Sexuality And Scripture: Six Stories
So here are six stories, experiences and perspectives which, in different ways, illuminate the relationship between the gospel and human sexuality. They concern a prostitute, a partnership, a pearl, a PhD, a pastor, and a Pentecostal. The first is the story of a good friend of mine whom I’ve known for twenty years:
I remember the first time I heard the word “gay”. I was a young child, and it just seemed to fit me like a glove. I grew up knowing that I was attracted to guys rather than girls, and it remained that way when I first became a Christian at sixteen. For five years, I had a fantastic time as a follower of Jesus, and my sexuality was not particularly an issue - but then, at twenty-one, I had an affair. In the aftermath, because of both personal guilt and the unhelpful response of my church leaders, I spiraled. Although I continued to go to church on Sundays, during the week I had more and more sexual relationships, and eventually got so low that I ended up selling myself by taking money for sex.
But God never gave up on me. After a few years of this, I had my arm twisted to go on a sexual healing course, in a context where I saw radical grace lived out in an incredible way. Initially, I said that I was on the course because I had once had a gay affair, but then the guy after me said quite bluntly that he’d had sex with his dog, and I knew that I had to be open about everything, and the whole story came out. Over the course of a few months, I encountered the liberating, scandalous, transforming favour of God, and it changed my completely. I repented, I was reconciled to my church leaders, my lifestyle changed, I am now married to a beautiful woman, and we have two sons. I never thought that would happen, and I know for many people it doesn’t. But in God’s love, anything is possible.
That’s not everybody’s experience, obviously, and my friend would be the first to say so. Lots of gay people never experience a change of their desires on becoming a Christian, and/or have to decide to give up their gay lifestyle before knowing whether that will mean they remain single for life. Here’s the story of a confident and very attractive young woman I met a year ago at a Christian conference:
As a lesbian who has been in a civil partnership with my partner for several years, I want to thank you so much for your courage in preaching on this issue like that. Just over a year ago, I became a Christian. I quickly came to realise that God did not want me to carry on living as I had been, but my situation was very complicated. I was legally committed to and living with my partner, and we had a child together. But I knew that the right thing to do, despite how enormously painful it was, was to separate from my partner, and try and work out how I could be a mother to my son in this new situation.
The thing is, my partner was so astonished at the change in my life, and so challenged by what had happened to me, that she came along to church - and soon afterwards, she became a Christian as well! We are now separated, we share the raising of our son together, and we are both praying that God will continue to change us, and even give us good Christian husbands. My ex is here at this conference with me, although she’s not here right now because she’s looking after our son this afternoon. [I met her the following day, and she confirmed the whole story]. Thank you, from both of us, for what you said.
Following Jesus can be very, very costly for gay people: it can cost people not just sex, but also family, relationships, friends and social identity. In fact, I think gay people, along with Muslim converts and cross-cultural missionaries, understand the cost of discipleship much better than straight people. They often understand much more clearly than middle class, straight, happily married white people what Jesus meant when he talked about giving up everything to follow him:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:44-46)
Another story that I’ve found helpful is the experience of Wesley Hill, who is currently studying for a PhD at Durham, and is the author of the excellent (and very thoughtfully entitled) Washed and Waiting:
Since puberty, I’d been aware of exclusively same-sex desires, and I was fearful as to what that meant for my future. I wanted to hear someone say I wasn’t alone, that the confusion and anxiety I felt wouldn’t last forever. YouTube didn’t exist back then, so there wasn’t an “It Gets Better” campaign for me to find. What I ended up discovering instead was a community of Christians who told me the story of the gospel and, energized by its hope, reached out to me in love.
My Christian friends told me that God is a good creator, explaining that he made humanity male and female and designed marriage, a covenant union between one man and one woman, as the place for human sexual desire to flourish (see Genesis 2:20-25 read together with Matthew 19:4-5). But they also described creation’s subsequent fall into sin and death. The biblical narrative of an originally pristine world gone horribly awry on account of human rebellion made sense of the fact that, through no conscious choice of my own, as an inheritor of Adam’s sin, I found myself experiencing desires for what seemed, in Christian terms, to be the wrong objects (see Romans 1:24-27). East of Eden, even our bodies are in need of redemption, my friends pointed out (see Romans 8:23).
Above all, the Christians I got to know pointed me to Jesus. Single, celibate, with no place to lay his head, Jesus understood my feeling of being broken and the loneliness that came with it. More than that, he died and was raised to secure for me eternal life with his Father in their Spirit—a life in which all bullying, sadness, and self-harm have no place. Trusting in him, I could count on God to see me not as a damnable failure but as an adopted son, a fellow heir with Jesus, a justified sinner. And I could look forward to a bodily resurrection patterned after Jesus’ own.
My friends didn’t just tell me this story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration—a kind of ultimate it gets better message. They also, in my case, seemed to say, “Let’s make it better”—through love. The Christians I got to know committed themselves, through the unity secured by the Holy Spirit rather than through biological ties, to being my family if I never experienced marriage firsthand. They invited me into their homes, took me on vacation with them, and encouraged me to consider myself an older sibling to their children. And they recruited me to join them in causes of hospitality, in making room for bullied kids—and bullies—at our dinner tables.
Inspiring, isn’t it? Next, and very much in line with Wesley Hill’s perspective, is the apostle Paul:
Or 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. 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 ... So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 7:38)
Finally, here’s a story from Mike Bird, about a particularly awkward Bible study he led that ended up on the subject of sexuality and Scripture:
Back in 2002, just after it was announced that Rowan Williams was going to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury, I led an ecumenical Bible study among a group of Christians from the Army. I remember vividly the small group in question: A fiery Lutheran warrant officer, a meek Pentecostal girl from transport corps, a liberal Catholic logistics Captain, and a softly spoken nominal Anglican lady working for the DoD. When we got to the subject of Rowan Williams and his views of sexuality, well, the conversation heated up, like a furnace. The Lutheran warrant officer earnestly made the point that the Bible condemns homosexuality, the liberal Catholic rebutted that sexuality is genetically innate and cannot be helped so one should not oppose it, the nominal Anglican lady said that gay people make great friends and are great at helping you decorate your house, while the Pentecostal girl just sat there quietly not saying anything. Well, the conversation, now argument, got hotter and hotter. Despite my best efforts to moderate the tone and change the subject, it just got worse. It turned into a yelling match with the Bible-bashing Lutheran trying to shout down the liberal Catholic on the one side and the nominal Anglican lady adding her two-cents every so often. The poor Pentecostal girl sat their very quiet, staring catatonically at the floor, wisely avoiding the melee. Right before I was gonna yell “time out children, time to go home,” all of a sudden the Pentecostal girl loudly interjected with these words, “I used to be a Lesbian but Jesus saved me.” Right after that there was a silence you could cut with a knife. The Lutheran, the Catholic, the Anglican, and the poor Bible study leader, had nothing to say. What do you say to that? How do you follow that up? The young girl was engaged and a few months later was married and last I heard she was living a joyous heterosexual marriage with her new husband.
So there’s six stories and perspectives on sexuality and Scripture. No doubt that leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but hopefully it gives some examples of how biblical clarity (all of these stories portray gay people as deeply loved by God, yet gay sex as sinful) can coexist with experiential diversity (the extent of personal change, and the consequences for the individual, vary widely). Personally, I experienced five years of gay attraction, which was accompanied by a conviction that acting upon it was sinful, and then experienced changed desires - so I have some connection with each of these examples. But that’s another story.