Pride Month Long Read: A Guide to Christian Theologies of Sex, In (Approximate) Order from Most Queerphobic to Least Queerphobic


Before we can begin to discuss what Christianity has said, and says today, about human sexuality, we have to make one big important point: Christianity is not, and never has been, monolithic about its approach to it. Even the relative consensus of history is complicated by dissent, evolutions, minority positions, and so-called heresies that have remained influential nonetheless. Yet, when discussing sex and sexuality, everybody is so quick to claim to have “THE” “Christian” theology of it, seemingly unwilling to admit to the plurality of contemporary and historical viewpoints.

This list is a rough sketch of the ways particular Christians have approach sex and sexuality. One of the dangers of this list is that it presents viewpoints as discrete systems of thought, while they’re more like a spectrum of views that sometimes overlap, sometimes emphasize different things, and rarely exist in a pure form. What this list is intended to do is to help show the different viewpoints available, and show their relationship to queerphobia and queer persons.

Procreationism

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More of a general category than a separate theology, procreationism is the view that all sex must be for the intended purpose (or at least be in all ways open to) producing offspring. In a sense, all queerphobic Christian theologies are procreationist: this automatically and without deliberation places all types of sexual activity that does not lead to pregnancy outside of the realm of morally acceptable actions. While prohibiting queer sexuality, in some iterations it takes a tacit (as opposed to explicit) condemnation of queer identity.

Within this viewpoint, there are varying degrees of rigidity in terms of understanding how to apply it. While procreationists may differ on questions of, for example, how to apply it to masturbation, or, as in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, whether birth control as barrier is prohibited while chemical contraception is allowable, the general thrust remains that sex is intended for reproductive purposes, and any and all actions that divorce sex from reproduction is a moral sin. For some procreationists, sexual desire itself in all forms is sinful, with sexual activity only allowed for the purpose of childbearing. The only moral options in this paradigm are procreative heterosexual marriage or celibacy.

Proponents of procreationism find support for their position in the letters of Paul, particularly in 1 Corinthians, the work of Augustine and various other church fathers, Thomas Aquinas, Catholic moral teaching (which generally and usually means scholastic thomism), and the practices of the Amish and Hutterites.

Complementarianism

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Complementarianism today is one of the more popular theologies among conservative Evangelicals. Its focus is less on the sexual act itself and more on the relationship between the male and female genders. As such, it provides a rationale for sexual ethics rooted in the “essential natures” of male and female, as understood by Evangelical theology. This belief prohibits, not only queer sexuality, but also queer identity, believing anything outside of the categories of “heterosexual cisgender male” and “heterosexual cisgender female” to be morally prohibited.

Together with procreationism, complementarianism presents a range of attitudes concerning specific questions of application, and varying degrees of severity in its appraisal of the relationship between the genders. While most of its proponents would argue that the two recognized genders, while “functionally different,” are “ontologically equal,” this position nonetheless circumscribes all sexual, indeed, all human behavior on the basis of one’s gender. Men are to be strong leaders, heads of households, take to traditional fatherly duties, be recognizably and traditionally masculine, while women are to be “helpmates” “submissive” to their husbands, domestic in their duties, and to be nurturing, traditional mothers and recognizably, traditionally feminine. The Handmaid’s Tale presents a dystopia brought about by what is essentially militant complementarianism in action. Both procreationists and complementarians are more likely than other types of queerphobic Christians to endorse conversion therapy, or, as they would call it, “reparative” therapy. Complementarian theology tends to provide the rationale for anti-trans and anti-nonbinary gender identities and non-cisgender expression, while procreative theology tends to provide the rationale for anti-gay and bisexual identities and expressions. They overlap so much, but remain distinct because of particular communities identifying with one or the other, with complementarianism being a popular one these days.

Those who adhere to complementarianism find support in particular interpretations of Genesis, the Levitical and Deuterocanonic Laws, and the letters of Paul, particularly 1 Corinthians and Ephesians (though the authorship of Ephesians is subject to great dispute).

Roman Catholic Moral Theology

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Roman Catholicism is itself a big, complex, beautiful, ugly, messy beast. It stands to reason that a faith so self-professedly steeped in history would reflect the complications of the last 2,000 years of mostly-European civilization. In the end, however, queer persons around the world throughout that history have lived a relationship to Roman Catholicism that, for whatever richness they’ve taken from it, has been overwhelmingly destructive for queer persons (among others, cf: “Colonialism”). Roman Catholic moral theology rests on a number of factors, including Thomistic/Aristotelian Natural Law Theory, an Augustinian foundation of Original Sin, and a rigid systematization that makes for the efficient use of institutional and theological power.

At heart, Roman Catholic moral theology attempts to harmonize Scriptural revelation with the natural world. It seeks concepts and philosophical tools to make Christian morality coherent, and to make of it a “reasonable” faith. While the results often appear incredibly abstract and remote, this whole project serves a very important practical purpose: it provides the intellectual framework for the consolidation and effective deployment of the male-driven, hierarchical social and ecclesial power of Catholicism. The very intent of the project itself, that precedes any of its propositions or systematizations, is inherently queerphobic. Queer sexuality (known variably as “sodomy” or “acts against nature” in this tradition) cannot possibly fit into its philosophical schema (and, frankly, jurisprudence) because queerness inherently resists systematization and the juridical regulation to which Roman Catholic morality aspires. While Roman Catholic theology distinguishes between “acts” and “persons” in such a way as to affirm the dignity of queer persons while describing queer orientations and identities as “morally disordered,” its aim in affirming personal dignity is precisely to remove personal autonomy.

Proponents of Roman Catholic moral theology often argue for the “natural”  dimensions of sex, constructing a “Natural Law” that regulates and determines the ends, legitimate means, and internal disposition necessary for sex to be morally good. It preaches that legitimate sex must be “procreative” and “unitive” – it must bear children (or be open to it), and must be unitive between the opposite genders, furthering and deepening the marital relationship. And queer sex doesn’t – and never can in any possible way, by the definitions set down by Catholic moral theology – make that cut. Orthodox Roman Catholic theology, as found in the Catechism, every theological tome bearing a nihil obstat and imprimatur, and the works of figures such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Peter Demian, Bernard of Clairvaux, and the moralist of the Catholic tradition all serving as architects of this massive machine, have all built a system hellbent on defining, for the very sake of excluding, queer identity and sexuality.

Catholic Phenomenology

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Catholic phenomenologial theologies of sexuality are something of an oddity in the landscape of Christian theologies of sex and gender. Uniquely rooted in 20th century phenomenological philosophies, particularly those of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Max Scheler, the aim of this viewpoint is to ground traditional Catholic moral theology on family, marriage, and sex in the language and methods of European Continental philosophy. Intending to uphold but not in any way alter or progress Roman Catholic moral theology, it by nature is abstruse, lacking systematization and thus resistant to the many, many attempts to state it in accessible terms. It remains controversial even among orthodox Catholics.

What makes it difficult and dangerous from a queer standpoint is the intense personalism deployed by this method. Catholic sexual phenomenology’s chief architect Karol Wojtyła (John Paul II) begins by locating his reflections in human experience, taking the sexual union and the marital relationship itself as a source of theology. He not only does so in a way that reinforces the traditionally-concocted roles of male, female, and procreativity, but he also completely erases queer experience – so much so, that in several secondary sources of this theology, his work becomes the rationale for either condemning queer sexuality and identity or by arguing that, phenomenologically speaking, queerness doesn’t even exist. Catholic phenomenology demonstrates that one of the most vicious ways to attack queerness is to pretend to be speaking from inside its personal experience while fundamentally denying its perceptions – to state in another way, Catholic phenomenology attempts to deny queer ontological validity precisely by affirming every person’s universal human validity. To state in yet another, this time phenomenological way, it attempts to foreclose on the disclosure of queer appearance by erasing the possibility of queer being.

The chief texts of Catholic phenomenology of love and sexuality are all deliberative reflections on the corpus of Christian theology as a whole. Wojtyła’s Love and Responsibility and Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body serve as its inaugural texts, with an entire cottage industry of popular workshops, popularizing books, formative curricula, and educational organizations committed to disseminating this mode of sexual ethics. Adjacent to this is Jean-Luc Marion’s text, The Erotic Phenomenon, the theological aesthetics of Hans Urs von Balthasar, and the school of 20th century Catholic theology known as La Nouvelle Théologie, which stand as its kindred and its accomplices. If there exists a need to develop a robust, invaluable phenomenology of any particular queerness, then it will arise independent of, and at least partially in opposition to, this kind of phenomenological terrorism.

Communitarianism

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Christian moral theology tends, as both habit and goal, to attempt universal moral principles that apply to humankind as a whole. The advent of late 20th century poststructural approaches to ethics rightfully disrupts this until-recently unquestioned orientation of ethical reflection, as does the increasing awareness of the complexity of a pluralistic world that frustrates any attempt to produce binding moral structures. Communitarianism refers to a particular reaction to that frustration: by focusing the scope of Christian moral theology only to extant and active Christian communities, its proponents aim for a sort of comparative moral excellence defined by the “uniqueness” and “oddness” of the Christian life as distinct from the modern world.

In this view, queerness is considered something of a “worldly” decadence, a defining feature of the fallenness of the outer world. Those who find themselves with a queer sexual orientation or gender identity, insofar as they are to remain faithfully Christian, must find the strength to live a life of sexual holiness as defined by traditional Christian notions of chastity and marriage. Communitarians place less emphasis on individualistic questions such as the nature or meaning of sexual orientation, and more on how those with particular orientations contribute to the “witness” of Christian holiness as shared by the whole community. Perhaps most communitarians would consider a same-sex or bisexual orientation, or non-cisgender identity, as an unfortunate “affliction” calling for great compassion and support, but so would some complementarians and procreationists. Communitarian Christianity struggles not only because of its queerphobic tendencies, but also because of its more subtle but no less pernicious forms of misogyny and sexism.

Communitarian sexual ethics are especially popular among many those embracing “Emergent” theologies, such as that of Shane Claiborne (though several Emerging Church theologians, such as Tony Jones, support marriage equality), and it also finds support in earlier texts of Stanley Hauerwas, and the late Mennonite theologian (and serial abuser) John Howard Yoder. Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self and A Secular Age are the major philosophical works for the overarching ethical framework of this viewpoint.

Accommodationism

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With accommodationism, a major shift in theology take place which begins to assess the Christian moral tradition, not in terms of philosophical or theological reflection, but in terms of the pastoral dimensions of its sexual ethics. Its aim is to provide a means to reasonably “accommodate” the presence of queer persons in the life of the Christian community without sacrificing the “integrity” of Christian sexual ethics (as defined by any combination of the main strands of anti-queer theology discussed above). An accommodationist mindset might be referred to as “welcoming but not affirming,” as it still, at least in theory, values the presence of queer persons while denying the value of their queerness.

The accommodation in question can take may forms, but each allows, at least to some extent, the living out of a queer identity. Some churches may allow queer members to identify as queer, as long as they don’t act on it sexually; some may allow for same-sex relationships but without formal blessing through marriage or official recognition; some may understand queerness as sinful, but no more sinful than any other act such as divorce or masturbation; others may simply take a “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” approach to the personal lives and identities of its queer members. In either case, accommodationism preserves and sometimes exacerbates the dialectical tension between queer experiences and queerphobic theologies; in the guise of the “pastoral,” theological systems go unexamined and inflict profound damage on those embodying queer experiences.

Recent decisions within the United Methodist Church, as well as the practices of more moderate Roman Catholic parishes and some mainline Protestant churches, demonstrate accommodationist tendencies. These are more robustly articulated in “Third Way” churches, those that seek a “middle ground” between the condemnations of traditional sexual ethics and the ethical innovations of queerness. The Gay Christian Network (now Q Christian Fellowship) refers to such a positionality as “Side B” in its binary imagination, between Christians who affirm (Side A) and don’t affirm (Side B) gay people. Its proponents tend to take the fallacious view that courting fire from both the right and the left is a signal of inherent virtue, and interpret that bilateral opposition as a source of pride and confirmation. Texts supporting it include those of N.T. Wright in an interview at First Things on “gay marriage,” Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, and the moral theology of Charles Curran’s The Catholic Moral Tradition Today: A Synthesis.

Welcoming & Affirming Theology

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Churches taking the first step toward embracing queer persons and identities will often refer to themselves as “welcoming and affirming.” They acknowledge the value of both queer persons and their identities, though they tend to be predominantly heterosexual cisgender communities. Welcoming and affirming churches accept and sanction same-sex marriages, same-sex adoptions, and oftentimes advocate for LGBTQ rights. They march in Pride parades, give gay-friendly sermons, and work to provide safe spaces for their gay congregants.

I say gay, and not necessarily queer, because the greatest shortfall among welcoming and affirming congregations is their frequent blindspots toward trans and non-binary genders, as well as overly simplistic schemas of pastoral care and ministry in LGBTQ spaces. Any attempts at theological formation or education on LGBTQ matters happen almost exclusively on the “101” or apologetic level, the interests and social structures of the church rendering any deeper or more queer-nurturing formation unnecessary. The questions being asked, and the answers being produced, center around finding support for committed, heteronormative same-sex relationships in Scripture or tradition, and the only exploration of the lived experience of queer persons centers around the legal question of discrimination and the inaugural drama of “coming out.” The vast majority of gay-affirming churches are in fact theologically moderate, sharing only a few breath’s difference between themselves and the “Side B” types above. Sometimes they even exist within the same congregations, sharing an “agree to disagree” truce on the matter. “Open and affirming” in practice mostly involves a highly domesticated version of gayness – monogamous same-sex marriage isn’t so much allowed as it is expected. Actual instances of queer sexuality still frighten the moral and social sensibilities of open and affirming Christians.

The difficult truth about welcoming and affirming Christianity is that it is still beholden to a deeply heteronormative imagination concerning gender roles, procreation, and one’s sexual life, including number of partners, types of sex being had, and the purpose of that sex. It still emphasizes procreation, but more subtly – either through childbearing itself, or through the question of what the talents, contributions, and presence of gay Christians adds to the life of the church, community, and world. Further, the types of queers being affirmed tend overwhelmingly to be gay white men and white lesbians. By semantic construction, in order for a space to “welcoming and affirming” of queer persons, that space must be fundamentally a straight space – and thus the systematic and structural mechanisms that create and deploy queerphobia remain in place. Including particular queer persons into a queerphobic structure doesn’t make that structure any less queerphobic – it just neuters actual queerness and renders it unthreatening. Figure that write in such terms include Matthew Vines in God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships, Justin Lee in Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gay-vs.-Christian Debate, and Brandan Robertson’s Gay & Christian, No Contradiction.

Queer Theology

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When discussing queer theology, we’re not discussing any particular content or claim necessarily, but rather a method, or pattern, by which one does theology. It is an attempt at both a recovery and a disruption: it seeks to recover queer voices that have been silenced and erased through heteronormative histories and theologies, and it aims to disrupt those heteronormative structures at their core. Queer theology differs significantly from merely pro-LGBTQ, pro-queer, pro-gay theologies in that it operates independently of the legitimation of heteronormative approval. Queer theology, in other words, doesn’t ask permission to exist in church spaces – it is always-already present, even in those spaces where queer persons have been forcibly oppressed.

At its heart, queer theology begins with a simple but profound assumption that “gay,” “lesbian,” and otherwise queer voices have always existed in history, the Bible, and the theological tradition of Christianity. It looks, not simply at what is present in these bodies, but what is absent. Queer theology would look at, for example, Peter Demian’s 11th century polemic Liber Gomorrhianus, the text which coins the term “sodomy” and provides a vituperative condemnation of it as a sin of the highest gravity warranting forceful suppression even and especially among the clergy, and note a few peculiarities of erasure. For one, Peter Demian doesn’t actually name (explicitly) any individual guilty of or supportive of “sodomy.” This is true throughout the history of same-gender love in Christianity: while condemnations are plenty, there are no surviving voices that speak in support of it, or in defense of it. A queer theology would argue that anthropologically, condemnations of this force do not exist in isolation. If there are such texts condemning certain practices as widespread and insidious, then it stands to reason that these practices had practitioners, defenders, and apologists. Where are these voices? Who are they? Either they’ve been lost to history, or placed under erasure – censored, annihilated from the discourse altogether, removed from the written history by the dominant powers. The task at hand is to retrieve those voices, and then allow those voices to disrupt the dominant power’s hold on the way sexual ethics are produced.

Queer theology, in the end, rests not so much on any claim or assumption, as important as they may be, but on its positionality. In essence, it has no “essence;” it has positionality, but no content. It is whatever is self-consciously “not normal,” whatever is marginal. The task of retrieving erased voices requires a great deal of intellectual prowess and a kind of “detective’s” logic, meaning queer theology can be very complex, cerebral, and challenging, much the same way that queer theory itself can be. When your goal is to disrupt power structures and their truth-claims, language and logic dismantling the very concept of truth-claims can go to the very heart of our assumed reality itself, making it appear as esoteric and arcane as an operating system’s source code. But it is also surprising, eye-opening, and highly rewarding, and thankfully, there are several figures who have produced accessible, digestible texts on queer theology. Various figures within it include Mark D. Jordan in The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, Patrick S. Cheng’s Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology, and the collaborative Queer Bible Commentary.

Queer Liberation Theology

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If queer theology hinges mostly on theory, then queer liberation theology centers primarily on practice. More specifically, it emphasizes resistance, solidarity, and intersectionality. Queer liberation theology may best be described, in fact, as “liberation theology, queered.” It centers on the sexually oppressed and places them in solidarity with the marginalized, including those in poverty and the colonized.

Early forms of Latin American liberation theology left alone the needs and struggles of the sexually oppressed. It took the passionate voice of one of its students, Marcella Althaus-Reid, not only to call them out on that erasure, but to pioneer a theological standpoint that seeks to further the cause of an explicitly sexual liberation. She would argue that the Christian European colonization of Latin America (the Conquista) disrupted and destroyed the sexual way of life of those who were conquered. The tool used by the colonizers was that of “decency” – the system of purity and virginity, of acceptability and normativity that regulated the sex lives of the subjugated. Queer liberation theology dismantles notions of “decency,” placing an emphasis on the role of sexual transgression and the essential intertwinement of economic and sexual justice. It demonstrates how the indecent excess of desire found in queerness proceeds from the excess of Incarnation, of the desire in God to dwell within humanity. To encounter God is to encounter indecency.

One of the greatest contributions liberation theology offers is the ability to arrive at a point of praxis in resisting any number of types of oppression, all while viewing oppression through an unmistakably queer lens. This sidesteps the need for “decency” in liberative struggles of any sort, and it achieves a means by which oppressed sexual expressions such as BDSM, pornography, promiscuity, etc. become mediums for encountering God. Perhaps more than any other Christian theology of sex, it takes seriously the body and lived experience. Texts relevant to this kind of theology include Marcela Althaus-Reid’s Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender, and Politics, as well as The Queer God, Miguel A. De La Torre’s Liberating Sexuality: Justice Between the Sheets, and Pamela R. Lightsey’s Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology.


The clear takeaway from this survey is that Christianity is not a monolithic entity with one single approach to sex and sexuality. That being said, those working to examine its theologies of sex and sexuality from the benefit and perspective of LGBTQ+ persons would do well to understand that power dynamics that infuse the relationships between these viewpoints. Christianity, historically and even in contemporary society, remains a hostile space for LGBTQ+ persons because those who bear the most power within it use that power to oppress.

To find a queered Christian community is to find a community of resistance.

And for some, any Christian community is an option they can never authentically consider.

3 thoughts on “Pride Month Long Read: A Guide to Christian Theologies of Sex, In (Approximate) Order from Most Queerphobic to Least Queerphobic

  1. Excellent and succinct treatment, making for a great read. Thank you! I am wondering if you might be so kind as to recommend a short bibliography (5 sources or so) that I might consider in rounding out my sources for a research paper I am beginning work on. I am a DMin student at Brite enrolled in a course on decolonial thought and theology. Our final paper must take a tenet of Christian theology/dogma/doctrine and examine it anew through a decolonial lens. I have chosen to look at sexuality. In addition to the four titles you mention, three of which I have in hand presently, are there other books, journal articles, conference papers, etc, that immediately come to mind from your own work that I would do well to look at? I am looking to offer a fairly generalized/broad overview treatment of the subject, if that helps. Any suggestions would be most welcome.

    In any case, thank you for doing great work here. I look forward to the text being made available from your upcoming presentation at the AAR conference in November. I am presently reading “Queer Lovers and Hateful Others” by Jin Haritaworn. I got turned on to the issue of homonationalism after coming across a mention of Judith Butler’s refusal of the Berlin CSD courage award in a source I was reading for a paper on the erasure of violence against queer and trans women of color within dominant discourses on LGBTQIA+ violence. Racialized homonationalism strikes me as an incredibly relevant issue for local queer community leaders and activists across the Global North (it certainly is front and center in my immediate context) . I look forward to reading your treatment of it.

    • You’ll see several sources listed on my most recent post. As for decolonial Christianity with queer themes I would specifically point you to Marcella Althaus-Reid’s Indecent Theology.

      Say hi to Brite for me…I look forward to going back in August!

  2. Excellent overview! Thanks for writing it. I have to confess (yep, was raised Catholic! 😉 ) that I experienced an outraged moment when I got to the end of the queer theology section with no mention of my favorite theologican, Marcella Althaus-Reid, but you redeemed yourself mightily with the section on queer liberation theology! This is the first time I’ve seen those two broken down like this, and I like it. I’m a student in the Indigenous & Inter-Religious Studies program at the Vancouver School of Theology and I look forward to reading more of your blog.

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