are not neutral. They are either good or bad. James is describing the inner workings of sin in the above passage, and he makes clear that bad desires produce bad outcomes. There’s no other way to slice it.
When we sin, it’s not as follows:
neutral inclination ——> sin ——> death.
evil desire ———–> sin ———–> death.
The experience of desire for sinful things means that we must confess the sinfulness of such desires and repent of them before a holy God. This implicates all of us; we all are much more sinful than our Pelagian hearts, which yearn to self-justify by locating sin only in conscious choices, would like to admit. The heart is desperately wicked, Jeremiah tells us, and even after our redemption, it still gives into wickedness (Jeremiah 17:9).
Whatever our proclivities, we are more sinful than we would like to admit. Speaking personally, studying this issue has opened my eyes to see how my own heart is more desirous of sin than I might trick myself into thinking. The gospel saves us, but it also creates a lifelong cycle of repentance. Contrary to our pleasing fictions, it reveals on a day-by-day basis that we are worse than we know–but that Christ is greater than we often feel.
3. Desire and temptation are not the same thing, but both must be resisted. Our fight against sin and temptation is twofold: 1) We pray to resist the temptation to sin (Matthew 6:13) and 2) we pray for the renewal of our desires, as Paul says in Philippians 2:13: “[I]t is God who works in you, both to will (Grk. thelein, which can also mean “to desire”–see Rom. 7:18; 2 Cor. 8:10-11, e. g.) and to work for his good pleasure.” In other words, as regenerate people, the Lord gives us both the desire for holy living and the power to live this desire out such that it becomes action.
Because of texts like Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:26-27, the foregoing means that it is immoral for a man to desire another man, or a woman to desire another woman, in a sexual way. If desire wells up in us for such sin, we must repent and resist it. If temptation presents itself to us, we must turn away from it. But this is not true of some of us–those with SSA–but all of us.
Many young Christian men, for example, find themselves trapped in heterosexual lust. They are struggling mightily. They face both temptation and desire, and we must make the distinction clear. Consider this all-t00-real scenario: a young man is doing research on General George Patton. In the course of his innocent research on Patton, a pop-up ad with a sexually explicit image pops up. He immediately, with discipline borne of prayer and Bible study and fellowship, closes it. He doesn’t dwell on it or return to it. This is clearly an example of external temptation. When resisted, the experience of it requires no repentance.
Let’s think about a different scenario. A young man pulls out his iPhone. He feels a desire to lust. He starts searching on his browser for pornographic images. Midway through his search, before he’s seen anything evil, he stops. He puts his phone away. This is a James 1:13-15 situation. Even though his actions did not eventuate in viewing of pornography, his desires were still for evil things. He was right to stop searching for a bad image. But this is not the end of the matter. He allowed his desires to tempt him. He needs to repent, in other words, of desiring to lust.
So it is for any Christian with any proclivity to sin. We face both of these scenarios on a daily basis. Sin is inside us, and it is outside of us. Sometimes, and increasingly as God sanctifies us, we flee from it. Other times, we allow our desires to lead us into sin. This is true of straight believers, and it is true of believers with SSA.
(The preceding, by the way, explains Jesus. He was tempted in every way, like the first scenario. But he never desired in himself to lust, as in the second. Recognizing this does not divide Jesus. It explains Hebrews 4:15 and his experience of temptation while doing justice to his identity as the Son of God who cannot be tempted with evil in the James 1 sense spelled out above.)
4. There are some aspects common to the experience of “gay Christians” that are disconnected from sin. It may be that some who experience same-sex attraction are not drawn to the opposite sex. They find themselves wanting same-sex friendship in an unusually strong way. If a woman desires deep and rich friendship with other women, for example, this is a good thing. The desire for same-sex companionship is a gift of God.
If believers who experience SSA want to form these relationships, the church should support them in their pursuit. To the extent that Wesley Hill, Ron Belgau, and Julie Rodgers describe this experience, they and others should hear me as emphatically not condemning such a trait. This interest in same-sex emotional companionship is morally healthy. The church should warmly encourage it.
5. All believers can resist a personal identity grounded in sex. Christians with SSA are tempted to ground their identity in sex, just as we all are today. We all live in a sexualized culture. It often celebrates everything but holiness, chastity, and marriage. In its perverse logic, it renders sinful things delightful and makes holy things boring and even perverse. It whispers to us to find our identity in our lusts. As Sam Allberry has powerfully said, this brainwashing is “appalling.”
Sex owes to the kindness and creativity of God. It is good, not perverse. But like all God’s gifts, it can be twisted. So it is in our day. In such a time, believers must be a counter-culture, one that is not squeamish about sex but that steadfastly and straightforwardly resists any identity owing to sexual proclivity. The most important thing about any of us is that we are redeemed, and that we now consciously seek to image God in all that we do. If we are called to marriage, then we have an appropriate outlet for sexual interest.
Whether single or married, we are not fundamentally a sexual people, but a spiritual people, the bride of Christ.
6. The church knows the hope of transformation. Whether tempted by heterosexual or homosexual lust, the church must not fall into the trap of finding its identity in sexuality. A sexualized culture that is drunk on its desires wants us to do so. But the church must be the true culture. Every time we deny our sinful desires, every time we choose holiness over gratification, we are preaching a truer and better word than the world, and we are offering hope to it.
We don’t just believe in behavior change with a gospel patina. We are the people who dare to see how depraved we are. We can’t edit this reality; we can’t downplay it. This isn’t negative thinking or condemnation; it’s just biblical truth (Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:10-18). We don’t need a tune-up, we need to come back to life. We dare to believe in this. We dare to believe in radical transformation. We see how powerful Jesus is. In Christ, we are born again. The change in our person is so dramatic that it is as if we have entered the world a second time.
When the church fails to preach that the gospel overcomes our acts but also our desires, it diminishes the power of Christ’s cross. This we must not do. By the Holy Spirit given us by God, and only by the Spirit, we can both will and do of his good pleasure. We can thelein, and we can ergein, if you’ll forgive the transliteration.
Conclusion: We Are United
Though it does target some sins, the Scripture does not put certain sinners in one category and others in another. In Adam, we are all perverse, defiled, and depraved. Full stop. But the good news is this: in Christ, we are all born again, renewed, and transformed. The cross has overcome our sin. We can resist temptation. We can pray for the renewal of our desires. We can both will and do of his good pleasure.
And we can do this not as lone rangers, but as the church. Part of what I hear some of my brothers and sisters saying is this: we want to be the church. We don’t want to be a different sector of it. We want meaningful friendship. True community. We don’t want to hear that we are sub-standard Christians, as the church sometimes indicates.
This is exactly right. And it’s why the linguistic division between “gay Christians” and others does not help us. It ends up, however unintentionally, leading us to think that the two sides have a different identity and a different solution. This is definitively not true.
The more I’ve reflected on the call to meaningful friendship offered by friends mentioned above, the more I’ve seen that the church needs to do a better job of celebrating and promoting it. The conversation over friendship reminds me of the conversation over singleness. It is not marriage that makes us “whole.” It is Jesus Christ, as Rosaria Butterfield has made clear. Single people are not missing out on the joy of life. They are free to cultivate and celebrate rich companionship, companionship that is–as Sam Allberry, Wesley Hill and others have made clear–free of the drive for sex.
I’m thankful for the call I hear along these lines. It makes me want to do my small part to cultivate the recovery of rich and deep friendships between Christians, friendships washed in the blood of Christ and free from any taint of sin. These friendships defy the world and its oppressive sexualization. Unlike marriage, they will not end when we die. To the contrary, they will only intensify as we dwell together in all eternity, praising the Lamb who has made us one by his cleansing blood.