Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
It was important and helpful to have Wesley Hill with us at our Theology Conference to share his personal testimony. You can hear his testimony here: Washed and Waiting: A Personal Testimony, Theological and Ecclesial Reflections (Audio)
My sense was that people generally wrestled with three questions/implications to Hill’s testimony of living under the Lordship of Christ, living in submission to the authority of the Scriptures, living a life of holiness while having same-sex inclinations:
One question addressed the notion of identifying oneself as a “‘gay’ Christian.” Hill notes the question: “Why would you call yourself a ‘gay Christian’?,” to which he responds.
“Gay” in current parlance doesn’t necessarily refer to sexual behavior; it can just as easily refer to one’s sexual orientation and say nothing, one way or the other, about how one is choosing to express that orientation. So, whereas “stealing Christian” certainly denotes the behavior of stealing, “gay Christian” may simply refer to the erotic inclinations of the Christian who claims that identity and leave open the question of whether he or she is sexually active with members of his or her own sex.
This is why, by the way, I rarely use the phrase “gay Christian” without adding another adjective: “celibate.” To call myself a “celibate gay Christian” specifies both my sexual orientation and the way I’m choosing to live it out.
I have previously stated that I don’t necessarily like that a professing Christian refers to oneself as a “gay Christian.” But I am not one who struggles with same-sex inclinations, and I do know that Hill, specifically, has his reasons, as stated above. I would also note that based on Hill’s foundational biblical commitments to the Lord, His Word and personal holiness, I am not as inclined to quibble about his reference.
I appreciate what Hill explains above. My quibble is based on the fact that the context in which this is communicated matters, as there is no context-neutral zone in which this is communicated or heard. In reaching out to those who struggle with same-sex inclinations, to refer to oneself in this way most likely helps. It serves as a form of pre-evangelism with the prayer that it will open a door to communicate the message of true hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is confusing, however, and it would send the wrong message to those who conclude the term “gay” refers to sexual behavior. If the term is going to be used, it would have to be defined and nuanced almost every time it was used to ensure it was not misunderstood.
In fact, it is generally true that communicating with sensitivity within a cultural context will result in gaining a hearing among some and offending others. It is clear that when referring to oneself as a "'gay' Christian" or even a "celibate 'gay' Christian," it will likely communicate affirmation to those who struggle with such a reality and the general tendency is that it bothers or offends some Christians (Evangelicals). Of those Christians who are offended, one must be careful not to offend the "weak Christian," and one must be sensitive to fellow Christian brothers and sisters as they hear, seek to understand and process this, but one must not be controlled by the legalist. Context in communication matters.
The second question noted by Hill is the following: “By using the label ‘gay’ for yourself, aren’t you simply accepting that same-sex attraction is an unalterable part of your personality and thereby giving up on the possibility of healing and change?” As part of this answer, Hill refers to studies that reveal that change can and does occur, but not in every instance. Here, then, is the second part to his answer.
“Have you given up hope?” On the contrary, calling oneself a “celibate gay Christian” may be a way of expressing, not giving up, hope—but expressing it in a way that doesn’t link that hope to orientation change. Claiming the label “celibate gay Christian” means, for me, recognizing my homosexual orientation as a kind of “thorn in the flesh.” When the apostle Paul used that phrase in his correspondence with the Corinthian church, he made clear that his “thorn” was indeed an unwelcome source of pain (2 Corinthians 12:7). But he also made clear that it had become the very occasion for his experience of the power of the risen Christ and, therefore, a paradoxical site of grace (2 Corinthians 12:8). Paul, I think, would have had no qualms about labeling himself a “thorn-pricked Christian”—not because he recognized his thorn as a good thing, in and of itself, but because it had become for him the means by which he encountered the power of Christ. Likewise, living with an unchanged homosexual orientation may be for many of us the means by which we discover new depths of grace, as well as new vocations of service to others.
This has prompted a good deal of discussion, which was one of the reasons it was important for Hill to join us at our Theology Conference. Too many Evangelicals, including some in the EFCA, conclude that one is either classified as an ardent, lobbying gay activist who embraces the belief, life and lifestyle of homosexuality, or one is gloriously transformed and that transformation is noted by marriage and children. Though both of those realities exist, and we thank and praise God that transformation can and does occur (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-11), it overlooks the spectrum that exists. There are those, like Hill, that don’t fit either category, but who are gloriously transformed and who live under the Lordship of Christ, the authority of His Word, and are committed to holiness of life, those who are redeemed-but-not-yet-glorified and who long to be liberated from life in this fallen, sinful and broken world (Rom. 8:23-25). But this reality is not limited to any one sub-group of Christians, those with struggles like Hill’s, but for all Christians.
Not all agreed with Hill’s assessment of how to explain or understand his life’s experience biblically, but it was important to hear from him and how he attempts to live faithfully as a disciple of Jesus Christ in the context of the local church. My sense is that if we do not have a place for people like Hill in our local churches, I am quite sure there is no room for people like us (me!) either.