To be straight with you: when ‘celibacy’ replaces ‘abstinence’ in the promotion of a ‘same-sex attracted’ category of human existence. Comparing the Nashville Statement and one response from the Gay Christian perspective.
David Bennett’s response to the Nashville Statement, “Why I call myself a gay celibate Christian – and say ‘no’ to Nashville” provides a helpful perspective on the new Biblical anthropology promoted by ‘celibate gay’ Christians. Appealing to scriptural authority, theological accuracy, the prophetic, the Christian identity, and the need to be reconciliatory, strategic, and evangelistic, Bennett invites his readers into his special call to minister to the gay community. In line with Wesley Hill, Andrew Marin and their supporters, Bennett grapples with the laudable aim of loving the community he is called to serve, and pointing them to the sexual purity of holiness. This he does as a precursor to his forthcoming publication: A War of Loves: The Story of a Gay Rights Activist Who Finds Jesus Christ, anticipated in 2018. The occasion of his writing is the release of the evangelical Nashville Statement which he counterpoints with an LGBT “Denver Statement” – to neither of which he is a signatory.
The article is important because it reveals a particular anthropological perspective that is faulty, in my view.
It is also important because it highlights one consideration that perhaps the Nashville Statement neglects to consider: how to respond to a same-sex attracted or gay self-conception when an individual who had previously taken this identity no longer finds it to be a helpful categorisation of their current experience. What is the role of identity or self-conception change in the Christian world view the document presents? How does such change happen and how may it be facilitated? Nashville focuses on enduring same-sex attractions, (also a self-construction like ‘gay’ and ‘transgendered’) that are intractable. The document advocates what might be described as “sexual redemption” enabling this group to live in holiness. Whilst the document is wise and careful to avoid the term “orientation” and thus a reification of this notion as a category of human existence, it nevertheless isolates the category of “same-sex attracted” persons as a distinct, and apparently enduring group within humankind. I would have thought this contradicts Bennett’s claim that the Nashville document employs an “over eschatological” view of those being redeemed. The question is, why does it not consider those for whom the same-sex attracted category is no longer helpful? Has an opportunity to point to the role of professional help to reduce same-sex behaviours and feelings been missed? More importantly, why is it that Nashville, along with the vast majority of biblically grounded churches, give psychological therapeutic interventions a wide birth?
My concern with Bennett’s response is that he nowhere critiques the notion of ‘orientation’, a term he uses throughout his article. Offering an essentially experience-led perspective, Bennett’s starting point is that ‘orientation’ is fixed: possibly innate and immutable. The Nashville document noticeably stops at positing a post-same-sex attracted position, beyond which the third category (the same sex-attracted”) is no longer accurate or helpful. Is this not an indicator that the one thing both Nashville and Bennett have in common is a belief that change is not possible, except in an evangelical and miraculous sense? If so, there is no need for, or benefit from, secular professional therapy.
According to Bennett, “The opposite of homosexuality is not heterosexuality, it is holiness.” I am not sure that the Nashville Statement would disagree with him on this, yet it is noteworthy that the word ‘homosexual’ is mentioned only three times in that document. That being the case, we come to the nub of the issue in my view. Bennett’s article is very much an explication of the extra-biblical psycho-social and political notions of ‘orientation’ and ‘gay’ mediated by yet another extra-biblical term, ‘celibate’. ‘Holiness’ must be reconciled with people’s enduring sense of homosexual attraction in both Bennett’s and the Nashville Statement’s world view. They agree on one important principle: the Biblical position is that homosexual practise is not permissible in Christian living. For Bennett, the dangers of so-called shame-based ‘healing’ testimonies need to be avoided. For Nashville, the only healing is in Jesus – which leaves them exposed to accusations of “praying away the Gay”. This gate-keeping position, fails in its missiological myopia.
So for Bennett, the key is to “break such a culture of silence in many churches and encourage a culture of repentant honesty before God and with each other” This seems like sense. But here’s the context: “many of those pressured by Christian culture to say they have been “healed” live with secret sexual sin and shame”. Now I have never heard any individual in the circles I operate in, use the language of “healed” when it comes to their homosexual past. We are accused of this language by activists, but it is not part of common parlance among those leaving homosexuality. This is the medical model making an appearance – the language of disease which always leads to trouble. The communities of men and women I work with are aware of their frailties, but have been discouraged from identifying as “same-sex attracted” and certainly warned of the dangers of the “Christian Gay” label. They’re taught to confess secret sin for sure, and often deal with the memories of their past activities. They usually have recognised that shame is the root, sap and source of homosexual enactment and this knowledge helps them to reject shame and to assert themselves in healthy relationships, irrespective of their faith or no faith perspective. And this is what therapeutic support can teach them: that homosexual enactment, and the neurological pathways such activities entrench are difficult, but not impossible to undo; that ‘orientation’ – a very gay word, is really patterning, or memory which has been reinforced by living in this way, either in thought or deed. If my non-Christian friends will bear with me – In the words of St Paul, “they received in themselves the due penalty for their error”. Those working themselves out of homosexual practices know only too well what they have been or are capable of and what can be triggered or reactivated. Surely this is the case for alcoholics, sexaholics, adulterers, gamblers, tax-evaders and social media junkies and for all addicts of any type and description. So I think it’s time to drop ‘orientation’ from the Christian vocabulary, and revert to ‘original sin’, or even memory or footprint as terms more accurately reflecting homosexual patterning. This is what the Nashville Statement does in effect, and where Bennett parts company.
Thus Core Issues Trust welcomes the Nashville Statement as a broad statement for Christian identity and the recognition of practices and identities that are contrary to the clear teaching of scripture. But I fear even this statement still tends to reify the categorical identity of “same-sex-attracted” persons as those who “may live a rich and fruitful life pleasing to God through faith in Jesus Christ, as they, like all Christians walk in purity of life” despite denying that such attraction “is part of the natural goodness of God’s original creation” (Article 8).
The statement describes the way out of homosexual practices and feelings as being a matter of sexual redemption, which by implication is exclusively open to the Christian faithful. Thus Article 12 states that “pardon and power enable a follower of Jesus to put to death sinful desires and walk in a manner worthy of the Lord”.
Yet the issue is wider than just a matter for Christians alone, and the ‘Christian way out’ sits alongside the fact that those from other and no faith positions may and do find freedom from homosexual practices and feelings outside of Christ, both spontaneously and through psychotherapeutic and counselling interventions. In all, this points to the fact that homosexuality is not a spiritual problem (although it becomes one); it is a developmental problem. It is an aberration of the human pattern (not part of God’s original creation).
Perhaps recognition of the roots of homosexual and transgender identities and behaviours as developmental aberrations might be included to widen the missiological relevance of the Statement, in addition to its focus on sexual redemption in Christ. Without the recognition of this wider context, an otherwise excellent statement limits pathways out of homosexuality and transgender to Christians exclusively.
In conclusion: Bennett’s desire to qualify “gay Christian” with celibacy has the effect of preserving the notion of an innate and immutable ‘orientation’ which he claims groans for deliverance in the eschatological completion of Christ’s redemptive work. Quite apart from the fact that “celibacy” is a term only recently co-opted by the gay Christian and same-sex attracted lobbies, distorting the Biblical marriage imagery that is at the heart of scripture, the term serves to legitimate homosexual orientation. “Celibacy” is a sacrificial term and marks a gift which not all Christians possess. Could somebody please help me to understand why those who recognise that Biblical marriage is a covenental triad between God and opposite-sex partners, see celibacy as an accurate description of their abstinence from gay sex and “equal marriage”, as Bennett appears to do? The Nashville statement, in avoiding the role of professional help for those coming out of homosexual practices and feelings, offers sexual redemption for those who are in Christ. It is here that there is no difference in the outworkings of the Nashville and Bennett perspectives: I suspect both positions would agree – it may change, but probably won’t so there’s no need to plan for it. In my view, until there is recognition that homosexual practices are simply highly addictive behaviours that usually scar any who have partaken in them, but which can be reversed over time, we will continue in the illusion that some are orientated towards the same sex and that this cannot change in this life. This I promise: as the church continues to fail to support professionals working to help individuals in their pathway to change, so the meta-narrative of orientation will entrench itself, and the grand evangelical notion of change will have just this one exception – freedom from homosexual feelings.