[The responses in this section were originally written in response to questions I received from friends or others. Before posting them here, I edited both question and response in order to enhance clarity and readability.]
Question: In God’s Grace and the Homosexual Next Door, Alan Chambers writes, “This is why I believe that it is so important to clarify that just living a celibate gay life is just as sinful as living a sexually promiscuous one. The sin is in identifying with anything that is contrary to Christ, which homosexuality clearly is” (218). Would you be willing to identify as a “gay Christian”? How do you think such an identity relates to the arsenokoitai of whom Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 6?
Response: I think my answer will be clearest if I start with the second half of your question. There is some debate about how best to translate arsenokoitai. The NIV translates the word as “homosexual offenders” while the NKJV has “homosexuals” and the RSV has “sexual perverts.”
Before getting into the details of arguments about translation, it’s important to break down different things we might mean when talking about “homosexuals.”
It seems to me that Alan’s account of the dangers in identifying as “celibate gay” assume that “gay” in “celibate gay” implies (3). However, this seems incoherent to me: I cannot both be committed to resist homosexual desire as a temptation to sin and see the same desires as a positive thing which I act on or intend to act on.
With this in mind, let’s return to the arsenokoitai. As I have argued before, the key to understanding the word is found in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament in use at the time of Christ. There, Leviticus 18:22 reads, “You shall not lie with [koiten] a man [arsenos] as with a woman.” I believe this gives us very strong reasons to believe that arsenokoitai is a Greek word that Paul coined to refer to men who broke the commandment in Leviticus 18:22. Thus, Paul’s focus in 1 Corinthians 6 is on the sinfulness of homosexual acts; whatever translation we adopt for arsenokoitai needs to make clear that the focus is on acts.
Acts, of course, need not be overt. As Christ makes clear, lust in the heart is as bad as adultery (Matthew 5:28). Lustful fantasies about other men is obviously ruled out along with lusting after women. But there is an important distinction between temptation and lust. As Martin Luther pointed out, “You can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can stop them from nesting in your hair.” As long as we resist sexual desires, they remain temptations; it is only when we embrace and welcome them that they become lust.
As I argue in the Great Debate, all of the Biblical references to homosexuality are talking about sexual acts (and by extension, lustful thoughts). Leviticus forbids lying with a man as with a woman. In the Letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul talks about women who have sex with woman and men who have sex with men. And the arsenokoitai who show up on vice lists in 1 Corintians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 are men who lie with other men.
What makes Alan’s statement confusing is that in focusing on “gay identity,” he apparently gives up the idea that gay sex is a sin at all. If there is no distinction between a “celibate gay life” (whatever he means by that) and a promiscuous one, then apparently whether you have sex doesn’t matter in any way. This is a puzzling exegesis (if it can be called exegesis at all).
I know that the issue he’s going after here doesn’t have anything to do with sexual orientation. He has clarified that he’s not saying you have to change your orientation. He admits that lots of men and women in Exodus will go on having homosexual orientations until they die. He also apparently thinks celibacy is an acceptable long-term goal. So his objection is not to celibacy per se.
I can’t make any sense of what Alan has actually said about gay identity. However, I think that there is an important point lurking in the vicinity of what he is saying. I will therefore set aside his confusing language, and try to make my own concerns clear.
According to Alan, the sin is in “identifying with” homosexuality. In order to make sense of this, it’s important to start by distinguishing between different ways that I can “identify with” someone or something.
First, consider the famous passage in Augustine’s Confessions where he says that when he prayed, “Lord, make me chaste,” he was secretly adding, “but not yet.” Like most readers of the Confessions, I identify with this prayer—that is, I recognize in Augustine’s experience something that I experience, too. However, I do not approve of attitude, either in myself or in St. Augustine. I just recognize its existence. There is thus a sense in which I can “identify with” something that is clearly sinful without sin. In fact, this kind of “identifying with” can actually be helpful for recognizing sin so that I can repent of it.
Next, consider a different passage in the Confessions: “You have made us for Yourself,” Augustine says to God, “and our hearts are ever restless until they find rest in you.” Once again, I recognize in Augustine’s experience something that I have experienced, too. I’ve tried to pursue happiness on my own terms, and ended up alienated and frustrated. I’ve also experienced the peace that comes from submission to God’s will.
But there’s an important difference between the way I identify with these two statements. In the first case, I identify with not wanting to be chaste just yet, but don’t approve of this attitude within myself. But in the latter case, I identify with and approve the recognition that true peace comes only in Christ.
Let’s turn specifically to talk about homosexuality, where we meet an additional, complicating, layer to the problem. Regardless of how one chooses to respond to one’s sexual attractions, there are a whole set of shared experiences that go along with growing up and discovering that one is attracted to other guys. Many of these experiences are not directly connected with sexuality, but have to do with the sense of alienation that we experience as we recognize, in our early teens, that our peers would condemn us as “queers” or “fags” if they found out about our attractions. These experiences shape us in various important ways.
In some Christian circles, merely to admit to having a homosexual orientation can elicit almost as strong a condemnation as embracing gay pride (this is, of course, less of a factor now than it used to be, but it’s still a real problem).
This means that when I talk to friends who embrace gay relationships, there is a lot in their experience growing up in a Christian environment that I can identify with, even though I cannot agree with their belief that God would bless my decision if I entered a gay relationship.
The most important way in which I can “identify with” someone is to see them as a role model, as someone who embodies some element of the kind of person I want to become. In my New Oxford Review article, I wrote that “when it comes to the Church’s teaching about same-sex attraction, we have presently a great disadvantage: those who choose to embrace the world’s teaching will find an abundance of role models, whether in the media, in the schools, or even in their own parish, for many parishes today have no shortage of publicly proclaimed dissidents. But those who choose to live a life of chastity will have the greatest difficulty finding any role models at all. Here, the Church’s teaching is almost always presented in the abstract, without in-the-flesh-models. And so it is quite common that those who realize they have same-sex attractions see no choice but to follow the world, because it is only the world that offers them role models.”
When I read Mel White’s story of growing up gay in The Stranger at the Gate, there was a great deal in his story that I could identify with, in the sense of recognizing similarities between his experiences growing up as a strongly committed Christian guy who realizes he’s attracted to other guys and my own. I was about twenty when I read the book, and I was rather desperate to find some role model for how to be a Christian who was attracted to other men. But as I read the book, and saw some of the decisions Mel made, I came to see that he was not going to be that role model. I could identify with his struggles. But I could not pattern my decisions on his, because he often acted out of desperation and loneliness, not in courageous obedience to God.
I sympathize with his struggle, more now than I did at twenty. As I get older, I appreciate more clearly the challenges of remaining faithful decade in and decade out. Nevertheless, the lessons I took from The Stranger at the Gate were mostly negative. I resolved not to make the same mistakes in my life that he made in his.
It is extremely important to choose wisely who we take as a role model, because role models shape our character and identity in powerful ways. I see no problem in identifying with the shared experiences we have with many sexually active gays and lesbians. But I think it is a serious mistake to take those in the gay community as role models for understanding our sexuality. For that, we need to choose those who are obedient to Christ.
I have found St. Augustine to be an inspiring and courageous model. I have also found that I can identify better with straight friends who are serious about sexual purity than with gay friends who are not, even though I don’t identify with my straight friends’ experiences of temptation in the same way I do with gay friends’ experiences.
Since there are several different senses in which we can identify with people or ideas, it is a mistake to lump them all together. Nevertheless, we still need to think about what should motivate Christians to identify with others, and what motives should be suspect.
The most important way in which we identify with another person is in seeing them as a role model, as someone on whom we can pattern our own life.
The metaphor that dominates Exodus International’s approach to ministry is, not surprisingly, the Old Testament exodus from Egypt—with homosexuality equated with the pagan land of Egypt and heterosexual marriage seen as the promised land, flowing with milk and honey. In this model, homosexuality is easily seen as a problem to be fixed, with heterosexuality as the goal.
However, it seems to me that this ignores an important distinction. It would be wrong for me to identify myself with homosexual sin. But there is nothing “contrary to Christ” in identifying with sinners. Christ himself became like us in every way except sin (Heb. 2:17-18; 4:15). I did not choose my sexual attractions. But through my experience of those attractions, I have come to understand homosexuality in a way that few other Christians do. I can speak to the gay and lesbian community with a personal authority that outspoken leaders like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell simply do not and cannot have.
I understand the need for a ministry like Exodus. Men and women who have become deeply involved in addictive sexual behaviors need to break completely away from the environment that leads them to sin. But I have long seen a place for a different kind of ministry, driven not by the metaphor of the exodus from Egypt, but by the incarnation of Christ.
The Pharisees did not understand why Jesus would go to dinner parties hosted by tax collectors and sinners. Nor did they understand why he would talk to disreputable women. In their hardened hearts, they suspected that he went into these places because of some secret sympathy with sin. But that was not how Jesus thought. He went because he loved and wanted to reach out to people who were in need of his healing presence.
Some ex-gay leaders equate any identification with the gay and lesbian community with a kind of identification with sin. In fact, however, in order to maintain healthy boundaries that honor my commitment to celibacy, I am continually forced to confront and reject the temptation to identify with homosexual sin in my heart. My interaction with the gay and lesbian community actually makes this more important for me than it would be if I were completely removed from all contact with that community.
All of this creates a delicate balancing act. I’m not saying I always get that balance right—in fact, I know that I do not and both sides of the equation are at times a struggle for me. But that is how I try to deal with identity issues. I try to identify with as much as I can identify with in the experience of others with a homosexual orientation. On the other hand, when seeking role models, I look for Christians (wether straight or otherwise) who demonstrate courageous fidelity to God. In my interactions with gays and lesbians, I try to make clear what I believe about sexual morality when it is appropriate to do so. And that means making clear that I don’t allow my sexual attractions to define who I am or how I behave.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ made it clear that God’s concern is not, first and foremost, with our external actions. It is with how we see the world. Do I see others as sexual objects, but refrain from a sexual act? If I do, I am already committing adultery in the heart (cf. Matt. 5:28). Merely to separate oneself from the external situation that could lead to sin is not enough, as Jesus makes clear: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. You blind Pharisee! first cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean” (Matt. 23:25-26).
To the extent that I see other men as sexual objects, I am unable to see them as Christ sees them, and so am unable to identify with them as persons in the radical way that Christ identifies with me. To identify myself with those who struggle therefore demands a constant effort to purify my own vision, so that I see in others the beauty of the image of God, rather than seeing them in selfish terms as an object for my own sinful desires.
To finish with your question: would I be willing to identify as a “gay Christian”?
It depends. Generally speaking, I do not identify as a “gay Christian.” If I am the one controlling the dialogue (for example, I’m giving a speech or writing an article) I try to find creative ways to explain my beliefs without using either conservative Christian jargon (like “same-sex attracted”) or ambiguous terms (like “gay”).
Suppose, however, that someone asks me, “are you gay?” It seems to me that the most straight-forward answer to this question is, “yes, but I’m celibate.” If the person I’m speaking to meant to ask if I am attracted to men, I have answered the question and identified my own response to those attractions. If, however, the person understands “gay” to involve not only having same-sex attractions, but also embracing and affirming those attractions, I have made clear that I do not affirm and embrace them. At that point, we will just have to see where the conversation will go from there. In this way, I focus the conversation on the moral issue, rather than getting lost in semantic gymnastics over the term “gay.”
In all of this, I try to use the incarnation and Paul’s desire to be “all things to all people” as my guiding principle: I want to be as closely identified as I can be with the people I am trying to reach out to, while both living and teaching God’s righteousness without compromise.
Do I always succeed? No. There are difficult temptations on both sides. Sometimes, I become self-righteous and distance myself too much from the “sinners” in the gay community, trying to show off my “righteousness” to other Christians. At other times I compromise my commitment to sexual purity by allowing myself to become too identified with attitudes of sexually active gay friends.
I also know that the path I am on is a dangerous one. I know the temptations and struggles I have faced staying on it, and I have friends who first tried to identify with the gay community as I have, and later fell into serious sexual sin. Some have even lost their faith. But this is not that much different from the challenges that face all Christians living in a sinful world. Even though I make a deliberate effort to connect with the gay community, I am still far less frequently confronted with opportunities for homosexual sin than my straight Christian friends are confronted with opportunities for heterosexual sin.
In the end, I agree with Exodus that there is something like “gay identity” that is spiritually toxic and needs to be rejected. But it seems to me that the issue is not that the word “gay” is somehow magically dangerous. There are contexts where I would never describe myself as “gay.” But there are other contexts where it makes more sense for me to call myself “gay” in order to focus on the moral issue, rather than getting caught up in a linguistic debate about whether or not I am really “gay.”
Words are used to get at concepts. But in our culture, there is a great deal of confusion about the underlying concepts we use to understand homosexuality. This translates into confusion about the words we use. That’s why I wrote nearly 2000 words clarifying the underlying concepts before I even began to answer your question about whether I would be willing to identify as a “gay Christian”?
For me, then, the fundamental issue is to find the most straight-forward way to clarify concepts using the language I have available to me. I think that the word “gay” is ambiguous at best and in many, if not most contexts, closely associated with an attitude towards my sexual attractions that I do not, in fact, hold. I will therefore usually, if I’m writing an article or speech, try to figure out how to describe my own experience without using the word “gay” or identifying myself as “gay.” But I am willing to use it if I believe that I can communicate my meaning more straight-forwardly with it than without.
If Alan is worried that it is not enough just to refrain from gay sex, but that one needs a whole inner transformation of attitudes towards sexuality, then I agree with him. Identifying with the sexual attitudes of the gay community while remaining celibate would not be pleasing to God. But there are other ways of identifying with the gay community which are perfectly legitimate.
Again, Alan is correct to think that the word “gay” has a lot of baggage that goes along with it. In many circumstances, describing myself as “gay” would result in misunderstanding. However, there are other circumstances where it makes more sense to use the word “gay” to describe myself than to get distracted by a fight over semantics.
I realize this is a very long response to your question, but I hope I have made my own beliefs clear, and helped to unravel some of the confusion surrounding where and how we should find our identity.
P.S. The blogger at Disputed Mutability has tackled topics related to your question on multiple occasions. She addressed the quote from Alan Chambers which you refer to in “Exodus Takes on the Celibate Menace.” For a highly insightful, but somewhat different, take on gay identity, see her series of blog posts on “Why I Forsook Gay Identity,” which are listed below:
In 2003, Justin Lee, the founder and Executive Director of the Gay Christian Network, invited me to write an essay defending the traditional Christian belief that homosexual activity is wrong, and that gays and lesbians who are unable to marry a person of the opposite sex are called to celibacy. Justin wrote a companion essay arguing that God blesses gay marriage. Justin has made the two essays into a prominent GCN feature called the “Great Debate.”
For the Summer 2004 issue, Notre Dame Magazine planned to do a special issue focused on homosexuality and the Catholic Church. They invited me to contribute an essay describing how I came to accept Catholic teaching on homosexuality. Rather than focusing on theological arguments, they asked me to focus on telling the story through my own journey and experiences. The whole package won the 2005 first place Press Award for “Best investigative writing or analysis” from the Catholic Press Association. This is a somewhat revised version of the essay. Click here for the original version on the Notre Dame Magazine website.
In late 2002 and early 2003, there was an ongoing controversy in the letters section of the New Oxford Review over the editors’ use of the word “fag” in an article. With encouragement from several members of Courage who were deeply frustrated with the exchange, I wrote this essay, which was published in the June 2003 issue of the New Oxford Review.
This essay was originally written in 2003, in response to the planned protests of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meetings in Washington, DC by Soulforce, a pro-gay group. Edited slightly to remove references to the original protest, it still provides a good overview of some aspects of Catholic teaching related to homosexuality.
Also written in response to the Soulforce protests, this essay examines prejudice against gays and lesbians, and attempts to provide a Catholic Response.
This is the keynote speech I gave at the January, 2007 Gay Christian Network Conference in Seattle, WA. It voices frustration at the ways that gays and lesbians are sometimes treated by Christians, and focuses on the importance of obedience to God, even in the most difficult circumstances.
If you knew nothing about human biology, you could listen to most of our debates about abortion and never realize that men are involved in any way. We talk about the woman’s body, the woman’s right to choose. We in the pro-life movement talk about the unborn child’s right to life. But what about the father? In this speech, delivered at the March 25, 2006 Symposium on Life Issues at St. Monica's Catholic Church, I looked at the role of men in building the Culture of Life.
On January 22, 2006, the Knights of Columbus invited me to give a brief reflection at a memorial service for the unborn, held at Mt. Angeles Memorial Park to commemmorate the 33rd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.
On November 3, 2005, the Philosophy Club at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette invited me to debate Dr. Rick Swanson on the question: “Does the Bible Condemn Homosexuality?” I do not have a complete transcript of the debate; however, I have made my opening statement available here.
On January 23, 2004, the Washington, DC chapter of Courage and the Georgetown University chapter of the Knights of Columbus invited me to speak at Georgetown about Catholic teaching and homosexuality.
[The responses in this section were originally written in response to questions I received from friends or others. Before posting them here, I edited both question and response in order to enhance clarity and readability.]
Question: In God’s Grace and the Homosexual Next Door, Alan Chambers writes, “This is why I believe that it is so important to clarify that just living a celibate gay life is just as sinful as living a sexually promiscuous one. The sin is in identifying with anything that is contrary to Christ, which homosexuality clearly is” (218). Would you be willing to identify as a “gay Christian”? How do you think such an identity relates to the arsenokoitai of whom Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 6? [ Read response ]