I have a love-hate relationship with Wesley Hill’s new book Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan, 2010).
I love that this book has been written. It meets a massive need in the church and fills a gaping hole in the dialogue about homosexuality. Hill writes: “By the time I started high school, two things had become clear to me. One was that I was a Christian… The second… [was that] I had a steady, strong, unremitting, exclusive sexual attraction to persons of the same sex.”
There are people like Wesley everywhere. They are in your church, maybe even in your family. But most of them have had no voice. Hill has given them one. They are often misfits in the church, because Christians often simplistically assume that “they must not really trust God if he hasn’t ‘healed’ their sexual orientation.” But they’re also ostracized from the gay community because they agree with the historic Christian conviction that homosexual behavior is wrong.
Hill’s book is strong. He is a thoughtful writer and a sound theologian. He stands firmly in the historic Christian tradition, stating clearly that “acting on homosexual feelings and desires is contrary to God’s design for human flourishing… the Christian church has consistently and repeatedly said no to homosexual practice.” At the same time, he acknowledges the difficulty of this position for many: “If a gay Christian’s sexual orientation is so fixed and ingrained that there seems to be little hope of changing it, should he or she really be expected to resist it for a lifetime? Everything in our culture tells us that the scriptural witness and the church’s no to homosexual practice are onerous, oppressive, stifling, perhaps even mildly sadistic.”
Hill offers theologically robust, gospel-rich answers to these dilemmas. And he engages them as one who knows the struggle firsthand, which makes this book a must-read for anyone wrestling with homosexual desires or wanting to minister to those who do. The autobiographical tone of the book helps readers to understand the tension “from the inside.”
The title hints at the two theological truths that ground Hill’s perspective. Washed reflects the truth of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11: “Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” Waiting expresses the longing of Romans 8:23-25: “Having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body… if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.” Hill knows he has been cleansed from sin by Jesus’ death and resurrection. And he also knows that he still awaits final redemption, and therefore the fight against sin continues. “Washed and waiting. That is my life – my identity as one who is forgiven and spiritually cleansed and my struggle as one who perseveres with a frustrating thorn in the flesh, looking forward to what God is going to do.”
So if there’s so much to love, what do I hate about this book? Very simply, I’m troubled because Hill’s language isn’t nuanced enough to do justice to the power of the gospel. He consistently refers to himself as a “gay Christian,” which, despite his clarifications, is open to rampant misunderstanding and misuse.
To Hill’s credit, he recognizes the imperfection of this language and overtly clarifies his intention in using it: “Rather than refer to someone as ‘a homosexual,’ I’ve taken care always to make ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ the adjective, and never the noun, in a longer phrase, such as ‘gay Christian…’ In this way, I hope to send a subtle linguistic signal that being gay isn’t the most important thing about my or any other person’s identity. I am a Christian before I am anything else.” Hill is to be commended for defining his terms, and any astute reader can see his authorial intent and give some latitude here. The problem is: astute readers are in short supply these days. Perhaps Hill’s linguistic risk will prove to be a deft move, stealing a page from the playbook of homosexual activists who use the same phrase but mean something entirely different. But I doubt it. The term “gay Christian” has already been pressed into service by those who see “gay” as the primary identity – the noun – and “Christian” as the adjective. Hill’s use of this same term will now require that we ask users to clarify their meaning: “When you say ‘gay Christian,’ do you mean GAY (christian) or (gay) CHRISTIAN?”
More to the point, is there even such a thing as a “gay Christian?” Wouldn’t a more accurate term (for those of us who understand the word Christian in its biblical fullness) be “Christian who experiences same-sex attraction?” In our culture, after all, gayness is an identity. People define themselves by their sexual orientation. But Christians are defined by union with Christ. Does not “gay Christian” suggest two competing identities?
In my opinon, Hill’s rhetorical fuzziness betrays a more foundational theological uncertainty. He observes:
Unlike some, I have never experienced a dramatic, healing reversal of my homosexual desires. In other words, God’s presence in my life has not meant that I have become a heterosexual… I have listened to Christians who were formerly involved in gay and lesbian relationships testify to experiencing an extraordinary, decisive change in their sexual attractions… [but] this has not been my experience.
Nor will it be everyone’s experience. Hill is right to emphasize the complexity of sin and redemption – especially since many Christians are guilty of shallow and simplistic thinking in this area. But on the other hand, Hill seems to have given up hope that any such change is possible – for him, at least. And this, I think, is a tragic (though understandable) misstep. If, in God’s eternal kingdom, “there will be no more homosexuality” (as Hill himself agrees), then should not the in-breaking of that kingdom mean that progress toward redemption of fallen desires is at least possible? While not demanding change in a simplistic, name-it-and-claim-it fashion, should we not still in some way expect it, long for it, fight for it? Hill stops short of doing so. He stops short of encouraging gay readers to do so. As a result, I think he unintentionally takes away some of the hope that the gospel rightly offers those struggling with homosexual desires.
Despite these weaknesses – which should not be brushed aside – Hill’s reflections are compelling and theologically rich. He reminds us that “frustrated desires” are part and parcel of the Christian experience:
The message of what God has done through Christ reminds me that all Christians, whatever their sexual orientation, to one degree or another experience the same frustration I do as God challenges, threatens, endangers, and transforms all of our natural desires and affections… When we engage with God in Christ and take seriously the commands for purity that flow from the gospel, we always find our sinful dreams and desires challenged and confronted.
And he reminds us that experiencing the gospel – inhabiting the Christian story “from the inside” – is crucial to understanding the Christian ethic:
In the end, what keeps me on the path I’ve chosen is not so much individual proof texts from Scripture or the sheer weight of the church’s traditional teaching… [but] those texts and traditions and teachings as I see them from within the true story of what God has done in Jesus Christ – and the whole perspective on life and the world that flows from that story, as expressed definitively in Scripture. Like a piece from a jigsaw puzzle finally locked into its rightful place, the Bible and the church’s no to homosexual behavior makes sense to me – it has the ring of truth – when I look at it as one piece within the larger Christian narrative.
For the beauty of its theological reflection, the engaging power of its narrative structure, and the importance of the issues it grapples with, I commend Washed and Waiting to anyone wishing to thoughtfully engage the issue of homosexuality in light of the gospel.
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“While not demanding change in a simplistic, name-it-and-claim-it fashion, should we not still in some way expect it, long for it, fight for it? Hill stops short of doing so. He stops short of encouraging gay readers to do so. As a result, I think he unintentionally takes away some of the hope that the gospel rightly offers those struggling with homosexual desires.”
Hey Bob, thanks for the thoughtful review. Question, does this critique (quoted above) not depend significantly upon the nature/nurture debate?
If it could be scientifically proved beyond doubt (and it hasn’t, but for argument sake) that some homosexual desire was completely biological, would that change the way we expect the gospel to bring renewal in the situation?
Stephen: I don’t think so. The question is one of the gospel’s power, not the specific aspects and causes of brokenness.
The nature/nurture distinction is overplayed not only in this conversation but many others. If Jesus can heal people born blind (John 9), he can heal people born in other conditions also. On the other hand, he doesn’t heal every blind person, nor does he change the orientation of every homosexual. Renewal is more complex than we’d like it to be. But renewal/redemption should be longed for and sought after.
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I agree with the angst about calling himself a gay Christian. It’s an identity crisis not unlike Romans 7, but Paul never attached a label to his true identity in Christ, but clung to Christ alone. If I am an individual who has a severe food addiction and am rescued by the Gospel, i don’t call myself a glutton Christian just because my flesh will fight that from now on. No, I am clothed in Christ’s righteousness and press on a la Philippians 1 & Hebrews 12:1-3. “For every look at yourself, take 10 looks at Christ,” said Robert Murray McCheyne. Hill makes it sound like he’s fighting but stops short of going too far in the Gospel from your description, doesn’t he?
I’m “washed and waiting” myself, but when I was about 28 the Lord probably told me (I don’t like people who use that phrase all the time) that I only needed to marry ONE woman, not reprogram myself to learn to lust after all of them! And a few years later I got introduced to a fine lady, and a counselor told me that my proclivities proved that I did not have the gift of singleness, and should get married! So I did, and we’ve been married 30 years and have one son, and I still notice hot shirtless guys like most married men still notice hot babes, but my path has not, I’d say, been much more difficult than that of a “straight” man.