Debates are rarely won on the battlefield of terminology, but they are frequently lost there. This is certainly the case in today’s debates over sexuality. Virtually all of the key terms are so freighted with ideological ordnance that entire regiments of exegetical and philosophical argument can be wiped out at a moment’s notice by a careless choice of words.
One word that we must handle with care is “homophobia.” Of course, this term is frequently leveled at anyone who dissents from the mainstream view affirming homosexual practices. Frequently, though, the term is also used by Christians to describe sinful attitudes or attitudes toward homosexuals. The problem is that when Christians use this term, we are either using it in a highly restricted sense that our secular culture does not recognize, or we are buying into some unbiblical assumptions about homosexuality.
The second half of the term, “phobia,” signifies an irrational fear. For instance, “arachnophobia” is an irrational fear of spiders. You might have arachnophobia if you avoid opening cupboards because years ago you found a dead spider in one. On the other hand, running away from a tarantula is evidence of healthy fear, not arachnophobia.
But what exactly does a homophobe fear? What does the “homo” refer to? It could refer to homosexual people. In this case, “homophobia” would be a useful term to describe someone’s fear of speaking to a homosexual, of stepping on their lawn, or of eating one table over from them at a restaurant. These are all, in fact, irrational fears, and since they are irrational fears of homosexual people, then “homophobia” is just the word we need to describe them.
I don’t think this is the primary meaning of the term. Behaviors arising from irrational fears of homosexual people are quite rare, while accusations of homophobia are never-ending. I do not mean to say that irrational fears of homosexual people are unimportant, but only that the relative infrequency of these fears does not warrant constant talk of homophobia. This mismatch suggests that the “homo” in “homophobia” does not refer to people, at least not primarily.
What does it refer to, then? I suggest that it usually refers to practices or beliefs. The easiest way to be called a “homophobe” is disapprove of a homosexual practice, or to disagree with a commonly held belief about homosexuality. Only “homophobes” maintain that homosexual practices are immoral. It is “homophobic” to deny that a union of two men can constitute an actual marriage.
It is not fair, though, to call such views “homophobic.” These are, generally speaking, sincere and reasoned beliefs rather than expressions of irrational fear. Moreover, some fears about homosexual practices and beliefs are perfectly rational. It is reasonable to fear that affirming homosexual practices will undermine the natural family and harm children, or that it will hinder evidence-based medical care and weaken key civil liberties. All of these fears have been dismissed as “phobias,” but over and over they have been substantiated.
The term “homophobia” could be used to describe sinful attitudes or actions towards homosexuals. Its typical use, though, is to describe opposition to homosexual practices and beliefs, which is assumed to be irrational. Used in this way, it is an unfair rhetorical ploy to discredit any opposition to homosexuality.
Anytime we use the term, we risk confusing these two very different meanings—perhaps only in the way we are understood by others, or possibly also in our own thinking. We should certainly continue to rebuke sins against homosexuals, as such rebuke is necessary. But we should avoid calling these sins “homophobic” without serious and proper qualification.
Calvin Goligher is the pastor of First OPC in Sunnyvale, California. He and his wife Joanne have four young children.
One Voice: The Word of God, the Love of Christ, and Human Sexuality, with Jon Payne and Richard Phillips (streaming live from June 16-18, 2021)
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Biblical Personhood & Gender Confusion, with Derek Thomas, Richard Phillips, and Rosaria Butterfield.