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Preaching to the Washed and Waiting

How can pastors speak to the complex issue of homosexuality? An Interview with Dr. Wesley Hill

Dr. Wesley Hill is the Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at the Trinity School for Ministry in Pittsburgh. He's also the author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. We recently asked Dr. Hill about how preachers can faithfully convey the Bible's message on sexuality while remaining sensitive to people who are dealing with same-sex attraction.

PreachingToday.com: Preaching on homosexuality is a very personal issue for you. Will you tell us your story?

Wesley Hill: My earliest childhood memories are of hearing Bible stories from my parents. I was steeped in the faith from a very young age, and like a lot of kids who grow up in that environment I prayed the Sinner's Prayer with my parents when I was very young. I was the oldest of three kids, and a stereotypical firstborn. I responded well to authority, I was very involved at church, and never really went through a period of rebellion or walking away from my faith. But around the time I started to go through puberty I realized that I was not attracted to girls and a lot of my friends were starting to be, and I realized I was attracted to my same-sex friends. Growing up in the context that I grew up in, that was very confusing.

I've been a Christian my whole life and I had to wait until I was 31 years old to actually hear a sermon about it at my church.

I didn't really have language or categories to understand it. I had read a book by James Dobson that said my feelings were a phase that a lot of people go through in puberty. I thought: Maybe this will be a phase and I'll go away to college and meet the right girl and grow out of this. And it wasn't until I was at Wheaton College that I realized nothing was changing and my attraction to my same-sex peers is just as strong as it ever had been.

I had never talked about it up until then, but I started to open up with godly mentors and pastors at that point. I began to realize that if I wanted to grow in my faith in Christ and continue to live faithfully as a believer, I needed to not ignore this anymore. I needed to bring this into the light and talk with others about it. So that's what I did. I met weekly with a pastor who was very helpful in not assuming that he had all the answers. We processed scripture, prayed, and explored the issue together.

A lot of preachers feel unsure of how to approach this topic in the pulpit. What helps? What hurts?

Well, I read a lot of Christian pastors and preachers writing articles or books about homosexuality. I haven't heard many sermons about it. Only a few. On one hand, that isn't helpful. We do need to talk about it. On the other, people often perceive Christians as being obsessed with homosexuality. Like it's all we want to talk about and that we go out of our way to condemn or exclude gay people. So I think there's a certain sense in which that's just not true. I mean, I've been a Christian my whole life and I had to wait until I was 31 years old to actually hear a sermon about it at my church. It's not as though other pastors that I've heard have neglected the topic, but it's not often a topic we preach on. That's a double-edged silence: on the one hand, people like me are wondering what we should do, but on the other, we're not being singled out for special condemnation, which is a constant fear of a gay person in the church.

That's for starters. But not talking about it isn't a solution.

So how can you preach on it well? First, don't talk about homosexuality or being gay as if it's all about sex or attraction or desire. All that is just a small percentage of a gay person's life, just like it's a small percentage of a straight person's life. Sex is not the dominant thing. For me, the reality of my homosexuality is about something much, much bigger than sex. It's part of it, obviously, but not all of it.

When I have thoughts of going to bed with someone, it is someone of the same sex. But the way I experience it day to day, is through a longing for emotional connection and companionship. So the sermons that have been most discouraging to me have made it seem as though homosexuality is primarily about who you sleep with. And the ones that have been very helpful have had a broader view: that really our sexuality is about a lot more than what we do with our bodies. It's about who we're drawn to, how we engage with other people. Recognize that if you're going to speak a word of good news to gay people, it has to be a word that doesn't just talk about what we do in bed, but about how we live in community.

I've also heard Christian treatments of homosexuality that implicitly or explicitly say that there is really only one primary explanation for why someone's gay. It usually has to do with Freud or something. People say (for a male) that they didn't get enough healthy same-sex affection. Maybe they had an absent father or were alienated from same-sex peers in childhood. Some trauma or deficit became eroticized. That's the way it's often explained.

I've met some gay people who would say that is the story of their sexuality. Others, including me, would say "that doesn't seem to fit my life." I'm not noticeably alienated from my dad or from my same-sex peers. So I value when preachers don't assume that they know why someone is gay.

I recently spoke to a pastor's conference. One of the pastors came up to me afterwards and said that their church had a real burden to minister to the gay community. He said, "We just assumed that we knew exactly what they needed, and they needed to be in therapy so that they could overcome this deficit in male love. Listening to you, I realize that we made a big assumption about why someone is gay, and we need to be careful. That may be true for some people but it really doesn't fit the story of others."

You're a great exegete. You also describe yourself as a "celibate gay Christian." Walk us through your scriptural journey to that term.

Like a lot of people, I initially focused on Romans 1 as the definitive passage on homosexuality. Paul condemns same-sex relationships, but there have been a lot of debates about what kind of relationships he had in mind. Was he thinking of exploitative relationships or was he thinking of the kind of partnerships that many gay people have today? It was important to me to work through those questions. I mean, to be honest, what really convinced me is when I zoomed out and put Romans 1 into the bigger picture of what the New Testament says about sexuality.

I looked at places like Matthew 19 where Jesus talks about divorce. He goes back to Genesis 2 to talk about what marriage means between a man and a woman. And then I went to Ephesians 5 and saw that marriage between a man and a woman is a parable of Christ's love for the church. Then I went to the end of Revelation where the church is portrayed as the bride of Christ and Christ is the groom in this wedding feast, the wedding supper of the Lamb. When I contextualized Romans 1 in that bigger picture, it was much more compelling to see that Paul's disapproval isn't an arbitrary rule against homosexuality. Instead, it flows from a broader understanding of male and female. Ultimately, the difference between male and female is meant to mirror God's difference from us and his love for the church.

The New Testament scholar Simon Gathercole has an essay where he looks at Romans 1. Gathercole argues that the reason Paul singles out homosexuality there is that when a sexual partner turns to another sexual partner of the same sex, that's a dramatic illustration of what Paul thinks is true of the human condition at large. So he says in Romans 1 that our basic problem is that we've turned away from worship of the Creator to worship of the creature, so what we've done is we've turned to images of ourselves. We've turned away from God to the same. Instead of worshiping the Creator, we're worshiping the same things that we are, namely creatures, and so that's why Gathercole argues homosexuality becomes an illustration there of what's gone wrong with the human condition. It involves two creatures turning to images of themselves. When you put that together with what Paul says in Ephesians 5 about marriage, suddenly the whole thing seems to be much more coherent.

Why do you use the word "celibate" instead of "single" person?

Single implies a temporary state. To our culture it either means "I'm just unattached right now" or "I'm selfish and want to live on my own terms." I'm not unattached; I'm deeply attached to my local church. And unless something drastically changes, I don't expect my singleness will be a temporary thing. I'm expecting it to be a lifelong thing. Celibacy describes that.

That's really helpful. How can pastors support celibate Christians?

I think we need to have an approach to pastoral ministry that allows for a long-term sense of waiting and enduring something that we wish were otherwise. For me, for example, there are many ways in which I just don't feel that I am made for celibacy. I mean, it often leads to loneliness, to difficulty. The natural impulse of a pastor is to want to say to a person who is suffering, "Let's make this better. Let's fix this condition of celibacy so that it's not so painful anymore." I think that comes from a good motivation, but the most helpful pastors in my life have recognized there are many situations that people find themselves in that you can't fix. So the pastoral strategy then becomes not "how do we rescue this person out of this terrible condition?" but "how do we help this person flourish and find love?"

Paul talks a lot in 2 Corinthians about being weak, and you never get the sense from him that God has delivered him from weakness. In fact, God said to him, "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in your weakness"—not by rescuing you out of your weakness. I find it helpful when a pastor can recognize that being gay is not something we're going to fix. There may be a diminishment of same-sex attraction that some people experience, or there may not. But either way, it's not something that you can just fix. So the question is, How do we help this person find grace and hope in the midst of a situation that may never be what they would wish for?

We also need to remember Christian history's rich theology of friendship. We've forgotten about examples like Aelred of Rievaulx who wrote a treatise called "Spiritual Friendship." He offers a vision of a very serious, robust kind of love. We need to recover that view of friendship and offer it to our celibate friends like me who need to understand that we're not doomed to a life of loneliness and no connections. I can really pour myself out in friendship. I can be with others who pour their lives out for me in friendship. So the choice isn't just between marriage and romance or loneliness. Suddenly the choices look very different.

How should pastors care for parents who feel wounded because their child came out?

I don't know that I have anything profound to say there. Certain Christian understandings of homosexuality automatically lead parents to blame themselves for their child being gay. Our best understanding (from people like Mark Yarhouse and Stan Jones) is that it's some kind of combination of nature and nurture.

Too much of our evangelical rhetoric in the past has made it sound as though it's all nurture. Therefore parents are wounded and blame themselves when their kids turn out to be gay. Pastors can say to parents, "We live in a fallen world, and one of the ways people experience the effects of the fall is in same-sex attraction. And you may or may not have much of a role to play in that in your child's life. But whether you are very involved in that or whether you're not very involved, your real need is to know God's love for you and your child in Christ."

Tell us about your book, Washed and Waiting.

The book was written to say that discipleship is all about the virtue of hope. As Paul says in Romans 8, if we saw what we're hoping for, then it wouldn't be hope anymore because we would have it. So Paul has an understanding of the Christian life where we're constantly looking forward to the fullness of a redemption that we don't have yet. We have the Spirit indwelling us, we have the assurance that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, but in a real sense we "still haven't found what we're looking for," to quote U2. We are still on the road; we're on the journey.

And as Paul says in Romans 8, we're groaning, we're yearning for the redemption of our bodies. There are a lot of Christian books that talk about homosexuality as if it's something that you can leave behind. But there wasn't much that I could find of someone saying, Yes, you can discipline your sexual life so that you are increasingly conforming to God's Word, but that doesn't ever mean you're going to stop having to hope. You're going to continue to groan, you're going to continue to yearn for the fullness of God's love, which we won't experience until the resurrection.

I wanted to write a book that addressed homosexuality in that framework of hope. Washed and Waiting is that book.

Dr. Wesley Hill is the Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania and the author of Washed and Waiting (Zondervan 2010).

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