Sexual identity is a hot topic in our culture today, again. I say again because it’s not as though it is something new. Paul had to have these same conversations in Biblical times. The emerging church in a Roman culture was surrounded with every form of pornea. These are not new issues, they are just new again in our generation.
It’s important that we handle the subject well, because almost no one is. The church historically has handled the issues poorly and so has the culture. Often the two actually handle it poorly the same way. The discussion goes something like this:
“If you experience same-sex attraction, that means you’re gay.”
If you are coming at things from a secular position you say, “And that’s great! Embrace it and come out!” Too often the church’s response is, “That’s an abomination to God and you’re going to HELL!” Neither response is helpful.
Let’s Have a Better Discussion
The starting place for speaking to the subject better is to expand our understanding and vocabulary around the subject. Let’s start with defining some terms.
The mental or reflexive physiological experience of finding a person of the same-sex sexually arousing.
The persistent, though not necessarily exclusive, direction of one’s sexual attractions.
The self-labeling of and associating of oneself with a set of values and beliefs regarding one’s sexual experience (i.e.. Gay, lesbian, bi, questioning, curious, etc.).
The experience of one’s gender being different than one’s biological gender. *This is different than the person (usually male) who experiences their gender as the same as their biological makeup, but is sexually aroused by presenting in the opposite sex’s attire (i.e., crossdressing or drag).
Generally speaking, it is usually better to encourage using descriptive language instead of labels. Example, instead of “I’m gay,” “I’m a man that experiences same-sex attraction.” The reason descriptive language is more helpful is that labels are so loaded with meanings, and the same term used by different people is very likely to have significant difference of intention attached to it. For example, some people would use “gay” to indicate they engage in same-sex relationships and sexual activities. Others would use it to describe the experience of same-sex attractions that they have never acted on and choose not to act on because it violates their faith convictions.
Whenever I have a client say to me “I’m …” my question is always, “Ok, what does that mean to you? Help me understand what your experience is.” This lets me really get to know the person and understand what’s happening in their life.
I’m attracted to my wife. I have been since we met on her 15th birthday in high school. My attraction to her is shaped by my biology inherited from my family and my experiences of life. Don’t tell her, but the truth is the quality traits that attract me to her are also present in other people. She’s not the sole possessor in the world of the traits I’m inclined to find attractive. She is however the sole person I choose to direct those attractions toward.
It’s conceivable that my neighbor’s wife could possess those same traits. Now, she’s about 70 and not really my type, but we’re speaking hypothetically here. Just because my neighbor’s wife possesses quality traits that I find attractive, and I have a reflexive attraction to her doesn’t mean I have to: a) lust after her (intend to commit adultery), or b) actually commit adultery with her. It doesn’t make me an adulterer of any kind.
I have choices about how I steward my attractions.
Let’s apply this thought to same-sex attractions. I don’t know if same-sex attractions occur because of biology or experiences of life or both. The research is inconclusive. What I do believe is that it doesn’t matter. Even if biology predisposes some to same-sex attractions, that doesn’t change how God desires us to steward our attractions. Lots of people are born with experiences in their biology, as a result of sin’s effect on the world, that are not God’s design.
Whether I have a biological disposition to addiction, anger, selfishness, or attraction to my neighbor’s wife – God wants me to steward myself in a way that honors Him and His design for life.
Attractions, temptations, struggles, or pre-dispositions towards them are not in and of themselves sin. They may be the result of sin, either our own personal, the sins of others, or just the effect of Adam’s sin on all of us. They may develop into sinful choices in our heart or body if we allow them to.
We are learning through research that our sexual experience is more fluid then we once thought. That is, not only do sexual drive, desire, and preferences change over one’s lifetime, so can attractions.
When we talk about orientation in terms of sexual identity, we are typically talking about the persistent, though not necessarily exclusive, direction of one’s sexual attractions. As many as 1 in 5 adolescents may experience some same-sex attraction during puberty while less than 4 in 100 have these experiences persist into adulthood and identify with a homosexual orientation.
Mark Yarhouse is THE predominate Christian researcher on the subject of sexual identity. In 2007 he published the findings of a long-term longitudinal study in the book Ex-gays?. The research indicated 2 significant findings:
- Orientation change is possible.
- It is not harmful to attempt.
This is significant because it refuted the belief many held that orientation was unchangeable, and it is psychological harmful to try. The findings also suggested that for most adult individuals who experience same-sex attractions, those attractions are likely to always be a part of their experience to one degree or another. While God can miraculously change a person’s experience, often times He chooses for His own reasons not to.
In most cases, the better goal is to reconcile one’s experiences with other aspects of identity, including values, and choose to live in a manner honoring to the King.
A full discussion of all the implications of orientation are beyond the scope of this writing. The important takeaways here are:
- Same-sex attractions do not necessarily mean accepting a gay identity.
- The experience of same-sex attractions during adolescence does not necessarily mean same-sex attractions will be a permanent part of adult life experience.
- Attractions can be 100% in a given direction or in mixed directions.
- Even if attractions are predominantly in a given direction, attractions in a different direction could be cultivated.
- Adult sexual orientation change is possible, but uncommon, and it is not harmful to try. However, sexual identity synthesis into a way of life that is consistent with your beliefs and values is a more achievable goal for most.
There’s an unhelpful push, both inside the church and out, to label. These days “coming out” seems to be the celebrated trend. While I respect the courage it takes to share about one’s experiences with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria, I don’t find the labels helpful. Often, they come with a lot of baggage that doesn’t particularly make one’s life better or make navigating struggles easier.
I would caution against jumping to labels and instead focus on being curious about one’s experience and contemplative as to how our King would have us navigate life in light of them.
It’s a real thing. The clients I work with who experience gender dysphoria never remember a time when then didn’t feel more like the opposite gender than the gender of their biological physiology. Why this is no one can say for sure. It is a difficult road to travel. If I had a little blue pill that would make the experience go away, every one of my clients would ecstatically take it. There just isn’t such a thing.
Having grace and compassion for those who are trying to figure out how to reconcile their experience with their faith is the way forward. The Holy Spirit is able to lead into truth and empower us to live in a way glorifying to our King. Let’s love on people and allow God to teach them how to be in right relationship with Him in light of their challenges.
Often the question is raised, “What about gender segregated small groups?” There are certainly strong opinions on all sides. My recommendation would be to allow the individual to attend the group most comfortable to them and show them the love of Christ whichever they choose. Allow the Holy Spirit to address their heart as to where they need to be; He’s much better at it than we are. Let’s be a safe place where they can let down their guard and we can link arms and pursue a Holy God together as the body of Christ.
When it comes to other gender segregated events, such as retreats, consider allowing them to attend where they feel most comfortable, but having a conversation about the need for separation in accommodations (sleeping arrangements, bathrooms, etc.) for the sake of others. It’s an imperfect solution for a real struggle in an imperfect, broken world. May the grace and wisdom of our Lord lead us.
Sin, of a sexual nature, does not separate us from God any more than other kinds of sin. Fornication, adultery, pornea with pornography and same-sex sexual behavior all distort God’s design for sex and create separation. From all forms of pornea we need to be saved, forgiven, and empowered to live rightly before our God.
The chief need of the adulterer is not to stop committing adultery. Or for the fornicator to stop having sex with their girlfriend, or for the person in a same-sex relationship to become straight. We need to be saved by God’s grace and transformed by His Spirit so we can walk rightly before our King.
God is able and willing to save us from every form of sin, including sexual, and to redeem our life—bringing beauty out of ashes. Don’t believe the lies of the enemy that make you feel like damaged goods that can never be made right again.
Father, help us have grace for those who sin differently than us. Amen.