Answering difficult questions on sexuality and salvation

Books | An excerpt from Rosaria Butterfield’s sequel: <em>Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ</em>
by Rosaria Butterfield
Posted 7/11/15, 11:36 am

Many readers became familiar with Rosaria Butterfield with the publication of her first book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, and the posting of an hour-long WORLD interview with her that’s been watched more than 100,000 times. (Read an excerpt from that conversation and watch a video of the complete interview posted at the end.)

In that book, Butterfield described how God took her from lesbianism and a tenured professorship in English and Women’s Studies at Syracuse University to friendship with a Christian couple, then church, then marriage to a Reformed Presbyterian pastor, and life as a homeschooling mother, pastor’s wife, author, and speaker. 

Here’s a chapter (with permission from Crown & Covenant Publications) of her just-out sequel, Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ. In it she deals wisely and lovingly with hard questions involving repentance, sexual identity, and union with Christ. —Marvin Olasky

19th Century Origins and the Power of the History of Ideas

The concept of sexual orientation was first used by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), and its effect, if not intent, was to radically resituate sexuality from its biblical/creational context to something completely new: the foundational drive that determines and defines human identity. Nothing short of personhood was at stake. By defining humanity according to sexual desires and segregating it according to its gendered object, Freud was—intentionally or not—suppressing the biblical category of being made in God’s image, male and female, and replacing it with the psychoanalytic category of sexual identity. In both intent and language usage, Freud took aim at the Bible’s authority to diagnose gender and sexuality dysfunctions and prescribe solutions for them.

I do not believe that this was an innocent move. Throughout his career, Freud maintained that belief in the God of the Bible was a “universal obsessional neurosis” (The Future of an Illusion, trans. and ed. James Strachey, 43).

The category of sexual orientation carries with it a cosmology of personhood that undervalues image-bearers of a holy God.

Freud did not come out of nowhere. Ideas shape worldview and worldview shapes culture. Freud was a product of German Romanticism. … Romanticism claimed that you know truth through the lens of your personal experience, and that no overriding or objective opposition can challenge the primal wisdom of someone’s subjective frame of intelligibility. … Romanticism took this one step further to declare personal feelings and experiences the most reliable measure and means of discerning truth.

The 19th Century category of sexual orientation reflects Romanticism’s claim on epistemology, redefining men and women from people who are made in God’s image with souls that will last forever to people whose sexual drives and gender identifications define them and liberate them and set them apart. Indeed, while the Christian maintains that image-bearing is what sets apart humans from animals, the 19th Century ushered in a new measure of man, one for whom sexuality and sexual pleasure became a defining marker. Thus, “sexual orientation” is what we call a neologism, and it creates fictional identities that rob people of their true one: male and female image-bearers. And sexual orientation is a world that extends the definition of sexuality beyond its biblical confines. Biblically speaking, sexuality is always teleological—that is, sexual desire implies a desired object and sexual practice implies a necessary outcome. Because the American Psychological Association’s (APA’s) definition of sexual orientation includes nonsexual affection, this re-maps personhood in a way that God does not.

‘Everyone loses when we define ourselves using categories that God does not.’

Put another way, biblically speaking, there is nothing sinful and nothing “gay” about nonsexual same-sex deep and abiding friendship. … Desiring to bring someone a glass of punch or sacrificially helping a friend who needs you is an expression of our image-bearing of a holy God, not our persistent patterns of sexual desire or temptation. We must stop and ask: why would the category of sexual orientation include non-sexual affiliation except for the purpose of defining in a new way what it means to be human? This is no small issue. If we privilege secular categories of personhood over and against God’s, we are doubting the Bible’s ability to understand humanity, and we are denying to ourself our Maker’s instruction. Freud did not invent or discover or name something true about humanity that the writers of the Bible missed. Categories we use to represent image-bearers of a holy God matter. Words, like kitchen washrags, carry and distribute history (and bacteria) with each use, and the category invention of sexual orientation brings much bacteria with it.

Everyone loses when we define ourselves using categories that God does not. People who identify as heterosexual and homosexual have much to lose. In 2014, Michael Hannon wrote an absorbing essay in the journal First Things entitled “Against Heterosexuality: the Idea of Sexual Orientation is Artificial and Inhibits Christian Witness” (March 2014, 27–34).

He begins his essay with Michel Foucault, the famous French historian of ideas who died of AIDS in 1980. Hannon writes:

Michel Foucault … details the pedigree of sexual orientation in his History of Sexuality. Whereas “sodomy” had long identified a class of actions, suddenly for the first time, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the term “homosexual” appeared alongside it. This European neologism was used in a way that would have struck previous generations as a plain category mistake, designating not actions, but people—and so also with its counterpart and foil “heterosexual” … with secular society rendering classical religious beliefs publicly illegitimate, pseudoscience stepped in and replaced religion as the moral foundation for venereal norms. (p. 28)

Sexuality moved from verb (practice) to noun (people), and with this grammatical move, a new concept of humanity was born—the idea that we are oriented or framed by our sexual desires; that our differing sexual desires and different objects of desire made up separate species of people, and that self-representation and identity rooted now in sexual orientation, and not in the purposes of God for His image-bearers. …

‘Sexuality moved from verb (practice) to noun (people), and with this grammatical move, a new concept of humanity was born.’

Sexual orientation is thus said to encompass every fiber of a person’s selfhood, from margin to center. If I self-define as heterosexual or homosexual, I express that this deep and originating mark of selfhood presents itself in everything I do—how I walk the dog in the morning, stir the pot of soup at lunch, and take the garbage out at night. With this comprehensive shift in personhood, a new kind of sexual freedom emerged, where everything, including nonsexual affection, is subsumed by this new humanity of sexuality, and everything is a character trait that flows from this humanity of sexuality.

Indeed, sexual orientation went from a categorical invention to heralded immortal truth in 100 years, taking out the concept of being created in God’s image and bearing an eternal soul in its wake. It is now a term embraced uncritically by believers and unbelievers alike.

Heterosexual Blindness and Comparative Sin

I believe that sexual orientation is a lose-lose paradigm for everyone, but especially if you struggle with unwanted homosexual desires. Hannon, in contrast, thinks that self-described heterosexuals have the most to lose. He writes: “the most pernicious aspect of the orientation-identity system is that it tends to exempt heterosexuality from moral evaluation. If homosexuality binds us to sin, heterosexuality blinds us to sin” (p. 30). This heterosexual blindness seems to have two forms: excuse making for sexual sins of a heterosexual bent (pornography, incest, fornication, and adultery), and an excessive, scintillating focus on what gay men do in bed, known in evangelical circles as the “gag reflex.” Indeed, because of the unwitting deceitfulness of the sexual orientation paradigm, we are much more likely to be numb to “heterosexual” sin and excessively focused on “homosexual” sin than we would have been prior to the 19th Century.

“Heterosexual” blindness makes a Christian ignorant to the very sins that may destroy him; “homosexual” approval makes a person unable to enter into a gay neighbor’s life in a way that God may use to spare him from God’s wrath. Both take Christian witness out of the game. This might raise another question: does Paul’s observation in Romans 1:26 that homosexual sex is unnatural warrant the conclusion that heterosexual sexual sin (such as adultery or pornography) is a less heinous form of sin? …

Many Christians … draw the conclusion that same-sex sin is somehow farther from the reach of God’s redemption than other expressions of sexual sin. But pride, lust, bitterness, anger, and a multitude of other sins lie behind our sexual sins in a way that prohibits sweeping generalizations as to the evil of one over and against all others. After all, there are heterosexual perversions and abuses that are unspeakably abhorrent. A heterosexually married man who rapes and abuses his wife is committing horrific evil that is in no way mitigated by the fact that it is heterosexual. God forbid that anyone might suggest otherwise.

We do have a biblical model based on excusing yourself from repentance on the grounds of comparative sin. It is found in Luke 18:10-13, in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, and it doesn’t go so well for the Pharisee. …

The paradigm of comparative sin proves to be a boat with holes, as the sins of self-righteous Pharisees reveal themselves more often than not to be more heinous than the sins of humble Publicans. This is true, even if the Pharisees sin in their heterosexual lust and the Publicans sin in their unwanted homosexual lust.

But we still must confront what the Bible says about the “unnaturalness” of homosexual sex(see Romans 1:25-27).

Romans 1 will always hold a powerful place in my life as a believer. I first read those words when I was in a committed lesbian relationship. My first response was to ridicule them. I had not always identified as a lesbian, but once I met my first lesbian lover, I was hooked. I was sure I had found my real self. And I was mighty sure that I knew myself better than this ancient book whose words called into question my ability to discern right from wrong. But after working through the rest of the Bible multiple times, I had to confront that the God who created us has the right to define those “ordinances” of His creation, including human sexuality. While I came to believe that by God’s design, sexuality is for the fulfillment of God’s creation ordinance, I did not experience this truth. I only embraced God’s truth because my conscience condemned me. At a certain point, I realized that the Bible was God’s Word, and it had the right to condemn me, and not the other way around. …

Natural Revelation as Biblical Ethics

Romans 1:18-20 puts forth the biblical idea of what theologians call “natural revelation”—the disclosure of God and his laws as they are seen in nature.

Let me tell you straight up that those words drove me mad. I hate to think in terms of wrath, punishment, and the expectation that we all learn the same lessons from the same perceptions or experiences. Every fiber in my postmodern being retaliated against this way of thinking. But here we see that God holds us responsible for “suppress[ing] the truth in unrighteousness” (v. 18). He declares that ungodliness is “evident within them” (v. 19). He portrays man as “without excuse,” because his power and character have “been clearly seen” and “understood through what has been made” (v. 20).

When I read this as an unbeliever, I found this patronizingly insulting. I loved my lesbian partners and the community that we created, and yet these verses made it evident that God wanted me to behave differently than I did. Only later as a believer could I see why this argument did not convince me: God does not claim that the gospel is found within this portrayal of his power and divinity in nature. In other words, “natural revelation” exposed my sin, but God understood that there is a difference between the diagnosis and the cure. Natural revelation portrays God’s diagnosis, but only in the gospel do I find the cure. That seemed fair. …

But I also knew enough about my own sins to know that some held more surface interests, while others really pulled at my heart. Sexual sin ran deep and hard for me. I needed a whole lot more than moral awareness, and I knew it, even if those around me didn’t. …

‘I needed the expulsive love of my risen Savior to whisper in my ear that my burgeoning conviction of sin was truer than what my flesh craved.’

Natural law is effective biblical ethics and public policy, but it is an incomplete pastoral instrument, because natural law is not the gospel. When we preach the gospel, we preach the promise of a new life, new mind, new hope, new purpose, new union with Christ, new company of the Holy Spirit, new pardon of sin, new affinity for repentance and closeness with God, new love of the law, new ability to obey, new understanding of why God demands chastity outside of marriage and fidelity inside of marriage, new patience with people who do not yet know Jesus, new perspectives of suffering and affliction, addiction and change, new hatred of our own sin and patience with the sin of others, new responsibilities, new heartaches, new friendships, a new family from within the body of Christ, new allegiances, new dangers, and new grace. I needed the expulsive love of my risen Savior to whisper in my ear that my burgeoning conviction of sin was truer than what my flesh craved.

Through the power of the gospel, it became clear that God’s provision of salvation required that I understand from His point of view a biblical sexual ethic. Because God in Jesus Christ was my Savior and friend, I realized that I needed to take the time to really get to know Him. I needed to steep myself in the means of grace and wean myself from the world. And God used natural revelation to reveal my sin in this way: my knee-jerk response to creation ordinances revealed to me that I was resistant to know God. And that was sin. So I committed myself to study these ordinances. It became clear that marriage between a man and woman was by God’s design. It also seemed clear that God did not design everyone for marriage. Natural revelation told me what God required, but without gospel grace, I could no more live out these Christian ethics than I could walk on water. 

From Chapter 4 of Openness, Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ© 2015 Crown & Covenant Publications. Used with permission.

Rosaria Butterfield

Rosaria is a former tenured professor of English at Syracuse University and author of The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and Openness, Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ.

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