Delivered as a talk at the Diocesan Workers’ Communion on 25 July 2017, Dr. Wesley Hill shared from a theological viewpoint, as well as his personal experience, about same-sex attraction and the single life. Below is an edited transcript of the talk.
by Dr. Wesley Hill Professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry
I was raised in a godly Christian home. My earliest memories are hearing my parents tell me stories from the Bible. I came to love and trust Jesus Christ from a young age. I was deeply involved in life in the church. As I grew older, I joined the youth group and experienced growth in my discipleship. I had a real hunger for prayer and Scripture, but at the same time, I was going through puberty and awakening to sexual desires.
I realized that many of my friends were growing attracted to the opposite sex, but I was harbouring that attraction for the same-sex. And because I was a Christian in a Bible-believing church, I struggled with feelings of guilt and shame. I feared that this desire I was feeling may be displeasing to God, and I sought to keep my attraction a secret from everyone. I remember praying that God would take these feelings away, and somehow no one would know about it.
In God’s providence, I went to university and was led to share my secret with another Christian. For the first time in my life, I told a fellow believer what I was feeling. It was a very healing moment just as the author of the first epistle of John calls “walking in the light”. The person I shared with told me that God loved me; that my same-sex attraction did not mean that God had written me off; that God wanted to help me and walk with me through this.
After the encounter, I began to meet with one of my pastors, and my question for him was this: “How should I live?” Even with counselling and prayer, my same-sex attraction did not go away. But I also found that as I studied Scripture, I was convicted in the biblical teaching about marriage. In the beginning, God created marriage as a union of male and female. I faced a difficult discipleship: I still experienced same-sex attraction, but I also believed in the biblical teaching about marriage. I was caught in the middle, and so I asked, “What does it mean to be faithful in these circumstances? What does it mean to trust God in the midst of this kind of tension?”
In 1 Corinthians 6:9, Paul writes this:
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Paul is speaking to the reality that some of the Corinthian believers have been involved in same-sex relationships. He is clearly defining this behaviour as sin. It is not holy behaviour that should characterize followers of Christ.
If Paul were to stop there, it would be a harsh word. But in the next verse he gives hope, saying this:
“And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Paul says that some of the Corinthians who were involved in this behaviour, those same people have now been washed. This is a baptismal image: They’ve been cleansed; they’ve been forgiven; they’ve been justified – declared righteous in God’s sight – not because of their own works, but because of Christ.
I took great comfort in this verse – that even though I was experiencing these desires, I was tempted with sin; I knew that I was washed. I believed I was righteous in God’s sight, not because of my own effort, but because of God’s grace for me. Being washed and cleansed in God’s presence is the fundamental basis for any holiness. The discipleship that we practise flows from knowing ourselves to be washed.
“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, grown inwardly as we wait eagerly for the adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
Paul describes the life of those who have been washed as a life of waiting, groaning and looking forward to the redemption of their bodies. In other words, we have been justified, but we are not yet fully redeemed. We know we have been washed, but we are also waiting.
That combination: washed and waiting became my hope. It became a way for me to see my life of discipleship in light of the scriptures. I want to offer that to you as a model in ministry to those with same-sex attraction. I think there is a way of ministering that flows out of misunderstanding. There are three points of exhortation that flow from this way of thinking that I want to commend to you.
WE NEED A HEALTHY THEOLOGY OF THE “ALREADY” BUT “NOT YET”.
The Kingdom of God, salvation, is already here. But it is still not yet here in all of its fullness. We can expect great healing power of God, but we can also expect great difficulty and suffering. This is what it means to live between the first and second coming of Christ.
So as we minister to those with same-sex attraction to expect such great things, we expect some homosexual people to experience a shift in their desires. But we also know because we live between the “already” and “not yet”, many like me will continue to suffer and face these temptations for as we long for the full redemption of our bodies.
Richard Hays, a NT scholar, says, “On the one hand, the transforming power of the Spirit really is present in our midst. On the other hand, the “not yet” looms large.”
The testimonies of those same-sex attracted who have not experienced change, who pray and struggle and seek healing, unsuccessfully, for years, must be taken fully seriously. Perhaps for many same-sex attracted Christians, the best outcome that is attainable will be a life of disciplined abstinence. That’s the kind of life I am seeking to live. I am seeking to live a celibate life – saying no to same-sex behaviours, living in chastity as a single man – but still experiencing same-sex attraction. Having the theology of “already” but “not yet” can help. Already I am washed and accepted. But I am not yet raised from the dead; I do not see Jesus face-to-face.
WE NEED TO REDISCOVER A HIGH VIEW OF THE DIGNITY OF THE SINGLE LIFE.
Christians who choose the life of singleness are not failures. Pastor Tim Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian in New York says: “We are to be neither overly elated about getting married, nor overly disappointed about not getting married – because Christ is the only spouse who can truly fulfil us, and God’s family is the only family that will truly embrace and satisfy us.”
The Christian gospel and the hope of the future kingdom dethrones the idolatry of marriage. Christianity upholds single-adulthood as a viable way of life. Prior to Christianity, nearly all religions and cultures made family and childbearing a foundational cultural value. Before Christianity, there was no honour without family honour, and there was no lasting significant legacy without heirs.
By contrast, the early church did not pressure people to marry. Our Lord himself lived a single life. The greatest apostle, the Apostle Paul, lived a single life. And what Christianity taught is that singleness can point to the kingdom. The single life bears witness to the resurrection. Married people can sometimes forget the resurrection. They can put all their hope on family life and children. Single people don’t have that luxury. They don’t have children to put their hope in. They have to put all their hope on the resurrection. And that is why singleness is important in the church. It is a reminder to the church not to worship marriage and family. It is a reminder to the church that the most important family is the kingdom of God. We need to rediscover and teach our people this idea of singleness.
WE NEED TO PRACTISE RADICAL HOSPITALITY AND INCLUSIVE COMMUNITY.
Too often, I think, the church calls individuals to radical discipleship without doing much to support that person in that difficult calling. We sometimes expect people to be moral heroes on their own. We should not expect that from our same-sex attracted brothers and sisters. We should call them to radical holiness, and then come alongside them to help them live into that calling. It is not enough to preach the biblical doctrine to same-sex attracted people unless we too make the costly sacrifice of staying with them in that calling. I know that I will not be able to be single and pursue chastity if it was not for my community. My discipleship is bound up with my community. I rely on the support and hospitality of my fellow believers. We need to practise the kind of rich friendships and community practices that bind us together so that radical obedience is possible.
What are some of the hospitable practices that you find helpful? Sometimes it is not that we don’t want to be hospitable, but we don’t know what kind of hospitality would be helpful without being over-the-top or singling the person out.
To some degree, it depends on the particular same-sex attracted person you are ministering to. I know some same-sex attracted people who end up marrying someone of the opposite sex and the kind of support they need looks different from what I need. Many of us who are Christian and same-sex attracted choose a life of singleness, and certainly in my context that often means a life of loneliness. I think it is most common in the United States for single people to live alone. And when you live alone, you face different kinds of struggle. You can face the struggle of temptation, of despair, like you don’t have any friends; or it makes you more vulnerable to sexual temptation. So I feel I need support that takes the form of people in my life who would invite me for meals, for example; people who share joys and events and holidays with me; people whom I would call if I had a difficulty with my car or my house. I would also need people for accountability – people who would ask about how my prayer life or thought life is.
The Anglican writer, Lauren Winner, uses the phrase, “loneliness of the everyday”. I think we are all familiar with the modern romantic kind of loneliness that comes from a divorce or a break in your relationship. But there is a more mundane kind of loneliness that is the loneliness of always coming home to an empty house and never knowing whom you will share your next meal with. That is more the kind of loneliness that many same-sex attracted Christians feel.
So how do we help with that? Open our homes to one another. I don’t know if this is culturally appropriate, but perhaps sharing living space with others. I myself share a home with a married couple, and their daughter is my goddaughter. This couple views it as their calling to support me and my calling.
You mentioned that there are same-sex attracted people in every congregation, and they don’t want people to know their secret and their struggles. So people in the congregation will have no idea or understanding how to relate to them. We are shunning and avoiding people whom we suspect have same-sex attraction, and we talk behind their backs. How do you bring out a healthy environment in the church such that people can be open about their same-sex attraction, be accepted and find support from congregants? And for us, how much do we talk, how much do we rebuke?
Sometimes when people gossip about same-sex attracted people, or make negative comments that keep them from wanting to share, it’s a result of never having thought through what it would be like to be same-sex attracted. Maybe people are not trying to be cruel, but they never imagined that such a person would be sitting next to them in the pews.
One of things that those of us in pastoral ministry can do is try to help congregations imagine what if feels like, what the burdens are for those who are same-sex attracted. I don’t think you have to preach a dozen sermons on it or anything like that. But from time to time, you can mention that there are people here who struggle with this. You can try to regularly remind your congregation that this is an issue that Christians can face. One of the mistakes we make is that we think gay or lesbian people are always out there, at the Pink Dot event. We don’t ponder or consider the fact that there are same-sex attracted people who are silently grieving and struggling and worried, right here in the church.
A good thing that you might do is from time to time use as an illustration in a sermon that someone may have same-sex attraction. You might be preaching from the passage where Jesus says “Take up your cross and follow me” and simple say in a bible study or a sermon, “One of the ways that we can do this is by living a chaste life if you are a same-sex attracted person.” Little gestures like that can help sensitize the congregation to this reality.
With regard to your first question about what is the cause of this shift: For about 50 years now in Western countries, we’ve seen the sexual revolution happening. With the development of safe contraception and abortion, a total rejection of traditional Christian sexual ethics has taken over in the US. The 1960s was really the first time in history that you could choose to have sex for pleasure and reasonably prevent childbirth. You also see the rise in the West of no-fault divorce clause; people choosing to live lives with extramarital sex, premarital sex – so the divorce rate rises. It is important to see that the gay-rights movement flows out of that. If heterosexual sex is now is all about having sexual pleasure regardless of children, now gay people want to have the same thing. So there is the sense in which the gay movement grows out of a larger cultural movement, which is rejecting the Christian view of sex.
So I think it is very important when we teach the biblical view of homosexuality that we not neglect to confront heterosexual sin, which is part of the whole picture. The Bible actually has far more to say about divorce and adultery than it does homosexuality. So I think we need to be careful not to place all the blame on gay activists and forget to look for the way that that movement is actually flowing out of, or is prompted by, other kinds of rebellion.
Stanley Grenz, who is a Canadian Baptist theologian, wrote a book on homosexuality called Welcoming But Not Affirming. I think that’s the message we have to the gay activist scene, and the same message we have for the heterosexual community: Welcoming, but not affirming. In other words, everyone is welcome to come to the Cross; everyone is called. There is mercy for every kind of sexual sinner. But when we come to the Cross we begin to be transformed. We do not simply get to be affirmed in all that we want God to affirm about us. As we are washed in baptism, we lay down our heterosexual rebellion and our homosexual rebellion. I think this message of welcoming but not affirming is very hard to speak into the public square, because pastorally, it requires you to say two things rather than one thing. Pastorally, you must always speak mercy to broken sinners; but you also have to preach the demand of God, the law of God, which is God’s holy righteous will for sexual behaviour. But if you confront the gay activist movement with that law of God, what God says is right in order to pronounce God’s condemnation on sin, you must also preach the Gospel – that God forgives sinners. And the activist, along with everyone else, is welcome to come and be forgiven. I don’t want to pretend that that’s easy, but that’s the answer.
How do we minister to gay couples who come to our church, and say that they refrain from homosexual activity, but are cohabitating in a special, committed friendship relationship with each other. To what extent do we encourage this kind of relationship?
The first thing I want to say is I am not yet ordained, not yet a pastor so I am speaking somewhat hypothetically. My sense is that this is one of those questions that probably doesn’t have one answer that applies to every case. I think some same-sex couples, if they were to try to maintain their relationship, will continue to fall into sexual sin. But I have heard of a couple of stories in the US of a same-sex couple who came to Christ and their pastor encouraged then to give up all their sexual behaviour, but to remain in close friendship with one another. I think this is especially difficult in the States when the couple may have adopted children. I think it’s probably one of those situations where pastoral discernment is the key. How mature are each of the partners in their faith? How much accountability do they have with other believers? I could imagine that on the one hand, you might encourage such a couple to break up, and on the other hand you might encourage such a couple to maintain a chaste friendship with one another.
I feel the dilemma that you are describing. I think in my context in the US, the gay-affirming churches have become so prominent that I feel an obligation of should I answer what they are trying to engage. There are so many gay-affirming books that are being published right now; so many Christians who are being persuaded by these books that I feel I have to engage and answer so that Christians can see there is a counter-argument that can be made.
There is a way, I think, to engage the arguments of these people without necessarily doing some sort of public event or debate, or something like that. If you have members in your congregation who have heard some of these arguments or who are curious, you can simply meet with them and show how the traditional, biblical view can meet those objections. I don’t think there are any requirements you would have to set as some sort of public dialogue or conversation. I myself have done those in the States. I’ve had public debates with people who hold a gay-affirming view. I do worry, at times, like what you are saying, that somehow I legitimize their perspective as if it is just another faithful option that Christians could choose.
As I look now from my experience, having to engage with serious, thoughtful objections has actually forced me to go deeper into what I think the Bible teaches, and it has actually strengthened my confidence in what I already believe, so there is that experience as well.
Thank you, Prof Hill, for not just bringing a message, but living the message. I think it brings a lot of hope to people who are same-sex attracted. I have a question: I think many people believe and observe that Singapore is a very westernized society. Someone commented that what happens in LA will arrive in six months at our shores. In your view, what are some of the things that the church in the US could have done or shouldn’t have done that could have prevented the development of such a state of events concerning same-sex attraction, and what would your advice be for Singapore?
This is such a good question, thank you for the question. Two things come to mind: One mistake that I think so many churches in America made the last decades was we never really taught the biblical basis for our views on sex and marriage. So many churches simply assumed that people knew those views and believed in them, and they didn’t need to present the reason for those views.
I read a letter recently of a young woman who left her faith, left her church. She said the reason she left her church is because she got to know some friends at university who were gay and lesbian. She had grown up in an evangelical church but the only reason she had heard that you should be against homosexuality was because homosexuality was sort of yucky or nasty, or not very nice. And she said when she went to university, she found that these gay and lesbian people were not yucky; they were very kind, very good, very sweet. She said the only reason that her church had given her for being against homosexuality was this reason and now that reason doesn’t seem persuasive any more. Her church had given her a prejudice rather than a biblical theology. So I would encourage the church here not to give your young people prejudices, but give them biblical theology on marriage. Don’t base your views of sexuality on stereotypes that are not going to be persuasive to young people. Base your views on Scripture.
The second thing I would say is this: I think in the US, we have so elevated and idolized marriage, that that is now THE thing that seems like the only place where you can find real love. When you have that kind of view, of course gay people are going to want to get married, right? When heterosexual people idolize marriage, of course it’s going to make homosexual people want to have same-sex marriage. And what I wish the church in America had been doing for all these years is teach that marriage is an honourable calling, but there are other honourable callings alongside of it. I think what a difference it might have made if we had been celebrating friendship and singleness and community. I wonder if we had been doing those things, gay people might have been able to say, “I could live a happy, fulfilled, godly life as a single person without having to demand same-sex marriage.”
So my prayer for you in Singapore is that you continue to uphold the sanctity of male-and-female marriage, but also that you will celebrate singleness and friendship, and the hospitality that comes belonging in the family of God.
Dr. Wesley Hill is Professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan, second edition 2016).
This article first appeared in Issue 17, November 2017 CHORUS Magazine.