Friday, September 28, 2012

Same Sex Attraction: Reflections on an Interview with Vaughan Roberts

Michael Bird over at Euangelion has brought attention to a frank and helpful interview with Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St. Ebbe's in Oxford, over Same Sex Attraction.  The interview, entitled "A Battle I Face," discusses his admission of struggle with homosexual orientation, one of various battles he discussed in his 2007 book, Battles Christians Face.

Here in America people are bombarded with two seemingly polar opposite positions, the advocates of which stridently propound their view while vilifying the opposition.  On the one hand, the rising tide of secular culture, bolstered by studies that appear to demonstrate some innate biological element to homosexual orientation, demands that homosexual practice be accorded the same normative status as heterosexual practice.  "Authenticity," so the argument goes, demands that people with such an orientation accept such an orientation as definitive of their identity and embrace the lifestyle such an orientation makes "natural."  On the other hand, "Evangelical" Christians have had the tendency to conflate biblical condemnation of homosexual practice with a blanket condemnation of people with homosexual orientation.  Even worse, they have tended, at least at the popular and lay levels, to maintain that homosexuality is a learned behavior that people adopt by conscious choice--I remember more than one heterosexual college student tell me that nothing I taught could convince them otherwise--and to adopt the worst aspects of macho culture in their attitudes to gay people.  The result has been unfortunate.  Those with a secular agenda have been relentless in their caricature of all Christians based on the sub-biblical attitudes of the most strident anti-gay crusaders.  That is to be expected, so consequently I don't worry about it.  I am not responsible for them, anyway.  But I am a Christian--and a Christian theologian at that--and hence have large stakes in how my community thinks and acts.  And it is a tragic thing that Christians, who are supposed to be marked by love of all, are known more for their hatefulness than their charity, grace, and mercy toward those with whom they disagree.

I have always maintained that there is a middle way that must be taken. Roberts, to his great credit, affirms this very via media. The Bible certainly teaches that homosexual practice is sinful in the eyes of God (as I sought to demonstrate thoroughly in posts found hereherehereherehere, and here).  The faithful Christian must, as a consequence, regard such practice as an illegitimate option for his or her life.  Indeed, as Roberts affirms correctly, there are only two legitimate options: heterosexual sex within the parameters of monogamous marriage, and celibacy.  In this regard, the struggle of a gay person to remain celibate differs little from the struggle of a single heterosexual person.  At the same time, the Bible does not deal with the issue of sexual orientations per se, at least with regard to their occurrences within individual lives.  I have no serious doubt that such orientations are the result of complex biological, psychological, and environmental factors, and hence for all practical purposes appear "normal" to those who experience them.  After all, I know of nobody who distinctly chooses those to whom he or she is sexually attracted.  Such orientations are not easily changed, let alone unwanted ones eradicated.  And I believe God nowhere promises to remove such desires, though in his grace he may do so at times through the Spirit in response to prayer.

It is an inconvenient fact that all of us are innately prone to various behaviors that do not correspond to how things "ought to be" (i.e., "sin").  My innate tendencies to rage and culinary self-indulgence don't for a minute excuse my fits of bad temper while watching the Eagles or my gluttony, often indulged in concert with the first.  And they certainly wouldn't excuse any self-righteous condemnation on my part of people who tend to sins I would never commit.  All sins, whether they be seemingly "minor" (gluttony) or "major" (sexual sins--and, lest anyone forget, the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:27-30 say nothing if they don't identify all of us as sexual sinners), result from the deformation of God's creation due to the primeval sin pictured in Genesis 3.  And it is this situation that Jesus Messiah came to reverse in his activity as the "last Adam."  In his death, he condemned sin in the flesh (Rom 8:3), and in his resurrection he destroyed death (2 Tim 1:10).  Yet sin and death remain until Christ comes to consummate the Kingdom and set things right for once and for all.  In the meantime, we who are "in Christ" have been united with him in his death to sin and life-giving resurrection.  We have been given the Spirit as the gift of the new covenant, writing God's very law in our hearts (Jer 31; Ezek 36).  Yet as long as we remain in this mortal body, we will struggle with sin (indeed, the only problem would be if we fail to so struggle, in which case we would give evidence to the fact that we were still in servitude to it).  Indeed, the mark of a Christian is that he or she "puts to death the deeds of the body" (Rom 8:13), thereby giving evidence of being a "son" of God (Rom 8:14).  In such a perspective, the presence of constant struggle, in the power of the Spirit, to overcome the sins that, for us, appear "natural," is best viewed as the occasion for God's power being demonstrated in the face of our weakness to strengthen us and cause us to grow spiritually.  

In this vein, I close with some good words from Rev. Roberts in his interview:

Julian: So the message to Christians with same-sex attraction sounds pretty tough: ‘stay single, stay pure’.

Vaughan: That’s not all there is to say. It’s important to distinguish between sin, which can only be seen as negative, and circumstances, which, even when hard, may still be viewed positively.
While homosexual sin must always be resisted, the circumstances which often accompany same-sex attraction should be accepted as a context in which God can work. There is, without doubt, a difficult aspect to those circumstances, such as, for example, the frustration of not being able to experience the intimacy of a sexual relationship or a feeling of isolation because of the sense of being different. They can nonetheless be viewed in some senses positively, because of a recognition that God is sovereign over them and can work in and through them for his glory, the good of others and our own growth into the likeness of Christ.
This perspective should transform how we view all the difficult circumstances in our lives. We’re not called to a super-spiritual positivity which denies the frustration and pain; nor are we to embrace a passivity which spurns any opportunity to change our situation. But we are to recognise the loving hand of God in all we experience and see it as an opportunity for service, growth and fruitfulness.

Julian: That’s a very different perspective from just ‘grimace and stay pure’: how does it work out in practice?

Vaughan: I have found that those I’ve learnt most from have invariably been believers who have grown in Christian maturity by persevering through significant difficulties. The experience of blindness, depression, alcoholism, a difficult marriage, or whatever the struggle may have been, is certainly not good in and of itself and yet God has worked good through it, both in the gold he has refined in their lives and the blessings he has ministered through them. I have seen the same dynamic at work in some godly believers who have experienced a seemingly intractable attraction to the same sex. By learning, no doubt through many difficult times, to look to Christ for the ultimate fulfilment of their relational longings, they have grown into a deep and joyful relationship with him. Their own experience of suffering has also made them sensitive and equipped to help others who struggle in various ways. Those who have not married have embraced the Bible’s very positive teaching about singleness as a gift (see 1 Corinthians 7.32-35), whether chosen or not, which, I imagine, alongside loneliness and sexual frustration, has afforded them wonderful opportunities for the loving service of God and others. I know that I myself would not have had nearly as much time for writing and speaking at missions or conferences if I had been married. I’ve also had more time for friendships, which have been a huge blessing to me and, I trust, to others as well.

Julian: That’s encouraging. But what about the pain, surely that’s very real? What do you do with that?

Vaughan: Yes, the pain is real — I can’t deny that. The world, the flesh and the devil all conspire to make sin appear very attractive, so it will be hard for believers to remain godly in this area for the sake of the kingdom of God. To do that you need a clear understanding of the call to self denial in the kingdom — and the dynamic of resurrection life proceeding out of sacrificial death. Christ does call us all to a life of costly suffering as we take up our crosses for him, but, just as it was in his experience, that way of the cross is the path to life: ‘Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it’ (Mark 8.35).

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