What Do We Actually Know about Sexual Orientation? Part 3

What Do We Actually Know about Sexual Orientation? Part 3
August 28, 2018

My previous two posts (PART ONE and PART TWO) explored the complexity of sexual orientation, showing that the rigid categories of gay, straight, and bisexual aren’t as rigid as many people assume. While sexual orientation labels might helpfully describe one’s general disposition, they by no means determine, always and forever, the only type of person one could sexually desire. Even though such fluidity is quite well known among researchers in the field, it goes against the dominant narrative (inside and outside the church)—that humans can be separated into essential categories of gay, straight, or bisexual.


In this third and final post, I want to explore some implications that a more scientifically credible understanding of sexual orientation might have on the church’s reflection on sexual ethics. And I truly mean “explore,” not declare ex-cathedra. I offer the following three points as discussion starters, not enders: 

  1. Assumptions about sexual orientation make bad arguments for affirming same-sex marriage.
  2. The sexual identities of gay, straight, and bisexual might be unhelpful depending on what we mean by the terms.
  3. What are the implications for the possibility of mixed orientation marriages?


First, assumptions about sexual orientation make bad arguments for affirming same-sex marriage.


And yet, arguments rooted in unscientific assumptions about sexual orientation have become one of the most popular reasons why Christians affirm same-sex marriage. Let me give you two examples: one popular and one scholarly.


Colby Martin is a pastor whose recent book, UnClobber, argues that Christians have misinterpreted the prohibition passages about same-sex sexual behavior (Lev. 18:22; Rom. 1:26-27; and others). One of the main threads of his arguments is that our modern understanding of “a person’s sexual orientation…simply did not exist in the ancient world” (p. 130). Therefore, the so-called Clobber Passages “do not add helpful substance to the conversation around what we now understand about sexual orientation” (p. 82). Again: “for Paul, and the rest of the ancient world, there was no concept of a person’s sexual orientation…” (p. 164). Throughout his book, Martin assumes that we moderns have arrived at some scientific consensus about sexual orientation as if it’s similar to the scientific consensus that the earth is round and not flat.[i] 

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Martin is not a scholar and doesn’t claim to be. And I appreciate his humility throughout (most of) the book. William Loader, however, is a scholar—one of the world’s most prolific authorities on sexuality in the ancient Judaism and Christianity. Loader, like Martin, is a Christian who affirms the morality of same-sex marriage in the church, and Loader’s assumptions about sexual orientation are almost identical to Martin’s. Even though Loader, unlike Martin, believes that the Bible condemns all types of same-sex relationships, he also believes that the biblical writers simply weren’t aware of what we now call “sexual orientation.” In his recent essay “The Bible and Homosexuality,”[ii] Loader says: “The reason Paul argued as he did is that he, like other Jews of his time whose writings survive, believed that all people were heterosexual, male or female” (p. 45). According to Loader, they also believed other ignorant things like “the universe was only a few thousand years old” and “the earth as a sphere which the sun orbited” (p. 47). We now know that the earth revolves around the sun, and we now know that “there really are people who are homosexual” (his term, p. 45). And therefore—even though he argues extensively that all forms of same-sex sexual behavior are condemned in Scripture—Loader believes that modern Christians should embrace the morality of same-sex marriage in the church. Because we now know about sexual orientation, that some people are simply born gay.


Both Martin and Loader argue from the same assumptions—assumptions that (ironically) many pro-LGBTQ scholars doing actual research on sexual orientation have deemed outdated, under-informed, and unscientific. Our knowledge of sexual orientation is not at all like our knowledge about a heliocentric solar system, nor have we arrived at our full understanding of what sexual orientation even is. Sure, people may experience very strong and ongoing sexual desires for a particular sex over another, but it’s unhelpful to think of these desires as some innate, essential category of human nature. The “born that way” myth has been put to death by scholars in the field, and recent research on sexual fluidity has challenged our simplistic assumptions about what it means to be gay, straight, or bisexual. These sexual categories (gay, straight, and bisexual) might serve as helpful descriptions of ongoing patterns of sexual desire, but they fail as thick descriptions of who we are as human beings. 


Plus, even if sexual orientation was some rigid, ironed out category of human nature (which it is not), this still would not be sufficient for making ethical decisions about same-sex sexual relationships for at least two reasons. First, the ancients actually did have similar (though not identical) assumptions about what we now call sexual orientation; namely, that some people are destined to desire the same sex, while others have sexual desires for the opposite sex.[iii] Was Jesus or Paul or other New Testament writers aware of these beliefs? There’s no way to tell. What we can say is that it’s historically inaccurate to assume that our current understanding of sexual orientation (which is in an ongoing state of revision and reflection) is nothing like ancient concepts of sexual desire.


Second, whether someone has (what we call) a same-sex orientation doesn’t in itself mean that same-sex sexual relationships or same-sex marriage are morally permissible. Because ethically inborn desires don’t justify behavior. I love how Justin Lee puts it:

Just because an attraction or drive is biological doesn’t mean it’s okay to act on…We all have inborn tendencies to sin in any number of ways. If gay people’s same-sex attractions were inborn, that wouldn’t necessarily mean it’s okay to act on them, and if we all agreed that gay sex is sinful, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that same-sex attractions aren’t inborn. “Is it a sin?” and “Does it have biological roots?” are two completely separate questions.[iv]


And Justin Lee, as you may know, affirms the morality of same-sex marriage. He just doesn’t (rightly) use the orientation argument to get there. Part of a Christian worldview—whether your Wesleyan or Reformed or whatever—is that humans are born with desires that are shaped more by the Fall than God’s Edenic intention (Jer 17:9; Eph 2:1-3). Plus, I don’t know anyone who consistently applies the inborn-desires-justify-behavior theory. Would you really want everyone whose desires can be traced to birth act on those desires?


In short, it’s quite an ethical leap to use the “orientation argument” to affirm same-sex marriage with any sort of ethical or scientific credibility.


Two, the sexual identities of gay, straight, and bisexual might be unhelpful depending on what we mean by the terms.


This has become a massive debate in evangelicalism recently, especially in light of the Revoice conference last July. I’ll save you the complicated details. In short, some people don’t believe that Christians should ever identify as gay, straight, bisexual, or LGBTQ. Kevin DeYoung represents many critics of Revoice when he says that the term “gay” is “deeply problematic in that…it makes sexual orientation an accurate and essential category of personhood.”


If you’ve read my previous two blogs, then you won’t be shocked when I say: I resonate with Kevin’s concerns. That is, if the term gay—or any other sexual identity label—is used to describe an “essential category of personhood,” then I would find it to be problematic. Put differently, if you think that being gay is as essential to your humanity as being male or female, or that your sexual orientation predetermines all future sexual desires that you can ever experience, then yes, I would say that such a belief is anthropologically misguided and   scientifically unsound. My one big pushback to Kevin’s concern, however, is this: many gay Christians don’t use the term “gay” to refer to an “essential category of personhood.”


Ron Belgau represents many when he quite clearly says: “when we say ‘I’m gay’…we do not mean that our sexual attractions are a defining or constitutive element in our identity” and“I do not think that ‘gay’ describes any deep fact about who I am in Christ.” (For some similar thoughts, see the incredibly helpful series on “Gay vs. Same-Sex Attracted” by my friend Bridget Eileen.) The fact is, the term gay can and does mean many different things to different people. For some (like Belgau), it’s simply a synonym for saying that you are attracted to the same sex and not to the opposite sex. The term gay does not have to mean a supreme aspect of personhood every time someone uses it.


In short, I think it’s valid to question whether sexual identity labels are helpful. Notice, I said “question” not “do away with” or “ostracize those who disagree with my concerns about using terms like gay, straight, bisexual, since, after all, I don’t identify as a lustful Christian, or an adulterous Christian, or an idolatrous Christian; and all those so-called ‘gay Christians’ who disagree with me are on a slippery slope toward liberalism, and they’ll be having gay sex in six months anyway.” Conversations about sexual identity labels should be just that—conversations and not witch hunts.


I do think that the acronym LGBT+ can be thrown around a bit too haphazardly. For instance, as most people now know, questions surrounding LGB is quite different from T, and people who whole-heartedly adopt narratives surrounding LGB aren’t totally onboard with popular narratives surrounding T. Plus, the basic assumptions of LGB are pretty easy to affirm: some people are attracted to the same sex, or both sexes, and not exclusively attracted to the opposite sex—as a general pattern, of course. But what are the ontological assumptions that go into the T? What do we mean when we say someone is, or identifies as, transgender? Do we mean that they experience some level of gender dysphoria? Fair enough. Most thinking people can easily agree that gender dysphoria is a real thing and some people experience it. Or—and here’s the rub—when we say that someone is transgender, are we saying that they actually are, ontologically, a gender different from their natal or biological sex? Can one’s gender be completely different from one’s sex? What is gender? How do you know that? Can you prove your definition of gender in a court of law? Do biologists agree with you? If you’re in the ER and in need of immediate medical attention, do you want the doctor to ask about your gender identity or find out if you have a Y chromosome? My assumption is that most people would not be able to—theologically, let alone scientifically—defend or explain the claim: “Carol (or whomever) is transgender.”


Add to this the “plus” (+) commonly tacked on to LGBT. At the very least, it includes the additional experiences of intersex and asexual persons (hence, LGBTIA). These two additional letters include quite different experiences and identities to the sexuality and gender conversation. Intersex is different from LGB or T, though it’s often discussed when people are debating the ethics of T. And asexual persons (the A) have been virtually untouched by ethicists, for some rather obvious reasons.


The point is, the more the acronym expands, the more we are prone to collapse various disparate experiences, ethical questions, and scientific realities under a single label, which inevitably leads to unreflective simplification and stereotyping—something we could all do without.


But to my main point, yes, I do think that the typical manner in which LGBT, LGBTQ, or LGBT+ is thrown around, unreflectively, does play into inaccurate and unscientific assumptions about sexual orientation; namely, that some people are male, others are female, the earth is round and not flat, and some people are LGBT+. If my two previous blogs are even halfway true, we should all be much more cautious about slinging around terms and acronyms that intentionally or unintentionally assume ontological claims that simply aren’t true. Or, at the very least, are under-supported by actual theological or scientific evidence.


Where am I at on all of this? (As a straight, white, male, I’m hesitant saying anything about people’s identities and experiences. However, we are dealing with ethical categories and assumptions, which wander into my area of scholarly research, so here are some cautious thoughts…) I’m fine with the terms gay, straight, bisexual, or LGBT+ as descriptions of human experiences, especially as they pertain to people who have been marginalized by society and the church based on their attractions or unique temptations. But, with Kevin DeYoung, I am cautious about using such terms unreflectively, as thick descriptions of one’s human identity in ways that reflect an older, outdated, and under-supported view of sexual orientation—which, again, has been corrected by many pro-LGBTQ researchers in the field. One’s sexual orientation refers to a general pattern of sexual, romantic, and emotional attractions (and sometimes those are at odds with each other) and not to one’s predetermined capacity for sexual desire. Thoughtful identity labels should reflect this.


Third, what are the implications for the possibility of mixed orientation marriages?


I’m very well aware of the fact that many mixed orientation marriages have blown up and ended in a lifetime of heartache and confusion. I have friends who have been emotionally ripped to shreds through such marriages, especially when one or both members weren’t totally upfront and honest about their fears, struggles, orientation, or expectations. The stories are truly heart wrenching.


I also have several friends who are in mixed orientation marriages, and, for various reasons—they work. Not only work, but are flourishing just as much as any solid same-orientation marriage I know. The gay spouse tells me that they are still very much attracted to members of the same sex, but for whatever unexpected reason, they have cultivated romantic, emotional, and even sexual attractions not to members of the opposite sex, but to their spouse, who happens to be a member of the opposite sex—such is the complexity of human sexuality. This scenario, much more prevalent than people realize or care to admit, resonates so much with the research that’s been done on sexual fluidity. Psychologists doing scientific research on sexuality kind of yawn at mixed-orientation marriages. People fall in love with people for all sorts of unexpected reasons. Only those who have bought into popular narratives that suggest rigid airtight categories of sexual orientation are aghast at the thought of a gay man marrying a straight woman.


Orientation to one sex does not necessarily mean that sexual desires cannot be cultivated for the other sex. Perhaps this might require us to redefine what we mean by orientation, but it doesn’t require us to demand radical changes in one’s orientation itself. Gay people don’t need to become straight to fall in love with someone of the opposite sex.


In no way do I want to suggest that all or even most mixed orientation marriages will succeed. Orientation as a whole—gay or straight—actually has little to do with successful marriages, given the rate of failed marriages of heterosexual couples. Successful marriages have much more to do with non-sexual love, commitment, and self-sacrifice than with one’s sexual orientation. And this holds true for people of all orientations.




The above points are personal reflections as I’ve explored current studies on orientation and tried to bring them into conversation with faith and sexuality. In short, I think the category of sexual orientation, or gay/straight/bisexual labels, can be helpful ways to reflect on one’s sexuality, as long as one’s understanding of orientation reflects a sound theological anthropology and the actual scientific data. Sexual identities based on orientation should not be understood as categories of human nature in the same way as, for instance, male and female. (I like the way Bridget Eileen talks about our “Big Identity in Christ” and our “little identities.”) And we have not at all arrived at some polished understanding of sexual orientation in a the-earth-is-round-and-not-flat sort of way. All in all, I resonate with these brief words of Eve Tushnet: “It’s almost as if ‘gay vs. straight’ is a social construct, and only one way of arranging and understanding a complex array of longings.”


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[i] See e.g. Unclobber,pp. 59, 70, 88, 94, 162, 164, 169; on p. 157 he briefly acknowledges that our understanding of sexual orientation is evolving but he doesn’t follow the logical implications of this claim).

[ii] In Preston Sprinkle (ed.), Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church.

[iii] Ancient parallels to what we call sexual orientation have been documented. See, among others, Brooten, Love Between Women.

[iv] Lee, Torn,62.