Sex, Lies, and Community

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By Tim Otto

“…one of the greatest political contributions Christians can make to any social order in which they find themselves is to tell the truth and to be capable of receiving the truth.

– Theologian Stanley Hauerwas, on Dietrich Bonhoeffer

How about this for a practice run? On the topic of gay sexuality, let both the conservative and liberal wings of the church tell the truth and not justify their respective positions with lies. What might the result be for both the church and the world?

I grew up within a “traditionalist” church, and its lies affected me personally. I knew at age five that I was more interested in boys’ bodies than in girls’. In the third grade, I learned there were names for people like me. I got called those names all the time.

When I began high school, the name-calling mostly stopped. But I took up the name calling in my own head, convinced that if people knew who I actually was, they would find me repulsive. This included my parents. Although they are good and loving people, my parents are part of a church in which sexual sins are named the worst possible kind of sin—and one of the worst of the worst is homosexuality. I, like many gays and lesbians who grew up in that context, developed a ravaging self-doubt about whether I was actually worthy of anyone’s love.

I took up the name calling in my own head, convinced that if people knew who I actually was, they would find me repulsive.

The traditionalist position tells people like me that if I find another person who deems me worthy of an intimate, unconditional, physical love, then pursuing such a love is wrong. This is a difficult teaching, and the traditionalist church often tries to soften it by offering false solutions.

One of these false assertions is that a homosexual orientation can be changed through therapy. I went to a semester of individual counseling and then to a year of group therapy to try and change my own orientation. During that year, every Sunday, I would fast and pray that I would change. At the end of the year, there was a “graduation” ceremony. But I knew that I hadn’t “graduated,” and from what I knew of the other group members, none of them had “graduated” either. At that point, having followed all the directions, rather than becoming ex-gay, I almost became an ex-Christian.

At that point, having followed all the directions, rather than becoming ex-gay, I almost became an ex-Christian.

But eventually I came to see that although God works miracles of all kinds, and gay people may on rare occasions experience a shift in sexual orientation, holding out the hope of an orientation change as a realistic option for all gays and lesbians constitutes a lie. Alan Chambers, the former president of the ex-gay ministry Exodus International, recognized this truth and closed Exodus International with an apology to all who had been harmed. Unfortunately, orientation change therapy continues through the work of the Restored Hope Network and people such as popular Christian psychologist James Dobson, Bible scholar Robert Gagnon, Catholic author Christopher West, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler, Jr.

Another myth often promoted in traditional circles is that in spite of a same-sex orientation, God will be faithful to bring along that “special” opposite-sex man or woman who will make heterosexual marriage work. Like many myths, enough testimonies circulate of this happening that it seems not entirely implausible, and such marriages are now common enough to have gained the name “mixed-orientation” marriages. Alan Chambers says that while he is not attracted to women in general, he is in love with Leslie, his wife. There are other testimonies of people marrying a “best friend,” and the marriage seems to work out.

If two mature people agree to marry each other, and there is full disclosure by the gay person beforehand, I won’t argue against it. But for many people, mixed-orientation marriages are painful. Being gay isn’t primarily about the kind of sex you like. Being gay is about how you most naturally direct your love. Marriage is hard enough, and a marriage in which one partner lacks an emotional, romantic, sexual attraction toward the other can be painful indeed. A group called the Straight Spouse Network has arisen to help people deal with the hurt of a current or past mixed-orientation marriage.

Another false assertion made by the traditionalist church is that gay people must have “the gift” of singleness, described in 1 Corinthians 7:6-9. In this passage, Paul is clearly saying that “the gift” is a kind of exception, something that might be thought of in the vocabulary of 1 Corinthians as an attribute of the “strong.” But there is no reason to presume that just because someone is gay or lesbian, that person is also endowed with a celibacy superpower.

By perpetuating these myths, the traditionalist church is asking gays and lesbians to be celibate, without acknowledging the great difficulty involved in this path.

By perpetuating these myths, the traditionalist church is asking gays and lesbians to be celibate, without acknowledging the great difficulty involved in this path. Having said that, however, this may be a way of telling the truth about the cost of living as a Christian. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Christianity has always insisted that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear. To be a Christian one must take up his cross, with all its difficulties and agonizing and tension-packed content, and carry it until that very cross leaves its mark upon us and redeems us to that more excellent way which comes only through suffering.”

If the traditionalist church is right—that gay sex is immoral—then faith means taking up the celibacy cross in trust that God will redeem such a sacrifice.

While the traditionalist church often dances around the truth concerning its call to gay Christians, the affirming church dodges the cross and can reduce Christianity to what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”

While the traditionalist church often dances around the truth concerning its call to gay Christians, the affirming church dodges the cross and can reduce Christianity to what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”

The most truthful Christian account of sexual relationships demands that such relationships take place in the context of a covenant fidelity. In the Old Testament, a primary way of talking about God is that God is a God of hesed. This Hebrew word gets translated into English using words and phrases like “steadfast love,” “kindness,” “faithfulness,” “covenant loyalty,” “mercy,” and “maintaining constancy.” In the New Testament, God is agape, which is an unconditional, sin-bearing, and forgiving love. If we are to be known as children of God, we need to imitate these character traits. For Christians, sex—the most intimate communion between human beings—must be accompanied by a faithful love.

But just as with the traditionalist church, the affirming church is tempted to tell lies about Christian sexual ethics to make them more appealing to more people. The affirming church often ends up talking about sex as having positive human value in the context of long-term relationships. But how long does a relationship need to last to qualify as long-term? Years? Months? What if you string together a couple of weeks?

It is tempting to speak in such terms for gay Christians because, after all, only half of heterosexual marriages last—and heterosexual marriages have considerably more social support than homosexual marriages. It is tempting because growing up gay or lesbian is hard, and gays and lesbians may bring more baggage to a marriage than heterosexuals do. It is tempting because gays and lesbians often have to learn the language of freedom, individualism, equality, and rights in order to find some kind of self-acceptance, and those values may call into question the good of a binding, restrictive, lifetime covenant.

But ultimately, talk of sex-positive human values in the context of long-term relationships betrays the Christian ethic that sex is reserved for marriage.

Both sides of the church find themselves sick of the other side’s lies. The affirming church looks at the traditionalist church—with its modernist “fix-it” techniques of orientation change, marriage to the opposite sex, or the claim that all gay people have “the gift of celibacy”—and says, “If you tell so many lies, how can you claim to have good news? You must have forsaken the Gospel.” And the traditionalist church looks at the affirming church and says, “If you’re condoning sex outside of marriage, you’re just preaching Enlightenment liberalism dressed in drag. You must have given up on Scripture.”

Both sides of the church find themselves sick of the other side’s lies.

As both sides try to articulate an ethic that “everyone” can attain, we end up telling lies and betraying the Gospel. But as both sides begin to repent and stop prevaricating, I suspect that the stakes won’t seem so high, and this path may make it more possible for us to talk to one another in love.

In determining a Christian ethic for sexuality, the main question should not be Is it possible for everyone, everywhere? And yet a Christian ethic ought to be possible for some people, especially people of faith animated by the Spirit and living in the communion of saints. The New Testament identifies the Body of Christ as the place where the Spirit dwells, and the place where connectedness to the love and gifts of other Christians makes difficult ethics possible. So, the central question becomes this: If you argue that a gay person ought to be celibate, is that more possible in your particular congregation than elsewhere? Or, If you argue for faithful gay marriage, is that more possible in your particular congregation than elsewhere?

The church ought to be the cheerleading corps where we support one another in all the ways each of us faces into difficult fidelities, encouraging each other and seeking to imitate God’s faithfulness toward us and creation. We need to become the family of God in a way that the words “brother” and “sister” actually mean something. Regarding gay sexuality, we might all be glad for fewer self-righteous words and more support for sexual minorities from both sides. If we have gays and lesbians committed either to celibacy or to marriage in our midst, we need to be close enough that we can encourage one another to keep our promises to celibacy or marriage.

Some Christians on both sides will be frustrated that I am not “taking a stand” on this topic. I’m not capitulating to relativism, but the first step toward speaking the truth is to stop lying. As Hauerwas noted about Bonhoeffer, Christians have not only the responsibility to tell the truth, but to receive the truth. It is easier to receive truth from “the other side” if those who profess it aren’t inventing falsehoods to make their stance more plausible. If either side were to live its professed ethic with integrity, that would lend validity to its claims.

Not only would it support its own claims, it might be a blessing for the world. What if the traditionalist church were to nurture practices that would enable gay people to live out a healthy celibacy? In a world where one of the greatest idols is romantic love, could it serve as a sign that there are people who live out a holy adventure so good that even romantic fulfillment becomes secondary? Or, what if the affirming church were to nurture practices that would enable faithful gay marriage? Could it serve as a sign that there are people who live out a holy adventure so good that even marriages that hit difficult patches are worthwhile? (I’m certainly not advocating staying in abusive relationships, but I am advocating staying in marriages, even when they don’t necessarily live up to the Hollywood hooey.) Though the approach may be different, both sides would be witnessing to the same good news: if your life is not characterized by romantic bliss, you are not lost.

The church isn’t the place where everyone agrees on all tenets of theology and ethics. It is a place where we try to proclaim the truth we’ve received to others, and look to the Holy Spirit to speak through others to draw us into a life of deeper truth and love.

We all need to be careful of the ways we choose dishonesty in order to make our positions more possible and palatable, because this dishonesty makes these positions less Christian. We all need to focus on practice over self-righteous rhetoric. As congregations struggle together to live out what they discern to be true, honest questions will emerge, and each side may gain an appreciation for the concerns of “the other side.” Let the church not continue to split, but as we quit lying let’s learn from one another and move together into a deeper understanding of God’s beautiful and costly truth.

Tim Otto is a co-pastor at The Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco, is author of Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict Over Gay Relationships, and is on Twitter at @Tim_Otto.

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