Celibacy vs. Mixed Orientation Marriage: Is there too much celibacy talk in Side B?

Spiritual Friendship

I was talking with a friend of mine the other day about the message we send to gay people who are trying to figure out what to do with their sexuality in light of their desire to live faithfully as Christians. He, like me, is a gay man in a mixed orientation marriage. So much of what Side B writers have communicated resonates strongly with him and certainly reflects his own experience, as it does mine.

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Still, when you’re a minority of a minority of a minority, as is the case when you’re a Side B gay Christian in a mixed orientation marriage, the conversation often defaults to something that doesn’t really pertain to your situation. And my friend challenged the status quo of the Side B conversation, warning against a determinist attitude that sort of forces gay Christians into celibacy, rather than allowing them to receive it as a…

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In Search of The Decisive Christian Argument Against Ex-Gay Teaching

At the request of a friend, I recently went on a search for a good, solid Christian refutation of ex-gay theology/psychology. You know, one that breaks down exactly what is taught by the remaining, fledgling ex-gay ministries, and uses pure biblical exposition to demonstrate their errancy. And a little while into my search, when I wasn’t finding that ace-in-the-hole article to forward to my friend, a thought occurred to me. While various ex-gay ministries do use a lot of biblical language, so much of what they teach isn’t theology as much as it is psychology. And the bible doesn’t really deal with psychology directly, as the practice hadn’t been invented yet when the biblical authors were doing their inspired thing. And so I began to consider that perhaps I had sort of set out on an impossible task. I was trying to use the bible (or find someone who has) to disprove a particular developmental theory in psychology. I may as well have been trying to negate some educational or economic theory by using Genesis or Romans.

So that explains the absence (to my knowledge) of a singular, bible passage-saturated resource that debunks the ex-gay movement. That, of course, is not to say that there aren’t plenty of good resources out there that fall back on biblical principals to one degree or another, that should give one pause if contemplating participation in or endorsement of an ex-gay program. But when dealing with so much extra-biblical material (note that extra-biblical doesn’t necessarily imply unbiblical.), one has to rely more on the evidence at hand. What have been the overwhelming results of the ex-gay era?

That’s a tough one, because so much of what we have to go on are people’s stories – stories of healing and victory, as well as stories of deep psychological and spiritual damage. And well, you know, that whole “the plural of anecdote is not data” thing. But when actual studies are cited to bolster the claims of ex-gay ministries, close examination reveals just how unscientific they are, and that they much more closely resemble a collection of anecdotes, even highly questionable ones at that. On the other hand, while people’s accounts of shame and depression which they attribute to the influence of ex-gay teaching should be taken very seriously, considered carefully, and should indeed carry a lot of weight in this conversation, they aren’t, at the end of the day, hard evidence that the ex-gay thing was/is just a big flop.

But here’s the thing: the burden of proof in this situation is not on those who are skeptical or critical of orientation change and developmental theories of causation. It’s on those who promote them and make positive claims about their effectiveness in achieving a particular desired outcome. And if they cannot provide adequate proof, and there are reported adverse effects, and in fact, the only information to come out of all this that can truly be called data is that a significant number of participants in this whole ex-gay experiment did not experience the expected outcome, at what point do we deem it irresponsible to continue on with this stuff?

I know that question may seem largely irrelevant or outdated for some. The ex-gay movement, after years of crumbling, finally imploded several years back, and the remnants of it, various ministries with only a shadow of the resources and influence of their former parent-organization, Exodus, have largely been relegated to the fringes. But here in Shanghai, among the international churches, there has existed a sort of vacuum. In a country where even the secular culture isn’t very comfortable with open discussions on sexuality, the church – even the international church – has largely been silent. I think there’s been this unspoken understanding among most church leaders that “homosexuality is sinful,” but not a working out of what that actually means. And so, into that vacuum, sexual healing ministries have entered in an attempt to meet a need. (If Marvin Gaye isn’t singing into your ear right now, what kind of a person are you?) This development is why the ex-gay thing is so relevant to me right now. I’ve been able to comfortably take for granted for some time now that we all just sort of know better than treating the ex-gay narrative any differently than we treat the idea that if a frog pees on you, you’ll get warts, or that blood-letting should be a legitimate medical practice. But now that I’m faced with the reality that ex-gay developmental theories and all the ambiguous language and unhealthy introspection that go along with them are poised to be the primary approach to homosexuality for the church in Shanghai (maybe that’s a tad melodramatic, but whatever), I am forced to actually deal with the content of ex-gay teaching. And I’ll be honest, it makes me feel a little sick.

I tried to explain the nauseous feeling to my friend who requested that elusive exegetical resource against ex-gay teaching. I’ve found it best summed up by the anonymous blogger  Disputed Mutability (whose site has been dormant since 2010, I’m sad to report). In a reflection after attending a Love Won Out conference, she writes:
“…I found myself haunted in the days following the conference by stirred-up memories of the years when I was deeply involved in exgay stuff.  See, in the past several years, I haven’t really done any of that.  I hadn’t really heard any of those messages of brokenness and childhood roots and healing and change for a very long time–sure I occasionally read a smidgen of something online, but that’s way different from being bombarded with a day’s worth of lectures.  After the conference it all came painfully flooding back…how I agonized about this stuff, how I blamed myself and everyone in my family, how pathetic and small and less-than I felt relative to “healthy heterosexuals,” how tired and hopeless I felt after pursuing change (albeit somewhat half-assedly at times) didn’t really get me anywhere, how I obsessed about my “healing” and ignored discipleship and Christian growth, how stupid and voiceless I felt relative to the “successful” “healed” exgay superstars whose testimonies always seemed to get held up as What Is Supposed to Happen–if I disagreed with them, it was only my “brokenness” talking, and I would come to know better someday if I opened my heart to Jesus and let Him really transform me.  That old mindset came drifting back into my head and it made me even more nauseous than has been usual for me as of late.”

I was never “deeply involved in exgay stuff” like DM was. In fact, I was never really involved with it at all. But with no other competing narrative out there in the early years of my wrestling with issues of faith and sexuality, I couldn’t avoid its influence. I remember vaguely feeling some of those things. And early on in my big faith crisis that I wrote about a few times on a dormant blog of my own, I started to give the ex-gay thing another chance, and I read Andy Comisky’s Pursuing Sexual Wholeness, frequented the Desert Streams blog, and got in touch with some of the leaders and participants of a Living Waters group here in Shanghai, though I never attended. Additionally, a counselor gave my wife a book authored by Comisky’s wife which proceeded to dictate a narrative of emotional and mental health issues for any and all women who would actually choose to marry a gay man “who struggles with same sex attraction”. (It’s at this point I get a little pissy, because I think about the negative effects it was having on my wife, who was already going through a pretty hellacious time in her life as it was.) And in that brief time, I remember feeling exactly the things that Disputed Mutability describes in the above excerpt.

I’m comforted to know that others have a similar reaction – others who were heavily involved in it, yet have found more “healing” and “wholeness” than ever once they ditched the whole ex-gay thing. And more importantly, that they did that without abandoning their convictions about God’s design for sex and marriage. I think of God’s providence in all of this, and I can’t help feeling an overwhelming since of gratitude. I’m thankful that I am living in this time, that I experienced the things I did when and where I did, that when the conflict that I felt between my faith and sexuality was becoming the most toxic and the most explosive it had ever been, it was after the ex-gay movement had largely run its course, and there were these burgeoning new approaches and people who had survived the trenches of it all and had come to a better understanding, and had in fact, paved the way for a new era of writers and thinkers championing a healthier way forward for gay people who want to follow Christ. And I’m certainly thankful that, even though it makes me a little uneasy, he has chosen now, after there are voices out there to offer perspective, and to keep me from descending into a murky place of doubt and confusion, to let me be confronted more strongly with ex-gay teaching and be forced to devote intellectual and emotional energy to examining it.

So I don’t have at my disposal the decisive Christian argument against ex-gay teaching, which would be super convenient. But, as God has a way of doing for His people, He has sufficiently provided me with what I need. And that is enough.

Straight Side B: How to Do It Right

On the “What is Side B” page, I write about the term as if it belongs to gay Christians. (Perhaps there’s some sort of subconscious liberation dynamic going on there.) But in fact, side b is ultimately a theological position, and anyone can hold a position. Below is a link to an article published last month over at Evangelicals for Social Action. The author is Misty Irons, a straight, reformed evangelical who agrees with side b theology.

I can’t endorse every line of the author’s post. For example, I agree with writers like Ron Belgau who would stop short of saying that this is a Roman’s 14 issue. But I can enthusiastically share her article as a shining example of a straight Christian who has, at real cost to herself, been intentional about moving beyond assumptions and theological positions developed in a vacuum, largely devoid of any meaningful interaction with gay people, and into a place of understanding and intimate familiarity with her same-sex attracted brothers and sisters.

It’s a lengthy article, well worth reading in its entirety. But here are some of my favorite excerpts to serve as an appetizer if you haven’t got time to devote to a full read-through at the moment:

“Now, when the conservative church gets the feeling that they might have been wrong about something, we don’t apologize. Instead we shift ground. We tell ourselves we’re still basically right, we’re just fine-tuning, and we kind of pretend that we never made some of those outlandish statements in the past, even though we tolerate perfectly well those who continue to make them.”

“These days I’ve been hearing a saying that goes like this: “You shouldn’t call yourself gay, because your identity is in Christ.” Another version I hear: “Calling yourself a gay Christian is an oxymoron.” I’m still trying to figure out why so many in the church have latched onto this mantra, as if getting it wrong on the issue of choice and getting it wrong on the issue of change somehow puts us in the credible position of now being able to dictate to gay people about such a personal matter as what to call themselves.”

“…whichever view you hold to, we should be able to agree that aside from differences in orientation, gays and straights both experience sexuality in the same way. That is why the best analogy you can use to understand homosexuality is not adultery, not fornication, not struggle or temptation. The best, most useful analogy you can use to understand homosexuality is heterosexuality.”

“If straight Christians were to love their gay brothers and sisters in Christ like that, there would probably be no need for an organization like the Gay Christian Network, because the regular old church would be doing its job.”

You can read the full article here:
Homosexuality: What’s Next for the Conservative Evangelical Church?

 

A Moment Out of the Margins

Anna hadn’t been doing well that day. Her joints were swollen and hard, and the pain medicine brought some relief but didn’t restore mobility. So I went alone with Eden to the 3:00 worship service. I never go to that one, and I only recognized a dozen or so people scattered around the room. Of those whom I knew, several were elders who surely knew why I was there. I tried to hide my self-consciousness. We sang about God’s goodness and faithfulness, and I tried to focus on the actual words instead of what was to come, and every now and again, I succeeded a little. Later, while Eden was learning about Joshua in children’s church, I sat in the pew, my stomach in knots, waiting to hear what the pastor would say.

I’d received an email several days earlier. The senior pastor was set to give a sermon on hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and he wanted to include a story about a family friend back in the States – a Christian who, after years of secrecy, therapy, and prayer, is coming to terms with the fact that he is gay. This friend, the pastor explained, has had a difficult time with the isolation and misunderstanding that he’s experienced in church, as he tries to live faithfully according to God’s word. The pastor then wanted to challenge our church with the question of whether or not we can be a safe place for people like his friend, for people like me, who want to honor God with our lives. He invited input from me as well as the elders and ministry leaders.

In certain circles, something like this is revolutionary. And though my current church is the most “progressive” one I’ve ever been a part of, it is still essentially conservative, especially when it comes to anything lgbt. I was thrilled to read this email and let the pastor know that I think this is just what we need: gay Christians being acknowledged and included in contexts beyond special events in which we’re discussing the “issue” of homosexuality. Bringing us into the mainstream conversation of what it means to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” would be a huge step forward.

Of course, everyone did not agree. Many elders and leaders expressed concerns. Fears of unintended consequences and misunderstanding loomed heavy in many of their minds, but they ultimately deferred to the one who would be speaking that weekend, offering prayers to God for wisdom and guidance. At the end of the email correspondence, there was no conclusion. I wasn’t sure if this groundbreaking moment would happen or not.

I braced myself for the disappointment that silence would bring. “This came out of nowhere”, I told myself. “Before that email a few days ago, I hadn’t had any expectation at all for something like this to be addressed in the pulpit on a typical Sunday afternoon. If it doesn’t happen, it’s ok. At least the conversation has been initiated, and there will be other opportunities.” As I’ve written about before, I’ve been invited to speak on this from time to time at special events.

When the pastor, several minutes into his sermon, began telling the story of his friend in the US, I was surprised to find myself holding back tears. The whole time I was preparing for people like me to be pushed to the margins yet again, shelved for a safer story of a college student not losing heart in a hostile intellectual environment, or a businessman fighting the temptation to cave to unethical practices. Instead, in the context of hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pastor shed a little light on some of the obstacles that gay Christians face alone all too often. He called the church not to add to the burden, but to come alongside in solidarity. It was a profound moment, a small victory and a healing experience for me that I’m not sure the pastor will ever quite understand.

The rest of the night was all sort of anticlimactic. As I mentioned, Anna wasn’t there, and I don’t normally attend the 3:00 service, so there wasn’t anyone there with whom I would’ve gone out for dinner and drinks to talk over what we just heard. I tried my best to focus on Eden’s dinner conversation about “the guy who came after Moses” and the cat that she saw on the way to the Mexican restaurant, and how she wished our whole family wasn’t allergic to them so she could have one.

Later that evening, I told Anna how it went, that the pastor followed through on his original plan. She said she’d been confident that he would. Eventually, talking gave way to the accumulating household chores, a six year old’s drama, bedtime routine, and the waning effects of pain reliever. Unable to catch him in a free moment after the sermon, I emailed the pastor thanking him for what he did. He responded, assuring me that he valued my voice in this whole discussion. As far as I know, there’s been no more talk about it.

I don’t know if there will be. Judging by past experiences, the pattern seems to be that sudden interest in this topic flares up, and it either fizzles away or blows up in a nasty battle in the culture war. Maybe the pastor’s words that afternoon will be conveniently forgotten. Maybe some of the elders’ fears about confusion and disunity will be realized. Hopefully, this sermon was the start of a conversation that will lead to more awareness and perhaps positive change. What I do know is that for me, and anyone else who may have been present who has a similar story to mine, it was a beautiful and rare moment out of the margins of Christian life.

The Messy Business of Starting a Dialogue

(Originally posted on Wednesday, October 22, 2014)

It’s a weird feeling to sit in a room full of people who are in the midst of a passionate debate over your sexuality. But hey, I asked for it. Well, technically, my friend Janai asked for it for me. But I eagerly accepted. In a conference about loving across borders and moving beyond tolerance and into loving, a workshop on embracing the lgbt community seemed like a natural addition, even an imperative one. It seems the church, at least the one that hosted this conference, is more than ready to engage the atheist, the agnostic, the Buddhist, or the Muslim with love, understanding, poise, and confidence. But sexual minorities? Well, let’s just say they’re not quite there yet. But the very fact that they created a space for such a discussion shows that they’re willing to try. And although this was just an hour long workshop, and there’s a long, long way to go, I left the experience feeling hopeful, if still a bit misunderstood.

I led the workshop twice that day, and the sessions took very different turns. The first one was a lot more light-hearted. I shared my story, and the group had little trouble digesting it. They asked many good follow-up questions about how my gay friends reacted to my conversion, how Anna and I have dealt with challenges in our marriage, and practical ways that they can support gay Christians who choose to follow the traditional understanding of biblical sex ethics.

The next session was much more intense. In this group, my story and the way in which I framed the conversation really demanded a paradigm shift in the minds of most people. The thought that someone could be gay and Christian had never occurred to them. I was redefining things that had hard and fast definitions to them, and my very existence and the reality of my story defied what they had always thought about this issue. They had a category for gay people who reject God. They also had a category for more liberal congregations which affirm same-sex marriage and have gay couples among their ranks. And some of them had a vague notion of the ex-gays whom Focus on the Family and other conservative Christian groups used to tout. But this? “You’re the only person I’ve ever heard saying anything like this. You’re it!” one person said.

It’s funny: when you saturate yourself with articles and books from various authors, and you participate in online discussions and insert yourself into communities who are committed to thinking about and talking about a subject, you tend to forget the reality that outside of that, most people are oblivious to the things that you’ve come to take for granted.

It was a painstaking effort trying to explain why it’s not the best idea to compare homosexuality to pedophilia (that was fun), and that while the language of sexual orientation is extra-biblical, it isn’t necessarily unbiblical, and that being a new creation in Christ doesn’t mean that my orientation has changed or that it isn’t a significant part of me. I’m not sure if anybody walked away from the workshop feeling like they learned something or that they know a little more. But I’m pretty sure that most of them left realizing that even much of what they thought they knew was shaky at best. And while that’s not the end goal, I think it’s a pretty good start. Because while uncertainty is a scary thing, it often leads to humility. And if we really want to love across borders and move beyond tolerance and into loving, humility is a necessity.