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A perspective on mixed-orientation marriages

Recently, I attended a city Christian Prayer Breakfast which is an annual event bringing together a large group of evangelicals. The guest speaker talked about the ministry of Christians in the community, and he mentioned how good and important it is for churches to be communities that welcome diversity. Among the kinds of diversity that he encouraged within the church was “sexual orientation.” My first thought was: “Whoops, that is ‘politically correct’ but it is not going to sit well with this group.” But I quickly changed my attitude. He had not said that we should be approving of same sexual relationships or “gay marriages” or any of the hot button issues on which we evangelicals find ourselves highly counter-cultural these days. All that his statement needed to remind us about is that, however sexual inclinations come about (whether through nature or nurture), few if any of us are immune from the effects of human fallenness in our sexual desires, temptations, sins and sorrows.

Statistically, we know that a percentage of our population feels the sexual desire toward others of their own sex which Scripture pronounces good when it is appropriately expressed to members of the opposite sex. Most evangelicals believe that sexual purity is God’s requirement of us, both inside and outside of marriage, and that this places particular constraints on relationships between those who are not married according to God’s order. Singleness is difficult for Christians with a natural heterosexual desire, but necessarily even more difficult for those whose desire is same sex directed. Some of the latter group deeply long for the partnership and family situation that marriage provides, but God has designed marriage only for a man and a woman. What does this mean for those with same sex orientation who desire to live lives approved by God? In a recent column in The Messenger (May/14), Layton Friesen offered a very helpful perspective on this situation. I would link to it if that were possible but, since it is not, I’m happy that Layton has been willing to let me publish his thoughts as a guest on this blog. Here they are:

Layton Friesen on marriages of mixed sexual desires

Layton FriesenYou’re a pastor, and a man and woman ask you to perform their marriage. In your conversations with them it becomes clear that one of the partners has long struggled with same-sex desire. Would you encourage them to marry?

In debates about homosexuality little thought is given to the possibilities and challenges of mixed-orientation marriage; a heterosexual relationship in which one spouse is gay and the other straight. If the number of people with same-sex attractions is anywhere near what is claimed, many of these in human history have married someone of the opposite gender. Why assume that all these marriages were unhappy, or that those so wedded did not find what they were seeking: friendship, security, children, and to varying degree, sexual pleasure?

It is an odd coincidence that both those affirming and opposing gay sex have not always encouraged mixed-orientation marriages. For the former the opposition is understandable: such a marriage would stifle the authentic self-expression of the homosexual person. But why do those opposed sometimes discourage it? It used to be frowned upon because it was thought that same-sex attraction should first be “cured.” But today we hesitate to invite someone to a marriage in which they or their spouse might not be sexually “fulfilled” (whatever that might look like.)

This is a complex issue. I would never suggest that every person with same-sex attraction finds a mixed-orientation marriage attractive. But many, many have and do. And celibacy is also a worthy and holy calling.

Compared to most other cultures and ages, the west has a distinctly eroticized view of marriage focused on personal fulfillment. However, some of the wisest mothers and fathers of the church till quite recently, cast suspicion on spouses seeking any sexual pleasure at all in marriage. We don’t need to defend that extreme to understand that the personal satisfaction of marriage often sneaks in through the back door while the family is busy homemaking.

What then is marriage? Marriage is the earthy hand of God drawing a figure of Christ in the human community, reconciling the two poles of the image of God: male and female. It is unlikely but it does happen: a man and a woman, bristling with difference and loaded with gifts, arrive from opposite shores of the human race to effect a union. When, against all odds, they become a household, the world glimpses a beautiful figure of Christ: “in him all things hold together (Col. 1:18).

All people arrive in the land of marriage with attractions, lusts, and self-laid plans flying in all directions. Sexual attraction is only one of a riot of desires that must now be fastened by vow and hard work to this single stranger from yonder shore.

A marriage is a slow union, a bending of lives that happens an inch a year. Through negotiated trade-offs, exchanges of gifts, and simple goodness to each other, a couple discovers “we have become an us.” The us is a figure of Christ on earth. The us can happen in mixed-orientation marriages, where it is, like all marriages, the enlarging of the soul for the joy of the Church with her Bridegroom in Heaven. Here below we all have a mix of joy and longing; above only joy.

For more about mixed-orientation marriages I suggest theologian Jonathan Mills and psychologist Mark Yarhouse.

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By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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