If you haven’t read about the student protest at Wheaton College in response to Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s appearance on campus, do. It’s available here. Butterfield is author of “My Train Wreck Conversion,” the second most popular Christianity Today article of 2013. The article describes how “a leftist lesbian professor” who “despised Christians” eventually became one.
Butterfield’s appearance, the protest, and subsequent reporting on it all demonstrate an increasingly nuanced understanding of human sexuality in the evangelical world. Like most intellectual developments the changing understanding of sexual identity is sort of jerking forward like a teenager trying to drive a manual transmission car. It is possible that out of our collective confusion–by a sort of cultural dialectic–a better understanding of sexuality is emerging. I’m not convinced that this new understanding will remove all distinctions between Christian ethics and those of the broader culture, far from it. What I hope will emerge is both a Christian ethics and pastoral theology that better serves those who experience same sex attraction.
On either side of our conversations about sexuality are two poles, both equally erroneous.
The first is the “lifestyle” understanding of human sexuality. This belief posits that everyone who identifies as gay has simply chosen to be so–like choosing to drink Coke rather than Pepsi. With appropriate “taste tests” this preference can be altered.
The second is the belief that sexual identity is always and everywhere simply fixed: once gay, always gay. In this view, the individual is simply a victim of a predisposition that is unalterable and, as a result, ought to be able to give full expression to this identity.
The Wheaton student protest leaders feared that Butterfield would come to campus espousing the former belief (“pray away the gay,” if you will). I worry that they affirm the latter:
We feared that if no conversation was added to the single message of the speaker that students who are not very well informed were going to walk into chapel, hear the message, and have misconceptions confirmed or that students who are LGBT would be told that this story is the absolute way that things happen…
A more nuanced understanding of sexual identity means that it’s possible to navigate a way between these two poles. And it’s possible to affirm things that the evangelical community has been remiss in doing. As Butterfield herself put it,
Homosexuality is a sin, but so is homophobia; the snarled composition of our own sin and the sin of others weighs heavily on us all. I came away from that meeting realizing—again—how decisively our reading practices shape our worldview.
A Christian response to same-sex attraction should avoid either simply explaining away attraction as a choice. It should also avoid taking our appetites and attractions–as essential as they may seem–as inevitable.
Homosexuality, then, is not the unpardonable sin, I noticed. It is not the worst of all sins, not for God. It’s listed here in the middle of the passage, as one of many parts of this journey that departs from recognizing God as our author. Homosexuality isn’t causal, it’s consequential. From God’s point of view, homosexuality is an identity-rooted ethical outworking of a worldview transgression inherited by all through original sin. It’s so original to the identity of she who bears it that it feels like it precedes you; and as a vestige of original sin, it does. We are born this way. But the bottom line hit me between the eyes: homosexuality, whether it feels natural or not, is a sin.
Here we have to ask an important question: what is meant by “homosexuality”? Is this term equivalent to “having same sex attraction? Does it mean homosexual practice? Or is it some combination of both?
At this point some biblical principles related to sin are helpful. Jesus tells us that infidelity can occur outside of a physical encounter: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). So while we can say for certain that homosexual practice is sinful in that it violates God’s moral law, we can also say that dwelled-upon, nurtured attraction may turn into desire which in turn may itself eventually become sinful.
The church has generally been lax in guiding its members to experience Christ in the Scriptures. As a result our ways of thinking have been formed by our culture and, in many ways, simply (and perhaps exclusively) adopt the intellectual categories constructed by scholars of society, sexuality, etc., or some reaction against them. As a church we should be moving deeper into a Jesus-centered, Bible-shaped Christian experience that is values the difficulties of following Christ sufficiently to provide spiritual leadership and pastoral care that intends to lead to greater holiness, as long and as hard as that road might be.