Gay + Christian?

There is nothing I could have gained in the past, in the gay life or identifying as a gay man, that could compare with the identity I have now as one who is securely cradled in the Lord’s embrace.

Christ died to remove through his broken body and shed blood the power of sin and the power of death from his people, forever. Why would any Christian wish to name him or herself according to a pattern of sinful desire or behavior, such as “gay”? As our friend Rosaria Butterfield asks, why would any Christian want to limit the identity of “Christian” by modifying it with an adjective like “gay”?

A growing issue in the Church leads us at Harvest USA to leverage the insight and expertise we’ve gained ministering to same-sex attracted individuals for the last 35 years and speak up. That issue is this: should someone identify as a gay Christian?

This issue is related to two questions: Where does a Christian’s identity come from? From our desires and life experiences, or from our Creator and Redeemer God? The second question is this: is the mere experience of same-sex attraction sinful, even if there is no acting upon those desires?

These two questions have a lot of emotion behind them. They are not just theological questions; they are personal questions, questions about people. For the person who lives with same-sex attraction, experienced as a growing awareness over a prolonged period, those feelings seem natural. Because same-sex strugglers never consciously chose same-sex desires while growing up, it might seem reasonable to conclude that he or she was born that way. And for the believer, it might seem a natural conclusion that such desire is part of God’s created order.

So, given the typical life experience of those with same-sex attraction that I just described, what’s the big deal about calling oneself a gay Christian as long as one is following the biblical sexual ethic?

Therein lies the problem. People experience both the saving grace of God and same-sex attraction. How are believers in Christ to resolve the tension of experiencing same-sex attraction, which they never sought or knowingly cultivated, and wondering whether this attraction is innate and connected to identity?

To understand the issue of living with something that is unchosen, we need to start with some basic Christian theology.

The experience of living with same-sex attraction, and the behavior that acts on that desire (in thought, word, or deed) is a distortion of God’s created intent for sex and sexuality. That distortion is the result of the Fall which has corrupted all aspects of human existence and experience.

Scripture asserts that all human behavior comes from our hearts and that our hearts are fallen. This means that every natural inclination of our heart, including our thoughts, emotions, desires, as well as our deeds, is corrupted by sin. All of us are in the same boat, as it were, when it comes to the effects of original sin. Within each one of us is an accumulation of countless desires, thoughts, and behaviors, some we didn’t choose but only discovered over time, and some which we do choose, and nurture, and develop, and act upon.

I think it is helpful when considering same-sex attraction to make the distinction between volitional sin (where someone chooses to respond to temptation by acting sinfully in thought, word, or deed) and the passive experience of same-sex attraction as a manifestation of indwelling sin.

How are believers in Christ to resolve the tension of experiencing same-sex attraction, which they never sought or knowingly cultivated, and wondering whether this attraction is innate and connected to identity?

Volitional sin, by its definition, is a purposeful, chosen action to rebel against God and his will. But the experience of same-sex attraction, as a passive state, can suddenly present itself, unchosen, as a relational, emotional, and sexual desire toward someone. That individual did not decide to be drawn toward that other person; in fact, he or she may not want that at all. But it happens.

That draw is the enduring power of the flesh. It is the “orientation” toward sin; the way that person’s heart interacts with his desires. But if that person does not act on those sinful desires, if he takes the “way of escape” described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:13, then he has actively turned from sin.

In short, the call of the same-sex attracted person who is in Christ is to not embrace an orientation toward sin, but instead to actively cultivate a heart that is increasingly oriented toward being made new, in the image of Jesus Christ.

Now we can turn toward the issue of identity.

Identity is important. Who we are and who we want to become is wrapped up in how we view our relationship to Christ.

Our identity comes entirely from God. We add nothing of genuine or enduring value to it. In Philippians 3:4-11, Paul lists his accomplishments: his well-earned pedigree, which by all accounts he should have cherished as his identity and the basis of his personal value. But instead of cherishing these things, he says: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” (3:8-9).

Paul doesn’t subordinate some aspects of his identity to Christ. He doesn’t say that knowing Christ is one aspect of his identity or even the most important part of it. He says that everything else he would have once turned to for identity and value (his heritage, his birthright, his theological affiliation, his education, his record of obedience) is all rubbish. (The Bible translators were very delicate here; the word translated “rubbish” actually refers to entirely worthless things, like dung.)

In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul tells us about the transformation that takes place for the one who trusts in Jesus. He says, “…if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

Identity is important. Who we are and who we want to become is wrapped up in how we view our relationship to Christ.

This passage is even more powerful regarding identity formation than the Philippians 3 passage. In 2 Corinthians 5, we see a radical wiping away of prior identity, initiated through Jesus’ death and made complete through his resurrection. In 2 Corinthians 5, everything that we’ve accreted to our personal identities, everything that once defined us, has been utterly wiped away by the power of Christ. Through his death, he took us with him into death. Through his resurrection, he has brought us through death into life everlasting. Here and now, we already partake (albeit, for a season, in very limited ways) of the new life we share with him forever. Paul tells us in Romans 6:4 that all this has happened so that we too (just like Jesus) “might walk in newness of life.”

That newness of life is our new identity. That now defines who we are.

Christ died to remove through his broken body and shed blood the power of sin and the power of death from his people, forever. Why would any Christian wish to name him or herself according to a pattern of sinful desire or behavior, such as “gay”? As our friend Rosaria Butterfield asks, why would any Christian want to limit the identity of “Christian” by modifying it with an adjective like “gay”?

Identity defines who we are and who we will become.  At Harvest USA, our ministry to individuals with same-sex attraction has shown us the imperative need to define oneself wholly by the work of Christ. A gay identity, at best, is confusing (there are, after all, those who use such a label and espouse same-sex relationships as being approved by God). But a greater danger we have seen is that it can be a slippery slope leading to sexual sin and for some a rejection of orthodox faith.

We at Harvest USA fully and humbly acknowledge that it is typical for the same-sex-attracted believer to experience fallen sexual desire for long periods of time—even a lifetime. For most, it doesn’t disappear. There are no easy explanations as to why that is. This is an area for the Church to grow in compassion, in patience, and in love for its people who struggle with same-sex attraction.

Again, the enduring nature of same-sex attraction should not be confused with the characteristics of personal identity. We encourage Christians who experience same-sex attraction to see that same-sex attraction is part of the fallen nature that is still visible, still palpable through the glorious veil of new life in Christ—yet not determinative.

That’s why Paul exhorts his hearers to “put to death…what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). Believers must put such things “to death” for the precise reason that they are inconsistent with the believer’s new nature in Christ. 

And, we would be remiss if we failed to mention that just a few verses later, Paul exhorts the same hearers to “Put on…compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another…” (3:12-13). The role of the rest of the Church is to be compassionate toward those who struggle with temptation and sin and to bear with them. Our call is to walk alongside brothers and sisters with same-sex attraction, helping them bear the very real burdens they face as they live out their new identity in Christ: finding community, intimacy, friendships, and completion, even as they struggle with feeling at times very different and alone.

And for my fellow believers who struggle with same-sex attraction, I humbly offer this. There is infinite joy and glory in submitting your life, your desires, your very identity to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Paul tells us in Philippians 3:9 that, for him, there is no greater joy than to be found in Christ; to derive all of his meaning, all of his identity, all of his hope from Jesus.

As one who has struggled with same-sex attraction, I know how difficult it is—and continues to be—to daily lay down my own accomplishments, my own identity, and submit myself to the Jesus who, as God, alone has the right to name me and thus give me my identity. This is the calling of every Christian. It’s something we grow into as we grow in faith over the course of a lifetime.

There is nothing I could have gained in the past, in the gay life or identifying as a gay man, that could compare with the identity I have now as one who is securely cradled in the Lord’s embrace. There’s nothing I could gain in the present, as a married man and father, as a minister in the Church, that could compare with knowing that I have not only a King and a Lord but a Brother in Jesus.

All that matters is being in Christ. I realize this requires a leap of faith. But as you leap, I think you’ll find that in Christ, the more you count as rubbish, the more you receive in real identity, real fellowship, real joy.

Tim Geiger is President of Harvest USA. Tim came to Harvest USA himself in 1997 as a Christian who had been struggling with secret same-sex attraction for 20 years. After two years receiving ministry, Tim became a volunteer and then came on staff in 2003. Originally serving as part of the Men’s Ministry Staff, he planted the Pittsburgh office for the organization in 2007, and served as Executive Director of the organization prior to serving as President. He is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary, and lives with his wife and family outside Philadelphia. This article appeared on The Harvest USA site.