You are quite right to be frustrated when friends in your seminary classes treat the issue only as a juicy controversy into which they can sink their theological teeth. For you, and so many like you, it is a profoundly personal matter demanding pastoral sensitivity and the kind of careful nuance often missing in online forums and classroom debates. No doubt the careless ways some have spoken about your struggle has been deeply wounding, calculated more to signal to their ecclesiastical tribe where they stand than to offer any real help or guidance to those, like you, who are looking for it.
The following article is written in the form of a letter to a young seminarian struggling with same sex attraction. While based on many similar conversations, both Thomas, and the correspondence mentioned here are entirely fictional. This format was chosen in order to frame the discussion within a pastoral setting.
I enjoyed our conversation the other day, and was delighted to receive your letter. I was honored that you felt free to share with me your struggles with same-sex attraction. The issues you raised are indeed worth thinking through carefully. You are quite right to be frustrated when friends in your seminary classes treat the issue only as a juicy controversy into which they can sink their theological teeth. For you, and so many like you, it is a profoundly personal matter demanding pastoral sensitivity and the kind of careful nuance often missing in online forums and classroom debates. No doubt the careless ways some have spoken about your struggle has been deeply wounding, calculated more to signal to their ecclesiastical tribe where they stand than to offer any real help or guidance to those, like you, who are looking for it. For that, Thomas, I am truly sorry. I’m sure you’d agree that navigating faithfully the theological and pastoral complexities involved has never been a more urgent need.
In your letter you suggest three major areas for our discussion, and I am happy to follow your outline. First, there is the question of sexual orientation. We already agree that homosexual sexual behaviors are prohibited by the biblical teaching so we needn’t take time on that here. But how should we think about sexual orientation, since the category itself doesn’t line up precisely with biblical categories? Secondly, you were asking about the distinction between temptation and sin. You hear from some that being tempted by homosexual sexual sin isn’t sinful in itself. Jesus was tempted and didn’t sin, after all. Thirdly, you raise the issue of identity. May a Christian identify himself or herself as a Gay Christian? How should we respond when someone does?
Concerning sexual orientation, you are right to highlight the fact that sexual orientation is a category entirely foreign to the Bible. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be rejected, of course. But it does mean that we should be careful to define our terms so that we can apply biblical truth where it can shed most light. The American Psychiatric Association defines sexual orientation as,
“an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes. Sexual orientation also refers to a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors, and membership in a community of others who share those attractions.”
The APA further argues that we should distinguish sexual orientation from biological sex- which refers to the biological, anatomical, and chromosomal features associated with being male and female; and from gender identity- which refers to the psychological sense of being male or female, and increasingly, other non-binary gender identities. Thus, according to this taxonomy a person can be biologically male, identify as a female, and have a homosexual or heterosexual or bisexual sexual orientation. Some further insist that none of these categories are stable. They are fluid and malleable. As you will immediately appreciate, this raises an enormously complicated array of pastoral and theological issues, and the consequent confusion that we find in the church at the moment concerning them isn’t really surprising.
So, for the sake of brevity, perhaps the way to proceed is for me to set out my convictions on some of these categories. First of all, the Bible is clear that there are only two sexes. Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This fundamental binary is non-negotiable. Our biological sex is not plastic. It is a given, and cannot be changed, contemporary assertions to the contrary notwithstanding. Secondly, gender identity- a subject to which we will doubtless need to return- ought to reflect the biological sex God has assigned to us. However, that a person can feel like their gender identity and their biological sex do not correlate is, in my view, entirely consistent with the biblical data about the effects of the Fall. This is what theologians sometimes call the noetic effects of sin- the effects of sin on our minds. Paul, in Romans 1:18-32, demonstrates that sin has distorted our thinking towards God, and towards one another, and thus necessarily also with regards to oneself (and you will notice that Paul particularly highlights the sexual implications of those effects in the course of his discussion as clear evidence of sin’s debasing power).