The journey of authentic Christian faith and sexuality is often a rocky and complicated one. Rachel Gilson, in her book, Born Again This Way, tells her story of this journey, with some surprising twists and turns along the way. Join Scott and Sean for this fascinating conversation about faith and sexuality.
About Our Guest
Rachel Gilson is director of theological development at Cru Northeast. She holds a BA in history from Yale College and is completing her MDiv at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. She blogs at rachelgilson.com.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host Scott Rae, Dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: I'm your co-host Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: We're here with our guest today, Rachel Gilson who has a special role in the leadership team of theological development and culture with the Parachurch ministry crew. She's written a terrific new book entitled Born Again This Way. Subtitled is particularly arresting, I think, Coming Out, Coming to Faith and What Comes Next. Rachel, thanks so much for joining us and to talk a little bit about your book. We're anxious to hear you spell out a number of things that you talk about in the book.
Rachel Gilson: I'm delighted to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
Scott Rae: So tell us just briefly here, the book is the story of how you came to faith and the conflict that ensued with your sexuality. So just briefly summarize for our listeners that story of how you came to faith and the conflict that that created.
Rachel Gilson: Yeah. So, I grew up like many people around churches, but actually not myself in church. So by the time I was a high school student, I had discovered two things about myself. One, I was really interested in the world of ideas. And two, the way that my female peers felt about other guys was actually how I felt about other young women. And so with those two discoveries in the mix, I developed a pretty hard anti-Christian edge in my life. Because from my perspective, I thought Christians were people who didn't like to think for themselves, or didn't know how to. I've since discovered actually Christianity is the greatest intellectual tradition of the world. But as a teenager, you don't always have all the information. And then the other hand, I also understood that really every faith probably, but Christianity in particular was really against me in my sexuality.
This was back in 2001 when will and grace was still edgy, not nostalgic. So I'd just picked up from the air that marrying a woman wasn't something that I maybe would ever be allowed to do. And certainly wasn't something that was accepted by people of the faith. So by the time I went off to college in Connecticut at Yale University, I really had developed a strong bias against Christianity. But showing up at that place really shook me up in a couple of different ways. One I realized, "Oh goodness, I wasn't the smartest person in the room anymore." Turns out a lot of really intelligent people gather at Yale University. So that knocked me down a peg. And then also I broke up with my girlfriend at the time. It was very dramatic as teenage breakups often are. As the dust settled over those two things, I was going through an identity crisis and it wasn't like, "Oh, I need to turn to Jesus."
But I do think in that period there was an openness to new ideas. So I happened to be sitting in a lecture, one day I was taking a philosophy course to the Western canon and it was our lecture on Rene Descartes. And they were talking about how he developed a proof of the existence of God. From that statement, I think therefore I am. And I remember sitting in the audience thinking, "That's a really stupid proof for the existence of God and it's still not my favorite. But I also wondered, "Gosh, what if they're a better proof for the existence of God?" And I'm an older millennial, so naturally I went to the Internet to try to figure out where I can find these answers. And over and over again, on my random Internet searches, I kept coming back to reading about Jesus and he was so much more compelling to me than I'd ever assumed. At that point, I pictured Jesus as an ancient George W. Bush wrapped in a Toga with something on it. Which was not a particularly compelling image to me at the time.
But as I was actually reading about Jesus, I was like, "Goodness, this is a much more compelling picture of a person." Even if at that time it just seemed like a character, but I felt like my sexuality was still a wall. And the only two people I knew at Yale who identified as Christians were these two young women who were dating each other and one of them was training to be a Lutheran minister. So I thought, "Well maybe they know something I don't." So I went to them and asked them about it. And they very pleasantly explained to me that it all been a terrible misunderstanding. The Bible actually supports monogamous same-sex relationships. And the idea was very interesting to me. And I remember they gave me a big packet of information, explaining how to really interpret those passages in the Bible. And I took it, I mean, I love a packet.
So I took it back to my room and I was ripping through it. And it did make a lot of sense. But when I was actually pulling up on the computer, the verses it was cleaning to interpret. I just thought, "Gosh, I don't think these actually connect." And I felt duped a little bit maybe. And put the question to aside, like, "No. There's no space in this religion for someone like me, even if I want it to be in it."
But soon after that, I happened to be in the room with an acquaintance who was a non-practicing Catholic. And I saw on her bookshelf, a volume which I now know is famous but didn't at the time, called Mere Christianity by CS Lewis.
Sean McDowell: Wow.
Rachel Gilson: And I really wanted to read the book, but I was too embarrassed by my interest to ask her for it because I was this good, strong atheist. So I just stole the book. It's not hard to do. I put it in my bag. And I happened to be reading it between classes one day in the library because it was much easier than my homework. And while I was reading it, I was suddenly overwhelmed with, "Oh my goodness, not only does God exist in like store brand kind of God way, but the God who made me exist. The God who's Holy exists. And I'm in big trouble. I'm sexually immoral. I lie for fun. I'm a cheater. I'm reading a stolen book. There's just all the evidence was clearly in the guilty category, right? And I was afraid. But at the same time, I also realized part of the reason Jesus had come was to place himself as a barrier between God's wrath and me.
And that the only way to be safe was to run towards him, not away from him. And so I sat there for a moment thinking, "Well, I don't want to be a Christian. Christians are lame." But at the same time, I was like, "Well, goodness. I can't pretend this isn't true just because it's inconvenient for my life." That would be the height of stupidity. So I closed my eyes and said, "Okay, fine, I'll be a Christian." And then I packed up and went to class. So that was really my entrance into the body of Christ.
Sean McDowell: That's such a fascinating story. And Rachel, I remember the first time we met at that brainstorming session [inaudible 00:07:01] at the [inaudible 00:07:02] group instantly just could tell you're a thoughtful person. And this thoughtfulness about your faith and sexuality continued even after you became a believer. There was some tension that was there. Can you describe what that experience was like for you?
Rachel Gilson: Yeah, absolutely. I had just recently read, walk me through that packet from my friends, that the Bible said no to same-sex lust and sexual and romantic relationships. So I felt pretty clear what the Bible said. But the real turmoil early in my Christian walk for me was that I didn't understand why God said that. And this was before the phrase, love is love, it became like a charm bracelet. But it was functionally that statement that was pressing on me. I couldn't understand why a romantic relationship with a woman would violate anything ethically wrong. I just didn't get it. And so I started to... I wanted to just debate with God. If He could give me the reasons why He said this, that I would obey with perfect joy and accuracy, which is ridiculous.
But when you bargain with God, you're often ridiculous. And I remember at that stage really what the Lord pressed me on was, "Hey, what if the most important question isn't why am I asking this." Though, I don't think it's unimportant. What if the most important question is, can you trust the one who's asking? Because if you're only willing to obey when you understand and when you agree, how have you not really made yourself God? And I felt pressed again and again to go back to that story in the garden of Eden, because you see this wonderful world that God has created for Adam and Eve, and he just gives them one prohibition. And it would be understandable, right? If he said, "Here's your one rule guys, don't murder each other, right?" [inaudible 00:09:00] murder, we intuitively understand is wrong. In fact, if someone doesn't intuitively understand that we encourage them to go seek help.
But I was really challenged by the fact that actually the first prohibition that God gave to the humans, really on the face of it didn't look that bad at all. He said, "Don't eat this fruit of this tree. The day that you eat it, you're surely going to die." And it's like, even vegans eat fruit. You know what I mean? What could possibly be wrong about that? And I thought, gosh, maybe our life is supposed to be by faith and not by sight even before send it to the world. Maybe God's rules actually do flow from our ability to trust him as a person and not just what we think of those rules. And the way the serpent pressed Eve on that fruit and the way she had to go to her dating, it looks good. It's going to be delicious. It's desires to make me wise.
She's got all this stuff on the one hand. And the only thing she has on the other hand is God's word warning her not to do it. And she weighed them in the balance and we all live downstream of the decision that she made. And it felt so similar to the way I was weighing what I saw about sexuality. And it forced me again and again, really to the question that I think is fundamental for all of ethics, which is, can we trust Him? And I think in the Person of Christ, I have the answer. Yes, I can trust him. And it's not just that he was willing to die for me, but even the fact that he came at all, he was under no obligation. I mean, he could have condemned me.
I would have stood there in front of him. And I said, "Yes, you're doing the right thing. I am a sinner, but he decided to be sent by the Father. It was a whole operation gracious to bring me in. And if I can't understand Him as fundamentally for me, then I don't think I'm reading the scriptures correctly. And that really helped me reorient the question. Because what really bothered me was God's words about sexuality seemed both cool and arbitrary, but if his character is neither cruel nor arbitrary, then somewhere I've gotten the link wrong.
Scott Rae: Rachel, I think it's very encouraging to our listeners to hear that even after you came to faith, it was still a bumpy road, working out some of these things with regard to your sexuality. You tell that, it's a very moving story about how you tell, how you ended up leaving a long time partner in order to be faithful to Christ. Tell us a little bit about what that experience was like and it sounds that was some of the cost of following him.
Rachel Gilson: Yeah. And there's not only the leaving. I did have to leave an important romantic relationship more than once actually. You referred to my early road as bumpy, I sometimes refer to it as an open dumpster fire. I've done just my 35 year old campus minister herself. When I think about my 19 year old, new Christian self, I wonder if I would've thought if I was going to make it. It was touch and go there for a while. Because even after coming to faith, there was another young woman I met at college who I really fell in love with and struggled with the question of is this love which is right in front of me?
How can I say no to that? It is palpable. It's desirable. How do I say no to that for an invisible God who who I don't know very well yet. And so part of my wrestling was trying to figure out who owns me, do my desires own me, or does Christ own me? And who more truthful to me? Is it my experience of love or is it my experience of the Lord who both knows me fully even better than I know myself and loves me still because to pretend that human relationships don't meet deep needs. It's never been for me about trying to deny that there is some type of life found in those relationships.
There really were some good things, even if perhaps some of them were a little bit counterfeit. So part of my Christian survival for myself, and also part of how I've tried to minister to others is trying to look at what we really desire and not just shout the word no at it. I don't think that's ever helped anyone. But I think it is trying to look at those things and say, "What are the promises that are being made to me by this temptation or even by this... just by this scenario." What are the fears that it's trying to leave and are those valid ways to get those needs met?
Because God did make us for relationship. He made, he designed us for intimacy, both in friendship and in other ways. And so it was really about evaluating one, do I need sex and romance to be a full adult human? Because that's certainly what culture tries to teach me. And often what the church tries to teach as well. And are there other ways that I'm not actually getting from the Lord and from his people and from his word, things that He's designed to meet my needs? Because at some level for me, it was a fear of if I don't take care of me, no one's going to take care of me. So I need to grasp and this thing that feels good right now. And instead trying to loosen that grip and say, "Well, maybe the word really does want to take care of me."
It's been really helpful for me, both in the past and even recently. That parable in Matthew, where Christ talks about the man who found the treasure in the field and in his joy, he went and sold everything so he could buy the field. And I think at times it's important for us to discuss the cost that a lot of disciples who experienced same-sex attraction face to follow Christ fully. But at the end of the day, when you've met the Lord, you're able to sell everything because of the joy of what you've actually found. So I don't want to downplay that tension as well. It was difficult saying no to these other relationships. But I continually found in Christ a deeper and better love.
Sean McDowell: You're married now to a man named Andrew, have a six year old child and that you talk about-
Rachel Gilson: Six and half. That's important [inaudible 00:16:04]
Sean McDowell: Oh yes. That's very important correction. I get it. I have a seven and three quarters age child.
Rachel Gilson: There you go.
Sean McDowell: So yeah. You describe in the book how your same sex attraction continues. Would you talk about just what that's like, being married to somebody with same-sex attraction, what challenges it brings and how marriage is about love, but not necessarily primarily about romance. What does that look like for you?
Rachel Gilson: Yeah. It was really interesting. I don't know that I could have anticipated being married to a man early in my Christian faith. I think I just default assumed, "I guess I'll be single." When you're that young, you're not necessarily thinking of the future in that sorts of ways. But as Andrew started to pursuing, we met on a mission trip, which is so evangelical, stereotypical, I can barely handle it. But as we met and as he started to pursue me later, I was like, "Oh goodness, what do I do with this?" Because on the one hand, I mean, if you ever met him, he's just like one of the most lovely human beings you could ever encounter. Even when I met him when he was a 19 year old I thought, "This guy, he's not ripe yet. He's going to make it perfect middle-aged man. He is going to be the platonic ideal of a husband and father." But the one hand I could see that he had everything he needed to actually fulfill those roles.
Well, we had the same love for Christ. Our worldviews lined up. We both wanted to go into missions and I really did have an affection for him. I really did love him as a brother. But as we got into dating and drew near to each other, it was like, I was trying to say, "Well, am I attracted to him?" And as I thought about it and talked about with my friends, I was like, "Do think there's something real here." Almost like a little flame but a little flame you'd have to protect from the wind with your hands cupped around it like, "Ooh, I want to make sure this doesn't go out." And when I thought about my previous romantic relationships, those had felt more with other women, more like what you encounter in movies or songs, right? Not the little flames, but like giant conflagrations, these fireworks and butterflies in your stomach and all those things. And I was like, "Gosh." Everything I've been taught leads me to think that, that thing, that big explosive type of thing is really what you're supposed to found a marriage on.
So really what it did is make me maybe go back to the scriptures and think, "Well, what does the Bible say about this?" And as I looked at scripture, I discovered, wow, marriage seems to be about the gospel, marriage seems to be designed to communicate about God's love with his people. And romance, I guess sure could be a part of that but maybe it's not actually necessary.
Maybe the ability to commit in faith to give yourself totally, to build a family, to build the gospel where you are in partnership. Maybe those are actually the important aspects of marriage. And I do think sex is an important part of marriage. You can just looking at 1st Corinthians 7, that's pretty clear. So I don't think people need to feel pressured to get into marriage if they really have no attraction for someone of the opposite sex, right? There's sometimes been in the church, a strong pressure to marry as if that will prove that you're faithful or even worse, a pressure to marry as if having enough sex with someone of the opposite sex will make you straight. And so I knew that both of those things were un-biblical and really dangerous for me.
But I did realize well, gosh, these other purposes of marriage, if God has given me some measure of sexual attraction to this man, and I really do think we could do this gospel life together and I love him. And I think we have the security to enter into this because the reality is every single one of us has two options for faithfulness when it comes to sexuality. We can be faithfully single, or we can be faithfully married.
And God can equip us for either of those vocations, no matter what our attractional pattern is. So it's like you could be attracted to men or women or both, or neither or potted plants, on some level it doesn't matter. If God's called me to singleness then by his word and his spirit and his people, he will equip me to live that life with faithfulness. And if He's called me to marriage, well, I don't need to be attracted to all men in order to be married to this one man. He will give me what I need. And honestly, every married person at some times experiences a sense of attraction to someone who's not their spouse.
It's our role as faithfully married Christians to fight that. To say yes to the Lord and no to our temptations and to say yes to the gift He's given us and our spouse. So on some level I don't actually feel like my marriage is very different from the marriage of my peers. We fight very similar battles as it were. So sometimes people can maybe over mystify this type of scenario. And I do think there are pressures that come in on these marriages from some of the bad ways people have entered them that create problems down the road. But honestly, being able to look soberly at what marriage is and look at Andrew and myself, and really ask if we think that's the right option for us. I wish more straight people would take that road into marriage sometimes. You get tricked by your hormones into a marriage that might be slightly unwise for other reasons. So I think there's actually been some benefits.
Scott Rae: Yeah. I've often suggested to the people who do premarital counseling among our seminary students, that is to be sure and ask the Kingdom based questions about why you're deciding to marry this person.
Rachel Gilson: Yeah.
Scott Rae: That it's not all about romance and feelings and attraction, but there have to be Kingdom reasons why you're making that decision.
Rachel Gilson: That's right.
Scott Rae: So Rachel, you spelled out, I think you hinted at a couple of things here that I want to be clear about. You mentioned in your book that the big three goods of marriage, procreation pleasure and partnership. I think most people think those are the only goods of marriage, but you should suggest that they are not the main thing about marriage. So let's be really clear about that. What is the main thing about marriage that the scripture teaches?
Rachel Gilson: The main thing I believe about marriage that scripture teaches is that marriage is designed to illustrate in living, breathing pictures, all of the world God's relationship with his people. It's not the only thing that illustrates God's relationship with his people, but it's one of God's favorite metaphors for what his relationship with his people is like. And so if marriage is supposed to be faithful, well, that's because God's relationship with his people is faithful and we're supposed to have a faithful response to our God. If marriage is supposed to be at the beginning of a household by both biological reproduction and adoption, well, that's because God's relationship with his people founds a new household, it's generative. If marriage is supposed to be the context of sexual pleasure and intimacy, that's only because God's relationship with his people is deeply intimate and deeply pleasurable. And of course, we see in scripture over and over again, marriage is for male and female.
Sometimes people say, "Well, Jesus never talked about homosexuality", well, he wouldn't need to in that context. And he goes out of his way in Matthew 19, to explain again to his audience who would have agreed to in that marriage is male and female. And that's because male and female represent these two parties of redemption. They're not interchangeable parties. They actually play different roles and they represent different characters. And part of the beauty is that a marriage represents that deep chasm that was bridged by Christ to get from us to God and from God to us. And so I think when we pretend that our embodied selves, sexed selves, don't matter, we're deeply undermining that beautiful vision that male and female are supposed to play in marriage.
And sometimes in our churches, we can act as if gay marriage is the very worst thing that could happen for marriage because it does undermine this piece of marriage, that sex differentiation points to God and his people. But we also have to remember that straight people are really good at trashing marriage all on their own. We think about what faithfulness is. I don't know if people have noticed, but straight people have a really hard time with faithfulness. I think we forget sometimes that every single one of us experiences and expresses our sexuality in ways that dishonor the Lord and that fall short of Him and every single one of us need the grace and truth of Jesus Christ.
Sean McDowell: Question for you specifically related to what you say is the nuclear family is a temporary picture, but the church is permanent. Can you describe what you mean by that and why that's so important for people to understand today?
Rachel Gilson: I think it's important for a number of reasons. I'm glad you brought it up. We see the family is clearly a blessed unit when we look at the scriptures, both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Marriage is held up as a good and honorable thing. Children are considered a blessing for so many reasons. But one of the difficulties we've had in our culture right now is we treat marriage and family as the varsity option, which then leaves singleness in this weird JV form or like freshmen team, where you don't even get called. But what we actually see in the new covenant is that singleness is now brought to a brand new dignity and honor that I think we need to recover as the family of God, because when we get to the new heavens and the new earth, or when it comes down to us that we're all going to be single.
Jesus is pretty clear that we no longer have human marriage. And we're also all going to be married and we all participate as the bride of Christ. And sometimes if that makes men uncomfortable to be part of the bride Christ. So just remind us that the women are called the sons of God. So it all equals out eventually and these types of things. But so-
Scott Rae: So we have full gender fluidity.
Rachel Gilson: Yeah. That's definitely the point that we should take from those. Absolutely, right? So we've got a future where everyone is single and where everyone's married, that means the families here are little signposts, right? They're pointing to the real thing, but that if we're single here, we're not. We might be missing out on the signs, but that doesn't mean we're missing out on what's actually coming. A single life is actually prophetic in a sense when it's lived for the sake of Christ and saying, "I'm betting my life on the resurrection. I'm betting my life on the fact that the real marriage is coming."
And that the church here is the beginning of the family that's going to be fully expressed there. I mean, we're told we're brothers and sisters in Christ. We're told that we're born again to enter into this Kingdom. So I think there's a lot of fruitful opportunity for the church to reflect on the beauty that both singleness and marriage speak to about what the gospel is. That there's something about the single life lived for the sake of Christ that can communicate a hopefulness and the worthiness of God in ways that marriage doesn't actually have the opportunity to. And I think maybe we've just missed that opportunity.
Scott Rae: Rachel, one final question here as we wrap up, you have a lot to say in the book about what's called repairative therapy, and in fact, you refer to it as a false gospel. Can you just briefly explain what repairative therapy is and why you refer to it as a false gospel?
Rachel Gilson: Yeah. And I was recently corrected by an acquaintance of mine where she pointed out that sometimes the umbrella of repairative therapy gets what used to refer to a lot of things that maybe don't need to fall into that umbrella. But the way I was referring to it in the book is a form of therapy that was particularly prevalent in the '80s and '90s, but still continue to pass them. The goal of which was really to try to make people heterosexual. So there were softer verse to this. Some of my friends who went through some of these therapies, it was really more just a place of processing, nothing nefarious happened, right? But there was a lot of pressure to try to notice if you were becoming straight at all and to be able to quantify it and to wrap it up.
And then there were other forms that are much more brutal, people being hooked up to electrodes or to try to shock being gay out of them or whatever. So a lot of different methods, but really the goal was to try to make you straight. And I just don't see in scripture where our goal is to become straight. Now, I want to be clear. I do think my same sex attraction is a result of the fall. I do think in a sense it's disordered. I don't think that it would exist if I hadn't been born into sin. At the same time, I think it's a distraction to try to make myself straight because straightness is not equal with holiness. We covered this when we talked about faithfulness, right? You're just potentially launching yourself into different sets of sexual sin. If I focus all my attention there, I'm distracted from the real work of relying on the Holy spirit for faithfulness, where I am no matter what my temptations are.
And I think I want to develop my energy towards where I've worked... God has really placed me. And to be able to say yes to him and no to temptations. And there are times when God does change people's attractional patterns. That happens to people. I think it shows his power over even biological forces. People have experienced that. But I think for many of us, he allows us to remain with the experience of same-sex attraction. Because by being able to say no to romantic or sexual relationships with people of our same gender, because we're saying yes to Jesus, it points to his worth. And I think that that's just as beautiful, maybe even more beautiful in this culture than demonstrating his power. I think God's power is extremely valuable. But the fact, I mean, in this culture, it's almost like being gay makes you a hero on some people, it's valorized in certain ways. And so for anyone to be able to say, "Sure, I experienced those attractions, but Jesus is a much more appealing." I mean, what a testimony that is to the watching world.
Sean McDowell: Rachel, this has been a fantastic interview. It's been just as thoughtful as I expected after meeting you and reading your book. And by the way, I teach class here at Talbot on biblical sexuality and I've written a book on same-sex marriage. So I have read dozens and dozens of books on all sides of the issue and your book Born Again This Way is fantastic. I've read it a couple of times, highlighted it, underlined it shared some of the insights with my wife and we just really, really appreciate you coming on.
So I want to commend your book again, which is Born Again This way by Rachel Gilson to our listening audience. Thanks so much for taking the time to come on.
Rachel Gilson: Oh, it was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest Rachel Gilson and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening. And remember, think biblically about everything.