What Can the Church Learn From Gay Christians?
Amid all the political, legal, cultural and theological controversy over same-sex marriage, it is easy for both ‘sides’ in the debate to assume that they fully understand the nefarious motivations and character of their opponents. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s dismissal of those who advocated and enacted the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as being motivated by mere animus towards gay and lesbian couples surely represents one of the lowest moments in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court. But however irrelevant it should have been to the case before the Court, conservatives, including conservative Christians, have often enough written off all gay rights advocates, not to mention gays and lesbians themselves, as little more than unmitigated evil.
These sorts of assumptions fall apart when men and women committed to homosexuality as a way of life argue vehemently against same-sex marriage on the basis that human sexual preferences and activities should not require such bourgeois or ‘Christian’ affirmation, or that marriage should, in fact, be an institution geared towards the procreation and raising of children. They are equally undone when Christians, such as the authors of What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, indicate their support for civil unions, or when libertarians, who view homosexuality as morally inappropriate, nevertheless believe that the state has no business restricting civil marriage to heterosexual couples.
Needless to say, these debates are a lot more complicated than the media, or Justice Anthony Kennedy, would have us believe.
But the issue of homosexuality is more complicated in another sense as well. Most people assume that virtually all gay and lesbian people affirm homosexuality as a way of life, but this is hardly the case. Martin Hallett, a homosexual Christian who leads a ministry to gays and lesbians in the United Kingdom, writes, “There are probably nearly as many Christians with homosexual feelings who do not believe that homosexual sex is right for Christians as there are those who are advocating its acceptance.”
One such Christian is Wesley Hill, a New Testament scholar and professor at Trinity School for Ministry. I just finished reading Hill’s Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. It’s short, simple, and substantially anecdotal (though also quite theological), but it has to be one of the most helpful books I’ve read this year. Any Christian who wants to be humbled and challenged in her sanctification should read this book. Anyone who wants to know what it means to be a Christian who has never known anything other than a homosexual orientation, and yet who yearns faithfully to follow Christ and therefore abstain from homosexual practice, must read this book.
Hill notes that he wrote the book (while a graduate student) because after years of searching he came to realize that no one was writing about homosexuality in a way that actually comes to grips with the experience and pain of homosexual Christians. As he puts it,
My story is very different from other stories told by people wearing the same designation – ‘homosexual Christian’ – that I wear. Many in the church – more so in the mainline denominations than the evangelical ones, though that could soon change – tell stories of ‘homosexual holiness.’ The authors of these narratives profess a deep faith in Christ and claim a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit precisely in and through their homosexual practice. According to these Christians, their homosexuality is an expression of holiness, a symbol and conduit of God’s grace in their lives. My own story, by contrast, is a story of feeling spiritually hindered rather than helped by my homosexuality. Another way to say it would be to observe that my story testifies to the truth of the position the Christian church has held with almost total unanimity throughout the centuries – namely, that homosexuality was not God’s original creative intention for humanity, that it is, on the contrary, a tragic sign of human nature and relationships being fractured by sin, and therefore that homosexual practice goes against God’s express will for all human beings, especially those who trust in Christ.
Thus far conservative Christians will track with Hill all the way. But what he goes on to say next, and the way he goes on to flesh it out in the rest of the book, is no happy-go-lucky story of transformation. On the contrary, Hill notes, he has never experienced a decisive change of his sexual orientation. He has never felt sexually attracted to women, and he has always struggled with his desires for a sexual relationship with men. His story has been one of loneliness, pain, and suffering. His path has been that of celibacy. His hope has been that he is forgiven, and that his wait for complete transformation will one day be realized in the resurrection of the dead.
But what of his life as a gay Christian in the meantime? Hill is careful to use the words ‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’ as adjectives, not as nouns. His identity, he insists, is as a Christian, albeit one who struggles with homosexual desires. Yet Hill emotionally but carefully describes the very real agony and loneliness of his walk with Christ. Human beings were made to experience love, fellowship, and sexual union with other human beings, he reminds us. And although it is ultimately God who satisfies us in Christ Jesus, in the present age the ache remains, our bodies groaning for their redemption. Why? Hill describes how one of his professors put it, with reference to a hypothetical counseling session for a lesbian:
God is the one who created humans to want and need relationships, to crave human companionship, to want to be desired by other humans. God doesn’t want anyone to try to redirect their desire for community to himself. God is spirit. Instead, I think God wants people to experience his love through their experience of human community – specifically, the church. God created us as physical-spiritual beings with deep longings for intimacy with other physical-spiritual beings. We’re not meant to replace these longings with anything. We’re meant to sanctify them….
The problem with your lesbian desires is not that you’re desperately craving human love … The problem is that your good desire for human love is bent, broken.
For many Christians the most intense, intimate way in which they experience this sort of communion with another person is through marriage. But what of our brothers and sisters who have no such option? This is not merely the case of those who are homosexual in their desires, but for those who long to be married but for whatever reason cannot be. It is also the case for those who are married, but whose marriage has fallen apart due to conflict, apathy, or infidelity. In every one of these cases the only appropriate Christian response is that of celibacy, of taking up one’s cross, and following Jesus.
Far too often, I fear, Christians portray marriage as if it were the epitome of human existence. This is, of course, a modern phenomena, rooted in our culture’s infatuation with romantic love and sexuality. Go back a couple hundred years and you will find that marriage was more about social responsibilities and commitments, the procreation and raising of children, than about romantic love. Love was supposed to be a part of the equation, of course, and it has always been an obligation for all Christian spouses.
But as early as the 19th Century, during the Victorian era, Americans came to conceive of human sexual love as the transcendent human experience, the most satisfying thing for which one can live. Here indeed, as astute cultural observers were aware at the time, the glory of God and fellowship with Christ were already being shoved aside from the prominent place they had long held within Christendom. Romantic love and a satisfied sexuality became the great idol of modernity, and as such, it gradually changed the way most people thought about marriage. Here, not in the 1960s, are the roots of the modern conception of marriage, according to which same-sex marriage makes sense.
Has the church exacerbated this form of idolatry? Far more, I suspect, than we realize. In the New Testament, as Hill points out, the most important place for love and fellowship is not marriage, but the church. Paul wished that all would be as he were, a celibate Christian devoted to the kingdom of God, and he acknowledged that marriage would be appropriate for most people only as a concession (1 Corinthians 7). But the Christian who is married is to live as if he were not (1 Corinthians 7), and the most important identity and sense of belonging for the Christian is to be the body of Christ. Paul’s most eloquent words about love (1 Corinthians 13) therefore appear in his discussion about the church, not in the context of marriage. As Hill puts it, again quoting a friend:
[E]ven when agape love is discussed in the marital context of Ephesians 5, it is sacrificial love that is the model for marital love – not the other way around. Marriage is a venue for expressing love, which in its purest form exists, first and foremost, outside of it. The greatest joys and experiences God has for us are not found in marriage, for if they were, surely God would not do away with marriage in heaven.
Perhaps, then, gay Christians like Wesley Hill actually have something important to teach us. Indeed, I found this book to be powerfully humbling. It is so easy for most of us to get caught up in our families, our marriages, and our vocations, mistaking the American dream for the service of Christ. Yet people like Wesley Hill remind us that this is, in fact, not the most important thing. They also make it eminently clear that the way of Christ is the way of suffering and self-denial, no matter how often we try to turn it into something else.
If no part of the body has the right to say to another, “I have no need of you,” surely this means that we need to take the witness of these fellow Christian pilgrims, whose cross is so much more difficult to bear than is our own, much more seriously. Yet how often are we simply obsessed with our own lives, leaving those who depend on the body of Christ simply to keep their heads above the water, essentially to fend for themselves? If gay Christians serve to show us our own idolatry, it remains the case that our brothers and sisters who struggle with homosexuality cannot persevere unless we come alongside them and share their burdens. We need to be for them who we are – the body of Christ.
As Jesus said, “whatever you do for the least of these my brothers, you do it for me.”