What I want people to know about marriage and the plebiscite…

What I believe about marriage

I’m a Christian.

This means I believe that Jesus Christ is God’s king (Christ just means ‘king’). It means I believe in a God who made the world, who made us, who loves us enough to send Jesus to die for us to not just connect us to the life God made us for, or pay the price for our failure to live that life, but to bring us a new sort of life altogether; eternal life. I believe the God who made the world and us actually has something to say about the ideal human life. The Bible opens with the story of God making us as his ‘image bearers’ in the world — representatives of the nature and character of God, and shows that his plan for humanity involves us ‘being fruitful and multiplying’ — in the next part of the story he puts people in a garden filled with beautiful things to do and eat. It’s legitimate to take this ‘fruity’ picture of human life and talk about what, for people who believe in the Bible, a ‘flourishing’ or good and fruitful life looks like.

The God in the Bible’s first chapters is good, and loving, and hospitable. We are to be like him. There’s another complex and mind blowingly good thing about the Christian God; the Christian God is triune, a God of relationship because the nature of God is relational — father, son and Spirit. When this God makes humankind, God says ‘let us make man in our image’ — the ‘us’ and ‘our’ are plural; and then we’re told he makes us male and female; different and equal, different and necessary in this job of being like God. We see something of God’s nature and image when his image bearers relate together in intimate love. Our culture believes intimacy is just about sex, but the Bible doesn’t say all intimacy is sexual, it does, however, then picture sexuality and marriage — between men and women — as part of what a flourishing life might look like. I’d say that intimate relationships with others are an essential part of bearing God’s image, and marriage between a man and a woman is a form of that; another form is family, so when the story of the Bible introduces marriage as a foundational and good-for-flourishing relationship, it says this:

The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
    for she was taken out of man.”

 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

This is what Christians believe marriage is — two different image bearers (man and woman) — joining together to express a particular sort of oneness, or intimacy, through sex (a joining of flesh) and a ‘communion’ or commitment to unity. Like God’s inter-triune love spills out to produce the creation of the world and humanity, this marriage relationship can produce a particular sort of fruit; the ‘multiplication’ Genesis 1 talks about — children. It creates families as a context for more love and intimacy. In an ideal world. The world doesn’t stay ideal for very long in the Bible’s story, in the next few sentences in the Bible this first marriage almost falls apart, and the love and intimacy pictured initially fades away, or is shattered, by self interest.

Christians believe this picture of marriage and intimacy is God’s design for all people; for the good and fruitful life. If we were able to achieve it, and as much as we are able to achieve it, the outcomes are better than alternative options. We believe it is good for people who don’t believe in God even if they don’t believe it is; and so that it can be loving to encourage people to see marriage the way it is created by God. This is complicated in a world where belief in God is contested, and where there are other understandings of what marriage is. It’s also complicated in a world where there is so much wrong with us, and with marriage, that this ideal almost never seems to happen; even in good marriages; those marriages are affected by our selfishness so that they aren’t ‘perfect harmonious unions’ or ‘perfect intimacy’. So we can’t argue for an ideal that is impossible to achieve, but nor should we ignore this ideal in thinking about what a good or flourishing life looks like.

When we get things wrong in this world it’s an expression of what happens in the next part of the story — sin — our rejection of God’s plan for human flourishing, and our pursuit of our own. It’s interesting that this attempt to redefine flourishing also involves fruit; and the rejection of God’s hospitable plan for a flourishing life.

For Christians, our goal is to pursue relationships that reflect who we were made to be, life and love reflecting the character of God. Our marriages are part of that, but not all of that… we also have a ‘church family’ that we belong to; brothers and sisters not just of flesh and blood, but people adopted into God’s family. We’re used to family structures that are bigger than just the biological, and understand that children are often raised in the context of a village or community far beyond just these biological family units. That’s what it looks like when we use our marriages and families for the overflowing of love, intimacy (beyond sex), and hospitality.

We can’t really do this getting back to the created ideal, we believe, on our own steam. Our hearts and loves are so disordered by our attempts to build fruitful or flourishing lives that we naturally put all sorts of things in the place God is meant to occupy in our hearts, minds, and devotion. We put money first. Or sex first. Or marriage first. Or the success of our nuclear family first. All these things are good things, but when our sin, our selfishness, leads us to put these things first we are both putting God out of his place, and distorting the way we live around our love for these things. An example of this would be where valuing my nuclear family might stop me hospitably loving those in need, or where valuing money above my family might turn me into a miser who doesn’t treat my children generously or kindly; we all have a hierarchy of loves; and if we put anything other than God at the top of that hierarchy, that thing becomes our god, and rules our other loves. We all understand the ‘flourishing’ life based on what we put in this God slot. The Bible says that just like in this first story in the Bible, when we reject God and pursue flourishing apart from him — he gives us what we want — life apart from him, which actually means death, because he is the source of life. The Bible pictures this as exile from God, or estrangement, or divorce. A breaking of intimacy. This is what Christians mean when we talk about sin earning judgment from God — he lovingly gives us what we ask for, we just don’t always realise we’re asking for death. And we miss that God wants our good, and that his ways are best for us, and that there’s actually harm and destruction involved in choosing to love things other than him.

The Old Testament frames life in this world in this way; we can pursue fruitfulness by choosing the living God, and be given the goodness of eternal life in him, or we can pursue fruitfulness apart from him and choose to love, or worship, dead, breathless, things and so die. These things are good things God has made — like marriage — but if we make them ultimate things we die. Over and over again it becomes clear that we can’t actually choose life by default; that we need God to intervene and change our loves by reclaiming them; the Old Testament is the story of humanity waiting for God to re-order our loves by his Spirit; it’s us waiting for the image of God in all of us to be rediscovered and re-breathed into, because we humans become the image of dead gods as we pursue them.

Now. This all seems a long way from the conversation about marriage; so let’s head back that way.

God, in the Old Testament, is depicted as a scorned spouse; a divorcee, who waits patiently for his ex — us — to stop playing the field, loving all sorts of things or partners, that aren’t our spouse, who waits with the offer that we might come home to the one who truly loves and is good for us; but doesn’t just wait passively. God sets out to bring us back by sending Jesus — a person of the Trinity — into the world to invite us back. We humans, generally, don’t think much of that offer, we like playing the field; so we killed Jesus. We mostly scorned his offer. We mostly choose to keep doing our own thing; but some of us — Christians — take it up. We re-enter the intimate relationship with God that we were made for. And this intimate relationship shapes how we understand our other intimate relationships; including marriage and family. We start pursuing God’s pattern for life again. We start ordering our sexual love and where we seek intimacy around God’s design for flourishing.

Now. I’m a Christian, as I said, which means I love Jesus. I love Jesus more than I love my wife. I love God too, but there’s something particular about a Christian’s relationship to Jesus. I love Jesus, and Jesus is a man, and I’m a man… the Bible even pictures the Christian’s love for Jesus (brought about by an intimate relationship where God dwells in us and makes us one with the Trinity by the Spirit, ‘uniting us to Christ’) as a marriage; the church is often called ‘the bride of Christ’. For some churches, especially the Catholic Church, marriage is a sacrament; something that reveals something deep, and true, and real, about our relationship with God. This is even part of why the Catholics practice celibacy for nuns and priests. I’m not Catholic, I don’t think marriage is a sacrament because I don’t think all people should (or can) participate in marriage. But I do believe marriage is a picture of the Gospel and the oneness it creates; it’s something beautiful for Christians because of this symbolism, and this symbolism is to shape the way we approach marriages as Christians (Ephesians 5:21-33). I believe, as a Christian, that how I understand marriage, and how I either participate in marriage, or don’t, is a product of who God is (and who I am, a sinful and broken image bearer being transformed by God’s Spirit). I don’t believe that Christian marriages are ideal, or never end in divorce, or never feature sinful behaviour; but I do believe Christians approach marriage by putting God first, and loving Jesus such that our ‘marriage’ to him is our ultimate reality. Jesus puts it this way when he is asked about marriage by people trying to figure out how it works in a broken world. They’re actually asking about divorce, and how that works, but he answers them by going all the way back to the beginning of the story, and God’s design for marriage:

Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” — Matthew 19:4-6

As his answer continues, Jesus makes a bold claim that how we approach marriage, and sex (our loves for things and people God has made that reveal something about the nature of God) — how we approach the ‘flourishing life’, actually begins with how we understand our relationship with him as our loving king, and how we understand life in his kingdom. He says:

“Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” — Matthew 19:11-12

There are three things to notice here:

  1. Jesus knows this teaching is hard and some won’t accept it.
  2. Jesus says some are born ‘eunuchs’ — eunuchs were unable to be married or have sex, typically because they had been castrated so they could be ‘safely’ around a powerful person’s collection of wives (a horrible practice); but Jesus says some are born in such a way that marriage as God has designed it is not for them.
  3. Jesus says some will choose to live as eunuchs — without sex and marriage — ‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’
  4. Jesus repeats that this teaching is for ‘the one who can accept it’ and that if they can they should.

Jesus is saying that our human flourishing; our need for intimacy, might first be found in the kingdom of heaven, and that this will, for some people, shape how we participate (or don’t) in marriage and family. There are many Christians who are same sex attracted, or single, who practice this teaching by not marrying and being celibate. If this meant ‘no intimacy’ that would be destructive for human flourishing; intimacy (apart from sex) instead needs to be found in the context of family; I think it’s reasonable in the first century to see this as taking place in being adopted into a household (the church, and the way it gathered as family), but it probably also comes with the adoption of children within that family, and a role with them. This has interesting implications for how we, the church, might accommodate families built around a same sex union where those parents choose to follow Jesus, and so redefine their family life around his teaching about sex, marriage, and intimacy.

Because I believe all this, I’m very happy to affirm the Presbyterian Church’s doctrinal position on marriage, before the plebiscite, and after it, no matter what the result is. This is what I believe marriage is, and the basis on which I will conduct marriages as a minister, and seek to have those marriages recognised by the government of Australia:

“the life-long union of one man with one woman, voluntarily entered into, excluding all others.”

I believe this is what marriage is. Unequivocally. I also believe that a good and flourishing life involves seeing marriage this way, and either entering or not entering one on that basis. I believe marriage, defined this way, is the best definition of marriage for my society and my neighbours.

But (the limits of my belief in a democracy).

I don’t think the plebiscite is asking “what is your definition of marriage” or “how do you understand marriage” but “what should the definition of marriage be in Australia”. I believe these are different questions (as I’ve been trying to spell out in previous conversations). While I understand the logic of people who agree with me on the definition of marriage in wanting to see that definition upheld as long as possible, and find it compelling, I also believe there are limits to how far this definition can and will extend.

I believe these limits are, in some ways, actually God-given, as a result of our departure from his plan for a flourishing life (as cultures, not just individuals); and our decision to have common gods, or idols, that shape our society and our understanding of the good and flourishing life in community.

I believe this makes this marriage debate more complicated than the plebiscite and this discussion allows it to be, and think we should have a much more sophisticated conversation, with better solutions than those that are currently on the table (one might be for the government to stop defining marriage altogether, and to just offer ‘registered relationships’, another would be to have an inclusive definition of marriage with very robust freedom of religion laws that go beyond simply protecting celebrants). This is why I don’t think there’s a clear cut binding case for Christians (or Presbyterians) to vote no in the plebiscite campaign, or persuade others to do so, while holding to the definition of marriage above.

There are five important things to notice.

  1. I am a Christian.
  2. I believe marriage is defined this way, and that it is built into a good life in this world, because I am a Christian and believe God made the world.
  3. Many of my neighbours are not Christians.
  4. Some of my neighbours identify as Christians and have a different understanding of marriage.
  5. Australia is a democracy.

I love my neighbours, and one of the ways I think I’m to do this is to participate well in the democracy (I don’t buy that participating well means accepting the status quo for participation established via special interests, or a winner takes all approach to power and discourse; I don’t believe it is limited to casting a vote). Here’s how this love shapes my thinking about this debate.

  • Because I love my neighbours and want them to flourish I would like them to become Christians; to meet Jesus and find God’s pattern for a flourishing life.
  • Because I love my neighbours I also want them to be free to pursue life in the same way that God wants them to; to choose life in God, and its consequences, or to choose life apart from God and its consequences. I want to make the case for the former, but I want to accept and protect the right for them to do the latter, even if that means they adopt different meanings for words and institutions as a result.
  • Because Australia is a democracy, I think it should accommodate this free pursuit, and my ability to make the case for a flourishing life being found in God’s design, including his design for marriage (and the corollary that life apart from God is not a flourishing life at all). You might think this case hangs on the plebiscite result; I’m looking beyond it. If you think the plebiscite is the be all and end all, then you should definitely vote no and campaign accordingly.
  • Because Australia is a democracy I believe other people should have a say in, and be represented in, the laws of Australia. Just as I should, and I hope my views might be accommodated still beyond marriage redefinition.
  • Because Australia is a democracy, and we all have the ability to have a say in how our society operates, and what the law does and doesn’t recognise, we should all speak, converse, vote, and live according to our consciences and our freedom; balancing this with the freedoms of others, and seeking their good (I can see how this can lead to a no vote, a yes vote, or a not voting approach to the plebiscite).

Here’s some other bits and pieces to throw in the mix of this conversation.

I believe that it is presently true that all Australians can enter into a marriage as God defines it for Christians, and as the law currently defines it; there have been and continue to be, many same sex attracted people entering opposite orientation marriages. My sister is married to my brother in law, who is same sex attracted.

I believe that it’s at least partly evident that what we’re being asked for is to change the fundamental definition of marriage (and that it’s not about love at all), and that this is clear because we have to qualify the word to talk about the campaign ‘same sex marriage’; some people calling for a changed definition have noticed this and started saying ‘or as I prefer to call it ‘just marriage’… it’s not bigotry to point this out, and to ask what might be at stake in the change; but nor is that we’re changing the definition of a word or institution a knockdown argument. We do that all the time, for very good reasons (and sometimes for bad reasons).

The best argument for same sex marriage

I hear many gay neighbours — those who are strangers and friends — asking for the definition of marriage to change because they believe they should have the right to pursue a flourishing life as they see fit; which includes changing the definition of the word marriage to incorporate their life long commitment to another, at the exclusion of all others. This is, I think, compelling in the context of a secular democracy where no religious view is given priority.

I don’t believe ‘love is love’ is actually the best argument for marriage redefinition, marriage equality, or same sex marriage. I don’t buy the argument that sex is love (or that it necessarily involves, or is involved in, intimacy). I believe it’s that for a gay couple to flourish as best as they can within their understanding of the good life in this world, a relationship of commitment, love, and intimacy, is, without God, better for them than alternatives. And, because gay couples can already adopt, birth, and raise children, I believe this sort of relationship provides more stability for children than alternatives (just as this is true for marriages that are not Christian marriages). I don’t believe these marriages are God’s ideal (or marriage at all, in God’s sight, or the sight of the church), but I am able to hold my (God’s) definition of marriage while recognising that other people can and will define marriage differently. That must surely be how Christians in nations where marriage has been redefined operate? And how we must operate beyond the plebiscite if marriage is then redefined at law in Australia. I don’t see this as involving cognitive dissonance, or cheapening my own definition or marriage just because the meaning of the word now being contested.

I believe it is important to listen well, and with empathy, to our gay neighbours, and to understand what they seek and why our best arguments for marriage don’t convince them. I believe it has been a mistake for Christian leaders to ignore the human rights arguments for marriage because we think human rights are either conferred by the God our neighbours don’t believe in, are non-existent, or must be universal. It means that there is some emotional weight to the argument that we are this century’s racists or bigots. We’ve utterly failed to engage with this argument in a compelling way because we’ve tended to simply deny its weight, or we’ve jumped straight to the important question of competing rights without acknowledging the strength of the argument (on the basis of human flourishing and ‘the good’ and that being derived from a competing view of the world).

What about the rights of the child and ‘normalisation’ of ‘genderless parenting’

Some people believe that our duty as Christians is to help the government ‘restrain evil’ or maximise morality, through our vote (I’d say that’s one way to do it, but it’s limited). This sounds nice in an ideal world where there’s a clear line between black and white. They use this line of argument to say that a Christian must oppose same sex marriage not so much because of the freedom of the people entering the marriage, but for the rights of the children. Life in this world — a world that isn’t ideal, but is broken by sin — is complicated, and a good life involves balancing non ideal options while pursuing virtue out of love for others. Here’s a little example of a conundrum; Christians are rightly heartbroken by abortion, we see it as a fundamentally unrelated question to the question of same sex marriage, but it isn’t. Everything is connected. One of the solutions for minimising abortion must surely be to allow more imaginative options for a woman fearing the results of an unwanted pregnancy; including, as many Christians have suggested, better adoption laws. Now. We say children should have a right to know their biological parents; but that’s not the same as saying they should not be adopted, because we’d say in this other circumstance that adoption is better than abortion. That creates a quandary though when it comes to same sex adoption, doesn’t it? Life is complicated; ethics are often about retrieving good, and restraining evil, is it better, for those opposing same sex marriage through the children’s rights prism, for those children to be adopted or aborted? Idealism can make for some pretty messed up politics; our world is a world of competing goods, competing evils, and imaginative solutions. Wisdom is about charting a course between these competing rights, wrongs, and contested rights and contested wrongs.

Human rights can, I think, be conferred within a particular community by the decision of that community, in response to the desires of people within that community. I do believe that the rights of children are important, and that in an ideal world a child would know their biological family (and they should have a right to know) — but also that family is bigger than biology (and the suggestion that it isn’t is relatively modern and western; for example, adoption in Rome made parentage a very interesting thing, and part of the early church growing as rapidly as it did was their practice of adopting and caring for abandoned and unwanted children, in part because our doctrine of adoption into God’s family as co-heirs with Christ makes that a really big deal). I don’t believe we operate in an ideal world, or a Christian one, but a world where ideas are contested and in some sense this contest should, wherever possible, involve contradictory ideas co-existing through a commitment to charity and empathy.

Now, let’s for a moment take off the political hat and put on the pastoral and evangelistic hat we should be wearing as the church; the Gospel hat. How will our words here and now be heard by the same sex families that already exist? Let alone the future ones? How will our statements about absolutes and ideals and good and evil (disconnected from the Gospel and its power to re-order our loves) be heard by these families, who are already vulnerable because they fall outside social norms (there’s a reason people in our community think we need Safe Schools, and it’s not that Christians have an exclusive run on bigotry/hatred of people outside the norm). How might we speak about these families in a way that supports them and invites them to see us as an ally in loving them and their kids in a world where there is no ideal? I want gay families to come to my church. I want them to be loved by us. I want them to hear of God’s love for them and decide together what impact that will have on their life together, and I want our church families to be geared towards intimacy enough that these families can continue to love each other, be committed to each other, be involved in the lives of the children they’ve committed to, but also pursue a flourishing life of faith in Jesus. This isn’t helped when Christians publicly suggest we’re creating a stolen generation or the ‘commodification of children’.

My biggest concerns

Let’s go back to my first paragraph. I’m a Christian. I think God is real and good and loving. And the best life is found in loving him. Not in sex. Not in marriage. Not in human family and having and raising children (though these are all good things). I don’t want to spend the next few weeks (or years) trying to tell people why they should see marriage the way I see it without also, or first, inviting people to see the world the way I see it; to see the goodness of God’s design for our humanity, for intimacy, and for love. To see that a life lived with God at the centre, following Jesus, is a better, more beautiful, and more presently and eternally satisfying life — so much so that we can change or give up other loves, and approach other good gifts of God differently to our neighbours.

I want my neighbours to understand how marriage operates in the lives of Christians who believe the stuff I’ve written above; that it is special and important and good for humanity. I want Christians to work hard at building marriage relationships, families, and intimacy beyond sex, in such a way that our way of life is compelling and definitively and persuasively ‘more flourishing’ than the alternatives. As I participate in this particular conversation I want it to be the top half of this post that is my consistent contribution to the conversation, it’s having that view accommodated that is my goal in a democracy (not having it squish all other views). I want to listen more than I speak. I want people to understand that love and intimacy in marriage is good, but love and intimacy in Jesus and his church is better (I want to build the church so it actually is better too). And that they’re fundamentally connected — that marriage is a metaphor for the bigger and richer reality of connection to God.

Here’s an interesting thing; McCrindle Research indicates that a growing percentage of Aussies know very few Christians in real life; some people are unable to empathise with our cold ‘rational’ arguments because they have no emotional/relational context to see or hear them in. You want to persuade people about Christian marriage and family — invite them into your home; but I reckon there’s a corollary. I think part of our tone deafness on this when it comes to the trenches, is that so many Christians have no deep relationships with gay people or couples. We’re not able to feel the strength of their emotional or coherently rational (without God) arguments, because we have no emotional/relational context to hear them, and when we do hear them it’s in the context of a fight where we’re just seeking to defend our patch.

We’re not even great at accommodating same sex attracted people in our churches and providing non-sexual intimacy, and non-biological family, in our church culture. How many of us have shared meals with gay friends in our homes, or even on our streets? How many of us are listening to reports from vulnerable gay people about what this plebiscite feels like for them? How quick are we to dismiss those emotions and hurts as valid data in an ‘evidence based’ democracy? How many of us are prepared to question the status quo of democracy in this country and whether a zero-sum game built around a non-binding vote following a public conversation where we hurl invective at each other is the best way to make decisions for the good of all? To participate in our democracy according to this status quo is to reinforce it… yet saying you’re not going to participate in a non-binding plebiscite creates the assumption you’re not doing your duty or participating in our shared life.

I believe the best thing for my gay neighbours — before or after they marry, if they marry or not — is loving Jesus. That marriage. I don’t want to be asking or answering ‘how does the church fight the gay marriage culture war’, but ‘how do we help our neighbours discover the love and intimacy of God and his people in a way that makes us wonder if sex and marriage are actually the ultimate thing to build our life around.

I want to be asking, talking, and pondering questions like: ‘how do we be a church that gay families come into, where they meet Jesus in such a way that it radically rearranges their lives’ in the same way I want to be asking ‘how do we be a church that straight families come into, where they meet Jesus in such a way that it radically rearranges their lives’ — at the moment our tone deaf, un-empathetic, approach to the marriage debate means I don’t think we need to worry too much about those questions; there’s very little chance that, apart from a miraculous work of God, these families are going to check Jesus out at all; we’re hardening hearts towards Jesus, rather than softening them. I say this appreciating the paradox that somehow it is always a miracle for someone to move from death to life as the Spirit works in us, and that it is God who softens and hardens hearts; I think God delights in doing this through soft-hearted people though.

10 Reasons The Plausibility Problem is the book the church needs on homosexuality

It’s a few months now since my brother-in-law Mitch and I reviewed Born This Way, a book touted as the book the church needed to help us think through ministry to same sex attracted people. It’s fair to say we disagreed with the approach the book took. Now. Months later. Here is the book we both think is the book the church needs on homosexuality. Ed Shaw’s The Plausibility Problem. And here are 10 reasons why we believe this is the case.

But first. On book reviews and conversations

Before getting into the meat of the review, I (Nathan. To be clear, when this post uses “I” it’s Nathan, when it is “we” it is us) just want to make a couple of observations about the widespread criticism our first review received from people because it didn’t treat the book on its own terms (or on the author’s terms). I’m tacking them on here because they are actually pertinent, in some way, in terms of why we think this other book is the book for our times.

Before we get too far along — the original review of Born This Way has been updated a couple of times since posting, one of the significant updates was to include a link to a review of Born This Way by Liberty Inc’s pastoral worker Allan StarrBorn This Way’s author Steve Morrison has responded to this review with a gracious counter argument

I guess the question I’m still grappling with, and I think Mitch might be too, is when a book is billed as “the book the Church needs” on an issue, just how much of that hyperbole should be allowed to go unchallenged? How much should we review a book on its own terms, and how much we should review it in terms of the way it is being used or positioned in a wider conversation. A conversation that we are passionate (and interested) participants in?

It was both the nature of Born This Way, and the nature of the feedback to our review, that made me quickly come to grips with a couple of generation gaps that I don’t think us Aussie reformed evangelicals are bridging. These are labels that apply to Matthias Media (the publisher), Steve Morrison (the author), and Mitch and I as reviewers. This is the sort of tribe we all belong to, with a few geographic and denominational quirks… my observation is that there’s a generational turning point where people either generally agreed with our review, both in its substance and style, or thought it was terribad — the main criticisms of these older types were that we did not take the book on its terms and assess it accordingly, and that we wrote such a substantial critique, posted it online, and included stuff like the promotional material around the book in our treatment of the book as though they have equal weight. On this last point, I wrote something a while back about how the media is shifting to talking about a thing as though it’s the main thing, to talking about and participating in conversation, as though that’s the main thing… all of this is to say I think there are a couple of clashing worldviews operating, even within this ‘tribe’ we all belong to, which explains many of our problems with the book. I think the reason there’s such a sharp contrast between people of profoundly different demographics is because a shift happened somewhere in the last 40 years or so (this figure bleeds out at the margins — there are older people who go one way, and younger people who go the other— because it’s an environmental thing too), and this shift has two significant factors for the conversation surrounding these books, and homosexuality more generally:

  1. People grew up, and were educated, in a society that is profoundly post-modern.
  2. People on the younger side are what media sociologist types call ‘digital natives’ — a loose demographic grouping of people who believe that media is democratised. And that eyeballs and internet attention are the metric that matters. The people who watch a video online matter as much as the people who read a book, so long as they are participating in the online conversation. The implications of this are that anyone can have a platform, a book is part of a conversation just as much as a blog post, a video, a Facebook discussion — and more people might interact with the latter than the book itself. Anyone can have an opinion — expertise is ok, but not essential, ‘truthiness’ in a sense that something resonates with our experience or feelings is more compelling than traditional ‘authority’ (the sort that might come from publishing a book).

Which dovetails nicely with the thrust of our critique of Born This Way (apart from the damage we think it does to the people it talks about). Born This Way is a thoroughly modernist book written to an increasingly post-modern world. Our review was a thoroughly post-modern review of a modernist book (we broke almost all of author John Updike’s rules for graciously critiquing a book — though I think there are some new rules for people graciously reviewing books that might fit nicely with the shift described here, and I suspect giving the author a continued voice in the conversation — should they want it — is a big part of graciousness).

Born This Way’s approach to the issue is essentially: Want to know what to think about homosexuality? Here’s what words must necessarily mean (prescriptive terminology is essential). Here’s some science facts. Here’s some Bible verses. Here’s a conclusion with some important prescriptive terminology changes. Go and do what you must do when you draw some conclusions from these propositions.

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This is the way our tribe tends to approach issues. Our authority, quite rightly, is the Bible. But the way we use it (and I think this is less definitively ‘right’) is as an atomised bunch of propositional statements (which is easier when it involves clear imperatives — rules and regulations). We’re also happy to draw conclusions from what Augustine called God’s second book — the world around us, via science — so long as the Bible guides our interpretation of said ‘book’…This is all well and good if you think faithful Christianity overlaps with a modernist view of the world. If that is you, and you want to reject the ‘evils’ of post-modernity, then Born This Way might be the book for you… except for the hurt it might cause people you love, who it talks about, but even that sort of concern is a bit post-modern. And it’s this last bit that we think makes Born This Way not just a book that the church in this age doesn’t need, but instead, a book the church should not want. Why would we want a non-pastoral book trying to speak objectively into a subjective space where people need pastoring? The Plausibility Problem takes a different tack, and one we believe is much more helpful. It is, in many ways, the anti-thesis of Born This Way, where Born This Way goes left, it goes right, at every turn. I felt like one of the criticisms of our review was that we hypothesised an alternative and impossible book in our criticism of Born This Way, and that this was unfair because such a yardstick does not/could not exist. But here it is, and given the choice between the two, in terms of meeting the needs of the church in ministering to same sex attracted people (and creating communities where same sex attracted non-Christians might give the Gospel a hearing), We’d pick the Plausibility Problem for every person, every time.

I’ve noted elsewhere recently that post-modernity is more interested in a quality, plausible, story. A story where someone can see themselves as an actor, and see the narrative fitting with their own view of the world, and their self-identity. Story trumps proposition. Luckily the Bible is, I think, better understood as one grand Christ-centered narrative of God’s relationship to his world and humanity, rather than a bunch of rules and regulations (even the rules come in the context of a story, and often as stories). So our authority actually lends itself to this approach.

 

So. What does a book for this sort of world look like? It looks like Ed Shaw’s The Plausibility Problem: the church and same sex attractionHere are 10 reasons why this is the book the church needs in order to reach the sort of world and worldview outlined above.

1. It identifies the ‘plausibility problem’ and emphasises Jesus’ story as the solution. But this is also Ed’s story

Where Born This Way attempted to be objective and deal with the facts from science and the Bible, The Plausibility Problem takes a narrative approach from start to finish. It’s about replacing the world’s narrative about sex, identity and fulfilment, with God’s narrative. Where we suggested the Gospel was something like a tacked on extra in Born This Way, it’s the foundation of Shaw’s approach.

From the world’s perspective, Christ’s call to a wholehearted, sacrificial discipleship seems implausibly unattractive for anyone, regardless of their sexuality or particular circumstances. If we are to persevere in the life of discipleship ourselves and persuade anyone else to join us, we must somehow communicate that what is offered is not a set of rules, but a dynamic relationship with the living God. — The Plausibility Problem, Foreword.

One of the other problems we had with Born This Way was its attempt to be objective meant that the author never declared how what he was writing related to his own experience. This was deliberate, but it also created what we perceived to be significant issues with the book in terms of its pastoral application (or lack thereof), because pastoring is interpersonal, and its lack of understanding of some of the complexities of same sex attraction. Being objective about something subjective (like attraction and associated feelings and desires) doesn’t intuitively work. We’d also argue that objectivity is a sort of modernist myth, that it doesn’t actually serve anyone to remove yourself, your experience, or your agenda from what you’re saying. Shaw avoids these problems by acknowledging his bias, and his experience, straight up.

I write this book as an evangelical Christian who experiences same-sex attraction. Ever since the beginning of puberty, my sexual desires have been focused on some members of my own sex. What I thought might be just a teenage phase has never gone away and I remain exclusively same-sex attracted in my mid/late thirties, despite all my best efforts and prayers to change. So the plausibility problem is my problem… I believe that the Bible is God’s inspired (and thus inerrant and authoritative) Word to the people he’s both created and redeemed. Through its pages, my loving Father God tells me everything I need to know about everything that matters to him (2 Timothy 3:16–17). And those pages very clearly say that homosexual practice is wrong in his sight – remember the proof-text parade in the previous chapter. I am absolutely convinced of this, despite my own same-sex attraction and those who now tell me God never really says that, or has recently changed his mind. But it’s not even those famous individual verses that I find most persuasive.

Quoting his friend (and fellow same sex attracted author) Wesley Hill (via Washed and Waiting), Shaw says “I abstain from homosexual behaviour because of the power of the Scriptural story.” The Plausibility Problem invites the church to become a place where people can discover the power of this story.

Shaw’s basic premise, one we agree with, is that our conventional (modernist) approach doesn’t work in a post-modern world, it leaves those of us who do believe what the ‘proof texts’ in the Bible say about sexuality with the titular plausibility problem. Our inability to produce relationships in our church communities that make living a life that is faithful to this teaching possible means people aren’t listening when we tell them to live this way. He identifies a generation gap where a new generation of people aren’t prepared simply to accept the “just say no” approach.

The evangelical church’s basic message to them: ‘Just Say No!’ just doesn’t have any real credibility any more. It embarrasses many of us to even ask them to do it. It sounds positively unhealthy. It lacks any traction in today’s world – simply producing incredulity from the majority. Melinda Selmys (a Catholic who experiences same-sex attraction) communicates this well: Negative chastity, the kind of chastity that limits itself to saying ‘Thou shalt not,’ has consistently failed to persuade the postmodern world because it is madness.

2. It uses ‘story’ as a mode to provide an alternative and plausible counter story to the stories we’re bombarded with by our world

Sometimes it feels like the Devil has all the good stories.

We Christians have been trying to combat real stories from the gay community of love, injustice, and real emotions, with cold hard facts and rational arguments. In a post-modern world, feelings trump thinking, and stories trump facts. Shaw attempts to counter this by providing stories that demonstrate the possibility of a life shaped by the Gospel — his story, and the stories of others who also experience same sex attraction.

This mode supports his basic premise, that real stories of the plausibility of life as a same-sex attracted follower of Jesus… Being part of the Gospel story actually works. We believe it. Because we see it in Shaw. And we’re invited to imagine how this might work for others — for those in our church community, and those not yet part of our church community.

Shaw sets up the book by telling two powerful stories of Peter and Jane. Peter and Jane are Christians lured away from faithfulness to God’s story by the competing stories of our world, and invites us to see the problem this way. We’re bereft of alternative narratives and bombarding somebody feeling the lure of these stories with a bunch of science and proof texts from the Bible will only really convince one type of thinker — a modernist — and a modernist who is prepared to let their head rule their hearts, and their sex drive. A modernist who is also prepared to critically think through and ignore the counter-messages our world smashes them with. In short, we’re not sure the modernist approach works for all that many people any more, which helps answer a question about ‘what the book the church needs’ on this issue looks like…

“How can you look Peter in the eye and deny him sex forever? How can we ask Jane to turn her back on the one human relationship that has brought her joy? It just won’t seem plausible to them. It doesn’t sound that reasonable to us either. And what doesn’t help them or us much is the standard evangelical response to what they’re facing. We’ve basically adopted the slogan from the 1980s anti-drugs song: ‘Just Say No!’ That’s often all we have to say – exacerbated by the proof-text parade if anyone raises any objections… That used to convince. That used to be a plausible argument for most. To be an evangelical has always meant holding to the truth of ‘The divine inspiration of Holy Scripture as originally given and its supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct’. And when it comes to homosexual practice, those Scriptures are pretty clear; evangelicals like clarity, and those verses were more than enough clarity for many, for years. We all knew where we stood.”

3. It focuses on the relationship between sexuality, Jesus and identity

One of the interesting implications of approaching life in this world using a story framework is we’re invited to consider the motivations behind actions, not just the actions themselves. That’s how and why stories are compelling. This question of motives, character, or identity, also seems to be more consistent with how the Bible approaches questions of sin.

Sinful behaviour is produced by sinful hearts. The Plausibility Problem doesn’t shy away from the truth that our sexuality is broken by sin, it is especially strident in its criticism of the widespread idea, both from the wider world and the more liberal end of the church, that something being natural necessarily makes it good. In this sense it deals more helpfully with the born this way concept than Born This Way.

‘How can being gay be wrong if you were born gay?’ That’s a question I’m asked a lot. And it’s a good one: my same-sex attraction feels part of me in that sort of way. As a theory on the origins of homosexuality, being born gay works for me better than any of the others on the market today, although every same-sex attracted man or woman will, no doubt, have their own personal take on this most complex and controversial of areas… whether you agree with the ‘gay gene’ theory or not. It is certainly the one that fits best with my lived experience of same-sex attraction (if not everyone’s). It is the most powerful case for affirming homosexuality today. And, I guess, that’s why some evangelical Christians have put a huge amount of time and energy into fighting the idea that same-sex attraction is genetic or innate… I want to argue, even if the ‘gay gene’ were found tomorrow, we would still not need to worry about this particular battle being lost: a genetic basis for homosexuality would not make it right… You see, one of the central truths of the Bible is that we are all naturally sinners from birth and yet are still held responsible for our sin.

Our actions are the products of our identity, and realigning our identity to line up with God’s story is what the Gospel invites us to do. It changes the character we play. Or, in Ed’s words, the Gospel tells us who we are. The Plausibility Problem makes the sexuality question a question of identity, and asks us to consider what we’re going to put first.

What I most want to avoid is any other identity that might attempt to displace my fundamental identity as a Christian. For the thing that defines me most in life is not my sexuality but my status – in Christ – as a son of God.

This Gospel tells me that I am – in Jesus – a child of God. That is why I can call him Father. That is why I can call Jesus my brother. That is what his Spirit confirms by dwelling inside of me. That is who I am: God’s own dear son. And thinking like that is crucial to living the Christian life… When people say, ‘Relax, you were born that way.’ or ‘Quit trying to be something you’re not and just be the real you,’ they are stumbling upon something very biblical. God does want you to be the real you. He does want you to be true to yourself. But the ‘you’ he’s talking about is the ‘you’ that you are by grace, not by nature.

4. It invites us to tackle this problem together, as a church (because it’s a problem we’ve created together)

One ofThe Plausibility Problem’s greatest strengths (and its most important insights) is that it invites us to move this conversation away from being an issue for a particular individual to solve, and instead, to think of it as something to work through together. Our new identity in Christ isn’t a new identity that simply applies to us as individuals, becoming a child of God brings us a host of brothers and sisters in Christ. Shaw’s diagnosis takes this issue away from the realm of the same sex attracted individual, and gives responsibility for our same sex attracted brothers and sisters to all of us.

… when a same-sex attracted Christian embraces a gay identity and lifestyle, we need to recognize that it might be, to some extent, not just their fault, but ours too.

Shaw invites us to stop placing responsibility for change on the individual sinner, and invites us instead to be a changing community where this shift in identity is both plausible and desirable, because it’s a new identity we’re all invited to share as we leave an old story behind.

I know that too often, church meetings have encouraged me to let my sin, rather than my Saviour, define me. That I have left those meetings reminded more of my same-sex attraction than my new status in Christ. They have unintentionally encouraged me to spend too much time contemplating my love of some men rather than contemplating God’s love for me. I need to hear a more biblically balanced message. One that does not brush my continued sin under the carpet, and which must keep encouraging me to repent of it (1 John 1:8–10), but which prevents my sin from ever defining me.

If the primary identity that all our churches commended to all our church members was our shared identity in Christ, that would do more to defeat this plausibility problem that we all face than almost anything else.

5. The plausibility framework offers an alternative way forward

What can we do about it? Well, this is where this book is designed to help. Its basic premise is simple: we just have to make what the Bible clearly commands seem plausible again. We need to remind ourselves, and remind Peter and Jane, that Jesus says this to us all: I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10)

Shaw sets about doing this with practical on the ground examples of what a more plausible church community might look like. He diagnoses the problems — or missteps the church has taken—based on his own experience and the experience (and testimony) of many other same sex attracted Christians. These missteps aren’t just related to same sex attraction, they describe fundamental problems with what (and how) we normalise in our communities, and ask us to consider what happens to people who fall outside those norms.

The missteps include buying into the world’s stories that:

  1. Your identity is your sexuality
  2. A family is mum, dad and 2.4 children.
  3. If you’re born gay, it can’t be wrong to be gay.
  4. If it makes you happy, it must be right.
  5. Sex is where true intimacy is found.
  6. Men and women are equally interchangable.
  7. Godliness is heterosexuality.
  8. Celibacy is bad for you
  9. Suffering is to be avoided

None of these missteps, or false stories, are raised without Shaw also offering solutions based on the Bible’s story, a theology of church as people being shaped together by the Gospel, the thoughtful work of others, and his own experience. The stories he tells give us lived examples of how to respond to these missteps in a way that makes life as part of the church plausible, and one way we know it is plausible is because it explains why Shaw, and others, stick with Jesus. The structures he invites us to re-build and rely on are:

… the pre-eminence of our union with Christ when it comes to forming our identity; the reality that church is our one everlasting family; the doctrine of original sin; the full authority and total goodness of God’s Word; friendships, not just sex, bringing us all the human intimacy we need; marriage being all about the union of Christ and his church; godliness being all about Christ-likeness, not who you are attracted to; the fact that singleness is truly a great gift; and the reality that following Jesus means taking up your cross and suffering like him.

6. It invites us to see singleness within the church community as a plausible alternative to marriage and sex

The call to sexual purity isn’t just a call for the same sex attracted. It’s a call for the married heterosexual. It’s a call for the unmarried heterosexual. And being a church where it’s plausible to feel fulfilled and truly human while not having sex is a massively difficult thing if all the church says is “sex is a good part of our humanity and you need to get married to do it” or buys into the idea that fulfilment comes from finding completion in another person, your “other half”… Shaw has experienced life in a church culture that does this, that buys into the idolatry of marriage and heterosexual sex. And he calls us out of it. Part of that call is the call for all of us to pursue godliness, rather than heterosexuality, which is a really important note to hit when it comes to thinking about our sexual orientation.

7. It acknowledges that the struggle is real (but worth it)

The book is breathtakingly honest. Shaw is real about his attractions, his temptations, his struggles. He confesses and he invites us to confess too because confession like this is what will make this issue real for people, and helps identify Jesus as the real way forward. The struggle is real. Suffering is real. Self-denial is costly. It would be misleading to over-simplify the cost of following Jesus in this area, but it’s refreshing to not just see the cost, but think about how we might be invited to bear the cost together with those we love who experience these sorts of moments because they’ve decided not to pursue the fulfilment of their natural desires for the sake of the Gospel.

I have what I call ‘kitchen floor moments’. I call them that because they involve me sitting on my kitchen floor. But I’m not doing something useful like scrubbing it, although it could always benefit from that. Instead I’m there crying. And the reason for my tears is the unhappiness that my experience of same-sex attraction often brings. The acute pain I sometimes feel as a result of not having a partner, sex, children and the rest.

8. It invites us to consider intimacy apart from sex

One of the best and most pastoral problems Shaw diagnoses with our implausible church communities is that we’ve bought into the worldly narrative that intimacy is sex. He mentions that this conflation of two separate concepts has killed our ability to properly be friends with people, and to properly see intimate friendship without suspicion. Boundaries are great for stopping bad sexual stuff happening, but it’s possible that we’ve over-corrected. One piece of evidence he cites on this front is the growing belief in scholarly circles that there must have been something sexual going on between David and Jonathan. He urges us to rediscover friendship and non-sexual intimacy as a way forward. One of his really helpful points, even for married couples, is that our spouses can’t possibly fulfil all the needs we have for human love or intimacy. This is part of the idolatry of marriage and the spouse – the expectation we might bring that they will fulfil some desire of our heart that they’re not equipped to fulfil which will ultimately lead to disappointment.

The world in which we live cannot cope with intimate relationships that aren’t sexual – it makes no sense, it’s just not possible. So I’ve had to pull back from deepening friendships with both men and women out of fear that they are being seen as inappropriate. None of them were – but the supposed impossibility of non-sexual intimacy meant we felt under pressure to close them down. That’s been very hard at times. But what’s been hardest is how the church often discourages non-sexual intimacy too. Our response to the sexual revolution going on outside our doors has sadly just been to promote sexual intimacy in the context of Christian marriage. And to encourage people to keep it there by promising this will then deliver all the intimacy they’ve ever wanted.

If we’re wired for relationships, intimate loving relationships, the sort that reflects the intimate, loving, relationships of the Trinity, then for life to be plausible for single people in our churches, including the same sex attracted, we need to be much better at intimate friendships. This might mean more hugs, more deep and meaningful conversations, and more attempting to truly know someone by looking them in the eye and paying attention so that you actually understand them – with people other than your spouse.

9. It suggests same sex attraction is a part of one’s personhood that can be valued and that can help one understand God, and reminds us that all sexuality is broken

This isn’t a main point of the book, by any stretch, but in articulating a path towards faithfully finding his identity in Christ, and the love of God, Shaw has this to say as an aside.

To be fully human and follow Christ faithfully, there are many things we must do, but among them must be some sort of embrace of sexual difference. I somehow need to embrace what the Bible teaches about the importance of sexual difference, despite the restrictions it puts on my preferred expression of it. To view sexuality as a good thing, even though God bans me from acting out my desires in a sexual relationship with another man… But then surely my sexuality can be nothing more than a negative aspect of my life – if there is no prospect of me changing enough to be able to consummate a heterosexual marriage? Not if I pay attention to these precious words of pastor John Piper: …the ultimate reason (not the only one) why we are sexual is to make God more deeply knowable. The language and imagery of sexuality are the most graphic and most powerful that the Bible uses to describe the relationship between God and his people – both positively (when we are faithful) and negatively (when we are not).

My sexuality has allowed me to understand and appreciate the incredible power of the sexual language that God uses there and elsewhere: to communicate the passionate nature of his love for people like me! My sexuality might not lead me into a loving marriage, but it does consistently lead me into a greater appreciation of God’s love for me in Christ. That is one of many reasons why I’m profoundly grateful for it…

Most evangelicals are getting to the stage where we don’t expect ‘conversion therapy’ or ‘reparative therapy’ to produce an orientation change (while we also want to acknowledge that sexual orientation can be relatively fluid for some people). Shaw’s honest reflections about his own experience, coupled with his constant emphasis on the Gospel and his identity in Christ, should help us frame our language and expectations here too. Even if the aim is ‘celibacy’ rather than ‘heterosexuality,’ same-sex attraction might not be something to be ‘cured’ at all. Rather than asking somebody to flick some sort of switch that turns their attraction off, perhaps its more helpful to think about what it might look like for an exclusively same sex attracted person to maintain that attraction, but have it defined first by their attraction to Jesus. This is where the attempt to make attraction or orientation the same as “temptation” and thus something to be resisted, rather than re-oriented around a greater love and attraction, so misguided in Born This Way. Shaw gives a picture of the challenges presented to our same sex attracted friends when we get this wrong… the goal for Christian godliness for the same sex attracted individual is not heterosexuality, or asexuality, it is Christlikeness.

If heterosexuality is godliness, the big change that’s most been needed in my life is for me to become heterosexual. And so I’ve prayed hard and searched hard for an effective antidote to my same-sex attraction. The pursuit of holiness has nearly always equalled the pursuit of heterosexuality for me. What has so often encouraged me to give up on the Christian life has been my lack of progress in becoming heterosexual. I’ve never been sexually attracted to a woman. Yet every so often, a short period of not being sexually attracted to a man for a while has given me hope – only to have that dashed when my type of good-looking man has walked onto my TV screen or into my life. As a result, I’ve kept feeling I’m making no progress as a Christian – still struggling with the same wrong sexual desires I did back when I was sixteen. That’s when it has felt least plausible to keep going as a Christian. Feeling like you have made no steps forwards for twenty years makes you unwilling to keep going. Remembering the call to be like Jesus in everything has shown me not only the countless other ways I’m not like Jesus, but also the progress I have actually been making in becoming more like him over the last twenty years. This progress has often come in the midst of, and as a direct result of, my enduring struggle with same-sex attraction.

Shaw expresses a desire that the sort of focus we put on godliness for same sex attracted people with their sexuality be spread to other forms of sexual brokenness in the church. Getting this picture of human sexuality right helps us understand that heterosexuality does not necessarily equal godliness, and it certainly won’t in sinful people. Ever. The problem we create when we present our married heterosexuality as unfallen, or less fallen, than same sex attraction is that we isolate those around us who are not married heterosexuals.

All sexual relationships are marred (Genesis 3:7) There has been no perfect sexual relationship since then. Even the ‘perfect’ heterosexual Christian couple who keep sex for marriage have plenty to be ashamed of and embarrassed about their sexuality and their use of it. When I share those feelings of imperfection as a same-sex attracted Christian, I should not be made to feel alone.

Shaw’s plausibility cure for this is honesty. He calls us to spur one another on towards Christ-likeness with our sexuality, same sex attracted or not, and for us to be prepared to be honest (in situations of trusting relationships, but also in open, frank, honesty like the kind he presents in this book, by those who want to lead us in this area).

“… when I have to confess my sexual sins to you, don’t be afraid to confess your sexual sins to me. In that way, we can spur each other on to Christ-likeness, and on to love and good deeds through the triumphs and tragedies…

…Greater honesty about the challenges of being sexual beings has been one of the upsides of the so-called ‘sexual revolution’. Unlike many of the downsides, this honesty has yet to spread to the church. Some of us same-sex attracted pastors have recently taken a lead, but we have yet to be followed by the brothers and sisters in Christ who struggle with internet porn, who have survived the pain of adultery or who live in sexless marriages… until some go public with their private struggles (or, at least, until we start to recognize publicly that they are issues with which many church members are grappling), the church will continue to be perceived as sexually self-righteous and sorted – rather than a place where all who are sexually broken (which is all of us!) can get the help and support we need. Many will have to struggle on alone in silence.”

10. It is pastoral.

Shaw’s use of stories, both the stories that make his own experience incredibly real and raw, and stories of how his real needs are met by Jesus, and by his church, give us concrete examples to duplicate in our own lives and as we love and care for those within our own community. This book is profoundly pastoral. It’s purpose is to help us love people in our communities, and wants people in our church communities to know the love of Jesus. Not the cold facts. It speaks into the subjective reality of the same sex attracted person, but more than that, it speaks into the subjective reality of the whole church. It invites us to think, feel and respond. It gives us patterns for that response through stories, and through the lens of the eyes and words of one for whom this advice has been effective.

I (Nathan) found the chapter on church as a family for single people particularly helpful in thinking through some of the ways my own nuclear family can start to include single friends in the rhythms of our family life. Shaw mentions the way many people within his church family provide different aspects of the family experience for him that prevent his life being one of isolation. There are people who hug him. People who eat with him regularly. People who call him to talk about life. People who arrange parties to mark milestones for him, and others who supply meals for him when he’s sick. There are people who invite him on family holidays, or to hang out and play with their kids on Sunday arvos. There are  other single people he chats with. The vision of church he describes is one where love is evident, where a sense that family could be something bigger than other narratives allow, and it’s one that seems doable, where I can pick off a couple of those roles to play for a couple of people in a way that might make the life they are called to just that little bit more plausible.

The beauty is that it’s not just the responsibility for plausibility that gets shared through these sorts of relationships, but the benefits as well.

And, crucially, this new family benefits us all – there is give and take from all of us, all of the time. It strengthens single people, but it also strengthens marriages. It allows children to grow up in an environment where there are multiple adults parenting them. It’s not perfect – there are constant ups and downs. All human relationships get messy at times, but they are a mess worth making. For when it works, it is the most wonderful of experiences for all of us. I pinch myself at times. And the plausibility of the life that I have chosen is closely tied to this experience. When church feels like a family, I can cope with not ever having my own partner and children. When it hasn’t worked is when I have struggled most. The same-sex attracted Christians I’ve met who are suffering most are those in churches that haven’t grasped this at all and that don’t even notice these individuals.

 

 

Snippet // William Struthers on intimate friendship as the answer to the pornography epidemic

I am reading, and loving, Ed Shaw’s The Plausibility Problem: The Church and Same-Sex Attraction, it’s rapidly becoming the best book I’ve read on the issue and I’ll no doubt review it more fully soon. In one chapter he addresses our tendency in the modern west to conflate intimacy with sexual intercourse — suggesting that the reason people want to, for example, read the relationship between David and Jonathan in the Bible as sexualised has more to do with our assumptions about intimacy than anything the text itself suggests. He’s got this great little aside in the chapter, featuring a quote from William Struthers’ book Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain (which I’ve just bought, but have not read). For context, Shaw frames the below quote by saying: “Christian psychologist William Struthers sees this sort of godly male intimacy as the main answer to the current epidemic of pornography addiction among male church members”

The myths of masculinity in our culture have isolated men from each other and impaired their ability to honor and bless one another. Too many men have too few intimate friends. Their friendships run only as deep as the things they do together. By finding male friends to go deeper with, the need for intimacy can be met in nonsexual ways with these male friends. When this happens the intensity of the need for intimacy is not funnelled through sexual intercourse with a woman; it can be shared across many relationships. Sexual intimacy may be experienced with one woman, but intimacy can be experienced with others as well. Not all intimacy is genital, so do not feel restricted in your relationships with your brothers in Christ.

I think together Shaw and Struthers have nailed one of the things the church gets wrong in our approach to those who are same sex attracted, and explained why we are where we are when it comes to an unhealthy approach to sex, and relationships between men and women in the church too. I like that part of the solution for both (but not the complete solution) is better relationships between men and men. By the by, you can check out the stuff our church thinks we (the church) get wrong in our approach to same sex attraction (gay marriage), and also what we get wrong when it comes to male-female relationships (feminism). This is the book I wish I’d read before working on these talks.

10 Reasons Born This Way is not the book the Church needs on homosexuality

“This particular challenge is unique because at the heart of it is a universal lie, that is that all people who experience same sex attraction were born that way. And so, scientists, politicians, lobby groups, right down to the person who you sit next to on the bus who says oh, I’m same sex attracted and I was born this way, everybody seems to believe the lie. And what they do, it’s not just the lie, they take the lie and they turn it into a moral imperative that is that it’s not right to tell anybody not to live that way, the way they were born to live.” — Steve Morrison, Promo Video, Born This Way

UPDATE: Steve asked for this part of the promo to be deleted, and Matthias Media has edited the video.

UPDATE 6 Sept 2017: Steve asked for his response at the end of the post to be edited to what is there now; I’ve added a brief response to his edits.

bornthiswaycoverBorn This Way is a new book written by Steve Morrison, and published by Matthias Media. It attempts to help Christians grapple with one of the most pressing questions facing the Australian church: how to approach the issue of homosexuality. It asks how Christians should understand what science and the Bible have to say about same sex attraction.

A significant percentage of the book is good, and true. But it is fatally flawed.

How we talk about homosexuality and same sex attraction is a big deal. How we talk about sexuality for Christians and to those in the outside world is a big deal.

It’s not just a big deal in the public square — where the idea that someone would not pursue happiness and wholeness according to their natural sexual desires because of their religious belief is anathema.

It’s a big deal for real people trying to figure out how to reconcile their faith in Jesus and belief that the Gospel is identity-shaping good news, with their same sex attraction.

It’s a big deal for me personally because it’s a live issue in my family. My brother in law Mitch, my sister’s husband, is same sex attracted. He’s also in full time ministry, and involved in ministry to same sex attracted people with Liberty IncYou can read some of his story here (see question ‘what does the bible say about homosexuality?).

I love Mitch, I love my sister, I love their kids. There are other same sex attracted brothers and sisters in Christ that I love too, but none quite so close to home as my family. It matters how people talk about this stuff because it impacts real people. I posted some tips for talking about homosexuality as Christians a while back that came from a seminar I gave at a Liberty Inc event. How people talk about this issue directly impacts people I love, so you’ll have to excuse me if it seems I’ve taken anything in this review personally, because it is personal.

I’ve invited Mitch to co-write this review. These are our words. Where we need to, we’ve distinguished between Mitch’s response, and my response.

About this Review

We’re keen to be as charitable as we possibly can as readers. We didn’t want this book to fail. We need more resources to guide thoughtful discussions on this topic, and there are thoughtful parts of this book that would be useful if they weren’t surrounded by significant problems. We’re thankful that the author, Steve Morrison, wants to encourage the church to love and reach out to homosexual people, and while there is much in this book that we believe is right and true, there are problems with this book that mean it is not a resource we can recommend, and it is not a book we can simply ignore.

Neither of us know the author personally (Nathan: I became Facebook friends with Steve in order to share this review before posting it). We are sure the book is well intentioned, and that both Matthias Media, as the publisher, and Steve Morrison, the author, had every intention to handle this topic with sensitivity, we simply think the intentions were misguided.

Steve is a human. A person. And this book represents a labour of love from him, for his readers, for the church, and for the same sex attracted people who might read the book, or be engaged in conversation by people who’ve read this book. We understand that Born This Way is well intentioned, and while we’ve responded with fairly robust criticism we’ve tried to, wherever possible, make it clear that this is a result of our response to the book and its arguments, not to Steve and his intentions.

This is a topic that is almost impossible to approach without bias if you’re directly affected, or affected via someone you love being directly affected. That’s why we’ve acknowledged our own bias up front. Sometimes this approach means we rely on assumptions that we’ve drawn as readers of the book, there are no doubt times when we’ve missed nuances in Steve’s argument or misrepresent it, but we are responding as readers who have tried to read the book carefully, these misunderstandings are, of course, something we have to take some responsibility for as readers. Sometimes our tone below might seem harsh, at times this will be a result of our own sinfulness. We’d suggest there are not many people who will approach this book with the objectivity that Steve tries to write with, and assumes from his readers, and that is actually a problem with this book as it speaks to this topic.

We’ve been urged by the publisher to review the book on its own terms, not our own. And that’s fair and gracious, so in order to do this we’ve included relatively long quotes from the book when we quote it, to provide appropriate context. In Steve’s response to an earlier form of the review (published at the bottom) he mentioned that relying on quotes from the video (featuring him) produced by the publisher to promote the book, rather than the book, would potentially misrepresent the book. We feel this represents something of the shifting landscape of book publishing in the digital world. It’s probable that more people will end up seeing the promo video than watching the book, and books are (as they always have been) part of a broader conversation on a topic, promotional videos for books also contribute to this broader conversation.

We write as people for whom this issue matters, for the reasons outlined above, and because we both want to see people — heterosexual or homosexual — come to find their satisfaction and identity in Jesus. We have no doubt that this is the hope and prayer of Matthias Media and Steve Morrison, however, we have grave concerns based on our own impressions of the book and its arguments that it will be helpful to this end.

There are things to like about this book.

Born This Way doesn’t sweep the science that suggests there might be a biological component of same sex attraction out of the way, it isn’t embarrassed by the science. This is good. It asks honest and searching questions of the science, and it turns to the Bible for answers confident that the science and the Bible will walk in lock-step on the issue. This is good too. It reads the Biblical data through a Gospel lens, which is vital.

And, it invites readers to approach the topic of same sex attraction, and those who are same sex attracted, with humility.

“Let’s love and accept each other as fellow human beings. We are all different, and we all have much to learn from one another. If we can do that, we can move beyond the idea that simply holding a different opinion means someone is irrational, crazy, and driven by fear. Instead, we can relate to each other with love and respect despite our differences. We can talk, and we can listen. And we may just be able to move forward in the search for truth.” — Page 28

Which is excellent.

But.

Here are the ten reasons Born This Way is dramatically flawed, and we do not believe it’s a book you should give to those who are thinking about same sex attraction and Christianity, especially not people who are same sex attracted.

1. Born This Way  presents the Gospel in its treatment of the Bible, but is not Gospel driven

The Gospel is part of the picture in this book, but we’re convinced the Gospel is the driving force behind any true answer to how Christians think about Homosexuality. This objection has nothing to do with the order of Morrison’s argument — that he starts by considering the science — but rather the conclusions he draws from the scientific and Biblical data. His conclusions are essentially that the science suggests most people can choose not to be same sex attracted, and that every person can choose fight same sex temptation, and avoid lust or same sex sex, while the Bible tells people that lust and sex outside of marriage are sinful so people must find forgiveness for sexual sin in Jesus and then stop sinning. The emphasis is very much on sin, and forgiveness, both of which are important. But the Gospel isn’t just the rationale for transformation, it’s the key, and it’s the reason to pursue sexual transformation rather than the satisfaction of natural desires.

It’s the Gospel that makes every one of us — heterosexual or homosexual — sexually whole.

It’s only when our hearts, and relationships, are transformed by the Gospel, and by our participation in the Kingdom of God through Jesus by his death, resurrection and the provision of the Holy Spirit that any of us can think rightly about our sexuality and our identity.

It’s only the renewed mind and transformed heart that the Gospel brings that anyone can begin to sort out how much our identity is formed by what’s natural to us, and how much it comes from above.

It’s this new mind, not understanding the science, that will convince someone to submit their sexuality to Jesus. Born This Way seems to assume that just understanding the science and the Bible will change actions. But it’s Jesus.

Finding sexual wholeness is about turning to Jesus, not simply turning away from sin. It is quite probably that Morrison feels like this is the message his book conveys, and that we are misrepresenting him at this point, but his emphasis is on turning away from sin and finding forgiveness (while trying to sin no more), rather than finding satisfaction in Jesus, and living accordingly.

2. Born This Way  presents an anemic Gospel

Born This Way makes the Gospel about having our sins — especially sexual sins — forgiven. Which of course is part of the Gospel. But it’s not the whole Gospel. It’s not all the Gospel has to say about sexuality.

The Gospel is about the Lordship of Jesus over every facet of our lives. Including our sexuality.

It’s about being part of God’s Kingdom.

It’s about the promise that the reinvention of our humanity as we’re reconnected with God and transformed into the image of Christ, in a community of people who want to love each other like Jesus loved, with the promise of a share in his inheritance for eternity, is better than anything this world has to offer. Including sex with people you’re attracted to if those people are not the person you are married to. Including sex with people the same gender as you, even if you’re attracted to them.

Being part of the Kingdom of God, as a result of the Gospel, changes our approach to sex. The Gospel isn’t just about having your sexual sins forgiven, it’s a promise that Jesus and his Kingdom is more satisfying than sex, and a better place to build your identity and understand what it means to be human than sexuality.

This is why Jesus says:

“For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” — Matthew 19:12

This passage was curiously absent from the book.

It’s why Paul says:

Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. —1 Corinthians 7:8-9

Figuring out how to deal with homosexuality, especially for the same sex attracted, is not a question of science (though the science shows us the state of human nature), it’s a question of identity. The answer to finding one’s identity anywhere other than Jesus is to see that Jesus is better. The news that Jesus is better than sex, is what makes the Gospel good news for the same sex attracted (and people who are opposite sex attracted).

Our sexuality is a small illustration of the perfect and whole intimacy we’re made to enjoy as part of God’s kingdom in a marriage-like relationship to Jesus himself. Heterosexuality is not the ideal, it’s good, but it’s the bridge to what we’re ultimately made for.

3. By speaking as though all gay people are represented by a “gay lobby” hostile to Christianity, Born This Way  treats gay people as the enemy or the “other”

This book is combative. It feels like a book calling people to gird up their loins in the face of this conflict. It feels like a guide to being the Church against the world. Even in its attempts to be winsome, this book is like the Queensberry Rules for fighting against the pervasive influence of the “gay lobby” and stopping more people becoming gay.

The book tries to redefine common terms in the discussion around homosexuality to make them more objective or technical. It’s an interesting approach. We believe it fails for a number of reasons which will hopefully become apparent below. The big issue is that loving people often requires listening to and understanding them, and finding points of engagement within their own framework, not simply telling them that their chosen terms are all unhelpful and trying to wrest the control of the discussion out of their hands. The move also seems to trample over the work that groups actively engaged in ministry to people who identify as homosexual or experience same sex attraction have done in doing exactly this sort of loving engagement.

The problem with this combative approach – whether its treating the “gay lobby” as an enemy to be destroyed, or simply emphasising the distance between gay people and normal people – the sort of people you’d play cricket then talk to about “the gay issue” (page 15)  – is that it makes gay people seem less human than “normal” straight people. The book talks about those homosexuals as if they’re an entirely different category of person.

Mitch: At this point every person living with same sex attraction is ‘they.’ We’re ‘those people.’ Most gay people like to be associated with the gay lobby about as much as most Christians like to be associated with political Christian lobbying.

Gay people are not the enemy of Christianity. They are not other. They are our neighbours. Every one of us is broken by sin, biologically broken. This brokenness extends to our sexuality, even if our sexuality is “by the book” in a heterosexual marriage, but without transformed hearts, our sexuality is the expression of hearts that the Bible diagnoses as broken and selfish. Straight sex is closer to the way we were created to experience sex, but it doesn’t make anybody any closer to God.

Being attracted to someone of the same sex does not make another person the enemy. If all homosexual people were aggressively anti-Christian then this approach might have merit. But until the guy across the street from me stops making snide comments about the gay couple two doors down, gay people are in a minority that makes them vulnerable and we (as the book acknowledges) need to love homosexuals. I think we do this because they’re our neighbours, not because we’re told to love our enemies.

Morrison appears to position the gay lobby, and the society that forms around its agenda, as our enemies who are engaged in a battle for our hearts, minds, and private parts —his fear seems to be that by normalising homosexuality they will create more homosexuals (or at least more homosexual sex). It may well be the case that the gay lobby, like any group of people who want people to find their identity in anything but Jesus (the Bible calls this idolatry) is opposed to God. But they are no more opposed to God than myriad other idolatrous voices in our society that we don’t treat as enemies or “other” in this way. We love them as our neighbours and hold out the good news of the Gospel to them, while pointing out the dangers of idolatry. This book goes further. It goes to war with idols, an approach more at home with Israel in the Old Testament (within the Promised Land) than with the Church in the New Testament. When Paul encounters a city full of idols, he uses these idols to show that idolatry is hollow, especially in comparison to the living God (Acts 17).

The book expects these enemies, or others — and those tempted by their lies — to be conquered as they’re lovingly presented the objective facts of science and the Bible, and to quit homosexuality like a smoker quits smoking. These pieces of objective data are important, but they aren’t what will ultimately help win someone to Jesus.

All the implications Morrison draws in the following quotes from Born This Way are true, but they’re true whether you approach gay people (and those passionate enough to lobby on gay issues) as neighbours, not enemies.

 

“Jesus tells his followers: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say to you. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt 5:43-44) Jesus is very clear on our response to those with whom we disagree. Sometimes a disagreement can be so strong that we are even inclined to call the other person our ‘enemy.’ But no matter what views you hold, other people are to be treated with love and respect. This means that the past decision to classify homosexual attraction as a psychological disorder was not acceptable. Future research will no doubt help us understand the psychological factors involved, but at present there is no evidence of homosexuality being related to any kind of disorder, and the Bible never places homosexuality in that category. Prejudice against those who have homosexual attractions is out—as are persecution, discrimination, mistreatment and hatred. It should go without saying, but any form of physical violence is also completely unacceptable.” — Page 25

 

“…because God welcomes the homosexual, we welcome them too. Our churches are full of people who have all kinds of sinful histories—in fact, there is no one in our churches whose history isn’t littered with sin, our churches are full of people who are tempted by the same sex, and so we welcome them into our congregations just as we welcome those who struggle with slander, pornography, greed, and any other sin. When our churches welcome visitors who struggle with sin—even practising homosexuals—that doesn’t mean we are condoning their sin. We are offering grace, mercy, truth, forgiveness and community, in the same way that we offer those gifts of the gospel to all human beings…What we must not do is say (either, explicitly or implicitly) that a person who struggles with homosexuality is not welcome in our church until they get their Iife sorted out. In the same way that you came to God with sin and struggles, so does everyone else.” — Page 124

Mitch: If you read this as a homosexual person investigating Christianity, where it talks about “the homosexual,” you’d feel like the subject of a narrated National Geographic documentary.

4. Born This Way  is “not really a pastoral book” — which is irresponsible

It’s not just gay people outside the church who cop bullets from this book’s combative approach. There’s friendly fire too. It hurts people in our churches who are same sex attracted (for reasons discussed below).

This pain, in part, is caused by the book’s bloody-minded approach to this issue. As though the science and the Bible can ever be talked about in a way that is disconnected from real people and their experience. In the book’s online promo video Morrison says:

“The book is not really a pastoral book, I haven’t principally written it for people struggling with same sex attraction, I do deal with it a bit and I know they’ll be reading the book, but really what I’ve written for is for people to understand the Bible in a world made by God, but in a world in rebellion to God.” —Steve Morrison, Promo Video, Born This Way

This is one of the biggest failings in the book. It’s ignorant to think that it’s ok to write a book about an issue that has such a profound impact on people, including mental health impacts — Christian or not —without being pastoral. It’s a mistake to think that this debate, about something as subjective as a person’s experience of sexuality and where it fits in their identity, can be solved with objective, impersonal, truth.

If this issue is a big deal for real people you’d expect Christian people who want to deal lovingly with this issue to do more than just treat it with dispassionate objectivity. The decision not to write in a predominantly pastoral voice is a vexing one, especially given the marginalisation Same Sex Attracted people feel both in society and the church. And that, in my mind, is one of the biggest failings of this book. It tries to dispassionately deal with this issue without an eye on the real people affected and the harm writing this way might cause.

This, frankly, seems unloving. Sure, it’s loving to deal in facts and to present truth, but listening and understanding is also loving, and I’m just not sure this book is an exercise in demonstrating a commitment to listening to those who are same sex attracted so much as telling them how life really is.

I don’t know that it’s possible to write a Christian book that attempts to teach Christians how to navigate a complex issue dealing with sin, brokenness, and our humanity, that is not pastoral.

This decision to approach the book this way actually creates most of the subsequent problems in this list. It’s not just the content that lacks a pastoral approach. The publisher says Steve was in contact with people from ministries to same sex attracted people, including Liberty Inc, about the book. However, to our knowledge, nobody currently involved with Liberty, who are probably the leading evangelical group counselling Same Sex Attracted Christians, was aware this book was being written or released (Matthias Media did contact Liberty’s pastoral worker in Sydney UPDATE: Liberty’s pastoral worker in Sydney, Allan Starr, has now reviewed the book).

5. Born This Way  compares same sex attraction to the biological urge to smoke, and same sex sex as the equivalent to smoking

This is where the book dies. The author makes the unhelpful comparison between homosexuality and smoking (remember when the ACL made a comparison between the health impacts of smoking and the homosexual lifestyle). This comparison is loaded, it is fraught with baggage, and it is completely foreign to the experience of those living with same sex attraction. This is where it becomes exceptionally clear that this is not a pastoral book, and it’s where the book shifts to becoming an overtly unhelpful book for same sex attracted people.

“Take smoking as an example. Since smoking a cigarette is not condemned in the Bible, we cannot condemn it as being sinful—provided it’s legal, and not against your conscience. It may be unwise—even very unwise—but the action is not sinful in and of itself. Of course, therein lies a crucial difference between homosexual activity and smoking—one is explicitly prohibited by God’s word, and the other is not. But they are similar in one important way: societal expectations and pressures have changed over time (but in opposite directions).

In different parts of the world and at different times, people have faced varying temptations to smoke… When I was growing up in the 1980s, smoking was far more culturally acceptable than it is now. There were TV ads for smoking, and it was considered trendy and tough for most kids to smoke. So many young people took up smoking, to varying degrees. But if you are born in Australia today it is much less likely that you will face a strong temptation to smoke. From kindergarten onwards, impassioned health campaigners will teach you about the dangers of smoking. In 21st-century Australia, smoking has become socially far less acceptable than in years gone by.

Now take two people who have quite different genetic predispositions to want to smoke. If both were in Holland in the 1940s, they may well both have been smokers. If both grew up with me (lucky them) there is a good chance that both would have tried smoking, even if only one or two cigarettes… But if both people were growing up In Australia today, there is a strong probability that neither of them would ever smoke. The two people’s desires might still be very different from one another, but their decisions and actions would be shaped by their life situations. So while the number of people being born with a genetic tendency towards smoking shouldn’t change, proportionally, we would expect the number of people smoking over time to vary, depending on things like our society’s attitude to smoking, and the growing evidence about the harmful effects of cigarettes.

The statistics tell us exactly that. For example, in Australia in 1945, 72% of men and 26% of women smoked regularly. In 1980, 41% of men and 30% of women smoked regularly. And by 2010, that number had dropped to 22% of men and 18% of women.

So we should expect a similar type of thing to happen with homosexual activity—but in the opposite direction. The proportion of people genetically predisposed to SST should stay the same, but the actual number of people tempted to engage in (and actually engaging in) homosexual behaviour will vary. For this reason. It is very helpful to view SST not as something restricted to a finite proportion of the population, but rather as a potential temptation that all Christians should understand. —Born This Way, Pages 101-103

The argument here is that if our society buys the view of homosexual sex (not relationships, or identity) presented by the nefarious gay lobby, then more people will have gay sex. It seems to wrongly assume:

  1. That belonging to the smoking community and the gay community are qualitatively similar.
  2. That nobody experiences exclusively homosexual attraction, or at least we aren’t talking about those people any more, just people who are on the spectrum in such a way that this sort of experimenting becomes likely (and spreads further along the sliding scale of sexuality).
  3. That there are statistics showing that gay sex, or the number of people identifying as homosexual is on the increase (and that this is not simply a normalisation of the statistics as a result of reduced social stigma, where people who once might have stayed in the closet are coming out).
  4. That it’s a simple, and contagious, temptation that’s a potential temptation for all Christians.
  5. That gay people don’t smoke, so can’t recognise the difference between these two urges or temptations as they read this argument.

These false assumptions lead to false (and harmful) conclusions.

6. The smoking analogy is bad by itself, but it prevents the book from dealing with why Jesus is better than sex.

Mitch: Most Christians who deal with same sex attraction see themselves as primarily Christian, and approach their sexual orientation accordingly. But, while they make this sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel they look at their friends who get to be Christian, straight, heterosexual, fathers, husbands and boyfriends. They get all those other things that give them a clear role and place in their church and community. These are things that fill out belonging and identity. Sure, they’re not primary, but they go a long way.

Yet, SSA Christians can’t have any of those, nor any of their own version of those. In fact this book tries to even pronounce a more correct way for SSA people to label themselves. We’re allowed to be Same Sex Tempted now, but not same sex attracted. I think we’d almost prefer Paul’s ‘homosexual offenders.’

The truth is there will be a number of people who want to settle with or sleep with someone of the same-sex until they die. That doesn’t mean it’s right, but it’s over realised eschatology to pretend it’s not the case. The real issue here isn’t the science, it’s relationship. SSA men and women want to desire people and be desired. They want rich, intimate, mutual love. They want to be proud of it. They want to feel free in it. They want it to last. Don’t you?

They want what the Trinity has. They want what the Gospel opens the door to. This is where the Gospel is good news for Same Sex Attracted people – it redefines natural longings, and redirects them to their created purpose. It offers genuine satisfaction and wholeness.

There’s just not enough of this in Born this Way, and it makes the tone of the book seem uncaring and disconnected.

7. Born This Way  is a product of crippling unexamined ‘privilege’

Nathan: I’m massively opposed to the way the spectre, or rhetorical trump card, of “privilege,” has been used recently to silence voices in conversations dealing with sensitive issues and vulnerable minorities. People who aren’t directly affected by sensitive issues have contributions to make on these issues — so, for example men legitimately have much to say about the injustices identified by feminism, and need to speak into those issues. Jesus was single and spoke about sex. You don’t have to experience something first hand to have a contribution to make. But there is a gap that needs bridging from author to reader when the author isn’t standing beside the reader in their shoes.

As much as I hate the “privilege card,” I feel, reluctantly, that this book never really gets over the problem of Morrison’s apparent unacknowledged privilege. He is presented in the book as a heterosexual, married, man. It may be that he is same sex attracted as well, and choses not to acknowledge it because it would undermine the book’s objectivity (which seems very important to its argument), if this is the case it is one way the book is crippled by its objective scope. But we are working on the assumption that Morrison, because he never says otherwise, is not same sex attracted.

Morrison writes from a position where he presents himself as someone objectively tackling this issue by objectively dealing with the two important streams of revelation and authority on this issue – the Bible, and science. But this position of authority isn’t the only privilege involved. He writes as a heterosexual man who is a church leader. He doesn’t have to make drastic changes to his own life, his behaviour, or his identity, as a result of his findings. He’s essentially telling people they need to become more like him (even if he doesn’t say it this way), without really being able to understand, first hand, where they are being asked to come from.

Heterosexual people who are in positions of influence —leadership positions — in our churches have an incredible responsibility to be sensitive to the people in our care who are vulnerable because of their sexuality. In church communities where heterosexuality is often held out to be the normal, pure, sexuality, our heterosexual leaders need to be pretty careful not to speak from positions that don’t take this sort of privilege for granted.

It’s dangerous to talk as though a heterosexual marriage is the path to sexual wholeness, not the Gospel, or as though heterosexual sex, because it reflects God’s good creation in Genesis 1-2, is not broken by the events of Genesis 3.

Every person’s natural approach to sex— the approach to sex produced by our sinful nature— needs to be redeemed by Jesus.

This conversation needs heterosexual leaders speaking up on behalf of the marginalised in our churches, but we also need to listen to the experience and wisdom of our brothers and sisters who are living out faithful lives as same sex attracted Christians.

Morrison tries to do this by regularly including quotes from prominent Christians who are same sex attracted, but there are certain elements of his approach that do not seem to mesh with the lived experience of same sex attracted people, at least not the same sex attracted people I know. This is the danger that comes from writing from a position where you don’t have first hand experience of what you’re talking about, and it’s the danger of pursuing pure objectivity on a topic that is incredibly subjective for people in a way that can not be truly understood by someone who lives that experience as a first hand reality.

The responsibility for those of us who realise we’re entering a discussion from a position of privilege is humility, realising that there’s a subjective realm of information that we just don’t have access to, and that others do, and these others have something to say about how conversations like this should take place.

One application of this sort of humility is to not come in like a rude or awkward dinner guest, who tries to re-arrange the furniture. It’s not our place to enter this discussion and try to redefine terms that have been carefully chosen to describe the reality of life as a same sex attracted person. The worst of these is discussed at point 9.

8. Born This Way  tries to find objective solutions to a subjective subject.

This means it doesn’t really listen to same sex attracted people. Morrison’s unexamined privilege and his assumption that a loving tone, couple with the ‘objective’ data and some cherry-picked anecdotes can bridge the gap between his experience and the experience of others, means this book is disconnected from the real world of people for whom same sex attraction is a reality.

Morrison never acknowledges that for many same sex attracted people, even if the data suggests a biological link is only part of the picture, their experience of their sexual attraction is that it is something natural, something that they are born with, something that they do not choose. His simplistic treatment of the data is essentially to argue that since biology is only a small part of the picture the rest of somebody’s sexual orientation is the product of choice. We aren’t disagreeing with Morrison that lust and sexual activity are the products of individual choice. They are. To suggest otherwise would be to insist on a weird sort of slavery to nature, but it’s equally problematic to try to minimise the impact nature has on attraction and temptation, especially to suggest the biological influence on attraction is similar to the temptation to smoke or watch television.

Morrison’s treatment of attraction is so focused on nature that it ignores science around nurture. Even if a homosexual orientation is the product of both biology and environment, it is typically established so early for someone, or by circumstances beyond their control, that it’s too complicated to simply call it a choice. That some people choose homosexuality (as supported by anecdotal evidence) does not mean this is true for all people. The science cannot be used to argue that the desire to engage in same sex sex is similar to the biological urge to smoke or watch television.

Morrison has this binary approach to the born this way question such that the science only really matters if someone is 100% genetically born same sex attracted (and then it only really matters if the person is 100% same sex attracted and not bi-sexual.

“So is homosexuality biologically determined at birth? To date, science’s best answer is that someone who experiences SSA may well have some biological or hereditary factors that play a role in causing this attraction—but to a much smaller extent than is often claimed. While it is widely believed that sexual orientation is genetically determined—in the same way as skin colour, bone structure and eye colour—the best scientific evidence tells us that SSA is in a very different category from those types of hereditary characteristics. Genetic factors like skin colour and eye colour are 100% determined from birth. But there are many psychological or behavioural traits that are only partly determined by genetics. In those kinds of cases, a wide range of other factors will come into play to influence how a person ultimately lives or behaves. For example. one study has shown that a person has an average heritability estimate of 45% to have a predisposed inclination to want to watch television.At the most, male SSA is likely to be hereditary at a rate of 30-50%—very similar to the hereditary desire to watch television…we must understand the genetic, hereditary component of SSA very differently from the way we view an unchangeable characteristic such as skin colour. The hereditary component of SSA is more like a person’s hereditary desire to smoke, eat too much, watch certain amounts of TV, tend towards certain political views, or have a desire to attend church” —Pages 51-52

 

Nobody I know feels like TV watching, smoking, or eating, is the fundamental basis for their identity. But many people define themselves by their sexual orientation. This is one of our society’s biggest forms of idolatry — we weren’t created to find our identity or humanity in sex, but in our relationship with God. Disconnecting sexuality from identity is a potential way forward in the way Christians talk about homosexuality that doesn’t throw pastoral hand grenades at the same sex attracted.

9. This failure to listen is most evident when it tries to move the conversation from attraction to temptation

“It’s important that we distinguish carefully between three words relating to homosexuality: ‘action’. ‘lust and ‘attraction’. A homosexual action is when a person engages in sexual activity with someone of the same gender. Homosexual lust is when someone has fantasies and passions that express themselves in imagining homosexual situations. The third category is attraction. This is different from lust, and we must continue to distinguish between attraction and lust because of the question of choice.”— Born This Way, Page 35

 

But sometimes our desires or attractions draw us towards things that are wrong in themselves. Same-sex attraction is like this. It’s a disordered desire or attraction towards something that is wrong in itself, and so it should always be resisted. In this sense, it’s helpful to view a same-sex attraction as a temptation, as something that needs to be resisted lest it lead to sin. There are a number of advantages to replacing SSA with SST. The first advantage to using the language of ‘temptation’ is that it allows us to clearly say that acting on the attraction is sinful. It removes the ambiguity of ‘attraction’ or ‘gay’, and places the idea of ‘attraction’ in the category of things that a Christian needs to resist. Another advantage in calling the phenomenon ‘temptation’ is that the Christian can assert—even more strongly and confidently than the scientist, in some ways—that a person who experiences attraction to the same sex is, indeed, born with SST. The Christian doctrine of original sin says that every human being is born with “a motivationally twisted heart ” — Born This Way, Page 99

 

Same sex attracted people who follow Jesus aren’t called to stop finding people of the opposite sex attractive; to lobotomise that part of their brain. Same sex attracted people are called to find their identity in Jesus and so not to turn attraction into lust, or attraction and lust into action.

Temptation is how the gap between attraction and lust, and between attraction and lust and action, is bridged.

Attraction isn’t the same as temptation and by insisting that it is, and that it should be fought, Born This Way robs same sex attracted people of a part of their humanity in a way that we don’t do this to heterosexual people.

Have you ever heard a heterosexual Christian be told to not be attracted to someone of the opposite sex (as opposed to not lusting after them)?

Mitch: This is the single most offensive part of the argument, particularly to those who find themselves exclusively and continually attracted to the same-sex. They have all the identity and relational tools afforded to straight people taken from them. Morrison doesn’t say anything about what the Gospel does to our heterosexual attraction, except to affirm it as approved by God, so those who are opposite sex attracted are allowed to keep saying they find people attractive, and admit their attraction to people (without being told this is necessarily broken opposite sex temptation). The heterosexual person is just wired this way, and allowed to live according to their biological wiring (as though it’s untainted by sin). But the same sex attracted have to deny they experience this attraction in any form? I’m probably becoming more convinced by someone like Wes Hill who just says call yourself gay but qualify it as a witness to the gospel, so he says he’s a celibate gay Christian.

10. Because Morrison doesn’t speak from the experiential reality of same sex attraction, Born This Way  doesn’t speak of sexual attraction in a way that speaks to the experience of the same sex attracted.

Born This Way simplifies the sexuality spectrum, it treats sexual attraction like a switch, and seems to insist that people who are bi-sexual aren’t really gay and can just flick this switch.

“Science is telling us that the vast majority of people who experience attraction to the same sex also experience some level of attraction to the opposite sex. That is, the vast majority of people who identify themselves as ‘gay’ are actually bisexual. So we find the word ‘gay’ fairly useless, not to mention potentially offensive… There are simply too many categories. too many nuances, being covered by the one word. Let’s take an extreme example and an extreme analogy: how do we compare a person in an active, open, long-term cohabitating homosexual relationship to another person who is in a heterosexual marriage but who once felt a slight attraction to someone of the same sex? Do we call them both ‘gay’?”… The word ‘gay’ is used broadly to summarize any aspect of same-sex attraction, lust or action. But in a conversation where objectivity and accuracy are vital, we need to be more accurate about which aspect of the phenomenon we are talking about. People are free to identify themselves as ‘gay’ and then explain what they mean by that term, but the word is too ambiguous to be of use technically or as a label.” —Born This Way, Page 33-34

“But perhaps the biggest problem with the binary assumption that a person is born either gay or straight is bisexuality.”— Born This Way, Page 54

Morrison treats bi-sexuality as a big deal for his argument. It’s really not. I do not think the word means what he thinks it means. This is only the “biggest problem” and a “binary assumption” because Morrison has earlier redefined “gay” to not be a label that can “technically” describe the identity of a bi-sexual person.

Once he ‘establishes’ this conclusion, and the related conclusion that only one in four gay men, or one in 16 lesbian women, or about 1% of the male population are homosexual rather than bi-sexual (page 55), he reaches an interesting conclusion from this data:

“One helpful way of understanding sexual attraction is to think of it as a spectrum upon which every person appears, and when it comes to same-sex attraction, the genetic influence upon a person’s position on that spectrum is minor, at best. Put simply, if we use the terminology in the way in which it is normally used, a person is not born gay.”— Born This Way, Page 56

But what about the one percent of people who don’t experience a broad part of the sexuality spectrum? What about the one in four gay men who identify as 100% same sex attracted? Who are not, even according to his data, bi-sexual? How does this conclusion not simply further marginalise the already marginalised?

Conclusion: This is not the book the church wants, or needs, about homosexuality

While there is much to like in this book, and Morrison has set out to provide a resource that will benefit Christians confronted with a world that is increasingly hostile to Christianity and the Biblical view of sex, the problems with this book, problems that will be immediately apparent to those who experience same sex attraction and anybody who understands what it is that people who identify as homosexual are seeking through their relationships, means it fails as a resource.

It is not a book we can recommend. It’s not a book that people who minister to Christians trying to figure out the implications their sexuality has for their faith can recommend.

Nathan: I’ve written about another way Christians can approach what Morrison calls the “universal lie” of “born this way” elsewhere. It requires acknowledging that we’re all born this way, all born with a sexuality that deviates from the sort of relationships God created us to enjoy. It requires acknowledging that we’re all born desiring the same love as one another, however that manifests. And it requires us to acknowledge that we are reborn, and our understanding of love transformed, through the death and resurrection of Jesus that frees us from slavery to our natural, broken, humanity.

Mitch: If people want to read just one book on this issue, and a book that pitches at about this level that is helpful then I would recommend Is God anti-gay? by Sam Allberry.

Steve’s Response (updated September 2017)

“Dear Nathan,
Thanks for this review. It’s really helped my sales in QLD and beyond. Can you please also review my new book “The Path of Purity”? It’s not getting great sales north of the NSW border yet…
Thanks”

 

One might assume the drop in sales for book two is because people read the first book and found this review accurately reflected its content.

10 tips for communicating about sexuality as Christians

ten tips for talking about sexuality

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at an event for people wanting to think about how to approach the complexity of debates and conversations about human sexuality in a way that points people to Jesus. You don’t have to go far to see Christians behaving badly in this space. In fact, there’ll be plenty of conversations on this topic kicking off in earnest tomorrow after my friend David Ould features on national television in the SBS series Living With The Enemy. I’m fairly confident we’ll be seeing the full gamut of Christian responses to homosexuality in the conversations around this program – from the helpful, to the unhelpful.

I realise as a married heterosexual I’m not really able to expertly navigate all the complexity in this space, but I am committed to the idea that we should be careful not to single out homosexuality as particularly egregious when all human sexual orientations are broken.  All orientations are broken because all humans are broken. Naturally. Hard-wired to reject our creator and live for ourselves. In every area.

Somewhere along the way I picked up a cool latin phrase that expresses the type of brokenness we bring to every area of our lives (it was either in Luther, or Augustine, or someone writing about Augustine’s influence on Luther) – homo incurvatus in se – which translates to the idea that our humanity is curved in on itself. We are self seeking. At the expense of others. We bring self interest to every facet of our lives. Including our sexual orientation. Including our heterosexual orientation, and our relationships… We do ourselves, and those we speak to, a disservice when we suggest sexual wholeness is found in heterosexual relationships as though marriage is a fix for this brokenness. It might be part of the solution, but the real path to wholeness – genuine human wholeness – is through a restored relationship with the creator of humanity. The God who made sex, and other good stuff.

My ten tips (which you can also find in the slides I used at this thing) were:

1. Make it about Jesus: A Christian response to questions about sexuality that is distinctly different to a Jewish or Islamic response will be different where it is about Jesus.

2. Mind the gap. In Corinthians (1 Cor 5) Paul is pretty adamant that Christian sexual ethics are for Christians. I think this has implications for how, where, and when, we speak about sexual morality.

“What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church” – 1 Cor 5:12

3. Love your (gay) neighbour. The (gay) shouldn’t have to appear in this tip at all. Sometimes it feels like Christians aren’t particularly loving in this space. But we’ve also got to resist the idea that love and sex are synonyms. An idea that has been made popular by such luminaries as Macklemore and K-Rudd. Just because the Bible speaks of love, and our society speaks of love, doesn’t mean we mean the same thing… When the Bible speaks of love the picture we should have in our heads isn’t limited to a wedding ceremony, the wedding ceremony is a picture of the love God has for people… We should be thinking that verses about love in the Bible are best explained by the sacrificial death of Jesus. The ultimate act of love.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

4. Start by apologising. The church has done some horrible, not-minding-the-gap, things in this space. The first time I heard the word apologetics I was really confused about the idea that Christians should be apologising for following Jesus. I think now our apologetic needs to include an apology for the times when Christians haven’t been good at following Jesus. Part of the issue in this space is, as Vaughan Roberts suggests:

The problem is largely caused by the fact that most of our comments on homosexuality are prompted, not primarily by a pastoral concern for struggling Christians, but by political debates in the world and the church.”

These were my favourite two slides in the whole presentation. I think they depict the relationship between history and the present.

warriors of christendom

culture war

We should be apologising for forgetting the humanity of those we speak against (or ‘othering’ them), for not being clear about our own natural sinfulness, for not distinguishing between orientation and sin, and for speaking as though the path to wholeness is a path to heterosexuality.

5. We need to divorce sexuality from identity. The assumption that you are who you want to have sex with – or who you’re born wanting to have sex with – is dangerous and dehumanising. It’s a form of slavery. Why can’t people be free to choose their own (sexual) identity, regardless of their natural inclinations? This is an odd and dangerous idea. Note: whether people are ‘born gay’ or formed gay by their environment (or both) is kind of irrelevant – it’s not really a ‘choice’ (mostly), though sexuality also seems to occur on a spectrum).  It shouldn’t be a threat to Christian belief that people can be born gay. It’s only a threat if you read that people are made in the image of God (Genesis 1) and don’t read the rest of the Bible that points out that this image is broken by sin and we’ve consistently made the decision to drag God’s name through the mud.

Jesus seems to suggest that people are born with particular sexual orientations:

“Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” – Matthew 19:11-12

6. We need to stop turning sex and marriage into a Christian idol. People are wholly human before marriage. We don’t find ‘another half’ when we get married, two whole people become one flesh. Sex and marriage are good gifts from God, but they are not the ultimate pursuit of every person. Suggesting that they are essentially dehumanises those who can’t find a partner, or who choose to be single. Jesus is God. Not sex. Our union with him, which will stretch into eternity, should be what we focus on, not the short term pleasures of this world.

7. We need to start celebrating faithful singleness in church communities. The way we pray, the way we structure our Sunday gatherings and social activities, the things we choose to emphasise on our websites or in stuff we write about church – all this stuff often reinforces the idea that the Christian norm is to be married with 2.5 kids. We should be wary of forms of Christianity that exclude Jesus from our fellowship… Somehow, sometime, we need to recapture the idea that there is something incredibly powerful about faithfulness and wholeness outside of marriage and reproduction. Talk to some single people – find out how to love them well, and do that.

8. We need to actually believe that Jesus is better than sex. This is true for married people and for single people. If he’s not – then pack Christianity in and ‘eat, drink, and be merry.‘ Jesus says there won’t be marriage (so presumably sex) in the new creation (Matt 22:30). If that scares you, or you think that is somehow robbing you of some satisfaction, then maybe it’s time for a rethink about your priorities? Jesus is better. Life is better than death. The reality is better than the analogy.

9. We need to pursue sexual emancipation. There have been plenty of comparisons made to the civil rights movement in the gay marriage debate, but not so many to the fight against slavery. The argument that people are born with a homosexual orientation so must, in order to be truly human, make homosexuality the core of their identity – or pursue the practice of homosexual sex – seems to me to be analogous to the idea that if somebody is born into slavery, and doesn’t want to stay in slavery, they should stay there anyway. It’s a modern version of Hume’s Naturalistic Fallacy. And it’s an awful form of group think that oppresses and dehumanises those who don’t want to go with the flow.

10. Tell stories about real people. Just as we need to apologise to our gay neighbours for dehumanising them in the way we speak about sexuality, there are human faces who represent the alternative positions. People taking up their cross to follow Jesus by denying themselves in this space. There are people, real people, with real stories, who have chosen to approach sexuality in a way that is framed by their faith. Every Christian who understands their sexuality as an outworking of an identity in Christ – including  faithful heterosexual people – has a story to tell about bringing sexual brokenness to the table and finding wholeness and satisfaction in Jesus. I’m always greatly encouraged to see, hear, and read, stories from my faithful same sex attracted Christian brothers and sisters out there who are living stories of the pursuit of wholeness in Christ. This pursuit doesn’t mean trying to ‘pray away the gay’ – that kind of mentality and approach to sexuality is incredibly harmful, but it will in many cases mean a life of faithful celibacy. We can’t let these brothers and sisters walk this path alone, which means we need to keep hearing and celebrating these stories in order to become part of them. Such faithfulness should also always be encouraging. But these stories are a powerful antidote to some of the damaging ‘liberated’ approaches to sexuality (see 5 and 9).

 

A letter to Charlie Pickering on the exodus of Exodus

Charlie,

I like you. I’ve been a fan since the early days – since the Mel and Charlie show on JJJ. I’m not a Jonny-come-lately Talking About Your Generation Pickering bandwagon jumper. You’re a smart guy. Whip smart. It’s fun watching you pull politicians apart on The Project, the show normally strikes a nice balance between smart advocacy on serious issues and humour – and I reckon that is largely a result of your own personality. It seems that’s the mix of most successful comedians.

But I had some issues with last night’s show (Friday June 21). I loved the segment on Refugees – and Walk Together – a good initiative from a Christian pastor, Brad Chilcott, I enjoyed most of the program, but I was a bit surprised with the segment on Exodus International’s Alan Chambers recent apology to the gay community. I understand it’s a story – but I didn’t think this was the quality of some of your better advocacy work. I appreciate that the panel has pretty strong views on the nature of same sex attraction. That people are born gay, or don’t choose to be gay. That it’s immutable. And while as a Bible believing Christian I’m happy to agree with the first – that people don’t generally have a choice when it comes to their sexual orientation – I’m puzzled about the idea that any aspect of any human will is something that individual does not have a right to attempt to change. As an exercise of their humanity. 

I know the Psychological Associations have moved from classing homosexual attraction from a disorder, to classing discomfort with one’s sexual orientation to a disorder – but surely we can think a little bigger, and a little more progressively on this front. I’m with you in not wanting to see vulnerable people forced to conform to a norm in society, or being taken advantage of – I don’t think Exodus International was particularly interested in a vendetta against unwilling converts, this isn’t a modern equivalent of trying to stamp out left-handedness. I’m also sure – as Alan Chambers himself seems to indicate – that there have been people who have been in these “conversion therapy” programs against their will, and I’ve got no doubt that this is potentially psychologically harmful. But what about people who go willingly? What about adult individuals who haven’t been brainwashed but simply want to exercise some self control in accordance with their religious beliefs? What about my friends who are Christians, same sex attracted, and want to enjoy a heterosexual relationship as an avenue for sexual expression? Both you, and Carrie, said some odd things, that to me suggests you really do believe that this kind of counselling never works.

Carrie’s nice line was:

“Sexuality can’t be changed but attitudes can.”

I have friends who are testimony to the fact that it does. Your absolute claim can’t be maintained. The research suggests you’re wrong too. Alan Chambers is responding to the problem with the idea that reparative therapy always works. It doesn’t. Sexuality occurs on a spectrum – we’ve known that since Kinsey. Some people can move along that scale, others can’t. Some people can move (probably the ones closes to the middle of the scale, some people who want to be faithful to their beliefs might simply live as celibate same sex attracted Christians.

I’m with Alan Chambers and the research (a study from Yarhouse and Jones in particular) that suggests that “reparative therapy” won’t always work. Especially if it’s defined as flicking some binary switch from gay to straight with no space for “neutral.”

Here’s what the study found.

“In addition to clarifying what we found, it is equally important to clarify what we did not find. First, we did not find that everyone can change. Saying that change is not impossible in general is not the same thing as saying that everyone can change, that anyone can change, or that change is possible for any given individual. Second, while we found that part of our research population experienced success to the degree that it might be called (as we have here) “conversion,” our evidence does not indicate that these changes are categorical, resulting in uncomplicated, dichotomous and unequivocal reversal of sexual orientation from utterly homosexual to utterly heterosexual. Most of the individuals who reported that they were heterosexual at T6 did not report themselves to be without experience of homosexual arousal, and they did not report their heterosexual orientation to be unequivocal and uncomplicated.”

Personally, I think “Reparative therapy” is a horrible name that somehow suggests homosexual orientation is more deviant than the standard heterosexual attraction that leads heterosexual people to all sorts of sinful sexual activity outside of marriage – we’re all broken on the sexuality front…). Let’s call it what it really is – a tool for helping equip individuals to live as they wish to live if their sexual orientation does not match their chosen identity.

The problem is that this study suggests reparative therapy does sometimes work – which means sexual orientation isn’t actually immutable. If it never worked there’d be a good reason to stop individuals pursuing this avenue for change. They also found that the process, when adults are deliberately engaged as individuals, is not actually harmful by any measure – this isn’t to deny that the process is possibly harmful – but it isn’t inherently harmful.

This data is backed up by the people who are staffing groups like Exodus, like Liberty, in Australia – and by my same sex attracted brothers and sisters in churches all around the world who are either content being single and remaining same sex attracted without being sexually active. These people are to be admired. Not ridiculed. They are taking Jesus’ call to “carry the cross” and applying it to their sexuality – dying to their own desires in order to be part of something bigger.

I can’t throw stones at groups like Exodus for trying to love and support these people.

You can. It seems.

It doesn’t help that Alan Chambers’ apology is so nuanced that it is the proverbial jelly being pinned to a wall – but he’s a guy who is same sex attracted and in a heterosexual marriage who will continue to maintain his position on gay marriage and gay sexual expression. The apology says so. He’s just wanting to change the tone of the conversation – and that’s admirable.

I cannot apologize for my deeply held biblical beliefs about the boundaries I see in scripture surrounding sex, but I will exercise my beliefs with great care and respect for those who do not share them.  I cannot apologize for my beliefs about marriage. But I do not have any desire to fight you on your beliefs or the rights that you seek. My beliefs about these things will never again interfere with God’s command to love my neighbor as I love myself.   

But back to last night. And your stone throwing. In the heat of the interview with Doug Pollard from the Rainbow Report he mentioned Liberty Inc and Living Waters as groups operating in Australia. Now Doug isn’t objective – that’s why he’s good talent. But you didn’t even feign objectivity in your line of questioning. You didn’t quiz him on where the evidence for his assertion that these groups involved people with no formal training came from. You Dorothy Dixed him. With this question/statement in particular. To which he responded “yes”… That means this isn’t just a leading question. It’s a statement.

“Given that we are about to head into a Royal Commission into various forms of abuse within religious organisations as it is. This strikes me as something that maybe in ten, twenty years time we’ll need a royal commission into these gay conversions as well.”

I’m going to call you out on this one. Shenanigans! The Royal Commission is broader than “within religious organisations” – deliberately. Sure. I’m with you on the horrific abuses perpetrated by people operating within religious organisations being terrible and heinous. Which is what makes this comparison truly awful. You, rightly, got stuck into the ACL when it made unflattering and unhelpful comparisons between homosexuality and other things – like smoking, and the Nazis, but here you’re comparing two equally horrible and unequal concepts – the systematic abuse and cover up of the abuse of children within institutions, and a voluntary activity undertaken by individuals with appropriate consent by groups with appropriate training. Far from “hiding” – Liberty Inc has a website. Which says:

All our counsellors are professionally trained and accredited

It is mandatory for all counsellors working with Liberty Inc to be degree qualified and be a member of the Christian Counsellors Association of Australia. The Christian Counsellors Association of Australia maintains minimum standards of ethical practice including privacy and confidentiality.”

Degree qualified. Seems Doug was misleading you. Farbeit from me to teach you about television and stuff – but you enabled Doug Pollard’s slander of an opposing group without giving the opposing group recourse to respond to the slander. This is low brow television at its worst under the veneer of a progressive agenda.

Doug mentioned smart phone apps that have been responsible for “uncovering the lie” that gay-to-straight conversion people are perpetrating. I can only imagine he’s referring to Grindr and a recent outing of a proponent of gay to straight conversion in the states. A guy named Matt Moore. Far from being a testimony to the failure of groups like Exodus, Moore’s story is a testimony to the grace and forgiveness for sexual brokenness found in the gospel.

I suggest reading his interview to get a sense of what it looks like to struggle to live out a life following Jesus within the sphere of your sexuality. What it means to take up your cross – which is what Jesus called people who followed him to do. And then I suggest that on Monday’s program you find someone who is carrying that cross and ask them about it. Rather than shouting down their sacrifice from a position of ignorance and hate.

CP: What would you say to a Christian suffering from same-sex attraction after this experience?

Moore:  The same thing I have always said: Jesus is better than sin. It doesn’t matter what the specific sin is, Jesus is better. He is more valuable, comforting and satisfying than homosexual behavior, and I can say that from experience. If you fall, get back up and keep pursuing Him. If Jesus went as far as to die for your sin, why would He not help you up when you stumble? The world will tell you to embrace your homosexual desires because it’ll make you happy in this life. Jesus tells you to deny yourself and follow Him and promises to give you eternal life if you do. You must decide everyday who you will believe and who you will follow: the way of the world or the Way of Jesus Christ.

 

 

 

Why clarity matters when talking about homosexuality, same sex attraction, and identity

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s post about Vaughan Robert’s compelling interview about his refusal to be defined by his same sex attraction, comes this post from another Christian who is kinda, sorta, not really gay. This guy Bryan shares his testimony in a really clear and compelling way – and the more people like Bryan and Vaughan who do this without being stigmatised or bashed over the head by well-meaning Christians… the better the church will be able to pastorally care for those Christians struggling with this form of sexual temptation, and will help us offer a more hopeful future to members of the GLBTI community who are considering making Jesus their Lord, and the basis of their identity.

The title of this post only really makes sense in the context of my post from yesterday called “Why Christians suck at talking about homosexuality.” UPDATE: In fact – the title (Why other people suck at talking about Christianity and homosexuality) was bad. So I’m changing it…

Before looking at Bryan’s testimony and the bizarrely sanctimonious response it drew from atheists and liberal Christians let me just clearly say this…

The idea that sexual activity is the basis of what it means to be human is truly bizarre.

Think about it – not everybody gets to express themselves sexually – single people who are single by choice, happenstance, or necessity, children, the widowed, the divorced – these are all categories of people who aren’t necessarily able to fulfil whatever sexual urges they might have – and they’re truly human, and the idea that they’re any less human is patently ridiculous. Even worse is the idea any less able to experience Christianity – which is what I think must happen sometimes when we trumpet the relationship between marriage and the inner workings of the Trinity and suggest we understand God any better on that basis.

It’s more bizarre for Christians to push a position like this when you consider that Jesus, and Paul, were both single (despite what a now debunked “ancient” papyri might suggest).

Anyway, here’s some helpful stuff from Bryan’s testimony, which I’d encourage you to read if you’re concerned for looking out for your brothers and sisters, and neighbours, who are same sex attracted. If we want to stop making it really hard to hear someone we love saying “I’m kinda, sorta, not really, gay” without jumping to judgment or solutions – we need to listen to those people who are brave enough to say it, and who put the kind of time and effort into clarity and tone that Bryan has…

I’ve had years to think about it: if someone asked if I’m gay, how would I answer?

Saying “no” risks people thinking I’m another brainwashed fundamentalist in denial, suppressing my sexuality to please my parents, my pastor, my peers. Saying “yes” risks people thinking I’ve assumed a gay identity, that I’m out and proud, affirming and celebrating the homosexual lifestyle.

Neither is true.

The reality is that I acknowledge my same-sex desires. I talk openly with family and friends about homosexuality, especially as it relates to my commitment to Christ. More importantly, I’m honest with God about my struggles with same-sex attraction. I don’t pretend the feelings aren’t there; on the contrary, I consider them very real temptations. The only denial happening here is self-denial, the daily charge to take up my cross and follow Christ (Luke 9:23). That’s the calling of every Christian, not just those who fight against homosexual desires. 

A more important question to answer is one that Jesus asked Peter: “Do you love me?” My answer is yes. A thousand times yes! By the grace of God, my love for Christ is greater than my attraction to men. Love enables me to pursue holiness rather than homosexuality. Love compels me to serve God rather than my own selfish desires, however “natural” they may seem. Jesus makes singleness, celibacy and everything else that comes with same-sex attraction worth it. Indeed, the life I’m choosing to live can hardly be called a sacrifice.

As I’ve grown in my relationship with God and trusted more in Christ’s finished work on the cross, I’ve learned not to define myself by sins or temptations. My identity is not bound to my sexuality, but to my Savior (Galatians 2:20). That’s why I don’t call myself a gay Christian; I’m a Christian who struggles with same-sex attraction. I haven’t given up hope that God can change those attractions. But I’m living in the reality that he has not, and he may not. In the meantime, my highest goal is not becoming straight, but knowing and loving Christ.

I like the idea, I think it was from Arthur at meetjesusatuni.com, that “straight” is actually a really unhelpful label and category for Christians – because we need to acknowledge that we’re all actually broken in the area of sexuality, as we are everywhere else, when it’s not something we submit to the Lordship of Jesus. There is no part of the life of the Christian that Jesus is not Lord over.

Bryan’s post isn’t a really popular point of view with people who either want to limit the Lordship of Jesus to a wishy-washy command to “love”… and with people who want to limit the Lordship of Jesus to nothing at all…

For a few years I’ve enjoyed the poking and prodding of Stuff Christian Culture Likes – but its increasingly becoming a home for people who aren’t just disenfranchised with Christian Culture, but with the church, and with Jesus. Steph from Stuff Christian Culture Likes posted a link to Bryan’s piece on her Facebook page, and the comments indicate that her community cares as much about sex as the culture they’re rejecting. They are as hung up on sex as the Christian moral lobby they hate so much – which they see wanting to control what happens in bedrooms everywhere. Here are some of the choice comments in response to Bryan’s post. There are very few about Bryan’s freedom as an individual to determine how his sexual orientation does, or doesn’t, define him… because they all believe that we can’t help but be controlled by group think.

” On the basis of that I would say gay and in denial; a denial brought on by being taught that there is only one right way to read the Bible.”

Which pretty much ignores everything Bryan says in his opening paragraph.

I am so, so sad for this man that he feels that he must deny who he is to be “holy”. Also, it’s increasingly disconcerting that the fundamentalist way of viewing homosexuality is pushed as the “only right” perspective/theology, whereas there are many excellent theologians who have done great work in this area. Currently reading Wendy Farley’s “Gathering Those Driven Away”, which is an excellent book about the theology of embracing, supporting, and celebrating the GLBTQ community.”

This comment kind of misses the whole “take up your cross” part of Christianity. Denying who you are is fundamental to following Jesus, who even without the notion of a sinful nature (which we’ll get to in a second), provides a model that we’re called to follow, check out this bit from Philippians 2:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!”

If Jesus gives up his whole life, and we’re called to have the same mindset, then who are we to say that sexuality is something you check in at the door when you’re following Jesus. Following Jesus means, at the very least, being prepared to give up your sexual expression for others, and for him.

Here’s the next one.

“”homosexuality” is an ambiguous term translated from an ambiguous text. Would you like to know what the writer intended for certain? Wouldn’t it make a big, big difference if the terminology used referred to, say, pedophilia instead of homosexuality?

Additionally, I was born and raised in a non-denominational background that taught that humans are inherently sinful and therefore need the mercy and salvation of Christ. It was understood that everyone was in a perpetual state of “sin” due to our “sin nature”; no one could ever be perfect, or they would not be human, and separated from god. 

So, yeah, it might be a sin according to a book that has been translated, interpolated, and edited over the course of thousands of years…but so is jealousy, greed, pride, being inhospitable, being cruel, etc. etc. Point being, every person that met in that church every Sunday, the whole room of them, was in a state of sin (of some degree or another – if the outward stuff won’t get ya, the thought crimes sure will) – so why single out a specific kind of sin and lay earthly punishments upon it?”

There are quite a few begged questions in there – people trying to muddy the waters on what the New Testament says about homosexuality are often pretty sketchy about the translation of a Greek word, and bring in arguments from its semantic range… it’s hard to justify that when the two disputed words are paired (in 1 Corinthians 6), and when they’re used by Jewish interpreters talking about the prohibitions of homosexuality before the New Testament is written. The argument against homosexuality in Romans 1 is an argument from creation. You can read more about this here… the real point that sits at the heart of the church’s ongoing objection to homosexuality is that it’s treated as an identity definer. If a person came to church and said “I’m a Christian adulterer and there’s nothing wrong with that” I hope they’d get pointed to the same passages and told that being a Christian requires a change of identity, and a movement away from being defined by the flesh, and our desires, to being defined by Jesus, and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Where the reaction gets really interesting is where an ex-Christian atheist weighs in. He says much the same stuff, just with more pain. He ad hominems Bryan, introducing a claim that Bryan never makes (he simply claims to be somebody who has studied, and experienced, same sex attraction):

“declaring yourself the absolute authority on the 3 passing mentions of homosexuality (which are contextually mute on committed same-sex relationships) in the bible is pretty arrogant, especially for someone who is evidently untrained in biblical history, exegesis, Greek, Hebrew, or anything that might actually matter to the interpretation.”

He commits another fallacy when he launches a studs up two footed tackle at Bryan because the Bible is soft on slavery.

Know what is crystal clear in the bible? Slavery.

However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you.  You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land.  You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT

As Sam Harris says, the bible got the easiest moral question of humanity wrong.  Why should we trust it on any other matter?

Firstly – this is fairly anachronistic. It imports the moral values we’ve developed after about 5,000 years of culture, led in many ways in the last 2,000 years by Christianity, into a world where slavery wasn’t just the norm, but a terrible thing – and it ignores the other laws about how slaves are to be treated. Would he prefer the command to be “kill all your enemies when you take their land” – you can argue the morality of taking land if you like, but again, we’ve got to be mindful of the historical context and the types of nations and armies that were around at the time… That’s why context matters. Slavery was an ancient reality, it’s great that it’s not a present reality – and we can trust the Bible’s moral compass because people better at reading it than this guy Patrick realised that the Bible made all human life something valuable (because humans are created in the image of God), and pushed people towards abolishing slavery.

If you argue from God’s creative act as one of the foundational point for Christian ethics, and understand the law as a tool for moderating behaviour rather than legislating ideals – then you’re left with the decision that homosexuality, and slavery go against the created nature of humanity. It’s not rocket science.

Anyway. We’re not going very well here – because slavery is a bit of a red herring, and the comparison is drawing a false equivalence. The Bible’s claims about sexuality are a demonstrably different issue to the Bible’s claims about slavery – and each should be considered on their own merit. Patrick is clearly a pretty hurt, and angry guy. It makes me sad that Christians have caused him this hurt. He blames Christians for all sorts of terrible things. But his real hang up with Bryan’s post is on the identity thing.

How many people hear that God hates them because they’re gay? I’m sure you can rationalize it away (and in fact you did): “I still have a moral problem with lots of things that I do.” But guess what; homosexuality (see Step 2) isn’t a moral problem. It’s an identity, like your nose, hair color, or gender. Or your height.It’s not immoral to be tall, just like it’s not immoral to be gay.

Meanwhile I’m glad that you have unanimously declared yourself to be the only person in possession of this elusive ‘hope’ you seem so fond of.  What hope is that? The hope to live in self denial for the rest of your life, to be ashamed of an unchangable God-given inadequacy that can only be salved by a Jesus, the very one who said you were broken in the first place?”

It interests me that he lists gender there – given that gender is widely understood to be something you should change, surgically, if it doesn’t match up with who you think you are. But suggest a Christian can either change their sexual orientation, and not use it as an identifier, and wow.

“I wish that I could individually talk to every delusional person one-on-one for 5 years to explain to them how the hodgepodge of mythology they believe in causes repression, self-hatred, warped self-identity, and piles of dead bodies whose corpses could build cities of grotesque tribute to human’s imaginary friends through the ages.Religion is the cause, directly. The cause of gay suicides.  The cause of faith-healing deaths…

…We are the firstborn to consciousness in this little husk of dirt, and to teach our children, our family, or our friends that we should be ashamed of being exactly who we are is the beginning and end of an abusive, manipulative, emotional slavery the likes of which deserve the utmost contempt from every human being that has breathed air into their lungs.”

I don’t know. I like Bryan’s version of reality better. I like a world that lets individuals choose how they’d like to be identified better than a world where you’re told your identity is chosen for you by nature, where you can do nothing about it. The atheist position pushes a more fatalistic view of identity than the Christian one. Here’s how Bryan concludes:

“Jesus is that hope. He came into the world to save sinners—gay, straight and everything in between. God reconciles us to himself when we put our faith in Christ, who died in our place so that we may be called righteous (2 Corinthians 5:21). That faith doesn’t take away our temptations—sexual or otherwise—but it takes away the condemnation (Romans 8:1). That’s the gospel. That’s a story that needs to be told. That’s why I’m talking now.”

Vaughan Roberts on why the church sucks at talking about homosexuality

Vaughan Roberts is an evangelical. An Englishman. A minister at a growing church. He’s also same sex attracted. He recently revealed this in the foreword to a book he wrote, then he put out a press release and did this interview.

He’s a man who speaks with clarity, and sensitivity. He brings a much needed perspective (particularly needed in the English Anglican Church).

You can read big chunks of the release and interview at David Ould’s fantastic blog… but I particularly liked this answer to the question of why the church communicates a negative message on homosexuality. The whole interview is a worthwhile read.

“The problem is largely caused by the fact that most of our comments on homosexuality are prompted, not primarily by a pastoral concern for struggling Christians, but by political debates in the world and the church. We do need to engage in these debates, but it’s vital that we’re alert to the messages that some of our brothers and sisters may be hearing.

Media reporting often doesn’t help and can give the impression that we think this particular sin is especially heinous. Also, in countering the simplistic binary model of the world that people are either born gay or straight (or, occasionally, bi), we are prone to make overly dogmatic comments ourselves about causation and cure. These can be heard to imply that homosexual attraction is just a matter of personal choice. This only increases the sense of shame already felt by those who experience unwanted same-sex attraction and can leave them with the impression that this is a battle that is not safe to share with others in the church. I have become convinced, therefore, that we need not only a greater openness in discussing issues of sexuality, but also a more positive vision and presentation of the nature of faithful discipleship for those who struggle in this area.

We need to be better at this.