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It was important and helpful to have Wesley Hill with us at our Theology Conference to share his personal testimony. You can hear his testimony here: Washed and Waiting: A Personal Testimony, Theological and Ecclesial Reflections (Audio)

My sense was that people generally wrestled with three questions/implications to Hill’s testimony of living under the Lordship of Christ, living in submission to the authority of the Scriptures, living a life of holiness while having same-sex inclinations:

  1. transformation and how much is to be expected/required in this life;
  2. desire (or inclination or temptation) equals lust, and since lust is sinful and something from which we must be delivered, so is desire;
  3. resignation to this reality in this life, rather than remaining hopeful and vigilant to be changed, to be transformed.

Subsequent to our Theology Conference, Hill responded to a couple of the recurring questions he was asked, which included some of what I noted above, (also posted at Spiritual Friendship).

One question addressed the notion of identifying oneself as a “‘gay’ Christian.” Hill notes the question: “Why would you call yourself a ‘gay Christian’?,” to which he responds.

“Gay” in current parlance doesn’t necessarily refer to sexual behavior; it can just as easily refer to one’s sexual orientation and say nothing, one way or the other, about how one is choosing to express that orientation. So, whereas “stealing Christian” certainly denotes the behavior of stealing, “gay Christian” may simply refer to the erotic inclinations of the Christian who claims that identity and leave open the question of whether he or she is sexually active with members of his or her own sex.

This is why, by the way, I rarely use the phrase “gay Christian” without adding another adjective: “celibate.” To call myself a “celibate gay Christian” specifies both my sexual orientation and the way I’m choosing to live it out.

I have previously stated that I don’t necessarily like that a professing Christian refers to oneself as a “gay Christian.” But I am not one who struggles with same-sex inclinations, and I do know that Hill, specifically, has his reasons, as stated above. I would also note that based on Hill’s foundational biblical commitments to the Lord, His Word and personal holiness, I am not as inclined to quibble about his reference.

I appreciate what Hill explains above. My quibble is based on the fact that the context in which this is communicated matters, as there is no context-neutral zone in which this is communicated or heard. In reaching out to those who struggle with same-sex inclinations, to refer to oneself in this way most likely helps. It serves as a form of pre-evangelism with the prayer that it will open a door to communicate the message of true hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is confusing, however, and it would send the wrong message to those who conclude the term “gay” refers to sexual behavior. If the term is going to be used, it would have to be defined and nuanced almost every time it was used to ensure it was not misunderstood.

In fact, it is generally true that communicating with sensitivity within a cultural context will result in gaining a hearing among some and offending others. It is clear that when referring to oneself as a “‘gay’ Christian” or even a “celibate ‘gay’ Christian,” it will likely communicate affirmation to those who struggle with such a reality and the general tendency is that it bothers or offends some Christians (Evangelicals). Of those Christians who are offended, one must be careful not to offend the “weak Christian,” and one must be sensitive to fellow Christian brothers and sisters as they hear, seek to understand and process this, but one must not be controlled by the legalist. Context in communication matters.

The second question noted by Hill is the following: “By using the label ‘gay’ for yourself, aren’t you simply accepting that same-sex attraction is an unalterable part of your personality and thereby giving up on the possibility of healing and change?” As part of this answer, Hill refers to studies that reveal that change can and does occur, but not in every instance. Here, then, is the second part to his answer.

“Have you given up hope?” On the contrary, calling oneself a “celibate gay Christian” may be a way of expressing, not giving up, hope—but expressing it in a way that doesn’t link that hope to orientation change. Claiming the label “celibate gay Christian” means, for me, recognizing my homosexual orientation as a kind of “thorn in the flesh.” When the apostle Paul used that phrase in his correspondence with the Corinthian church, he made clear that his “thorn” was indeed an unwelcome source of pain (2 Corinthians 12:7). But he also made clear that it had become the very occasion for his experience of the power of the risen Christ and, therefore, a paradoxical site of grace (2 Corinthians 12:8). Paul, I think, would have had no qualms about labeling himself a “thorn-pricked Christian”—not because he recognized his thorn as a good thing, in and of itself, but because it had become for him the means by which he encountered the power of Christ. Likewise, living with an unchanged homosexual orientation may be for many of us the means by which we discover new depths of grace, as well as new vocations of service to others.

This has prompted a good deal of discussion, which was one of the reasons it was important for Hill to join us at our Theology Conference. Too many Evangelicals, including some in the EFCA, conclude that one is either classified as an ardent, lobbying gay activist who embraces the belief, life and lifestyle of homosexuality, or one is gloriously transformed and that transformation is noted by marriage and children. Though both of those realities exist, and we thank and praise God that transformation can and does occur (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-11), it overlooks the spectrum that exists. There are those, like Hill, that don’t fit either category, but who are gloriously transformed and who live under the Lordship of Christ, the authority of His Word, and are committed to holiness of life, those who are redeemed-but-not-yet-glorified and who long to be liberated from life in this fallen, sinful and broken world (Rom. 8:23-25). But this reality is not limited to any one sub-group of Christians, those with struggles like Hill’s, but for all Christians.

Not all agreed with Hill’s assessment of how to explain or understand his life’s experience biblically, but it was important to hear from him and how he attempts to live faithfully as a disciple of Jesus Christ in the context of the local church. My sense is that if we do not have a place for people like Hill in our local churches, I am quite sure there is no room for people like us (me!) either.

 

A question was raised regarding one of the speakers for our upcoming EFCA Theology Conference. Since this question was raised by one, it has also likely been raised by others. With the questioner’s permission I am posting along with my reply.

Question

Wesley Hill is an avowed (though celibate) homosexual and after looking into it, it appears that he is. He admitted so in a Christianity Today book review. Did we know this when we invited him? If so, can you please explain the rationale?

Response

I am fully aware of Wesley Hill and his inclinations. In fact, it is one of the reasons why he was invited. However, even more foundationally, I invited him because he is a fellow brother in the Lord, committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and submissive to the inerrancy and authority of the Bible. He is an Evangelical in the best definition of that term theologically defined. He acknowledges that he has a same-sex attraction. He also acknowledges that it is a result of living in a fallen world. He also acknowledges that he must live in submission to God’s Word.

I don’t necessarily like that he refers to himself as a “gay Christian,” but he has his reasons. 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 do want to hear his further explanations. I believe Hill has much to teach us about those who have similar struggles, and who desire to live faithfully before the Lord and in submission to His Word.

To respond/conclude that people with struggles like Hill don’t belong or they can’t be Christians, or they can’t be evangelicals, or they are in sin simply because they have these inclinations (I am not broadening this beyond Hill’s position as noted above with all of his acknowledgements and commitments) would be biblically inaccurate. Moreover, I believe the statement that “Hill is an avowed (though celibate) homosexual” is also inaccurate and hurtful, as it is not what he writes or claims.

There appear to be two incorrect assumptions in the statement. First, being a “gay Christian” and having those “inclinations” is equated with being “an avowed homosexual.” They are not one and the same. Second, “avowed” connotes that he affirms and celebrates his identity; Hill indeed regards it as a type of brokenness. But just as we are instructed in Scripture to rejoice in suffering (Rom. 5:1-5; 12:12; Col. 1:24; 1 Pet. 1:6-9), Hill finds things to affirm even in his brokenness (2 Cor. 12:9-10). He never goes the added step, however, of affirming any goodness in homosexual intimacy.

Such a (mis)statement/conclusion may deny the reality of the fallenness of our world that will only be made right when the Lord Jesus Christ returns (and it is important to remember that all of us in some way live with some implications in consequence of the fall that will only be fully sanctified at glorification); it may mandate that they be married which could be to encourage a response that would deny the gift of singleness (cf. 1 Cor. 7:7; both singleness and marriage are “gifts,” and marriage is temporary in that in the resurrection there will be no marriage [Matt. 22:30]); it may force them to the position and people where they find acceptance, that is in and with the homosexual community, those who do not believe the position or the lifestyle are sinful whatsoever.

Though we believe homosexual behavior is sinful, as does Hill, there is much that we as Evangelicals, generally, and as the EFCA, specifically, need to learn. I am prayerful the Lord will use Hill as part of our learning.

 

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.

Notice that Hill refers to himself as a “gay Christian.” In Hill’s “Review of The End of Sexual Identity,” TGC Reviews (April 25, 2011),  he explains why he uses this expression of himself.

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.