So imagine you’re a gay Christian. You love Jesus and want to follow his way, yet you find yourself naturally attracted to people of the same sex. Or maybe you don’t have to imagine this; you long for that romantic, physical and emotional connection and are trying to work out how to reconcile all this with your Christian faith.
In our essay ‘Can Christian Marriage Be Gay?’, we explained the Christian sexual ethic, specifically in regard to same-sex sexual relations, and the conclusion is clear – God forbids it. The author of life, the universe and the rest of creation claims that sexual relations are only intended for heterosexual marriage. If you read that essay, you will understand the reasoning.
But now what? Must you stay single for the rest of your life? Isn’t that just setting yourself up for failure? After all, we are social creatures, who, for the most part, long for partnership in a romantic sense. Christianity seems to offer only two options: deny your natural desires and follow the path of singleness, or be in a relationship contrary to your romantic instincts. Neither of those options sound appealing.
I have had a number of gay friends over the years, and it quickly became apparent to me that it can be natural for someone to experience same-sex attraction. The attractions that one may feel from a young age are not necessarily about the lifestyle they have chosen, but part of their natural person. Our romantic attractions and desires often shape us, and don’t they matter? Don’t our desires point to something we long for and are made to experience? And what if your unchosen desire is incompatible with the term “righteous”, does that mean you are helplessly stuck in the “sinful” category? That doesn’t seem fair.
How do Christians reconcile the call of God with the pull of sexual desire? What path do they follow – their own natural desires or the ordinance of God, and which, in the end, will offer the fulfilment they long for? This will be the exploration of this essay.
What causes homosexuality?
Firstly, where does Homosexuality come from? Regarding the cause, the American Psychological Association has summarised the research:
“There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors.”
Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles. The pathway to developing a homosexual orientation likely involves many contributing factors from both biology and the environment. Most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation. I think it is important that we recognise that people do not choose to experience same-sex attraction or to have a homosexual orientation as such. They find themselves with attractions toward the same sex, for reasons not quite clear. I suspect there are probably many factors that contribute in one way or another, and these factors probably vary from person to person.
Whether an impulse comes “from within” or is the result of one’s environment, or, more likely, if an impulse is the result of some combination of the two, Christianity teaches that believers ought to evaluate their impulses in light of God’s revealed will for behaviour. This leads us to another query: if homosexuality is natural, and God is the creator, then does that imply God created people this way? In other words, is God the cause? But if so, why would He embed a desire in people that they shouldn’t pursue?
Did God make people gay?
According to the Bible’s unflattering diagnosis, the reason we sometimes desire things contrary to God’s intentions is because we are all naturally sinful and confused. The Biblical narrative tells us that mankind at the very beginning made the decision to reject God, resulting in a disconnect between God and man. This is referred to as ‘the fall’. As a result, God gave us over to our preference to live as we wish, and so we were left with a natural orientation to turn from God’s ways. This is called the flesh or sinful nature.
In the book of Romans Paul the Apostle describes both lesbian and male homosexual behaviour as “unnatural.” He first writes about man’s persistent and repeated effort to ignore God and rebel against His universal moral standards, then in Romans 1:24-26 continues to say:
“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonouring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator.
For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.”
Let’s just stop there. This is clearly a massive thing for the Bible to say and, correspondingly, a very hard thing for many people to hear. To say that certain behaviour is “unnatural” is nothing to do with the subjective experiences we encounter of ourselves, which may be same-sex attraction, but instead refers to the fixed way of things in creation. Calling something unnatural is also not intended to suggest we don’t see examples of it in the natural world – penguins sometimes establish homosexual relationships, for instance. Paul calls gay sex “unnatural” as it goes against the body’s natural physical design. The “nature” that Paul says homosexual behaviour contradicts, is God’s purpose for us.
The common defence says “but God made me this way!” Paul’s point in Romans 1 is that our “nature” (as we experience it) is not natural (as God intended it). All of us have desires that are warped as a result of “the fall”. So not every desire we have is as God intended it to be.
We asked for a reality where God is exempt and He allows us to have a taste of it. He gives us what we want. At the “fall” of humanity, God gave us over to “impure lusts and dishonourable bodily conduct”, and to “shameful lusts”… The presence of same-sex desire in some is not an indication that they have turned from God any more than others, or have been given over by God to further sin more than others. Similarly, the presence of gay feelings one may experience reminds someone their desires are not right because the world is not right. Together we have turned from God and together we have been given over to sin, both gay and straight.
The problem is that we’re all born with a heart posture that is turned away from what is right and toward what is wrong. You might think that when the Bible talks about ‘original sin’, it depicts human beings as irredeemably wicked automatons that will always, always do something to screw other people over. But what we actually see is that human beings with imperfect knowledge will make imperfect judgement calls that lead us further away from God. And the further we move away from God, the further we move away from what’s best for us. This is true of every human being on earth.
The theology of the ‘fall’ explains that it is not God who makes people attracted to the same-sex. It is not unchristian to experience same-sex attraction, any more than it is unchristian to get sick. It makes no difference if someone is part of a gay couple, a straight couple, or anybody else. When it comes down to it, regardless of our positions and circumstances, we are all sinners, and all need God’s grace. The moral consequence of the fall has corrupted every person. The exact form of temptation may be different, but the root cause is still the same. So my desires for things God has forbidden are a reflection of how sin has distorted me, not of how God has made me.
Identity and the Christian Faith
Christians are called to be faithful to God’s revealed will and to honour God with our lives. Since God’s revealed will for sex is in life-long heterosexual marriage, then same-sex behaviour is the primary concern rather than same-sex attraction or orientation. If neither attractions nor orientation change, the sexual ethic remains, so believers must take responsibility for whether and how they express their impulses. Since, as a result of the fall, we all have certain impulses and desires outside of God’s preference, we will need to manage how we act on some of our natural impulses.
This seems especially relevant to Christians, some of whom do not adopt a gay identity label, although they would admit to ongoing attraction to the same sex. What they reject is the label, not the reality of their attractions. Consider Chloe: Chloe is a twenty-six-year-old woman who has experienced attraction to the same sex since she was thirteen. For much of her older adolescence, she tried on a lesbian identity but did not experience that identity label as consistent with her religious identity as a Christian. As a result, she chose to no longer identify as lesbian, despite having many friends suggest that she would be better off if she just came to terms with who she “really is.” Chloe does not deny that she has strong emotional and sexual attraction to other women. But it’s the identity and labelling part of her life that has been so challenging. She now refuses to identify as gay because she finds her identity in Christ, and those are not Christ-like identities.
When an identity outcome is not a “Christ-like” identity, it may be experienced as untenable to some followers of Christ. For some believers, a gay identity is just that, and so they attribute their attraction toward the same sex to other factors, such as ‘the fall’. To them, same-sex attraction is a temptation. After all, the effects of the fall could be moderated by either nature or nurture, by biological predispositions, childhood experiences, environmental factors, and any number of other considerations.
Although Chloe had explored same-sex relationships in adolescence, she eventually came to the conclusion that same-sex behaviour was against God’s revealed will for sexual expression. That decision is in front of her every day as she makes choices in keeping with her values. She often finds it difficult around others, since those close to her are readily willing to accept her as lesbian but do not quite know how to relate to her when that is not how she identifies herself— when her values contrast sharply with how others want to frame and organise the topic. It has been hard for Chloe to relate to people who are close to her from the gay community, but who extend pity to her for choices they do not understand or with which they cannot fully empathise. It has also been hard for Chloe to relate to people in the Christian community who do not see her identifying as heterosexual or capable of offering that testimony of God’s work in her life. While embracing a gay identity may be more accessible to some people and more easily understandable to the communities that would either support or condemn them, she has chosen to keep to her values.
In reality, when a person adopts the identity of “gay”, they are more likely to respond in ways that conform to that identity, such as seeking out other gay and lesbian people, engaging in same-sex behaviour, and so on. Those who dis-identified with a gay identity are usually less likely to do these things. Chloe sticks to her religious instinct – “My Christian identity transcends every other identity and gives it focus and balance.”
On the other hand, I am also aware of SSA Christians who have kept a ‘gay label’ but refuse to accept it as an ultimate defining factor in their lives. I can also see the benefit of this. While I think it is true that our sexuality does not ultimately define us, and this specific method of rejecting certain labels may help some, this can be agonising for others. In the words of one same-sex attracted Christian:
“I remember when I first realised that I wasn’t straight and the period of time I spent trying to find a label for myself was horrible. I wanted to know who I was, and some people need that label for that reason. In addition, socially, we need those labels. If someone were to ask you what your profession was and you responded ‘I am a child of God,’ it wouldn’t make much sense. Just as, if someone were to ask me what my sexuality was, I would answer with ‘I am a child of God,’ nor would I lie and say that I’m straight.”
For some SSA Christians, the “gay” label can give a name for that aspect of themselves, while still recognising that these “labels” are lost and subordinate to our ultimate identity in God. The key distinction here is that it is not our sexuality or the impulses we experience that ultimately define us, but our relation and call to God is what gives meaning to our lives. We will discuss this in further detail in the next section.
Resolving your identity conflict
Maybe you can relate to Chloe, maybe not. Either way, I don’t think it really matters whether you choose to maintain a ‘gay’ identity or not. I think you ought to figure out whatever works for you, however, I do think it matters if it becomes foundational, that is, central in your life. Especially to the extent that it might influence and dictate the decisions and choices you make regarding sexual expression.
This leads us to a broader question – what core identity do you adopt? We will discuss two options: an identity founded on God’s call and will for your life, or an identity founded on your own inner impulses.
Like the rest of the world, you may take cues from your own impulses as a guide to shaping identity and behaviour. This presumes that such impulses are good and helpful resources in identity formation and personal fulfilment. Indeed, much of contemporary clinical psychology is unwittingly based upon such premises, particularly with the influence of Carl Rogers, the “quiet revolutionary” whose person-centred approach to counselling and therapy dominated the mental health landscape.
This approach shapes much of today’s society, in which all the body’s desires are perceived as good and infallible without filter. We treat our feelings as the guiding force for our decisions, actions and lifestyle. What feels right is right, what feels wrong is wrong. Feelings and impulses have become our masters, the central element of our pursuits. As a result, sexual identity has become a powerful force in western society. We have made sexuality the foundation of self-understanding. Sexual behaviour has therefore become a primary means of self-expression. Restricting sexual behaviour is seen as denying who we really are. It represses something central to our identity, and consequently, our ability to flourish. We’re looking to sex for fulfilment. That’s why anything that curbs our sexual desires is seen as oppressive and harmful.
But there is also another path to achieving congruence. This other option is a telic way of dealing with identity conflicts, which entails looking ahead to who you are becoming. It can consider design and purpose—both here and now and for the future —and it can be reflected in a person’s desire to lay aside or be disciplined in response to impulses in favour of another way of achieving a sense of self, purpose, and identity.
We all experience strong feelings of various kinds, and in one sense they are all part of “you”, but just because they are there does not mean you must or can express them all. For example, marriage itself is a commitment to not pursue every fleeting ‘natural’ inclination to infidelity for the sake of faithfulness. Many of our desires compete with each other so it’s impossible to fulfil every desire at once; if we wish to fulfil some desires we have to deny others, so sometimes it’s necessary and healthy to do so. In fact, we use some kind of filter, a set of beliefs and values, to sift through our hearts and determine which emotions and sensibilities we will value and incorporate into our core identity and which we will not. For Christians, it is this value-laden filter, this vision of God’s purpose for us, and His righteousness, that ought to form our identity, rather than feelings themselves. This being said, I don’t want us to hold a negative view of feelings. Feelings can be great, as we all know, as long as the will directs them. A ‘will’ focused on God.
The Christian recognises that our nature is not natural as God intended it, and so to attend to our God-given purpose we will at times have to swim against the current of human nature. Our collective rejection of God has meant we often find ourselves craving what we are not naturally designed to do. This is as true of a heterosexual person as a homosexual person. It’s natural for us to desire things which are not necessarily good. Just because something may feel natural to me doesn’t make it right. We must beware of allowing feelings and desires to dictate actions. The fact is, feelings make brilliant servants but terrible masters. Just because something may seem natural doesn’t mean it’s best for you or society. Strip away our moral conscience, and most men are naturally inclined to have sex with every beautiful woman they see. That doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Even if you feel that desire, you often have to fight that desire with every cell in your body because you know it’s not the fully human way to live. All of us experience fallen sexual desires, whether those desires are heterosexual or homosexual by nature.
For those who follow the ‘telic’ option, their identity (and subsequent behaviour) merely recognises the impulses they experience. Those who are same-sex attracted (SSA) may respond to their sexual identity conflicts by looking at who they are supposed to be and who they are becoming in Christ, and then forming their identity around a congruence found in obedience to that sense of identity. They look forward to the day when they’re with God, living complete and whole in Him, and make steps in that direction. The person moves away from a gay identity being central in their lives, but at the same time does not focus on a movement away from a homosexual orientation to a heterosexual orientation. They view their same-sex attractions as a temptation and often strive to live celibate lives. A particular biblical passage comes to mind:
“For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Galatians 2:19-20)
In this passage, the apostle Paul writes about a wrongly centred self and the need to be re-centred. The act or process of re-centring involves a shift away from self and toward a more salient identity in Christ. This does not entail rejecting the self; rather, re-centring establishes the most proper and unassimilated centre for the self. The Christian sexual minority will likely face challenges from the gay community and their traditional community, particularly if the former suggests that the only authentic identity is gay and if the latter suggests that the only authentic identity is straight.
C.S. Lewis made a similar point in his book Mere Christianity:
“There are no real personalities apart from God. Until you have given up your self to Him, you will not have a real self. Sameness is to be found most among the most ‘natural’ men, not among those who surrender to Christ. How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints.
But there must be a real giving up of the self. You must throw it away ‘blindly’ so to speak. Christ will indeed give you a real personality; but you must not go to Him for the sake of that. As long as your own personality is what you are bothering about you are not going to Him at all. The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new self (which is Christ’s and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him… Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ, and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”
Now let me offer a few practical steps in this process of re-centring your identity in Christ. Remember that our sexual attraction may be part of a person’s experience, but for Christians, it is not the central or defining aspect of their identity. Orientation indicates that there is some sort of natural bend towards a certain type of person. But in Christ, that does not define who you really are or who you are called to be. Therefore, de-centring the self may involve describing your orientation, rather than forming a lifestyle around your experiences of attraction. Christians recentre the self by experiencing their “in Christ” identity as central and defining.
Paul explained how the human identity markers which can be used to exclude are dissolved in a greater identity: our communion with and allegiance to Christ:
“All of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27-28)
Reading the rest of Paul’s writings it’s clear he doesn’t deny that Jews, slaves, women etc. exist, he’s illustrating how these identity markers are nothing compared to the one that really matters.
To be clear, we are not talking about a loss of sexuality or diminished sexuality. Nor are we talking about a sexuality that is transformed from one orientation to another. That is a separate matter. When this re-centring begins to occur, the person can then think of their sexuality as they would so much of their experience: they begin to think about what it means to be a good steward of their sexuality and its expression in relationships. Stewardship entails “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.” It is a common theme throughout scripture that Christians are instructed to be responsible stewards of what they have been given (see Matt 25:14–30; Luke 19:13, 1 Peter 4:10). Among what is entrusted to the Christian’s care are resources, such as money, but also family relationships, time, and, of course, sexuality and its expression. Everything that Christians have has been given to them for the express purpose of bringing honour and glory to God. This assertion will no doubt be completely foreign to those steeped in contemporary Western culture, a culture of not only individualism but also of personal ownership (and, some would say, entitlement). But the Christian stands in contrast to such entitlement in all areas. None of it is ours; none of it is something we own or even have a right to. We are stewards.
The battle between flesh and spirit
So far we have touched on the biblical explanation for homosexuality, and the ways in which common culture and the Christian faith go about resolving identity conflicts in this area. But now we are going to expand on the previous chapter and summarise with some deeper theology.
The gospel is the demonstration of God’s sacrificial love. God sent his very own likeness (Jesus) to pay for the moral judgement and rebellion of mankind so that whoever believes and trusts in him won’t perish but will be given eternal life (1 John 3:16). The Gospel is the message of salvation to save us from our isolated state and unite us with God through his Spirit, in the age to come. In other words, there is hope that all the consequences of the “the fall” will be undone, so that all who put their faith in Christ will receive the blessing of a new life with God. Until then, God put his Spirit into the heart of his true followers to strengthen and guide them until this promised future is ushered in.
This narrative creates the backdrop for disentangling the confusing conversation around sexual orientation. We were made by God for God, so our identity springs most fundamentally from God, not our feelings. Contrary to popular culture, your sexuality doesn’t define you. God defines you. From a Christian perspective, you have intrinsic value, worth and dignity. Who I am in relation to God is my authentic self. I find myself not in the depths of my psychology but in the depths of His heart. Followers of Jesus are called by a laundry list of identity statements – “holy,” “blameless,” “chosen,” “sons and daughters,” “brothers and sisters,” etc. – and not one of them has to do with sexual orientation. At the core of who we are, I’m not “straight” and you’re not “gay.” We are both human. We both bear God’s image.
The challenge is whether we choose to continue to live from a position of rejecting God’s intentions for us so that we are in charge (led by what scripture calls “the flesh”), or from a position where God is the ultimate authority in our lives (led by “the Spirit”). The former rejects the gospel, the second is a response of accepting the gospel message. In Galatians 5:16–17, Paul explains how the flesh fights against the Spirit and the Spirit fights against the flesh. This dichotomous tension suggests that we can have split motives inside us warring against each other. The sinful nature refers to the whole person marked by the rebellion—the “corruptibility and mortality”—of this present age. This reflects the redemptive-historical reality between the old self, characterised by the flesh, and the new self, characterised by the Holy Spirit. This tension between flesh and Spirit is evidence of the overlap between the present age and the coming age. The flesh represents this wicked era and our position under the dominion of sin and death. The Spirit represents the coming age and our freedom from the power of sin and the law. In this overlap, aspects of both ages are present together.
The reality is that “the present evil age” (Galatians 1:4) has not passed away, and the implications of sin and the “old man” linger. As redeemed believers, though we are being renewed and transformed day by day, we live nonetheless with the vestiges of our old self and with our distorted post-Fall image. Therefore, we must be vigilant in the midst of temptations. Unlike Jesus, who had no sinful nature, we have a “landing pad” for those temptations that can quickly turn into sinful desire. We therefore face a daily fight. In Romans 8:13, Paul pleads with us: “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
Christ’s salvific work certainly has inaugurated a new era, but this new era is also not fully consummated—the already but not yet. We have been set free, but we must continue to persevere in the battle until that glorious and final day arrives. What does this mean for those who have a predisposition for same-sex sexual and romantic temptations? Like all of us, it’s a continual effort to resist our natural inclinations for the hope set before us. However ingrained homosexual feelings and temptations may be in someone, homosexual conduct is not inescapable. Temptations and feelings may well linger, but what defined us before no longer defines us now. So for the Christian, neglecting certain feelings which drive actions contrary to God’s universal moral law isn’t an attack on our identity, it’s simply the right thing to do. This means that the presence of temptation, whether that be an attraction to the same-sex, a personality that tends towards addiction or a self-sabotaging approach to intimacy, isn’t in itself a ‘wrong’ to be repented of. Christians have always made a distinction between temptation and what is called sin. Being Christian makes us no less likely to fall ill, face tragedy, or experience insecurity.
The Gospel is a message of freedom from being slaves to our sinful nature. This freedom from sin’s reign does not imply freedom from all sinning or a complete absence of temptations, but it is a decisive break from sin and a qualitative change in which our mind is less dark and our will is less rebellious. This new life is the sovereign work of God.
The Holy Spirit is the divine cause of our rebirth – new life as a Christian (John 3:5–6), and this freedom from sin is an act of God’s grace. Grace is not simply leniency when we have sinned – that’s mercy. Grace is the enabling gift of God not to sin. Grace is power, not just pardon. Therefore, at the very moment we experience inappropriate desires or attraction toward someone of the same sex, or anything forbidden by God, we are then able to resist impure thoughts that we may be encountering. We can acknowledge that we do not want to embrace such things, and seek God’s help and strength to do so. We remember that such experiences are not God’s design for us and therefore not ultimately right for us. We fight to honour God, trusting that He is faithful and will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear. This isn’t just true of sexual preference. A lot of people have to fight the temptation to alcohol or porn or gossip or worry for decades, but they make it through. In fact, they live rich, meaningful lives. Whatever you’re wrestling with, you may struggle, but you can struggle well.
There is a key point to be made here – we need to remind ourselves that promiscuity and sexual orientation must be separated in our thinking. While we do not choose our sexual attractions, we do choose our sexual actions. What we do therefore carries moral weight in a way that our attractions do not. Gay sex isn’t something you are, like black or female. It is something you do with your body. While it’s true that most of us don’t have a choice in our orientation, we all have a choice in how we express our sexuality. There is an obvious and distinct difference between being attracted to the same sex and engaging in gay sex. The second is based on building an identity and lifestyle based on those attractions, while the first is simply acknowledging those attractions are there. Being attracted to the same sex doesn’t send you to hell, just as being straight doesn’t send you to heaven, it’s irrelevant. Your sexual orientation has nothing to do with your position before God. All that matters is whether each of us is ready to submit ourselves to God as our king. God accepts you because of the message of the gospel. Your sexual orientation does not exclude you from God, rather, how we act upon those desires is the test of our character.
I think it’s really important that we grasp this. The other extreme is that some who have same-sex sexual temptations are overburdened with shame and guilt because they feel they are not worthy of God’s grace – simply for having impure attractions. They are not acting out on these same-sex desires, but believe this struggle is the unpardonable sin. By recognising that the issue is our flesh—our fallen human nature—we can realise that we are not that much different from anybody else.
Once SSA, always SSA?
Moving forward, I think it’s also important for those experiencing same-sex attraction (SSA) to understand that this might not necessarily be a permanent thing.
I don’t believe sexuality is necessarily a static thing. Our desire at one stage of development may not be the same at another. This is perhaps especially true during puberty, when sexual attractions can change considerably. In the developmental course of events, once-SSA does not necessarily mean always-SSA, just as bisexual people can sometimes be more attracted to one gender, sometimes to the other, or people who would consider themselves to be straight may occasionally fantasise about gay sex. It is all the more important that someone experiencing SSA for the first time does not assume that this is now the “orientation” they are to live with for the rest of their life. For example, the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) reported that a large proportion of self-identified lesbians and gays report fantasising, desiring, or even engaging in heterosexual sex.
Clinical psychologist Mark A. Yarhouse and Stanton Jones of Wheaton College, conducted a longitudinal study of religiously mediated change of orientation. They reported on data from a group of 100 people who were attempting to change their sexual orientation through religious practices – a practice I am generally suspicious of, and I will explain why shortly. Those involved in the change attempt reported an average decrease in attraction to the same sex and a more modest increase in attraction to the opposite sex. Mark & Stanton used categories such as “success” and “failure” only with reference to the goals of the participants themselves, and indicated that 15% were called a success (a conversion from homosexuality to heterosexuality), while 23% were categorised as Success (sufficient reduction in same-sex attraction so that the person reported the freedom to live chaste without it being the burden it once was). Another 29% of the participants were categorised as Continuing Change Effort, which meant there was some reduction in attraction but not enough to describe themselves as having experienced success. 15% of participants were designated as having no response to change effort. 4% were categorised as Failure: Confused, while 8% were designated Failure: Gay Identity. Their updated results after six to seven years of the change effort suggested that the average changes made were able to be sustained over time. In fact, they asked people how they would designate themselves in light of the previous categories they had used, and Success: Conversion (to heterosexuality) rose to 23% of the remaining sample, while Success: Chastity also increased to 30% of the sample.
As important as these findings are for those considering a change attempt, most people do not experience change in sexual orientation. In fact, those few who are called a ‘success’ (homosexual to heterosexual) usually (although not always) end up with higher rates of depression – which is not so ‘successful’. In the end, I don’t think “conversion therapy” is that helpful, and can even be quite traumatising for many of the people who explore it. It is not clear to me that through your own wit and strength, you can truly change your sexuality. Therefore, I think the reported changes are best thought of as gains along a continuum of attraction rather than categorical changes from homosexual to heterosexual. Indeed, most people who report a heterosexual outcome would acknowledge some experiences of attraction to the same sex.
The main points from this are that 1) a few experiences of same-sex attraction at a young age doesn’t necessarily reflect the ‘fixed way’ you are, and that 2) levels of same-sex attraction can fluctuate, so that with the right practice and support the intensity of these desires can reduce over time.
Singleness and Sexual Abstinence
This leads us to perhaps the most challenging subject for Christians with a same-sex sexual orientation: singleness.
God is opposed to all sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage. It’s not that God opposes all homosexual activity but approves of any and every sexual act between heterosexual people. Of course, this does also mean that for as long as someone is unmarried, they ought to abstain from sexual activity. “Celibate” and “chaste” are somewhat old-fashioned words, but they capture the sort of thing being spoken about: single and sexually abstinent. But can we actually expect unmarried people to refrain from all sexual behaviour? Can we really expect those who remain SSA to remain celibate?
In one sense the question is answered for us immediately if, and only if, we are already committed to God’s authority. If we follow God, we must adhere to Him on this point. You can’t claim to be God-following but then reject particular teachings at your own discretion. That would make us, and not God, decide what is right and wrong.
I know this isn’t easy to swallow. As one Christian experiencing same-sex attraction said, it seems unfair that SSA Christians should be sentenced to loneliness. But I know plenty of married people who are lonely, no longer physically attracted to their partner and struggling to remain faithful. In modern society, we are led to believe we can’t live without sex. Often we try to heal our lack of connection through sex because so much of intimacy has become sexualised in our culture. Whereas I believe we are more likely to wither without the love of friends and family. Jesus himself never married. While St. Paul the Apostle commends marriage, he values singleness more. So we should allow those who remain single to not feel as if they have somewhat “failed” as a result of their continuing singleness.
I do not mean to minimise the pain, and I don’t doubt that some of those SSA Christians experience a drum-like beat of sexual temptation now and then. But this is also true for many heterosexual Christians (although in a different context), whether they are married and struggling to be faithful to their spouse or single and longing for marriage. Ultimately, every Christian is called to self-restraint in many areas of temptation, and we’re all going to struggle at times. The more I go in life, the more I realise that every Christian is struggling in some area of life, dependent on help from close friends, family and other Christians who know their needs and vulnerabilities. This is certainly true for me. Lungs don’t work without hearts, or legs without feet. We’re simply not designed to go through these struggles alone.
Being single doesn’t mean being isolated. The Church is a community. While it is tempting for SSA Christians to retreat from friendship for fear of “messing up”, I believe this is quite the wrong approach. Whatever our sexuality, we are all more prone to eat junk food when we are hungry, and we are all the more prone to seek illicit relationships when our core relational needs are not being met. For Christians capable of experiencing attraction to same-sex friends, the solution is not friendship starvation but healthy nourishment. Make friends you are going to keep for life. Have people around you whom you trust, who encourage you to do good, call you out when you’re doing wrong, and keep you up when you’re feeling down – that is what the church family should look like. This also requires those of us who are straight Christians with a traditional Christian ethic to commit to being genuine friends with SSA Christians. They can often feel particularly vulnerable in church and in need of particular love and support. They need to feel known, they need connection.
I want to be real about the struggles of singleness, but I don’t want us to be pessimistic about it either. Singleness can allow a deeper level of devotion to God. In fact, concerning the unmarried, Paul the Apostle encourages those who can bear it to remain that way:
“I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 7:32-35)
We ought to come to a deeper understanding of celibacy as a spiritual discipline in which we train our minds and bodies by placing them in subjection to God’s will. Such an understanding reflects the significance of being intentional about the spiritual benefits gained in practising celibacy. If spiritual disciplines are intentional acts or experiences that are intended to draw us closer to God or to cultivate certain Christian character traits over time, then celibacy might be viewed in this way.
Thinking of celibacy as a spiritual discipline helps us to understand the value of controlling sexual desires in the midst of a world in which this practice seems at best ridiculous and at worst dangerous. We are not giving up sex because we think it is evil or because we wish to punish ourselves or because we desire to prove that we are more holy than our sexually active brothers and sisters. We refrain from sexual activity because it helps us to place God, sex, and the Christian community in the right perspective. Celibacy is a way of enacting through our bodies our belief that God, not us, is in control. It reminds us that He desires us as Christians to build relationships with others that are not based solely on sexual attraction nor on biological connections but rather on our communion with Him and our concern for our neighbours.
The most important expression of love and intimacy in the life of the Christian is not heterosexual sex in marriage, but the most important expression of love is meant to be experienced in the Christian community, in the church. The New Testament views the church—rather than marriage—as the primary place where human love is best expressed and experienced. Unfortunately, we know that the church often comes up short of being a community that reflects genuine love and in which followers of Christ can experience true intimacy. Unfortunately, the church today is becoming more of a weekly ‘service’ where you all go and watch, than a community. But this is our charge, and the church’s success in reflecting love and intimacy may make the difference in how people respond to the idea of walking out a life trajectory of faithfulness to God in sexuality and sexual expression.
For all believers, single and married, heterosexual and homosexual, there is a more fundamental consideration: that we live our lives faithfully before God, committing ourselves to him and growing through the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives to greater Christ-likeness. We do this in the context of our daily struggles, becoming better stewards of our sexuality, trusting God and growing in faith, recognising that we can see our lives in the context of God’s sovereign and redemptive plan.
The call to singleness is not something easily accepted. It’s a challenge, and a daunting one at that. This could be seen as an unbearable burden to some, but it really boils down to a simple question – do you trust God?
No doubt, there will be moments when SSA Christians have a difficult time with a theology in which God sovereignly allows someone to experience and struggle under an enduring or besetting condition. Particularly if that person believes from their experience that they are “born this way.” This touches on both the sovereignty of God and on the question of causes. First, when it comes to a Christian understanding of same-sex sexuality, the assertion is not that God made me this way, but rather God sovereignly allowed me to experience same-sex attraction. This reminds believers that their experiences, circumstances, and struggles do not surprise God. But that is not the same thing as saying that God makes a person this way or that God’s intent in allowing same-sex attraction means that it ought to become the basis upon which they should form their identity.
The Christians I have known who have come to peace about a theology of sexual identity have been able to trust God’s character (Jer 29:11; Rom 3:21–26; Heb 12:10). In other words, they experience God as trustworthy because of who God is, and they have faith in what God has for them in their circumstances, even when those circumstances include attraction to the same sex that they believe they are not to consummate in terms of sexual behaviour.
God builds into the Christian life aspects of character development which would not be possible (I think) outside of a fallen world. Here we must face situations in which we are genuinely tempted to throw in the towel, so that we can also have the genuine opportunity to press on, and in pressing on we gain a victory of faith, and in doing that we develop our own personal Christian history, which is an integral part of our individual character. We can see what we’ve been through, and how God brought us through it, and we are ready to face whatever happens next, not because of ourselves, but because of what God already has done for us, and in us. This message applies to all Christians living in the kind of world we live in—a world in which we face troubles (James 1:2–4). Is it possible that same-sex attraction is a unique difficulty that calls forth a level of faith and endurance that can actually build or strengthen Christian character in the life of the believer who is dealing with it? I think the answer is yes, Christians can and do grow in their capacity to trust God, in their faith in God as a transcendent being, and in their own sense of Christian character over time.
By pushing forward through the challenges of same-sex attraction, the Christian is able to further depend on, and seek, God. It is this relationship, not between romantic partners, but between God and man, that can ultimately fulfil our human thirst.
I am reminded of the book ‘A War of Loves’ by David Bennet, a former atheistic gay rights activist. He details this moment in his life when he was in the heart of Sydney’s gay and alternative scene, at one of the most celebrated clubs on Oxford Street. He sits down after spending hours dancing, and while watching those around him, begins to ask himself, “what is love?”:
“In all our films, songs and art, we worshipped love, but no one could define it. Maybe no one did know. Maybe in the end, we were just slaves to our biological impulses, cultural aspirations, and desires for fame, attention, and company. Maybe love was just a game of illusions in a reality of ‘blind, pitiless indifference.’ Years later I would read C.S. Lewis’s words that describe what I experienced: ‘If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.’”
David started to sense that there had to be a higher love that corresponded to his deep desire for intimacy, and so began losing faith in the secular world. He continues:
“The war to find love still raged within me, but I knew there had to be more than my incessant search in relationships. It just didn’t satisfy me any longer… We frequently used the famous slogan ‘love is love’. Love, as we defined it, was our highest ideal and our sacred entity. That in our minds settles the issue. But while our slogan was popular, it was shallow at best. ‘Love is love’ doesn’t mean that much semantically, and it provides no definition of what love actually is. Nor can it differentiate between the various kinds of human love and desire… A mother’s love is not a friend’s love. A friend’s faithfulness and a total stranger’s act of compassion are both touching and wonderful. But they are not the same, cannot be, and shouldn’t be… When the Christian faith makes the bold statement, ‘God is love’, the possibility approaches of being accepted not by our mirror but by our maker. The cross is where that strange and holy God most clearly reveals his love.”
Elsewhere, David also writes:
“Human romance and attempts at religion can never provide lasting meaning. The cross is God’s intimate act of self-giving, His gentle way of critiquing our love of money, sex, self, romance, fame and above all, power. These weaker loves, these idols we raise in our own image, could never compare with infinitely greater love. Jesus taught that both the worst sin and the most sacred worships originate from the same place, the heart. That God’s love should displace all others and occupy the primary space in our hearts, that this is what we are made for… Even the incredible intimacy of marriage is only a shadow of that great love we were made to experience… It sounds like heresy in our culture, but romantic and sexual desire are not the deepest expressions of our humanness… In Christ, our romantic status no longer defines our value, wholeness or wellbeing.”
Underneath all our desires and wants and needs and all the layers of identity and meaning is the image bearer created to live in relationship to God. Your identity is found in the meaning and purpose of life, which is inseparable from God. So being gay is not about having gay sex. That is a moral choice separate from gay identity. I think it would be wrong to teach that an individual experiencing same-sex attraction (SSA) must have gay sex to be whole as a person. An SSA person can give their same-sex desires to God and find a deeper satisfaction and love in knowing him than in pursuing what any desire could provide. Just pause for a moment and meditate on these words from St Paul on the love of God:
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
My point is, for the gay person who has become Christian, they must not repress or indulge their erotic longings or base their identity on such desires. Instead, they should remember these longings originate from a more fundamental craving for intimacy with God and others, even if twisted by a morally imperfect nature we all share in different ways.
Mainstream culture today shouts that “love is love” with no idea of what love really is. Scripture tells us that God is love. If you want to know what real love is, look at Jesus crucified for our sake, and risen to redeem. Romans 5:8 reads: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: That while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus Christ is the expression of God’s love to us, and so precious is this gift that God cannot be truly said to be “anti” anyone to whom this wonderful gift is being offered.
I have met those who have been attracted to the same sex, directed their heart and lives to God, and no longer have those attractions. But that’s not always the case, and it’s not really the point either – becoming satisfied in Christ is. If you follow Jesus, you may find your sexual preference starts to change and revert to what God intended, or you may struggle to curb your sexual desires for the rest of your life. I have met others who in the sacrifice of celibacy have found a transformed place of satisfaction and joy, making a personal lifelong decision to not walk in their natural desire because they have a stronger desire to glorify God and honour Him. When it comes down to it, you have to decide which path you want to walk – the difficult and narrow path leading to God, or the broad and easy leading away from Him. The mantra of a post-1960s world is, “Express yourself. Follow your desires. Throw off the anchor of tradition, it’s oppressive. Let the winds carry you to adventure. Be free. Be unique. Be yourself.” But the calling of the Rabbi from Nazareth is very different. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
Christ stands ready to welcome us into his embrace; if we are willing to lay down our right to define ourselves. Instead, embrace a new, God-given identity. The invitation of Jesus is to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him. We all have stuff we have to “deny.” We all have desires we can’t act on. In the end, the issue boils down to what culture encourages and what Christ commands. This is a hard teaching, who can accept it? It takes courage – intellectual, moral, and spiritual courage – to leave behind what we have grown up with in order to follow the Carpenter.
Yet remember that our sacrifice to deny certain desires is not in vain. We live at the intersection of two worlds, waiting for what St. Paul called “the redemption of our bodies.” That is the hope of the gospel. Nothing less than resurrection into all God has promised to those who love Him. There is coming a day when you will step into a world where the chaos and entropy of “the fall” are undone, and you will live forever in a body that is remade through a cosmic act of God. You will be free from any and every desire outside of God’s vision. So whatever your struggle is now, it will be worth it then.
For further reads:
- War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus – by David Bennett
- Is god anti-gay? – by Sam Allbery
- Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was, and Who God Has Always Been – Jackie Hill Perry
- Homophobia Has No Place in the Church – Nick Roen (great article)
- Homosexuality | Desiring God – general resources
- Answering revisionist gay theology (page 8)
- How Should We Think About Homosexuality – by Mark A. Yarhouse