This post is the next in a series written in response to a multi-part inquiry that was submitted through the “ask a question” feature of this blog. The series begins here.
Q. Why are some people attracted to members of the same sex? Is this a genetic predisposition, so that people are born that way? Or is it the result of life experiences, maybe in early childhood? Or is it something that people choose?
If we wanted to help a gay person who had chosen to be a follower of Jesus consider the implications for their sexual identity, how could we do that without labeling, calling them a “sinner,” etc.? Could we encourage them to try to find out the root cause and respond to it? (I don’t even know if we’re allowed to do something like that today.)
I’ve heard it said that sexual orientation is unchangeable and so gay people who are followers of Jesus must practice abstinence. Not to discourage any of us from cultivating self-control, which is a fruit of the Spirit, but I don’t see why God would let people be born with a desire they would have to abstain from for a lifetime.
As your question suggests, it’s probably politically incorrect even to be discussing some of these issues. However, my policy on this blog is that “a direct question deserves a direct answer,” and so I will respond according to my honest beliefs and understanding.
I want to stress that I’m not advocating for any kind of civil discrimination within the wider society. My comments here have to do only with people who have committed themselves to follow Jesus and who are then reflecting on the implications of that commitment for their sexuality and sexual identity (as all followers of Jesus should do for every area of life). I hope that the spirit and tone of this series of posts has been communicating love and respect for all concerned, whether or not they have chosen to become followers of Jesus.
A variety of different explanations are still being suggested for the origins of same-sex attraction, and there may be some truth in many of them. Same-sex attraction may not be a single entity with a single cause, but rather a complex entity with multiple possible causes, perhaps even working in combination.
What we can say with certainty, however, is that no potential cause, except for one, leads directly to the conclusion that no one who is experiencing same-sex attraction could or should try to change this. There are all kinds of situations whose causes are genetic, hormonal, chemical, psychological, etc. that people try to change all the time. So even if it could be established that same-sex attraction had one or more of these causes, that would not be grounds to argue that it could not or should not be changed.
The only potential cause that rules out change, from a certain perspective, is choice. If a gay identity is something that people choose for themselves, then (at least within the mores of contemporary Western culture) no one should try to make them choose something else. But if we do regard a gay identity as a choice, then we should also allow for the possibility that a gay person might one day choose something else.
Specifically, if a gay person becomes a follower of Jesus and as a result begins to reflect on their sexual identity, taking counsel with trusted friends and considering the perspective of the Scriptures, including both the Bible’s overall motifs and its responses to specific cultural phenomena of its time (as I have discussed in the previous two posts), then I would say that other followers of Jesus could come along side them and with full respect and acceptance help them work through this reflection.
As you say in your question, it’s important that this not involve any condemnation or labeling. Rather, it should be understood as a matter of identity in Christ. The New Testament makes clear that everyone who becomes a follower of Jesus is called to live out a new identity. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation.” And he told the Galatians that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
It’s important to recognize that Paul isn’t saying here that the community of Christ’s followers includes both Jews and Gentiles. He stresses in other places that the community draws from both of these groups, and the vision in Revelation of the community as “a great multitude . . . from every nation, tribe, people and language” is one of the most inspiring and challenging images in the Bible for our understanding of where followers of Jesus will come from. (They’ll come from everywhere!)
But the complementary truth is that once people from all these identities come into the community of Jesus’ followers, these cease to be their primary identities. Jews of the Roman Diaspora like Paul understood their identity to be essentially Jewish, but when Paul became a follower of Jesus, he recognized that this now constituted his essential identity, so that he could flexibly either accentuate or downplay aspects of his former Jewish identity in order to reach Jews and Gentiles. Similarly, Paul told Philemon to welcome Onesimus back “no longer as a slave, but . . . as a dear brother.” And despite the controversy over many of his sayings, Paul essentially taught that men and women should not relate to one another primarily as members of opposite sexes, but rather as unified in Christ: “In the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman, and everything comes from God.”
Jesus articulated this same principle of a new primary identity when he said that his “family” (the primary source of identity in the agrarian Palestine of his day) was not his relatives and clan, but rather “all who hear God’s word and obey it.” Once again, the community of those who have answered God’s call becomes the new primary identity.
And so if a gay person who had chosen to follow Jesus felt that their former sexual identity no longer had to be primary for them, I think other followers of Jesus could legitimately help them explore what this might mean. This would likely be a long process and these friends would have to be committed to offering acceptance, support, and encouragement all the way through it. If same-sex attraction is a complex entity with different possible sources, several perhaps working in combination, then the process would likely be a little different for each person. All the members of any community of Jesus’ followers that came alongside a gay person in this way would likely discover radical implications for their own understandings of identity in Christ. I agree with you that being open to this possibility is greatly preferable to the idea that gay followers of Jesus have to spend a lifetime experiencing a desire that cannot be fulfilled.
This series of posts concludes here.