Much controversy has swirled around the upcoming Revoice conference being held at a PCA church in St. Louis on July 26–28. Here is its stated purpose: “Supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.”
A number of writers have signaled significant disagreements with the personalities involved with the Revoice conference:
- Steven Wedgeworth, A Critical Review of Spiritual Friendship, Mere Orthodoxy
- Kevin DeYoung, Words, Labels, and ‘Sexual Minorities’, The Gospel Coalition
- Tim Challies, The Controversy Behind the Revoice Conference, Challies.com
- Denny Burk, What about the Revoice Conference?, DennyBurk.com
- Richard Phillips, Can the “Welcoming Church” Speak the Truth?, Reformation21
- Todd Pruitt, For the Love of Those Fighting Against Homosexuality, Mortification of Spin
- Owen Strachan, The Revoice Conference and the Hope of Every Sinner, Center for Public Theology
The disagreements include issues related to the Bible’s teaching on sexuality and how Christians should live in accordance with the Christian faith as revealed in the Scriptures.
This is why I have spent a significant amount of time gathering the dozens of quotes below that, I believe, represent in their own words the most problematic parts of what is being promoted by those involved with Revoice. I have included sparse commentary with some of the quotations and have bolded some text within the quotations in order to signal why I find it to be relevant. The only way to claim misrepresentation or distortion in the following text would be to point out that the quotations have been taken out of their original context—which is why I encourage you to go and read these sources for yourself.
I am grateful that the speakers and writers affiliated with Revoice are committed to what the Bible teaches about marriage and about the sinfulness of homosexual acts. I want to cheer them on in that. Nevertheless, there are other issues that have been problematic in their writings.
I believe the raft of quotations below shows that much of the concern surrounding Revoice is not unfounded, and I hope those involved in Revoice will seek to clarify their position(s) as well as understand why many in good faith have significant disagreements with the position(s) presented below.
Eve Tushnet is a keynote speaker at Revoice.
To “Side B” Christians, including myself, I’d say, “Keep in mind whenever you speak on sexual ethics and gay people that many of the people most deeply affected by your words have been pretty severely mistreated in the past by people who claimed to represent what you believe. The people at GCN have been hurt by their churches, and often this hurt is ongoing–GCN is their temporary reprieve. When you speak and act, you’re speaking and acting in the context of a deranged, disordered culture which has made an idol of heterosexuality, and sacrificed queer children to that idol.”
And I’d add, “A lot of the stories I heard at the conference were stories of moving from a ‘Side B’ sexual ethic lived out in judgment, condemnation, shame, and despair, to a ‘Side A’ ethic lived out in hope, welcome, and trust. That’s a story of someone becoming more Christian, not less.”
And to “Side A” I’d say, “Look, we’re all in this together. Even from a ‘Side A’ perspective, you shouldn’t be ‘Side A’ because the other alternative is death. Right now so many people feel that they have no options other than rejecting themselves or rejecting their church. ‘Side B’ tries to show that the historic Christian ethic can be lived by gay people without self-hatred or shame. The more people know that, the more they will be able to discern their own sexual ethic from a place of safety. That way those who do become ‘Side A’ will do so because from a score of beautiful options this one seemed the most true–not because they thought their choices were Side A or suicide.”
-Eve Tushnet, “O Wanderer, Come Home: Notes from the Gay Christian Network Conference,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/evetushnet/2015/01/o-wanderer-come-home-notes-from-the-gay-christian-network-conference.html, accessed June 10, 2018.
[Nota bene: While “Side B” accepts the biblical and historical Christian position that same-sex sexual activity is sinful, “Side A,” which includes individuals such as Matthew Vines, does not.]
Washington, D.C.’s Pride parade was fairly restrained: It featured a cornucopia of Episcopalians, and all the marchers went out of their way to sweetly drape beads over the little elementary-school girls standing in front of me. There were Affirming Baptists; as the parade passed by me, a knot of gay men to my right joked — in that gay way that is never really joking all the way down — that maybe they could be Baptists again now. There were strollers, lots of strollers . . . at least five floats’ lengths away from the guys in the padded leather thongs. . . .
And the Catholic Church gave men and women an image of Woman whom they could truly love. Catholic lesbians can yearn for Mother Church; we can yearn for the Virgin. Catholicism offered same-sex attracted women the images of womanhood that helped them render their desires sublime. Beatrice makes sense not only to Dante but to me.
Ron Belgau is a presenter at Revoice and speaker at “Learning to Desire Love,” a pre-conference hosted by Spiritual Friendship
I believe that gay sex is sinful, and that the desire for gay sex, though not itself sinful, is a temptation that cannot be regarded as morally neutral. But what I have just described is a desire that is much more complex than simply a desire for gay sex. Unless we are dumb enough to accept the Freudian picture of human desire, there is no good reason to think that my feelings for my friend were derived primarily from disordered sexual desires.
-Ron Belgau, “What Does “Sexual Orientation” Orient?,” Spiritual Friendship, accessed June 18, 2018.
A traditional Christian sexual ethic distinguishes between two things. First, it teaches that the desire to have sex with others of our own sex is a temptation to sin which is a result of the fall, but it is not, in itself, sinful (nor can we necessarily choose who we are attracted to). Second, it teaches that homosexual activity is a sin, because we can choose how we act in response to our desires.
-Ron Belgau, ““Gay”: Clarity or Obfuscation? (Part 1),” Spiritual Friendship, https://spiritualfriendship.org/2013/08/13/gay-clarity-or-obfuscation-1/, accessed June 18, 2018.
It is important to communicate the Church’s teaching clearly. That teaching is that homosexual acts are always contrary to God’s plan, and that the desire for such acts is a temptation.
-Ron Belgau, ““Gay”: Clarity or Obfuscation? (Part 2),” Spiritual Friendship, https://spiritualfriendship.org/2013/08/16/gay-clarity-or-obfuscation-2/, accessed June 18, 2018.
For example, on one occasion during the 1992 election, a visiting revival preacher declared from the pulpit at my home church that if America didn’t bring back the death penalty for homosexuality, God would destroy it like He had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. The congregation responded with a resounding, “Amen!” (It did not help that I was leading the music that week, and so I was sitting behind the pastor facing the congregation when this happened.)
There were a lot of ways I could have responded to that pastor. In the first place, God intended to destroy Sodom before the men of Sodom threatened to rape the angels (see Genesis 18:20-33). In the second place, the sexual aspect of Sodom’s sin involved gang rape, not a consensual and monogamous relationship between two men. In the third place, most references in both the Old and New Testaments identify sins other than homosexual activity as the cause of Sodom’s destruction (see, in particular, Ezekiel 16:48-50). And finally, despite the fact that Sodom was often invoked in my church as the epitome of human evil, the Bible actually compared Sodom favorably to God’s own people (Ezekiel 16:48, 52; Matthew 11:23-24), and promised to restore Sodom in the resurrection (Ezekiel 16:53).
But the pastor was not engaged in Biblical exegesis. He was engaged in the tribal rhetoric of the culture wars. Any attempt to challenge his rhetoric would have been met with shaming, exclusion, and condemnation. . . .
That night, we split a few logs from the woodpile, built a fire in the fireplace, and made hot apple cider. Then we sat on the couch, staring at our physics textbooks and doing practice problems. Later, after the fire had died down and his parents had gone to bed, the conversation circled back to gays in the military.
“Doesn’t the concept of two men holding hands weird you out?” he asked.
Then he slid closer to me on the couch and reached for my hand.
My body froze. Don’t show any emotion! Remember to breathe! I tried to keep my face a mask as I explained that my personal feelings about whether or not two men holding hands was weird did not factor into the question of whether gays and lesbians could honorably defend their country. Fairness, I said, isn’t about how comfortable I feel—for example, the idea of my parents having sex weirds me out, but that doesn’t mean I would discriminate against them (I had used that line in my speech, and it usually got a good laugh, so I wasn’t above recycling it in conversation).
“But aren’t you totally weirded out by two guys cuddling?” he persisted. Then he laid his head against my chest, where presumably he could hear my heart race. We kept arguing. After a few minutes, I took the risk of running my fingers through his hair. He did not resist, and we sat like that for the next couple of hours—he maintaining that homosexuality was disgusting, while I maintained that, whether it was disgusting or not, we should not discriminate against those who happened to be gay or lesbian.
So far as I can recall, although I was quite happy with cuddling with him, the idea of trying to escalate this into a sexual encounter never seriously crossed my mind. At any rate, although I have extraordinarily vivid memories of this particular evening, I don’t remember struggling that much against sexual temptation. I just remember a feeling of incredible tenderness, somewhat offset by the cognitive dissonance in his arguments.
The next day, he went out of his way to say that he was not gay.
“I never said you were,” I replied, choosing my words with some precision.
The relationship lasted, in more or less that form, throughout our freshman year. We continued to study together, continued to explore Seattle together, continued talking late into the night. If we were alone—which was not often, since we both had roommates—we might cuddle.
We continued to argue about homosexuality as a theoretical question, gradually arriving at a consensus that the Bible did condemn gay sex, but that gay people could have a David-and-Jonathan-style friendship, as long as they didn’t have sex.
He continued to deny that he was gay, and I could read him well enough to see that nothing would be gained by my coming out to him.
-Ron Belgau, “The Desires of the Heart,” Spiritual Friendship, https://spiritualfriendship.org/2016/10/13/the-desires-of-the-heart/, accessed June 18, 2018.
Wesley Hill is a keynote speaker at Revoice.
If I am a Christian, then I belong (like it or not) to the Body of Christ. By virtue of baptism, I am no longer “my own person”; in belonging to Christ, I also belong to the other members of his body, the church. And so, these days, I find myself less and less interested in asking where each gay Christian, myself included, “stands” on the question of the morality of gay sex. Instead, I want—even, or precisely, as an Anglican—to explore the question Eve Tushnet, a Roman Catholic, raised recently: is there a way to see my own convictions as somehow less important than the matter of my membership in the church of which I’m a part?
-Wesley Hill, “Church before Sex,” Spiritual Friendship, https://spiritualfriendship.org/2013/04/29/church-before-sex-2/, accessed June 18, 2018.
Sometimes it really does look as if a same-sex friendship might be better and truer if we were able to express our love in sexual intimacy. But our reading of Scripture and the Christian tradition keeps telling us otherwise, and we trust that it won’t ultimately lead us astray.
In one of his wonderful “sermons” on homosexuality and the church, the Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan said: “It is perfectly possible to think of desires as no matter for blame, and yet be persuaded that their literal enactment can never be their true fulfilment.” I’ve thought about that sentence a great deal over the past few years. And I think it would be my way of trying to answer my friend Tim: Can we think of same-sex desire as no matter for blame and yet, at the same time, remain persuaded that its literal, physical expression in sexual intimacy is not the true fulfillment God has in mind for our desires? That, at least, is what I understand myself to be trying to do.
-Wesley Hill, “True Fulfillment,” Spiritual Friendship, https://spiritualfriendship.org/2016/03/23/true-fulfillment/, accessed June 18, 2018.
I use “same sex attraction,” “homosexual desire,” “homosexuality,” and related terms interchangeably. Likewise I’ve used a variety of terms for lesbian and gay people. Instead of sticking to one term, such as “homosexual Christian,” I also refer to myself as a “gay Christian” or “Christian who experiences homosexual desires.” These phrases are all synonymous for me, and though they are open to misunderstanding, in my judgment the gains in using them outweigh the potential hazards.
-Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 21.
RNS: Let’s get practical. Give me one thing–only one–that you think churches should do to promote and nurture your kind of friendship?
[Wesley Hill]: I wish more churches would recognize that certain friends are, for gay Christians, our “significant others.” Right now, if you’re gay and celibate in a lot of conservative churches, you’re probably going to feel under suspicion–or worse. If you sit with your best friend in church, if you go on vacation with your friend, or if you spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with her and her family, you may get raised eyebrows or else just blinking incomprehension. I’d like that to change.
I’d like to see close, committed, promise-sealed friendships become normalized in churches that continue to teach the historic, traditional Christian sexual ethic. What if we treated it as important, honorable, and godly for a celibate gay Christian to commit to a close friend precisely as a way of growing in Christian love? That would make a big difference in how we currently think about homosexuality.
-Jonathan Merritt, “Celibate gay Christian leader urges faithful to ‘normalize’ committed friendships,” Religion News Service, https://religionnews.com/2015/04/07/celibate-gay-christian-leader-urges-faithful-reimagine-friendship/, accessed June 18, 2018.
If we think of sexuality in terms of multiple layers—there is one’s basic erotic attractions, followed [or not] by the lustful cultivation of desire that Jesus describes as “looking to desire” [Matthew 5:28], and then the behaviors that can represent the fruition of that lust—then it seems we can talk about a basic attraction to women that need not be reduced to the temptation to lust. That first layer of desire, so to speak—the pre-lustful attraction that is simply part and parcel of being sexual creatures—is probably best thought of as having either sinful or virtuous realizations. It seems to me that it’s important to stress that women noticing the beauty of women can be virtuously actualized, for instance, in gratitude to God for their beauty, in intercession and loving service towards them, in friendship and conversation, etc. The technical term for this is, of course, “sublimation,” and I wanted Edwards to at least gesture in this direction.
-Wesley Hill, “The Healing Moment of Coming Out,” Spiritual Friendship, https://spiritualfriendship.org/2014/06/23/the-healing-moment-of-coming-out/, accessed June 18, 2018.
Admittedly, however, there are problems with this model too. For instance, Gerald Bray responded to his fellow Anglicans who crafted the St. Andrew’s Day Statement with a caution: “To suggest, however obliquely, that friendship can be a homosexual substitute for marriage is dangerous and potentially destructive of the whole concept.” Drawing on the ancient distinction between eros and philia, Bray worried that if friendship were seen as entailing the sublimation of erotic love, then the whole Western ideal of self-giving, nonacquisitive love between members of the same sex may find itself on shaky ground. The only way friendship can be preserved as friendship is, apparently, if it is sharply distinguished from romantic attraction. One thinks too, in this connection, of C. S. Lewis’s contrasting images of erotic love and the love of friendship: we picture lovers face to face, lost in each other’s eyes, but we picture friends shoulder to shoulder, looking outward, engaged in some common pursuit. If the friends should turn and face one another, the whole tenor of their comradeship would be altered beyond recognition, and friendship as a unique form of human affection would be compromised.
More practically, it does seem worrisome, for those committed to chastity, to think of same-sex closeness becoming the occasion for sin. Imagine two gay Christian friends, both living a celibate life, who follow Aelred’s counsel and love one another so much that they commit to the possibility of laying down their lives on one another’s behalf. Surely, in such a friendship, the temptation to transgress sexual boundaries is immense—perhaps too immense to risk such closeness?
Pondering these dangers, though, I find myself thinking of another danger emerging from the opposite direction. I think of the gay Christians I know (among whom I count myself), and I remember the stories of their loneliness. I think of their despair over the lack of intimate human communion in their churches, and I wonder what can be done about it. From the vantage point afforded by their suffering, I find myself wondering whether celibacy without close friendship is really viable after all. And I wonder, which is the greater danger—the possibility of sexual transgression or the burden (and the attendant temptations) of isolation created by the absence of human closeness? A great company of saints witnesses to the fact that we can indeed flourish without sex; I don’t know of one who witnesses to the possibility of our flourishing without love.
-Wesley Hill, “The Problem of Gay Friendship,” The Other Journal, https://theotherjournal.com/2014/01/06/the-problem-of-gay-friendship/, accessed June 18, 2018.
Before I knew what was happening, or before I was willing to admit that I knew what was happening, it was too late to save the friendship.
In hindsight, the moment that symbolizes the end happened like this. I was walking back from the library for the last time. The next day I would board an airplane for home, having managed, in some way I can’t now fathom, to finish my master’s-degree thesis while stumbling through a darkening depression that left me almost unable to read. The occasion of that darkness was my friend’s new romance, and my experience of it was almost entirely defined by a deepening jealousy. My friend was my best friend. We both said so often. We had once shared a house and talked sometimes about doing so again in the future. And so, fingering the cellphone in my pocket, I tried to forget for a moment that I wanted him single again, wanted him all for myself. I tried to forget the painful, gradually dawning awareness that he did not want those things. I pulled out the phone and called him, ready to put my best, least envious, least aggrieved foot forward. Tonight would be our last time to see each other for a while, I told him when he answered. Could we, in light of that, have dinner together, just the two of us? I knew the answer as soon as he started to reply. He would not be able to have dinner with me, no. He and the woman he was now dating had already made plans, he said. For a moment, it seemed that he wanted to apologize, but instead he wished me a safe flight, promised we’d speak soon, and hung up. The next thing I did was look for a place where I could sob without being seen.
Little did I know what that self-denial would do to my longing.
It has taken me years of therapy and spiritual direction to face up to what, in retrospect, is the clearest, simplest explanation for those tears. I had fallen in love with my friend, and I was in that moment confronted with the realization that I wasn’t willing to share his love with anyone else.
Many gay men, I’ve since learned, have similar stories to tell about the hazards and hurts of falling in love with straight men who don’t—who can’t—reciprocate their attraction. But my story differs in one crucial respect: I chose—am choosing, in fact—to make myself vulnerable to this experience. Gay schoolboys’ crushes on straight friends can pack such a devastating wallop, many go out of their way not to repeat them, looking for love from then on out with people who actually want to love them back. But I don’t join them in that quest. My friends have told me I’d make a good husband, and I confess that I think they’re right, but I decided years ago that to pursue the kind of marriage I feel suited for—to pursue marriage to a man—would violate my Christian faith in a way my conscience couldn’t tolerate. . . .
When I first met the friend I eventually cut ties with—I’ll call him Spencer—I was convinced that I was managing desire well enough. On the day we were introduced to each other, we ended up with a dozen other guys in a church’s gymnasium playing “shirts versus skins” basketball. As Spencer peeled off his T-shirt, I stole a glance, suddenly stirred by his beauty but also determined not to go home and fantasize about it. I told myself that, like the early Christian renunciants I’d read about in Peter Brown, I didn’t want my mind to be ruled by lust. I could practice what the evangelicals of my childhood called “custody of the eyes.”
Still, I tried to befriend Spencer. I suggested we go out for dinner, just the two of us. Then, despite wanting to take him out again the following night, I would wait for what seemed like a respectable amount of time before texting to ask if he wanted to go have a beer at a hip new bar I’d heard of. (What are the rules for cultivating a chaste-but-much-closer-than-“normal” friendship? I wondered.) He always said yes and usually reciprocated with his own invitations.
-Wesley Hill, “Love, Again,” Comment, https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/love-again/, accessed June 18, 2018.
When I, for instance, form close friendships with men, I often attribute my original impulse to do so, and my continuing efforts to maintain those friendships, to my sexuality. (That paradigm seems to make sense of my experience: as I once said in an email to a friend, “A sexual orientation is such a complex and, in most cases, it seems, intractable thing; I for one cannot imagine what ‘healing’ from my orientation would look like, given that it seems to manifest itself not only in physical attraction to male bodies but also in a preference for male company, with all that it entails,” such as conversation and emotional intimacy.)
-Wesley Hill, “Is Being Gay Sanctifiable?,” Spiritual Friendship, https://spiritualfriendship.org/2014/02/26/is-being-gay-sanctifiable/, accessed June 18, 2018.
It wasn’t, for me, a matter of whether to be gay or Christian; I knew that I was both, somehow, and that eventually, not then, I’d have to figure out how to square that circle.
-Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2015), 18.
Perhaps celibate gay and lesbian Christians, precisely in and out of their celibacy, are called to express, rather than simply renounce and deny, same-sex love. And perhaps this is where, for all the potential trials and temptations that come with this way of thinking, same-sex friendship represents one way for gay Christians who wish to be celibate to say: ‘I am embracing a positive calling. I am, along with every other Christian, called to love and be loved.’
-Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2015), 76.
I also want to explore the way my same-sex attractions are inescapably bound up with my gift for and calling to friendship. My question, at root, is how I can steward and sanctify my homosexual orientation in such a way that it can be a doorway to blessing and grace.
-Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2015), 78-79.
In my experience, at least, being gay colors everything about me, even though I am celibate. It’s less a separable piece of my experience, like a shelf in my office, which is indistinguishable from the other shelves, and more like a proverbial drop of ink in a glass of water: not identical with the water, but also not entirely distinct from it either. Being gay is, for me, as much a sensibility as anything else: a heightened sensitivity to and passion for same-sex beauty that helps determine the kind of conversations I have, which people I’m drawn to spend time with, what novels and poems and films I enjoy, the particular visual art I appreciate, and also, I think, the kind of friendships I pursue and try to strengthen. I don’t imagine I would have invested half as much effort in loving my male friends, and making sacrifices of time, energy, and even money on their behalf, if I weren’t gay. My sexuality, my basic erotic orientation to the world, is inescapably intertwined with how I go about finding and keeping friends.
-Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2015), 80-81.
I write as a self-consciously gay, celibate Christian man, speaking on behalf of other LGBTQ Christian believers (celibate or not), who are already members in our churches and who are asking the question earnestly and prayerfully, ‘How should I live my life?’ Or, more urgently, ‘How and whom should I love with my life?’
-Wesley Hill, “How Should Gay Christians Love?” in Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality, ed. Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2017), 32-33.
If you are a Christian in the modern West, you’re now swimming in a culture—including a Christian culture—that doesn’t share that way of thinking about sexuality. Here’s how Steve Holmes has recently summarized where we find ourselves now:
“[I]f we truly understand the cultural situation in which we find ourselves, we have to accept that being gay/lesbian is a matter of human identity, not a matter of performing (or desiring) certain erotic activities. Thomas Aquinas could properly treat (male) homosexual activity as one amongst many species of lust, because culturally, that was how he and his readers experienced it; we experience our sexual desires as identities—gay, lesbian, or straight [footnote: Or indeed bi, trans, queer, or asexual…]—and so as something far more profound and basic to our sense of self than merely another experience of desire, whether disordered or not.”
Given that gulf between those radically differing ways of thinking about “homosexuality,” I think it may make sense to view the differences between Julie Rodgers (and others of us here at SF) and Owen Strachan as differences between multiple models/definitions of homosexuality. . . .
[M]any modern Westerners—especially, but not only, younger people—recognize that “being gay” today is a cultural identity. It’s a community designation (“gay community”); it names a way of being in the world (“gay culture”); it involves a continuous narrative (“when I came out… my gay friends…”); and it can exist even before or without lust and behavior (think of how many teenagers you know came out before their first kiss). It isn’t identical to “lust” or even “desire.”
I want to suggest—and I do so tentatively, as a sort of thought experiment—that when people like Julie (and I) say that their “being gay” can be the time or the place where they experience redemptive grace, they’re speaking very much within a contemporary framework of thinking about homosexuality. They’re recognizing that not all aspects of this new social construct—“being gay”—are reducible to what the Bible names as lust or what pre-modern Christians (and modern ones) recognized as sin. There’s a whole raft of experiences and social connections and relational histories and aesthetic sensibilities that go under the rubric of “being gay” for many of us moderns. And when we suggest that our coming to Christ doesn’t simply erase all that but instead purifies and elevates parts of it, we’re not suggesting that the inclination to have gay sex somehow gets sanctified. Rather, what we’re trying to articulate is that much of who we were as gay is somehow made Christian, somehow made the occasion of Christlike love and service: my connections with my gay friends, my discovery of deep friendship in a specific gay community, my awakened artistic sensibilities that I discovered through my involvement in gay culture (etc. etc. etc.)—those things aren’t simply discarded or displaced when I get baptized. Like the grass and the air in C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, they’re somehow made better and more real and more tilted toward self-giving love.
-Wesley Hill, “On Disagreeing About ‘Homosexuality’: A Thought Experiment,” Spiritual Friendship, https://spiritualfriendship.org/2014/12/17/on-disagreeing-about-homosexuality-a-thought-experiment/, accessed June 18, 2018.
Greg Coles is the worship leader for Revoice.
“It was true that the road of the celibate gay Christian had been, as I knew it so far, an excruciating one. It was true that being asked to ignore something so central to my identity seemed at times like an impossible request.”
-Gregory Coles, Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2017), 37.
I was still sympathetic to the revisionist argument that affirmed the possibility of same-sex marriage. Part of me still wanted to believe it, and I understood at the most visceral level why some sincere Christians might choose to adopt this view. But no matter how much I sympathized, how well I tried to understand, there were a few essential ideas that rang hollow to me.”
-Gregory Coles, Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2017), 37.
But I began to realize that my sexual orientation was an inextricable part of the bigger story God was telling over my life. My interests, my passions, my abilities, my temperament, my calling—there was no way to sever those things completely from the gay desires and mannerisms and attitudes that had developed alongside them. For the first time in my life, I felt free to celebrate the beautiful mess I had become.
-Gregory Coles, Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2017), 43.
Is it too dangerous, too unorthodox, to believe that I am uniquely designed to reflect the glory of God? That my orientation, before the fall, was meant to be a gift in appreciating the beauty of my own sex as I celebrated the friendship of the opposite sex? That perhaps within God’s flawless original design there might have been eunuchs, people called to lives of holy singleness?
We in the church recoil from the word gay, from the very notion of same-sex orientation, because we know what it looks like only outside of Eden, where everything has gone wrong. But what if there’s goodness hiding within the ruins? What if the calling to gay Christian celibacy is more than just a failure of straightness? What if God dreamed it for me, wove it into the fabric of my being as he knit be together and sang life into me.
-Gregory Coles, Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2017), 46-47.
The evangelical church is a strange place to be a sexual minority. There are so many different attitudes crammed into a tight space—the person who reviles you, the person whose heart breaks for you, the person ready to cast demons out of you, the person ready to scout out a boyfriend for you—all sitting side by side sharing a Communion cup. There are people scattered across the political spectrum, across the theological spectrum. And then there’s you, tiptoeing through the minefield.
-Gregory Coles, Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2017), 61.
But when I hear most people outside the walls of the church use the word gay, they’re talking about an orientation, the nature of a person’s attractions, not about a specific sexual act. By this definition, gayness feels like a biographical detail as involuntary as your birth date or your dislike of anchovies. Being gay doesn’t mean you’re actively having sex, in the same way that being straight doesn’t mean you can’t be single and committed to sexual abstinence. Yes, most people who identify as gay intend to pursue their orientation through sexual expression, but so do most straight people.
-Gregory Coles, Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2017), 62.
The human impulse to get naked with another human being is certainly sexual in nature, but it’s also so much more than sexual. It’s about having every facet of yourself known, every crack and curve. It’s about having nothing left to hide. As a closeted gay person, you risk both kinds of nakedness at once, denying yourself emotional intimacy in the same breath that you deny sexual intimacy.
Living without sex is difficult. Living without intimacy is a death sentence.
-Gregory Coles, Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2018), 80.
It made me happy too, I realized as she spoke. I loved being safe around her, around other dear female friends who were married or dating or affianced. I could love these women, as the apostle Paul had commanded, like they were my sisters or mothers, without even the slightest temptation to violate that relationship. My gay body knows by instinct what so many straight men must fight to learn: that a woman’s body should never be just an object of male sexuality.
-Gregory Coles, Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2018), 93.
A dozen of us had gathered for the inaugural meeting of a new Christian group, a safe space where LGBTQ folks and those who loved them could study the Bible and worship together. As far as I knew, three of the participants openly identified as sexual minorities, and of those three, two also identified as Christians. The rest, it seemed, were friends, loved ones, curious observers, local ministers who had come to listen sympathetically . . . .
The meeting-and-greeting portion of the gathering lasted long enough that I got to deliver the same answer six or seven more times. Each time I was equally cautious to dodge the implied question everyone’s eyes seemed to ask next: Are you on Side A or Side B? In favor of same-sex relationships or against?
I didn’t want to be reduced to a simply yes or no. I wanted a new side, something further along the alphabet, something full of asterisks and footnotes and caveats. I’ve never been fluent in the language of binaries.
Meanwhile, as I met people who told me they considered same-sex marriage no different in the eyes of God than opposite-sex marriage, I pondered the unspoken questions of my own: Do these people know the same Jesus I know?
-Gregory Coles, Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2018), 104-105.
God would not be thwarted—not by our wrong answers, not even by our unrepentance or disbelief. Whether the twelve people in that tiny chapel chose to receive God’s grace or reject it, we could never diminish it. Grace would always be grace, and it would always be amazing.
-Gregory Coles, Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2018), 106.
There are only a few things I know for sure about showing love to gay people, and one of them is this: If you really want to love us, you have to respect us enough to let us make our own decisions. Even if you think we might get it wrong. Even if you’re sure we have gotten it wrong. You can’t just tell us to believe and expect us to believe it. That’s not how belief works—at least that’s not how it worked for me.
I needed to be given the space to read the Bible for myself, to listen to God’s voice distinct from all the other voices claiming to speak on his behalf. I needed to give myself permission to hear both yes and no.
Hearing from God isn’t hearing at all if we never take the risk of hearing more than one answer.
-Gregory Coles, Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2018), 107-108.
And yet if I’m honest, there are issues I consider more theologically straightforward than gay marriage that sincere Christians have disagreed on for centuries. Limited atonement? “Once saved, always saved”? Infant baptism? My stance on these issues seems to me so self-evident that I struggle to understand how anyone who claims a biblical faith might disagree with me. But I can’t make people read the Bible as I do. I can only explain to them how I’ve come to believe in the way I do, and love them like Jesus does, and urge them to love Jesus so deeply in return that they’re willing to trust whatever answer he gives them. Change of heart, change of mind, change of behavior—those things aren’t in my power, nor are they my responsibility. If we can’t share pews with people whose understanding of God differs from ours, we’ll spend our whole lives worshipping alone.”
-Gregory Coles, Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2018), 109.
“I’m convinced,” I said, “that in the end, God is more concerned with the depth and the recklessness of our love for him than he is with our right answers.”
-Gregory Coles, Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2018), 112.
Nate Collins is President and Founder of Revoice.
So if the general problem is one of imaginative ability, and if the specific problem is that the conservative church is having difficulty recalibrating its appropriation of the tradition it has received, what might a solution be? Since I believe that the church is a living organism, I suggest that the solution lies in the gifts of its members, particularly those individual members of the body of Christ whose imagination is capable of portraying for others the brokenness of traditions. Again, let me be specific: gay people in our churches (as well as many who have since left) are uniquely positioned to be used by God to remind the church of its sins and to point forward to a more redemptive way of living together as the family of God.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 52.
The principle of religious freedom should, in theory, give Christians the moral space to opt out of participating in the narrow activity of providing a product for a gay wedding.
This moral space notwithstanding, it’s possible that some who opt out of these situations do so without examining their motives or after simply assuming that their conscience was an accurate reflection of the law of Christ. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon on the conscience, let alone one that challenged Christians to think creatively—especially in the gray areas of life—in situations in which the path forward isn’t clearly marked out. Let me be specific. What if we could imagine a scenario in which a Christian businesswoman, after hearing her pastor preach a sermon about these issues, decided that her conscience would allow her to sell products to a gay couple to use in a wedding ceremony? Obviously this wouldn’t solve every problem facing Christians in society today, but urging Christians to consider new ways of thinking about a complicated issue that might lead to a stronger conscience can be a legitimate means (among many, of course) of easing the tensions that sometimes erupt in these kinds of situations.
A second arena that has been the scene of enormous tension during the past two decades in North America is the public debate about social policy and civil rights. This debate centers around disagreements about the nature of human flourishing and is fueled—at least in part—by a residual ressentiment on both sides of the discussion. LGBT rights activists claim that straight people are limiting their access to social benefits that are easier for straight people to enjoy, while Christian culture warriors claim that giving LGBT people greater access to these goods is not healthy for society. Some of these social goods take the form of tax breaks and other financial benefits that make life easier for married people. These social goods are benefits that gay people were not able to access before the Obergefell v. Hodges United States Supreme Court decision without marrying an opposite-sex spouse. Other social goods include protections against discrimination that is often directed toward minority populations. We’ll consider this from the perspective of minority experience in chapter 11, but it’s worth mentioning now that in many states it is legal for employers to engage in hiring discrimination and for landlords to engage in leasing discrimination, both on the basis of orientation. Whatever evangelicals might believe about the morality of same-gender sexual practice, it seems self-evident that gay people are vulnerable to these kinds of injustices in ways that straight people never even have to consider.
Yet evangelicals sometimes experience a degree of cognitive dissonance when asked to affirm the need gay people experience to live peaceful lives, perhaps because it might appear at the surface to be inconsistent with a traditional sexual ethic. This cognitive dissonance is the product of a tension between two values that many evangelicals in the United States hold dear: the intrinsic worth and dignity of every human life, and a zealous adherence to a social policy that is fundamentally opposed to the normalization of same-gender sexuality. We might sense the injustice of a teenage cashier at a small-town grocery store losing his job when his boss finds out he’s gay, but this has yet to translate into explicit and widespread support in evangelical faith communities for the civil rights of LGBT people. Why is this the case?
I suspect that for some the cognitive dissonance is simply too great. It’s much easier to remain in the comfortable rut of the old culture warrior mindset. This stance toward secular culture requires a clear enemy, and gay people have always been an easy target. The problem here is that it is impossible to advance the kingdom of God by means of a social policy, and particularly one that enables Christians to overlook suffering. Yet evangelicals in the United States have been beholden to such a social policy. They claim it is good for society, but in practice it has failed to represent the priorities of the gospel.
In addition to experiencing cognitive dissonance, some evangelicals are afraid that affirming the basic civil rights of LGBT people could put Christians in social situations that might be morally compromising. The risk of being morally complicit with evil, according to some, is too great to support the civil rights of LGBT people. This is certainly a real challenge, but approaching it from this perspective is problematic. First, it essentially reflects a willingness on the part of evangelicals to sacrifice the dignity of LGBT people for the sake of their own comfort. The gospel doesn’t need a conservative social policy in order to thrive (although it certainly requires Christians to be prepared for suffering and hardship).
Second, it’s possible to show support for increased civil protections for LGBT people while maintaining a commitment to traditional views on sex and marriage. Efforts to show this support can be varied, and the shape they should take is debatable. One effort currently underway is a joint project of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and the National Association of Evangelicals. Dubbed by its supporters as Fairness for All, this initiative promotes legislation that contains both housing and hiring antidiscrimination measures for LGBT people and religious liberty exemptions for churches and other religious institutions. The form that this kind of legislation should take is, of course, beyond my expertise and the scope of this chapter.38 The proposal, however, is a sign that conservative Christians (at least in some quarters) are listening to the fears and concerns of LGBT people.
Whether by Fairness for All or through a more incremental approach, acknowledging the basic civil rights of LGBT people while also protecting religious liberty might require evangelicals to recalibrate their posture toward the secular world, but more than anything else it would require humility. Because here’s the truth: many people outside the church simply don’t trust Christians to exercise our liberty wisely. The shape of our own tradition communicates that Christians in the United States have sometimes been more committed to retaining the comfort of our religious liberty protections than to doing whatever it takes to be a compelling gospel witness to gay people. As long as conservative Christians are content to allow the marginalization of gay people to continue in their own pockets of cultural Christianity, I do not see how they can credibly oppose government intervention to protect the human dignity of gender and sexual minorities.
Such an intervention might, in fact, be harmful to the healthy functioning of a pluralistic society in the long run, but right now I don’t believe Christians could say in the face of that intervention that they have been faithful not just to their convictions about sexual morality but also to the second greatest commandment: to love their neighbor as themselves. Christians have sacrificed a measure of our cultural authority to argue for the social benefits of religious liberty in the context of a pluralistic society by the way we’ve exercised this liberty in the past, particularly in our treatment of gay people. Conversations about religious liberty need to be placed in the context of educating the Christian conscience and both confession of and repentance for past abuses of liberty.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 69.
Christian leaders need to move beyond the safety of sterile doctrine and abstract morality and teach their followers how to understand the day-to-day realities of LGBT experience, even when it’s uncomfortable.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 76.
Some object that extending identity-based protections to the LGBT community is not only misguided but also unnecessary. An important article by Ryan T. Anderson argues that LGBT antidiscrimination laws are “fundamentally misguided” and a disproportionate response to experiences of injustice within the mainstream LGBT community. Anderson claims that “free market” solutions exist and would be a more proportionate response, presumably in the form of boycotts against local businesses that aren’t governed by large corporations that already have LGBT antidiscrimination policies. Personally, I favor an incremental approach to the problem that starts small and broadens the scope as necessary. At the same time, we must also consider the possibility that antidiscrimination legislation might be not only inevitable but also a good idea in general. If this is the case, then it also seems eminently rational to engage in public policy discussions to ensure that adequate religious liberty protections are included in these laws. And if it ever becomes evident that a dual-prong approach like Fairness for All has a significant potential to succeed, then conservative Christians should strongly consider supporting it.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 50n38.
Usually, we think that the most meaningful and rewarding way to experience our sexuality is physically with a spouse. The question under consideration here is whether that is the only way to express the urges that people feel when they experience sexual desire. To answer this question, however, we need to examine the fascinating but complex notion of sublimation.
Although Nietzsche was the first to use the term sublimation in a psychological sense, Sigmund Freud was the first to formally incorporate the concept of sublimation into a psychological account of human sexuality. In general, Freud believed that sublimation occurs whenever an individual redirects (whether consciously or unconsciously) his or her sexual energy, or libido, and expresses it in nonsexual ways. Freud claimed that sublimation occurs all the time in people who are psychologically healthy and well-adjusted. In addition, Freud believed that humans are constituted at the core of their being by their sexuality but that the vast majority of sexual impulses that inevitably stem from this core are not experienced consciously, let alone expressed. This is true for a variety of reasons, perhaps the most obvious of which is the almost universal recognition that wantonly expressing every sexual desire we might feel is socially inappropriate.
It’s essential to note here that Christians do not need to rely on Freud and his secular humanist framework to understand how the concept of sublimation can be useful to those who want to exercise self-control in their sexuality. Christians should outline their own theological account of sublimation, or something like it, so they can understand how libido can be redirected in productive ways that are faithful to the call to pursue holiness.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 89.
[In this section, Collins introduces the concept of sublimation in the place where historic Christianity would have located repentance. In the 300+ pages of All But Invisible, the concept of repentance is not once suggested as an appropriate action in connection to same-sex sexual desire (or lust, as he terms it), but dozens of times in connection with the Christian church’s need to repent of the ways it has acted toward the “LGBT community.”]
In general, the desire for sexual intimacy can represent either a problem or a possibility. It can be an occasion for either temptation and sin, on one hand, or flourishing. As helpful as this distinction might seem, however, it’s not obvious how it fits the experience of gay people. For example, straight people who are married can channel their desire for sexual intimacy toward their spouse. And single straight people who anticipate getting married at some point in the future can pursue sexual purity with that in mind. But it’s important to note that these possibilities for straight people to express themselves sexually, whether real or anticipated, lie outside the reach of most gay people. Sexual desire might represent either a problem or a possibility for straight people, but gay people have difficulty experiencing sexual desire as anything but a problem.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 90.
To discern a path forward that enables gay people to view their sexuality as a possibility and not merely as a problem, we need a more robust understanding of the meaning of sexuality. In chapter 9, we’ll explore how sexuality is a subset of the intrinsic relationality of the human soul and how marriage (together with the physical one-flesh union) is a metaphor of the union of Christ with the church. If this is true, then it seems possible to understand the sexual drive in relational terms—as a desire for relationship, and ultimately as a desire for God. The sexual desire for physical union with another is a signpost of the basic human need for relational connection with others and with God.
Once we grasp this simple truth, it’s just a small mental step to acknowledge that gay people can pursue the fulfillment of their sexuality through relational means instead of through a same-gender physical union. In this Christian understanding of sexuality, sublimation is not the realization of desire at a higher level that is still within the sexual domain (that’s Freudian, not biblical). Instead, it becomes the fulfillment of desire at a deeper level, in the relational, and therefore spiritual, domain. We can express our sexuality physically with our body, but we can fulfill our sexuality relationally with our heart. True sexual fulfilment is, at its root, a spiritual experience, not merely a physical one. This relational and spiritual fulfillment of sexuality is the goal of sublimation.
With this understanding of sublimation in mind, what might it look like in the daily life of a Christian who has committed himself or herself to a life of celibacy, whether gay or straight? Perhaps the easiest way to answer this question would be to explore the benefits of such a lifestyle. In general, these benefits come in two forms: increased relational intimacy with others and a deeper spirituality. When a gay person commits to a vocation of lifelong celibacy, sublimating sexual desire in the context of relationships with others can yield a form of emotional intimacy that can be a lifegiving source of relational fulfillment (more about this in chapter 8). Also, sublimated sexual desire in the context of serving God through some ministry of the church can likewise be a lifegiving source of spiritual enrichment.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 91.
I can’t count the number of gay people I’ve met who want a relationship with a same-gender friend that is both deeply passionate and intimate but nonsexual like the relationship between Jonathan and David in the Old Testament. Others simply don’t want to grow old alone. What kinds of vocations can these individuals pursue as a means of enjoying the blessings of kinship relationships and other forms of relational intimacy? Three types of communal celibacy fit this bill: expanded kinship, intentional community, and celibate partnerships.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 98.
Admittedly, this third and final form of communal celibacy is perhaps the most controversial. In theory it might not seem all that different from an intentional community, but in practice a few factors distinguish a committed friendship from an intentional community. First, an intentional community is composed of a larger number of individuals than is a committed friendship. Although generally limited by the size of their dwelling space, intentional communities are, at least in theory, open to new members who might want to join the community for a season of time. Committed friendships, however, tend to be much smaller—perhaps no more than two or three individuals. Second, intentional communities tend to emphasize the common domestic space the community shares and the life that unfolds within it. Committed friendships, however, often form when two or three friends who have deep affection for each other decide to live together as a kinship unit.
Many evangelicals approach the concept of a committed friendship between two or three gay people with extreme caution, and this is understandable. The potential for such a relationship to be an occasion for sexual sin is, if not ever present, at least a reality that the individuals involved must never forget. At the same time, it is difficult to rule out the possibility that committed friendships can still, in principle, be healthy forms of spiritual kinship for some gay people. . . .
. . . . Some might recognize the differences between a committed friendship and two people who live together as roommates, but might nonetheless point out that two or three gay people who live together is more like the somewhat questionable scenario of a man and woman who decide to be roommates than two or three guys or two or three girls who decide to live together as roommates. And at first blush, this sounds like a valid objection. Many would rightly object to the idea of a straight man and a straight woman wanting to live together indefinitely, particularly if they shared everything from meals to the bed they slept in, but not as a married couple.
As airtight as this objection seems, it’s a straw man argument. Just check any “Roommate Wanted” ad, and you’ll see that women want female roommates and men want male roommates. If they were looking for something more, they wouldn’t be posting an ad for a roommate. We shouldn’t discount committed friendships for appearing to be something they’re not intended to be. Committed friendships between gay people who are embracing celibacy are intended to be just that: celibate. . . .
. . . . In his book Spiritual Friendship, New Testament scholar Wesley Hill (himself a gay man committed to celibacy) reflects on the profound beauty of deep friendship, while also acknowledging the difficulties that often are in play:
“It’s true that friendships of the depth and beauty I’ve tried to describe aren’t easy to come by. The vagaries of our fallen world and our fallen selves are too pervasive, and God’s providential grace too elusively mysterious, for any substantial confidence in our own unaided ability to make and preserve friendships.”
The second component I have in mind involves a distinction I will make in part 2 about the difference between physical and emotional unitive intimacy. What this distinction means in real life is that it would be wise for two gay women, for example, who want to pursue a vocation of celibate partnership to be open to the possibility, if only in theory, that a third party might join them in the future. I think it’s probably important to include this condition; otherwise the relationship might take on a quasi-marital quality. If they cannot be open to this possibility, then perhaps a celibate partnership is not a wise option.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 100–102.
[Collins says “committed partnership” or “friendship” is a viable option for Christians who identity as gay. In order for these not to appear to be quasi-marriages, Collins suggests these relationships need to be open to a third party joining the relationship down the road. But it is may be understandably hard for someone to see how turning a quasi-marriage into quasi-polygamy fixes this problem.]
If the morality of a desire is determined, at least in part, on the basis of its object, and if gay people experience a form of desire as a result of their orientation, then the task of relating desire and orientation is intimately related to the task of understanding the moral issues involved in the way gay people experience their orientation. The central questions seem to be, “What, exactly, do gay people want?” and “What, if anything, is wrong about this desire?” . . . .
. . . . Despite the apparent consensus that sexual desire for same-gender people is the center of orientation, this approach ultimately falls short. We’ll look at this in greater depth in the rest of this chapter and in the chapters to come, but for now I think it’s critical to note that the desires that gay people have toward members of the same sex are multifaceted and cannot be reduced to the bald desire to hop into bed with each other. To be specific, I contend that the consensus understanding of desire and orientation reflects the hypersexualized character of Western culture and that it needs to be adjusted to fit the doctrinal priorities of Christianity. Some same-sex desires might, for example, be entirely unrelated to sexuality. Gay people regularly experience a desire for companionship, a need for physical touch, or a yearning for intimacy of some sort with someone of the same gender.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 114–15.
[By attempting to define the sine qua non of homosexuality to be the “desire for companionship, a need for physical touch, or a yearning for intimacy of some sort with someone of the same gender”—instead of sexual desire for the same-sex—how is Collins able to distinguish between this and so-called “heterosexuals” who experience desire for the same things? Is everyone who does so “gay”? Or has Collins inadvertently (or maybe intentionally?) vacated the term “gay” of any meaning whatsoever? Collins attempts to replace the common understanding of homosexual orientation with the notion of aesthetic orientation, where “gay” men are oriented to the “beauty” of men and “gay” women are oriented to the “beauty” of women. But here it is equally difficult to discern how anyone is not oriented to aesthetic beauty, and how this in any way can describe “gayness” apart from what Collins calls the “possibility of sexual desire.” But then we are back to the seemingly unavoidable sine qua non of a heretofore universal understanding of homosexuality—including as understood by other Revoice participants Ron Belgau and Wesley Hill.]
One particularly difficult context in which these desires can occur is in relationships between a gay person and a straight same-gender friend. The trope of a “straight crush” (developing a crush on a straight friend) has a characteristic and distinctly despairing aura among gay people in conservative Christian subcultures. The drive to understand their desires for relationship and intimacy is often accompanied by compulsive, guilt-ridden, and introspective feats of mental gymnastics whose primary purpose is to discern with absolute certainty whether or not sinful motives are present in a relationship with a straight crush. Many gay teenagers in conservative Christian youth groups end up navigating these waters on their own because they don’t know who they can trust. When I was a high school student in the mid-’90s, I felt like there was something deeply wrong with me when I developed crushes on my friends, and I felt sad that none of the good-looking guys in the youth group seemed to even notice that I existed.
I firmly believe that the solution for this problem is not for gay people to cut themselves off from same-gender friendships with people to whom they experience a degree of attraction. The potential for the relationship to become characterized by sexual desire that might stem from this attraction can be a source of tension and is certainly a reason to lean on the grace of Christ, but it is not a sign in itself that a relationship is unhealthy. At the same time, we should not assume we are immune to temptation. If elements of a friendship become regular occasions for temptation and sin, it might be a sign that the relationship has ceased to be a source of grace. . . .
. . . . Some feel that it is obvious that gay people should avoid anything that resembles a romantic relationship with another gay person, but it’s not that simple. We’ve already pointed out how most gay people know what it’s like for feelings of attraction to emerge unannounced in a same-gender friendship that until that point had been entirely unmotivated by anything resembling romance. Several elements of romantic relationships overlap with what we might call platonic friendship, and one common thread is that both relationships place value on the love expressed between the individuals involved. A girl feels loved when her boyfriend gives her a meaningful gift, but this love can be remarkably similar to the feeling two guys have for each other who exchange presents at Christmas every year. In both cases, the gifts reflect a degree of passion the individuals feel toward one another. . . .
. . . . I’m merely trying to normalize the desire for something resembling romance that most gay people experience.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 126–27.
[In this section Collins appears to betray the unworkability of his proposal of an “aesthetic orientation.” If the apprehension and passion for male beauty is truly the sine qua non of homosexuality, then it should make no difference whether the one you are attracted to is “straight” or “gay,” much less that “none of the good-looking guys in the youth group see[m] to notice that [you] exis[t].” In this expression is nothing less than the desire to be desired, which one will be hard press to reduce to mere aesthetics.]
Sexual purity is, of course, a good thing. But it’s a good that exists in a relational matrix alongside other goods, including friendship and community. This means that actions taken to protect or enjoy one good can affect future opportunities to experience other goods. This give-and-take is unavoidable, but sometimes it works itself out in ways that are less than ideal when the good of sexual purity is in the mix. First, people often find themselves motivated to overprotect the good of sexual purity at the expense of other goods because evangelical purity culture elevates the virtue of sexual purity above other virtues. Overprotecting can happen when a threat to sexual purity is perceived that isn’t grounded in reality or that would only become real (while still not necessarily becoming realized) if a variety of other contingent factors were also present.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 152–53.
This passage seems to be unaware of the distinction Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 6:18 about the uniqueness of sexual immorality.
While bi men and women perceive and admire gender-specific traits of both men and women, individuals with a capacity for person-directed desires can develop attractions to both men and women on the basis of gender-neutral traits. A man who is bi might feel attracted to women with brown eyes and a soft voice as well as men with a particular build and hair style.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 155.
[Why the “B” is in Revoice’s support for the LGBT community?]
Although the issues involved here are complex, we seem to find the most extreme form of desexuated gender identity in the lives of people who identify as transgender. By definition, a transgender person is someone whose gender identity doesn’t match his or her biological sex (for example, a biological male with a feminine gender identity, or a biological female with a masculine gender identity). Although true transgender people are rare, they are nonetheless a statistically significant portion of the general population. Some children who demonstrate gender nonconforming behaviors develop a transgender identity during adolescence or early adulthood, while most develop the gender identity that correlates with their biological sex.
This is not a book about transgender issues, but I want to share a few basic thoughts that have helped me understand people who identify in some way with transgender experience. First, we need to recognize that a transgender identity has nothing to do with an individual’s orientation. A trans man (a biological female who identifies as a man) might be sexually, romantically, or relationally attracted to either men or women. In addition, the common euphemism “man trapped in a woman’s body” or “woman trapped in a man’s body” doesn’t really describe the way most transgender people experience the relationship between their gender identity and their body. Most are fully aware that their body is a part of who they are, not simply a cage holding their gender hostage. Transgender people refer to the process of beginning to live out their gender identity in public as “transitioning.” But this process varies from person to person, and not all transgender people decide to transition in the first place.
Finally—and I can’t stress this enough—the science behind transgender experience is still undeveloped. This doesn’t mean that the experience itself is a fiction. It simply means that we don’t understand much about the stories of transgender people. If nothing else, this should caution people on both sides of the culture debate against jumping to conclusions. Perspectives that tend to accommodate cultural shifts affirming transgender experience as natural and normal should be wary of risky, and sometimes even experimental, medical procedures that are statistically unsuccessful and often detrimental to the mental health of trans people. God designed personhood to be constrained and shaped by bodies, and efforts to make permanent, fundamental changes to the body are inherently traumatizing.
Conservatives, on the other hand, should be wary of the dualistic tendency to think about transgender experience as though it couldn’t possibly be anything other than a mind problem. It can be tempting to label a transgender person’s identification with the opposite gender as simply an example of wrong thinking or wrong belief, but at least two realities should caution against this. First, a biblical grasp of human anthropology should remind us that personhood is a mind-body unity. The human brain is a biological organ that constrains personhood in specialized ways that are central to the development of personal identity. This means that we can’t neatly separate body problems and mind problems and assign transgender experience to the latter. In addition, we saw in our brief examination of intersex conditions that the fall impacts the embodiment of personhood in ways that directly affect gender identity and sexual expression. Sex difference is primarily a matter of genetics and most obviously reflected in the genitals, but it’s also manifest in brain chemistry and hormone levels. Since the phenomena involved are so complex and we don’t even understand the things we’ve already observed—not to mention the things we haven’t observed because the science doesn’t exist yet—I think both sides of the debate should be much more cautious about the conclusions they draw.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 219.
[Why the “T” is in Revoice’s support for the LGBT community?]
Some might wonder how it could possibly be a good thing for a gay person to pursue affectional unitive intimacy with a same-gender friend if the possibility exists that an illicit desire or two (or ten) might be mixed in somewhere among the holy desires for friendship and companionship. I can respond only by saying that I understand the tension but choose to live with it rather than experience the alternative. I’ve experienced the uncertainty of this tension countless times in my journey of discipleship, and sometimes it’s not fun and many times it’s messy. But the Spirit of grace is sufficient to lead and guide, just as he is to convict.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 168.
We are more than our bodies, but we are at least our bodies. And if there are both straight bodies and gay bodies, then they must correspond to both straight persons and gay persons. Again, we’ll return to this problem toward the end of part 3, but for now we should acknowledge the problem this poses for gay people in conservative churches. Many of these brothers and sisters of ours find it very easy to make the jump from “My body is defective” to “Who I am as a person is defective.”
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 187.
How is gayness related to the fall? and What does gayness look like when it’s redeemed? Christians have traditionally used terms like sin, temptation, and healing to answer these questions, all of which are found in various texts in Scripture. My suspicion, however, is that we could provide more specific, and potentially more meaningful, answers to these questions if we broaden our search for descriptions of gay people’s experience beyond terms explicitly found in Scripture. In essence, I’m proposing that we develop a theology of orientation that can flesh out our biblical doctrines of sin, temptation, and healing.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 189.
Currently, standpoint and intersectional feminist theories are my favorite approach in feminism to understanding secondary gender difference, because they contain elements that are especially helpful for a Christian understanding of the way gay people in conservative churches experience the world around them. For example, consider the reality that Christians are increasingly becoming a minority in our culture today. (This is certainly already the case around the world.) Then, consider the reality that gay people are a minority not only in the culture at large but also in most churches. If both of these realities are true, then intersectional feminism helps us see that gay people who are also conservative Christians occupy a distinctly lonely, and potentially even disadvantaged, place in our society. And approaches to understanding how we know what we know that emphasize the importance of the knower’s standpoint help us understand why we need their voices in our churches. Because they can see things that others can’t. . . .
. . . . In summary, a few important points rise to the surface when we consider the strengths and weaknesses of these competing approaches to secondary difference within the various streams of feminist theory. First, the impulse of standpoint feminists to identify previously unheard of standpoints that are gendered seems good and honorable. Likewise, the intersectional feminist goal of addressing unique forms of suffering that are caused by intersecting forms of oppression is also necessary. It’s also worth mentioning that both of these efforts reinforce the stability of secondary gender differences in ways that appear to conflict with postmodern feminism and queer theory. At the same time, the subversive tactics that queer theory tends to advocate might be an effective and just course of action in some extreme situations. Regardless of the tactic used, the fundamental Christian value of upholding social justice clearly requires Christians to be involved in the process of finding and bringing to an end the systemic oppression of marginalized social groups.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 236–37.
The sexual revolution afforded gay people a broader range of opportunities to live out their gayness publicly; at the same time, a different social force was also at work to increase the meaningfulness of orientation. Earlier in this book, we noted that heteronormativity increased the awareness of gayness as a meaningful social category by maligning and marginalizing nonstraight people because of their sexuality. . . .
. . . . As with the term homophobia, however, before we can make sense of the term heteronormativity, we have to strip away its humanistic trappings and view it through the lens of Christian doctrine. When we do this, we’re faced with the same sobering question we examined in our discussion on homophobia: Have followers of Jesus been guilty of a baptized form of heteronormativity? As we’ll see in the following chapter, it’s possible that we have. If this is true, then it’s hard to deny the implication that aspects of our own earthly Christian tradition played a role in the formation of the modern gay identity. In social identity terms, heteronormativity consigns gay men and women to subtype status—as opposed to subgroup—because they disconfirm a particularly dominant self-categorization of modern-day gender identities, that to be a man or woman is to be straight.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 258.
[By this definition, isn’t the Bible “heteronormative”?]
What are some of the benefits that straight privilege provides? Many of the various social goods that cultures have recognized historically as signs of human flourishing are, in Western cultures, most accessible via the marital relationship. Deep, emotionally satisfying relationships are few and far between in today’s modern, individualistic culture and permanent relationships sometimes don’t occur outside kinship bonds. In biblical terms, participating in deep, soul-satisfying kinship bonds is a state of blessing, which is simply another way of saying that it is a privilege. Kinship itself, however, in Western society and in most churches, has been structured almost exclusively around marriage and the nuclear family, scenarios that are often out of reach for gay people. Besides being a source of kinship relationships, opposite-sex marriages also tend to provide the people in them with greater socioeconomic stability.
Until the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision, gay people generally did not have access to the same financial and tax benefits as did people in opposite-sex marriages. Inheritance laws also favored people who were married, as do healthcare laws and laws pertaining to pensions and IRAs.
Not only are most straight people more able to enjoy the various benefits of marriage than gay people in general, but they also benefit from a legal system that tends to favor them. Straight people benefit from employment laws and housing laws in the United States in ways that gay people don’t. As we observed in chapter 3, in many states a gay person is unable to take legal action against a former employer if she suspects that she was fired because of her orientation. Likewise, landlords in many states can deny a rental application, or even evict a tenant, simply on the basis of the individual’s orientation. Again, my goal here is not to make the simplistic claim that legislative solutions alone can easily fix these problems (although that’s a conversation that Christians shouldn’t be afraid to have). I’m simply trying to point out that gay people often worry about concrete, everyday situations that are never a problem for straight people. Straight people simply don’t have to worry about how their orientation affects their material comforts, safety, and basic dignity. . . .
. . . . Why is privilege difficult to acknowledge? Why might it be difficult for straight people to recognize some of the experiences they enjoy in life as benefits of being straight? I can think of at least three reasons. The first, and perhaps most common and harmless, reason is because many straight people in conservative Christian churches have never had to face scenarios in which their straightness was a problem. To imagine an alternative universe in which straightness is a problem borders on the ludicrous, yet this is the kind of stretch we must make if we want to understand the world in which many gay and lesbian people live every day of their lives. . . .
. . . . A gospel-centered ethic calls Christians to subvert straight privilege when it causes difficulty for gay people instead of simply feeling bad about it or, worse, denying that it even exists. For straight people this is ultimately a matter of stewardship. The various identities that characterize our first-creation lives bestow upon us both blessings and responsibilities, and orientation is no different.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 262ff.
Understanding gay culture would be a problem if being gay were somehow defined in relationship to sexuality.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 265.
[This passage, set alongside Wesley Hill’s statement and Ron Belgau’s statement on gay orientation, may reveal why so much confusion abounds. Hill: “When I, for instance, form close friendships with men, I often attribute my original impulse to do so, and my continuing efforts to maintain those friendships, to my sexuality. (That paradigm seems to make sense of my experience: as I once said in an email to a friend, “A sexual orientation is such a complex and, in most cases, it seems, intractable thing; I for one cannot imagine what ‘healing’ from my orientation would look like, given that it seems to manifest itself not only in physical attraction to male bodies but also in a preference for male company, with all that it entails,” such as conversation and emotional intimacy.)” Belgau: “What is Sexual Orientation? It’s helpful to begin with what is, I think, a reasonably uncontroversial descriptive account. With the rare asexual exception, the overwhelming majority of people experience sexual attraction to various people during the course of their life. Most people’s sexual attractions are directed exclusively to persons of the opposite sex; some experience some mixture of sexual attractions to persons of either sex, and a few experience sexual attractions only to persons of the same sex. In common parlance, those who fit the first description are straight, those who fit the second bi, and those who fit the third, gay. (For simplicity, I will use the term gay to include both men who are primarily attracted to men and women who are primarily attracted to women.)”]
One aspect of minority experience that can be difficult for majority-identified people to understand is that individuals who are minorities of some sort are in constant survival mode. The tongue-in-cheek phrase “driving while black” expresses the frustration that many racial minorities experience when a police officer pulls them over for no apparent reason. In a similar vein, the phrase “going to church while gay” might describe the discouragement that gay people sometimes experience when they feel singled out by a straight-majority culture that is prevalent within many segments of Christianity. This will be helpful to keep in mind as we turn our attention in the next two chapters to ways that gay culture intersects with cultural Christianity, not only in society at large but also in local Christian communities and the individual people within them.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 269.
This is exactly the type of conflict that many gay people face in many churches that adhere to a traditional understanding of marriage and sexual expression. Gay people might not feel like they belong if their churches don’t portray Christian obedience in ways that are not only lifegiving but also livable. It’s probably possible to do this without knowing much about gay people and their experience, but it’s much more difficult if Christian versions of heteronormativity are present and active in the community. Without meaningful support from straight Christians who truly understand that there is no morally significant difference between fallen heterosexuality and fallen homosexuality, many gay people in these churches eventually come to the conclusion that they need to leave the global group of conservative Christianity and adopt a progressive definition of marriage and sexual expression.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 286.
A recent study by Anna Rabinovich and Thomas Morton can help us understand the concrete benefits of encouraging gay people to integrate their orientation into their Christian identity. . . .
. . . . What they found surprised them. They discovered that “activating increasingly higher-order identities does not always lead to comparable shifts in identification with the salient group . . . because large groups can be overly inclusive, and thus fail to simultaneously provide their members with crucial feelings of distinctiveness.” In other words, we generally respond positively when others acknowledge aspects of our experience and personhood that make us distinct. This doesn’t mean that we devalue group identities, or even global identities like our spiritual identity as children of God. The study simply reinforces the commonsense idea that people generally like it when others respect their individuality.
After conducting their research, Rabinovich and Morton concluded that “activating subordinate identities . . . resulted in stronger intentions to contribute to the resource shared by the superordinate group.” They were quick to point out, however, that “subordinate identity was activated within the framework of the superordinate group.” This led them to suggest that clarity of the self was a dominant factor in motivating global group cooperation.
The implications this study has for gay people in conservative churches are important. A variety of factors shape the distinctiveness that gay people feel as a result of their orientation. Some of these factors stem from the ways they experience their orientation on a daily basis in the context of relationships with others. A gay woman who invests in a relationship with another woman might have a general awareness of ways that her orientation shapes her desire for friendship with women. This is something that makes her distinct from straight women. But other factors stem from the significance that societies attach to orientation. For example, gay people might want others to acknowledge their distinctiveness in circumstances that are traditionally associated with heteronormativity.
What might this mean for the ways we gather gay people into our churches? Basically, anything that acknowledges the distinctive experience of gay people and that also affirms their inherent value and place within the body of Christ will communicate love to them and will promote unity in the church. Some, possibly larger, churches might decide that some of their gay members are in need of focused attention and that a support group or other weekly gathering would be a good way to provide this. But it could also be as simple as devoting a portion of the first sermon in a series on marriage to acknowledging ways that gay people (as well as single people in general) might be uniquely impacted by this series because of their distinctive experience in comparison with that of married couples.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 288.
If we add heterosexism into this mix, we get a situation that is even more complicated and fraught with the potential for misunderstanding. Simply put, gay people with black, Hispanic, Latino, and other nonwhite ethnoracial backgrounds experience heteronormativity differently from white people. Not only do they experience it in the context of racism and the stereotypes associated with that, but they also experience forms of heteronormativity that are unique to their own ethnoracial community. The impact of this additional axis of prejudice and stereotyping that gay people of color experience can be difficult to grasp, but I think a good place to start is simply by acknowledging that it is real. The double invisibility that many of these individuals contend with on a daily basis forces them to develop an even more diverse set of skills in order to thrive in the world they inhabit.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 296.
My redeemed gayness reflects the beauty of the gospel when my orientation is caught up in a desire to serve one of my guy friends, for example. The collective diversity of redeemed fallenness is beautiful because Christ made it beautiful when he made us part of himself.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 301.
In my opinion, the simplest path to answering this question is to remember that beneath all the erotic desires that characterize how I experience my sexuality, beneath the attractions I may feel to this or that individual, beneath the skipped heartbeat when a specific guy enters a room, or looks at me, or touches my arm—beneath all these things that we usually associate with sexuality—is the simple perception and appreciation of the beauty of another bearer of the divine image.
-Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 303.