The majority of the feminist movement supports LGBTQIA relationships. However, there are Christians who align with feminism while simultaneously believing the Bible only endorses sexual activity within the marriage of a man and a woman.
Steve Holmes is someone who feels these beliefs are not mutually exclusive. Steve is Senior Lecturer in Theology at St Andrews University and chairs the Theology and Public Policy Advisory Commission for the Evangelical Alliance, although he speaks here in a personal capacity.
[To the reader: A quick reiteration – the aim of the Faith In Feminism project is simply to represent the many diverse expressions of feminism that exist. For every interview representing one perspective, a counter perspective will follow in a future interview. The views we publish are those of our contributors and in publishing them we are in no way affirming nor rejecting their viewpoint, simply showcasing them.]
VB: Hi Steve, thanks for being willing to do this interview. To start off I’ll reference a paper written by an organisation you work with – the Evangelical Alliance. In their ‘Biblical and Pastoral Responses to Homosexuality’ statement they write: “We affirm that marriage is an institution created by God in which one man and one woman enter into an exclusive relationship for life. Marriage is the only form of partnership approved by God for sexual relations and homoerotic sexual practice is incompatible with His will as revealed in Scripture.”
Steve, do you feel this theology of sexuality can be compatible with feminism?
SH: It’s always a real pleasure to engage with you, Vicky. The statement you quote, one line of a book-length discussion, incidentally, makes two claims: that faithful, committed, lifelong marriage between a woman and a man is the right place for sexual intercourse; and so that sexual intercourse outside of marriage is inappropriate.
There are, of course, plenty of writers who would see a commitment to marriage as incompatible with feminism full stop: marriage is an irredeemably patriarchal institution, that needs to be overcome, and so on. Oddly enough, as a Christian pastor and theologian, I don’t think that…
VB: You’d see feminism and an acceptance of same-sex relationships as non-essentially linked?
SH: Yes; the linkage looks like a bit of a historical accident. In the 1960s (particularly), we developed the concept of a ‘rainbow coalition’, arguing that all perceived oppressions were entangled, and so to be involved in civil rights – opposition to racism – necessarily implied involvement in the feminist movement and in ‘gay lib’ (as it was then called). This was a particular cultural moment, not an inevitable position – and, actually, the idea was only ever generally powerful amongst white Westerners.
The desire of ‘gay libbers’ to ally themselves with the American civil rights leaders was not reciprocated with anything like the same enthusiasm for instance; equally, I have not investigated, but I suspect the argument you allude to would be less prominent amongst non-Anglo feminists. Intersectionality is a more complicated thing than is often assumed!
These things became entangled for political reasons: we needed to build a big enough coalition to effect change, and we did it by allying ourselves with anybody and everybody who was also dissatisfied with the status quo. Sometimes, this was theorised: our inherited culture (‘the patriarchy’) works by oppressing various groups, and those oppressed by the culture need to understand that they are all suffering the same oppression, despite their different labels, and so need to campaign together.
More common, though, was a claim that the uninhibited expression of our desires and identities is essential to human flourishing. Anything which restricts a particular person’s possibilities on the basis of their inclusion in a certain class is thus opposed to true human flourishing; sexism, racism, and homophobia are all examples of such restriction. And so if you opposed one, you should oppose all.
VB: How do you approach these questions as a theologian?
SH: I try to think through such things Christianly – on the basis of a commitment to the truth and relevance of the gospel. The gospel is almost always profoundly critical both of our dominant cultures, but also of our best efforts at overcoming or reforming those cultures. A vision of human flourishing that simply celebrates every felt desire as good is deeply problematic from the perspective of the gospel. We are fallen creatures, and Christian discipleship in every area of life is always a practice of ascesis; of disciplining and re-ordering our wayward desires in progressively more holy directions.
VB: Do you like the term ‘feminist’?
SH: ‘Feminism’ can mean many things, of course. I use it most often in teaching and writing as a title for a body of theory that offers an account of how certain assumptions about gender have shaped culture in far-reaching ways; and which proposes the urgent need to resist these patriarchal assumptions and to reorder culture. I find this basic theoretical approach – and the associated call to action – simply convincing. And I find strands within it enormously helpful for thinking through various issues; so I accept and use feminist theory.
But as a caveat – it is a title I am wary of trying to appropriate. If someone claimed I was not adequately committed to believing in the full humanity of women (and men), or to living out that belief, I’d be worried and hurt. And would want to know what had led them to that belief to see if it was fair, in case I needed to reorder my life or thought in some way. But if someone wants to say that I’m not a ‘feminist’ – well – I work with feminist theology alongside Black theology. I could not call myself a ‘Black theologian’, however convinced I am by the arguments there. On a similar basis, if someone wanted to say that no-one without personal experience of patriarchal oppression can really be a ‘feminist’ I would understand and respect that, and accept that I cannot claim the term for myself.
VB: Does your theology of sexuality find its main roots in the Bible?
SH: Yes, but in a complicated way. I don’t think the Bible has anything at all to say about sexual orientation – gay or straight. ‘Homosexuality’ and ‘heterosexuality’ are late 19th century German terms. Both assume the same things about the shape of human sexual desires – for instance, that the majority of people are attracted exclusively to people of one gender. That seem to me to be indefensible historically and anthropologically; exclusive attraction to people of one gender only just has not been the experience, as far as we can tell, of most people in most cultures across the world and through history. I get this from reading anthropological accounts of non-Western cultures, and also from Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the developments in queer theory that have followed and expanded Foucault’s approach.
Now, in the late modern West these concepts have been proposed to us as normative genders. And culturally-normative genders are extraordinarily powerful things, which profoundly shape our lives and imaginations (so Judith Butler). Successful inculturation into (white) UK or US culture involves conforming/being conformed to one of these normative genders. Most of us do that, and learn to perform some version of ‘straightness’ or ‘gayness’ so naturally that we experience it as a part of who we are.
VB: You don’t see the Bible playing a large role in these definitions?
SH: The Bible is not interested in categorising and naming our fallen desires, only in transforming them. In Christ there is no gay or straight or lesbian or bi – and those of us who have been baptised into Christ can own no identity except ‘Christian’. Biblical discipleship is not trying to conform oneself to a ‘straight’ identity, anymore than it is trying to conform oneself to a ‘gay’ identity; it is being conformed to Christ. He not being a late-modern Westerner, was necessarily not homosexual, heterosexual, straight, or gay. The Biblical texts don’t tell us much about the origins of our cultural constructions – they give us the label ‘idolatry’ – again here applying to ‘straight’ just as much as to ‘gay’ – but not much else… That said, to confuse any culturally-normative gender performance (emphatically including straight) with Biblical holiness is theologically disastrous.
VB: What about the classic go-to texts that Christians often use in debates on sexuality?
SH: The famous ‘seven texts’ that seem to criticise same-sex erotic activity are not irrelevant, but need to be understood within the cultural context of their times, and – much more importantly – within the broader Biblical narration of human sexuality.
The Bible hints at a whole and holy sexuality ‘in the beginning’ before the fall (whatever that means – we don’t have to read those passages as historical to find truth about what it should mean to be human in them). It tells us that patriarchal distortions of gender relations were a consequence of the fall (Gen. 3:16b), and so that the reversal of such patriarchal distortions is fairly central to the work of Jesus. It gestures in poetic form to a bodily (and so sexual/erotic) future perfection of human existence when we are resurrected into a coming Kingdom. It proposes, without very much elaboration, two ascetic practices for disciplining our presently-wayward sexual desires. These are marriage and celibacy (this is the context of the quotation you began with). It makes marriage a recurring image of God’s love for Israel, and of Christ’s love for the church – and then suggests (seemingly ridiculously in this light) that celibacy is the higher calling.
VB: Tell us more about how you see these two choices; between marriage and celibacy…
SH: The details of these two ascetic practices get worked out in later Christian theology, and enshrined in Christian liturgy. There are some questions in this working out – famously, the Catholic/Protestant divide over contraception. That is essentially about whether every particular sexual act be open to procreation or whether every particular sexual relationship be so open. But from Augustine (or earlier) down, the vision of Christian holiness offered in the area of sexuality has been remarkably consistent and coherent. The modern Baptist liturgy used when Heather and I married stood in astonishingly visible continuity to Augustine’s description of the three goods of marriage.
VB: When you use the term ‘marriage’ as per the Evangelical Alliance statement (only between a man and a woman) some feminists might see that definition as patriarchal and as limiting the freedoms of same sex couples whose only option in your framework is celibacy?
SH: Understood as ascetic practices like this, I want to claim that both marriage and celibacy are, or should be, profoundly anti-patriarchal. The history of Christian monasticism is littered with women who escaped patriarchal determinations of their lives. They often discovered real power and political agency by embracing celibacy. The crucial Biblical text about working out ‘married asceticism’ as a way of pursuing holiness carefully and explicitly gives to wife and husband exactly the same rights and responsibilities (1 Cor. 7:2-5 – and see later in the chapter for the continued studied symmetry between the roles, rights, and duties of wife and husband in a whole variety of contexts – vv.10-11; 12-13; 14; 16; and 32-4). Culturally, this equality was astonishingly radical.
I don’t accept the assumption in your question that the only two available gender identities are ‘gay’ and ‘straight’. We could rehearse the old arguments about bisexuality here, but I actually think we need to be far more radical than they ever were. If we have any appreciation of all of what Foucault and Butler and the later queer theorists have done, we have to accept that gender identities are much more complex things than this (Butler’s famous analysis of drag is a the obvious starting point to get hold of this).
VB: Just to interject – I don’t believe the only two available gender identities are gay and straight either; I wasn’t aware I’d implied that, as I certainly don’t see sexuality in that way. Sorry for butting in… Do carry on…
SH: There are traditional societies with a small number of well-circumscribed gender identities (Sharyn Graham Davies’s anthropological analysis of the Bugis people group in Indonesia suggests they have a very stable system of five culturally-available genders, for instance). Western cultures is too complex, too liquid, too modern for any such stability. There was a recent Australian government report that noted twenty-three different owned gender identities – and Australia is, I suspect, more culturally monolithic than the UK or the USA. In my society most (all?) of the available genders have involved making unholy peace with patriarchal assumptions in different ways.
For me, recognising that the male, straight gender identity into which I was socialised was deeply patriarchal becomes very important here. My call to Christian discipleship has within it a profound call to comprehend the criticisms of standard straight inscriptions of gender. So in the name of Christian holiness, I am called to unlearn, to die to, the gendered identity into which I have been socialised. I read campaigns against Page 3 of the Sun, or against ‘Lad’s Mags’, or against domestic violence, or against female genital mutilation, or against selective abortion and infanticide of baby girls, all through this lens. I have to die to the gender performance I was socialised into to be able even to imagine what a holy response to these issues might look like.
VB: There are many Christians who identify as feminists and hold a pro-gay theology. Do you believe those Christians can still accurately describe themselves as “Evangelical”? (By ‘pro-gay’ I’m meaning the affirmation of an active sexual relationships between a same-sex couple. I know that’s not ideal short-hand, but that’s what I mean by it in this question)…
SH: ‘Evangelical’ is at least as slippery as ‘feminist’! Scholarly definitions of ‘evangelical’ tend presently to one of two directions. Some (e.g., Larsen) locate evangelicalism as a form of conservative protestantism. Others (e.g., Noll) stress the sociological realities of evangelical communities; evangelicals are people involved in a certain set of conversations. On the former definition, it is difficult to see how a ‘pro-gay’ theology could be evangelical. On the latter, there are already people deeply embedded in evangelical communities who have tried to push in this direction.
VB: Do you feel the roots of Evangelicalism support your perspective on sexuality?
SH: Yes. The earliest use of ‘evangelical’ in this sort of area was the ‘evangelical counsels’ of the monastic movement. There the true road to human flourishing lay in vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience (see the – wonderful – ‘Prologue’ to the Rule of St Benedict). The gospel tells us all (‘straight’ people just as much, or more, than ‘gay’ people) that the way to ‘enjoy life and good days’ is through radical self-denial – poverty, chastity and obedience. The evangelical revivals of the eighteenth century insisted on similar disciplining of every area of desire. John and Charles Wesley were mocked as students for their methodical discipline; called ‘Methodists’ because they tried to learn holiness. This is deeply counter-cultural (for late-modern Westerners; rather less so for more normal human cultures); but then the gospel often is.
VB: So for you, evangelical theology cannot be pro-gay?
SH: So…my answer to your question is: evangelical theology cannot be ‘pro-gay’ – but neither can it be ‘pro-straight’. As I understand it evangelical theology is, or should be, opposed to all idolatries indifferently. This is precisely because it is, or should be, ‘pro-human’. I’ve argued before that classical evangelical practices of holiness in the nineteenth century involved profound subversions of then-standard ideas of masculinity and femininity. There is plenty of good scholarship on the reconstructions of femininity away from the domestic sphere into political and social activism. The reconstructions of masculinity away from celebrations of machismo, violence, and alcohol consumption and towards a more submissive, gentle, family-oriented life have not been quite so well studied. But they too are clear. Evangelicalism in its classical forms undermined and reconstructed the culturally normal gender roles of the day; it will do the same in our day, if it has an adequate grasp of the gospel.
VB: Some might expect that your point about Evangelicalism historically deconstructing traditional gender stereotypes would logically mean it would be in favour of similarly deconstructing traditional sexual stereotypes rather than constraining them? But let’s talk about the Church: what do you think it means for a church to be welcoming to the gay community – and can any community truly welcome someone if they don’t wholly affirm their identity and behaviour?
SH: On your first point, absolutely! The gospel always deconstructs our cultural assumptions, explicitly including cultural gender norms – but not generally in the ways we would like them to be deconstructed.
The church: the church is able to truly welcome all people only because it refuses to affirm anyone’s identity or behaviour. All, without exception, who come under gospel preaching are called to faith and baptism – to death and burial and to rebirth and new life. We are all without exception, called to Christian discipleship, to practices of asceticism that will re-order and re-direct our desires, often painfully, in order to make us more adequately human. A church that says to some fallen human beings that they have no need of renewal and remaking in the image of Christ, is necessarily apostate.
So, if to be ‘welcoming’ to a particular person is to ‘affirm their identity and behaviour’ the church cannot ‘welcome’ anyone at all. That is just as true for people who label themselves straight, gay, lesbian, bi – or feminist or Marxist or socialist – or Republican or Democrat – or anything else..
VB: I don’t think any Christian would disagree that the Church calls us all to change in some way….
SH: Right…But I worry that, at its worst, the debate over sexuality in the modern Western church is between churches that say ‘if you are straight you have no need to re-order your erotic desires’ and churches that say ‘you have no need to re-order your erotic desires if you are gay or lesbian either’; these positions are equally wrong; they are both simple failures to believe the gospel; they have nothing in common with the true call to Christian discipleship.
VB: You say that God calls everyone to unlearn their identity/reorder their desires to some degree. But within your framework it’s not really equal in its outworking for all, is it?
SH: No, and I never used the word ‘equal’. What this means will be different for every Christian person, and particularly different for people who have had different culturally-constructed genders inscribed on them, and who have learnt to perform these genders. My call to dying to the male/straight identity I was socialised into has involved, in part, serious and deeply painful learning/unlearning on questions of male privilege and gendered violence. There came a point, late in life, when I began to ‘get’ this at some visceral level. Then I started giving myself as much as I could to the cause of ‘Biblical equality’/’Christian feminism’. For others the daily death, and the promised transformation, will be different. I have no ability – and less desire – to predict how it will work out for any particular person. It will be a cross, though; uncritical celebrations of any culturally-constructed gender will never be authentic responses to the gospel.
VB: For Christians identifying as straight (although sexuality is obviously not binary, but a spectrum) the conservative Church’s ‘call to change’ is they can be sexually active within agreed boundaries (marriage) and be celebrated for that. For Christians identifying as LGBTQ within a conservative Christian church, they cannot be sexually active with a committed partner in any context and have that celebrated. So it may seem a false comparison to say that the Church simply asks everyone to change as though it were a similar/equal situation for all?
SH: I see no promise in Scripture that our different calls to discipleship will be equally difficult, or even particularly similar (Jn 21:20-22 seems relevant here). And I do want to insist again that marriage is an ascetic practice, a mode of (often painful, if sometimes joyful) reorientation of desire. When Jesus spelt out his teaching on marriage his disciple’s reaction was ‘if that’s the deal, it’s better not to get married’ (Mt. 19:10) – they understood that this was a call to a hard and holy road, not a limited permission for certain sorts of sexual licence.
Anecdotally, Heather and I celebrated(!) our twentieth wedding anniversary this summer; many people we know with no Christian commitment commented that this is an ‘achievement’; they recognized that faithfulness and forgiveness over two decades is asceticism, not indulgence. What is ‘celebrated’ in the church – including in the wedding service – is a disciplining of wayward desires (and, east of Eden, all human desires are wayward), not their indulgence.
And again, I am really not happy with the binary and essentialist account of sexuality that is generally assumed in the West. There are many different gender identities – not on a spectrum; just different. In each case, the ascetic call of Christian discipleship will be different. As soon as we move beyond a ‘gay/straight’ binary to the now-standard LGBTQIA list this is already obvious: a bisexual person (who is not committed to polyamory) could marry, but her experience of the discipline of marriage would be different from a straight person’s, for instance. More than this, though, I want to insist that Christian discipleship will involve change, transformation, in every situation. For the person who identifies as (a certain sort of) asexual, for example, celibacy will not merely be an affirmation of his lack of felt erotic interest, but will instead involve discovering, owning and embracing a previously-denied eroticism that, however, will not be explored through sexual intercourse – because experienced eroticism is part of what it is to be truly human.
Could we construct a hierarchy of difficulty for all these different identities? Perhaps, but it will be very approximate, and I suspect that the differences between individuals who own a given gender identity will generally be greater than the differences between the various gender identities.
VB: This might all feel a bit theoretical – so let’s imagine it rooted in a practical context. If a same-sex couple wanted to commit to each other by marriage or civil partnership and be part of a conservative evangelical Church community, could their relationship ever be celebrated in that context?
SH: That’s still too theoretical for me, as it is for you. I don’t know two people who are just ‘a same sex couple’; I know lots of people with rich thick stories of faith and faithfulness and desire and love and pain and longing and hope. Some of them are ‘couples’ of various sorts; a few are in more complex polyamorous relationships; others are single through choice or circumstance. Not one of the people I know has a story that can just be celebrated; not one of the people I know has a story in which there is nothing to celebrate. Each one is called by the gospel to re-orient their lives and desires into conformity with Christ.
You quoted an Evangelical Alliance document at the start; about half of that book is given to discussions of pastoral responses; stories (thick stories!) are told, and issues are raised for reflection and discussion, but there are no prescriptions laid down. Pastoral work doesn’t happen like that, at least not in my tradition. We don’t make theoretical rules about theoretical people. We meet real people. We talk, eat, and pray with them. We learn to love them. Then we try to help them discern the best way to next respond to the call of Christ on their life. I don’t know what that will be like for a theoretical ‘same sex couple’. For Sue and Sharon (names changed…) who I have known and loved for years, I might be beginning to have some ideas.
VB: Any final thoughts as we come to a close?
SH: I guess some of your readers might think I’ve been evasive: ‘he obviously thinks straight sex is good and gay sex is bad; why doesn’t he just say it?’ But I genuinely don’t think that. (I know people who do – I met a guy yesterday who did – and I tell them they are very badly wrong.) On the one hand, I really am convinced by the queer theorists that ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ are very unhelpful categories, and that we need a far more complex understanding of gender. On the other, I really did mean it when I said the claim ‘if you are straight you have no need to re-order your erotic desires’ is profoundly unchristian. Goodness for all of us is a half-remembered dream and an inchoate longing, not something we live out in straight sex – or in any other human activity (including praying, preaching, or celebrating the Eucharist).
The church must ask everyone to change because the gospel calls everyone to change in order to ‘find life and good days’. The details of the change called for will be endlessly varied, and will cover every area of life (always including, but never emphasising, our sexuality). The gospel calls us to true humanity, and true humanity is foreign to us all, in every way. The change will always be hard – impossible, save for the transformative power of the Holy Spirit – but by the Spirit we are being changed through ascetic practices into the people we were always intended to be, daughters and sons of the living God, fit to inherit the Kingdom.
For an alternative perspective on Christianity and sexuality, read my interview with Christian, trans-woman, gay priest Rachel Mann here.