Should someone claim the label “gay Christian?”
It is not a question that Alan Noble takes up in You Are Not Your Own. Yet it is a question same-sex attracted disciples get asked frequently, and one that consistently features in articles, webinars, and panels on LGBT+ questions. It can be asked kindly, curiously, and sometimes apprehensively, or anxiously. It’s a question that we ask ourselves, and that we ask of loved ones, and that we even ask of strangers. And in my own reading of Noble’s new work, I found the question followed me around like a quiet child, unobtrusive but always there. Though Noble doesn’t take it up directly, he has much to say on contemporary framing of identity. Several of his themes and concerns relate directly, and I believe helpfully, to this specific conversation. In order to understand how Noble’s comments relate, the “sides” of the debate need to be briefly described.
One the one hand, advocates for LGBT+ language such as gay Christian or queer Christian are quick to point out that by calling themselves gay, they are merely naming something true about themselves: they are romantically and sexually attracted to folks of the same sex. They explain that this naming nowise implies that they are going to seek out gay relationships. On the contrary, their commitment to Christ has called them away from gay relationships and toward the family of the church. Using the moniker gay is a way for them to not have hide this real and meaningful part of their existence.
Especially for those who have grown up shouldering deep shame about their attractional patterns, using the word gay can feel like when Harry Potter freely uses the name Voldemort; it’s a demonstration of appropriate non-fear, a non-fear that gains power in the declaration. Perhaps the comparison to Voldemort is not quite right, however, because many who identify as gay Christians do not think of their attractional patterns as something trying to destroy them. Rather, they are experienced as an opportunity to see through those attractions to the risen Lord. Saying No to something that our hearts long for can be a powerful display of the beauty and worth of what we are saying Yes to in exchange.
One the other hand, those concerned about LGBT+ language worry that by putting gay in front of Christian, something is being embraced that should be rejected. One popular strand of this view will go so far as to assert that nothing should be put in front of the word Christian, but that our identities should only be in Christ. How much more a word that describes something associated with the fall and sin?Saying No to something that our hearts long for can be a powerful display of the beauty and worth of what we are saying Yes to in exchange. Others are more concerned about using a word that is so strongly linked, not merely to attraction, but also to following through with those attractions. The mere suggestion of seeking out gay relationships while embracing the label of Christian is dangerous enough to be worth avoiding.
I should put my own cards on the table, of course. I came to Christ eighteen years ago from a background of convinced atheism and sexual and romantic relationships with other young women. In these almost two decades of discipleship, my same-sex attraction has never disappeared. This conversation is not esoteric to me, but deeply personal. It’s personal for many of us. I have reservations about the use of LGBT+ language among Christians, which is why I don’t prefer the term gay Christian for myself (I never even called myself gay or lesbian while I was in actual lesbian relationships, so it would be strange to start now!). However, I also have reservations about some of the pushback against the language.
This is where I think some of Noble’s discussion on identity can prove helpful.
Throughout You Are Not Your Own, Noble diagnoses our modern malady. As the title suggests, he believes a hefty portion of our malaise comes from the crushing burdens of the Responsibilities of Self-Belonging. In Chapter Five, “You Are Not Your Own but Belong to Christ,” Noble remarks on what the disciple’s options are in light of where we find ourselves, both in Christ and in the world. Hence, from pages 136-142 he directly pursues the question of “our identity before God.” And here I find words that feel like they were exactly written to those with concerns about LGBT+ language for Christians:
“The danger for Christians who urge others to find their identity in Christ is that most modern people have a secular understanding of identity . . . what exactly does Christ-identity look like? Certainly, being a follower of Christ gives you a set of morals and a community. We may go so far as to say that Christianity offers us an entire worldview. But morality, community and worldview are not identity. They can contribute to our identity, but they are not our identity” (p. 138, emphasis original).
Morality, community and worldview are precious, necessary elements of how we live in the world. Yet each of these must be refracted through our actual situation on the ground. Noble is exactly right that these three components are insufficient to fill out a person’s identity because they simply don’t take into account on their own who the individual actually is. That I am a white well-educated female American citizen and resident of greater Boston will impact how I wield Christian ethics, Christian community, and Christian worldview, for better and for worse. Notice, I didn’t even have to bring in my romantic and sexual attractional patterns. Some of the pushback against LGBT+ language (pushback I broadly share) is naïve about the necessity of naming important aspects of our experience.
I’m aware that there is a subtle but important distinction even between calling oneself a same-sex attracted Christian and a Christian who experiences same-sex attraction. I even think our conversations about it are important. Yet I maintain that there is a doggedness to the way some want to police the language of disciples who are living out a costly obedience,There is a doggedness to the way some want to police the language of disciples who are living out a costly obedience, misunderstood by both the church and the world. misunderstood by both the church and the world, that does not attend to the identity language of the ones doing the policing. Anyone with “Christian, husband, father” in their Twitter bio should take notice.
Nonetheless, I also found Noble accurately expressing the conditions of our society which concern me regarding the use of LGBT+ language among same-sex attracted disciples. In fact, I think these conditions could prove particularly tricky, because in many ways the costly obedience of same-sex attracted disciples fits exactly in line with what Noble champions as ways to boldly belong to Christ in our culture. Noble discusses, for example, how a person can choose “to follow God’s law out of personal preference” and yet “eventually discover a breaking point where their desire for experiences or self-expression comes up hard against an ethical law” (p. 119). At the very heart of our experience of following Christ is saying No to same-sex romantic and sexual relationship, despite our preference for such relationships in our flesh! To not recognize how shocking this is in the culture, what a powerful witness this can be to the beauty and sufficiency of Christ, would be appalling. One would think that disciples who experience same-sex attraction and then deny those desires in honor of Jesus should be among the least vulnerable to the challenges of LGBT+ language.
I do think our costly obedience can give us a potential advantage: we begin our thinking about language choice from the position of wanting to follow Christ, and are thus usually wary of other powers which could claim our allegiance. And yet Noble also describes a culture, including church culture, which has and is so thoroughly catechizing us towards the Responsibilities of Self-Belonging, that we are certainly not immune to their dangers. Noble is surely right that “the basic story we tell ourselves in the modern world is of self-discovery” (p. 21); this self-discovery is a basic element of the Responsibilities of Self-Belonging. The fact that the discovery of our attractional patterns is by necessity a type of self-discovery therefore links us to a piece of that Self-Belonging framework, and can add extra intuitive sense to its claims.
There is nothing unchristian, of course, about self-understanding. But this is where things can grow tricky. A biblical understanding of self-discovery should mean that many of the things we discover about ourselves are properly sinful and/or fallen (and here I mean more than simply things related to our sexuality). But the cultural narrative of self-discovery pushes towards affirmation of what we find “inside.”What are we supposed to do with what we discover about ourselves? We’re often left answering this question alone, or in whispers. Same-sex attracted Christians are sometimes caught in a deadly trap between a world that pressures us into unfaithful affirmation and some church cultures that pressure us beyond proper denial of our temptations, leading many of us to live years in self-shame or self-loathing. What are we supposed to do with what we discover about ourselves? We’re often left answering this question alone, or in whispers.
Or consider that “large portions of our economy are entirely devoted to facilitating our personal quest for identity and self-expression” (p. 43). In general, and specifically in the past few years, the commercialization of queer identity has reached new heights. What major corporation doesn’t wrap itself in rainbows every June? There is an ever-expanding array of LGBT+ merch for sale, of labels and markers we can put on our social media. We’ve gone from the love that dare not speak its name to gay couples in TV advertisements; same-sex romance is expected to sell. As Noble states, it, “here is the critical point: our society is designed for humans who must define and express themselves” (p. 45, emphasis original).
As if this amount of pressure wasn’t enough, same-sex attracted disciples are also facing churches and ministries who by and large still treat us with utter suspicion and sometimes outright contempt. Jokes, stereotypes, and hypocrisy abound. The family that Jesus promised to us, the family he won for us, can often be where we experience the most painful rejection and misunderstanding. In the face of a church that postures as if our obedience isn’t enough, and a world that is ready to champion LGBT+ identity, I can’t help but expect that many disciples will gravitate towards where they will feel seen, accepted, and celebrated.
So I have a caution, and a rebuke. My caution to my siblings in Christ who experience same-sex attraction is that we watch our hearts if we choose to embrace LGBT+ language and/or other LGBT+ identity markers. Reading You Are Not Your Own freshly reminded me of how the society we live in is not interested in encouraging our obedience to Christ or our self-sacrificial love for others. Instead it is designed to facilitate hope in ourselves. It could be quite easy to start right but get worn down, to ultimately find our greatest sense of self, belonging, values and comfort from LGBT+ principles and not from our Lord and Friend. After all, we know that the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, seeking folks to devour, and our culture is set up to serve us as a meal to him on the route of expressive identity.
But my rebuke remains for my siblings who are setting up barriers in churches for the full belonging of same-sex attracted disciples who are living a costly obedience. It is cruel and unfair to police our language on the one hand while functionally driving us into the arms of the world on the other. If you read Noble’s book and accept his diagnoses about these cultural dangers, then in love help us to belong to Christ instead! Concerns for our language choices will be more effectively received if our belonging to Christ, and belonging to his Bride the church, is actively facilitated and celebrated. They will also be more effective if those with concerns stop posturing as if same-sex attracted disciples are more vulnerable to these identity traps than others. We can’t ignore, for example, the many Christians in this country who consider their citizenship in America as just as important to their sense of self as their union with Christ. Noble’s survey carries ample data for diverse avenues of Self-Belonging.
Noble is specifically and explicitly not trying to give us a certain list of steps or systems in order for us to navigate these challenges we face. Perhaps that’s the final genius of the book. It certainly doesn’t spit out a pre-programmed answer to whether or not we should use LGBT+ language as disciples. I wouldn’t trust anything that did, in fact. How could there be a once for all answer to such a complex and highly contextual scenario? In the meantime, recognizing this modern anthropology for what it is can and should inform our decisions, and I urge us to not underestimate how strong the forces of self-belonging are. Yet whatever we decide, and for however long, “faithfully doing the good that lies before us while waiting dependent upon God for redemption is the most meaningful action you can take. And it’s the only way we can righteously respond to the crisis of our time” (p. 172).