Mixed Bag of Reactions
The PCA’s report on human sexuality sparked an interesting assortment of reactions when it came out last month. Revoice co-founder Stephen Moss called it a “solid resource for our denomination,” even as Denny Burk, who is publicly and passionately vocal about his opposition to Revoice, similarly praised the report as merely a re-articulation of the Nashville Statement. Spiritual Friendship’s Ron Belgau tweeted a link by Kevin DeYoung that was clearly a jab at the report, writing, “This week on Moving the Goalposts.” But at the same time, Kyle Keating participated in drafting the report and is a contributor to Spiritual Friendship.
Pretty much every single “side b” friend of mine expressed a degree of muddled and disoriented feelings about it. Appreciation for some aspects, dismay over others, and general exhaustion at needing to break down the good, the bad, and the ugly—yet again—about another church statement on human sexuality.
I can’t possibly vocalize what everyone is thinking in the side b LGBTQ+ community. But I don’t want to be silent either. Christians of all stripes need perspective as they read this report. Hopefully more responses from thoughtful Christians follow.
Summarizing the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the PCA’s Report on Human Sexuality
Right now, there’s a lot of pressure on side b people to applaud the good parts of this document and be happy that it’s “better” than past documents. But I hesitate to call this a step in a “better” direction or a step in the “right” direction.
The report isn’t all bad nor is it all good. It’s one piece to a much lengthier conversation. The conversation is happening, and that’s a good thing, and this report has a lot of good things to say. However, homophobic and transphobic assumptions overshadow the entire document. Combined with all the ambiguities and self-contradictions, it’s not surprising to me that so many disparate groups are reacting in so many different ways to it. The report is a step, for sure, but I’m not ready to say it’s a step in the “right” direction just yet.
Think of it this way. If somebody made you dinner and poisoned the entire dish, you’d have a right to complain. But if all they did to “fix” the problem was take your dinner back, mix in a few vegetables, and tell you to eat it because now it’s “healthier,” you’d still complain. Sure, I guess on some level it’s “healthier” because it contains more vitamins and nutrients. But it’s still poisonous.
Herein lies my concern. They’ve added vegetables to a toxic meal. While it’s theoretically great that the PCA report contains a number of “improvements,” it doesn’t actually address the real issues causing harm to LGBTQ people. You don’t make a poisoned dish better by adding vegetables. You get rid of the poison first.
The influence of homophobia is not a minor issue in this report. It colors almost everything. Gay Christians in the celibate community will be told to eat their vegetables when it comes to this. But there’s nothing wrong with refusing to eat a deadly meal. People might say that you’re being ungrateful if you demand something better. They might tell you to be happy with “progress.” But friends, you deserve a meal that isn’t toxic. You don’t need to eat poisoned vegetables.
All that being said, my take boils down to three points:
- The good: the PCA report includes a final essay that provides a solid vision for how a traditional Christian perspective on sexuality ought to be understood and articulated. It also incorporates some aspects of the side b perspective that have been stuck points for way too long.
- The bad: the PCA report conflates a number of its categories, sowing a great deal of unnecessary confusion and leading to problematic conclusions. It also suffers from lack of clarity and double-standards in its treatment of LGBTQ+ language.
- The ugly: the PCA report does not acknowledge the ongoing existence of heterosexism and cissexism in the church. It is therefore blind to the ways in which both homophobia and transphobia impact its assumptions, leading to the re-articulation of ex-gay thought.
Get ready because the rest of this post is about to get long. If you don’t have time and just want to skim, or you want to read some parts in detail and others just briefly, I’ve included a short summary in italics at the end of every section. I hope that everything I say in what follows helps people in the church to think critically about this report.
Jump to a section:
- The Good #1: Holistic Vision for Traditional Sexual Ethic
- The Good #2: Aspects of the Side B Gay Christian Perspective
- The Bad #1: Conflation and Confusion of Categories
- The Bad #2: Lack of Clarity
- The Ugly #1: Heterosexism and Cissexism
- The Ugly #2: Ex-Gay Philosophy Reinvented
- Concluding Summary
The Good #1: Solid Vision for How a Traditional Christian Perspective on Sexuality Ought to be Understood and Articulated
One of the most frustrating aspects of contemporary Christian discourse about homosexuality is that Christians love to proof-text their way to the Bible being “clear.” Conversations end up devolving into the meaning of this Greek word and the context of that Greek word, and the vision from Scripture gets lost.
I was never convinced to follow the traditional sexual ethic because somebody managed to prove to me that arsenokoitai in Greek really does include a condemnation of homosexual sexual activity given the coinciding Greek translation of the LXX from which Paul clearly borrows two words from Levitical law to make a portmanteau that… okay, so hopefully you see where I’m going. Proof-texting = not compelling.
Articulating a compelling vision for human sexuality is way more important than proof-texting. Once you establish a holistic picture given the full weight of Scripture, the proof-texts become peripheral. For myself, what keeps me following the traditional sexual ethic are not the proof-texts but the vision I see from Scripture. A vision that is beautiful and grand and just and good for everybody, not just for straight people.
The report finally paints that picture at the end with its concluding essay. I really don’t understand why it didn’t come first. The authors provide here a critical framework for understanding human sexuality that ought to be in the foreground. Instead, it hides at the end, where I suspect many will overlook it.
Regardless, the essay does an excellent job taking us through the cultural context of ancient Rome and why the Christian sexual ethic was so instrumental in overthrowing a truly horrific sexual system. “In Rome,” the author observes, “sexual morality was determined by the social status of the parties and, therefore, by power.”
But when Christianity came along, it completely upended the logic upon which sexual morality was understood. The logic shifted from one of power to one where “sex acts were judged as to whether or not they kept persons in a right relationship with the cosmos, God’s created and redemptive order.” The authors do a fantastic job showing why this was so essential to abolishing the truly abusive sexual system of Rome and establishing a sexual system that was just.
As a result, they provide a “counter-narrative” to the narrative of modern culture, one rooted in the “full theology” of Scripture as opposed to piecemeal Bible verses. This is fantastic. And so so needed. I wish I could pull this out from the rest of the report and send it to people to read, because I really think it’s that good.
I do have a few concerns, however. While the report does a fantastic job providing a Christian counter-narrative to the sexual narrative of modern society, it doesn’t fairly represent what it calls the “modern identity narrative.” Instead, it largely relies upon stereotypes and caricatures. This weakens the impact.
Summary: The PCA report includes a fantastic essay at the end which provides a “counter-narrative” to the sexual narrative of modern culture. This is superb, especially considering that most Christian discussion of homosexuality typically focuses on “proof-texting,” and proof-texting is largely unhelpful.
The Good #2: Perspectives from Groups Like Spiritual Friendship and Revoice Finally Incorporated
The report includes a number of statements that are a result of direct engagement with the side b gay Christian community. This is huge and worth recognizing.
In statement #1 on marriage, for example, the authors acknowledge that “all sex within marriage” is not necessarily sinless and that sexual immorality is “not an unpardonable sin.” In statement #9, the authors recognize the difference between speaking ontologically and speaking phenomenologically:
“[B]eing honest about our sin struggles is important. While Christians should not identify with their sin so as to embrace or seek to base their identity on it, Christians ought to acknowledge their sin in an effort to overcome it. There is a difference between speaking about a phenomenological facet of a person’s sin-stained reality and employing the language of sinful desires as a personal identity marker.”
Later, the document says, “Christians are well-served when they can be honest about both their present fallen realities and their hope for sanctification.” The difference between ontology and phenomenology has been a stuck point amongst conservative Christians for so long it’s hard to believe that I’m finally seeing it recognized. Ron Belgau, Wes Hill, and other Spiritual Friendship writers have spoken on this issue repeatedly and been repeatedly rebuffed by Christian ministries. It’s a welcome relief to finally move past it.
In the section on language, the report acknowledges that debates over terminology are “secondary issues”:
“[L]anguage itself is a secondary issue relative to the doctrine it expresses. Sometimes there are disagreements about language even when the underlying doctrinal commitments seem to be the same…. [I]ssues surrounding sexual identity, and identity more generally, cannot be reduced to language alone..”
This is huge. Conservative Christian ministries have attempted to make language a first-order issue for years, often going so far as to suggest that you can’t call yourself “gay” and be a Christian at the same time. The report still argues that gay Christians shouldn’t call themselves gay, but it’s a welcome change that the PCA finally recognizes it to be a “secondary issue,” one that is not worth losing fellowship over.
(At the same time, the report spends an exhausting amount of energy on language and terminology in such a way that a lot is left unclear about what they mean when they say “secondary issue.” We’ll get to this more further down.)
Other positives. In statement #11, the report says:
“The church must work to see that all members, including believers who struggle with same-sex attraction, are valued members of the body of Christ and engaged in meaningful relationships through the blessings of the family of God.”
Later, in the section on “Sexual Identity,” the authors also say that “there is no place for a sort of “second-class citizenship of believers who have particular struggles, trials, or temptations.” This is another super important acknowledgement, as few if any church statements from conservative denominations have ever explicitly stated their belief in the equal standing of gay Christians in the church as members of the body of Christ. Also in statement #11:
“Likewise, we affirm the value of Christians who share common struggles gathering together for mutual accountability, exhortation, and encouragement.”
Again, this is super important. Many conservative Christian groups have attempted to discredit Revoice by saying it’s sinful for side b gay Christians to gather to support each other because it’s based upon a “sinful identity.” This is obviously ridiculous, and it’s great to see it finally acknowledged here.
Also, under the heading, “The Common Dynamic of Concupiscence,” the statement acknowledges that a same-sex attracted person’s experience of concupiscence is something that all people share in common:
“The danger of this question arising in the context of the discussion of homosexuality is that some might be tempted to think of that particular example of disordered desire as qualitatively different from their own. Or worse, some may be willing to assert the sinfulness of one category of spontaneous desire but minimize or remain largely ignorant of the sinful concupiscence that is common to all.”
It’s important to note, however, that this statement stops short of saying that heterosexuality is a manifestation of human sexuality that is just as equally fallen as homosexuality. The logic is all there in the above quotation, but they don’t say so explicitly.
Summary: The PCA report acknowledged numerous points that side b gay Christians have been articulating for years. Among the points acknowledged, not all sex within marriage is sinless, there is a difference between speaking ontologically and speaking phenomenologically, debates over language and terminology are secondary issues, people who are same-sex attracted need to be valued as full members of the body of Christ and not “second-class citizens,” it’s okay for Christians who “share common struggles” to gather together to support each other, and disordered desire is something that all people share in common.
The Bad #1: The PCA Report Suffers from Conflation of Categories and General Confusion, Leading to Problematic Conclusions
Let’s start my critique with the conflation of same-sex attraction and same-sex sexual attraction. In Statement #4, the report says the following:
“The desire for an illicit end—whether in sexual desire for a person of the same sex or in sexual desire disconnected from the context of Biblical marriage—is itself an illicit desire. Therefore, the experience of same-sex attraction is not morally neutral; the attraction is an expression of original or indwelling sin that must be repented of and put to death.”
Attraction is a very large umbrella category that includes sexual lust as well as sexual desire. This doesn’t mean that we can reduce attraction to either of these things. I’ve written at length about the varied ways in which attraction impacts all aspects of our relational interactions and the many forms it takes, including emotional attraction, intellectual attraction, aesthetic attraction, and physical attraction (which is not to be confused with sexual attraction).
When a gay person talks about the experience of same-sex attraction, they’re talking about all of these things, not just sexual attraction. This is not just a matter of, “Oh, but you know what they mean,” because I actually don’t know what they mean. Christians have been sexualizing LGBTQ+ people’s experience of attraction for literally generations. This is a problem that goes far, far back and touches upon some of the worst types of prejudices that we experience, including but not limited to accusations of pedophilia because we get along well with kids, being “confronted” over the fact that we happen to enjoy spending time with a best friend, or losing friendships entirely because so-and-so thinks that we’re “into” them.
Using “same-sex attraction” as a synonym for “same-sex sexual attraction” is profoundly irresponsible and has a history of making literally anything and everything that a gay person experiences in the context of their relational life an occasion for repentance. This is not being nitpicky. This is the reality of how attraction is sexualized and weaponized against gay people in Christian churches.
Sadly, the conflations only get worse. The report says that “the experience of homosexual attraction is an example of concupiscence.” In other words, not only does the report reduce same-sex attraction to sexual attraction and only sexual attraction, it also conflates sexual attraction with desire (and doesn’t bother to clarify the difference between desire and lust).
All of this means that the report conflates attraction with desire, conflates same-sex attraction with sexual desire, and only then, after all of these conflations, concludes that same-sex attraction is by definition a disordered desire to have sexual intercourse with the same-sex and is therefore a sin.
Let’s set aside, for a brief minute, the fact that same-sex attraction is not the same thing as same-sex sexual attraction. Let’s focus now on the fact that this report assumes that desire and attraction are the same thing. They are not.
I tend to think of it in relation to food. (I know… I’m bringing up food again, but it’s what I’ve got so I’m sticking with it.) I have celiac disease which means I can’t eat a lot of things that most people enjoy. The funny thing is that it doesn’t really bother me when I can’t eat something like bread at a restaurant. I don’t want to eat bread. There is absolutely no desire to eat bread in any fiber of my being. I know good and well how sick it makes me, so I don’t eat bread, and I don’t desire to eat bread.
But it would be wrong to say that I’m not attracted to bread when somebody puts it out on the table. Of course, I am. It looks delicious. I love bread. My brain is wired to recognize that it looks delicious, and I remember how good it tasted when I was a kid. I don’t feel the way I feel around a plate of bread as I do around a pile of rocks. My taste buds are attracted to bread, not rocks.
But again, just because I find the bread attractive doesn’t mean I actually desire to eat it. I don’t. As delicious as it looks there’s literally no way you could make me even remotely want to take a bite. I’m attracted to bread, but I don’t desire it. I can see that it looks good, but even the thought of taking a bite makes me sick.
I suspect you’d feel the same way too if I hand-made a delicious sandwich just for you but told you I had Covid-19. The sandwich would still look delicious. But you wouldn’t desire to eat it. Or if I put a nice juicy steak in front of you but told you I’d dipped it in poison. The juicy steak would still look pretty attractive. But you wouldn’t desire to eat it.
This is because attraction and desire are fundamentally different experiences. We know this intuitively every time we say things like, “Oh, it looks so good, but I’m stuffed! I couldn’t eat another bite,” or, “It’s an attractive offer, but I think I’ll pass this time around.” Attraction is often present without desire.
Desire can also be present without attraction. We see this often with rape and other forms of sexual violence. A rapist sexually assaults another person not because they are attracted to that person but because they have a twisted relationship to power and dominance. Power drives their desire to sexually assault another person, not attraction or anything even remotely connected to sexual orientation. This is important. A lot of people have tried to blame the Catholic sex abuse crisis on homosexuality, even though gay priests were no more likely to have molested a child than straight priests and studies have found no correlation between orientation and sexual abuse.
So, it’s possible to experience desire without experiencing attraction, and it’s possible to experience attraction without experiencing desire. It’s also possible to experience attraction while also experiencing desire. But attraction and desire are not the same thing and need to be treated as fundamentally different.
Johanna Finegan (who is Reformed) has excellent things to say about this on her blog, where she observes that getting nervous around somebody you like, butterflies in your stomach, or a racing pulse when they touch your hand might all be signs of sexual attraction but don’t necessarily mean you simultaneously desire sex.
“If you’re straight, there’s a way in which you sometimes get nervous around people of the opposite sex in which you don’t get nervous around people of the same sex. Wanting to get coffee with someone you’re attracted to feels rather different from wanting to get coffee with a friend, even if you just want coffee! The brush of the back of their hand against yours makes your pulse race….
“Sometimes it’s even slighter and subtler than that. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of finding myself unintentionally paying a different level of attention to women rather than to men. I notice them more, I remember their names more easily. They simply register on my brain more, make more of an impression…. [I]t is possible for something to be broken and fallen but not sinful.”
Johanna expresses tentative agreement with the Reformed conclusion that the desire for a sinful thing is also a sin itself. However, as she points out, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the experience of attraction is the same thing as the experience of desire. When we’re not talking about homosexuality and trying to prove that same-sex attraction is a sin, people seem to understand this point intuitively when talking about opposite-sex attraction, as Johanna observes above. There’s no reason to think differently when it comes to same-sex attraction.
Unfortunately, it only gets worse from here. Beyond conflating attraction and desire (not to mention failing to clarify the difference between desire and lust), the authors say in Statement #6, “[T]here is an important degree of moral difference between temptation to sin and giving in to sin, even when the temptation is itself an expressing of indwelling sin.” They conclude by saying:
“Without some distinctions between (1) the illicit temptations that arise in us due to original sin and (2) the willful giving over to actual sin, Christians will be too discouraged to ‘make every effort’ at growth in godliness and will feel like failures in their necessary efforts to be holy as God is holy.”
Given the fact that just a few pages earlier the authors said that desiring a sinful object is a sin itself and an occasion for repentance, it’s incredibly unclear what they mean by attempting to draw a distinction between temptation to sin and “actual sin.” Just what exactly are they trying to say? Are they saying it’s a sin to experience temptation but not as bad of a sin as giving into temptation? Or are they trying to say it’s not a sin to experience temptation as long as you don’t have sinful desire that accompanies the temptation?
It seems like the report is trying to echo the Westminster Confession’s distinction between “sin” referring to internal corruption and “actual sin” referring to external behavior and choices. But again, this is all profoundly unclear and will undoubtedly sow confusion. Is the report trying to differentiate between someone who experiences same-sex attraction versus someone who only experiences temptation to be same-sex attracted? What does that even mean? Or are they trying to say that the experience of same-sex attraction is the same as experiencing temptation? Or are they not trying to draw comparisons at all? The result is an unhelpful array of confusing language that does little to bring clarity to this conversation.
Continuing, under “The Importance of Concupiscence,” the report says that “[i]f a motion or feeling arises in us that is in a direction contrary to the righteousness described in God’s Law, it is sin.” Stop for a moment and reread that sentence. At first it sounds like they’re just restating the “sinful desire is sin” position. But they actually take it a step further here to talk about feelings. This goes beyond desire and cannot be justified using Reformed thinking, unless you wish to take Reformed thinking to the extremes that some do, whereby people who suffer from clinical depression or anxiety are sinning because they have “feelings” contrary to God’s design.
I actually do know some Reformed people who take it this far, but it’s an extremist position not reflective of sound biblical teaching. I’ve seen this sort of thing drive some people to suicide. Saying that “sinful desire is sin” is one thing. Saying that a “feeling” is sin is another. This type of language has a track record of doing real harm to people even outside of the sexuality conversation.
Finally, I think it’s important to point out that the report largely perpetuates ignorance about queer theory and LGBTQ culture more generally. Consider the following quote under the heading “Sanctification—The Already-Not-Yet Tension”:
“The error of other Christian approaches to same-sex sexual desire is to treat it as a sort of fixed reality that has no malleability or capacity for change whatsoever. In its most extreme forms, this reflects our broader culture’s notions of one’s sexual orientation being a completely fixed reality—contending that there is no sense in which sexual desires can meaningfully change over time.”
This is a straw man. Queer theory has held for over 30 years now that sexuality is fluid. LGBTQ people don’t believe that sexuality is fixed and acknowledge that, though rare, some people do experience natural fluidity in their orientation. The only people I’ve ever known who try to say that the “worldly culture” believes in a “fixed sexuality” are Christians who rely upon caricatures to inform their understanding of queer theory and LGBTQ people. It’s inappropriate to perpetuate this type of ignorance in a report that many Christians will no doubt rely upon to keep themselves educated.
Summary: The PCA report conflates same-sex attraction with sexual desire, as if the experience of same-sex attraction was a sexual experience and only a sexual experience. This is an illogical leap and completely contradicts everything that we know about attraction and how attraction works. Worse, the PCA report conflates desire and attraction, treating both as if they were synonymous. But sexual desire is not the same as sexual attraction, and the two need to be treated as fundamentally different things. Beyond this, the authors confusingly bring up feelings and seem to conflate desire with feelings. This is deeply problematic. It’s also unclear what the authors mean by attempting to distinguish a moral difference between temptation to sin and “actual sin” given the fact that they argue that sinful desire is a sin itself. They fail to articulate just what exactly they are trying to say and, as a result, sow deep confusion. Finally, the report perpetuates ignorance about queer theory and LGBTQ culture more generally.
The Bad #2: The PCA Report Suffers from Lack of Clarity and Double-Standards in its Treatment of LGBTQ+ Language
While the PCA report says in its explanatory essays that language is a “secondary issue,” the reports main thrust nevertheless asserts the following, in Statement #10:
“We affirm that those in our churches would be wise to avoid the term ‘gay Christian.’ Although the term ‘gay’ may refer to more than being attracted to persons of the same sex, the term does not communicate less than that.”
This is confusing. If the authors think it “unwise” to use the word “gay” because it “does not communicate less than” attraction to persons of the same sex, then why don’t they apply this same exact standard to the term “same-sex attracted” or “same-sex attraction”? According to their logic, saying that you “struggle with same-sex attraction” is even more defined by what they consider to be “sinful desires” than the word “gay,” so why do they only target the word “gay”?
A lot to be perplexed about here. If they think it unwise to say “I’m a Christian who is gay and celibate” then it should also be unwise to say “I’m a Christian who struggles against same-sex attraction.” Bothstatements communicate nothing “less than” attraction to the same sex. And yet they only subject the word “gay” to scrutiny, not both.
It’s important to remember that the biggest difference between “same-sex attraction” and “gay” is that “same-sex attraction” originates in the ex-gay community and is deeply intertwined with ex-gay Freudian philosophy. However, no time is spent deconstructing this harmful baggage at all in the PCA report. Why? “Same-sex attraction” has a history that is ten times more problematic than anything attached to the word “gay,” but none of the authors consider “same-sex attraction” unwise or even dedicate a single sentence to acknowledging its problematic history. This is very bad.
It’s possible that the authors only meant to say that it’s unwise for gay people to call themselves “celibate gay Christians” but that it’s perfectly fine to call themselves, “Christians who are gay and celibate.” The reason being that the first modifies one’s “Christian identity” whereas the second doesn’t. They could then claim that it’s similarly wrong to call yourself a “same-sex-attracted Christian” but it’s perfectly fine to call yourself “a Christian who struggles with same-sex attraction.”
But if this were the case, why didn’t they say so? Were they afraid to just come out and say that Christians could still—in good wisdom—call themselves “gay and celibate” as long as they don’t use the term “gay Christian”? And if that’s what they mean, then why didn’t they explicitly apply the same logic to the term “same-sex attracted Christian”? Why the complete silence on “same-sex attraction”? Why not explain any of this at all in the first place?
Continuing, the report says the following:
“The word ‘gay’ is common in our culture, and we do not think it wise for churches to police every use of the term. Our burden is that we do not justify our sin struggles by affixing them to our identity as Christians.”
This sounds like they could be insinuating that it could theoretically be within the bounds of “wisdom” for a gay person to say “I’m a Christian who happens to be gay and celibate.” But again, it’s incredibly unclear, and the fact that they do not subject the terminology of “same-sex attraction” to equal scrutiny means that most pastors are just going to assume that “same-sex attraction” is somehow qualitatively “more wise” for a gay person to use than “gay,” when the reality is that both create equally difficult conundrums for Christians to navigate.
The authors conclude Statement #10 by saying:
“The word ‘gay’ is common in our culture, and we do not think it wise for churches to police every use of the term. Our burden is that we do not justify our sin struggles by affixing them to our identity as Christians. Churches should be gentle, patient, and intentional with believers who call themselves ‘gay Christians,’ encouraging them, as part of the process of sanctification, to leave behind identification language rooted in sinful desires, to live chaste lives, to refrain from entering into temptation, and to mortify their sinful desires.”
First, they acknowledge that it’s not helpful for church leaders to police language. This is great and super important. But then it sounds like they encourage leaders to treat the matter as needing discipleship. This is unhelpful. The vast majority of language policing in church contexts happens under the guise of “discipleship.” This pretty much leaves LGBTQ+ people in the same boat. It gives pastors new language to keep doing what many have always done. “I’m not policing you. I’m just trying to encourage you to grow in Christian maturity.”
Some people might say, “But that wouldn’t happen in a healthy church context. My church, for example, would never do something like that,” and that’s great! I’m so glad such people have a healthy church that doesn’t manipulate its members. But many LGBTQ+ people don’t. And this type of statement does nothing to protect them.
But we’ve still got more to unpack here. In the section under “Language,” the authors say that “there are many who use [gay] to describe a view of their sexual identity that is ‘affirming’—that believes that same-sex sexual desires and relationships are blessed by God.” This doesn’t make sense. Gay Christians wouldn’t ask me if I was “affirming” literally all the time if the word “gay” was just a neat synonym for “affirming.” I’ve literally never met a single gay Christian who thinks this way.
We’ve talked about this ad nauseum in the side b community, but here I go. The word “gay” does not communicate one’s political, theological, or philosophical convictions. It’s a description of a lived reality. And nothing less. If people want to claim that “the world” thinks the word “gay” describes a type of sexually-affirming philosophy, that’s because the “world” assumes everybody is having sex—gay, straight, or whatever! When I go to the doctor as a single woman, she assumes I’m having sex, and she asks me if I’m on birth control. She doesn’t assume I’m having sex because I’m gay. The last doctor who asked me about birth control thought I was straight!
This is the reality of living in a fallen world, and this is why straight Christians have to clarify that they’re celibate too, otherwise people will just assume they’re sexually active. It has nothing to do with the word “gay” or the word “straight.” I’ve literally met nobody in the gay community, Christian or not, who thinks that the word “gay” automatically implies you affirm a stereotyped sexually active “lifestyle.” Being a human being implies a sexually active lifestyle to most people. Being “gay” has nothing to do with it.
Finally—and this is probably the most important point I’ll make in this section—let’s talk about the assumption that “gay” doesn’t communicate anything “less than” sexual desire for the same sex. This assumption is very, very wrong. Why? Because it completely erases asexual people and the fact that asexual people can identify as lesbian, gay, bi, and pretty much everything else under the LGBTQ+ rainbow.
Yes, you heard that right. Asexual people can be lesbian; asexual people can be gay; and asexual people can be bi. Asexual people can identify as all of these things because sexual desire is not actually central to the gay identity! I even personally know asexual people who have identified as both and yet were still 100 percent asexual and still 100 percent gay.
Again, this reductionistic treatment of orientation as essentially “sexual desire” is bad and completely ignores everything we know about attraction and how LGBTQ+ people themselves actually think about attraction. It’s an attempt at sexual essentialism, and sexual essentialism is just wrong and unhealthy.
Summary: The authors subject the word “gay” to an enormous amount of scrutiny without ever subjecting “same-sex attraction” to the same degree of scrutiny. This is no small issue given “same-sex attraction’s” deeply problematic history attached to the ex-gay movement and all the Freudian assumptions embedded within that movement. Subjecting “gay” to scrutiny without subjecting “same-sex attraction” to scrutiny is a troubling double standard. Moreover, the report lacks clarity in just what exactly it means when it says it’s “unwise” for a Christian to call themselves a “gay Christian.” Worse, the report predictably attempts to reduce the word “gay” to communicating nothing “less than” sexual desire. This erases the identities of asexual people who can also identify as gay, lesbian, and bisexual and often do. It’s a reductionistic attempt at sexual essentialism that is deeply problematic.
The Ugly #1: The PCA Report Does Not Acknowledge the Ongoing Existence of Heterosexism and Cissexism in the Church
Many Christians love to make the “sexuality conversation” a conversation about gay people and gay people only—all the threats we pose and problems we cause and sins we commit. Rarely do they ever want to consider that maybe gay people aren’t the only culprits or even the main culprits.
I’ve written before about marriage idolatry. Nate Collins has similarly talked about the prophetic role that gay Christians play in exposing idolatry of nuclear family. Wesley Hill has observed that Christian culture is often held captive by a commitment to “family values,” treasured above and beyond more important Christian priorities. Ron Belgau has written at length about the inherent contradictions behind the way Protestants talk about heterosexual issues like divorce and contraception compared to homosexuality. I’m writing a book right now that includes, in part, an examination of the ways in which Christians directly contributed to the development of “sexual liberation” and “sexual identity categories,” two phenomena that many Christians blame almost entirely upon the LGBTQ+ community (alongside feminists).
So, with all that being said, it’s more than a little disappointing to see the PCA report treat ongoing questions about human sexuality as questions that implicate gay people and only gay people, as though straight people had no role to play whatsoever in getting us to where we are today. Any discussion of the “problem of homosexuality” without equal time spent discussing the “problem of heterosexuality” will necessarily reproduce the same exact problems.
In its preamble, for example, the report says:
“We see many professing Christians and whole denominations surrendering to the sexual revolution. We do not want to be one of them, nor even now in subtle ways to sow the seeds for some future capitulation.”
Just who exactly are these Christians and “whole denominations” surrendering to the sexual revolution? The report doesn’t explain, but considering that the authors say, “We do not want to be one of them,” it’s fair to assume they don’t think it’s the PCA yet, which means that for some reason they see themselves as yet untarnished in this debate. The implication is that they see homosexuality as the final straw which threatens to undo everything good that Christians hold dear about marriage and sexuality.
Let’s think about that. The PCA report commences under the assumption that the PCA deserves no scrutiny for the role it has played in “surrendering to the sexual revolution.” The only thing the authors acknowledge is that Christians more generally have failed to be “pastoral” toward LGBTQ+ people. But if that were the only problem, addressing the issues we face wouldn’t be half as difficult to do.
Nevertheless, the only things the report acknowledges is that the PCA needs to be nicer, or as they put it, more “pastoral.” And while it’s a good thing to acknowledge that Christians often fail to articulate their theology with love and compassion, it’s incredibly short-sighted to assume that this is the only sin for which the church must repent.
Many LGBTQ+ people that I know tell me horrific stories of abuse that were framed as “love and compassion,” sounded like “love and compassion,” and even felt like “love and compassion,” even as this “love and compassion” simultaneously created the conditions for depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation to develop. Pastors with the most soft and tender “pastoral hearts” are often some of the worst offenders because they don’t even realize what they’re doing. That doesn’t mean they’re bad people. It means that the problems go beyond just being “compassionate.”
Under the heading of “Sexual Identity,” the authors say:
“[A]ll people, including those in what contemporary society identifies as the LGBT community, are worthy of dignity and respect as image bearers and should never be the target of self-righteous condescension, violence, or hatred. Within the church, there is no place for a sort of second-class citizenship of believers who have particular struggles, trials, or temptations.”
Again, it’s great that they recognize the worth and dignity of LGBT people. It’s great that they acknowledge the wrong of self-righteous condescension. It’s great that they leave “no place for a sort of second-class citizenship.”
But the acknowledgements stop here. It amounts to saying, “Being mean is bad,” without actually doing the work to dig up exactly how you’ve been mean, why you’ve been mean, and what you will do to correct it. If the PCA report was actually serious about learning to be truly “pastoral,” it should have taken the time and energy to delve into the reasons why Christians fail to be pastoral, beginning with an honest assessment of heterosexism and cissexim in the church and in the PCA specifically.
The closest the report gets to admitting that conservative Christians might not be entirely innocent in the “capitulation” to sexual liberation is the final essay (which I largely praised above), where the authors say under Challenge #2:
“Arguably, Christians cannot make a plausible case for the Biblical sex ethic because in many ways we have adapted too much to—or even adopted—the contemporary views of identity and freedom in the way we preach and do ministry. Some have pointed out that the ethos of evangelical youth ministry has been highly emotivist for years. The emphasis has not been on Biblical theology and doctrine but almost exclusively on how Christ builds up our self-esteem and meets our emotional needs. The prosperity gospel, churches and ministries without membership and discipline, consumer-oriented mega-churches—all adapt heavily to the culture of expressive individualism rather than challenging it.”
This is a start, but again, it’s wildly insufficient and pretty much stops here. No real acknowledgment of the PCA’s complicity in this culture (do they think the PCA is innocent?—it sounds that way) and no real examination of how the church’s complicity intersects with LGBTQ+ issues.
Finally, I’m also concerned that this report still allows Christians on one side of the aisle to consider Christians who don’t accept a traditional perspective on human sexuality to be “not real Christians.” This problem goes unnamed and is a huge concern due to the ways traditional sexuality is often weaponized to condemn progressive gay Christians to hell. While I loved the final essay in the report, which provides a compelling articulation of the traditional perspective, it’s nevertheless true that most straight Christians who reject aspects of this perspective—or the perspective in its entirety—don’t fear going to hell because of their disagreements.
As mentioned above, remarriage and contraception are predominantly heterosexual issues that straight Christians don’t fear hell and damnation over, even though embracing both is necessarily a huge departure from traditional sexual ethics. The report doesn’t acknowledge any of the ways in which hell is often used as a fear-tactic to force gay Christians to follow a traditional ethic. This is a significant problem.
I’ll have to leave my critique here. I started to go into all the things the PCA report should have named but didn’t, but then I realized I was writing my book. Suffice to say that the problems we face related to LGBTQ+ issues will not go away until the church is willing to give an honest assessment of its own complicity in creating those problems in the first place. The PCA report had an opportunity to do so but didn’t.
Summary: The PCA report perpetuates a long-standing problem in the way Christians approach conversations about sexuality, treating the matter as a “gay problem” and only a gay problem. But any conversation about the “problem of homosexuality,” without equal time spent on the “problem of heterosexuality,” will necessarily reproduce the same problems we’ve always had. The only sin that the PCA report acknowledges is the church’s failure to be pastoral. But if the only problem was just a “pastoral” issue, then fixing our problems wouldn’t be half as difficult. The “pastoral” issue has real underlying causes that are more than just a matter of learning to practice love and compassion better. The report fails to give attention to any of these underlying causes.
The Ugly #2: The PCA Report is Blind to the Ways in which Both Homophobia and Transphobia Impact Many of Its Conclusions
Finally, we get to the very bottom of the worst of the barrel. The consequence of ignoring the presence of heterosexism and cissexism in the church is that Christians remain blind to homophobia and transphobia—and maybe just “queerphobia” more generally.
Consider Statement #2, where it affirms that God created humanity “male and female” and says the following:
“As a God of order and design, God opposes the confusion of man as woman and woman as man. While situations involving such confusion can be heartbreaking and complex, men and women should be helped to live in accordance with their biological sex.”
According to the above statement, God wants every single man, woman, and child to live in “accordance with their biological sex.” Apparently, a sweeping statement like this requires no scientific, intellectual, or theological defense whatsoever, as none is given. The report declares, quite decisively, that biological sex determines gender. But it provides absolutely no explanation or defense.
We’re left with the question: how exactly did the authors arrive at this conclusion? What was the process? Or should we just accept this conclusion as an “obvious” truth that requires no defense? If that be the case, how can the church engage in any sort of critical thinking or dialogue on gender if the entire conversation is dismissed as “obvious”? A take like this only alienates the trans* community.
Later, in the same section, the report says the following about intersex issues:
“[S]ome persons, in rare instances, may possess an objective medical condition in which their anatomical development may be ambiguous or does not match their genetic chromosomal sex. Such persons are also made in the image of God and should live out their biological sex, insofar as it can be known.”
According to the above statement, intersex people need to “live out their biological sex, insofar as it can be known.” What does that even mean? The report copy-pastes language from the Nashville Statement and, once again, provides zero explanation.
What does it mean to “live out” one’s “biological sex, insofar as it can be known”? Does that mean a woman born with XY chromosomes ought to call herself a man? Does that mean a man with female genitalia ought to call himself a woman? Does that mean it’s okay for a person with ambiguous “biological sex” to live out their biological ambiguity by identifying as gender-neutral and using “they” pronouns because that’s their sex “insofar as it can be known”? But wait…didn’t they just say earlier that God’s design is for everyone to be male or female? So how does that work if God himself made a person biologically neither male nor female? Do they mean that chromosomes determine gender? Or do they mean that genitalia determine gender? Or wait, should an arbitrary surgery done by a doctor immediately after birth determine gender?
Just what exactly are they trying to say? And how is it reasonable for intersex people to “live out”? The confusing mish-mosh of “biological sex,” “genetic chromosomal sex,” and “insofar as it can be known” is so wonderfully vague and confusing that little is communicated. It does nothing to serve the church and, like above, only alienates intersex people.
Overall, I’m just a bit baffled. Why talk about sex and gender if you didn’t want to talk about sex and gender? We’re left with incredibly insufficient declaratory statements that only sow discord, confusion, and hurt.
Moving on, let’s take a look at Statement #7.
“The goal is not just consistent fleeing from, and regular resistance to, temptation, but the diminishment and even the end of the occurrences of sinful desires through the reordering of the loves of one’s heart toward Christ…. The believer who struggles with same-sex attraction should expect to see the regenerate nature increasingly overcome the remaining corruption of the flesh, but this progress will often be slow and uneven. Moreover, the process of mortification and vivification involves the whole person, not simply unwanted sexual desires. The aim of sanctification in one’s sexual life cannot be reduced to attraction to persons of the opposite sex (though some person may experience movement in this direction), but rather involves growing in grace and perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”
Let’s break this down. According to the above statement, every Christian ought to have a “goal.” This goal, they say, is “not just” resisting temptation but ultimately the “diminishment and even the end of the occurrences of sinful desires.” Earlier, they inaccurately defined “same-sex attraction” as “sexual desire” which thereby allowed them to further define same-sex attraction as “sinful desire.”
Let’s take a minute to think about what that means. If same-sex attraction is “sinful desire,” and if the “goal” of every Christian ought to be the “diminishment and even end” of sinful desire, then the report literally just said that same-sex attracted Christians ought to strive to end their same-sex attraction! They actually just said that the goal of every gay Christian should be “the diminishment and even end” of being gay. This process, they explain, will be “slow and uneven,” but it’s a process that same-sex attracted believers “should expect” nevertheless!
To be fair, the report says that the end-goal “cannot be reduced to attraction to persons of the opposite sex.” This is good. Churches often attempt to force gay people into being straight, and it’s important to call this out as wrong. But take a look again at what’s left. Whereas before the goal was straightness, now the goal is no-more-gayness.
What we see in this report is the reinvention of ex-gay principles for a new generation of gays.The report tells us that the ultimate “goal” is the “diminishment and even the end” of same-sex attraction. It says we might not attain this goal in our lifetime, but we should still strive toward it. And even if we never get there, we should still “expect” to see some progress.
This is ex-gay thinking 2.0. The old message was that God wants you to be straight. The new message is that God wants you to not be gay. But the entire logic is exactly the same, right down to the belief that same-sex attraction itself is a sin. This type of thinking is not just dangerous, it’s deadly. But it’s also what you get when you reduce same-sex attraction to nothing less than “sexual desire,” despite everything we know about attraction, how it works, and how gay people themselves talk about their own experience of it.
But it only gets worse. Take a look at Statement #11, where it says:
“[W]e do not support the formation of exclusive, contractual marriage-like friendships, nor do we support same-sex romantic behavior or the assumption that certain sensibilities and interests are necessarily aspects of a gay identity.”
First, the above statement expresses opposition to “exclusive, contractual marriage-like friendships.” Really? What’s does this mean? Who gets to say whether a friendship is “marriage-like”? Or are they trying to suggest that any friendship that is exclusive and contractual is “marriage-like”? If that’s the case, why on earth do they praise David and Jonathan, who made an exclusive covenant with each other in which their souls were knit together? (1 Sam. 18:1) Do they think that David and Jonathan’s friendship was “marriage-like”? And if not, why not?
If they don’t mean to oppose David and Jonathan’s friendship, then why does it seem like they would oppose a similar type of friendship today? Is it the friendship they oppose? Or is it just the fact that gay people are pursuing this type of friendship? If so, how is that not homophobic?
But if the report is indeed trying to say that friendships cannot be exclusive nor contractual, how is this claim not an impoverished view of friendship? If they simply oppose friendships being “marriage-like,” then how exactly do they define a friendship being “marriage-like” in a world where marriage holds a monopoly on intimacy in Christian culture?
In my experience, it’s difficult for Christians to fathom any kind of intimate relationship without automatically comparing it to marriage. This is a deficit within Christian culture. It’s not a good thing. It indicates a loss of relational imagination, and it’s one of the reasons so many people are lonely. As a result, keeping gay people from entering into “marriage-like” relationships doesn’t actually keep them from entering into “marriage-like” relationships. Instead, it sentences gay people to loneliness for no other reason than because an overwhelming number of Christians can’t imagine relational intimacy as anything other than “marriage-like.” This is bad and a symptom of elevating marriage to a position that it should not hold in our relational life.
But it keeps getting worse. The report expresses opposition to “same-sex romantic behavior.” What exactly is “romantic behavior” and who gets to decide? Would a pastor believe me if I told him that my behavior was not “romantic”? Or would he insist that it was, despite my explanations?
As a matter of fact, I’ve had the word “romantic” weaponized against me on many occasions, and I’ve seen it weaponized against other gay people too. The concept of “romance” is not universal. What looks “romantic” to one person might not be “romantic” at all to another. I once had a pastor chastise me for putting my hand in a friend’s lap because it was supposedly “romantic”!
Gay Christians ought to be very concerned by the addition of “romance” to this report. Keeping sex and sexual desire off the table is one thing. But the PCA report takes it further. It introduces the vague and murky category of same-sex “romance” and declares this category to be a thing which Christians ought to oppose—without even bothering to define it! This swings the door wide open to anything and everything evolving into sin just because a pastor happens to think it’s “romantic.”
Lest you think I’m overreacting, this is more than just a matter of semantics or poor word choice. This is a matter of pastors using vague and murky concepts to enforce their own arbitrary opinions with no backing from Scripture. This has happened to me, and I’ve seen it happen to others. And this report ensures that it will happen again. Some people might have a great pastor who would never do that. But I assure you that plenty of gay people don’t.
Finally, the report says that it opposes “the assumption that certain sensibilities and interests are necessarily aspects of the gay identity.” What does that even mean? Is this just a re-articulation of the report’s sexually reductionistic definition of orientation, which no one actually accepts within the LGBTQ community? Or is it something else? The report provides absolutely no explanation. This type of statement is really unacceptable and should not be in the report unless they plan to explain what they mean.
Summary: The PCA report makes decisive and declarative statements about the relationship between sex and gender without providing any sort of theological, scientific, of intellectual defense for these statements. Worse, as a result of a string of faulty assumptions, the report concludes that gay people ought to “strive” to eliminate their same-sex attraction. Even if they don’t succeed, the report says gay people should still try and expect progress. This is a re-articulation of ex-gay thinking, plain and simple. Worse, the report introduces the vague concept of “romance” and suggests that gay people not only sin when they have sexual desire but also sin when they engage in “romantic” behavior. The report does not bother to define “romance,” leaving the door wide open for pastors to enforce their own arbitrary opinions.
The PCA report contained a number of things worth praising, including a strong apologetic for traditional sexual ethics rooted in the holistic vision of Scripture. I’m a big fan of this section, and I hope to see this “counter-narrative” further developed. The report also included a number of contributions from the side b gay Christian community. No doubt, the participation of Spiritual Friendship’s Kyle Keating played a role in many of these additions, including one section that clearly made room for Revoice to exist as an organization. This is great and deserves to be recognized.
However, it’s important to realize that our self-advocacy does not end with getting Christians to let us exist, nor does it end with getting pastors to be more “pastoral.” These are great things. But we also have real grievances that cannot be addressed by either—grievances directly connected to theological and philosophical assumptions that are harmful, unbiblical, and wrong.
Most concerning of all, the PCA report adopted a reductionistic approach to sexual orientation that LGBTQ communities—Christian or otherwise—have roundly rejected for over 30 years. By defining attraction as sexual desire, the report is able to define same-sex attraction as sinful desire and therefore a sin itself. Worse, by saying that the goal of every Christian ought to be the elimination of sinful desire, the PCA report concludes that same-sex attracted Christians ought to strive to eliminate their same-sex attraction, even if they never succeed.
This is a reinvention of ex-gay thought. The lingo is slightly different, but the logic is exactly the same, right down to same-sex attraction being a sin. Christians in the celibate gay community ought to be very alarmed. There’s just no way to justify this teaching as healthy.
I’ve spoken to a number of people in the celibate gay community who are feeling tremendous pressure to accept this report as a step in the “right” direction. But I see no reason to do so. That doesn’t mean we can’t praise the good things we see. We definitely can and should. But a poisoned meal is a poisoned meal, vegetables or no. We need more than a few healthy overtures. We need a church that isn’t toxic.