Wesley Hill will be one of our keynote, plenary speakers at our upcoming EFCA Theology Conference. Hill graduated from Wheaton College, served as a pastoral apprentice at Bethlehem Baptist, Minneapolis, MN, recently completed a Ph.D. in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and presently serves as an assistant professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry (an evangelical seminary in the Anglican tradition) in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.
A couple of years ago he wrote a testimonial: Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010). According to his testimony, as long as he remembers he has experienced a powerful and abiding attraction to members of the same-sex. He cannot point to an experience that triggered this experience. He became a believer in Christ and had never turned back from that commitment. He also agrees with the Bible that homosexuality is a sin. Here is how he explains his commitment (p. 61):
In the end, what keeps me on the path I’ve chosen is not so much individual proof texts from Scripture or the sheer weight of the church’s traditional teaching against homosexual practice. Instead, it is, I think, those texts and traditions and teachings as I see them from within the true story of what God has done in Jesus Christ – and the whole perspective on life and the world that flows from that story, as expressed definitively in Scripture. Like a piece from a jigsaw puzzle finally locked into its rightful place, the Bible and the church’s no to homosexual behavior make sense to me – it has the ring of truth . . . when I look at it as one piece within the larger Christian narrative. I abstain from homosexual behavior because of the power of that scriptural story.
Hill recently reviewed Justin Lee’s Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate in Christianity Today 56/9 (October 2012), 75. Lee also identifies as a “gay Christian,” but for him Christ’s ethic to love gives him the freedom to be in a loving relationship with someone of the same sex. On this basis, Lee places this discussion in the category of “disputable matters,” and therefore those who affirm monogamous gay relationships and those who affirm that gay Christians ought to remain celibate must learn to treat one another as brothers and sisters in the Lord who disagree over matters of indifference or conscience. In the concluding section of the review, “A Place for Transformation,” Hill disagrees.
Full disclosure: I am a celibate gay Christian. Like Lee, I grew up Southern Baptist. Like him, I discovered during puberty that I was exclusively attracted to others of my own sex. But unlike Lee, I don’t find any wiggle room in Scripture: Marriage is intended for one man and one woman (Gen. 2; Matt. 19; Eph. 5), and anyone living outside that marital state is called to celibacy (I Cor. 7).
Lee’s book leaves people like me – his fellow gay Christians who, nonetheless, disagree sharply with him on sexual ethics – in a difficult position. On the one hand, we share his hope that the church may be a place of welcome and grace for LGBTQ people. However, we don’t view our celibacy as simply one option among an array of valid choices which believers are free to sort out as they please. Rather, we see celibacy as obedience to the clear, if bracing, mandate of Scripture. And we’ve found the church to be a place of transformation, a place to be, in T.S. Eliot’s words, “renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.”
It’s tempting, with Lee, to think that Jesus’ ethic of love abrogates some of the more obscure or challenging biblical norms. Yet the sweep of the canon of Scripture suggests that we follow Jesus rightly when we see the apostles’ teaching and commands as flowing from Jesus’ love for us, not impeding it. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” Jesus told his disciples (John 14:15, ESV). Conforming our lives to Scripture’s difficult ethical teaching is precisely the way we demonstrate that we’ve made our home in Jesus’ love. And that’s a path that Lee’s book, for all its commendable honesty and salutary insight, chooses not to explore.
For myself, using the term “gay” has enabled me to attain a greater depth of honesty—with myself and with others. It has given me a way to achieve greater accuracy in naming the persistent, exclusive nature of my desires where a term like “same-sex attraction” seems too weak. Furthermore, claiming the “gay” label has allowed me to begin to discern a vocation. To borrow Paul’s language in 2 Corinthians 12:7, when I acknowledged that my “thorn in the flesh” didn’t seem like something that would be easily removed, that recognition enabled me to encounter God’s power in the midst of pain. My unique thorn, I realized, may be the precise point at which I am called to receive and reflect his grace and embody the “perfection” of his strength.
I do not totally understand and I am not completely comfortable with the reference to being a “gay Christian,” in that I don’t self-identify as a “heterosexual Christian.” But Hill has his reasons and he roots them in the gospel and his understanding of weakness, thorns, and God’s grace. Based on his foundational biblical commitments to the Lord, His Word and personal holiness, I am not as inclined to quibble about his reference. I am excited to learn from him, along with the other excellent speakers, at the Theology Conference.