The church faces two major challenges to traditional understandings of biblical sexuality.
First, many churches are in the middle of all-out war over basics of Christian sexual morality, especially homosexuality.
Revisionists re-read Scripture and conveniently discover that the Bible doesn’t really condemn homosexual acts; or if it does, it’s because of cultural bias; or if it does, its strictures are outmoded. We’ve matured beyond repressive Paul.
Though none of the early creeds addresses sexual ethics, this revisionism is heresy. Alastair Roberts has put it well: Paul supports exhortations about sexual purity with appeals to “creedal” truth – man’s creation as male and female (Romans 1) or the holiness of the church (1 Corinthians 6).
You can’t change biblical sexual morality without undoing biblical teaching about God, man, and the world.
The second issue is more subtle, and closer to home.
Wes Hill and those associated with Revoice identify themselves as “celibate gay Christians.” They admit they’re sexually attracted to people of the same sex, but, because they’re committed to biblical sexuality, they confess these attractions are disordered and don’t act on them.
The reasoning behind the label is something like this: By identifying as “gay,” they win the trust of active homosexuals, which opens opportunities for witness. “Celibate” implies their desires aren’t deterministic. By being open about their own sin, they encourage other Christians to overcome shame, confess their sins, and seek pastoral care.
Hill and others are allies on important issues. They courageously resist the revisionist effort to alter 2000 years of Christian teaching (see the Revoice statement of faith). They’re sincere in their desire to help the church better minister to sexual deviants.
But their approach threatens to undermine their commitment to sexual orthodoxy. Their use of “gay” is confusing at best. The term means “same-sex attracted,” but also refers to a sensibility, a set of inclinations and interests, and a style of life they share with active homosexuals.
They thus talk about “redeeming” gayness and speculate how the fruits of gay culture may be brought into the new heavens and new earth. They don’t mean that sodomy is redeemable, but the terminology sows confusion.
But there’s a deeper issue: Should Christians identify ourselves by reference to an ongoing sinful habit or temptation? In one sense, the “gay Christians” are stating a fact: They remain same-sex attracted despite efforts to mortify their sin.
Nowhere in the New Testament, though, does anyone identify himself by or with his sin. Paul confesses he was a blasphemer and persecutor, but those are past-tense descriptions (Philippians 3:6; 1 Timothy 1:13).
“Such were some of you,” Paul tells the Corinthians at the end of a list of sexual sins (1 Corinthians 6:11). No doubt, some were still tempted, but Paul places their unrighteousness in a pre-baptismal life they’ve left behind.
The very notion of a fixed sexual orientation is itself a questionable product of a nineteenth-century effort to replace Christian sexual anthropology. As Augustine recognized, fallen desire is too amorphous, fluctuating, and uncontrollable to fit neatly and permanently into a hetero/homosexual binary.
To identify oneself by one’s sexual desires also seems to buy into what Rusty Reno has called the “empire of desire,” the widespread assumption that our “self” is determined by desires, which we must satisfy to live fully.
One of the most penetrating analyses of our sexual confusions is Philip Turner’s 1993 First Things essay, “Sex and the Single Life.” Drawing on Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, Turner traces the cultural upheaval to our culture’s basic conceptions of the self.
In modernity, the self isn’t defined “by social status and role but by inwardness, by a subjectivity that gives each moral agent depths.” You aren’t who you are because of your parents or inherited position. You are who you are because of what’s inside you. Each self, it is believed, has abilities and aspirations that need to be discovered and put into operation: “In this way the self grows, discovers its depths, and finds the satisfactions everyday life is supposed to yield.”
Certain moral imperatives follow. First, “benevolence,” the demand that everyone “act in a generous fashion toward all other selves so that each self can find the conditions necessary for its grown and development.” Second, justice, which means protecting the dignity of every self so it can freely realize its abilities and aspirations. Finally, “suffering can be and ought to be eliminated from daily life.”
Add the assumption that “‘sexuality’ is thought to stamp the powers and abilities the self is to discover, develop, and exercise in the course of daily life,” and you have an agenda for sexual revolution:
1. Your self is, or is closely bound up with, your sexual inclinations.
2. You can’t flourish unless you discover and develop your self, that is, your sexual inclinations.
3. Anyone who inhibits your self-development is attacking your dignity as a human being.
4. Every self has a right not to suffer. We have a right to be spared the pain of indignity.
5. Every self must accept every other self and affirm his or her life projects.
This paradigm explains the apparently paradoxical combination of libertinism and fascism that characterizes our culture: Everybody is free to be whatever kind of sexual being he chooses; but no one is free to object to another’s choices.
Talk of sexual identity slips into a story of the self with a narrative force that can carry you where you don’t want to go. The celibate gay Christian movement is attempting to flip elements of the cultural logic toward traditional Christian sexuality. Time will tell whether they're able to remain steadfast or get caught in cultural currents.
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