jQuery Slider

You are here

Why say gay? A response to "Yes to Gay Identity, No to Gay Sex?"

Why say gay? A response to "Yes to Gay Identity, No to Gay Sex?"

By Pieter Valk
www.juicyecumenism.com
April 20, 2021

Editor's note: In January the bishops of the Anglican Church in North America released a pastoral statement advising against the term "gay Christian" in favor of "Christians who experience same-sex attraction" to describe celibate Christians upholding traditional church teaching. Nashville Anglican Pieter Valk (who identifies as a celibate "gay Christian") organized an open letter signed by ACNA bishops and priests addressed to "gay Anglicans." Valk later consulted his bishop and complied with a request to remove the open letter. Edgar Noble wrote for Juicy Ecumenism in defense of the bishops' statement and critiquing Valk's perspective. Here Valk responds. Noble may further respond. The debate is among Anglicans who agree that sex is only for male-female marriage but who disagree on terminology and perhaps about theological perspectives on issues like concupiscence.

Edgar Noble's essay "Yes to Gay Identity, No to Gay Sex?" raises important questions about why leaders of the "gay-but-celibate" movement (like me) use the word gay, what that reveals about our theology, and whether we should be trusted to lead the Church to better minister to gay people.

As the author and organizer of the Dear Gay Anglicans Letter, Executive Director of EQUIP (a ministry that provides consulting and teaching on LGBT+ topics), a licensed professional counselor who meets with gay celibate Christians, and a yearly speaker at the Revoice Conference, I likely qualify as one of these questioned leaders. I am a Christian. I am gay. I am committed to a traditional sexual ethic (a belief that God's best for every Christian is either a lifetime vocation of abstinent singleness for the sake of doing kingdom work with undivided attention or a lifetime vocation of opposite-sex marriage with an openness to raising children for the sake of the kingdom).

First, Noble seems to misunderstand our missiological effort to help churches become places where gay people can thrive according to a traditional sexual ethic, including trusting gay people and their local family of God to discern the wisest ways to describe their sexualities.

Noble repeatedly and mistakenly asserts that leaders of our missiological effort believe that God made us gay, believe we are ontologically gay, believe our attractions are not broken, and use the word gay to identify with broken attractions on a trajectory to gay sex. In contrast, leaders have repeatedly clarified the opposite: Nate Collins (President of Revoice), Greg Johnson (Pastor of Memorial PCA), Ron Belgau (Cofounder of Spiritual Friendship), and Matthew Lee Anderson (Founding Editor of Mere Orthodoxy). A quick review of my public writing and speaking reveals at least 10 times where I have contradicted Noble's assertions.

Either the author failed to familiarize himself with primary conversation partners in our missiological effort, or he doubts the sincerity of our repeated clarifications.

Still, Noble's careful examination of cultural identity trends over the past century poses leaders like me a legitimate question: Why do you say gay?

Finding my identity in Christ

Many have asked whether use of the phrase gay Christian compromises my identity in Christ. Identity in Christ is a theological concept developed in the 20th century, but many believers point to Galatians 3:26-29 as the central text for exploring cultural identity in light of Christ's saving work.

Paul describes our identity as "sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus," who were "baptized into Christ," and now "belong to Christ". This suggestion that faith and baptism are all that are required to be in Christ and signal our identity in Christ are confirmed for the Anglican (for example) in Questions 12 and 14 of the ACNA Catechism. While some suggest Paul commands Christians in verse 28 to erase any cultural identity, he instead recognizes the opposite. Male and female Christians, Jewish and Greek Christians, and enslaved and free Christians continued to live in cultural spaces where those cultural identities impacted how they worshipped, who they worshipped with, who could lead, and ultimately how they experienced Jesus. Paul did not expect these cultural realities to disappear but instead reaffirmed that identity in Christ is accomplished solely through faith in Jesus and baptism.

Despite a decade of prayer ministry and conversation therapy, my same-sex attractions persist. I need some word or phrase to efficiently name or describe or refer to this part of my story. No language or terminology communicates with absolute clarity. Ultimately, I've chosen to use the phrase gay Christian. Why?

1. I use gay phenomenologically, not ontologically.

When we define something phenomenologically, we are naming something based on one's experience or what it appears to be. In contrast, when we ask who a person is ontologically, we are asking who they are innately, by design. When God first imagined me in a perfect world, He did not intend for me to experience same-sex attraction. I believe that same-sex attraction is a result of the Fall, a brokenness, a temptation. (For more, check out this discussion of my definition of same-sex attraction.) When I use gay, I am merely noticing that I am attracted to other people of the same-sex and using (in my opinion) the best word to describe that experience. Additionally, I do not believe there is anything uniquely inherent to being gay other than experiencing same-sex attraction. But God has been faithful to redeem my brokenness for my good and His glory (Genesis 50:20), I have gained spiritual gifts I might not have otherwise, including developing a deeper appreciation and capacity for healthy friendship.

2. I identify with people of shared experience, not with brokenness or sin.

I use the phrase gay Christian particularly to identify with other Christians who experienced the same shame and loneliness as a kid. I identify with other Christians who have endured the same pain and fearfully offered their whole selves to God. I identify with people of shared experience because more often than not, they are able to empathize with me and care for me best. I am not identifying with a temptation or sin.

3. I use gay Christian to testify to Christ's worthiness.

Recognizing my same-sex attractions, submitting that brokenness to God, and collaborating with Him to steward my sexuality in redemptive ways has been the greatest source of blessing and God's glory in my life. I cannot tell of the fullness of God's grace and power in my life without mentioning that I am gay. Might some inaccurately assume that gay people are more sexually active than the average straight person? Sure. But then the power of my testimony only grows. When I share that despite my attractions, Jesus is Lord and I submit to His wisdom for my sexual stewardship because I am convinced His love and wisdom are the source of the truest joy, pleasure, and meaning--when I share all of these while confidently using the word gay, my testimony strengthens.

Considering reasonable objections

Many have offered reasonable objections to my testimony. As a minister committed to ensuring that I am accurately understood, these objections must be charitably addressed (discussion of additional objections is provided at the end of the article):

1. Won't hearers assume that I am seeking out same-sex romantic and sexual activity if I call myself a gay Christian?

It's true, the average American probably assumes that the average gay person will seek out romantic, and eventually sexual, relationships with people they are drawn to. But they also assume the same of every American, regardless of their sexual orientation. It is well documented that Christians have sex outside of marriage and get divorced at the same rates as non-Christians. Unfortunately, the phrase gay Christian is no less clear than the phrase straight Christian or merely using the word Christian. Without specifically stating one's theological beliefs and commitments (which I do every time I teach), a Christian using any one of those phrases or words would be presumed to be just as sexually immoral as the average American.

2. Isn't merely experiencing same-sex attraction sin in itself? Should that be reason enough not to call yourself gay?

Thankfully, the Anglican Church in North America, along with the oldest Christian traditions that represent a majority of Christians both in the United States and globally do not teach that Christians sin merely by being tempted. When I experience same-sex attractions yet resist these temptations, I am not guilty of sin. (For more, check out this discussion of questions of sinfulness and concupiscence.)

3. Why are you identifying as anything other than Christian?

All that is required to accomplish and sustain my identity in Christ is to have faith in Christ, signaled by my baptism. The Scriptures do not teach that a Christian's identity in Christ is compromised by using a noun other than Christian to refer to oneself or using an adjective or clause in a sentence where the person refers to themselves as a Christian.

Some have objected to my use of the phrase gay Christian because they believe the word Christian should never be modified. Yet these objectors selectively apply this standard to the word gay while refusing to apply this standard to other cultural identity labels.

Moreover, author Dr. Greg Coles who studied the rhetorics of marginality has said the following: "English scholars consistently treat adjectives and relative clauses as interchangeable syntactic formations for modifying a noun. Thus, same-sex-attracted Christian (an adjectival modifier of the noun) and Christian who experiences same-sex attraction (a relative clause modifier of the noun) have no meaningful denotative difference. As for gay, most leading English dictionaries (including the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, the American Heritage Dictionary, and Google Dictionary) treat this word as a denotative synonym of attracted to the same sex. There is thus no inherent difference in grammatical meaning between the phrases gay Christian, same-sex-attracted Christian, and Christian who experiences same-sex attraction."

They are a distinction without a difference.

Despite these clarifications, many continue to find the word gay too scandalous. Why? Decades ago, gay was used to infer group sex parties where all of the attendees had AIDS, were addicted to drugs, and wanted nothing to do with God. While most Americans today use gay as a mere recognition of same-sex attractions (and nothing more), that word retains a powerful and problematic cultural meaning for older Christians that leads them to falsely assume sexual immorality. Yet I beg these Christians to consider bearing the burden of using gay differently than it once meant, for the sake of children and teens in our churches.

Considering the heavy burdens of gay teens

In Luke 11: 37-53, Jesus urges Pharisees to care for the souls of God's people and take practical steps to address injustice and suffering. Instead, Jesus calls out the Pharisees' superficial purity, using their religious power to add heavy burdens of new ritual laws that kept many away from the love and knowledge of God.

Similarly, previous generations of gay people were given heavy burdens too great to bear, leading many to lose their faith, and we risk hindering future generations of gay people from knowing Jesus in the same ways by our failure to use the most effective language for ministry.

In the mid-20th century Freudian psychoanalysts popularized the notion of being gay as a mental disorder. From this pseudo-science grew conversion therapies and reparative therapies that promised to change an individual's sexual orientation by addressing psychological wounds.

Christian ministries then combined the pseudo-science of Freudian psychoanalysts with charismatic elements, promising to make gay Christians straight if they prayed hard enough. At first promoting ex-gay terminology, reparative therapists later developed the language of same-sex attraction as part of their sexual conversion process. If a person failed to become straight, they were shamed for resisting the work of the Holy Spirit. Then while churches continued to hold gay people to a traditional sexual ethic, they abandoned historical biblical teachings about procreation, celibacy, divorce, and remarriage for straight people.

Yet research has demonstrated that these therapies have been 96% ineffective at eliminating same-sex attraction while increasing the risk of suicide attempts by 92%. Moreover, Andrew Marin's Us Versus Us reveals that while LGBT+ people are more likely that the average American to grow up in church, 54% of LGBT+ people have left the faith--and their top reasons for leaving included negative personal experiences such as ex-gay programs.

Generations of gay people have been burdened by the Church with a false promise of change using the language same-sex attraction. When older generations of gay people hear a Christian using the phrase same-sex attraction, they assume that the Christian seeks to offer these same destructive ex-gay practices and are hindered from seeing or experiencing the love of God.

Despite these challenges, some gay Christians have continued to steward their sexualities according to a traditional sexual ethic. Yet they have struggled to thrive in their churches because pastors fail to teach God's love and wisdom for gay people, pastoral care is outsourced to therapists and parachurch ministries, and celibate aren't offered lifelong, lived-in family--regardless of sexual orientation. Like the Pharisees of Luke 11, Christian leaders fail to take practical steps to alleviate these heavy burdens. Instead, religious elites heap on the burden of additional language policing.

I fear these heavy burdens will make it difficult for future generations of gay Christians to believe that God exists and loves them. I fear that gay teens outside of evangelical churches will see how gay celibate Christians are treated, and wonder, "If that's how they treat celibate people, then I'm certainly not welcome," hindering them from knowing God.

Unfortunately, studies show that gay teens today are at great risk. Gay teens are 5 times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers and religious LGBT+ youth are 38% more likely to be suicidal than their non-religious LGBT+ peers. We cannot undo the harm to gay people in the past, but we can prevent future loss of faith and life in gay teens by adopting more effective strategies, including using language that is most likely to reach the kids in our church pews.

In particular, we must eliminate the (on average) 5-year gap between when gay teens recognize their same-sex attractions versus when they share with a parent or pastor, left to make sense of their sexuality alone with the lies of culture and the Enemy. This leads to loneliness, anxiety, shame, depression, sexual sin, addiction, suicidality, and loss of faith. Instead, we must talk to every child about God's love and wisdom for gay people so that as soon as kids recognize same-sex attractions, they share with a parent or pastor because they have heard those parents and pastors demonstrate safety, in part, by using the terminology they are familiar with.

For these reasons, I use the word gay. If you ask an 8-year-old today what the word gay means, you will most consistently hear, "a boy who likes a boy" or "a girl who likes a girl." Modern kids and teens do not assume anything about an individual's theological beliefs or relationship choices when using that word. But if instead I exclusively use same-sex attraction and forbid teens from using the language of their peers, I risk setting up a false dichotomy that they can either recognize their same-sex attractions or be a Christian. If I force gay teens to use terms that no one in their generation uses, instead of using language that is definitionally neutral, I will be less effective.

This attention to strategy is not foreign to the Christian or the Anglican. In 1 Corinthians 9:20-22 Paul reveals, "To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews...I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some." While Paul no longer lived according to Jewish Law, he followed their customs and used their language when he hoped to most effectively reach the Jews. Then in the 24th Article of the 39 Articles of Religion establishing the Anglican Church, Anglicans commit to contextualizing the gospel for each culture, instead of letting language and culture be a barrier to Christ's love. I mirror the language of gay teens and young adults so that I can most effectively reach them.

I pray that leaders across denominations would recognize the biblical orthodoxy of this strategy and join the missiological effort to help churches becomes places where gay people can thrive according to a traditional sexual ethic, including trusting gay people and their local family of God to discern the wisest ways to describe their sexualities.

END

Subscribe
Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Go To Top