Is it possible to be a “gay Christian?” For some, choosing to follow Jesus does not immediately produce the results they might expect. Even Paul admitted that after following Jesus, he still struggled with ongoing sin. “I have the desire to do what is right,” he said, “but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:18b-19).
Sexual orientation, as we’ve defined it, does not fit neatly into the categories of “innate” or “personal choice.” Yet homosexual behavior—like all sexual brokenness—is a personal choice and may warrant repentance. So what about those who follow Jesus and have surrendered their sexual behavior to God. What then? Can we expect God to change their sexual orientation? If they continue to experience same-sex attraction, are they really true Christians?
To understand this, we’ll need to look at the idea of “salvation” a bit differently. The Bible doesn’t see “salvation” as simply as being “saved” or “unsaved.” Instead faith is something that evolves and deepens as we are scraped raw by the rough edges of time and experience. It’s better to think of salvation as having a past, present, and future component. We’ll find such an idea contained in the writings of John, one of Jesus’ closest personal followers.
FORGIVENESS FOR MY PAST (ADOPTION)—1 JOHN 3:2a
Sexual sin leaves us feeling dirty. Earlier John told the readers of his letter that when we “confess our sins [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). The cross has such enormous weight for the Christian that it can’t be supported by any one idea. So we might speak of the forgiveness that comes from Christ paying the debt of my sin. We might speak of the way we are washed clean through the redemptive work of God. In John’s letter, he emphasizes what the cross accomplished: to be not only forgiven, but to be given a new identity—adopted as God’s children. “Beloved,” he writes, “we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared…” (1 John 3:2a).
Sexual sin—unlike most other types of sin—uniquely affects our core identity. It’s easy to assume that our sexual orientation is who we really are. How can we repent of something so fundamental? The good news of the gospel is that in Christ we receive new identities as God’s children.
This is crucial. It means that in order to be a Christian, nothing—nothing—is required of us except faith. Christianity says that we are accepted before God not by the strength of our faith, but by the object of our faith. The blood of Christ covers our sin and guarantees our adoption into God’s family—regardless of our sexual orientation.
HOPE FOR MY FUTURE (GLORIFICATION)—1 JOHN 3:2b
Secondly, John tells his readers that “we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2b). He’s referring, of course, to the promised return of Jesus. At that time, all things will be set right again. Even our bodies will be raised from the dead and rendered perfect—no longer subject to the curse of sin or death (1 Corinthians 15:44-47).
What does this mean for those who struggle with same-sex attraction? It means that there will be a day when our bodies no longer experience these kinds of struggles. We will be made new and perfect. So the things you and I battle against now will one day be completely eradicated at the final victory of God’s renewed creation.
TRANSFORMATION FOR MY PRESENT (SANCTIFICATION)—1 JOHN 3:3
Finally, John deals with what happens between our past forgiveness and our future glorification. “Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3). Christianity uses the word “sanctification” to refer to the process of becoming more like Jesus. We must understand that while forgiveness and future glorification are one-time events, sanctification is a process that takes a lifetime.
This means that for those experiencing same-sex attraction, there are three options:
- No progress—What’s the big deal?
There will, of course, be those who still see no problem with their sexual orientation—that as long as they are sincere in their love God will not judge them. In other words, they choose to follow Jesus, but also choose to engage in homosexual behavior. What then?
We must say two things. First, their behavior does nothing to change God’s acceptance of them, because their sins remain covered by the blood of Jesus. But second, by refusing repentance, they have turned away from a life of active Christian growth. So while it may still be possible to be a “gay Christian,” no one can be a maturing Christian so long as they persist in a sinful lifestyle.
Some may be able to “heal” from their same-sex attraction. Granted, so-called “reparative therapy” has gotten bad press and caricatured as some sort of hard-nosed “pray out the gay” torture-fest. But advances in understanding have led to some surprising success. For example, in a 1997 study, 18% of participants changed from being “exclusively homosexual” to “exclusively heterosexual” as a result of therapy. An additional 17% described themselves as “almost entirely heterosexual.”
One example comes to us in an article in The New York Times a few years ago. After following Jesus, Michael Glatze became wholly healed of his same-sex attraction. He tells his interviewer: “God loves you more than any dude will ever love you…Don’t put your faith in some man…That’s what we do when we’re stuck in the gay identity, when we’re stuck in that cave. We go from guy to guy, looking for someone to love us and make us feel O.K., but God is so much better than all the other masters out there.”
Still, there may be others who despite their best efforts—or even the efforts of professionals—cannot seem to eradicate their same-sex attraction. What then? In this case, these individuals are left to a life of celibacy.
Let’s be clear: a life of celibacy is a harsh sentence to endure. If Christianity weren’t true, this level of self-denial would seem inhumane. But if the resurrection truly happened, if we are promised something better in our future, then we may find joy even in the struggle of self-denial, despite the loneliness and heartache it surely brings. Writing for The Atlantic, Eve Tushnet writes of her own personal struggle with same-sex attraction
“By leading lives of fruitful, creative love, we can offer proof that sexual restraint isn’t a death sentence (or an especially boring form of masochism). Celibacy can offer some of us radical freedom to serve others. While this approach isn’t for everyone, there were times when I had much more time, space, and energy to give to people in need than my friends who were juggling marriage and parenting along with all their other commitments. …Moreover, celibate gay Christians can offer proof that friendship can be real love, and deserves the same honor as any other form of lovingkindness, caretaking and devotion.”
FINDING NEW IDENTITY IN THE rWORLD
At this point, it’s doubtful that we can truly return to the tWorld—the world of tradition. So instead we place our hope in the rWorld—the world of relationship, the world shaped by the gospel of Jesus Christ. You see, Christians have been unfortunately guilty of making sexual purity too great a goal in our congregations. We distribute “purity rings” to our young people, inviting them to take “abstinence pledges” and encouraging them to “save themselves for marriage.” And ironically our insistence on abstinence has done little to dampen the prevalence of pre-marital sex.
It’s time to stop demanding that our young people save themselves for marriage. Why? Because such language betrays our unspoken idol of marital purity. We inadvertently say: “If you stay pure, God will reward you with a really great spouse.” As if this is the greatest prize we have to offer our youth: really great sex. Thanks, but we can find that just about anywhere these days. It’s time to stop telling young people to stay pure in hopes of future reward. It’s time to start telling them to stay pure because God is your reward. The gospel is not a message of being “good”—even through sexual purity—and then God rewards you with an easy life. No; the gospel says that by the grace of God I get him and he is enough regardless of my circumstances, my temptations and my sexual identity.
This is also why we must be careful with our language. The phrase “gay Christian” is unhelpful. Why? Because our identity in the gospel is bigger than our identity as straight or gay. Instead, there are Christians who struggle with their sexual orientation, who press in to the grace of God in steady reliance on his promises of hope and healing.
We’ll conclude with the story of Rosaria Butterfield, a leftist lesbian professor who began reading the Bible in the hopes of discrediting the Christian right. But instead of finding ammunition, she instead found a Savior:
“I continued reading the Bible, all the while fighting the idea that it was inspired. But the Bible got to be bigger inside me than I. It overflowed into my world. I fought against it with all my might. Then, one Sunday morning, I rose from the bed of my lesbian lover, and an hour later sat in a pew at the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church. Conspicuous with my butch haircut, I reminded myself that I came to meet God, not fit in. The image that came in like waves, of me and everyone I loved suffering in hell, vomited into my consciousness and gripped me in its teeth….Then, one ordinary day, I came to Jesus, openhanded and naked. … And I was a broken mess. Conversion was a train wreck. I did not want to lose everything that I loved. But the voice of God sang a sanguine love song in the rubble of my world. I weakly believed that if Jesus could conquer death, he could make right my world.”
 “The Results of the 1997 NARTH Survey on Change,” quoted in Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, p. 421
 Benoit Deizet-Lewis, “My Ex-Gay Friend,” The New York Times, June 16, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/19/magazine/my-ex-gay-friend.html?_r=0
 Eve Tushnet, “I’m Gay, But I’m Not Switching to a Church that Supports Gay Marriage,” The Atlantic, May 30, 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/05/im-gay-but-im-not-switching-to-a-church-that-supports-gay-marriage/276383/
 Rosaria Butterfield, “My Train Wreck Conversion,” February 7, 2013, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/january-february/my-train-wreck-conversion.html