Alan Jacobs recently wrote a blog post lamenting the “Christian language policing” he has observed around the issue of “Gay Christianity,” which in part includes a discussion on whether it is prudent for Christians to identify themselves with LGBT terminology.
Prompting his post was an article by Mary Eberstadt, which Jacobs quotes at length:
“The word gay and related terms like LGBTQ should be avoided for a deeper reason. They are insufficiently respectful of the human beings who are described in this way. Such identifiers sell humanity short by suggesting that sexual desire amounts to the most important fact about an individual. However well-intentioned (or not), these terms advance a reductionist view of men and women incommensurate with the reality that we are infinitely rich and complicated beings, created in the image of God.
“It is bad enough when the wider culture, interested in exploiting carnal desires for commercial or prurient reasons, objectifies human beings in this way. When religious authorities do the same, the damage is worse. I’m reminded of Fr. Arne Panula, a prominent Washington, D.C., priest of manifest goodness and wisdom who died last year. In one of our last conversations, he mentioned meeting a friend-of-a-friend in Italy. This friend felt compelled to tell him, ‘Fr. Arne, I’m gay.’ To which the priest replied, ‘No, you’re not. You’re a child of God.’ Fr. Arne was making the point that the most important fact about this man was not his erotic leanings.”
For his part, Jacobs begins by conceding that, though he has “heard some version of this argument many times,” he has never understood it. Nevertheless, Jacobs’s admission doesn’t prevent him from criticizing it.
For Jacobs, telling Christians they should avoid identifying themselves with LGBTQ terms is akin to telling Americans like himself to stop identifying as American. Of course it would be absurd to tell an American not to identify as an American. Likewise, Jacobs argues, it would be absurd to tell a gay person that they shouldn’t identify themselves as a gay person. It’s just a description of relevant information about the person. Why all the fuss? Do we really need Christians policing the language others use to describe themselves? Jacobs ends his post with a plea, “Isn’t it past time just to let this go?”
But before we fully jettison caring about the words our Christian brothers and sisters use to speak about themselves and Christ’s work on their behalf, a few comments.
First, I think that Jacobs’s analogy breaks down right out of the gate. Is it really true that the morally neutral term “American” can be compared in this way to the word “gay”? As Jacobs’s example goes, of course there is nothing wrong with identifying as American. But it is also true that “American” is almost always a morally neutral adjective describing one’s citizenship. There is nothing inherent to the common use of “American” that would, for instance, show up in any of the New Testament’s vice lists.
This is simply not the case with the term “gay.” This word is most commonly used in reference to sexual orientation, which implicates at least one’s homosexual desires, if not one’s homosexual activity as well — both of which, we would do well to remember, are expressly forbidden by a New Testament sexual ethic. While it is true that some in the “Gay Christian” camp attempt to vacate the term “gay” of its sexual denotations, the common understanding of this term is consistently one of the reasons cited for why Christians would be wise to avoid it. [At this point I must highlight an omission on Jacobs’s part that perhaps leads to his inability to comprehend Eberstadt on this point. In her piece she says, “There may be instances when gay is unavoidable as an adjective, a necessary shorthand. But as a noun, it is a word that Christians qua Christians should avoid.”]
Second, is this really the right way to frame this particular discussion? Is it true that those who have a problem with “Gay Christianity” are really quibbling about mere words, and not about the concepts and understandings that lie behind these words, the very meanings that are denoted and connoted by these words?
Is it really the case that this is just a battle over words per se and not about what these words reveal about how we all construe reality and, ultimately, what we all believe to be good and true and beautiful about reality?
Jacobs no doubt recognizes the long history of faithful Christians batting for and scrupulously parsing out orthodoxy over against heterodoxy, which sometimes hinged on a single word. Of course it was never just about the words, but the reality those words presented.
Think for instance about the world of difference between homoousios and homoiousios. The seemingly insignificant presence or absence of an iota was the difference between a heretical and an orthodox construal of the nature of the Trinity for the Church gathered at Nicaea. The charge of language policing could have been leveled against the Fathers. But was it really, merely a word, an iota, which concerned them? Or was it the construal of reality and the concomitant belief that it represented?
Which brings us back to the use of the term “gay.” The phrase “Gay Christian” is claimed by both Side A and Side B — by those who reject the traditional orthodox position on marriage and homosexual activity (Side A), and by those who embrace it (Side B). We know what Side A “Gay Christians” mean by identifying as “gay.” Does Jacobs have nothing to say to them? Surely he does. And surely when he does, he has something to say about what they mean when they say they can be both “gay” and “Christian.”
But we also know what some in the Side B camp mean by “gay,” because they’ve told us. Greg Coles says in his book Single, Gay, Christian that he uses the term “gay” to refer to a pre-fall category of personhood designed by God himself. In his book All But Invisible, Revoice founder Nate Collins seems to remain agnostic on the question of the sinfulness of what he refers to as “gayness,” and goes even further when he introduces the novel concept of “redeemed gayness.” And in a chapter titled “How Should Gay Christians Love?” Wesley Hill tells us that “being gay colors everything about [him]” and then puts forward this description of gay identity: “something far more profound and basic to our sense of self than merely another experience of desire, whether disordered or not.” So while Ron Belgau may or may not agree with all or none of these — Jacobs cites him saying, “I do not think that ‘gay’ describes any deep fact about who I am in Christ” — Belgau’s solidarity with these men on gay identity at least brings us back to the question of prudence in using this fraught term. The point is, a discussion on the use of the word “gay,” which I would argue is donning a self-conception inconsistent with biblical revelation, is never merely a conversation about that word. It is always about the belief and construal of reality back of the claim.
And this is exactly Eberstadt’s point. Her concern is with people and how they understand themselves to be constituted, and this concern has led her to advise Christians against using the word “gay” to describe themselves. Now whether or not one agrees about avoiding this word, surely we can all agree that this isn’t merely about words. We use words to communicate understanding. And often our understanding needs renewal by the Word, so that our word-confessions are properly reflective of the world God spoke into existence and of the redemption he is accomplishing by his Word.
Should we police the Christian language police? If mere language were the problem, then maybe. But who we are and who God makes us to be in Christ is not merely about words, but about truth.
The moment we agree to stop quibbling about words is the moment we give up the pursuit of truth.
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