Words are powerful. As the vehicle of thought, language can be used to challenge the perspective of an entire culture. Who controls the language, controls the people. We can see cultural battles over ideas and values happening in language today, such as with the debate over abortion—are we pro-life and they pro-abortion, or are they pro-choice and we anti-choice? The distinction matters.
Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic; they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich
For every battle of words, and therefore ideas, that Christians have been fighting, I think that we have been blind to some subversive wordplay which has been damaging to a Christian concept of marriage and sexuality.
If a person has normative sexual desires for members of the opposite sex, what do we call that person? Straight, heterosexual, cissexual (that last term is just about as subtle an attack on Christian views of sexuality as a rodeo clown at a mime convention). And if a person experiences (non-normative) sexual desires for members of their own sex? Gay, homosexual. Why?
From a secular viewpoint, the language of orientation can only be beneficial, normalizing. Orientation establishes identity in a way that behavior doesn’t. It’s a lot easier to condemn the action of sodomy than it is to condemn a person for being gay. The first is an attack on a certain moral standard, or lack thereof; the second is a personal attack. As a side-note, this is also why gay characters in your favorite TV shows are fairly non-sexual (think Oscar from The Office)—the important thing to remember, the screen tells us, is who this person is, not what they do.
And so the Church has, by and large, adopted the language of orientation, because how else can we join the conversation? We’ve allowed the world to be divided into gay and straight, and then sought to convince those on the gay side to come over and join our team, or at least sit on our sidelines.
But the language of orientation can never reinforce God-honoring and biblical norms of sexuality. When the world is divided this way in our language, our emphasis becomes a certain kind of attraction—that’s what we want our sons and daughters to have.
The Bible doesn’t deal with sexual attraction very much, and doesn’t even recognize sexual orientation, let alone sexual identity. What the Bible is concerned with is sexual behavior, and what it authoritatively proclaims as normative is sexual behavior within a loving marriage covenant that can only exist between one man and one woman. So there is no “at least he’s not gay” for the young man sleeping his way around his college campus, or for the husband with an addiction to porn. The Adam who treats his wife as a substitute for his hand rather than as a woman to be loved and served and protected and pleasured ought not to look down his nose at the Adam at work because he goes home to Steve every night.
Sexual orientation is a smoke-screen, and it produces an inappropriate way of thinking. Married men shouldn’t declaim their straightness as though they still consider attraction to Lucy at work a legitimate object of sexual desire. In terms of orientation, the married man should be oriented toward his wife. Any sexual desire or expression outside of that covenant relationship is non-normative. Single men, obviously, exist in a state of sexual potential with more than one woman, but even so, the reality is that sexual normativity, sexuality that pleases God, is sexuality that only reaches its fulfillment with one woman. This is true for the single man who experiences attraction toward women, and it’s true for the single man who experiences attraction toward men. To claim that because a person has a so-called homosexual orientation, they cannot find sexual fulfillment in a biblical marriage covenant is a lack of creativity and love, and shows a failure to understand sex as a gift within marriage.
Sex is a gift of love and self from husband to wife, and vice-versa. A wife can give herself to her husband even if he is a poor example of virile masculinity. A husband can give himself to his wife even if he finds himself, because of the reality of sin, in possession of desires he knows to be non-normative.
Sex is a gift from God; if anyone is to be the authority on gifts, their reception and use, it is not unbelievers. After all, God created marriage “to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Timothy 4:3).