In Other Words: LGBTQ Language and the Church

Mixed Orientation Marriage and Spiritual Friendship: Valid Terms or Distortions?
Part 2 of a 3-Part Series

In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin:
but he that refraineth his lips is wise.
(Proverbs 10:19)

There are different ways of using that “multitude of words” Proverbs warn us against. You can simply talk too much; that’s obvious. Or you can employ too many words, or too many concepts, when trying to describe a
simple truth.

So it is when we look at the recently-coined phrases “Mixed Orientation Marriage” and “Spiritual Friendships”, phrases you’ll find referenced a number of times in materials promoting last month’s Revoice Conference, and in the writings of Evanglical authors who identify as Gay Celibate Christians like Wesley Hill and Ron Belgau.

The more I read their writings, the more I appreciate much of what they’re saying, while also feeling they are sometimes over-explaining good terms, or stretching them to embrace ideas I feel are wrong and counter-productive.

To put it more plainly: sometimes the words Mixed Orientation Marriage and Spiritual Friendship refer to truths I support, although I don’t think they call for such special labeling and lengthy explanations. At other times, they’re referencing ideas I specifically oppose.

Now’s your cue to legitimately ask why you should care what I think.

Who Are We to Criticize Each Other?

The controversy over the Revoice Conference ( see here here and here ) highlights how fragmented Christians have become over homosexuality. Between Bible believing conservatives and theologically liberal folks the divide has always been obvious, but now we’re seeing a passionate, heated dispute among Evangelicals over terminology, ministry approaches, and priorities. We’re not in agreement over how to disciple same-sex attracted people within the church, nor on how to evangelize unchurched lesbians and gays, nor even on what words we should use to describe them.

I don’t see us reaching consensus in the near or distant future. Those holding traditional views of terminology and approach (I’m in) and those advocating the Revoice approach (I’m out) are separated by too wide a methodological chasm. We’re also fully persuaded, not only of the rightness of our positions, but also of the subject’s importance, so our unwillingness to compromise is deeply set.

(That’s an observation, not a criticism. There’s nothing wrong with convictions, and I respect the right of people I disagree with to keep a good grip on theirs, as I will on mine.)

But consensus or not, all of us who believe in our positions should speak up, with the hope of clarifying them, the goal of helping likeminded friends to express them, and the prayer that others might be won over to them.

We can do all of this without questioning each other’s integrity or spiritual status. Nor should we cry foul when we make public statements and someone responds critically. The words of every speaker and writer are subject to legitimate scrutiny by anyone, a fact we may not like, but shouldn’t begrudge. Being criticized is not the same as being attacked; being disagreed with is not the same as being denigrated.

Let’s look, then, at two terms getting lots of traction and dispute these days: Mixed Orientation Marriage and Spiritual Friendships.

When Two Become Mixed

Mixed Orientation Marriage refers to marriages in which one partner is attracted to the same sex, while the other is heterosexual.

Within the church, we usually see unions like this formed when a person is attracted to the same sex, but for Biblical reasons has declined to act on those attractions, yet still yearns for marital partnership. He or she meets; loves, then marries someone of the opposite sex, committed to that person while retaining some degree of attraction to the same sex.

Fair enough, that happens, and when it does, we could call it a MOM. But what are the ramifications when we do?

Here’s where that abundance of words comes clunking in. “Mixed Orientation” –  do we really want to assign such a special category to that marriage, thereby contrasting it to all others?

Some say yes, citing the special needs of the Mixed Orientation couple, and let’s not pretend such needs don’t exist.

One spouse might still fight homosexual attractions, introducing varying levels of shame and frustration. Sexual impotence or dysfunction might plague the couple. Recent revelation of the one partner’s homosexuality may have traumatized the marriage, since in many cases, the same-sex attracted spouse chose not to reveal her or his attractions, but for whatever reasons they’ve now been exposed. These are serious, sensitive issues calling for compassion and godly support.

But do they call for specialized compassion and godly support? Should they be categorized outside the mainstream of marital challenges? More to the point, are they inherently and significantly different from tensions experienced by thousands of other couples?

One of the commonest private struggles experienced by Christian husbands or wives is that of wayward sexual or emotional attractions. Many a married believer experiences desires/thoughts/fantasies contrary to their marriage vows. Plenty of husbands or wives find it increasingly difficult, for a myriad of reasons, to sexually respond to their spouse. The recent revelation of a husband’s porn use, or a wife’s emotional affair, has traumatized more marriages than most of us will ever realize. Are these scenarios really so different from those of the Mixed Orientation Marriage?

I say no, and on that point blogger Laurie Krieg, who identifies herself as a partner in a Mixed Orientation Marriage, seems to agree when she writes:

 Why? Why can’t I be like most other married women and men I know (super straight people) who have times       where they are not attracted to their spouses? They struggle with a different form of sexual brokenness.   

Why indeed? For that matter, why shouldn’t the Mixed Orientation Marriage be reclassified as just The Marriage, subtitled That Imperfect and At Times Struggling Union?

Besides which, every marriage is by nature one of mixed orientation. Show me a man and woman partnered up, and I’ll show you two very different sexes embarking on a lifetime of trying to understand each other. We are mixed by nature; no marriage is exempt.

My fear, then, is that when we over-emphasize the struggles of Christians with same-sex attractions, whether those struggles be marital or solitary, we place them in an unnecessary and limiting Special Needs class.

Worse, we solidify, in their minds and in ours, the erroneous belief that they are fundamentally different than other Christians who are, in fact, traveling a very similar road of sanctification.

That goes for the same-sex attracted individual. It goes double for
his marriage.

Aren’t All Christian Friendships Spiritual?

Spiritual Friendship is a phrase most commonly linked to Trinity School for Ministry Professor Dr. Wesley Hill, whose book Washed and Waiting  is a highly popular celebration of celibacy on the part of a same-sex
attracted man.

Hill’s definition and thoughts about spiritual friendship can be found on the Spiritual Friendship website which he co-edits with Ron Belgau, contributed to by other notable authors and educators.

Belgau defines Spiritual Friendship first by contrasting it to Carnal Friendship and Worldly Friendship, then explaining Spiritual Friendship as being “grounded in shared discipleship.” 

Who could argue? He puts that very well. But his writing, and that of others to my thinking, sometimes appears to assign a substitutionary role to such friendships, as though they become a means of satisfying the urge to mate and marry. One example: “But God forbade the sexual and romantic love I desired. Was I just to be left out in the cold?”

I’m somewhat tracking with him here, as I remember very well my single years of chastity being made much easier by the deep bonds I shared with my Christian brothers, bonds in which I found solidarity, encouragement, and inexpressibly deep validation. They truly were spiritual friendships, and they were lifelines.

That’s What Friends are For … I Think

But I see nothing in Scripture or common sense indicating that they or any healthy friendships are meant to take on romantic qualities. Or to be exclusive, or to become gay relationships absent sex.

Yet some writings by proponents of the Spiritual Friendship concept seem to disagree. While appreciating much of what I’ve read by Belgau, he and I seriously part company when he ascribes qualities to male friendship that I don’t believe have any rightful place. He writes:

Just as chaste chivalry, to take just one example, can be an expression of heterosexuality, so we’re suggesting that chaste friendship (or a number of other ways of expressing love) can be an expression of homosexuality. Having gay sex is one way of being gay, but, if we’re taking our cues from the Christian tradition, it need not (must not) be the definitive way.

This to me seems a major and unacceptable disconnect. Friendship that is chaste cannot be an expression of homosexuality, since homosexuality is by nature a sexual response to the same sex. And I cannot fathom any part of the Christian tradition cuing us to manifest any form of “being gay” as a part of godly bonding.

In a more radical example, a writer who describes himself as a gay celibate Christian posts, on his website The Liturgical Queer, that he and his male partner are in a non-sexual relationship which is nonetheless romantic. By way of explanation he says

I know romance when I see it; I’m just unsure of how to define it. When Kyle takes me out to dinner and sits in the booth beside me, it’s a romantic gesture; there’s special affection between us in our shared experience … I’m thankful for Kyle taking me out on dates, placing his hand on my knee when I’m upset, or verbalizing compassionate affirmation without worrying that it’s the made-up sin of romanticism. 

It’s probably unfair to assume all Spiritual Friendship advocates share the same views, but when trying to discern when their relationships cross the line from genuinely spiritual to something aping marriage is, at least for
me, difficult.

On the one hand, they’re clearly and commendably against any form of homosexual sex. Yet their definition of words like homosexual, gay, or romantic seems awfully elusive, leaving room for them to practice a form of same-sex intimacy that thrives in a linguistic twilight zone – maybe gay, maybe not; maybe sinful, maybe good.

Blogger Austin Rose agrees when, criticizing the SF trends, he writes:

They seem to want to obfuscate the meaning of words. Step into the stream of what gay means or homosexual means or same-sex attraction means and you find you step with them into a fun house mirror. It seems to me that the truth of things, including the meaning of words, ought to be clear, precise, even simple. Confusion is the sign of something else going on, perhaps
something troubling.

Belgau’s stated definition of Spiritual Friendship is solid. The bonds of Agape are, indeed, based on shared discipleship, manifest in a mutual desire for both parties to fully surrender their lives, take up their crosses, and glorify God inwardly and outwardly.

I see no room in such a definition for elements steering people away from healthy union, or into pairings that foster affections best experienced in a heterosexual union, not a same-sex bond.

In the end, I fear the new concepts of Mixed Orientation Marriage and Spiritual Friendship are doing the institution of marriage, and the beauty of friendship, no favors whatsoever.

On Monday in Part 3 of this series we’ll look at the concepts of Side B Christians and Sexual Minorities. Please join us!


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