In the weeks surrounding the first Revoice conference, I read a lot of conservative believers expressing concern about a “celibate gay identity movement” or “Christian gay identity movement”or some other combination of the words “celibate”, “gay”, “Christian”, or “identity” combined with “movement”.
It struck me that the only people I heard referring to such a movement were those who consider themselves outside of it. Can there be a movement if the alleged members do not see themselves as such?
Whether or not there is a movement, the terminology is inapt and potentially misleading, in four ways:
- The emphasis on “celibate” is used to imply that these individuals reject or devalue heterosexual marriage. But plenty of those involved are heterosexually married themselves, including Nate Collins, the founder of Revoice. It is true that we don’t blithely assure Christians attracted to their own sex that God will fix everything if they take the leap of faith of getting married. A homosexual orientation poses challenges for Christian marriage that ought not be ignored. But most would say that marriage can be a good option with sufficient awareness, discernment, and resolve. The Revoice conference had a wonderful panel discussion with several gay people married to people of the opposite sex talking about their experiences in encouraging ways.
- Talk about a “gay identity” movement contributes to a misunderstanding that Christians involved with Spiritual Friendship or Revoice are invested in or advocating for a deep sense of “gay identity” or finding their identity in their sexuality rather than in Christ. I have never met that person, despite many critics attacking such a position. It seems to be a strawman for people to get worked up about without engaging with anyone’s real views.
- Talk about “gay Christianity” feeds a misconception that these believers are purveying a new kind of Christianity, some sort of syncretistic pseudo-religion, when in reality everyone I know who is involved sees themselves as striving to be faithful to plain old regular Christianity, in the traditions and denominations they find themselves in. When I say “gay Christian” in reference to myself, which I don’t do that often, I am not qualifying or limiting or specializing my Christianity–rather, I am simply emphasizing to the world and to the church that I am committed to following and glorifying Jesus as a woman who is predominantly atttracted to her own sex, which happens to be an intense point of controversy with the church and the world at this cultural moment. The world thinks my faith is self-destructive, and the conservative church often can’t believe that God hasn’t made me straight yet, and wishes I would cooperate in hiding that reality with silence and euphemisms.
- Some claim there is a broader “Christian gay identity movement”, implying or asserting that progressive/”affirming” gay Christians and those gay/ssa Christians who are faithful to a Biblical sexual ethic are two wings of the same movement, allied forces assaulting historic Christian teaching on this subject. As a Reformed evangelical, I see the world and the progressive/mainline churches as vastly more alien and opposed to me and the values I care about than those who are more theologically conservative than I am. I think there is, for the most part, just a minute hair’s-breadth of real difference between myself and conservatives concerned about Spiritual Friendship and Revoice, and a yawning, vast abyss between myself and, say, Matthew Vines. Now, obviously, no one is obliged to agree with my own view of how close I am to anyone. But just know that I myself, and many others that I know, consider ourselves to have very little in common with most “affirming”/progressive gay Christians, and are completely bewildered at being perceived and portrayed as their allies by conservatives.
I think affirming theology is destructive and spiritually dangerous. I hope and pray for God’s grace for everyone, but I don’t see how to read the Bible without concluding that homosexual sex is a moral and spiritual disaster. The primary reason I confront conservative criticism is that I have watched inaccurate or unjust criticism weary, exasperate, and alienate people in a way that pushes them into the welcoming arms of the affirming church. (Perhaps these things must come, but woe to him through whom they come.) Frankly, I believe that our lives of costly discipleship entitle us to the benefit of the doubt from other believers when it comes to our seriousness about the faith. This doesn’t mean there is no place for folks to speak truth into our lives. But it should be done humbly, with careful listening and with appreciation (not simply cursory acknowledgment) of just how much we love our Lord and how much we desire to see Him glorified in our lives and in this world.
(Maybe a suitable analogy here is that of a fundamentally orthodox missionary who has a questionable theological opinion. Their life of courage and obedience and pouring out of themselves in love doesn’t mean that they are 100% doctrinally correct. But it probably does mean that accusing them of not valuing the Bible’s or Christ’s authority or not even being regenerate is not the best starting point for conversation.)
Many conservative outsiders mistake Spiritual Friendship and Revoice as a halfway house or baby steps toward liberalism and “affirming” theology. But this is absolutely backwards. I desire to see same-sex attracted believers supported and encouraged in their obedience either in celibate singleness or marriage to a person of the opposite sex because I want them to stay on the narrow road, on the path of life. I worry about the doubt, discouragement, and despair engendered in many such believers by the godlessness and sexual insanity of our culture and the misunderstanding and lack of empathetic support from conservative Christians. I see churches hemorrhaging their same-sex attracted covenant children and it breaks my heart. People ask me, “How can we bring those who struggle with these issues into the church?” I say, “Before you worry about bringing “them” into your church, figure out how to support the ones that are already in the church. What you are going to do if and when the gay unbelieving friend you are talking to and praying for repents? How is your church going to be supporting them in their walk with Christ tomorrow, next year, ten or twenty years from now, if the miraculous heterosexual transformation you’re hoping for doesn’t take place?”
Is there a movement? Surveying the landscape, I see now, as I have seen since the mid-2000s, thoughtful individuals voicing their ideas on faith and sexuality. What I don’t see is a unified movement anywhere. The things that unite those of us who are alleged to belong to this movement are simply Christian faith and a belief that God doesn’t want us engaging in homosexual sexual activity–things which are common to evangelicals and conservative Christians of all stripes.
- Some prefer gay/LGBTQ language, some don’t care either way, and some are uncomfortable with it.
- Some are grateful for their ex-gay experiences, others see those past experiences as more complicated, and others consider them destructive and traumatic.
- There is a whole spectrum of different views on the best way to pursue relational connection (i.e.., not being alone) in this present culture: some support celibate partnerships, others networks of friendship, others joining the household of an existing family, others intentional community, and others favor marriage to a person of the opposite sex. And of course, none of these options necessarily excludes the others.
- Most see their same-sex attraction strictly as a result of the Fall, a few believe that perhaps there is some creational difference (which does NOT include sexual desire for the same sex!) that existed before the Fall.
- Most don’t buy into a deep sense of gay identity—they are just using the common, ordinarily understood English adjective to describe this one aspect of their experience in a fallen world. A few do want to make more of identity than that, but all would see that part of their identity as subordinate to their identity as children of God.
- There is a range of opinions about how connected we should be with those who affirm homosexual sexual activity while professing to be Christians–many are not comfortable with it at all, though there are some who are, to varying degrees.
- And there are a whole range of opinions on how they think of homosexual attraction, temptation, and sin. Most, like most Orthodox, Catholics, and broadly evangelical Protestants, do not think sexual attraction itself is a sin (though many would say it is fallen or sinful in some derivative sense). But some of us, particularly the more Reformed of us, do think some aspects of attraction and desire are sin.
The only thing I see setting the supposed “celibate gay identity movement” apart from other Christians is this: As long as there is agreement on basic (Nicene) Christianity, and agreement that Christian marriage is between a man and a woman, and homosexual sexual expression is not permitted, we really don’t see much else as a deal-breaker when it comes to who we are willing to talk to, work with, and learn from. I find the ecumenism both encouraging and fruitful. Despite differing views on the gay-related matters mentioned above, not to mention other, sometimes deeper differences in theology and ecclesiology, we find much of value in each others’ perspectives as we seek to work out these things.
I am grateful for this chorus of unique voices. We are in a season of exploration, not in a season of dogma, when it comes to working out the details of encouragement and discipleship for predominantly same-sex-attracted believers in our present cultural context. Nobody has it all figured out yet. We are united not so much by answers (except to the overarching answer that sex belongs in marriage, and marriage is male/female by design) but by the questions we are seeking answers to:
- What sense of vocation and calling can we have?
- How can we experience love, connection, friendship? How is God making a way for us to avoid the not-goodness of being alone?
- Is it possible for celibate or heterosexually-married gay Christians with a Biblical sexual ethic to live happy, fulfilling lives? If it is possible, how do we address the obstacles which sometimes stand in the way of that?
- Is there suffering going on that doesn’t need to happen? Is there suffering that is unavoidable, but that people could be better supported and empowered to live well in the midst of?
- What does it look like for us to pursue holiness and obedience in the midst of persisting predominant same-sex attraction?
- How can the church best help support us?
- How do we navigate life in a culture which is so profoundly opposed to our views? How do we resist the endless temptations it poses?
- How do we challenge its assumptions and speak the truth? How do we live in a world where everyone thinks we are utterly foolish or that we have completely lost our minds?
- How should we interact with our churches?
A lot of progressive/affirming Christians say that a traditional sexual ethic for a gay Christian is impossible, destructive, too hard. A lot of conservatives agree that living out that ethic is hard, but take a line of “Life is pain, highness. Everyone who says differently is selling something.” Something about Christian soldiers and hardship and taking up one’s cross. That’s true, but there is no reason to stop there. There are ways in which faithful gay Christians can make their lives better, not only happier but more fruitful and more glorifying to God. And there are ways that other believers and the church as a whole can support and encourage them toward that end. (Unfortunately, a lot of things Christians and churches have been saying and doing have the opposite effect.) I see Spiritual Friendship and Revoice working toward helping faithful gay believers grow in Christian maturity, strength, and spiritual fruitfulness, and teaching churches how to nurture rather than impede that growth.