The following blog is written by Rachel Gilson and is part 5 of our series, "Gay" vs. '"Same Sex Attraction:" A Dialogue. Rachel is the director of theological development for Cru Northeast. You can find more of her writing at rachelgilson.com.
In my first post, I explained how I have come to use language of “same-sex attraction” to describe my sexual and romantic desires. But this is not merely a question of personal preference. I also believe that LGBT+ language - or calling oneself a “gay” or “queer” Christian – is usually unwise. This is because it can do harm to those outside the church, harm to those who follow Christ, and also harm to the self.
Troubles On Mission
My vocation is as a campus minister in some really secular, progressive places. I love getting to share the gospel with these students! They teach me so much about evolving terminology in the LGBT+ sphere, and about the spiritual hunger they experience. I often hear from proponents of LGBT+ language that is has missional advantages precisely because it will be understood by these populations.
I beg to differ. These students I work with have contemporary assumptions about what the word gaymeans, and the most natural understanding is not onlyattraction but also pursuit of fulfilling those attractions. It would not be intuitive for them at all to have someone identify as gay but not be seeking to enter in to romantic and sexual relationships that could be described as gay. They would most likely hear “gay Christian” and think that person is pursuing a same-gender relationship andJesus Christ. After all, this is what affirming Christians mean when they use that language. This is exactly what those of us who hold the biblical majority view do not want to say.
Proponents of this language among Christians understand that all language choices come with consequences, including the potential to be misunderstood. In their view, LGBT+ language is the least problematic in this conversation, given that nothing is perfect. But I disagree. Without quick explanation of what one actually means, you’re more likely to set people up for a bait-and-switch. I’m not all suggesting that would be the intention of the Christian using that language! But we know that intention and impact don’t always follow each other.
So, yes of course those who identify as gay Christians can be clear quickly and generously about their position. Some for this reason use “celibate gay Christian” (though where does this leave opposite-sex married people like me? “Married gay Christian” would beg further questions). Before long, we seem to lose any simplicity advantage over phrases like “same-sex attraction.” This argument doesn’t have the supposed quick clarity it claims.
Paul spoke of becoming all things to all people, in order that he might save some. I think this is the heart behind my brothers and sisters who embrace this language for missional reasons. But we have to acknowledge that the language itself is as likely to produce confusion and perhaps hurt for those we are speaking to, because of its everyday usage today. Let us use our gifts and our experiences to glorify God on his mission, amen. But let us seek to do so as clearly and helpfully as possible.
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The everyday usage of gay as not limited to attraction doesn’t just pose challenges missionally. It also creates confusion for many people in the church – perhaps the majority.
Most people in the church are not paying close attention to the nuances in the conversation the traditional church is having about sexuality. One consequence of this is that language of gay Christianity usually brings to the conservative mind association with people who are claiming Christ and pursuing same-gender romance at the same time. Because most church folk understand that the most typical understanding of gay is not merely attractional, the conclusion they draw is logical. This naturally produces quick concern that God’s sexual ethic is being compromised in the church. The brother or sister using LGBT+ language finds themselves misunderstood from the outset.
Hear me: I’m not saying that we are never permitted to do anything that would confuse or offend. But I do think if we want to help shepherd our siblings towards more understanding of sexuality broadly, taking into account how they hear our initial language is important. It is not atypical in body life to constrain our own freedoms for the sake of the consciences of other Christians. As always, we need to know our audience in order to love them.
Perhaps using the language of gay Christianity can be the prod that moves them forward, as those who use it take the time to explain what they mean. Yet I fear they will lose much of their audience before they get to that point. Is that unfair? Quite possibly! But we’re called to minister to real people, who are as complex as we are. I believe that if we want to see more rapid progress in this arm of the church, we should use language that is readily acceptable. This will make some difficult truths easier to digest.
We must acknowledge that there are Christians who would not respond to this language in that way, which is helpful. But given the preponderance of affirming Christians who use this language, and how “gay” and “queer” are used in public life, we shouldn’t ever assume we’re understood when using it. As this whole blog series indicates, thoughtfulness and clarity are key!
Troubles for the Self
These two concerns above are important, but I have more concern about what adopting LGBT+ language could do to the self-conception of those who do. I want to say upfront that I know and love several Christians who choose to use this language for themselves and seem to do so in the way that is personally helpful and worn well in the world. But that doesn’t remove my concern that it is generally unwise.
It is sometimes pointed out that “gay” is just an adjective, like any other. For example, I am a woman, a white person, an American, a writer, a cilantro-hater. Any of these things can be valid parts of my holistic identity that need to interact with my Christian faith. In some contexts, it can be helpful for certain of them to be identified, to be wrestled with, to be sanctified. So for example, identifying as an American Christian might provide some helpful context for my stance on missions, my access to the Bible, or my responsibility toward the poor. It might signal both gifts I have to share with the body, as well as discipleship needs I have.
Some of my friends argue that “gay” can be used just like that. And I am highly sympathetic to this. After all, I have found it necessary on mission and in the church to discuss my own relationship to sexual desire and what the Bible has to say about it, and so I need language to discuss it. But because of how loaded with extra-significance “gay” has become, I think it is a dangerous choice for the Christian who wants to have these conversations.
Some words and phrases have more cultural power and presence than others. Words like “gay” and “queer” have particular cultural relevance right now. They are never simple thoughts, but small words that carry whole worlds of associations inside them, including the political, historical, biological, and social. One of the most prevalent of these ideas bound up in these words is that a person is her sexuality. Even if this is not what someone means when she uses it, she can’t escape that this is the workaday public assumption.
This idea feels intuitively true to many. After all, sexual feeling are powerful, personal, and usually unchosen. Not only that, but our culture – and even our church – constantly catechizes us to believe that to find ourselves, we have to look inward. Self-discovery, they say, will be our path to authentic life. The move from “these attractions are a true thing about me” to “these attractions are the truth about me” is subtle, but powerful.
However, as Sam Allberry likes to point out, the only word Jesus puts after “self” is not “discovery, but “denial.” Of all people, Christians should be the least naïve about what is real in the world, including same-gender attraction. But let’s not confuse the real with the good. A desire is judged by its telos, and the natural end point of my same-sex attraction is sex and romance with a woman. Of course my attractions to women are more than that, but certainly they are not less. Were I outside Christ, the world would cheer me on to “live my truth” and plunge into sin. Inside Christ, I submit every thought captive, testing each desire by his powerful word.
We cannot and should not build an identity around something that at its heart wants to drive us toward sin. Can I hold my American citizenship in sin, to return to the comparison? Yes of course! We have seen throughout history the deadly conflagration of nationalism with religion. But it is not a necessary end of citizenship to turn into idolized nationalism. The word “gay,” however, constantly pulls at our hearts to enshrine in the core of our identity a pull towards what God has forbidden. It is possible to use “gay” simply as an adjective, but the cultural force of the word militates sharply against it.
This might bring up the rebuttal, “well, but someone can be an alcoholic Christian.” Indeed. But the word “alcoholic” still doesn’t tag to personhood and identity the way that the word “gay” does. This patently obvious. We don’t have Alcoholic Pride Parade. And if we did, I think we’d need to question that. Of course we can understand where Gay Pride comes from. It is a natural response to the brutal denial of humanity that many people, including Christians, have foisted upon gays and lesbians and others. But that doesn’t mean a redeemed child of God should continue to look to that source for affirmation, purpose, and identity. We do not need to be ashamed of these attractions. But we should be biblically realistic about them, and how language choices could aid and abet them.
Jonathan Merritt, not a man who holds to the traditional biblical ethic, stated recently on Preston Sprinkle’s Theology in the Raw podcast that people shouldn’t be naïve about language. And of course he’s not alone in this observation. More and more Protestant Christians are rediscovering the power that habit has over personal and communal growth and identity, and language is a huge piece of habit. It is never merely descriptive – it always plays a role in formation. To repeatedly use the word “gay” about oneself is to invite enshrining in the inner self that these attractions are whoI am, as opposed to how I am.
When this becomes the case, it is often much harder to fight these desires. I lose distance between myself and my flesh, so I can’t easily separate hating my sin, which is godly, from hating myself, which is sin. This can be a particular temptation for those who are fleeing equal-but-opposite sinful messaging from the church that a person is her same-sex attractions and that makes her all bad. A person caught here may start trying to find justifications that these desires are perhaps good in themselves, as opposed to fallen realities that can be used by God for good ends. Temptation is not sin, but neither is it fully morally neutral. Just because something might not fall into the category of moral culpability does not make it safe.
In our culture obsessed with sexuality, and obsessed with individuality and self-creation, we must be intelligent, watchful Christians. None of us has so mastered the flesh that it cannot deceive us. Society would tell me that if I feel it, I must do it. Yet I declare I am owned by Jesus Christ and am slave to him alone. What language best assists me in this fight, this declaration? What language best helps me support others?
So many Christians I love have opted for LGBT+ language, and they have done so for good reasons. I don’t I want to suggest that this language is beyond the pale, or not an option for some Christians. But I’m not convinced it should be the language most Christians choose for themselves. It is tangled up with worldly goals and impulses and claimed specifically and actively by those who identify as Christian but have abandoned God’s words on sexuality. For the majority of Christians with same-sex attractions, LGBT+ language is not the wisest choice.