On Valorizing Gay Marriage: A Response to Wesley Hill
In an article entitled “Hoping for Love” posted June 28 by Dr. Wesley Hill on his Spiritual Friendship site, Dr. Hill made a series of remarks that prompted me to post on my Facebook page: “Am I the only one for whom this post by Wesley Hill sets off alarm bells, particularly after yesterday’s disclosure of Julie Rodgers’ acceptance of ‘gay marriage’ as a valid alternative for ssa-Christians?” Rodgers, a self-identified “celibate gay Christian,” was one of the contributors to the Spiritual Friendship site (last contributing in Oct. 2014).
Matt Kennedy produced a response to Hill’s article, “Love Does Not Rejoice in Wrongdoing,” which included a quotation of one of my comments on Hill’s article. Dr. William Witt (systematic theology), a colleague of Dr. Hill’s at Trinity School for Ministry, rushed to Dr. Hill’s defense, saying (among other things):
“I was disappointed that Gagnon completely missed that the whole point of Wes’s article was about friendship. Gagnon’s criticism does not even mention the word ‘friendship.’ Did Gagnon even read the whole article or did he just read the first paragraph and take off running?”
Let me begin by assuring Dr. Witt that I read the whole article carefully before commenting on my FB post. Dr. Hill wrote a post explaining why he was so “moved” by “gay” friends celebrating the Supreme Court “gay marriage” decision rather than being anguished by that decision: (1) the alternative for most was a church hostile to celibate “gay” Christianity or at least indifferent to developing “spiritual friendships”; (2) there are many goods associated with homosexual relationships even if the sex can’t be approved from a biblical standpoint.
In speaking about alarm bells I was not equating what Dr. Hill had written to Julie Rodgers’ new acceptance of “gay marriage.” At several points in the article (not to mention his other writings) he states that he is not rejecting the church’s teaching that homosexual sex is wrong. Indeed, just yesterday he distinguished his position from that of Julie Rodgers in an op-ed for the Washington Post (“Yes, many Christian communities are toxic for my LBGT friends. But there’s more”; similarly, the co-founder/editor of the Spiritual Friendship site, Ron Belgau).
My concern is rather that in his “Hoping for Love” article Dr. Hill is blurring boundaries in a way that Rodgers blurred boundaries before Rodgers finally crossed over into the other side. Perhaps he himself does not realize that he is valorizing homosexual relationships in an unhealthy manner. But he is.
Dr. Hill begins by commending a statement of Alan Jacobs, who was “moved by many of the scenes yesterday of gay people getting married…. I hope that many American gays and lesbians choose marriage over promiscuity, and I hope those who marry stay married, and flourish.” Dr. Hill comments: “I felt that too.”
“I hope those who marry [a person of the same sex] stay married”? What’s next? Hoping that polygamous unions stay together as a better option than the alternative of promiscuity? No, of course neither Dr. Jacobs nor Dr. Hill would argue that. So neither should argue the same for homosexual relations.
In his concluding paragraph Dr. Hill says:
“When some of us traditionalist Christians were moved by the pictures we saw of gay couples, or moved by the real-life visits with our gay friends, the day of the SCOTUS ruling, ….we were wanting our friends not to be lonely and alienated from love, and we were wanting them to keep hoping and searching for Love Himself.”
The last clause indicates that those in homosexual relationships should keep searching for Jesus, the very embodiment of love. Well and good. Yet the preceding remarks about being “moved” and, in a way, about feeling happy for their newfound legitimacy as “gay couples” are quite out of touch with the views of Scripture.
In the rest of the article it looks like Dr. Hill is making a brief for homosexual relationships, minus the specific moments in which sexual intercourse is taking place. He talks about the “lump in my throat on Friday [immediately after the SCOTUS Obergefell verdict] as I was scrolling through news feeds and seeing gay friends’ pictures pop up on Facebook and Twitter” and “their current jubilation.” He contends that “the so-called Great Tradition of the Christian faith” has not condemned “the legitimate human desire for closeness that may or may not accompany [same-sex sexual] acts.” He adds:
“That same teaching certainly isn’t condemning all the things about ‘gay culture’ that give us those weepy chills when we see them at their best. Historic Christianity certainly isn’t saying that … all their longings and loves are any further removed from God’s design than their heterosexual neighbors’ are.
“Nor is the Christian tradition intending to denigrate the many virtues exhibited by gay couples [note: not just persons with ssa but those in homosexual relationships]. I myself believe that when the history of our particular time … is eventually written, we will look back on gay couples as the [sic] among the ones who rediscovered and taught us some important things about the virtues of friendship, things we’d forgotten in our fixation on heterosexual romantic love. I think, for instance, of Andrew Sullivan’s beautiful writings about gay friendships during the AIDS plague years; those stories will be remembered.”
“Weepy chills”? Note that the context indicates by “gay couples” Dr. Hill means homosexually active persons. In our “fixation on heterosexual romantic love” we have lost sight of the fact that “gay couples” are “among the ones who rediscovered and taught us some important things about the virtues of friendship”?
Equally concerning to me is this article to which Dr. Hill links, from Eve Tushnet, who to some extent valorizes a “Gay Christian Network” conference. The main purpose of GCN leader Justin Lee (who is looking for “Mr. Right,” by his own admission) is to blur the vital distinction between ssa-Christians who are faithful in not engaging in homosexual practice (light) and ssa-“Christians” who live homosexually active lives (darkness), in order to make homosexual relationships more palatable to the evangelical mindset.
One of the key “resources” peddled at the GCN website is an 83-minute DVD called “The Bible and Homosexuality: How the Scriptures Changed My Mind,” in which Lee purports to help people “to understand the Bible arguments in favor of committed same-sex relationships” (for an example of how Lee has blatantly misrepresented my work, with which he appears to have acquainted himself only through snippets on an online “gay Christian” website, go here).
Ms. Tushnet describes the Jan. 2015 GCN conference as an event of intense openness and love, a time of welcoming “regardless of our sexual ethics or behavior.” “These were people truly trying to create the Christian family which can love and shelter all those in need.” She adds:
“A lot of the stories I heard at the conference were stories of moving from a ‘Side B’ [i.e., traditional Christian] sexual ethic lived out in judgment, condemnation, shame, and despair, to a ‘Side A’ [pro-gay] ethic lived out in hope, welcome, and trust. That’s a story of someone becoming more Christian, not less.”
Can you imagine any writer of Scripture, or Jesus, making such a statement? (The question is rhetorical.) Would she say the same about self-professed Christians who no longer feel guilt or shame about wanting to act on polyamorous urges (“big love”) or erotic attraction to a sibling or parent?
Sadly Ms. Tushnet appears not so much concerned about “gay Christians” choosing “Side A” (homosexual relationships) as concerned about “gay Christians” choosing Side A because they think Side B (celibacy or marriage to a person of the other sex) “is death.” They should instead recognize that “the historic Christian ethic can be lived by gay people without self-hatred or shame.” As long as they understand that, they are good to go: “That way those who do become ‘Side A’ [pursuing a homosexual relationship] will do so because from a score of beautiful options this one seemed the most true–not because they thought their choices were Side A or suicide.” Needless to say, that is not a faithful Christian ethic on homosexual practice. The moral choices that we make matter, not just that we are well informed about alternative options.
Bear in mind that Ms. Tushnet is one of the most important contributors on the Spiritual Friendship site, perhaps superseded only by Hill and Belgau. Clearly her views and her associations with the “Gay Christian Network” don’t trouble Dr. Hill and Mr. Belgau. Dr. Hill regularly does road-show dialogues with Justin Lee, rarely if ever challenging his homosexualist propaganda (though he says that he will try to do better in the future); Mr. Belgau has been a member of GCN from its inception, I believe.
My concern with Dr. Hill’s piece, as I expressed in comments under my FB posting, was twofold.
First, all the so-called goods of homosexual relationships are inextricably tainted by the evil of homosexual practice. As I noted: In my view a correct understanding of Romans 1:24-27 (“the infamous Romans 1 passage of St. Paul,” according to Dr. Hill) is not entirely limited to an indictment of the sex act (contra Dr. Hill) but includes a recognition of the self-dishonoring character of the desire, which treats a person of the same sex as though a sexual counterpart or complement, which in turn diminishes one’s own sex as incomplete in relation not to the other sex but to one’s own.
Even though we are not culpable merely for the unsolicited experience of sinful desire, the desire is sinful in the sense that it distorts reality and rejects God’s will. The very desire to “couple” with someone of the same sex as though a “significant other” is a false narrative that must be confronted by the gospel, even when the persons involved abstain from sexual intercourse.
There is no way that Paul would have valorized any aspect of same-sex marriage; nor would he have condoned such valorization by other believers. Such institutionalizing of sin only regularizes and legitimizes the dishonoring of the participants made in God’s image, deepening the self-deception regarding the indecency of the relationship. There is no possibility of feeling good about that while remaining faithful to the biblical witness (to say nothing about the persecution of many faithful Christians that the imposition of “gay marriage” by five lawless justices will bring).
Secondly, as hinted earlier, there is the problem of analogies. Should we also talk about positive aspects to an adult-committed incestuous union between a man and his mother, aside from the sex? I suppose that one could argue that there are indeed some positive non-intercourse aspects but wouldn’t it be a bit perverse to discourse on such things? Even adult-child sexual relationships (which I am not equating with adult homosexual relations) arguably could have some positive aspects, as ancient cultures often did so argue (including ancient Greek proponents of pederasty).
The writers of Scripture and the Church Fathers had such a negative view of homosexual acts as a violation of the very foundation of creation that all discussion of the goods of homosexual coupling must be treated as a desensitizing of the Christian church against this grave wrong. If we would be concerned about a Christian leader who says that he is “moved” by adult-committed incestuous or polygamous unions and bemoans the church’s failure to recognize the non-sexual goods in such relationships, we should be all the more concerned when a Christian leader does the same for homosexual “marriages.”
My view is not altered by Dr. Hill’s citation of C. S. Lewis, who for all his wonderful works didn’t always get things right in his offhand comments. Lewis is not Jesus or the apostolic witness to Jesus in Scripture. Moreover, we can understand why some boys in the harsh all-male boarding schools of the first half of the last century found solace in occasional and impermanent “unnatural love-affairs” with other boys. Yet understanding motivation is not the same as mitigating the deed, much less building a case for the non-sexual benefits of adult, intentional, and permanent homosexual relationships.
Don’t misunderstand me. I appreciate the problems faced in the church by persons struggling with same-sex attractions (ssa). I have always commended intimate but non-sexual same-sex friendships for ssa-Christians as one means of dealing with loneliness. Dr. Hill’s attempt at promoting friendships is generally a good thing, though I have my concerns about his way of describing such friendships.
A vowed non-sexual relationship between two Christians dealing with same-sex attractions can be unhealthy if they begin to look at themselves as “significant others.” Dr. Hill used this expression in an interview by Jonathan Merritt for Religion News Service: “I wish more churches would recognize that certain friends are, for gay Christians, our ‘significant others.’” The language of “significant others” should be reserved for true sexual counterparts or complements, not for same-sex friends. Two ssa-Christians can couple, leave off the sexual intercourse, and still be governed by the sinful false narrative that they are each “completed” in the other, as though two half-males make a whole male or two half-females make a whole female.
Dr. Hill quotes approvingly two paragraphs from Eve Tushnet, who rails against the toxic atmosphere of the church against ssa-Christians. I certainly don’t condone any ill treatment of Christians with ssa in the church. Obviously the church should not be requiring repentance for the mere experience of unwanted same-sex attractions (though I have not met any pastors who do require such).
That being said, I’m not sure I agree that everything which Dr. Hill (through Tushnet) classifies as “abuse” is really abuse. I don’t agree that a self-identification as “gay,” even by otherwise faithful Christians, should be given a pass from critique. There are good reasons why such a self-identification is problematic (it obfuscates and infantilizes). Nor do I agree with the statement that even self-professed Christians who engage in a self-affirming manner in homosexual intercourse are being abused if put on the kind of church discipline imposed by Paul in the case of the incestuous man in 1 Cor 5.
I get the impression, both from this article and other writings by Dr. Hill, that Dr. Hill views any classification of homosexual practice as a particularly severe sexual offense to be an instance of abuse, even though the united witness of Scripture supports such a conclusion (arguably the most severe consensual sexual offense among humans; see this article).
I suspect that Dr. Hill would regard my concerns as coming dangerously close to abuse, where “any hints of self-acceptance are treated as rejection of God” (Tushnet). Yet that would be a wrong assessment. My concern lies in valorizing a form of behavior repugnant to God, which then makes the prospect of engaging in that behavior more conceivable.
One wonders if Dr. Hill is issuing (whether consciously or not) a veiled warning about himself and other celibate “gay” Christians: “It should come as little surprise that many of the people who receive this mistreatment eventually reject (what I believe to be) the Christian sexual ethic, and often reject Christianity entirely.”
In effect: Either (1) accept our self-designation as “gay Christian,” stop referring to homosexual practice as more severe than divorce-and-remarriage, stop criticizing us when we speak about the goods of gay marriage and when we associate with the “Gay Christian Network” or (2) face the fact that you will drive us away from orthodox Christian sexual ethics and perhaps from Christianity itself.
I think a better approach is for us to caution as brothers and sisters in the Lord: We appreciate your faithfulness to Christ in abstaining from sexual immorality and your service of the church through your writings. Yet we are concerned that elements of an un-renewed, fleshly mentality permeate some of your thinking about “gay coupling.” We do not want to see you or the church head down a road that romanticizes aspects of what is abhorrent to God and paves the way for acceptance of such unions.
Robert A. J. Gagnon, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Abingdon Press).
Share this story:
Recent Related Posts
Are you reading this?
Advertising on Stand Firm works!
Click here for details.