A few years ago I spoke at a Christian school teacher’s convention on the topic of homosexuality. My purpose was not to present a particular view but rather to orient the teachers to the complex field of exegetical, theological and ethical discussion. Afterward, a Christian teacher came up to me and thanked me for the talk. He then told me that while he is homosexual, some years before he had married a young lady as part of a concerted effort to change his orientation. Now with several children in their brood he had come to realize that he was, is, and would always be gay. I will never forget the look of sadness in his eyes.
For some time now, evangelicals have argued that homosexual orientation can be changed through reparative therapy. That idea is no longer sustainable. For some time failure and scandal have plagued various evangelical reparative organizations, including the most visible of all, Exodus International. Now Justin Lee, author of Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate, has joined the chorus calling for evangelicals to abandon this approach to homosexuality with his bluntly titled article: “Dear Evangelicals, Let’s Stop Burying Our Heads in the Sand on ‘Ex-Gay’ Ministries“.
I couldn’t agree more. Whatever your moral assessment of homosexuality, you cannot change a person’s sexual orientation. I remember reading Mel White’s autobiography Stranger at the Gate in which he described his years of marriage to his wife. White put things in perspective when he challenged the heterosexual reader to imagine what it would be like to marry a person of the same gender in a concerted attempt to change their orientation. As you can imagine, the efforts would be futile and incredibly painful. A heterosexual cannot change their orientation through willpower and therapeutic efforts (though, bizarrely, it appears that a stroke might change orientation: see the case of Chris Birch).
Given that reparative therapy is an abysmal failure, there are two possible responses left: abstinence or acceptance. Let me say a word about each.
At first blush, abstinence can seem to be an inexplicably cruel suggestion. I have often heard the objection that runs roughly like this: “How nice of you heterosexuals with your happy marriages to impose forced abstinence on the homosexual Christian.” I certainly am sympathetic with this response. At the same time, I think some perspective is required here.
Note first that for the Christian, self-abnegation is at the very heart of the Christian life. Jesus himself declared: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) Jesus didn’t choose his cross: it was given to him. Likewise, others are given all sorts of crosses that they are called to bear. Could a homosexual orientation that cannot be licitly expressed in homosexual activity be one of those crosses?
Again, I am sympathetic with the incredulous response from the homosexual community to the suggestion. But we should remember that heterosexuals are also often given very similar crosses. Countless heterosexuals have found themselves unmarried through life circumstance rather than choice. They too would love to find a life partner but they have been unable to do so. Though they did not choose abstinence, it may very well be a cross they have been given.
Others find the marriage they do have to be not a blessing but rather a cross to bear. Consider, for example, a young couple on their honeymoon when the wife has a stroke and is incapacitated. In a day her husband’s role shifts from life-partner to care-giver. According to a traditional Christian understanding of marriage, inexplicably difficult though it may be, both spouses have been given crosses they never requested.
Examples could readily be multiplied. So while I think we need to be sensitive in each situation and offer help when we can, that does not change the fact that the bearing of crosses in the context of erotic companionship is not a demand placed uniquely on the homosexual community.
The biblical texts prohibiting same sex acts are well known. What is disputed, however, is whether those texts apply to homosexual persons as we now understand them. It is fair to say that in the ancient world there is no conception of homosexuality as an orientation parallel to heterosexuality. Given that we now know there is such an orientation and that it cannot be changed, the question becomes inescapable: do the texts of condemnation apply to these persons as well? Some Christian ethicists believe they do while others believe they do not.
Some Christians believe homosexuality is God-given and good (see for example, Mel White and his organization SoulForce) while other Christians believe homosexual orientation is part of the fall but that homosexuals can still participate in covenantal Christian unions (see for example, Lewis Smedes). This is a good reminder that within the realm of acceptance there are different kinds of acceptance.
Two things are clear to me. First, as Justin Lee and others have observed, the reparative option is no longer a live one. Second, this leaves two options before us. My hope is that Christians who advocate for abstinence and those that advocate for acceptance can treat each other with kindness and civility while recognizing that this issue, as important as it may be, is not one that defines the gospel.