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The Not-So-Subtle Indicator of Sexual Orientation

I was watching a show a few years ago in which one of the main characters was questioning his sexuality. Sheepishly, he asked a friend how he could know if he was gay. His friend responded that if he really didn’t know, he should have sex with a man to see if he likes it.

It’s widely accepted in our age that what defines your sexual orientation is what feels good or right to you. If you’re a man and you’re attracted to women, you’re straight. If you’re a woman and you like women, you’re gay. And so on.

You might be reading and thinking this is all obvious, but I’d like to suggest to you that this is actually less obvious than how Christianity has traditionally understood sexual orientation.

How so?

Biblical Christianity begins all discussions about sexuality—including sexual orientation—by first looking to the human body. In other words, Christianity doesn’t start with what a human being feels romantically, but with what a human being is physically.

So where the culture looks at what a person feels as the best indicator of his or her sexual orientation, Christianity looks at the person’s male or female body and its “built in” sexual orientation.

(Are you tracking with me?)

Your sex organs as a man or woman have a biological complement in the other sex. Specifically, the male penis corresponds to one (and only one) other organ: the female vagina, and vice versa. Said differently, the male and female sex organs are sexually oriented toward each other. (Likewise, male sperm are oriented toward the female egg, and in fact, designed to swim, find, and fertilize a female egg.)

This is what I mean by the “built in” sexual orientation of the body: male and female sexed biology is oriented toward the other sex.*

Obviously, the present culture and Christianity see these things very differently. And this matters greatly because, ultimately, it will shape and inform how we love others.

In his book, No Man Is an Island, Trappist monk Thomas Merton writes, “To love another is to will what is really good for him. Such love must be based on truth.”

In other words, real love doesn’t just want what feels good for others but what actually is good for them. And in order to know the difference between what is good for a person, we must remain grounded in reality—in the real world God has made.

The heresy of Gnosticism believed that the spiritual world was the only world that really mattered, and the physical world was insignificant. The early church recognized, however, that this view of “reality” led to two extremes: one was to care for souls without caring for people’s physical needs, and the other was to promote a kind of spirituality that embraced physical licentiousness.

But look to Jesus’ incarnation and this view of reality is exposed as faulty. Jesus revealed God’s great love for our human bodies, as demonstrated through the incarnation, healing people of disabilities and sicknesses, feeding the multitudes, holding and blessing children, touching and healing lepers, eating and drinking with sinners, and most profoundly, being crucified and rising from the dead bodily. Jesus bodily life, death, and resurrection reveals that God cares greatly not just for your spirit, but for your body.

Friends, looking at sexual identity and orientation through this Christian lens does not automatically rightly align our felt sexual desires with our bodies’ God-given biology, nor with Scripture’s revealed truth about sexual integrity. Even so, may we be anchored to and guided by God’s good design as we face our own temptations and as we seek to love others as Jesus loves them.

What do you think? In what ways is the body’s “built-in” sexual orientation a more reliable guide than a person’s (perhaps your own) sexual attractions? In what ways is it less reliable? What am I missing in this brief post?

For you,

Josh

*It is important to also acknowledge here that a very small minority of people are born with a specific kind of intersex condition that does not fit neatly into either male or female biology. Although this does not change the biblically-revealed reality of God’s original male-female design, it is nonetheless the real experience of people who are wholly and passionately loved by God, and we should seek to be sensitive to them as well.

Want to hear more this week? Check out the latest Becoming Whole podcast; Identity and Orientation Part 2

4 thoughts on “The Not-So-Subtle Indicator of Sexual Orientation”

  1. Thank you for this. Very cool.

    Our bodies are surely a simple and reliable guide. Does contraception make all this less obvious? Does it mask the purpose of our sexuality and thus make our bodies a seemingly less reliable guide? If creation is not the primary purpose, and pleasure, intimacy or a connection with God’s love is…..

    For argument’s sake, if we ignore the other parts of our being and look to the body as the most reliable guide, are we doing just the opposite of what the Gnostics did/do?

    1. Hi Tadd, yes, I do think contraception makes all this less obvious. The broad social acceptance of contraception has largely removed our collective sense of the actual procreative capacity of sex. Just looking at popular movies and shows, it is stunning how–even when there is no hint or mention at all of contraception–sex rarely ever leads to pregnancy, nor even thoughts of or concern about pregnancy. It is as though culturally we have so adopted the narratives of contracepted sex that at least in media our default expectation is that pregnancy is a highly abnormal result of sex.

      As far as your other “for the sake of argument’s sake” question, I don’t believe so. The Gnostics didn’t just look to spirit first, they dismissed and devalued the body–in short, spirit is good, body is bad. I’m not suggesting we do the opposite here by highly regarding the body and seeing the spirit as bad. To be human is to be a fusion of body and spirit. The human person without both body and spirit is either just a corpse or just a ghost. With that said, perhaps it is too much to say that the body is our most reliable guide, because our bodies are fallen as well, and Scripture certainly teaches that our bodies are dependent on God’s Spirit for life and holiness.

  2. Thank you, Josh. I agree that this Biblical perspective is largely discounted, sadly, even in the Church. I’ve been studying 1 John this summer which is a response to the false teaching of the Gnostics. Amazing how influential this ancient heresy still is in our modern time.

    “Biblical Christianity begins all discussions about sexuality—including sexual orientation—by first looking to the human body.” Could you suggest a few Scripture passages that illustrate this, so we can stay biblically grounded? Thank you!

    1. Hi Jill, yes, great question. I should clarify right out of the gates, however, that when I write that “Biblical Christianity begins all discussions about sexuality…by first looking to the human body,” I am not saying that the Bible begins all such discussions this way. Rather, I mean that historic, biblically-grounded, orthodox Christianity understands that the Christian view on sexual ethics is intrinsically connected to God’s very good creation of the human body. For more on this, I’d recommend Dr. Todd Wilson’s highly accessible book Mere Sexuality: Rediscovering the Christian Vision of Sexuality. It’s fantastic.

      So looking directly to Scripture, I’d start with Genesis 1 and 2. After the creation of human beings in both accounts, Scripture immediately hones in on human sexuality. In Genesis 1:27 God creates man and woman in His image and likeness, and the first descriptor Scripture uses of this new imago Dei is “male and female He created them.” Immediately following this, God blesses them and commands them to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (1:28a). This suggests there is a connection between God’s image in us and our sexed bodies, the sexual union, and childbearing. This doesn’t mean that God is male or female, but rather that there is something in our visible maleness and femaleness that images (or makes visible) something of God’s invisible attributes.

      The creation account in Genesis 2 displays God as more physically involved in creating man and woman, and their creation is also described as physically being made from matter into living human flesh. Man he forms from the dust and makes a living person by breathing His breath into man (2:7). Woman he makes from the side of the man (2:21, 22). After man and woman meet (2:23), Scripture again immediately returns to human sexuality: “for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” (2:24). It is no small point to also note that this is precisely the passage Jesus quotes and expounds upon when the Pharisees pose a question about divorce in Mt. 19:3-9, and His conclusion is that the physical, marital, sexual union makes a man and woman “one flesh,” even pointing to God as the active agent in this fusion of two bodies: “Therefore, what God has joined together, let no person separate” (19:6).

      From there, we could also look at circumcision as the Old Testament sign of covenant with God, Song of Solomon, Matthew 19:1-12, 1 Corinthians 6:11-20, Ephesians 5:21-33. On a broader scale, 1) God created human beings as a fusion of body and spirit (not one or the other), and 2) God Himself became flesh (John 1:14). So whether we’re talking about Christian ethics surrounding sexuality or Christian ethics around justice, money, health, environment, parenting, academics, etc., I’d suggest Scripture holds an incredibly high view of how we live these things out bodily.

      What do you think, Jill? Have I answered your question?

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