The Plausibility Problem: the Church and Same-Sex Attraction. By Ed Shaw, IVP, 2015.
As others have pointed out, this is not just a book for those who experience same-sex attraction. It is a book for all of us, calling everyone back to biblical faithfulness and radical discipleship.
The basis of Ed Shaw’s argument is that the orthodox Christian view on same-sex attraction (“Just say no”) is implausible. Why on earth would we deny sexual intimacy to those who are attracted to members of their own sex? Is this not an area where there church needs to catch up (indeed, is catching up) with the culture? Ed writes (movingly) about his own experience, and sets out a powerful case in defence of the ‘traditional’ view on singleness and marriage.
Simply quoting specific biblical texts (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-11) will no longer convince, says Shaw. We need to correct a whole range of ‘missteps’ and build a new (although in fact it is old and original) plausibility structure.
I summarise the main steps in Ed Shaw’s argument.
1. Identity – What defines me most is not my sexuality but my status in Christ. We may not say of our sexual orientation, “That’s the way I was born; that’s who I am; that’s the real me” Shaw quotes Kevin DeYoung: ‘God does want you to be the real you. He does want you to be true to yourself. But the “you” he’s talking about is the “you” that you are by grace, not by nature.’
2. Family – Not just husband, wife and kids, but the extended family of the church. The church rightly celebrates family life, but this can leave single people feeling incredibly isolated. But Jesus (who, after all, was single himself) defined his family as those who follow him rather than those who are related to him, Matthew 12:46-50. As John Piper says: ‘Marriage and family are temporary for this age; the church is forever.’ Shaw comments: ‘When church feels like a family, I can cope with not ever having my own partner and children.’
3. Genes – To be born gay does not make homosexuality OK. Of course, the origins of sexual orientation are hotly disputed. But it is a fundamental truth of the Bible that we were all born sinners and yet are responsible for our sin. Every aspect of our nature is flawed (including our sexuality, in different ways). We cannot argue that because a trait feels ‘natural’ or ‘instinctive’ it’s OK to act on it. What holds true for temper, for example, or for that stubborn streak, also holds true for sexuality.
4. Happiness – My personal happiness is not the most important thing in the world. Modern wisdom is: ‘If it makes you happy, it must be right’. And the church, for all its criticisms of the prosperity gospel, has bought into this, in large measure. And so there is nothing to tell us apart from our non-Christian neighbours. Our attitude towards money, possessions, entertainment, and sex are indistinguishable from theirs. We need to recover obedience to God’s word as our highest goal, and then we will find that true and lasting happiness will follow.
5. Intimacy – Sexual intimacy is not the only kind of intimacy. Overwhelmingly, in our own day, intimacy is associated with sex. But both society and the church need to rediscover the truth that intimacy can be found in friendship. Indeed, we often place too great a burden on marriages by assuming that one’s spouse should be one’s only close friend. Instead, we need to make time for friendships to develop, to take the risky step of sharing some intimacies with friends, and to persevere beyond casual friendships to those which last and grow.
6. Equality – Men and woman are equal, but not interchangeable. They are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28), but are not exactly the same. The complementarity of marriage is meant to mirror the relationship between God and his people, between Christ and his church. Their love foreshadows the infinite bliss of heaven (Revelation 21-22). Therefore, to change the constituent elements of marriage – one man and one woman – is to interfere with that God-given pattern, as well as to undermine the creative tension between masculinity and femininity.
7. Godliness – Same-sex attracted people can be godly, just as heterosexual people can. Somehow, we can suppose that to be same-sex attracted is to be incapable of thorough-going holiness. People are to be ‘healed’ or ‘delivered’ from their same-sex attraction if that are to be accepted as fully Christian. But the goal of the Christian life is not to be heterosexual, but to be like Christ. If heterosexual people would face up, and confess, to their sexual temptations and sins as some same-sex attracted people do, then the entire Christian community would be entering a new and deeper level of holiness.
8. Celibacy – Singleness and celibacy are not Bad Things. They are often made out to be undesirable, if not downright unhealthy. But being single and celibate are in no way inferior to being married and sexually active. Just read 1 Corinthians 7. According to Paul, being single actually opens up possibilities for Christian service that are not open to married people. Paul’s own life illustrates this, as does the life of our Lord himself.
9. Suffering – Personal suffering is not to be avoided at all costs. To sustain a single and celibate lifestyle can be hard. But Jesus never promised that the Christian life would be easy. In fact, he said it would involve sacrifice and suffering, Mark 8:34. Self-denial involves saying “No!” to things we might want. We need to recover the confidence that God can use all things – including suffering – for good, Romans 8:28.
Of course, Ed Shaw fills out these points with much more detailed explanation, illustration and application. But I hope I’ve done enough to draw the outline of his argument, and to encourage reading the book itself.