The Christian Debate Over Sexual Identity: Orientation And Labelling

Sam Allberry
Articles 6 mins
Found in: Identity

This article is adapted from an interview with Sam Allberry on Desiring God website in July 2018. You can listen here and see the original article. The interview was aimed at giving a better understanding of the ongoing debate happening inside the Church right now over same-sex attraction and orientation, and whether or not it’s appropriate to use the identifying label ‘gay Christian’.

Dangerous labels

These are some very big issues. I can only sketch out where I am on my own thinking on this. Certainly for me, the only romantic and sexual feelings I’ve ever experienced have been toward other men. That’s been a feature of my life since I’ve had those kinds of feelings.

I’ve been trying to think through the best way of articulating that as a Christian for a while. Obviously, in our secular culture, the language people would typically and obviously use would be to say, ‘Well, I’m gay’. But in my own experience that kind of language tends to be used to express not just a description of what kind of sexual feelings you have, but it tends (to me) to be someone’s identity. It’s an indication of who you are.

Discovering identity

As a Christian, one of the key things for me is realizing that identity as Christians is not something that we discover in ourselves, and nor is it something we create. It’s something we receive and are given by the only Person who can know our actual identity, which is the God who made us. So, my identity as a Christian comes from the fact that I’ve been created by God and redeemed by him through the saving work of Jesus.

I don’t want to imply that a particular set of sexual temptations is where I see who I am. It’s not the lens through which I understand myself.

This is where I need to have a different understanding from our culture. Our culture says, ‘You are your sexuality’, that the sexual feelings that you have are the most you — that is, the real you. For me, that’s just not the case. I want to use language that can describe an aspect of what is going on in my life, but which doesn’t imply that it defines me, or is the centre and heart of who I am.

The language of ‘same-sex attraction’ perhaps is less familiar to people outside of Christian circles. It’s a bit more clunky. But I think it’s less prone to being misunderstood. I use it because I don’t want to imply that a particular set of sexual temptations is where I see who I am. It’s not the lens through which I understand myself. That’s why I prefer to use the language of experiencing same-sex attraction.

Universal disorder

One potential downside of that is people can think I’m saying there is a neutrality to those attractions. I’m certainly not saying that. I’m not saying it’s the equivalent of being left-handed or having blond hair or something like that. All I’m saying is the particular form of sexual temptation I experience is this particular kind. 

Exceptions to the rule

There are a couple of other points to make. One is that there have been times when the secular media have wanted to interview me about my own position on this. In some of those times, maybe three or four times, I have used the language of being gay simply because I’m either talking to someone in the secular world who is just not going to understand the language of same-sex attraction, or I’m talking to an unbelieving friend or something like that.

There are times when I felt I needed to use the language of being gay in order to have the conversation. Then I’ve immediately qualified what I meant by it. Some may say that’s an inappropriate thing to do. It’s not my preferred way of speaking. I see something of a parallel to when Paul appeals to his Roman citizenship. It’s something that opens a door for his ministry. But it’s certainly not how he sees himself. 

Goal of language

Secondly, I think there is a difference between language as a starting point and language as an intended destination. 

I think people who come to faith from the LGBT+ community are going to instinctively say, ‘I’m a gay Christian’. I think that’s a very understandable starting point. It wouldn’t be where I’d want them to finally land in terms of the language they use. But I wouldn’t want to jump up and down on a new or young Christian just for using that language as if it’s only, ever, always wrong. They may just not have had a chance to think that kind of thing through yet. There are some faithful Christians who do take a slightly different view to my own and describe themselves as ‘celibate gay Christians’ perhaps because they find that most helpful in their context. We need to be gracious with one another and exercise wisdom in making sure that the language we use reflects the truth about ourselves as accurately as possible.

We need to be gracious with one another and exercise wisdom in making sure that the language we use reflects the truth about ourselves as accurately as possible.

[Interviewer] Interesting. Now let’s transition to the question over whether homosexual desires are merely temptations, or whether same-sex attraction itself, as an orientation, is sinful. I think it’s rather easy to agree that a heterosexual man who commits adultery with a woman has sinned — they both have. We get that. A homosexual man, acting on that impulse with another man, has sinned — they both have.

Moving back one step, to the level of desire, a heterosexual man desiring to commit adultery with a particular woman is sinning. A homosexual man desiring sex with one particular man is sinning. Okay.

But then when you work this back one more level, to what is commonly called ‘orientation’, then the heterosexual man who is attracted to women generally is not sinning, but a homosexual man attracted to men generally remains in a state of sin. Or does he? That’s the debate among Christians. How do you process this debate at orientation level?

Reaching our limit

Yes, it’s a tricky issue because people often use certain terms in slightly different ways. So, the question ‘Is same-sex attraction itself sinful?’ is tricky because it depends exactly what we’re meaning by ‘same-sex attraction’. Are we talking about the actual acts of desire, or are we talking about the capacity for that desire?

I’m not sure the language of orientation always serves us well. It’s a very secular concept. I think it’s limited. It implies a fixity that I’m not sure is always the case with our sexual feelings. Just calling it an orientation implies that it’s the vantage point from which you see the world. There it is again. It’s implying it’s central to who you are.

Where the battle begins

However, we do need some kind of language to describe the general shape of our feelings and our temptations. So, it’s good to have some way of describing that. 

I think there are two things we need to distinguish between. I think often when people talk about acting on desires, they often are meaning physically acting on those desires. As you’ve just alluded to, Jesus makes it very clear that it’s our hearts and our attitudes as much as our actual physical behaviour that we need to think through. 

You don’t have to act on something physically for it to be sinful. So that tells me that sexual sin needs to be fought in our hearts and minds. It’s not enough to be not physically acting on it if we’re mentally acting on it. In fact, we’re not going to be likely to physically resist a sin if we’ve been mentally rehearsing for it.

People often say, ‘It’s okay provided you don’t act on it.’ I want to say, ‘Yes, kind of, as long as we’re including mental acts in our language of “acting on it.”’ 

Temptation versus sin

I think the other thing we need to remember is there is a distinction between temptation and sin. We see that in the Bible in the Lord’s prayer. We need to be delivered from our temptations, but we need to be forgiven for our sins. 

James reminds us that temptation gives birth to sin (James 1:15). It’s not itself sin. So, the two are not the same thing. When we’re tempted, we need to flee temptation and to stand faithfully underneath it. I take it that it’s possible, therefore, to be tempted without sinning.

We’re not told that as we grow as Christians, temptations will just disappear from life. We are promised that God will enable us to stand under temptation. I want to say that the presence of temptation is not itself a sin. 

The presence of temptation is not itself a sin. 

James tells me that when I experience temptation, I shouldn’t blame God. I shouldn’t say, ‘Well that’s God’s fault that I’m tempted in this way.’ I need to recognise the ways in which my own temptations are a reflection my fallen nature. They come from my own desires. 

But I don’t think it’s right to say that having the capacity to be tempted in a particular way is itself an additional sin. It’s a sign and consequence of our fallenness and guilt before God. But I do want to repent of the ways I sinfully respond to temptation. I want to flee temptation itself. Otherwise, you’re saying to somebody, ‘Even if you’re not sinning, you’re still sinning, just because you’ve got the capacity to be tempted in a certain way.’ 

Not monsters

I think you’re right to suggest that there’s not an exact symmetry between same-sex temptation and opposite-sex feelings because there are godly ways of expressing heterosexual sexual desires. There are not godly ways of expressing homosexual sexual desires. So, in that sense, there’s a distinction between the two.

But at the same time, I wouldn’t want us to lose sight of the way that there’s much in common between the two. I don’t want people who are experiencing same-sex temptation to feel as though they must be complete monsters compared to people who are wrestling with heterosexual temptation. We know that all of us are fallen in this area of life. All of us need to put sinful desires to death. All of us need to flee temptation. And actually, all of us need encouragement and help to do that.

For further reading

This article was originally published by Desiring God: 'The Christian Debate Over Sexual Identity', Desiring God.

It was part of a series with Sam Allberry which included two further articles: