Christians are getting better at talking about sexuality, and I want to help us continue thoughtfully framing our discussions to be as productive and meaningful as possible. For that reason, I’ve written New Year’s resolutions for conservative Christians—since those are the circles in which I mostly run—related to the questions we ask about sexuality. For Part I, I want to examine questions I’ve encountered that are no longer useful and offer suggestions for alternative questions that address more directly what we’re actually trying to discern together. As a friend pointed out, some of these questions I’m criticizing are unavoidable for LGBT individuals and their friends/relatives on a personal level as they seek to understand themselves and understand God throughout their identity development, so I’m not suggesting every person needs to avoid ever wondering about these things. Rather, I’m suggesting these questions have become fruitless within broader conversations among Christians trying to discern how to move forward with LGBT people. From what I can tell, the problem is not the questions themselves but how we’re using them: The common thread between the three is that I suspect we tend to overestimate how much each one will be able to inform our understanding of sexuality and our response to LGBT people. They’re not as useful as we think.
So, if the church in 2013 wants to discuss sexuality in ways that will benefit us and allow us to love more effectively and discern God’s will more clearly, I think it’s time to retire the following questions:
1. “Is sexual orientation a result of genetic or environmental factors?”
Let’s start with a big one. The Christian movement has a notoriously poor relationship with science, insofar as we’re great at embracing science we like and dismissing science we dislike. Unfortunately, this question brings psychological research into the spotlight, and it can lead us in two dangerous directions. First, it can draw us into a tenuous dichotomy that calls genetic things “of God” and environmental things “of the world.” Christians who don’t affirm same-sex relationships tend to embrace research that emphasizes environmental factors, while Christians who do affirm tend to embrace research that points to genetics; and passionately so, in each case. In either case, I think we’re being small-minded and—pardon my flowery language—blind to the absolutely beautiful wonder of our existence as complicated people who are biological and spiritual and chemical and relational. We’re also ignoring the power of both God and sin to work through both our genes and our environment. Regardless of where psychologists land on questions of causation (and my hunch is that it’ll be a “both-and,” because how could something so physical and emotional be limited entirely to nature or nurture?), I don’t want us to trap ourselves into thinking genes exclusively point to God and environment to sin, a dichotomy that seems to exist in our discussions of sexuality only.
Second, it can fool us into expecting an answer to this question will provide answers to many other questions, like whether sexual orientation change is possible (see question #3) or whether God assigns sexual orientation to people (see question #2) or whether homosexual orientation is natural, whatever that means. Answers to these subsequent questions are unrelated to causation, though, even if we did know for sure what makes some people gay and other people straight. I think we’re generally less concerned with causation in other qualities that make people different (question #2), and our noisy interest in the question of causes for homosexuality may be indicative of the church’s discomfort with the rapidity of our culture’s changing norms for sexuality and same-sex relationships. People on both sides of the debate give the question more weight than it deserves in order to build up their positions, but I think the answer here will be mostly irrelevant to the major questions that plague us. People will largely accept any scientific evidence that supports their positions as long as such evidence, however insubstantial, exists.
Ask instead: “What are the factors that have formed me into the person I am, especially related to my sexuality, and what are the factors that have formed my understanding of God’s will for my sexuality?” Sexuality is much more complex than the object of one’s physical attractions; it encompasses a bigger picture of human relationships, biological impulses, cultural norms, etc., etc., etc. I think we’ll get much farther if we stop seeking a one-sentence explanation for sexuality and begin to interrogate it as the result of innumerable factors, some of which come from God and others from our inability and unwillingness to live in God’s design. I’m less interested in why I am attracted to men than I am in how my culture, including the Christian subculture, has taught me I should interact with other men and women (and whether that’s holy), or in what sort of ideals I’ve striven to attain in my sexual ethics (and whether those are ideals worth striving toward), or what I perceive as normal and healthy (and whether I’m appealing to reliable sources for those definitions), or why I believe what I believe about God’s design for sexuality (and whether it’s true to God’s nature and history).
2. “Does God make people gay?” or “Does God assign a specific sexual orientation to each person?”
The former question is woefully unclear with the result that people can argue right past each other without ever discussing the same things, so I’ll address the latter, which is more precise. I’ve noticed many Christians have a fairly predictable pattern: Whenever someone possesses any quality or condition that makes them unique, our judgment about whether it’s a favorable or unfavorable attribute determines whether we’ll identify it as a blessing from God or as a symptom of broken humanity that God can redeem for God’s glory. So, if someone is particularly attractive or intelligent, we’re likely to recognize God as the source, but if someone develops a severe illness, we’ll probably recognize our imperfect world as the source. I’ve grown weary of discussions about whether God assigns sexual attraction, seeing as they tend to be little more than reflections of each person’s position on same-sex relationships: If same-sex relationships are sinful, then nontraditional sexuality is a symptom of a broken world; but if they’re not sinful, then nontraditional sexuality is one of the many ways God sews diversity into creation.
Furthermore, I don’t think a conclusive answer to this question would get us any closer to sexual ethics, which is usually where the conversation leads. People often use their answer to this question as support for their position on same-sex relationships (“God made me this way, so it can’t be wrong,” etc.), but since our answers are mostly speculative anyway, I’ll reiterate what I said above: Whether someone believes God assigns sexual orientation is usually a reflection of, and not evidence for, their position on same-sex relationships. There are passages in the Bible (especially in the Old Testament) that don’t share any of our modern squeamishness about attributing to God things we’d label “bad,” so the idea that God could make people gay while prohibiting same-sex relationships has never been particularly noisome to me; similarly, if sexual orientation (straight or otherwise) is not part of the identity God creates for each person, I don’t think that would necessarily tell us anything about God’s will for sexual minorities. If we’re going to talk about sexual ethics, we’ll have to find our evidence elsewhere.
Ask instead: “Is God glorified through my sexual orientation?” When the disciples ask Jesus whose sin caused a certain man’s blindness—a negative quality, it would seem, as far as they’re concerned—Jesus essentially dismisses the question, saying sin wasn’t the cause, and reframes the discussion: “This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). In one of my seminary classes, we were talking about how we should respond to people who try and attribute natural disasters to God’s punishment on some particular group, and our professor concluded the debate by pointing out it’s just as arrogant to claim absolute knowledge that God didn’t do something as it is to claim absolute knowledge God did. Since we’re often less than certain about what God does and does not do—and since neither conclusion clarifies our discernment on sexual ethics—I think we’re making better use of our time when we explore together whether our sexuality (or our response to natural disasters and their victims) glorifies God. Regardless of whether God designs certain people to be gay, our primary aim should be God’s glory.
3. “Can God change someone’s sexual orientation?”
At best, this question is so much theological pontification, approximately as useful as asking whether God can make a rock so big even God can’t pick it up. At worst, though, this question can be a weapon wielded against those who have chosen not to pursue change in sexual orientation or who advocate against such pursuits on behalf of others. The question forces one of two responses: Either one answers, “No,” which sounds like a heretical diminishing of God’s miraculous power; or one answers, “Yes,” implying any lack of change is a result of human faithlessness or impatience. Don’t get me wrong: People asking this question are often asking it from a place of compassion, especially when they ask it to people who would actually prefer their orientation to change. But it disregards the difficult reality that is impossible to avoid in a life of faith: that God does not always do what people think God should do or want God to do, regardless of whether God is capable of doing that thing. As long as people have been in relationship with God, it’s been tough to swallow this particular characteristic of God’s involvement with us, and we rather think by now we should be able to predict and explain how God will behave in any situation. When “What God Can Do” becomes the foundation of our relationship with God, it can free our imaginations to allow God to work as miraculously as God wills, but it can also lead to perpetual dissatisfaction and frustration, paralyzing our faith and hope in a God who doesn’t behave as we’d like.
Ask instead: “Does God tend to change peoples’ sexual orientation?” or “Has God changed peoples’ sexual orientation?” or “Does God promise someone should expect a change in orientation?” These questions depend on our knowledge of how God has behaved among us rather than on some people’s conjecturing about how God should behave among us. They’re rooted in the reality of God’s promises and probably give us a better idea of what we should expect and what Christians ought to paint as our ideal outcome for people. The questions necessitate our honesty and fearlessness, if we have any hope of accurately assessing what God does and does not do, and they require us to listen to stories from those people who can be completely transparent about their experiences as sexual minorities. If we’re feeling particularly adventurous, I think the question “Why might God choose not to change someone’s orientation?” is probably more interesting than any others I’ve mentioned and could get us thinking about a much bigger picture.
Again, my goal with criticizing these three questions is to help us avoid framing our conversations in ways that are less helpful than we might expect them to be. What questions do you think have outlived their usefulness? And are any of the questions I mention here more useful than I suggest?
Part II, where I outline questions the church should be asking, is here.
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