Only 15 or 20 years ago, when someone came to Christ with a gay or lesbian background, they were called to repentance and generally regarded themselves as having "left the lifestyle", as formerly homosexual, or ex-gay. Certain organizations pushed the reparative therapy model and sought to transform the person into a heterosexual. They did so under the ex-gay label, which has now tainted the use of that phrase into perpetuity. However, there were many smaller and more Biblically sound entities that understood that identity was not based on sexual orientation, but rather that a Christian's core identity is found in Christ and Christ alone. These organizations may have also used the term ex-gay, in light of 1 Corinthians Chapter 6, where Paul refers to the member of the church by saying, "Such Were Some of You". But since these other organizations were much smaller and received a lot less attention, they had little bearing on the public debate over future validity of ex-gay ministries. The ones that have survived the post-modern revisionist debates have still had to adapt to the new language by changing terms to describe the "experience of homosexuality" to fit novel and less helpful modes. I understand the need to do this to reach people outside of the church, but I also see a need for clarity of theological terms for us to use as Christians. Kevin DeYoung mentions the further need for clarity of terms in the second appendix of his new book on the topic of homosexuality.
As many of us have tried to proclaim lately, we are called to mortify the indwelling sin nature and even natural temptations. Anything found in ourselves - heart or mind - that would seek to set itself up against the truth and the glory of God must be rejected. We were to turn to Christ and His Word, to submit to his power and authority in scripture, which in turn by the power of the Holy Spirit renews our hearts and our minds so that we would know and love his good and perfect will. By God's grace our hearts of stone were changed into a heart of flesh, the very place where the Spirit would write the Law of God. Our disposition was changed from that of enmity against God's holiness and perfect law to that of one which loves His commandments and desires to submit to Him in all areas of life. The old "lifestyle" was crucified and now we are new creations in Christ!
In the last five or ten years, a whole new crop of teaching has crept into the church, partially from those of a particular Roman Catholic tradition and partially from secular psychological and philosophical fields. In this new teaching (which most of our contemporary churches have embraced), the sin nature is being baptized as human identity. One's sinful temptations toward sexual deviance have been recast as inborn "Same Sex Attractions" and used as modifiers that people now use to publicly introduce themselves. The concepts of sexual orientation and same sex attraction have been adopted and embraced by the individual, the community, and the church as viable options of one's biologically determined status. The church bought the new paradigm, hook, line, and sinker, with one minor caveat: as long as "they" don't act on "their attractions", we'll co-sign the rest of this paradigm.
Meanwhile, the voices of those who've dealt with this for many, many years have been ignored. We have watched while "Gay Christians" have been "teaching" the church what to do, what to say, and what to preach. Men and women not ashamed to introduce themselves as "Same Sex Attracted" have been propped up to help us learn the new theology - by their experience. Sound, thorough, reformed theological arguments from men like Denny Burk, Owen Strachan, and Heath Lambert have largely been ignored and marginalized on this topic.
"We who have been speaking out stand to be undone not so much by the noise of our enemies as by the silence of our friends." -Carl Trueman
There are many possible reasons why the church has been led astray on the issue. Perhaps it has been a timidity, not wanting to offend the culture. Perhaps it has been an attempt to be compassionate toward those who struggle to be faithful, but whose theological views are outside of our own tradition. Perhaps it has been an avoidance of dealing with the depth of the church's own hidden sin in the areas of sexuality. Perhaps we have simply gotten so far away from teaching a theology of sin that we don't know how to even get to the root of our most pressing problems any longer.
I propose that the main reason why we've lost credibility on how to talk about the issue of homosexuality is because we've capitulated on the theology of sin in general. It is perplexing.. no baffling.. that we are so vulnerable to being deceived into thinking that sexual attraction is an immutable medical condition, like blindness, that can only be "healed" by a miraculous act of God, rather than a sinful affection of the heart, that must be repented of and which can be mortified and replaced with God-glorifying affection. Many have adopted the Roman Catholic teaching that Paul's thorn in the flesh was inordinate sexual desire. However, such a view is not supported by the scriptures. Would the Lord have told Paul to cease praying for disordered sexual desire to be removed? No. Would Paul have boasted in disoriented sexual desire? No. Would the Lord tempt him to sin? No. Would Paul have acquiesced contentedly to sin's power in his life (12:10)? No. Would Paul refer to his celibacy a gift, if he still experienced repeated sexual lust? No. Biblically, it is incorrect to equate the root issue of the experience of homosexual feelings as something other than a sinfully disordered affection of the heart.
Yes, we will continue to struggle against the effects of our fallen nature until we die or Christ returns. And that means any inclination or proclivity of the flesh, whether it is pride or fear of man or covetousness or lust, which still resides in us and wars against our soul. And this is specifically where a robust theology of sin can help us to connect with unbelievers and strugglers. We share the experience of the sin nature - the great levelers, as Rosaria states. But the experience of something like a specific same-sex attraction (not an underlying, general proclivity or inclination, but the specific attraction) is always sin and requires confession and repentance. It's not a reputable badge or salutation to be advertised on a high-profile, professional Christian conference brochure.
In her new book, Rosaria Butterfield states that she does not subscribe to the 19th century notions of sexual orientation and eschews the label of "same sex attraction" for Christians, preferring to use the descriptive phrase of "unwanted same-sex attraction". Of course, this is a far more Biblically grounded way of describing the way that a Christian might struggle with and seek help of being rescued from ensnaring sins. In terms of making connections with strugglers it seems quite helpful, just as in Paul's experience in Romans 7 where he continues to do what he doesn't want to do and feeling the crushing weight of his indwelling sin, cries out, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" Fortunately, Paul does not leave us at Romans 7, but he continues on from Romans 8 forward to describe the process of sanctification in the Christian life.
This brings us to the secondary problem that I believe must also be addressed. We've lost a robust theology of the work of the Holy Spirit and how faithful Christians should and can experience newness of life as we walk in step with the Spirit. A persistent obedience in one direction, whereby our minds are renewed by the Spirit and we are transformed more and more into Christ's image, rather than conformed to the world, has the effect of changing (though not entirely eliminating) our regular experience of sinful desires. This is not to say we will be in this world entirely without sin or that we embrace a Keswick style of sanctification. But we can and should expect regular, on-going relief from sinful attractions that are either obsessive or seem to ambush us, just as surely as Paul promised in Romans 8 by walking in step with the Spirit.
I believe the secondary issue of the work of the Holy Spirit and the Christian experience of walking in step with the Spirit (an aspect of discipleship) is ultimately the key. Because, while a lost theology of sin is foundational to evangelism, I think that the lack of an alternative paradigm for post-conversion discipleship is what keeps the church anemic over the long haul. Some have begun to focus attention on the fact that the Church and Christ are a huge part of the paradigm that will enable and empower single Christians; however, I would go further. So, yes, we need to be better at creating community in the church and developing familial relationships that go deeper than blood or marital relations. Some of these efforts have already been amazingly impactful, such as those within my own denomination (PCA). However, we also need to more fully address the flip side of the coin, which is growth in personal piety, accompanied by the theology of adoption/sonship, whereby we have communion and fellowship with the Father. Romans 8 forward really unfolds these themes, along with many other places in the New Testament scriptures. Sinclair Ferguson, J.I. Packer, Joel Beeke, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, and D. Martyn Lloyd Jones are just a few of the go-to authors that I look forward to perhaps delving into in future posts.
Soli Deo gloria!!