Let me tell you why this is such a great book. Author Gregory Coles has a lot of guts.
In his memoir, Single, Gay, Christian, Coles tells his story, growing up in the evangelical church, loving Jesus, who nevertheless made the slow and disturbing discovery that he was attracted to other men, and not to women. But unlike many of those who “come out” with this self-realization, Coles understands that his sexual orientation does not biblically give him permission to enter into a practicing, same-sex relationship. Yet it does give him a unique perspective to live out a life of committed celibacy, and live that life out to the fullest. This is a story that needs to be heard.
Coles grew up, in what appears to have been a missionary(?) family, serving in Indonesia. Aside from living in a different country, Coles spent his growing up years in an evangelical church sub-culture. But he knew something was different about himself, when compared to other boys in his church youth group. His discovery about his sexual attraction to males was not something that hit him overnight, and he tried his best to change his orientation, to conform to social expectations. He did not fit the stereotype of someone who was “gay.” He did not have a distant, emotionally detached father. Rather, he enjoyed life, loved God, and had a great relationship with loving parents.
Even through college, and into his early years as a church worship leader, back in the United States, Coles’ efforts to become “ex-gay” simply did not work. The hoped for change in his sexual attractions never materialized. Coles had hit a roadblock: Prayer and therapy did not produce the expected results, that many of his Christian friends had promised, and that he himself desired. He spent hours…. repeated hours…. over and over again…. where he sought to “pray the gay away”….. and the promised change, that many of his sincere Christians friends told him would happen, did not materialize. This is where Coles’ story today gets controversial, at least to a certain segment of the church.
He makes a concerted effort to study the Scriptures, to best understand God’s perspective and purpose for human sexuality. Contrary to revisionist views of homosexuality, that are gaining popularity within liberal-minded congregations, Coles concludes that sexual relations, as through “gay marriage,” is not an option, for someone like himself, who seeks to be a faithful follower of Jesus.
But neither does Coles embrace the “ex-gay” narrative championed by many evangelical Christians, that suggests that “gayness” necessarily implies a certain “lifestyle.” The typical “ex-gay” narrative believes sexual attraction to be merely a choice: a choice that can be reversed through the appropriate therapy, or intense prayer. Rather, Coles seeks to embrace his “identity” as a celibate gay Christian man, which explains the title for his book. As a single, gay Christian, Coles seeks to explore how his sexual orientation might inform his understanding of who God created him to be.
Coles self-identification as a single, gay Christian will strike many other Christians as being repugnant, or at the very least, confusing.1 That controversial phrase, “identity,” needs a bit of unpacking. After all, our “identity” as believers should be, first and foremost, grounded in Christ, and not somehow paired with our sin, right? We should never celebrate temptation. Rather we are to flee from temptation. You can be a single Christian, sure. But it would be best to leave the “gay” out of it, or perhaps, embrace something like “ex-gay.” To be “gay” and “Christian,” are mutually exclusive categories. Another book reviewer, “Pastor Gabe,” a Baptist pastor in Kansas, drills down on this as the fatal flaw in Gregory Coles’ book.2
The criticism is fairly common among more than a few Christians. But it is too fixated on specific semantics and labels, and it makes some questionable assumptions, that need to be challenged. What Greg Coles is talking about is completely different. It is vitally important that readers closely examine the meaning of terms found in this book. Less anyone thing that Greg Coles book is sloppily written, the Christian reader should know that the esteemed, conservative evangelical New Testament Bible scholar, and co-founder of The Gospel Coalition, D.A. Carson, one of the global church’s leading and committed defenders of biblical inerrancy, wrote an endorsement for Single, Gay, and Christian. At the same time, Single, Gay, Christian has been reviewed by more thoughtful critics, such as Rachel Gilson, as falling short, who ironically appeals to D. A. Carson in making her rebuttal.
In my reading of Gregory Coles’ book, I found his message to be truly liberating, and quite a change from what you often here in some conservative Christian circles. Here is a sample of his approach (p.16):
- “Instead of praying to like women and to stop liking men, I prayed for joy. I prayed for contentment. I plunged myself so deeply into ministry opportunities, into biblical study, into the lives of others, that I almost managed to forget myself entirely. I became one of the happiest people I knew — happy not just on the surface but all the way through, in love with he world because I was desperately in love with the God who had created it.”
How often do you hear that?
In this book review, I will try to interact with some of Coles’ critics. Listening to Coles’ story, the “ex-gay” thinking comes across as sincere, well-intentioned, but ultimately wrong-headed. We can address some of those questionable assumptions below, but let us first examine the central idea behind its wrong-headed-ness.3
The Central Idea Behind “Ex-Gay,” Wrong Headed Thinking
Ask yourself this question: What is the ultimate goal behind our sanctification? Is it the alteration of a specific fallen condition; such as the removal of cancer from your body, or the healing from blindness? Or is it our transformation into the likeness of Christ (Romans 12:1-2)? God may grant a cure to your cancer, or heal you from your blindness. The same applies to same-sex orientation or same-sex attraction. We must do what we can to pursue wholeness of health, absolutely.
If God grants such changes, then we should indeed praise God. But the change of a specific fallen condition is not the goal of the Christian life. Rather, it is to be like Christ.
The central idea behind much of “ex-gay” theology, but not necessarily all, is that it makes the change of one’s sexual orientation or same-sex attraction the primary goal of sanctification, instead of the change of one’s spiritual orientation, that we might become more like Jesus. In other words, the goal of sanctification is not heterosexuality. The goal is holiness, before a just and loving God. We need to unpack this even further, by examining several questionable assumptions behind this type of “ex-gay” theology.
Questionable Assumptions Against Being Single, Gay, and Christian: The “Ick” Factor
First, there is the “ick” factor, when it comes to thinking about homosexuality. Many find the very thought of same-sex attraction to be utterly repulsive. But this approach fails when it comes to considering other sexual sins. Why is there an “ick” factor about homosexuality, and rarely an “ick” factor when it comes to heterosexual pornography, heterosexual adultery, or many other sexual sins?
Combine this with the change in pop-culture over the last twenty years, where the notion of “gay-is-icky” no longer works, especially for young people. When someone sees a “gay” person, and that person now looks “cool,” the whole “gay-is-icky” argument loses its rhetorical power. In previous generations, people like computer genius Alan Turing and poet W. H. Auden, well known gay persons, were thought to be “icky.” But today, someone like actress and comedian Ellen Degeneres is “cool.” The “ick” factor is simply too subjective and emotionally based to be of any real value in thinking through this issue.
The Terminology Factor: What Do People Mean By “Gay?”
Part of it is also the very word “gay” itself. Gone are the days of the 1890s, where the word “gay” simply meant someone who was “happy.” Today, it suggests to some that a self-described “gay” person is actively involved in some type of physical, same-sex relationship.
But as Gregory Coles understands it, and to the majority of people who identify as LBGT, being “gay” is more about same-sex attraction or orientation, as part of someone’s self-discovery, and not being actively involved in a physical, sexual relationship. Christians need not automatically assume that being “gay” necessarily means, “living the lifestyle,” whatever that means. We must be careful to clearly define what is meant by being “gay,” in order to have any fruitful discussion.
The Theological Factor: Is Same-Sex Desire Inherently Sinful, or Is It a Non-Morally Culpable Product of the Fall?
Nevertheless, there is a more fundamental, theological assumption at work here, that needs to be challenged. If same-sex attraction really was simply a matter of choice, across the board, it would make more sense. Granted, in some cases, “choice” does indeed play a major role in the life journey of some people, when it comes to gay and lesbian experience.
When I read Rosaria Butterfield’s stirring and gut-wrenching memoir, of her own conversion to Christ, The Secret Thought’s of an Unlikely Convert, which I highly recommend, I carefully noticed that Rosaria Butterfield never once described her sexual attraction to women as something that she simply discovered about herself. Her journey into lesbianism was part and parcel of her active, prideful rebellion against God. Her overall sinful disposition drove her rebellion, and even reinforced her sinful choice. She calls her subsequent journey towards Christian obedience part of her “train wreck conversion.” Nevertheless, unless I misunderstood her story, her pursuit of lesbianism came across as ultimately being a matter of her own willful choice.
Rosaria Butterfield’s testimony stands as a necessary challenge to the church, to encourage believers to embrace hospitality towards those in the gay and lesbian communities, and to hold fast to the life changing power of God’s Word. However, her story differs profoundly from Gregory Coles. Her journey towards Christ carried with it an act of repentance, away from being in an actively-practicing lesbian relationship. Coles, on the other hand, never had acted on his same-sex desires with another man, and he was already a believer in Christ, when he realized that he was attracted to men’s bodies and not women’s bodies.
It is important to realize that not everyone who wrestles with gender and sexual identity has the same exact experience. There is no “cookie-cutter” description of “gay” or “lesbian” that fits in every particular case.
Coles tried to change his same-sex desire, but he was unsuccessful. This is probably one of the most revealing characteristics of the whole “ex-gay” movement, within evangelical circles, that has floundered within the past few years, particularly with the dissolution of Exodus International, the flagship “ex-gay” ministry, back in 2013. When it comes to our battle with our sinful nature, an orthodox view indicates that we can not change our sinful ways, based on our own efforts. Neither can we hope to change ourselves, by suggesting that we can cooperate with God to bring about such change, with a kind of “God helps those, who helps themselves” type of theology.4
Freedom from sin only happens when we trust in God and God alone for our salvation, which includes our justification and our sanctification. So it is strangely ironic that the “ex-gay” movement has turned our theology of salvation upside down, reducing a vision of sexual wholeness, prompted by our freedom in Christ, to the pursuit of sexual-orientation change, that we can somehow do ourselves, or at best, pleading with God to do our bidding. How many folks like Gregory Coles have prayed a desperate prayer, that God might solve the problem, or at the very least, reinforce one’s desire to become “straight?”
Sure, miracles do happen, and Gregory Coles admits this. The Red Sea parted. Jesus turned water into wine. So, God may indeed miraculously change someone’s sexual orientation. We can thank God for this. Perhaps Coles critics are correct, in that he could of done more to emphasize the real possibility of miraculous change, away from having a same-sex orientation. Perhaps.
But what if God does not change someone’s sexual-orientation? What if God does not answer that prayer as expected?
Coles does not have any answers as to why he is “gay.” Instead, he wrestles with the mystery as to what his “gayness” might tell him about who God created him originally to be. If Gregory Coles had been created before Adam’s fall, what would he have been like? What would have made him different? What particular uniqueness about his current sinful condition might give him insight into his own unique journey in his sanctification? Is there something about his same-sex orientation that might illuminate the reality of God’s good design for his life? How can someone, like Gregory Coles, discover the reality of God’s goodness, as he journeys towards Christ?
Coles’ posture stands as a healthy contrast between two extremes.5 One extreme, commonly accepted in much of the evangelical church, views the struggle with same-sex desire to be a matter of getting the right therapeutic mindset, where success is realized if you experience an alteration in your orientation, and then progress towards heterosexuality. To fail to try to change is simply making an excuse for sin.
Here is the rub, if someone takes this view: If the prayed for outcome comes together, then great. But if that change in desire never fully materializes, as is often the case, depression can easily settle in, giving the Evil One a foothold.
Lessons from the Man Born Blind
In John 9, Jesus healed a man who was born blind from birth. When asked if either this man sinned or his parents, Jesus replied that neither was true. Instead, Jesus taught that this man’s fallen condition was such that “the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). If we consider a parallel between blindness and same-sex attraction, we might realize that much, though admittedly not all, of the “ex-gay” movement has turned this passage of Scripture on its head. Having sexual desire oriented towards one’s same gender is just as much a part of the Fall as blindness is. The blind man could no more “repent” of his blindness than Greg Coles’ can “repent” of same-sex attraction.
Some may balk at this parallel association. For example, Rosaria Butterfield, interestingly rejects so-called “reparative therapy,” but she would not go along with Coles’ comparatively more “neutral” approach to being “gay” (Butterfield would probably reject my admittedly awkward use of the word “neutral,” but that is too much to go into here… perhaps a future blog post).
Butterfield characterizes “gayness” as indwelling sin, that must be rooted out, at its very core. If “gayness” actually fits within the category of indwelling sin, as some argue from Romans 7:20, then I would agree (She makes her case in this linked YouTube video, well worth the six minutes). In other words, “gayness” is a product of the fall, but more like pride, as in the indwelling sin of pride.
Is Butterfield’s assumption correct? Perhaps in her case, it is.
But what if “gayness” is more like blindness, and less like pride? Then the association of “gayness” with indwelling sin does not work. For it makes no sense for the blind man to have “rooted out” his blindness: The guy was… blind…. get it? His blind condition was thrust upon him, without any reason given, other than that “the works of God might be displayed in him.” To make the blind man morally culpable for his blindness, is something that Jesus denies. Likewise, to make a “gay” person morally culpable for their “gayness,” misses the mark.
The other extreme, in contrast to that described above, goes the exact opposite direction, muzzling the teaching of the Scriptures on God’s view of marriage (Genesis 1:27, 2:24), and viewing homosexual orientation as a gift from God, a gift that should be acted upon (Author Matthew Vines presents a popular case for this view) . This is largely a modern idea, that is gainer wider acceptance, particularly in more liberal-minded congregations. Therefore, to embrace celibacy, from this perspective, is understood to be an act of self-hatred, a perverse clinging to self-denial that condemns the celibate person to a life of utterly loneliness and lack of intimacy.
The cheerful Greg Coles simply does not see things that way. A reader looking to justify “same-sex marriage” will probably find Single, Gay, and Christian to be reproachful and frustrating, but they should at least be open-minded to the possibility that being single, gay and Christian is not a recipe for self-repression. Rather, it reflects a desire to honor God faithfully, and trust God that He will meet one’s needs.
A Third-Way to Approach Same-Sex Desire
Instead, Coles takes a third-way, essentially consistent with the perspective held by others like him, associated with the blog, SpiritualFriendship.org, such as Wesley Hill, a conservative, Anglican Bible scholar, who also wrote the forward to Coles’ book. The analogy is not perfect, but Coles’ third way simultaneously holds together two paradoxical truths found in Scripture: A Christian is someone who is both righteous, in the sight of God, and a sinner, in need of sanctification. Martin Luther expressed this in Latin as “Simul Justus et Peccator,” wherein we are both righteous and sinful, at the same time. To follow the analogy, a single, gay Christian is specifically someone who sees their particular identity to be a gift from God, righteous and holy, while at the same time, being in a fallen state, falling short of God’s glory.
It is a strange mark of popular evangelical spirituality, that is somehow okay with someone saying that “I am a sinner saved by grace,” but that is uncomfortable with that same someone saying “I am a gay sinner saved by grace.” Many would prefer to speak of being “ex-gay,” but rarely does a Christian consider themselves to be an “ex-sinner.”
I would be very, very leery of such teaching, of those who claim that being a “sinner” is something of the past. It smacks of a strange kind of perfectionism. It is a recipe for self-deception. The Scriptures are pretty emphatic: If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8 ESV).
God does not always answers our prayers in the exact way we want, nor does God always take away those desires, that if left unchecked, will cause us to stumble. However, God is faithful to be present to us, loving us, even when life is not as simple was we would like it to be.
Responding to Criticism of Gregory Coles’ Book
This balanced approach is what is missing in Denny Burk’s otherwise gracious review of Gregory Coles book. Denny Burk, a biblical studies professor at Boyce College, finds Coles’ handling of these questions to be less than adequate, if not simply confusing (I engaged this topic on professor Burk’s blog a few years ago, prior to the release of Greg Coles’ book). Burk appreciates Coles’ candor, and the difficulty of Coles’ struggle, and yet Burk writes on his blog:
- “Coles suggests that same-sex orientation may be a part of God’s original creation design and that homosexual orientation within Eden is an ideal that exceeds that which people experience outside of Eden….. Nor can I reconcile this perspective with what Coles says elsewhere about same-sex orientation being a “thorn in the flesh,” which suggests that same-sex orientation is not a part of God’s original design. Which is it? A thorn in the flesh or something God “dreamed” for people as a part of his original design?”
The problem is that Burk is reading something into Coles’ expressed thought that just is not there. Burk is implying some sort of contradiction, that must be avoided, whereas Coles is suggesting here a paradox, to be held in tension.6
Is Coles saying that God created him with a “same-sex orientation?” Well, it depends on what you mean by that. The difficulty is that we, as fallen humans, do not really know, this side of Eden, what “same-sex orientation” looks like on the “pre-Fall” side of Eden.
Gregory Coles has a very helpful example in his book, that readers like Denny Burk would do well to ponder more closely. What was God’s purpose for the mosquito, prior to the Fall? As far as I am concerned, mosquitoes are nothing more than a pest. Bring on the insect spray, I would say!
Nevertheless, mosquitoes are part of God’s good creation. It is just that post-Fallen humanity, which includes everyone reading this blog post, simply has no crystal-clear idea what originally made mosquitoes “good” in God’s creation. If you know the secret behind this, then please let me know, as I squatted more than a couple of mosquitoes this very morning!!
In the same way, “same sex orientation” or “gayness” fits in the same category as the mosquito. God was doing something good there, but the Fall has twisted “gayness” such that its good purpose remains obscured from our view, apart from the redemptive work of Christ. In other words, the dilemma over how to think about the relationship between being “gay” and being a “Christian,” is yet simply a parallel to Luther’s “Simul Justus et Peccator.” We can no more reconcile what is means to be both sinful and righteous than someone, specifically like Gregory Coles, can reconcile what it means to be both “gay” and “Christian.”
Some Constructive Criticism of Single, Gay and Christian
Nevertheless, two aspects of Denny Burk’s critique of Coles’ book do have some substance. First, Coles writes a lot about his same-sex attraction as part of his very “identity,” at the core of his being. I get what he is talking about, as same-sex attraction is a particularly unique experience, shared by only a minority group of people. But some might confuse this “gay identity” as being in some special, theological, ontological category, that is not really relevant to the purpose that Gregory Coles has in mind. Jesus defines our “identity,” and not one’s sexual orientation, though identifying one’s sexual orientation and attractions is an important part of life experience. Therefore, Cole’s critics do have a point to make, in that identifying with the experience of being gay (perfectly acceptable) is not the same thing as having an identity with something which potentially divides your loyalty to Jesus (theologically misleading). It might be better to speak of being “gay,” not in terms of an “identity,” but rather in terms of “naming an experience,” shared by others. This subtle, yet highly significant change, could have improved Coles’ book.
Secondly, there is a further concern, repeated in Rachel Gilson’s Gospel Coalition review of Coles book. In Gregory Coles’ final chapter, after he spells out his understanding on the Bible’s teaching regarding God’s purpose in marriage (one man, one woman, one lifetime), he oddly suggests that the Bible’s teaching against same-sex marriage is not as clear, as are other teachings that he finds in the Bible. So, even though Coles himself holds to a traditional view of marriage, he can appreciate how other Christians might disagree with him. This hints at the possibility that different views on gay marriage, in the church, might be best viewed within the category of “agree to disagree” doctrines.
At one level, Coles’ does make a cogent observation. Many Christians are dead-certain about what constitutes the “inerrant” Scriptural view of such topics as the age of the earth, the nature of the millennium, the “Rapture,” eternal security, and the question of infant vs. believer’s baptism, just to name a few. Likewise, Christians have appealed to certain Scriptural texts to condemn same-sex relations, that upon closer inspection, are not dead-giveaways to supporting the church’s historical teaching on Christian marriage.
A favored counter-argument these days, runs like this: The Levitical codes condemn homosexuality, but they also condemn the mixing of different materials for use in clothing. It is not always easy to distinguish between which Levitical prohibitions have been abrogated, in the New Testament era, versus those which are still in force. This has led some to believe that since so many Christians today have no problem with wearing cotton and polyester together, that the church should just go ahead and bless same-sex marriages, or at least reduce the question of same-sex marriage to a “disputable matter” (An emotionally tense, memorable scene from the TV show, “The West Wing,” reinforces this perspective).
But the morality of sexual ethics can not be brought down to the same level as disputes over non-essential matters, such as the age of the earth. This trivializes marriage, as how we think about sexuality, has a fundamental impact on how we view salvation, in a manner which other, lesser matters do not.
How we think about gender impacts our understanding of the Gospel. The distinction between male and female in marriage tells us much more about central, core features of Christian truth, than does the mere mixing of cotton and polyester fabrics, or even the mode of baptism. The consequences for getting marriage wrong are gravely more serious, and they exist within a completely different moral category, as compared to debates about the wearing of particular articles of clothing.
Furthermore, as John R. W. Stott argues in his classic Same-Sex Partnerships?, answering such questions should ultimately be framed around Scripture’s positive biblical teachings on sex and marriage. To focus on the negative assessment of the Levitical codes, or the warnings of God’s judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, fails to appreciate God’s good purpose and design for human sexuality: marriage between a man and a woman.
Then there are the pragmatic difficulties. Reducing the question of same-sex marriage to a “disputable matter” does not seem to make Christian discipleship practical in a local church setting. Christians may “agree to disagree” about the meaning of the millennium, and still worship together in community. But how is a single, gay Christian to find encouragement in their walk with Christ, among others who actively engage in same-sex marriage? This does not appear to be workable in a local church. “Agreeing to disagree” in a community of faith has its limitations.
However, there is a plausible reason why Gregory Coles leaves the door open on this, for others, even though he does not see going the revisionist route himself. Because so many in the church have so tenaciously clung to the “you-must-repent-of-gayness-and-become-straight, before-God-will-really-like-you” narrative for so long, it has left many very deep wounds in the lives of people, who so desperately wanted to believe this narrative. Those wounded by the faults of the “ex-gay” narrative have become deeply disillusioned, with many who have rejected faith in Christ in the process.
When some 40% of American homeless youth, no longer live at home, because they identify as LGBT, this creates a huge problem for the church. When parents resort to quoting Bible verses, and then proceed to kick their son or daughter out of their home, for “coming out” to them, with no further opportunity for relational support, it should be no wonder that orthodox theology sometimes falls on deaf ears.
In other words, I do not see Gregory Coles as a rigorous theologian, at least, not in this book. But I do not see him trying to be one either. Instead, I see Coles as someone who simply wants to tell his story, and how he has a genuine heart for people, and giving them whatever space they need to find healing. It just would be better to find a way to be that pastorally sensitive, and still be more confident and balanced in the clarity of Scripture.
With respect to “clarity,” what is clear today, in the evangelical church, is that the question of gay identity is still very controversial, even among those who hold to a traditional, biblical ethic regarding marriage as between a male and a female. If there was some way to get the Pastor Gabes, Denny Burks, Rosaria Butterfields, Rachel Gilsons, Wesley Hills, and Gregory Coles in the church together, to arrive at some sort of consensus on these matters, it would go a long way towards promoting healing and a healthy sense of community, within the evangelical church, for those who wrestle personally in these areas.
The bottom line, as I have reflected on reading Single, Gay and Christian, over the last few months, is that historic, orthodox Christians need to do more than simply tell people that they can not have gay or lesbian sex. Such a “negative-only” message is not life-giving to the Gregory Coles of this world. Instead, we need to prayerfully and biblically consider what is the positive message that can be extended to people like Gregory Coles, aside from offering a well-meaning, but often disenchanted expectation, that God will somehow miraculously change a person’s sexual orientation, with a heavy dose of prayer and/or psychological therapy.
Get and Read the Book!
Despite the above constructive criticisms, Gregory Coles’ Single, Gay, and Christian is a vitally important book that every Christian, who knows someone who wrestles with same-sex desire, or who struggles with this themselves, should take the time to read. The evangelical church, and the culture at large, desperately needs to hear a third-way, between two polar extremes; namely, a message of rejection on one side, if not outright hatred, by ill-informed Christians, who have no contact with GLBT people as real persons, for whom Christ died for, versus a message that rejects 2,000 years of Christian teaching from the Bible, regarding the purpose of human sexuality and marriage. Sadly, some Christians think that such a third-way is impossible, and to be avoided like the plague, but I strongly disagree with such misguided thinking. For this reason, I applaud Gregory Coles’ bravery in telling his story in such powerful book.
The tone of the book is captured by Tyler Streckert’s review in Christianity Today magazine. The church needs to give the Gregory Coles of this world “breathing room” in the church. I can not do it justice in this blog post review, but Coles manages to humanize the challenges he faces. He effectively dismantles the average Christian’s approach to often abstracting the issue, at best, into a dispassionate analysis of theological doctrine, or at worst, a frustrated rant on today’s culture wars. This is about real people with real struggles, who need real friendship, real spiritual transformation, and real support.
Can someone be “single, gay and Christian?” Discuss this in your family, in your church small group, and with your pastor. For the sake of those who are hurting and have been hurt already, the church must get this one right.
1. As I was starting to write this review of Single, Gay, Christian in June, 2018, I was actually stunned at learning just how repugnant this view is in the minds of many Christians. The debate revolves around a confusion concerning (a) the category of same-sex attraction and orientation; i.e. what is same-sex attraction, and what does it mean, and how does that relate to sin?, and (b) what constitutes “identity,” i.e. is it about naming a shared experience, or is it about the ground of someone’s being? I will try my best to tackle these two confusions together as briefly as I can in this footnote: The psychological literature explaining the phenomena of “sexual orientation” as distinct from actual “sexual behavior” has been around for at least thirty years. But apparently, there are a lot of Christians who are completely oblivious to this, or they just reject it out of hand. A Christian conference (to be held in July, 2018), Revoice, seeks to try to take Gregory Coles’ approach, and explore the theological implications and questions it raises with a popular audience. I have been amazed by the level of pushback other Christians have been giving to this conference, suggesting that Revoice is somehow trying to smuggle in some new sort of anti-biblical, “gay identity” politics into the church (Consider even this more nuanced criticism by Southern Seminary leader, Al Mohler). I find this to be a rather bizarre way of framing the discussion, for several reasons: First, being able to identify with a commonality of shared experience, does not necessarily imply theological identity. The former is a social identity, whereas the second is an ontological identity. For example, I have a special bond with those who identify with being a “chocoholic” (I crave dark chocolate). But it is silly to think that my “identity” as a “chocoholic” grounds my sense of being, theologically and ontologically. Another quick example: I am an American Christian, but being an American does not define my identity theologically as a Christian (at least it should not, though, for some people, it apparently does). Secondly, one does not need to toss out thirty years of psychological literature, simply because the Bible is silent on the topic of “sexual orientation” vs. “sexual behavior.” That is like tossing out the past thirty years of research on physiological causes of depression, simply because the Bible never talks about serotonin reuptake inhibitors. For some Christians, it is not enough to affirm God’s purpose for marriage as being only between a man and woman. You must ALSO deny connecting “gayness” to sexual orientation, or else, you will be declared to be unorthodox. Gregory Coles’ book is an attempt at a popular level to correct that type of thinking. The logical fallacy at the root of this type of thinking is the rather flat-footed equation of same-sex attraction with sinful lust. Yes, same-sex attraction can lead to lust, but not necessarily. Sadly, the debate comes down to the use of terminology. This already long review must remain as it is, as it would take a deep exploration into the Bible’s view of creation, sin, temptation, the fallenness of humanity, and sanctification to fully unpack Gregory Coles’ approach. Frankly, the whole controversy over the Revoice conference , rejecting the idea of having a “gay identity” as a Christian, reminds me of the “Easter is pagan” controversy; since the word “Easter” might have had pagan origins 1600 years ago, therefore, Christians should stop celebrating “Easter.” ↩
2. The typical prooftext used to justify not using the terminology of “gay,” with respect to a Christian, who nevertheless wrestles with same-sex attraction is 1 Corinthians 6:9-11: Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (ESV). The key idea is that “such were some of you,” suggesting that such Christians formerly identified with being gay, but now that they are in Christ, they should forsake that old identity, as theologian Owen Strachan describes. The problem with Owen Strachan’s exegesis is that it fails to properly distinguish between persistent, acted-upon sin, that once defined the unjustified person, as Paul describes here, and the condition that fallen, yet redeemed persons experience as Christians. For example, an actively persistent drinker; that is, a “drunkard” for Paul, who has destroyed one’s family due to uncontrolled alcoholism, is in a much different place spiritually than an alcoholic, who has given their life to Jesus, committing themselves to sobriety, who still wrestles with the temptation to drink. Yes, Paul does teach that the “unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God.” However, Paul also teaches: “to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5 ESV). Surely, Owen Strachan would not suggest that the Apostle Paul is contradicting himself in his letters. Rather, it makes more sense to say that the unrighteous (the ungodly) are declared righteous, by the finished work of Christ. But this does not mean that the pull of unrighteousness does not still exist within the believer. To call oneself a “gay celibate Christian” is no more different that saying that one is a “sinner saved by grace.” Some may still object to the terminology of a “single gay Christian” or “gay celibate Christian.” No matter how some thoughtful person defines the term “gay,” it will always conjure up revolting images of men clawing after one another on the streets of San Francisco. No reasoned, nuanced argument could ever convince them otherwise. For that reason, it might make sense not to use the word “gay” around such Christians. If the language of “same-sex attracted, celibate Christians” is more acceptable, then fine. In deference to Owen Strachan, I must confess that when I hear advocates of “gay celibate Christian” terminology speak positively about the terminology of “queer,” as somehow acceptable for a Christian, I am not super-excited about that. The word “queer” still creeps me out, to be honest. Nevertheless, the word “gay” (or like terminology) is probably the most recognizable word in secular, American culture, that is an accepted term to describe someone with a same-sex orientation. It is not perfect, but that is what we have to work with. Words do mean something, so we should be careful with our words. Nevertheless, as believers concerned about reaching a lost world, we need to move past distracting debates about semantics and focus on listening to the stories of real people, learning to become friends with them, for the sake of the Gospel. ↩
3. The terminology “ex-gay” itself creates a tremendous amount of confusion. Some describe it as someone who once participated in same-sex relations, but who now does not engage in such practices. Others describe it as someone who once had a same-sex attraction, to some level, in the past, but who no longer experiences such attraction. However, that is not how the term is being used here. In this book review, “ex-gay” specifically refers to someone who has participated in a so-called Christian ministry that practices reparative, or conversion therapy. The main claim made by “ex-gay” ministry advocates is that they promote the use of psychological techniques that promise to alter a person’s sexual orientation. Many of these techniques rely on Freudian psychoanalytic principles, that at best have only a quasi-Christian basis behind them. Some “ex-gay” ministry groups even employ the forced viewing of heterosexual pornography to try to get the ministry client to change their orientation. Admittedly, not every “ex-gay” ministry uses such questionable techniques, so it would not be fair to label EVERY “ex-gay” ministry in such a category. However, such “ex-gay” groups often emphasize psychological techniques above the more biblical practice of the mortification of sin (Romans 8:13 KJV). To clarify, an “ex-gay” ministry is NOT the same as seeking pastoral care or counseling to discuss strategies on how to cope and deal with same-sex attraction. A knowledgeable critique of such “ex-gay” theology, particularly as practiced from about the mid-1980s to the early 2010s in America, can be studied from this article at LivingOut.org, a ministry in the U.K. that seeks to help same-sex attracted Christians live out a full and sanctified life ↩.
4. Exodus International closed its doors because it had wedded the Gospel to the practice of reparative therapy. The European Union is attempting to ban such practice, along with the State of California. Sadly, the practice of reparative therapy has demonstrated itself to be only marginally successful over the past 20-30 years that it has been used. While some groups and individuals still claim that reparative therapy can be effective in producing sexual-orientation change, the leadership of Exodus International concluded otherwise, which led to the ministry’s closure. Alan Chambers, the former president of Exodus International, lamented that 99% of those who went through Exodus’ reparative therapy experienced no effective change to their sexual orientation. Furthermore, reparative therapy only makes things worse for people who struggle with their homosexual orientation. ↩.
5. Gregory Coles’ position closely mirrors the Scriptural position takes by Preston Sprinkle, in his People to Be Loved, a book that I believe is the best book currently available on the topic of same-sex attraction, reviewed a few years ago on Veracity. Unfortunately, the prominent “ex-gay” narrative, that has dominated much of evangelical Christianity in recent decades, while helping some, has also resulted in great harm, driving people unnecessarily away from the church. A better approach is needed, and Gregory Coles is on the right track towards finding a better approach. As MereOrthodoxy blogger Matthew Lee Anderson put it: “Conservative evangelicals who reject celibate gay Christians shouldn’t act surprised when they run into the arms of progressives.” ↩
6. Denny Burk is the president of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and the chief driving force behind 2017’s Nashville Statement, that generated a lot of discussion, both positive and negative, among evangelical leaders when it came out, and I offer a brief critique here on Veracity. After writing an early draft of this blog post, Denny Burk offered a blog rebuttal to the idea that you could be both a “gay” and “Christian,” as Gregory Coles lays out in his book, entitled “If same-sex attraction is sinful, then what?” Unlike most critiques of Coles, Burk is more compassionate and nuanced, and worth considering in detail. The problem I still find with Burk, a problem that I believe folks like Nate Collins, the founder of the Revoice Conference, corrects, is that by thinking of same-sex attraction as sinful, like pride, as opposed to like cancer (or as in my example, like blindness), he fails to properly distinguish temptation from sin, which can lead to a lot of confusion. Here is a lengthy rebuttal of Burk’s position by Matthew Anderson. Also, listen to this interview with Nate Collins on the Sheologians podcast. And finally, here is an engagement on the Augustinian undertones of the debate with Denny Burk ; that is, the language of concupiscence, by SpiritualFriendship.org founder, Ron Belgau.↩