WARNING! This is going to be a long post. It will also be the last post I write on this subject. I will try and respond to everyone who responds to the post, and I will answer any questions, but this will be the last new post on the subject of sexual orientation (at least for a while). Thank you to everyone who has responded and interacted with me on this topic. Some of you interacted here, others on facebook, and still others in conversation.
All of this started because I have been discussing this topic for years with students in my sociology classes. These students come from all over the world, all over the United States, and various backgrounds and religions. As a minister, as well as a teacher (and all my students know I am a minister) I have tried to approach this subject in a way that people from various backgrounds will feel comfortable sharing their thoughts without feeling judgment and condemnation from me. Part of the college experience is the free exchange of ideas and there are few things worse than a college teacher who does not allow for honest, open discussions. The moment students feel they are being judged and condemned they close down and shut up. So, in order to keep them talking, I have to be careful how I explain my views and beliefs. Once a student stops listening, I can no longer persuade and influence. My desire, in a college classroom setting, is not to win an argument, but to win an audience. Somehow, can I build a bridge between biblical principles and secular attitudes in such a way that students will listen to me, and respect what I say, even if they have a different worldview from mine or disagree with my conclusions? Somehow, by building that bridge, can I be salt and light in their lives? Of course I can’t expect them to respect my beliefs if I don’t first respect their beliefs and so I try hard to listen before commenting. Sometimes this is difficult because sometimes college students believe crazy things (but that’s another post). On my good days I try to live by the principle, seek first to understand before being understood.
With that as a background, here is an approach I have used that has opened up the door for me to further share my beliefs, and on a few occasions, has opened up the door for me to share the Gospel. The question behind all of these posts is as follows: Is sexual orientation a product of biology or society? Ultimately, as a believer, the answer to that question doesn’t matter and doesn’t change the biblical guidelines for sexuality. But that’s way too simple of an answer. Here is my answer, from what I hope is a sociological, biblical worldview, perspective.
The evidence for sociology or biology (nature vs. nurture) is unclear and controversial. People’s biases have affected their research on the topic and so a clear cut answer may not be possible. Chances are it is some combination of both, but even that is debatable. The one thing that is not debatable, and the one thing that seems to have a general consensus, is that people are born with a sex drive. People are born with a physical desire to have sex and most people find sex pleasurable and enjoyable. Thus the common ground, and a good place to start the conversation, is this: Human beings are sexual creatures. Our desire for sex is part of our physical desires, and these physical desires are God ordained and God honoring. The bible refers to these desires as physical, or natural, desires. Sigmund Freud considered our physical desires to be part of the id.
There are four basic physical desires. (There could be more than four, but there are least four, and these four are foundational.) These four physical desires are things that people as individuals cannot live without, or things that society cannot live without. These four basic physical desires are: (1) Food. (2) Drink. (3) Sleep. (4) Sex. In other words, if a person doesn’t eat, they will die; if a person doesn’t drink, they will die; if a person doesn’t sleep, they will die; and while an individual may not die if they don’t have sex, society will die if at least two people, somewhere, don’t have sex. (It should go without saying that the only type of sex that perpetuates life is heterosexual, but don’t get ahead of me.)
God created us with these physical desires. In and of themselves these desires are good and not sinful. However, God also designed regulations for each of these physical desires. Even though you were born with these desires, you are not free (from a biblical point of view) to express those desires any way you wish. Satisfying those desires outside of God’s regulations creates difficulties, abuses, addictions, and unhealthy lifestyles. Left uncontrolled, those physical desires, which were meant for good, become destructive to individuals, relationships, families, and societies. The bible has a very clear phrase that describes expressing these desires in an unhealthy way. It’s called “lust of the flesh” (1 John 2:16, KJV). In other words, when left uncontrolled, food becomes gluttony; drink becomes drunkenness; sleep becomes laziness, and sex becomes immorality. The bible clearly calls gluttony, drunkenness, laziness, and immorality, sin.
If we were to change the subject from sexual orientation to food, how would you answer this question: Is a person born a vegetarian, or is being a vegetarian a result of something that happens later in life (a product of society)? Is there something biological about my desire for pies over cakes, or pork chops over chitlins, or is the food I like a somehow a product of societal influences? Maybe the answer is not as clear as I think, but most sociologists would say that we are born with a physical desire to eat, but the types of foods we like, and how we eat, and the manners we learn, and the silverware we use or don’t use, are a result of the socialization process. Our desire for food is biological. The types of food we prefer are sociological
Why then can we not say that we are born sexual creatures, but how we choose to live out our sex lives—heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality—is somehow a result of, and our interaction with, social influences? Society affects our decisions and choices far more than any of us like to admit. Society uses social norms to influence behavior and control the actions of its members. Most people in a society conform to the norm. However, every society has members of that society who will go against the social norms. But even those who go against social norms are still influenced by the norms. In a weird kind of way, rebelling against social norms is a form of conforming to social norms.
Let’s stop and restate and review: We are born sexual creatures. Our sexual orientation is somehow a product of society. The social norm in all societies at all times has been heterosexuality (because of our human desire to perpetuate life and cultures); and so the vast majority of people in any society will choose to be heterosexual. Every society will have a certain percentage of members who choose to live outside the norm and will choose alternative ways to express their sexuality—homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality.
The main objection I hear from my students about this approach is why would a person choose to be gay, knowing the discrimination and hardships they will face for that choice? My answer is that people every day, in every society, choose to live outside societies norms, knowing it will lead to difficulty. An example would be being gothic. People are not born goth, but they choose to live that lifestyle, knowing it will cause difficulty and discrimination. People are not biologically born Amish, but they choose to live that lifestyle, knowing they are going against the norm and will never be fully integrated into the broader society.
How does this idea that we are born sexual, but sexual orientation comes later, stack up to biblical principles? I think it stacks up nicely. I admit there are weaknesses in this approach, but there are weaknesses in other approaches as well.
The main objection I hear from other Christians about this approach goes something like this: “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and so there must be something biological about heterosexuality.” I will admit this is a very good argument, and I don’t have a very good answer. (I am still working through this part.) The best I can do is to throw out the possibility that immediately following creation, before Original Sin, heterosexuality may have been biological (but I don’t think you can be dogmatic about it). But because Original Sin (Genesis 3) damaged all of God’s creation (including us) things are different now (though God and His standards are not different). Because of sin we no longer live in an ideal, perfect world. We were created in God’s image, but because of sin, His image in us has been severely damaged. (Some would say destroyed.) Through faith in Jesus Christ we are recreated in God’s image. But when it comes to sexual orientation, right now the best we can say is that we are born with a sex drive, but how that drive demonstrates itself is based on society, which is also fallen. Furthermore, it would take another long blog to explain, but there is a theological case that can be made that the reason heterosexuality is God’s ideal is because sex (between husband and wife) is an illustration of what it means to be one with Christ.
I think, even though it is not perfect, my approach has three strong points: First, it places all of us (regardless of sexual orientation) on the same level. Everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, was born the same. This means one orientation cannot claim the moral high ground over other orientations and everyone can blame their biology equally. I think this is important because it builds the case that all have sinned and no one who is righteous. (Romans 3). This approach puts us all on equal ground and equally accountable to God for our actions and choices.
Second, it lays a solid foundation to speak consistently about immorality without signaling out any one sexual orientation. The biblical principle about sex is quite simple, and the principle is the same regardless of a person’s orientation. The biblical principle is as follows: When it comes to expressing oneself sexually, a follower of Jesus Christ as two choices, marriage (which the bible defines as one man and one woman), or celibacy. There is no third choice. Regardless of my sexual orientation, if I am pursuing holiness, then sexual activity is limited to marriage only. Any type of sexual activity (regardless of sexual orientation), outside the confines of biblical marriage, is equally offensive to a holy God. In order to experience the fullness of life that the scripture talks about, you don’t have to stop being who you are, or who you think you are, but you do have to live in obedience to biblical principles. Celibacy is a difficult commitment to make, and the bible teaches that only the spiritually mature can make such a commitment (1 Corinthians 7:7-8).
It has been my experience in my discussions with gay and lesbian students that when I explain my views this way, they are very appreciative. Their biggest complaint about Christians is the hypocrisy they see in their lifestyles being severely judged, while the lifestyles of their heterosexual friends are not judged as harshly. Yes, in the church, we say all sin is equal, but in reality, we treat homosexual sins different from heterosexual sins, and that is wrong! My gay and lesbian students may not agree with me, but they tell me they appreciate my consistency, and understand my beliefs without feeling like I have personally condemned them.
A third benefit to this approach is that it stresses learned behavior, and learned behavior can be unlearned. My approach, then, offers hope to people who want to get out of the lifestyle they are living; and what I mean by this is any lifestyle (heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual) that is an abuse of sexual activity. Through the grace of God, and only through the grace of God, you can change your behavior.
Well, there you have it. Congratulations! You have made it to the end. I am still a work in progress, my thoughts are subject to change, and I reserve the right to later admit I was wrong. But I would be interested in your thoughts and opinions and questions about what you have read.