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LGBT, Nashville, & Spiritual Friendship

A letter from chaste gay Christian Ron Belgau challenging the Nashville Statement
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I received the other day a very thoughtful letter from Ron Belgau, a founder of the Spiritual Friendship movement, which is for gay Christians living celibately, in obedience to the teachings of the faith. I print it here with his permission. My answer follows:

Dear Rod,

I’m writing in reply to your response to criticisms of the Nashville Statement. Although some of your other responses—like the email from Chris Roberts and the piece on the cost of the divorce culture—addressed some of my concerns, I think it would be helpful to explain my worries about your response in more depth. (I apologize in advance for the length, but it’s not always easy to address weighty problems in a few words.)

In the first place, I was surprised by this post because, when I read The Benedict Option, I was particularly impressed with your analysis of the sexual revolution in Chapter 9. You spelled out the ways that it has not only corrupted the surrounding culture, but has also penetrated into the church, undermining many Christians’ faith. Like Russell Moore’s 2014 keynote on “Slow Motion Sexual Revolutionaries,” you spoke prophetically of the ways that Christians have been co-opted by the sexual revolution. You made clear that we need to recover a distinctly Christian way of thinking about sexuality and living in sexual purity. Your whole book is about how we need to stand apart from the anti-Christian ethos of modern culture, and do better at building community practices that enable us pass on the faith, catechize, and keep us from turning into moralistic therapeutic Deists.

But there are two ways of distancing ourselves from the ethos of the broader culture.

The first—which I understood you to be advocating in The Benedict Option—is a repentance which recognizes that we have been drawn away from God and into worldly ways of thinking. We need the purification that can only come through asceticism, and so we seek the encouragement and accountability of other Christians to be faithful and to pass on the faith.

The second, however, is to become a self-righteous clique, whose members don’t call each other out, but instead focus on blaming all their problems on those outside the clique, whether other Christians who fall short by the clique’s standards, or non-Christians.

The Nashville Statement falls pretty clearly into the second category. The preamble asks,

Will the church of the Lord Jesus Christ lose her biblical conviction, clarity, and courage, and blend into the spirit of the age? Or will she hold fast to the word of life, draw courage from Jesus, and unashamedly proclaim his way as the way of life? Will she maintain her clear, counter-cultural witness to a world that seems bent on ruin?

The answer to these questions, obviously, is that many churches have already lost their biblical conviction, clarity, and courage—especially regarding sex. I grew up Southern Baptist, and have first-hand experience of the “slow motion sexual revolution” that Russell Moore describes. And I’ve watched how that shaped my Christian peers’ acceptance of gay marriage.

However, in the historical account implicit in the Nashville Statement, none of that ever happened. The church is beset by the culture, yes, but still standing firm, and the only question is whether our heroes will continue to stand firm or will cave before the homosexual and transgender onslaught. And yet, the statement itself abandons biblical clarity, courage, and conviction on a wide range of other challenges to the sanctity of marriage.

To cite just one example, by far the best thing about the Nashville Statement is the clarity with which it speaks about God’s creation as an essential foundation to Christian thinking about sexuality:

By and large the spirit of our age no longer discerns or delights in the beauty of God’s design for human life. Many deny that God created human beings for his glory, and that his good purposes for us include our personal and physical design as male and female. It is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences. The pathway to full and lasting joy through God’s good design for his creatures is thus replaced by the path of shortsighted alternatives that, sooner or later, ruin human life and dishonor God.

However, the New Testament passages which show this most clearly are Matthew 19:3-12 and Mark 10:2-12, where Jesus invokes Genesis 1 and 2 to reject permissive divorce: a subject which the Statement does not address directly at all. (And this is not because divorce and remarriage after divorce are not serious challenges in the churches the signers of the Nashville Statement represent.)

I understand, as you point out, that it would be very difficult to get widespread agreement from the signers of the Nashville Statement on what the virtue of chastity demands on a variety of sexual issues other than homosexuality and transgenderism. But simply to write that is to write a reasonably damning (I do not use the word casually) indictment of the state of American Christianity.

I called Chapter 9 of The Benedict Option prophetic because you were willing to speak to Christians’ own failures. You wrote:

Americans accepted gay marriage so quickly because it resonated with what they had already come to believe about the meaning of heterosexual sex and marriage.

We have gay marriage because the straight majority came to see sexuality as something primarily for personal pleasure and self-expression and only secondarily for procreation. We have gay marriage because the straight majority, in turn, came to see marriage in the same way—and two generations of Americans have grown up with these nominalist values on sex and marriage as normative.

And in “Is the Benedict Option Good for Gays?,” you reiterate, “In the book, I am clear that this is not the fault of gays, that the heterosexuals who made the Sexual Revolution’s first wave demolished the Christian model of sex and sexuality. I quote Philip Rieff, no Christian he, on how the Sexual Revolution dissolves orthodox Christianity.”

In response to criticism of the Nashville Statement, you wrote that “if the church normalizes SOGI [Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity] ideology, it surrenders grounds from which to fight these other disorders.” But equally, as you have shown in the past, if the church normalizes no-fault divorce and other aspects of the (hetero)sexual revolution, it surrenders the ground from which to fight SOGI ideology. Given how clearly you drew the link between these past failures and the current fights about sexual orientation and gender identity in The Benedict Option, it surprises me that you defend the Nashville Statement, despite its silence on no-fault divorce and other offenses against the sanctity of marriage which have become acceptable (even if still viewed with some concern) within conservative Christian culture.

Still, SOGI has become a unique threat to traditional Christian belief, which you describe elsewhere as “the tip of the spear at our throats in the culture war.” It’s worth saying more about why. In The Benedict Option, you wrote:

Tying the gay rights cause to the civil rights movement was a strategic masterstroke. Though homosexuality and race are two very different phenomena, the media took the equivalence for granted and rarely if ever gave opposing voices a chance to be heard.

However, this move was made plausible by Christians who decided to single out gay people for unique shaming and condemnation, while ignoring heterosexual sin. Instead of presenting chastity as a difficult challenge which all Christians are called to, Christian rhetoric focused on condemning the homosexual aspects of the sexual revolution while making a (sometimes uneasy) truce with the more “respectable” heterosexual revolutionaries.

In the small Southern Baptist Church I grew up in, the youth group was served with James Dobson’s Preparing for Adolescence, where he recommended masturbation as a safety valve for adolescent hormones. The heterosexual youth fooled around at a rate that was not easily distinguishable from that of the unchurched boys and girls at the local schools, and the adults pretended not to notice. And, from the pulpit, we heard things like, “If America doesn’t bring back the death penalty for homosexuality, God will destroy us the way He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.”

When I was in college, I briefly attended Rev. Ken Hutcherson’s Antioch Bible Church in Seattle. Hutcherson cheerfully threw around epithets like “faggoty-assed” and made jokes in sermons like, “If I was in a drugstore and some guy opened the door for me, I’d rip his arm off and beat him with the wet end.” In 2004, Hutcherson organized the Mayday for Marriage rally in Washington, DC, and in 2010, he presided over Rush Limbaugh’s fourth marriage. When questioned, Hutcherson claimed, “The Buffalo Bills went to the Super Bowl and they lost a lot of times, but they never gave up. Rush Limbaugh never gave up on the institution of marriage.” For some reason, Christianity Today’s reporter didn’t ask for Hutcherson’s Scripture references for this answer.

A few years ago, you said that every pastor should read the letter you published as “Confessions Of An Ex-Evangelical, Pro-SSM Millennial.” I hope it’s not presumptuous to recommend that you re-read it now. Your correspondent wrote:

In all the years I was a member, my evangelical church made exactly one argument about SSM. It’s the argument I like to call the Argument from Ickiness: Being gay is icky, and the people who are gay are the worst kind of sinner you can be. Period, done, amen, pass the casserole.

I could keep multiplying examples—like the callousness of the Christian right to the suffering of AIDS victims in the 1980s—but I think most people realize that there’s a bad track record here. And it is precisely because of the kind of double standards I’ve just described that comparisons to Jim Crow make sense to so many people. They don’t see Christians as bigots because they hear it in the liberal media. Many who grew up in Christian homes think it because they heard it and saw it from the pulpit growing up.

What is the cost of all this?

From time to time, I have debated with Justin Lee, the gay-affirming founder of the Gay Christian Network. Like me, Justin grew up Southern Baptist. Sometimes, someone will ask me why I think Justin “changed his theology” to support gay marriage, while I stuck with conservative theology. However, the question actually rests on a misunderstanding. I did not “hold onto” the theology of marriage I learned in Southern Baptist Churches growing up. If I had, I would support same-sex marriage.

When I listen to Justin’s presentations, what I hear in his arguments for same-sex marriage is simply the logical outworking of the theology of marriage we both grew up with. Many of his arguments are modified versions of the arguments which I heard to rationalize divorce and contraception in the Southern Baptist congregation I grew up in.

And because of the obvious prejudice of so many conservative Christians toward gay people, it’s easy for him to dismiss conservative exegesis as Pharisaical legalism.

And it’s not just gay Christians like Justin who make that leap. Many of my straight friends struggle to articulate a coherent vision of Christian marriage in which it would make sense to say “no” to same-sex marriage. And the reason they are unable to do this is both the acceptance of the heterosexual offenses against the sanctity of marriage which the Nashville Statement remains silent on, and the hostility toward gay people, including those trying to obey, which the Nashville Statement embodies.

This brings me to article 7 of the Nashville Statement. Like your Evangelical pastor friend, I suspect that the wording of article 7 was chosen to exclude Spiritual Friendship. Although the language of “self conception” is new, there’s a long history with Denny Burk and others at the CBMW criticizing Spiritual Friendship in similar terms. (With regard to your conversations with Rosaria Butterfield about us, please see Jeremy Erickson’s responses to her attacks here and here. Her public remarks about us also seriously misrepresented the Presbyterian Church in America and Reformed University Fellowship.)

All Spiritual Friendship writers support the belief that same sex sexual acts are sinful. All support the belief that same-sex lust is sinful. All would agree that the temptation to sexual acts or lust should be resisted. But we are not Freudians. We do not believe that all attraction to a person of the same sex is reducible to sexual temptation or lust.

The Spiritual Friendship blog is named after Aelred of Rievaulx’s treatise on friendship because we believe that the Christian anthropology of friendship provides the foundation for rightly ordered same sex love (we aren’t alone in this belief: the Catholic Church recommends friendship in numerous pastoral documents about homosexuality).

If, as many have suggested, it turns out that the drafters of the Nashville Statement did, in fact, intend to exclude those at Spiritual Friendship, while remaining silent about straight Christians who have compromised on divorce and other aspects of the sexual revolution, that would only reinforce the argument that conservative Christians are not motivated by upholding what the Bible says about human sexuality, but rather by hostility toward gay people, including those who reject the sexual revolution and seek to live chaste lives.

Given the stakes for the Statement, and for Christian witness in contemporary culture, I think the CBMW needs to publicly clarify their intent ASAP.

I’ve long been grateful for your writing. You are an independent thinker, willing to speak out when others stay silent. You rightly called out the Catholic Bishops for their failure to address the abuse crisis when many other Catholic writers stayed silent. The Benedict Option is starting a necessary conversation for Christians who want to figure out how to remain remain orthodox in our increasingly secular culture. I’m grateful to you for calling attention to Spiritual Friendship’s approach, and for publishing Christopher Roberts’s email on Why It’s Okay For Christians To Say ‘Gay’. While I’m not a huge fan of the analogy between homosexuality and alcoholism, his email does explain some of the reasons I am willing to identify with others who are gay, while fully embracing Christian teaching about sexual purity, including lust in the heart, and seeking to reorder my own affections in line with Christian teaching on friendship.

I began by saying that there are two ways of turning away from the broader culture. I’ve always understood you to advocate the first, the repentant and penitential way. But your defense of the Nashville Statement, it seems to me, makes it easier for Christians to respond in the second, self-righteous way. I hope that you will continue to speak prophetically, as you have in the past, against the kind of self-satisfied Christian culture which cannot see its own complicity in the sexual revolution, and hence cannot preach a living faith either to the surrounding culture or within its own institutions.

Your friend in Christ,
Ron Belgau

Let me start my reply by thanking Ron for this great letter, and in particular for its spirit fo charity. My response is below. Forgive me, because it rambles.

The first thing that came to mind when I read the letter is how very different my own experience of sexual teaching within church is. I’ve said many times before here that I really don’t know much about Evangelical culture. I went to a Mainline Protestant church as a child (and not very often at that). My only direct adult experience of Christianity is within Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

So, I think one gap in my understanding of how the Nashville Statement is received by others is that I never heard anybody disparage gays from the pulpit or in a church setting. My experience has, to the contrary, been that no priest or church leader (aside from the Pope) would talk about sexuality (homo or hetero) at all.

As I’ve written in the past on my blog and in my books, Christ led me out of heterosexual sin into chastity as a Roman Catholic convert. I recall with some bitterness still (I regret to admit) how back in the 1990s, when I was a new convert and struggling mightily to be chaste, the Catholic Church (in the form of parish priests) left me all alone. In 13 years of regular Catholic practice, the only time I heard sex of any kind addressed from the pulpit was one occasion when a visiting priest at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in DC criticized contraception and abortion. Other than that, I’ve heard priests (especially in south Florida, where I lived for three years) criticizing “judgmentalism” towards gays, and preaching acceptance — by which they meant affirmation.

I’ve never heard an Orthodox priest preach on sexuality of any kind — this, in 11 years as a practicing Orthodox.

Point is, my only experience of sexuality as discussed in parish churches (minus books and papal encyclicals) has been either total avoidance, or pro-gay boosterism. Overwhelmingly, it’s total avoidance. That’s why something bold and clear, like the Nashville Statement, is so appealing to me, despite my misgivings about some of it. Christian leaders on my sides of the two great schisms in Christianity have been mostly silent, and if they’ve said anything, it’s tended to be perfunctory at best. I prefer the bold, if flawed, approach that the Nashville Statement Evangelicals take to the silence in the pulpit and public square of so many others.

Hearing what Ron had to go through growing up in church, and about things like what the Rev. Ken Hutcherson said about gays, not to mention his contemptible hypocrisy regarding heterosexual marriage when such allowed him to officiate at the fourth marriage of a celebrity — well, I better understand why so many otherwise conservative Christians responded so sharply against the Nashville Statement. Again, I ask you Evangelical readers to imagine what it’s like to be part of a parish churches where nobody ever taught what the Church teaches about sexuality in any sense. That’s where I’m coming from. It should be no surprise, I guess, that in opinion polls, a majority of both Catholic and Orthodox Americans favor same-sex marriage.

This recent statement by the Orthodox Christian theologian Bradley Nassif is hugely important. I’ve never heard anything remotely like it in nearly 25 years of regular churchgoing in Catholic and Orthodox parishes. Here’s an excerpt:

At times, Orthodox responses have been knee-jerk in their opposition to same-sex marriage and the LGBTQ agenda. But a blunt rejection is woefully inadequate. A rebuke is no reply. If Christians have any hope of defending the sacred institution of marriage then they need to articulate the reasons that the Christian theological vision requires marriage to constitute a union of man and woman. Perhaps one of the most profound, yet often unrecognized, explanations for this lies in Christian teaching of the Trinity itself.

Orthodox Christian ethics maintains that marriage and sex are sacred mysteries that point beyond themselves to the mystery of Christianity’s three-personed God and to His redemptive self-giving in the Incarnation, which is actualized in the life of the Church.

The inner life of the Holy Trinity offers a model understanding marital relationships. The Nicene Creed, coupled with the “in” language of the New Testament to describe the intimate relations between the three Persons of the Trinity (John 14:1; 17:21 et al.), is what some Church Fathers have described as “perichoresis”–meaning “to co-inhere, inhabit, inter-dwell, or to live within.” In other words, each Person of the Trinity eternally dwells within the other two in a perfect unity-in-distinction.

The mystery of God’s own Trinitarian character is extended to human existence and reflected in the Genesis account where God says, “Let us make humans in our image, in our likeness …. Male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:26–7).  Thus, the sexual intimacy that Adam and Eve experience as they become “one flesh” can be said to reflect the eternal union-in-distinction between the Father, Son and Spirit and their mutual indwelling.

In Genesis 2:18 we read, “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’” This “not good” is the only negative assessment given in the entire creation narrative. Only a woman that was fashioned from Adam’s own side could complete him. Male alone could not properly reflect the “image of God,” nor could female by herself. Alone, Adam would have been a distorted, “not good” image of God. Once Eve was present, humanity was able to reflect the personal and relational intimacy that God is. Eve’s presence meant that humanity could experience life-giving, interpersonal union–an earthly echo of God’s own inter-personal, perichoretic life.  Together, their unity reflects the union-in-distinction that exists within the Trinity. Personal union (both human and divine) is the ground of all human existence.

A further divine mystery that models the integrity of male/female relationship is the union of Christ with His bride, the Church. Marital intimacy between a man and a woman is a sacramental image of the saving intimacy that now exists between Christ and His people. The female imagery of the Church’s bridal relation to Christ, the male bridegroom, is used in Ephesians 5 to manifest the mystery of salvation when Paul quotes the Genesis text, “‘the two shall become one flesh.’” “This mystery is profound,” he continues, “and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:29–32).  There is thus a soteriological, iconic dimension to marriage and human sexuality that are to be understood in light of God’s self-revelation in Christ (the male bridegroom) and His relation to the Church (His female bride).

Read the whole thing. It’s not long. With the exception of a few theological words (e.g., “soteriological,” which means “saving”) can understand it. It provides a very basic theological explanation for why same-sex marriage is impossible, and not just because of Bible verses prohibiting homosexual conduct. In this understanding, sexual complementarity and marriage between one man and one woman are written into the nature of reality. This is why we cannot simply take the traditional Christian model of marriage and make it fit to homosexual couples. The divinely ordained nature of marriage itself will not allow it.

I wonder if this is what Ron is getting at when he says that pro-SSM arguments by an Evangelical he debates with are “the logical outworking of the theology of marriage we both grew up with.” I would like to know more about this, so please, Evangelical readers, educate me. I am pretty sure that your average Catholic and Orthodox Christian cannot give any kind of theological argument against same-sex marriage — not because these arguments don’t exist (they certainly do!) but because they have never heard them, and have therefore been catechized on the meaning of sex and marriage by American popular culture. If marriage is nothing more than the solemnizing of the love and commitment that two people have for each other, then of course there is no real argument against same-sex marriage.

That said, Article I of the Nashville Statement describes marriage as a “covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman,” and “is meant to signify the covenant love between Christ and His bride the Church.” Could the Nashville Statement drafters said more about this? Sure. But the point of the Nashville Statement was to address two specific challenges to the Christian church in our culture: homosexuality and transgenderism. The failure of certain Evangelical churches to preach and teach effectively about the nature of marriage, as defined in Article I — a definition with which no Catholic or Orthodox Christian would disagree — should not silence them on speaking out about LGBT issues, which are tearing the churches apart right now. It only means they need to be much more aggressive in teaching about sexuality, gender, and marriage in a comprehensive way.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but again, I agree that the Nashville Statement could have been broader, and spoken strongly against heterosexual sins and failings that helped create a culture in which same-sex attraction has been normalized. I only know personally a few of the Nashville Statement’s signers, and not one of them would argue against the idea that the infidelity and disobedience heterosexuals, often with the complicity of their churches, laid the groundwork for same-sex marriage. In fact, I’ve had conversations with the men I’m thinking about, in which they have explicitly agreed with me on this point. In The Benedict Option, one of the signers of the Nashville Statement discusses how at his Evangelical church, the leadership has taken a strong stand against easy divorce, and explains what they’re doing.

I do believe, though, that the Nashville Statement was a bold and necessary document, whatever its shortcomings may be. The British Evangelical theologian Alastair Roberts gets it right here, in his defense of his signature. Excerpts:

Much confusion and error is to be found even in conservative Christian circles on these matters. As we are pressed by the culture to examine matters that we may have formerly taken for granted, many have lost their footing, uncertain of what to believe, or why we believe it. A statement that simply yet firmly presents an orthodox position can be both clarifying and emboldening at such a time, giving Christians a clearer apprehension of the truth, of the lines that need to be defended, and of the willingness of their leaders to nail their own colours to the mast. Also, like a flare shot up over a darkened field of debate, it reveals where different people are positioned and where troubling movement has occurred.

The Nashville Statement is a reassertion and defence of the creational reality of humanity, of the basic anthropological difference: that humanity is created and divinely blessed with fruitfulness as male and female. It is this reality that is under assault today on various fronts, as the natural order of creation is challenged by those who variously deny this difference, whether they reduce the sexed body to a superficial façade that can be changed, abandon substantive sexed selfhood for radical gender performativity, studiously downplay the ways in which the sexes are naturally physically and psychologically ordered to each other, or detach marriage from any procreative end or form. In standing against these developments, we aren’t expressing some peculiar or eccentric claims of Christian theology, but upholding creational realities that have been generally recognised across human ages and cultures.

True. More:

While important, this statement is far from the final or only word on the subject. The goodness of the truths set forth in this statement will only truly be practically discovered as wise and gracious leaders give us gospel-shaped guidance for charting our discipleship through the treacherous and difficult paths of our sexual brokenness and disorientation of our age, guidance marked by the truths of forgiveness, conversion, restoration, deliverance, and resurrection.

Roberts goes on to say that there have been good-faith criticisms of the document, and that these critics should be listened to and learned from. But:

Having considered the criticisms, however, and recognised various of the statement’s weaknesses, I am determined that the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good here. This statement is an important step, though only one step of many.

That’s where I am on the statement, though of course I did not sign it because it is meant as a teaching document by Evangelicals for Evangelicals. The fact that there has been so much outrage surrounding the document, and that some of its signers are experiencing serious harassment, even from within the church, simply for affirming Christian orthodoxy, is a sign that this statement was badly needed.

I defended the narrowness of the Nashville Statement in part because of the difficulty of getting so many Evangelical theologians to agree on things like divorce and contraception. Ron says:

I understand, as you point out, that it would be very difficult to get widespread agreement from the signers of the Nashville Statement on what the virtue of chastity demands on a variety of sexual issues other than homosexuality and transgenderism. But simply to write that is to write a reasonably damning (I do not use the word casually) indictment of the state of American Christianity.

That may be. I have seen Catholic conservatives criticized the Nashville Statement for being silent on what the contraceptive mentality has done to undermine marriage. As a philosophical matter, I believe they have a good point, but that it is also unrealistic to expect Protestants to accept Catholic teaching on this point (a teaching that the overwhelming majority of American Catholics reject, by the way) before they can speak credibly about homosexuality and transgenderism. In conversation with one of the signers of the Nashville Statement, I heard him say that yes, Evangelicals really do need to think hard, and self-critically, about divorce and contraception. It is no bad thing for them to be challenged on these points.

Having said that, is it really the case that in order to speak out credibly against abortion, you have to hold a certain view of the death penalty, or stand accused of hypocrisy? Why not say, “Yes, friend, you are right about the sanctity of unborn life. Now consider why that is, and what your principles about the sanctity of unborn life teach us about the life of the condemned prisoner. Can’t you see the contradiction?”

That’s the kind of critical dialogue that moves Christians forward, and it’s the kind of critical dialogue related to sexuality and gender that I believe the Nashville Statement can bring forth.

I am still unclear on the true nature of the conflict between the Nashville Statement’s Article VII, which denies that “adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception” is consistent with God’s will. When I first read the Nashville Statement, I saw no problem with that statement, but I apparently didn’t sufficiently understand what it meant. As Ron said, it is intended to exclude the Spiritual Friendship approach, in which Christians with same-sex attraction admit that they are gay, and go forward from there towards building a holy life of celibacy.

Me, I don’t see anything wrong with that, which is why I endorsed Spiritual Friendship in my book. Catholic and Orthodox teaching says that suffering, if accepted in the right spirit, can be redemptive as an aid to repentance and love. I took the Spiritual Friendship movement to bring together in non-sexual friendship gay Christians who are committed to chastity and indeed to celibacy — that is, to help them bear the cross of their desires together, in community, and to bring spiritual fruit out of their suffering and sacrifice.

But I now understand that this is controversial. Daniel Mattson, a same-sex-attracted Catholic and author of a powerful new book, Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay, has written in First Things:

I refuse to identify myself as gay because the label “gay” does not accurately describe who (or what) I am. More fundamentally, I refuse to use that label because I desire to be faithful to the theological anthropology of the Church.

In 1986, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote the “Pastoral Letter on the Care of the Homosexual Person.” In it, we read:

The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation. Every one living on the face of the earth has personal problems and difficulties, but challenges to growth, strengths, talents and gifts as well. Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.With confidence in the Church, I embrace this teaching about my identity in the same way that I have accepted the word “consubstantial” in the Creed. I accept all of the words of the Catechism concerning who I am in nature and in grace. I take no umbrage at the phrase “ objectively disordered” and feel no shame that it truthfully describes my sexual desires. I view my same-sex attraction as a disability, in some ways similar to blindness, or deafness, and I view it with the same hope communicated by Jesus about the man born blind: It has been allowed in my life, so that God’s work would be made manifest in me (cf. John 9:3). In the words of Tolkien, I view it as my personal “Eucatastrophe.”

Ithink it is a mistake to view homosexuality as a gift, in and of itself. Those who identify as gay speak of the great gifts that supposedly flow from their homosexuality. But of course, any goods that are supposedly unique to homosexuality are common to man, and all that is good in man is the result of being made in the image and likeness of God. My career in the performing arts is not even indirectly caused by my same-sex attraction, but instead because God is the creator of music and beauty. I believe that great good can come as a result of living with this disordered inclination, but it only comes when I acknowledge it as a weakness, and in response, fall to my knees before the good God who looks upon me daily with “a serene and kindly countenance,” and comforts me with the words “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”

The good that flows from the homosexual inclination is not an exceptional “otherness,” as Elizabeth Scalia seems to suggest. No, the good is the redemptive healing work of God that begins when we honestly acknowledge that homosexuality is a wound. If we do so, we can become “Wounded Healers,” in the way that Henri Nouwen viewed his own wounds, which we now know included same-sex attraction.

On the other hand, Joshua Gonnerman, a Catholic who identifies as gay and who is chaste, defends calling himself “gay”:

“You can’t identify as gay,” many said, “because to do so is to say that the label ‘gay’ encompasses you in your totality.” I have no taste for identity politics, but the truth is that all of us do, in fact, navigate complex identities. I identify first as a Christian, secondly as an orthodox Roman Catholic. After that, we find a slew of monikers; an Augustinian, a scholar, a theologian, an American, a single person, a theatergoer, a cook, a pedestrian, and—here comes the controversy—a gay or queer person.

The central locus of my identity, which shapes all other aspects of it, is Christ. But no one, upon honest self-reflection, can realistically claim that this entirely does away with all other aspects of one’s identity. Christ is the foundation which shows how other aspects of my identity can and cannot be expressed, but other aspects of who I am do say something significant about me.


So, then, we are presented with two different sexual identities for the homosexually-inclined. To identify as “gay” usually means to experience one’s homosexuality, in some way, as valuable. The competing sexual identity (known by many names, but most often “same-sex attracted” or “struggling with same-sex attraction”), indicates, in general, an experience of one’s sexuality as entirely problematic, and thus to be overcome (though, again, “overcoming” has a wide range of meanings here).

Yet there are many things I find valuable about my experience of being gay. Any number of studies indicate that there are real trends of difference between gay people and straight people, however difficult to define. Gay Christians are, perhaps, “called to otherness” as Elizabeth Scalia’s suggested on these pages in an article I consider one of the best things written on the subject. Her suggestion is that people with same-sex desire experience a kind of attraction that, when not concupiscent, is a gift to the Church”a sign of contradiction.

So: it seems to me that this is not merely an issue of semantics, but one of anthropology. Is homosexuality only a disorder, a “thorn in the flesh,” or is it in some sense good, even within the understanding that it cannot be expressed sexually or genitally? And, to what extent does sexual desire define a person?

Tentatively — tentatively! — I come down on the side of Mattson and the Nashville Statement. That said, it seems to me at this point in my own investigation of the question that the Spiritual Friendship approach is valid, at least to a point. I confess to you that I simply do not know enough to say definitively. I do believe, though, that I would draw the dividing line as a matter of public Christian witness between those who say that homosexuality cannot be expressed in sexual acts, and those who say it can. I don’t wish to dismiss the importance of the argument between the Spiritual Friendship people and their opponents like Mattson and the Evangelicl signers of the Nashville Statement. It really is important!

But I also don’t think that it is a make-or-break issue for Christians who agree that gays and lesbians are called exclusively to celibacy, unless for some reason they experience the call to heterosexual marriage. In other words, I wouldn’t say that the Spiritual Friendship folks are outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy, even if their approach may, as I suspect, be flawed.

And of course yes, it can’t be said often enough: Evangelicals (and the rest of us Christians who hold to orthodoxy on sexual matters) have to do much, much better in teaching and living out the truth within heterosexuality. But like Alastair Roberts, I don’t believe perfection should be the enemy of the good. I remain grateful for the Nashville Statement as a start for serious, sustained, robust, and comprehensive Christian reflection about sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity. I am also grateful for Ron Belgau’s criticism, and promise that I will continue to speak out against “the kind of self-satisfied Christian culture which cannot see its own complicity in the Sexual Revolution.”

Let me close by repeating the words from The Benedict Option that Ron quoted in his letter to me:

However, this move was made plausible by Christians who decided to single out gay people for unique shaming and condemnation, while ignoring heterosexual sin. Instead of presenting chastity as a difficult challenge which all Christians are called to, Christian rhetoric focused on condemning the homosexual aspects of the sexual revolution while making a (sometimes uneasy) truce with the more “respectable” heterosexual revolutionaries.

As I cut-and-pasted that passage, I thought about a college student who reached out to me last year, when I was writing the book. She told me the people in her theologically conservative Evangelical parachurch group were all sleeping with each other, but considered themselves to be good Christians. Unless those young people repent, if they remain in the church, they will either become a) the kind of hypocrites Ron Belgau and others rightly criticize, or b) supporters of normalizing homosexuality and premarital heterosexual sex. I wish I had written that college student and asked her to clarify whether or not the older adults running the group were aware of the sexual activity among its members. My sense from her account was that they preferred not to know. If that’s the case, that would be par for the course in my own experience, alas.

UPDATE: Oh, wow. Brian and Monica Gee were a married Christian couple in which the husband, Brian, was same-sex attracted. They began dating even though Brian admitted up front that he was attracted to men. In this 2015 blog post on the Spiritual Friendship blog, the couple talk about their unconventional marriage. Excerpts:

Brian: By the time that Monica and I started dating, I could honestly say that I was physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually attracted to her. The first of those four was as much a surprise to me as it is to anyone reading this. I did not and do not identify as bisexual. But considering we both believed in a God who works in unusual or unconventional ways, it didn’t feel disconnected from the bigger picture.

With that physical dimension (seemingly, at the time) resolved, we got married for two very normal but important reasons. First, we were in love with each other in every way that one experiences love in the early days of a relationship. Second, we were convinced that we could help others better together than if we were apart. At our core, we knew God was bringing us together so that we could serve more effectively together. That formed the basis of our best hopes and expectations for our marriage. Looking back, we could never have imagined what this would blossom into through the years of smiles, trials, and pain.

I think our fears were aligned, even if we didn’t talk about it much. I feared that this unexpected attraction would go away, and Monica feared that I wouldn’t be attracted to her. But those were underlying emotions that neither of us spent time thinking deeply about. We were genuinely in love, after all. So those emotions were simply there, waiting to return to the surface.

More, this time from Monica, talking about the effect of a letter Brian wrote to her four years into their marriage, in which he confessed that he no longer felt attracted to her physically:

That letter began the hardest month—the hardest year—of our relationship to date. It brought up hurts, fears, realities, and suffering for both of us. Brian finally used the word “gay” to describe himself (not same-sex attracted or any other safe, Christian phrase) [Emphasis mine — RD] and admitted to me that his physical attraction towards me had vanished soon after we were married. He hadn’t wanted to tell me because he wanted to protect me, knowing that this would be unbearably painful. In the meantime, he had bottled up his emotions and experienced confusion with—and anger toward—God.

During that time, we realized that in our marriage, we were both being called to live with form of suffering if our relationship was to continue. I say ‘called’ because it certainly wasn’t our choice, and yet it was exactly where God had directed our lives. In remaining faithful, Brian suffered by not experiencing the fulfillment of many of his physical and emotional needs. And by remaining in our marriage, I suffered by having my deepest fears realized and feeling a deeply painful form of rejection. We both realized that this suffering wasn’t going to be temporary and would probably never find resolution in our lifetime. And yet, this common suffering that we experienced united us to Christ’s suffering and to each other in an inexplicable way. We began to take solace in this unity, a unity that would become a keystone for our life and work together in the years that have followed.

She concludes the interview like this:

Monica: On the other hand, we have found in many a beautiful picture of what the church should be: an eye learning that it is not a foot and benefitting from what they eye has to offer the body. We have definitely found community and sustenance, even among those who don’t fully understand or agree with everything we believe. I feel like our marriage has actually made us more effective in relationships and in ministry. Being open about our life has allowed for great depth in friendships, which I wouldn’t give up despite the pain it has sometimes caused. Whatever suffering we have endured, whether internal or external, it has all served to knit us together and to hopefully make the gospel attractive by our continued love for Christ and his church.

That was 2015. Brian became a blogger for Spiritual Friendship — which, to its credit, did not erase his contributions when he and his wife divorced, and he started wearing skirts and encouraging other men to do the same.  

Monica Gee has just posted her reflections on the divorce, and the way she and her ex-husband embraced gay culture (“You remember seeing me post pictures at Pride Parades, having countless LGBT-friendly gatherings in my home…”). Today, she’s saying otherwise. Excerpt (emphasis below is hers):

 I think we were wrong. Not for getting married, not for attempting to stay married, not for pursuing Christ and forsaking all others. Those things were right and I wholeheartedly believe our marriage could have survived based on that foundation. But we were wrong to embrace “being gay” as an identity. We were wrong to move away from the gospel and to move towards figuring out some new way to exist. When I look back on what we wrote, I think, “dear Monica, run to Jesus. He is ever and only the answer. There is no other way. Don’t succumb to pressure, don’t give in to what feels comfortable and more palatable. Cling to God and truth.” Brian slowly, inch by inch walked away from faithfulness to the Scripture. Our hearts can only serve one god, and he chose identity in his sexuality above all else. He eventually sacrificed everything on that altar: his relationship with God, our marriage, and our family.

When I read the Nashville statement, all I can think is “YES. Thank you.” I wish this was written twenty years ago and that I had never begun to depart from it. I obviously bear responsibility for allowing myself to be moved on a variety of topics, but I felt helpless to do otherwise. Like many, if not all of you, I had heard that because I did not personally experience these issues that I could not have a voice in the discussion. I trusted Brian. I trusted him to lead me and our family, and so I often deferred to his judgment. When he said “we don’t like what so-and-so is saying” I agreed. I didn’t bother to read for myself or figure out how things were lining up with Scripture. I planted my flag in the ground, defending him at all costs whether I fully understood why or not. That is my fault. I should not have done that. Now as I read the people that he did not endorse, I can see why. People like Rosaria Butterfield and Christopher Yuan. People who were saying, “No. It doesn’t matter what your experience is, Jesus is the only answer and finding hope or identity in anything other than him will not work.”

I cannot say it any more clearly or emphatically or with as much authority as Rosaria Butterfield did in her recent blog. She is someone who has a legitimate voice in the discussion because of her sexual orientation. I am incredibly grateful for what she wrote and follow it with a hearty “amen.” I literally felt sick when I read the response to the Nashville Statement in the Christians United statement along with others echoing their sentiment. Because you cannot get away with calling sin “good”, just because it feels more loving. Because I know where attempting to find a middle ground leads. I know because I watched it happen first hand in the person I loved more dearly than any other in this world. I watched this man who loved Jesus turn into someone who I do not recognize. There is no middle ground. There are only two ways to live — towards and for Christ or away and against Him. I choose the former.



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