Some Christians with same-sex attractions are comfortable referring to themselves as “gay Christians.” Others are vehemently opposed to it. Here’s why this conversation matters.
“I hope you’re not one of those guys who will tell me not to refer to myself as a ‘gay Christian,’” Charlie said when we first sat down in my office. “With all the other concerns facing gay Christians in the church, it’s infuriating that some people make this such a big issue.”
Tess feels differently. Running a ministry of her own, she told me, “I don’t refer to myself as a gay Christian and I never will. It’s much more than a matter of semantics. It shapes my life.”
Both Charlie and Tess hold a traditional position on God’s design for sexuality—that sex is to be reserved for marriage between one man and one woman for life. But they hold opposing views on how they talk about their same-sex orientation.
Whether you experience same-sex attractions personally or simply care about Christians who do, let me unpack briefly the pros and cons to both Charlie and Tess’s perspectives. I hope what I offer here will help you care better for yourself and others.
If you were to ask Charlie why he chooses to refer to himself as a “gay Christian,” he would highlight four primary points:
- It’s a shorthand way of describing my experience. Rather than always saying, “I’m a Christian who experiences same-sex attractions,” “I’m a gay Christian” is succinct and to the point. In addition, it fits with how people today talk about sexuality.
- It fosters self-acceptance. Some who have preferred to use terms like “same-sex attracted” or “ex-gay” over the years have inadvertently nursed ongoin. g shame for something that isn’t their fault. Their language has been a way of trying to hide from themselves and others. Rather than accepting their experience, they have suppressed it, and so created more shame, fear, and duplicity.
- It pushes back against unhelpful pressures and expectations. As a corollary to number 2, by referring to himself as a “gay Christian,” Charlie offers a counter-narrative to the lopsided narrative that says those who are truly submitted to God will automatically experience a change in sexual orientation. Charlie affirms that he can be a devout Christian even though he may continue to experience same-sex sexual attractions.
- It creates a bridge to other LGBT+ people. In a world that feels the church is hateful and homophobic, by describing himself as a “gay Christian,” Charlies seeks to offer an outstretched hand, signaling to the world that he’s not afraid of or angry at LGBT+ people, but in fact, he can personally relate with them.
In contrast, if you were to ask Tess why she feels so strongly about not referring to herself as a “gay (or lesbian) Christian,” and instead describes herself as a “Christian who experiences same-sex attraction,” she would highlight the following:
- Being a Christian is my core identity and has no counterpart. A Christian’s identity is one who is in Christ, a child of God, His beloved, God’s image-bearer, a member of Christ’s body, a new creation, etc. This is substantive and eternal, while “being gay” is temporary and fleeting, so the two descriptors are not on the same plane and do not belong together.
- Christ likeness calls me to focus on Christ’s righteousness, not my brokenness. Tess aims to grow in virtue not by rehearsing and re-rehearsing one part of her fallen nature but by setting her eyes on Jesus, the Author and perfecter of our faith. On a practical note, Tess knows that how she thinks of herself shapes how she lives. Holding onto a label that links her to her old identity or old way of life can serve as a slippery slope into sinful behavior. In contrast, she holds onto her new identity in Christ and this serves to spur her on when she faces challenges and temptations.
- I am a full member of the Body of Christ, not a subset of it. Thinking of oneself as a “[fill in the blank] Christian” establishes a posture of chronic uniqueness, where a person is a different kind of Christian than her brothers and sisters. This in turn either fosters a sense of pride or shame rooted in her distinctness from everyone else. Tess practices viewing herself as a normal part of her church, a woman who needs Jesus in her weakness, just like everyone else around her.
- There is no limit to what Christ may do in my life. Because we live in a world that believes being gay is an in-born, immutable part of one’s being, describing herself as a “gay Christian” can foster unnecessary constraints on how much God may transform Tess’s life. So while Tess currently has little desire to marry a man, she chooses to entrust this part of her future to God, rather than putting up any internal or external blocks to the possibility of marriage
- My body is a key part of who I am. Those who describe themselves as “gay” are referring to a subjective, internal sense of self, without regard to their objective, physical self. Christianity’s understanding of personhood is a union of spirit and body, where God’s image is stamped into the human body. For Tess to describe herself as a “gay Christian” would be to de-emphasize the biological heterosexual design of her body—this important part of her identity that images God.
So much more could be said about this important topic. It digs into matters of Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy. For example, you cannot claim to be holding to orthodox Christianity while effectively disregarding the link between human identity and human biology. Likewise, you cannot claim responsible Christian discipleship while allowing unhealthy shame to drive people to hide their ongoing struggles.
On a pastoral level, Tess may prefer not to refer to herself as gay, but is she open to considering where unhealthy shame may be lingering under the surface? Likewise, Charlie may prefer the shorthand “gay Christian,” but is he willing to consider how his words may be shaping his view of himself and his place as a man in the body of Christ?
Tess was right: This is about more than mere semantics. Language is powerful. It can both reveal and shape how we think about ourselves and the world in which we live. Let’s seek to use it wisely.
If you personally experience same-sex attractions or orientation, what do you think of these points? If you don’t, what parallels do you see between these points and your own life?
Make sure you check out the related Becoming Whole Podcast: Gay or Same-Sex Attracted – The Words Matter