This is a concept that has been debated at least since the 1970’s: can one be a “gay Christian”? It started with denominations for homosexuals who professed Christ. Recently it has “conquered” mainline denominations. The conversation is beginning to happen in conservative denominations, like the one I serve in. Okay, precisely the one I serve in. So far I’ve seen more heat than light in this debate. There is little thoughtfulness and plenty of knee jerk reactions.
As Joe Dallas notes in Speaking of Homosexuality, both terms in this phrase need to be identified so we know precisely what we are talking about.
“Gay can refer to someone sexually active, whether in a relationship or in more casual encounters. Or it can mean a person who’s not sexually active but it willing if and when the time seems right. It can also refer to a Christian who believes homosexuality is wrong but is tempted that direction and sometimes yields. Yet again, it could mean someone who’s homosexual in attraction only but chooses not to act on the attraction. Clearly the term’s meaning influences the question’s answer.
“Now, Christian, for some implied simply being “saved”; to others it implies both being saved and walking in rightness before God.
“Muddying the waters further is the question of salvation. Can it be lost, or is it a once-and-for-all status? How you view eternal security will likewise direct your answer to the gay Christian question.”
In addressing the second part of this question, Dallas writes as an Arminian. I am thinking this through in my own heritage, that of Reformed Theology. As such I ponder this in terms of the Preservation of the Saints and Assurance of Grace and Salvation. So, let’s work through the four ways “gay” can be understood.
Can a Christian be sexually active with the same sex?
The answer is yes. But before you either rejoice or want to stone me, let me explain. I do view homosexuality as a sin (like I would consider murder, theft, lying, gossip, adultery and other actions and predispositions to be sin or outside the boundaries established by God). Christians do sin. Sometimes we sin big too.
We should not simply say Christians persevere to the end because God preserves them in grace (by Christ’s merit & intercession as well as the indwelling Spirit). That is true, but not all that is true. We should reckon with the rest of what the Westminster Confession says about this, including:
3. Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God’s displeasure, and grieve his Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves. (WCF, XVII)
A Christian may, for a time, fall into the practice of homosexuality. This is disobedience, but Christians can and do disobey God. We see such sin a result of the remaining corruption within us (indwelling sin) which produces internal temptation, and the external temptations of Satan and the world which tells them it is okay, and “don’t knock it til you try it”. While they may feel “like themselves” in so doing, we see there are earthly consequences as they grieve the Spirit, harden their hearts and are deprived of a measure of graces and comforts from the gospel. Its hurts and scandalizes others as I know all too well from watching people I know fall into this sin and become entangled by it.
In the next chapter on Assurance of Grace and Salvation we see similar comments:
4. True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin which woundeth the conscience and grieveth the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God’s withdrawing the light of his countenance, and suffering even such as fear him to walk in darkness and to have no light: yet are they never utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the meantime, they are supported from utter despair. (WCF, XVIII)
The key is “for a time.” One who is truly regenerate and justified will eventually repent and acknowledge its sinfulness as well as apprehending the mercies of God in Christ and endeavoring to obey. But “for a time” is vague. No time limit is given such as having 1 year. People would probably abuse that as an opportunity to spend such time in full rebellion of their choosing and show up at the appointed time with a mea culpa like Amish teens returned from their experience in the world.
For instance, I had a friend who was promiscuous as a teen. While working with teens later, his past was known. One teen contemplated partaking of fornication and his justification was “you repented.” My friend wisely replied, “How do you know you will?”
In the meantime, a faithful church will admonish, rebuke, suspend and possibly excommunicate a member to guard the honor of Christ, reclaim the sinner and protect the church (not from the person but from believing such actions are acceptable and appropriate among God’s people). In this sense it is possible to be a Christian and gay, but not part of the visible church due to discipline so they may produce a later harvest of righteousness.
In terms of Dallas’ second category, we see it is also possible to be a “gay Christian” in the same sense. They would need to repent of their erroneous understanding of homosexuality even if they aren’t sexually active. In due time this should happen if the Spirit really dwells in them.
In both the 3rd and 4th categories, the Christian experiences same sex attraction but knows that to act on it is wrong. The attraction is a result of remaining corruption, and they experience that inward pull toward people of the same sex romantically and sexually. While they know this is not what God intended in creation, it is what they experience due to the Fall, and have not yet been relieved of it in redemption. That may, and often does, await glorification as it does for all Christians though the particular temptations differ.
Here is where it is tricky. While the temptation flows from remaining corruption (our sinful condition) is the temptation itself sinful? Here is were some of the debate lies as we try to parse temptation. It is different from the temptation Jesus experienced in that it is internal. Jesus was tempted from without. We should confess it flows from indwelling sin and that it is wrong, though we have not committed a sinful act. The person who acts on such temptations periodically should repent like any other Christians who sins does. While they are still a Christian, they have been disobedient. As I noted above, this desire may never go away (though not experienced in every waking moment), just as other sinful desires may never go away.
There is another question that arise, should such a Christian as we see in categories 3 and 4 self-identify as a “gay Christian”? It seems strange to those of us who are straight. I’m not a straight Christian. Nor would I identify myself with any of my habitual sins. People don’t say “I’m an alcoholic Christian” or “a deceitful Christian.” Should we, as an act of repentance or confession? I suspect it isn’t very helpful.
In her book Openness Unhindered, Rosaria Butterfield addresses this question over the course of two chapters. In the first, she focuses on self-identification and the roots of self-identifying as gay. She ought to know since she used to teach Queer Theory at Syracuse University. For years she was working toward the world we now live in here in America: acceptance of homosexuality and same sex marriage as normal. So she unpacks all that so you know what many (not all) gay people mean by that term. She explains why she does not like the term “gay Christian” nor advocate for its use. In typical Rosaria-style she can be quite blunt.
“Any category of personhood that reduces a saint to a sum total of his or her fallen sexual behavior is not a friend of Christ.”
“Because as Christians, we need to practice what we want to model: a call to use words honestly. A call to use words honestly, in ways that correspond to God’s truth.”
“The conservative Christian church bears some responsibility for driving brothers and sisters in Christ into this “gay Christian” ghetto with our blindness to the way that we have insensitively tried to fix or fix up all of the singles in our church.”
“New nature does not necessarily mean new feelings (although it may). … “New creature in Christ” means that we have a new mind that governs the old feelings and a new hope that we are part of Christ’s body.”
“Believers know that help does not come in destigmatizing the word gay, but in helping the boy and his family do what all believers must do: mortify sin and live in faithfulness to God.”
While she argues against using the term, in the next chapter she talks about when Christians disagree, particularly about that issue. She addresses her relationship with a friend named Rebecca who has a different viewpoint, and is a professing Christian too. While Rosaria sees the word gay as laden with Queer Theory, Rebecca says “For me the word gay is no different than saying, “I am deaf” or “I am quadriplegic.” It simply refers to the truth that I have an enduring affliction (whether based in biology or environment) that has not been healed despite many years of prayers.” We return to the idea that two people can use the same term in different ways, and that we should try to understand how they are using it because we love them.
We see this problem in social discourse all the time. For instance, in the 2016 election “the wall” has very different meanings for progressives and those who voted for Trump. Progressives hear xenophobia, racism and other ideas that make them angry or want to cry. They see his election as betraying their ideals and lament for America. Many of those who voted for him (and may like myself who didn’t) hear wise immigration policy, having a border like most other nations that means we have some measure of control over who enters our country not because we hate other people groups but for our national and economic security. It doesn’t mean you are against immigration reform, but that you believe we actually have a border that matters.
Rosaria counsels love in the midst of such disagreements. She’s only advocating what the Scriptures do, but in this gospel-deprived society this is seen as a novelty. We have to allow each other some space to own our ideas instead of mandating that they agree with us. After all, the Scripture doesn’t directly address this. We can treat the use of this phrase as one of indifference as long as we are using very different definitions of the term. She talked with her friend, listened to her friend, and found they were using the term in very different ways. They could choose to disagree and remain friends because they agreed on the basics of the gospel and its implications for homosexuality even if they disagreed on the use of a term. I think there needs to be more of this: listening, understanding, discerning and accepting one another as Christ accepts us when we do disagree on secondary issues.
“Friendship and neighborly proximity are necessary components to working through theological differences in Christian love. … Ideas that divide must travel on the back of Christian life practices that allow us to stand shoulder to shoulder as we submit before our holy and loving God. This is the Christian labor of real neighbors.”