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Sexual Orientation: Framework, Christ and His Church


[Gene Burrus (M.Div.) is our blogger for the month of September and this is his first post. Gene is a Ph.D. student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is studying pastoral theology and researching soul care issues related to sexuality and gender. You can follow him on Twitter @leburrus.]

“It’s like he thinks he’s either gay or he’s straight,” a friend observed about a loved one. In Mark McMinn’s Cognitive Therapy Techniques in Christian Counseling he calls this type of mindset dichotomous thinking. This kind of thinking, he says, is a cognitive distortion, reducing qualities that should be seen on a continuum to extreme categories. We think in terms of black and white, when life has a lot of gray. Indeed, these kinds of cognitions, especially here, can have cultural roots. I think one of these roots is the sexual identity framework, a way of thinking I believe many conservative, ethically-minded American churches have subscribed to unknowingly.

But, even the either/or distinction between heterosexual and homosexual fails to describe present-day sexual identities. Today, a multitude of acronyms and sexual identities abound (e.g., LGBTQUIA or QUILTBAG)—more than shades of gray, there are colors and hues. And, theoretically, social constructions of sexuality can be endlessly formulated. Here, I wonder, can we mix the colors Christianly? Also, though, it’s the difference between the sexual majority and sexual minorities. Can you hear Michel Foucault, himself a sexual minority, chiming in about sexuality and the power of constructive language? So, really, you’re either the sexual majority, who have the power, or a sexual minority oppressed by the majority. There are some ways in which I find this to be true, but more on that later.

Helpfully, Jonathan N. Katz’s social construction approach to sexual orientation puts this in historical perspective for us. In The Invention of Heterosexuality he observes that the medical term “homosexuality” first appeared in Webster’s 1909 dictionary as a “morbid” sexual desire for the same sex. Then, in 1923, Webster’s introduced “heterosexuality” to describe abnormal sexual desire for the opposite sex. But, by 1934 both terms lost their medical designation—heterosexuality described as normal sex (heteronormativity) and homosexuality described as mere erotic attraction to the same-sex. So, both terms were first used to denote deviations from the norm and then both became norms unto themselves.

Though, Jenell W. Paris cautions us against accepting these norms in The End of Sexual Identity. She helpfully opens our eyes to the sexual identity framework, the organizing element that provides identity labels, social roles, and even communities based on sexual attractions. Then, she divides the sexual identity framework from the notion of sexual holiness in Scripture. Ultimately, Paris chooses an “unlabeled” category for her own sexuality. Thus, she rebels against a socially-constructed framework in favor of Scripture’s sexuality.

But, I’m going to take this further. Before we can consider Scripture or even a Christian psychology or theology of sexual orientation, I think we need to check our categories at the door. So, this may be a little uncomfortable, right? Maybe, then, we could conceive of ourselves differently: credosexuals or bibliosexuals. Ok, I realize these labels may not go on T-Shirts or in Twitter hashtags, but they prove a point. Scripture and the Christian tradition orient our sexuality and higher-ordered, active desires around Scripture and the history of our beliefs about it, regardless of what sexual attractions come upon us. Neither supply a sexual identity label for us; they transcend the conversation and thus transform it. In fact they contend that our end is to be made into a virgin bride—the church—and that’s the norm for sexuality. The norm for our sexuality is found in our union with Christ. Yes, dear heterosexuals and homosexuals, God calls us to Christonormativity. Indeed, God recovers and refashions our broken sexualities in his image, and we’ll unpack this more over the coming weeks.

But, I’m not going to stop with theory. I want to end this discussion in the church. Many of you work as counselors, psychologists, or scholars and your work is constrained by licensure, state boards, tenure committees, and the government’s regulation of your field. And, for those of you who hold to the traditional sexual ethic, I imagine a real tension in your labors. I have no experience in those fields and have little to offer you in those vocations. But, there is a place where you and I live out our sexual ethic and lovingly call others to it. We do this in the Christian church, specifically our local churches. The church is the end I have in mind with the forthcoming reflections.


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