There’s no question that Christians should be empathetic toward those struggling with same-sex attraction and have the humility to acknowledge that if we don’t have that struggle, we don’t know what it’s like. But there’s a point at which empathy becomes distorted and blinds us to Scriptural truths and to the reality that suffering is a part of all of our lives but is not a license to reinterpret biblical passages to ease our pain and justify our actions. We are kidding ourselves if we think we’re doing those with same-sex attraction a favor by saying their attraction is part of their identity.
Many people are probably puzzled by the recent controversy in the PCA over same-sex attraction. If we all agree that homosexual behavior goes against Scripture, what’s the big deal if we differ over how to discuss and label same-sex desire? (For background, read What Do You Think?, Open Letter To A Wrongful, Persistent Critic, and What Do You Think Part 2.)
At one time, I would have asked that question myself. But after observing the patterns of thought that lead to affirmation of same-sex relationships, I now believe these discussions to be critically important. The question in the Nashville case is not ultimately about whether a young man battling temptation (in his case, homosexual temptation) should be ordained. No one is suggesting that to be a pastor or other church leader, you must be free of struggle with sin. The larger, more consequential question is about where our denomination is headed in our beliefs about homosexuality.
Taking a look at this issue at such a granular level is not something we’re used to and can be confusing and discomforting. It can make us want to run for the exit. But it’s essential to study it closely because of the enormous pressure we’re under to conform to the culture.
The ministerial candidate in the Nashville case believes his same-sex attraction is as innocuous as opposite-sex attractions: “I believe my same-sex attractions are broken, but I do not believe they are sinful. It is not a sin for me to be attracted to another man, in the same way it is not sinful for you to be attracted to a woman.” He and Nashville pastor Scott Sauls and their sympathizers promote the idea that same-sex attraction is a fixed orientation or identity. There are various flaws with these views. A man’s physical attraction to a woman is innocent in that God provides a healthy outlet for that desire in marriage. It only becomes sinful when not directed in God-pleasing ways. A man’s physical desire for another man can never be satisfied in a holy way. It is by its nature corrupt and sinful. There is no scientific consensus that there is a “gay gene” that makes people “born that way.” From a Christian perspective, we are all born with the propensity to sin, with some of us drawn to some sins more than others for reasons that can be hard to explain and are due in part to factors beyond our control, but that are sin nonetheless.
The approach we’re seeing now is inspired more by changes in the culture than biblical reasoning. It’s a way to appear more empathetic toward those with same-sex attraction and to appeal to those outside the church who view us as uncaring. While this reasoning is not biblical, it’s not novel among Christians, either. These were steps taken by affirming mainline denominations and Christian intellectuals on their way to full endorsement of same-sex relationships. If we are to avoid ending up in the same place, it’s important to look at how they got there.
Years ago when I lived in Jackson, Tennessee, I became acquainted with David Gushee and followed his writings over a period of time. He was then a theology professor at Union University and a defender of traditional sexual ethics. He is now a professor at Mercer University in Georgia and one of the foremost evangelical proponents of same-sex relationships. His views did not change overnight. Rather it was a process that played out in phases. He began to spend more time accusing other Christians of bullying people with same-sex attraction than he did presenting the promise of redemption offered in Scripture. He came to see same-sex attraction as a fixed orientation. His criticism of fellow believers grew even more strident, his sympathy for people with same-sex attraction having eclipsed his sympathy for traditional Christian ethics and those defending them. Finally, in 2014, he wrote a piece for the Washington Post in which he said he now supports same-sex relationships and encouraged other Christians to do the same.
Gushee’s rationale was based on feelings and emotions rather than a close reading of Scripture. He mentioned his sister’s struggle with her sexuality as one of the factors influencing his change of mind. He wrote:
“In recent years, my moral position has shifted. It has dawned on me with shocking force that homosexuality is not primarily an issue of Christian sexual ethics. It’s primarily an issue of human suffering. With that realization, I have now made the radical decision to stand in solidarity with the LGBT community…
The fact that one place where she [my sister] developed a deep struggle with her sexuality was in evangelical churches has contributed to my new moral commitment to make evangelical families and churches safe places for LGBT people.”
There’s no question that Christians should be empathetic toward those struggling with same-sex attraction and have the humility to acknowledge that if we don’t have that struggle, we don’t know what it’s like. But there’s a point at which empathy becomes distorted and blinds us to Scriptural truths and to the reality that suffering is a part of all of our lives but is not a license to reinterpret biblical passages to ease our pain and justify our actions.
We are kidding ourselves if we think we’re doing those with same-sex attraction a favor by saying their attraction is part of their identity. How painful, frustrating, and confusing must it be to be told that your attraction is part of how God made you but you can’t act on it? If your attraction is qualitatively no different than that of a person with opposite-sex attraction, wouldn’t the prohibition of related conduct eventually strike you as arbitrary? It did to Julie Rodgers, an early proponent of the “gay Christian” movement for whom the tension became too much and who now lives openly as a lesbian. We are foolish if we think this approach will somehow ease pressure on churches to endorse homosexual conduct. In all likelihood, it will have the opposite effect. Pressure will mount on our pastors and other church leaders. Those in our churches with same-sex attraction and their loved ones will become resentful and bitter that same-sex attraction is seen as unobjectionable yet is not fully esteemed – measured by acceptance of related behavior – as is opposite-sex attraction. Those outside the church will pressure us to take another step toward proving our empathy, and then another, and then another.
Not everyone endorsing this approach is sinisterly and covertly trying to lead us to acceptance of same-sex relationships. I believe some of these efforts are sincere and well-intended. But they will almost certainly, however unintentionally, lead others to total compromise. We are playing with fire when we regard same-sex attraction as innocuous. In 2 Corinthians 10, we are told to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” We don’t always have control over the thoughts that enter our heads, but we do have control, and the responsibility, to name them as God-honoring or not once they are there. Normalizing same-sex attraction rips that concept to shreds and puts us on a path toward a debate over normalizing same-sex behavior.
Wendy Wilson is a teacher and freelance writer. She attends a PCA church in Nashville.