Third party to the sexual identity debate?

[Note: please keep comments civil and on point with my questions at the end. We seek constructive and instructive dialog, not debate or lecture]

David Benkof has a stimulating opinion piece in Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer on a third way in responding to the gay/straight debate between Judeo-Christians. On one side, folks argue that their gay identity should be embraced (and their same-sex relationships). On the other side, folks argue that the Bible speaks against homosexuality at every turn, thus only heterosexual identity is possible.

Benkof, a man of Jewish faith, suggests a third way in his piece against Soulforce (a group traveling around to Christian colleges to raise awareness of homosexuality as a legitimate part of humanity and the Christian community). He suggests it is possible to have a gay identity but believe that the Bible must be taken seriously and not brushed aside. In his study he does not believe the bible supports gay activity. He is asking that debates about sexual identity include folks similar to himself.

Interesting fellow. You might want to read his wiki entry to get some background. Obviously a controversial fellow for some.

It raises this question: What would healthy, Bible-honoring, dialog look like between those who feel they best identify as gay and those who do not regarding? How would they approach the interpretive act? (Assume for the moment that biblical interpretation is important) How might conservative theologians change their dialogical stance?

I do think one question might be really important. If Benkof believes same sex activity is wrong (and it seems he does) then why does he self-identify by something broken? Is it a parallel when some former alcoholics self-identify as an alcoholic even though they haven’t taken a drink in 20 years? What is the benefit of this self-identification? The drawback?


Filed under Christianity, Identity, sexual identity, sexuality

11 responses to “Third party to the sexual identity debate?

  1. Amy

    This is an interesting conversation because there is definitely a group of folks who identify with the middle ground–they struggle with attractions to the opposite sex. There needs to be room for conversation about these issues instead of, “Don’t be gay! You’re going to hell!” I mean, really, does that make anyone want to open up about the thoughts he or she may be having?

    I wouldn’t identify people who are tempted in this area as “gay.” I’m realizing the difference between calling myself a “former cutter” and someone who struggles/has struggled with cutting. The first definition makes me a cutter, while the second makes me someone who struggles. It’s an important distinction, especially dealing with a shameful past. I am more than my definition/label…I am someone.

    I suppose the benefit of self-identification is to show one’s self how far he or she can fall, or the fact the sin is always crouching right there should you choose it. But still, the more I think about it, the unhealthier I think it is mentally. Really, this ID keeps someone sick and broken, but another distinction allows for healing (God’s amazing grace).

  2. Carmella

    This seems to be a refreshingly honest perspective. It seems as though we are missing something when we regard homosexual attraction as a choice only, or when we disregard the legitimate option of regarding behavior as unacceptable even when one feels drawn towards it.

    I have had the experience of meeting many Christians who feel homosexual attraction but do not act on those impulses because they feel it is wrong. They tend to feel unwelcome in both common camps, because they do not feel that they choose these desires, but also are doing what they feel is right in not acting on them. It might be a welcome alternative to find support amongst others who don’t choose their same-gendered attraction, but who also do not see it as a legitimate option.

    I appreciate your alcoholism comparison- that is a great way to conceptualize it. Alcoholics, if they are to get/stay healthy (spiritually, emotionally, mentally), choose to not act upon an unhealthy and self-destructive impulse, even if it is pervasive. This could allow us to interact with this group of people without denying their experience and without pretending that they can Biblically do whatever they feel.

  3. Lightbearer

    I will attempt to stay on point 🙂

    Question 1: A healthy dialog would consider what category of sin homosexual acts are: Major/Deliberate/Compulsory/Reactionary (adultery, murder, theft, lying, swearing, disobedience, apostasy, etc.), or Minor/Deliberately Ignored/Irrelevant (eating shellfish, not being a virgin on your wedding night, working on the Sabbath, wearing clothes made of multiple cloth, etc.). It would also consider the context of the homosexual acts (committed, loving, Christ-centered relationship vs.non-committed, prurient, self-centered hedonism).

    Question 2: I believe that Benkof self-identifies as gay in the same way that an alcoholic, a schizophrenic, or a paraplegic does: they recognize their condition as a significant, chronic, and permanent influence on their quality of life, and take whatever steps they feel are necessary and appropriate in order to cope, function, and thrive. In Benkof’s case, this apparently means celibacy, which puts him on equal footing with the Roman Catholic clergy (a more apt comparison than might be thought: what’s the most likely self-identifying interpretation for same-sex yearnings in a Catholic culture? Possible answer: a calling by God to the priesthood).

    The benefit of this identification is that it puts homosexuality in the same category as any other affliction/handicap/malady given to someone by God, for His inscrutable purposes. Potter and clay themes in the Bible that lend explanatory support to birth defects, mental illness, disease, inequitable distribution of wealth, etc., also support biologically-based same-sex feelings and urges.

    The downside of this identification is the polarizing dividing lines that it draws between those who don’t have same-sex feelings, those that do, and those that do but don’t act on them. I suspect that a better understanding of what it is like to walk in the others shoes is called for here.

    BTW, great topic Phil!

  4. Great comments folks. Appreciate the spirit. A couple of additional thoughts:
    1. Attraction is a murky topic. How does it form? what choices are involved, if any? From a science end, we don’t know. Likely, it is both biological AND practiced.
    2. Lightbearer brings up a couple of needed topics. How we approach/apply Scripture and the various OT/NT regulations needs much furthur dialog. Those who reject the mixed cloth or shellfish regulations aren’t merely picking and choosing what they want to follow (a la cafeteria style) but reasonings must surfaced in a helpful way. Further, He is right that identifications tend to divide and adding another way may only complicate matters.

  5. dr.penny

    “…but such were some of you…” is how Paul describes Corinthian homosexuals. It seems to suggest that attraction & behavior were “washed in the blood of Christ” and permanently changed.

    Martin Seligman describes sexual identity as a five layer process: 1. identity (I am either male/female), 2. identification (I belong to male/female gender group and attracted to ?), 3. sexual preference (I have experimented and discovered who & what gives me pleasure or excites me), 4. performance (I know how competent/incompetent I am as I perform as a sexual being), 5. roles or scripts (I display my sexual identity in gender in relationships in the following ways…). Seligman teaches the first two are innate (from birth) and are permanent. He also maintains the last three are learned and reinforced through adolescence and early adulthood; but are changeable.

    Is it difficult? Yes. Can anyone change identity, behavior, and desire apart from a saving work in Christ? No. But deep change is possible. How that change occurs, and IF temptation still happens in the particular sin area repented from, is another discussion.

    We don’t call butterfly’s “ex-caterpillars”. Conversely, we seem to allow old labels (ex-homosexual, ex-alcoholic, ex-?) to label who we once were. What is the functionality of doing so? If for the purpose of glorifying God’s story of redemption and restoration thus encouraging others, I can see telling the story of deliverance as necessary. But eventually, shouldn’t identity as an everyday label begin to reflect our spiritual growth and maturity? Would we not do well to shed our “sin identity membership card” that identifies us as a club and join the ranks of sinners who identity with the efficiency of Christ’s atonement.

  6. Mark O

    I’m working on a graduate thesis for my MA related to Christians and same-sex preferences. All of the research I’ve read so far indicates that sexual attraction is dependent on multiple factors. However, there seems to be a strong bias in the APA towards genetic and biological factors as the main cause. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that a poor paternal relationship is a significant factor in the development of same-sex attraction (Beiber, et al.) Read Yarhouse’s Homosexuality and the Church’s Moral Debate for a great summary.

    This topic has become very personal for me as two of my friends from college have told that they struggle with homosexual attraction in recent years. They’ve decided to remain celibate, which has made my friendship with them much less complicated.

    I think a place to start in finding a third way to address the issue and maintain orthodoxy is to love them honestly. This means speaking truth personally when we have earned the right to, and also becoming open to learning of what their struggle is like, which will allow us to have deeper compassion. With compassion and truth, we will begin to be able to speak the truth in love.

    I’ve also found that it’s easy to overemphasize the issue…by this I mean that we need to address homosexual actions the same way we would address any other sexual sin (I’m hoping it’s with compassion, love, and truth telling).

    As for being an ex-anything, I think the term is only helpful when the person describing themselves that way is using it to not forget how badly the problem he used to have was and could be. Alcoholics use the term alcoholic because they realize that they still have struggles even after years of sobriety. I suppose the same rationale could be used for someone who has same-sex attraction…

    How do we deal with similar sins?” I don’t think homosexuality is any worse than other sexual sins

  7. Lightbearer

    dr. penny,

    Interesting post. A few observations:

    You cite Martin Seligman’s five stages, which states that identity and orientation cannot be changed, but other aspects of sexuality (preferences, behaviors, scripts) can be. You then say, “Is it difficult? Yes. Can anyone change identity, behavior, and desire apart from a saving work in Christ? No.” In other words, you state that he is wrong in two ways: 1. Christians can change all 5 stages; 2. no one else can change any of the stages. This point of view is supported by your earlier reference to 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, in which Paul says basically the same thing, but goes even farther and says that the same dynamics also apply to fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, the effeminate, thieves, the covetous, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers.

    Most obviously, neither Positive Psychology in general, nor Seligman in particular, support either of your conclusions, so why you would reference Seligman in the first place is a mystery. You might have done better to cite the alleged efficacy of Reparative Therapy and the work of groups like Exodus. Their findings and conclusions have little in the way of supporting evidence, but at least they tacitly endorse your points.

    It’s also highly doubtful that making a commitment to Christ is the deciding factor in making permanent change, considering a. Christians are not demonstrably better at making permanent changes compared to non-Christians; b. non-Christians are demonstrably able to make permanent changes that Christians claim exclusivity to; c. (in regards to Paul’s extended list) Christians are not demonstrably less likely to fornicate, adulterate, covet, swindle, drink to excess, etc., than non-Christians.

    Phil’s earlier post regarding the use of reason when assessing the application of OT/NT Scripture to our daily lives is apropos; being “washed, sanctified, and justified in the Spirit” is not an excuse to not think.

    My earlier post addresses your points about labels, so I won’t repeat myself, but I will add this: all Christians have the same label: Sinner. Not ex-Sinner. Not my-sinning-is-forgiven-but-yours-isn’t-Sinner.

    Reminds me of a joke: Jesus is walking by a crowd, who are stoning a prostitute. He stops and says, “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.” One by one, they all dropped their stones and walked away…..except for one little old lady, who keeps chucking stones with righteous glee. Exasperated, Jesus walks up to the old woman and says, “Mom, you’re missing the point!” 🙂

  8. Scott Knapp, MS

    Great comments, Dr. Penny! 🙂 I was working with a boy at our center who displays many effeminate traits, and at his last placement in a north eastern state he was full-court pressed to “come out” and embrace his “gayness” as a fixed reality. After we started work, he made it clear that he wanted to function as a heterosexual. He had had pleasurable sexual encounters with boys during his childhood and early adolescence, and had continued to act out with boys in his various placements. One day as we were discussing these issues, I reframed his experiences a bit. I noted to him that most boys do some form of sexual experimentation during puberty with other boys, and sex/orgasm is going to reliably be pleasurable, and whatever comradery he might experience with his partner(s) could easily mimic intimacy. I asked him to consider which he may be: a male who desires to be exclusively intimate in all senses of the word with other males, or a boy who has experienced pleasurable sexual encounters with other males, but still feels mostly oriented toward wanting full intimacy with girls? I saw a huge weight lifted off his shoulders as the cogs turned in his mind…he’d never considered the possibility of the second option, particularly while he was being pressured to “join the team” at his previous placements. He affirmed the second option as ringing more true of himself, and this opened a door for far more productive conversations down the road about why he used sexualized behavior with other boys to act out, relieve anxiety, or dominate/control other boys. Granted, it is certainly possible (and frequent) that boys use heterosexual behavior to accomplish those ends all too often, for this young man it was a release to begin to grasp that attraction to something did not necessarily need to define who he is or will be. Thanks Penny!

  9. Lightbearer

    Mark O,

    I’m not sure how you have come to the conclusion that there is a great deal of evidence supporting your version of the cause of homosexulity, but that the APA is biased. The idea that a poor parental relationship is a significant factor was discredited around the same time that the “schizophrenogenic mother” concept was.

    Perhaps it is the data you mentioned: The Bieber study was from 1962 and suffered from sampling bias. Subsequent studies have shown that homosexuals suffer not from their orientation, but from the pressures placed upon them by the dominant heteronormative culture (Sue and Sue; ).

    The book by Yarhouse et al, is interesting in that it makes two points (I quote from the review): 1. “genetic variables, brain differences and psychological variables are all involved in causation and that while change of orientation is not impossible it seems to them that profound change of orientation occurs infrequently.” 2. “In their review of the scientific literature, they interweave the idea that regardless of the prevalence of homosexuality, whether or not homosexuality is found to be biologically determined, whether or not sexual orientation can be changed and whether or not homosexuality is a psychological/social pathology, the church’s judgment about the sinfulness of homosexuality should be made on the foundation of exegesis, not science.”

    In other words, they 1. support the APA’s findings of a significant biological component to sexual orientation; 2. they demonstrate bias: if the science supports us, great, but it won’t change our minds if it doesn’t. From the same review: “Their position evidences an internal conflict between their two worldviews of science and Evangelical theology. They state (a) that there is no necessary overlap between sinfulness and status as psychopathology and (b) that homosexuality may not be pathology as mental health professions understand pathology. However, they go on to state that homosexuality is sinful and that “same-sex attraction … does not appear to be what God wants for people” (p. 114). This religious belief seems to strongly bias their discussion of the normal/pathological question: “The origins of homosexuality are unclear but grounded ultimately in our human fallenness and rebellion against God.” (p. 179).”

    I’m glad that you have decided to remain compassionate with and understanding of your two friends instead of shunning them. It can be difficult to do when friends and family are stuggling with challenges that you don’t have. If I might make a suggestion, one way to understand what they are going through is to seek out an openly gay Christian and ask him/her what it’s like to be them, how they reconcile their relationship with Christ with mainstream theology, etc.

    I also highly recommend the book “Couple Therapy with Gay Men (Greenan, D. & Tunnell, G.). It outlines Minuchin’s Structural Therapy from the perspective of gay male couples, and does an excellent job of not only showing effective therapeutic rapport, theory, and technique, but also illuminating hidden heteronormative bias.

    Good luck on your thesis!

  10. Mark O


    I don’t have enough time for an exhaustive response, but I will attempt to respond to your post succintly.

    My point about the APA being biased was based on the finding that the majority of APA members attributed same-sex attraction primarily to genetic and biological factors, yet there is not substantial evidence to back up this claim, which is why on the APA website it states, “Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors.”

    As for your discrediting Bieber et al, check out the following at the bottom of this post.

    I believe in my earlier post I stated that poor paternal relationship was “a factor” and not the sole or even primary factor. The reason most of the research regarding the etiology of same-sex attraction is from the 1960’s is because once it was taken out of the DSM the research stopped.

    As for your the definition of pathology, don’t we all create it from our personal anthropology? I.E. Evolutionary psychologists think in terms of adaptive and maladaptive, while Christian psychologists think in terms of lawful and sinful.

    And finally, (this post has become far from succint!) I have spoken to open and affirming Christians about their sexual identity and how they reconcile it with scripture. I didn’t agree with their interpretation (because I think the verses in the Bible are actually pretty clear that homosexual practice is sinful, whereas they believed the verses were unclear and that the context wasn’t applicable to today). All that is to say, I hope we can love our homosexual brother’s and sister’s and speak the truth to them when it’s appropriate.

    Bene, E. (1965). On the genesis of male homosexuality: An attempt at clarifying the role of parents. British Journal of Psychiatry, 3: 803-813.

    Evans, R. B. (1969). Childhood parental relationships of homosexual men. Journal of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, 33 (2): 129-135.

    Seutter, R. A., & Rovers, M. (2004). Emotionally absent fathers: Furthering the understanding of homosexuality. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 32 (1): 43-49.

  11. Lightbearer


    Thanks for taking time to respond.

    Your phrasing in your original post was “significant factor”, not “a factor”; I quoted you correctly.

    Research on the cause of homosexuality stopped? Since the 60’s? Does it actually say that somewhere? I mean, other than NARTH?

    Your indication of APA bias in your original post was due to the “great deal of evidence” supporting a poor parental relationship as a significant factor in development; your next post changed this to a lack of substantial evidence for the genetic cause. You then quote-mined the APA website to support your opinion; allow me to play the quote in full:

    “What causes a person to have a particular sexual orientation? There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.”

    I would assume that if you are going to quote from one section of the APA, that you would also at least read the other sections, like these: What is the psychological impact of prejudice and discrimination? Is homosexuality a mental disorder? What about therapy intended to change sexual orientation from gay to straight? For the convenience of people reading our exchange, here’s the link:

    Also, I use the term pathology in it’s scientific sense, which has a narrow and specific meaning.

    Thanks for the research. The two studies from the 1960’s are not interesting for obvious reasons, but the abstract and 1st page from the Seutter study seem interesting; I’ll have to check it out. Ironically, it mentions Yarhouse as a determinist, supporting a biological origin.

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