Should Christians Label Themselves by Their Struggles?
The man approached me right after I finished speaking to the conference on purity, gripping my hand. “I love every point you made,” he enthused, “and I know all about striving for purity. I’m a Boy Lover.”
Totally confused, I asked him to clarify.
“I love boys. I’m attracted to them. But I’m a Christian, so I’m celibate, of course.”
We talked a long time then about whether it’s right to use such positive language to describe negative impulses. I don’t think there’s any good reason for it, and plenty of reasons not to do it.
“Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me”
Homosexuality and pedophilia are of course not the same thing, but still our debate that night mirrored a larger public debate on the way homosexual persons label themselves. It’s a debate that isn’t limited to wrestling matches between Christians and non-Christians. It isn’t even between conservative versus liberal believers. Bible-believing, theological conservatives — people who share an orthodox position on marriage and sexuality — don’t all agree on which terms are right to use to refer to people who struggle to live in obedience to those positions.
Traditionally they’ve been referred to as “Ex-gays.” “People who Struggle with Same-Sex Attractions.” Even “Repentant Homosexuals.” Today, though, a growing number of influential evangelical voices use new terms. Some of these terms were involved in evangelical controversy over the recent Revoice conference.
Five of them seem especially problematic to me: Gay Christian, Mixed Orientation Marriage, Spiritual Friendship, Side B Christian, and Sexual Minority. So in a 3-part series, continued at joedallas.org, I’d like to spell out my concerns about each of them.
Usually, the term’s been applied to people who believe homosexuality and Christianity are compatible. It’s been for those who promote a revised view of the Bible and claim God blesses same-sex coupling.
Today, though, it’s also being applied to people who are attracted to the same-sex but refuse, out of obedience to God, to express those attractions. Popular Christian authors like Wesley Hill, Nate Collins, Preston Sprinkle, Gregory Coles and Ron Belgau are among those who express or support this application.
It makes sense to a point. There’s value in being honest about an area of weakness. James tells us to confess our faults one to another (James 5:16). Paul declared he kept a close watch on himself to avoid anything that might compromise his calling (1 Corinthians 9:27).
But is it wise (much less, biblical) to categorize ourselves by a sinful tendency? When should we acknowledge those tendencies? And should the terms we apply to them ever be positive?
As the culture shifts toward condoning behaviors it once condemned, so does its language. Polygamy has been rechristened “polyamory.” A promiscuous male is now “a player” or “a stud.” Sex-change operations (a doubtful label already) have morphed into “gender confirmation surgery.”
We frown on society reframing immorality in positive terms. But when believers do the same, we do more than frown. We fear.
Labels or Fables
To be fair, we should note that some who identify as gay Christians hold an essentially sound position on homosexuality. They accept biblical condemnations of same-sex behavior at face value, so they abstain from it. Obedience is no small matter to them. They should be given due credit for accepting the role self-denial plays in the life of any serious Christian.
We part company, though, over the area of self-identification. When I repented of homosexual behavior in January of 1984, the homosexual attraction was involuntary. It didn’t have an “off” switch. So those attractions would continue to arise. When they did, I needed to resist them.
Scripture calls us to be aware of sin nature. But we can do this without labeling ourselves by impulses we’re overcoming.
Therefore to make a clean break with my previous identity as a gay man, I moved to another county. I found a church and hired a professional counselor. I began investing in daily prayer, Bible study, regular worship with other believers and deep friendships.
Yet I never considered myself a gay Christian despite any lingering homosexual attractions I had. I was aware of the attractions and dealt with them as they arose. But they no longer defined me.
That put me in the same boat as any new creature in Christ. Scripture calls us to be aware of the sin nature (Romans 6-7) and the temptations and responses it generates (Galatians 5:17). It tells us to resist (Romans 6:12) and promises strength to do so (1 Corinthians 10:13). It speaks of the “glory to glory” transformation we experience as God sanctifies us (2 Corinthians 3:18). We can thereby, with integrity, wear the “sinner” badge, as Paul did (1 Timothy 1:15), recognizing that we fall short (James 3:2). In this life, we’ll always be both wrestling with and overcoming sinful impulses.
No Need to Label
We can do all this without labeling ourselves by impulses we’re overcoming. There are a few limited situations where it makes sense to specify the problem. A support group for people wrestling with a life-dominating problem like addiction would be an example. James’s instruction cited earlier to “confess our faults” also comes to mind here. We could hardly obey it if we’re not honest about the faults themselves. So the statement, “I’m Bob, and I’m an alcoholic,” has merit when Bob’s in a meeting focusing on alcoholism. When Bob’s in church, though, he needn’t feel compelled to introduce himself the same way.
We all wrestle with some kind of sinful tendency. We assume that about each other. We don’t need to know others’ actual temptations; we all struggle, and we all know it. It may be a common tendency or an uncommon one. It could be a temptation we all share, or one only a few of us can relate to. The general struggle is universal. The specific type hardly matters.
Calling the Bad the Good
But when it does matter, the way a person acknowledges them matters too. That’s where the term “gay Christian” is problematic.
We all experience cravings for what we know to be wrong. We don’t beat ourselves up over them, but we don’t refer to them with flattering lingo, either. We don’t call them gay, which implies they’re happy, cheerful things. Nor do we consider them morally neutral. They’re neither good nor neutral, but regrettable.
This is why the words of one Christian woman dealing with her own homosexuality are so apt:
I found for myself that moving past gay identity was essential for living stably and contentedly according to my beliefs as a same-sex attracted Christian woman. … Abandoning gay identity doesn’t mean being in denial. It doesn’t mean “naming it and claiming it,” proclaiming that you’re “healed,” that you’re totally straight and happily heterosexual, while you’re still homosexually attracted. What it means is radically altering the role that the fact of your homosexual attractions plays in your thinking about yourself and your life.
Whatever our unique struggles, we could do worse than to take a cue from her, remembering that the way we frame our experience directs our response to it:
“As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7)
Adapted with permission from JoeDallas.org