I will explain my feelings in a second, but first a personal word. I have many friends that I love and respect that are still within the Side B world. I am not aiming my critique at specific people or specific organizations. Indeed, there are several organizations that fall under the Side B tent that are seeking tighter boundaries than I outline below. So please do not understand me to mean something I don’t mean. I simply feel the need to explain my hesitations, and how I see those issues playing out for me and some others like me.
I’ll mostly focus on one main reason that I feel compelled to distance myself from the label, but there are no doubt more. For example, even the very language of Side A and Side B presents as two sides of the same Christian coin. That will always be problematic for most conservative Christians. Indeed, I find in too dangerous to abide, even grudgingly. But I’ve written about that before.
I think my biggest concern with the Side B movement has come down to this: there is such a wide diversity of beliefs that flow downstream from the broad source of a “traditional sexual ethic” that it is impossible to pin down what Side B actually “looks like”. Really, the only thing you can definitively say is that Side B is a whole bunch of people from a whole bunch of Christian backgrounds saying that they believe sex is reserved for a one-man, one-woman marriage while also rejecting promises of certain orientation change. But even regarding change, there are Side B folks who disagree on what sanctification looks like. So all one can actually say is that Side B affirms a traditional understanding of marriage. That’s it.
Of course, a traditional view of marriage and sexuality is itself "conservative". But that isn’t the totality of being theologically conservative. One can hold to that and believe a whole host of other things. Another way to say it is that, because of the wide range of beliefs within the community, the Side B movement is necessarily ecumenical. And because of the particular nature of Side B ecumenism, there are problems in claiming the label both for conservatives looking in, and for those inside like me deciding whether or not to stay.
Those Looking In
As my friend Ryan recently observed, ecumenism is often better for the insiders than the outsiders. But can Side B ecumenism surrounding only a traditional view of marriage win the support of more broadly conservative Christian circles that are watching? In my view, I believe the past few years have shown that a “traditional view of marriage and sex” isn’t enough unity to get that job done. It’s a great starting point, and a good initial test of orthodoxy. But as we all know, there are a multitude of different ways that a “traditional sexual ethic” can be lived out in everyday life based on other beliefs brought to the table by any given person.
For example, one might believe that sex is reserved for heterosexual marriage while also believing that same-sex orientation is not (at least totally) disordered, but is rather a good to be celebrated. And so he or she will refrain from gay sex, but celebrate Gay Pride and talk of their orientation as a feature, and not a bug, of the experience of their embodied soul. By contrast, another Side-B’er might believe that same-sex orientation is disordered and therefore a reality to be lamented instead of championed. And still a third might not agree with the language of orientation altogether! All of these beliefs lead to different ways of living.
Or, one might believe that the bible prescribes a traditional view of marriage and sex (Side B), but also believe that one can hold to an affirming interpretation of scripture—and actively pursue same-sex sexual activity—while having every confidence that their faith is living and active. And yet another traditionalist might believe that pursuing same-sex sexual expression puts one outside the bounds of Christian practice, and would give no such assurance to the one practicing said activity.
The problem is that these differences are no small matters. Some will disagree with me, but I think trying to house them all under the broad tent of “Side B” has created many of the present problems in communication. For example, one might look at the person who celebrates their gayness as a good thing and say, “Side B celebrates same-sex orientation.” Well no, it doesn’t. It only says that sex is reserved for an opposite-sex marriage. But a movement will inevitably become defined by the beliefs of those within it, and especially by those publically communicating under the label. So when people point out potentially problematic beliefs of the Side B movement, they are really pointing out specific beliefs of specific people. But those publicly stated beliefs become part of the definition of Side B in public perception. It’s just the way it works, even if it isn’t entirely fair.
And in the public perception (that distinction is key), the movement will come to be defined by the most progressive views therein. It already has been, to a point. However unfair, these beliefs are going to be the ones that draw the most attention. So someone within the Side B camp will espouse a certain progressive belief on lived sexual ethics, and the reaction will be, “Did you hear what that Side B person said?” One can yell back, “Side B only means we believe in traditional marriage!” until blue in the face, but the reality is that Side B has now become the descriptor that houses said progressive belief. In fact, as long as one affirms traditional Christian marriage, Side B can house pretty much anything.
Those Inside Deciding Whether to Stay
Because of this, I fear that the Side B community will inevitably become more and more progressive, which is a problem for those conservatives already within the movement asking themselves if they can stay associated with the label. If more and more progressive beliefs become housed within the Side B tent, then less and less conservatives are going to feel at home within it. Which means that the movement will contain less and less conservatives while simultaneously attracting more and more progressives. So yes, as my friend Ryan observed earlier, ecumenism is often better for the insiders. Until it isn’t. I fear that the conservatives within will feel increasingly alienated from the community in belief and practice downstream of traditional marriage. That's at at least what's happened with me.
Is this true of all ecumenical endeavors? Not necessarily. One might think of the pro-life movement happily containing different denominations, traditions, even religions. So why is Side B ecumenism different? One of the main reasons for this, I think, is because the details of lived sexual ethics are so closely tied to larger theological categories. A whole host of different folks can champion the rights of the unborn while disagreeing on all sorts of issues. But “I believe in traditional marriage” does not answer all the questions of “How, then, shall we live with same-sex attraction?” In other words, how you view original sin, justification, sanctification, and the interpretation of scripture is going to affect how you interact with sexual desire, questions of orientation, interaction with culture, identity labels, and most of the other minutiae of living as sexual beings.
So while the ecumenical pro-life movement can remain largely conservative, the Side B movement will necessarily push out the more conservative members because they are the ones that will feel uncomfortable coexisting alongside the progressive views. It isn’t that the progressives want the conservatives to go, it’s that the conservatives like myself will feel compelled. As long as all of the attending beliefs are included under the same Side B tent, the trajectory seems progressive.
I don’t believe this is a slippery slope argument. How so? Because I’m not saying that individual people are going to change their beliefs by degree from conservative to progressive. I’m not saying “Just you wait, everyone who is Side B now will be affirming in 5 years.” No, I’m not talking about changing beliefs. What I’m saying is that a true conservative isn’t going to change their beliefs, which will make them more and more uncomfortable existing under a label that is housing a wider range along the conservative/progressive spectrum of lived sexual ethics.
The practical upshot of all of this is that in my view, the ecumenical Side B movement doesn’t have enough unity to both win theologically conservative Christians to join in support, and to keep conservative SSA Christians within its ranks. It seems to have created more problems in communication and perception than it has solved, and it is impossible to accurately represent the movement as a whole because there is such a wide diversity of belief on even first tier issues, which affect all other questions of living. Celibate partnerships? Depends who you ask. Sublimation and sanctification of gay sexual desire? Maybe yes, maybe not. Redeeming queer culture? Uhh…
This, by the way, is partly why I believe the Side B community has felt so frustrated in constantly defending themselves from those seeking to critique it. It’s at least why I felt frustrated. I felt misrepresented because people were pointing to specific beliefs and applications in their critiques, and I was shouting, “But I don’t believe that!” Which is true. It isn’t right to charge all in the movement with believing what anyone in the movement believes. And again, this is largely about public perception, and who gets to define what Side B actually looks like. But if a certain belief or way of living is welcome within a movement, then that says something, whether good or bad, about the movement as a whole (see the Republican party post Trump election as an unrelated example of this).
I guess what I’m really saying is that a traditional view of marriage isn’t enough for me to feel comfortable being affiliated with a movement. Side Ber’s can all say “We believe this one thing” while living their lives very differently. And the differences, in my mind, matter a great deal. If a hypothetical person can legitimately be Side B who is in a celibate partnership, celebrates Pride, does not believe same-sex orientation is disordered, and affirms the faith of practicing Side A folks, then I simply can’t claim the label Side B. I suspect I’m not alone.
So what would I propose as a positive alternative? Well for starters, there needs to be a name that makes it clear that same-sex sexual activity is outside of acceptable Christian practice. Within that understanding, I wish the hard work of lived sexual ethics would happen more in the context of denominations and the local church and less in ecumenical movements. Then each church or denomination would have the ability to define not only the orthodoxy but also the orthopraxy of biblical sexual ethics for their own people, connected to the historic Christian teaching. Of course, I’m aware that one reason the Side B movement has felt necessary in the first place is because many have not felt supported in their churches. I just don’t think that a big tent ecumenical movement is a great answer.
Again, this is simply why I feel like I can’t remain within the Side B movement. But this is a wisdom issue. I don’t think that everyone who claims the label Side B is sinning, and there is certainly good that has come from it. But it feels unwise for me to stay. I hope you can understand that.