One of the more interesting points for me in Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George’s book What is Marriage? was their reflection on how the legalization of same-sex marriage may contribute to demoting friendship as a lesser form of love. If marriage is so important that it has to be defined as the place where intimacy is available, then friendship, by contrast, looks paler and less attractive than ever. “We come to see friendships as mere rest stops on the way back to family life,” the authors write.
In her most recent editorial for Christianity Today, “Same-Sex Marriage and the Single Christian,” Katelyn Beaty, a single, heterosexual woman (and a friend of mine) explores this point powerfully and poignantly. Writing about the elevation of marriage in the evangelical Christian world—an elevation that mirrors, in ironic ways, the wider society’s elevation of marriage—Beaty says:
[L]ocal churches have acted as if monogamous sexual unions are the closest icon of heaven in this life. That no matter how much self-giving ministry or cultural creativity we undertake in our lifetimes, they are second-best without a spouse and children in tow.
In more detail than this space allows, other writers and theologians (I think especially of Rodney Clapp and Joseph Hellerman) have deftly tackled American Christians’ overemphasis on marriage. What I might offer to the conversation is the perspective of a single Christian. As I watch many fellow young Christians come out in support of gay marriage, lest they bar friends or family from finding the gift of sexual companionship, they are making it harder for me to make sense of chastity.
Here’s how she concludes:
[M]arriage—and with it, sexual fulfillment and companionship and the possibility of children—is not a guarantee in this life, far less a fundamental right. Rather, it is a gift and a vocation, given to many but not all, it seems. And with all the dust in the air about prolonged adolescence and man-boys and women outpacing men in school and the workforce, marriage is no longer the shoo-in it was for most Christian women of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation. That includes me.
When it comes to our deepest sexual longings, none of us—married or single, gay or straight—gets what we want. But we who follow the risen Lord, an unmarried man while on this earth, get one guarantee: the promise of a new family, constituted by everyone who calls God Abba. We get to learn how to love one another as brothers and sisters now, since we’ll be spending a lot of time together in the future.
I hope and pray that church communities will take up the duty and delight of stitching single brothers and sisters, gay and straight, into its shared life. This is especially true for churches that are tempted to make marriage the pinnacle of human existence. “The church is right to tell me the good news and call me to a life of discipleship as a single man if and only if it is willing to live as my family,” noted Matt Jenson, a systematic theologian (and a 35-year-old single, straight man) in a recent Biola University talk. Likewise, if the church is going to call gay and lesbian men and women to deny their sexual desires for life, then it must be willing to embrace them as brothers and sisters and walk alongside them on the long road of chastity.
Humans, it turns out, can live without sex. But they will die without love. May churches be places where single Christians hear not the death knell of loneliness but the ecstatic greeting of family members: “Welcome home, sister.”
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I loved this piece by Katelyn, this morning. So thankful that these words are being spoken, difficult as they are. I’m coming to realize that singleness, like friendship, is not a “rest stop” it is home for me. That might change at some point, but it hasn’t up until now. I realize that I have been living my life just a little on hold, and that I don’t want to do that anymore.
I am looking forward to Heaven, when intimacy will be shared by all, and no one will feel like an outsider looking in, but for now, I want to cultivate family, wherever I may find it.
I was offended by this article especially its comparison of monogamous, life-long same-sex unions with fornication. Beaty doesn’t have the right to be promiscuous so why should gay people have a right to make a life time commitment to each other. Figure that logic out for me. I am all for valuing singleness and friendship in singleness–but comparing a straight single person who just happens to not have found the right person yet with a gay person who might very well meet someone they fall deeply in love with and desire to spend their life with–but have to say no to that –are two very different things. That straight person would find it next to impossible to say no to the love of their life. My challenge to Beaty if she wants to understand the equivalent is to put action into words by making a life-time vow of celibacy and standing in solidarity with celibate gay Christians. If more straight Christians like her made this life-time vow we could change church culture to have more appreciation for singleness.
I think the fundamental problem I have with most singleness articles is that it reacts to the idolization of marriage by going to the opposite extreme to suggest it doesn’t really matter if one has to live a single life because it can be just as good. But the fact of the matter is singleness is something many people grieve–and rightly so. It doesn’t mean one is doomed to a horrible life. But the fact of the matter is even science shows that married people live longer. The married state is the normal and natural state. Being single is not normal and goes against the basic biological and emotional drives. To pretend that is not the case is simply not honest.
Karen said: “My challenge to Beaty if she wants to understand the equivalent is to put action into words by making a life-time vow of celibacy and standing in solidarity with celibate gay Christians. If more straight Christians like her made this life-time vow we could change church culture to have more appreciation for singleness.”
Then the Catholic Church understands this, since Catholics enter the religious life, where they do, indeed, vow celibacy, including the possibility of having to say “no” to the love of their life.
In fact, straight people also face this when they marry, and then afterwards believe someone other than their spouse is the love of their life. At least they used to face this, when divorce was so difficult, and never allowed solely because one happened to have met the “love of one’s life” after already being married to someone else.
Mdhoerr–its true the Catholic church has provided space for single celibacy in a way Protestants have not but most Catholics understand this as a special calling and not something the average lay person would do. If lay Catholics in the pew start making life-time vows to celibacy apart from any monastic vocation then I think you will have a point. Also, the idea that fidelity in marriage is like celibacy is like saying that the homeless person doesn’t have it so bad because the person who owns the home doesn’t have a choice either–I mean they can’t go out and buy two house, they have to stay with the one they have. Yeah, only being able to have one home is just like the experience of being homeless . . .
As I was thinking about this post some more I think what really ticks me off is this is just another way straight people are going to discriminate against gay people. Just like the notion of “change is possible” has been used against gay people politically and spiritually, so also the idea “singleness is not so bad” is going to be the new way of marginalizing gay people. If the “change is possible” notion is now being exposed for the problem it is, so now straight Christians are going to dust the problem off their hands by just pretending there isn’t a problem. This perpetuates the complete avoidance the Church is engaged in on the issue of whether or not single celibacy is possible for everyone. And even the stats within the ranks of Catholic priests who have all the mechanisms we think are needed to achieve single celibacy–community, devotion to Christ–even they have a high rate of difficulty maintaining celibacy. See Richard Sipe for more on that: http://www.awrsipe.com/
The only difference is priests are not kicked out or lose their vocation for not being able to live out celibacy completely–but the lay person would surely be removed. As would any Protestant lay or professional. Ironically, Martin Luther arguing against clerical celibacy said celibacy was a foolish thing to try and was impossible to achieve.
Karen, what did you think of Beaty’s trying to acknowledge the asymmetry? True, she later takes some of that acknowledgement back (“Except that sometimes I do…”), but I think she’s trying to grapple with the fact that there *is* a huge difference between what traditional Christian sexual ethics asks of gay and straight people.
Hey Wes–I am not understanding your question. Can you clarify. What “asymmetry” is she acknowledging? I am not sure what you are referring to. Also I don’t know what you are getting at regarding the “huge difference”–are you saying traditional sexual ethics asks something different from straight people vs. gay people?
I can understand your thinking that “the idea ‘singleness is not so bad’ is going to be the new way of marginalizing gay people”.
First of all, it depends on what you mean by “not so bad.”
If this means “almost as good as, in a spiritual sense”, Catholicism teaches not only that celibacy is ‘not so bad’, but that it is better.
If this means “not all that hard,” then for most people I imagine it would be very hard. And as Christians we are called to help others carry their crosses when we can. The appropriate reaction of Christians is, as Beaty said, to weave people who are single, for whatever reason, into their community.
Also, I think I should explain a little further what Catholics mean by a “vocation.” Our states of life are vocations from God. The married state of life, the religious state of life, and the single state of life, are all vocations. We don’t always get to choose our vocations, and sometimes we actively work against them. Also, we would say that anyone put in a position where they must remain celibate, even if that is not what they would have chosen, has a vocation to celibacy.
There are all sorts of levels of involvement and vocation for a single Catholic person. It is quite possible for a lay Catholic to make life-time vows of celibacy apart from a monastic vocation. A woman who teaches at the high school my daughter attended is a consecrated virgin. She is still considered a laywoman, is not a monastic and does not live in community.
There is even such a thing as a Josephite marriage, where husband and wife remain continent – no sex. In fact, this is the kind of marriage Catholics believe our Lady had with her husband, Joseph, the foster father of Jesus. So even married lay Catholics can decide on life-long sexual continence.
I consider this whole “spiritual friendship” blog project to be immensely important, in pointing out that spiritual friendship can be a love as high and intimate as marital love. The recovery of the true value of spiritual friendship may even be one of the goods that God is planning to bring out of those given the cross of homosexuality.
As Beaty said, one can live without sex, but not without love.
Mdhoerr–I hear what you are saying. I am a Spiritual Director trained in the Ignatian tradition and as Ignatius of Loyola would say no one should assume marriage. It should not be a default. Rather we must first pursue what Christ calls us to and perhaps marriage will fit in that or not. But marriage is certainly a vocation that should be thoughtfully prayed through before entering and not just entered into because that is the natural course of things per se.
That being said the examples you give of consecrated virgins and celibate couples–these are not very common. Why? Because most people wouldn’t be able to pull it off. But I am very grateful to the Catholic church for space for these–at least for consecrated virgins–I actually don’t think celibate marriages is healthy. Again though, consecrated virgins are prayerfully considering that vocation.
I think perhaps the disconnect is that you are using examples of voluntary celibacy and my concern is with involuntary celibacy. Certainly there will be times in life where we are forced into circumstances that are difficult and not what we desire. For example, there are Catholic priests who do not, in fact, feel called to single celibacy but have been forced into that in order to follow their calling to serve in ministry–which some might suggest leads to issues with celibacy for the priesthood because some really don’t have the gifting of celibacy.
But the main thing I would like to see you address is the issue of whether celibacy is possible for *everyone*. Certainly the statistics of success don’t seem to indicate that it is. For some people, yes. For all people, I don’t believe so. Even Paul the Apostle seems to understand this because he says those who cannot manage themselves should marry. And that he *wished* everyone could be like him but he knew not everyone was and could *not* in fact achieve the single, celibacy he did.
This again gets into the difference between voluntary and involuntary celibacy. Those who choose celibacy because they see it as their vocation likely have that gift and can succeed. Those who are involuntarily being demanded by the church to live it out but don’t have that calling or gift are going to have a harder time of it. In that case, circumstances more than gift or willpower are going to determine whether or not celibacy is going to be successful.
I wish we could get some honest, frank conversation about the universal possibility of celibacy including sound research and deal with reality instead of wishful thinking. This will help us determine our best pastoral response–including the possibility that a same-sex union that is monogamous is more virtuous that a life of promiscuity induced because of an inability to be able to consider a monogamous relationship. Strange, we think it is more godly to allow the perpetuation of self-destructive behavior than to consider better pastoral approaches given human limitations.
Karen, this does remind me of another difficulty that Christians are starting to address, but don’t have a great answer to so far. That is the issue of pornography. The majority of Christian men my age use Internet pornography, whether married or single. An awful lot of married Protestant pastors do. I happen to be one of the rare cases as someone who doesn’t, but most of my male friends that I’ve talked to about sexual issues do. Most seem pretty helpless to stop, and I’m not sure exactly what to tell them. I think it’s always sinful to use pornography and that they need to pursue freedom from it, but there has to be some grace. I’m not sure if that difficulty is fundamentally much different than the difficulty people face being involuntarily celibate.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts Jeremy. Actually there is huge difference. Pornography addiction is an addiction–an actual affect on the brain like taking drugs. The drive to marry and be a sexual person in relationship with another is not an addiction. In fact, it is how were were created to be. Celibacy is an attempt to go against *natural* human sexuality–that is what makes it hard. Pornography addiction however is hard because addictions change the brain such that a person is not able to function normally. That is why most people with pornography struggles need professional help to overcome it through an addiction program.
Only a minority of men would describe their appetite for pornography as an addiction. Most men could, if circumstances dictate it, go without porn for a week/month or two without developing symptoms that would imply an addiction.
All forms of chastity are involuntary to some extent. The problem is that churches (particularly Protestant ones) do not discuss the difficulties straights have to deal with in the same hectoring/disdainful way they talk about challenges that gay people face.
Kate: “This again gets into the difference between voluntary and involuntary celibacy. Those who choose celibacy because they see it as their vocation likely have that gift and can succeed. Those who are involuntarily being demanded by the church to live it out but don’t have that calling or gift are going to have a harder time of it. In that case, circumstances more than gift or willpower are going to determine whether or not celibacy is going to be successful.”
I think you are correct in saying that those who don’t choose the calling of a celibate life are going to have a harder time of it. However, that doesn’t mean that they won’t receive the grace needed to live out the vocation they have ended up with. And willpower, and even gifting, is never enough to live as we should – we always require the grace of God.
In a sense, I think you are also right about circumstances determining whether celibacy is successful. Part of that means making clear that non-erotic love can be as intimate and fulfilling as erotic love. And part of that requires the Church community to make sure that a call to celibacy, especially if not chosen, should never lead to isolation or a lack of spiritual friendship.
mdhoerr–you have sidestepped my question: Is single, celibacy possible for all people? Yay or Nay? And what is your evidence especially given that I have provided evidence that its not (e.g. Sipe and Paul).
Single celibacy is possible for everyone who cannot marry.
There are probably more straight people who are involuntarily unmarried than there are gay people altogether.
mdhoerr–thanks for your honesty. What about Paul’s statements to the contrary? And the high rates of failure even among priests?
Wesley – thank you for sharing this article. It captures how I’ve been feeling about the whole issue as well. And I’ve been regularly wondering what it would mean for me – a single woman whose closest biological family is 3,000 miles away – to want things like visitation rights for my spiritual family were I dying in the hospital. I hope that this conversation can help us to rightly orient our thinking with respect to the value of marriage and the importance of the body of Christ.
Karen – I respect what you’re saying a lot. I suspect if we conceived of a hierarchy of virtues, committed same-sex relationships would be above promiscuity. But if a Christian friend approached me and said, “I want to marry this non-Christian man because I can’t control my sexual desires,” I would advise her that the proper course of action is to attempt restraint, and I would offer her every resource at my disposal to try to help. Even if one path is more virtuous than another, the one involving a length deliberation to go against what Scripture commands (not being yoked with unbelievers) seems to me worse off than the sometimes-failing attempts at chastity followed by repentance.
You noted the difference between being voluntary celibacy and involuntary celibacy, but it seems to me that the celibacy Katelyn Beaty is facing is involuntary in an important sense. And I wonder whether it can sometimes be just as difficult if your involuntary celibacy is caused by never finding the right person to marry as it is by being lgtb and being unable to marry someone of the opposite gender. You see, Beaty has to wonder for the next fifty or more years of her life whether this each new man she meets *might* be the one. She has to decide if she will choose a celibate lifelong vocation, or stumble along, waiting and waiting and waiting until death finally indicates that celibacy was her lifelong vocation. In some ways, it may be easier to know your calling and to act on it from the beginning. It may be hard to imagine something worse than knowing you have no possibility of a committed lifelong relationship with someone of the gender you find most attractive, but I think constantly engaging with the possibility and then having it fall through time after time after time would also be a heart-wrenching venture.
Thoughts? Is this line of thinking completely wrong-headed? I don’t mean to marginalize or diminish the gay experience, but I also feel like single women (and single men! It must be worse to be testosterone-laden and single!) have more than their fair share of struggle.
Is single celibacy possible? http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2009/06/who-is-the-40-year-old-virgin.html
It seems to be, for some few. I think it’s difficult to say what is “possible for all people” because (excuse me, as I put on my philosopher’s cap) possibility can have two meanings. Is it logically possible? Yes. But would the average person have the willpower necessary for it? I don’t think so. But then I think it becomes a matter of training the will, and slowly, but surely cultivating the virtue necessary for celibacy.
Jordan–thanks for your comment. As for Beaty and her singleness. She is a very young pup and so for her to worry about the potential of life-long celibacy seems premature. If she were 50 saying the same thing she would have more clout. Also as I mentioned before–its different not having a current option vs. being given an option and having to say no to it. It is pretty difficult and sometimes impossible when you fall in love with someone–and they are a good fit for you and your love is returned, you share values and faith and want to support each other through life–and have to resist that? Beaty won’t have to resist that when an option like that comes along. I would. So she will never face the most difficult battle that most gay people face. Not unless she made a vow to celibacy and then met the man of her dreams and had to turn him down because of her vow.
Beaty also has the tremendous luxury of dating even if she doesn’t end up marrying someone. Many single hetero Christians enjoy quite a bit of intimacy outside of marriage by being able to date–hold hands, kiss, be a priority in someone’s life, etc. Celibacy is not difficult just because of restraining sexual desire. Our sexuality encompasses much more. Falling in love is a heck of a lot more than basic attraction. The desire for marriage is a heck of a lot more than that. Its holistic involving the emotions etc. Dating can actually meet many of those needs even outside of marriage.
I think where I disagree with you and others on this is the notion that its better to engage in continual sin and repentance than to choose an option that might minimize sin. So, you would be okay with your friend having multiple partners (because he can never commit to one) and one night stands etc as long as he repents. When being monogamous would restrain excess.
The Law can actually become sin. So David took the consecrated bread and ate it–that was, by Law, a sin. Yet he took it because he needed to eat. He was hungry. And so Jesus said it was acceptable for him to violate the Law because in that instance following the Law would have been detrimental. So also Jesus and his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. The Pharisees pointed out that this was a violation of God’s laws. We might not think it was a big deal, but this was a commandment to the Jews on penalty of death! Breaking the Sabbath was a major sin. But if the Law was enforced, it would have been detrimental.
Any Law can become sin if we do not take into consideration circumstances. If we hold to Law without reflection we might very well encourage someone’s literal death as they engage in riskier behavior than more virtuous monogamy.
You write: “But would the average person have the willpower necessary for it? I don’t think so.”
We are agreed then.
You also write: “But then I think it becomes a matter of training the will, and slowly, but surely cultivating the virtue necessary for celibacy.” I would agree there is merit to this, but this can take years and I think should happen in a monogamous relationship and rather than years of destructive behavior that results when we forbid monogamy.
Fair enough on Katelyn’s youth; this is an attribute I share. Here I wish we had more wisdom from older Christians on these subjects! (The lack here is probably a function of their lack of knowledge with respect to the internet and not a lack of knowledge about chastity.)
Personally, I find it FAR more difficult to adhere to the requirements of chastity when I’m in a relationship – holding hands, kissing – than when I’m alone. So if the goal is lifelong celibacy, my impression is that it’d be easier to just entirely give up that level of physical intimacy with people you find attractive. Then again, I also have pretty deliberately cultivated friendships with people of both genders that involve some level of physical intimacy (hugs, massages, holy kisses, etc.) which seems to satisfy some of the need for physical contact that would otherwise be satisfied only in a romantic relationship. I’m honestly not sure how else someone could do it without that; it seems to me that the desire for physical intimacy would run too strong if it weren’t met in these relationships and I’ve been blessed with friends who are comfortable expressing similar needs.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying that I would be fine with my friend having repeated one night stands. I think that would be VERY bad for him and I would do everything in my power to set up him for success. But to me, the choice seems more like “should I deliberately make a long-term decision that contravenes the will of God” or “should I try to serve Him as best I can, knowing that I may occasionally misstep?” (It’s also not obvious to me that the misstep would necessarily take the form of, say, rampant unprotected sex with many partners rather than a hot and heavy makeout session… but maybe that’s just because my friends are exceptionally self-controlled or something.)
The worry that your argument from David causes me is this: where do we draw the line? Say I have a friend who says “look, if I don’t relieve myself through masturbation and lusting after women, I’ll go around having sex with prostitutes.” I think I would rightfully say to him, “These are not your only two options. You need to work on learning the discipline of chastity.” Obviously these aren’t perfectly congruent; the need for intimacy runs deeper than the need for sexual relief and monogamy is more valuable than masturbation. But I’m not sure what criteria you would use to discern which needs qualify you to overrule the law.
Besides, of course, the criteria that Jesus himself uses. While the disciples and Jesus followed David in breaking dietary rules, it seems to me that with sexual ethics, Jesus only strengthens the traditional Jewish teaching (expanding adultery to include lust). So that makes me exceptionally cautious to apply a standard of “meet your needs by adopting the lesser of two evils” when Jesus has clearly demonstrated what the good looks like. Especially when the advice of Jesus with respect to lust is, “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” In the counter-intuitive teaching of Jesus, an act that seems unloving is actually worthwhile because of its eternal significance. Jesus offers not an easy way to meet one’s perceived needs but a demand for radical discipline. Here the law of Christ seems to have no sensibility with respect to what we would normally conceive of as “detrimental.”
Maybe a better way to put it would be this: does the average person have the willpower? Not yet! I’m not sure how long it would take to cultivate that level of self-control for the average person, because I realize my sexual inexperience puts me far outside the range of normal. But it’s not as though you’re saying every gay person should immediately enter a monogamous marriage. If you have a year or two before you’re considering marrying, you have time to cultivate the habits of self-control, which is a gift of the Spirit along with love and power.
Paul’s statement isn’t contrary to that. Those who are not called to celibacy can marry. Those who cannot marry are, by definition, called to celibacy. Obviously, not everyone is called to celibacy, or there would be no married people.
As for the priests, some of them may not actually have been called to the priesthood; some may have fallen prey to our sexually saturated culture, which makes celibacy difficult even for those who specifically choose it. I can think of many reasons.
mdhoerr- I find your notion that those who cannot marry have automatically been given a gift of celibacy by default to be logically insufficient and without biblical support, not to mention in contrast with what we actually see in the real world occurring. You dismiss the priests who falter as not being called, but that is not persuasive either. It dismisses the most obvious reason. It seems naive to me in its reluctance to acknowledge the power of our sexuality. All the evidence in the world could be presented and I suspect you would hold to your view because you have ideological reasons for doing so.
What is illogical about saying that anyone who cannot avoid sin without the gift of celibacy is given the gift of celibacy? Don’t we believe that God always gives us what we need to avoid sin if we ask?
Or perhaps we mean different things by the “gift” of celibacy. I don’t take it to mean that celibacy is easy – just that it is possible. I’m not sure that celibacy, like marriage, is ever easy, especially if involuntary. That doesn’t mean one can’t still have the grace to live a holy life. And some people remain enslaved to a particular sin all their lives. So long as they continually repent and continually try to avoid that sin, it doesn’t mean they can’t also get closer to Jesus. In fact, I would venture to say that most of us are in the situation of being yoked to one habitual sin or another. I know I am.
Actually, I should have stressed that priests who fail might have fallen prey to a culture that makes sexual continence difficult, rather than mention that some may not have been called. I have no reason to believe that more priests these days are more mistaken about being called to the priesthood than before, but there is clearly a much greater temptation to sexual sin than there has ever been before.
As for presenting all the evidence in the world, all your evidence could ever show is that celibacy is difficult. And what is news about that? The pagans at the time of Christ would have been in complete agreement with you, at least if you defined celibacy as requiring sexual continence for men as well as women. And they would have been in complete agreement that a celibate priesthood was weird and unnatural – at least for men. In fact, most of the Jews of the time would also have been in agreement.
The “ideology” I follow is the Catholic Christian religion, which teaches that all genital expression outside of marriage between one man and one woman, until death do them part, is sinful. It doesn’t say “unless you don’t have the gift of celibacy.” That religion also teaches that we must be willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus, and that we will be given the grace to deal with whatever cross we must bear. Including death by torture.
mdhoerr– you write: “Some people remain enslaved to a particular sin all their lives. So long as they continually repent and continually try to avoid that sin, it doesn’t mean they can’t also get closer to Jesus.” But I thought you said that celibacy was possible for all unmarried people because “God always gives us what we need to avoid sin if we ask.”
You are contradicting yourself. You say its true that some remain enslaved and might have to live a life of continual repentance, but then you say we always have what we need to avoid sin.
You also write: “But there is clearly a much greater temptation to sexual sin than there has ever been before.” I think a look at church history and the debauchery among the clergy would suggest otherwise. Sexual immorality has always been an issue. Why? Because our sexual drive is one of the most powerful forces in the world. So much so that some cultures have basically put women under house arrest to keep the genders apart–not just now but throughout history. Its why the some of the church fathers railed against the female gender as evil because they couldn’t deal with their own sexual demons.
Yes, God gives us grace. God also made us human beings. Its like saying the person with cystic fibrosis could breathe if they wanted to because God’s grace is sufficient.
Just out of curiosity, do you also believe that by God’s grace anyone who earnestly seeks God can change their sexual orientation? After all many Christians would say the desires themselves are disordered. If so, doesn’t it follow that God’s grace would empower a person not to have same-sex attractions at all?
We are always given what we need to avoid sin if we ask, and yet we all are sinners anyway. We don’t always ask, and even when we do, we don’t always accept. And even those who are not enslaved to a particular habitual sin are in need of continual repentance.
“Just out of curiosity, do you also believe that by God’s grace anyone who earnestly seeks God can change their sexual orientation? ”
Of course not. God didn’t remove Paul’s thorn in the flesh.
You write: “We are always given what we need to avoid sin if we ask, and yet we all are sinners anyway.” You are still contradicting yourself.
You write: “Of course not. God didn’t remove Paul’s thorn in the flesh.” I got the impression from you that God was more powerful than that. So God won’t empower people to not have disordered attractions, but he will for disordered behavior . . .
I’m sorry. I think maybe we agree more than we seemed to on whether celibacy is possible or not. I can be overly literal. God provides sufficient grace to everyone who asks such that we can avoid all sin. In practice, only our Blessed Mother has ever so fully cooperated with God’s grace so as to be sinless.
When you ask is celibacy possible for anyone who can’t marry, I answer yes. If you ask if a particular person will actually maintain celibacy without any failures, I would say, that depends.
For some people, even involuntary celibacy will not be difficult. For others, even simple fidelity to a socially acceptable person of the opposite sex will be difficult.
Even the fact of difficulty, however, doesn’t necessarily predict who will fall. Someone with a high level of support, who accepts his cross as a chance to grow closer to Christ and unite his suffering with Christ to save other souls, may well never fail to maintain his chastity, despite a strong sex drive and very involuntary celibacy. Someone who is happily married to an opposite sex spouse, but who has never had to cultivate sexual self control, and has bought into the spirit of the age, may run into an attractive woman and break his vows of fidelity with very little attempt to resist.
It seems to me that the greatest hardship that gay people face is not the lack of sex so much as the lack of an intimate relationship with a life-partner. We’re back again to the idea that people can live without sex, but not without love. But the idea that there is such a thing as love and happiness without sex is pretty counter-cultural.
As for “praying away the gay”, it makes no sense to me that we should expect that to be any more common than any other miraculous cure. Paul prayed for, and did not receive, the removal of his “thorn in the side.” Even our Lord prayed that “this cup may pass” and it was not granted! So it makes no sense to expect that same sex attractions would automatically be taken away from someone, if only they prayed hard enough.
“So God won’t empower people to not have disordered attractions, but he will for disordered behavior”
That’s true. It is pretty amazing, isn’t it? God doesn’t always remove our temptations, but he will always give us what we need to resist them. He never forces us to take what he offers though. So we continually fall, over and over and over again. And yet, it is always better to fall and get up again, than to give up. I’m no “pup”, being 55 years old, but I am a married straight woman, so perhaps I don’t have the kind of perspective you’re looking for.
“God doesn’t always remove our temptations, but he will always give us what we need to resist them.”
I’m not a Christian and one of the main reasons for that is the above statement. I believe it to be one of the most egregious falsehoods peddled by the Church.
For absolute proof of that, take a look at Prader-Willi sufferers. Has God given them what they need to resist the temptation to gluttony?
How about those with Tourette’s? Where’s the grace that enables them to stop cursing at will?
Or are you saying that these people are just indulging themselves and could stop at any time?
If so, ideology has triumphed over reality in your mind. It’s pointless to argue against a dogmatically held position, but others who examine that position in the cold light of logic will see it for what it really is.
As I read you, Karen, you are saying that, as a standard narrative offered to gay people, the valuation of singleness is functionally indistinguishable from the change narrative, as both simply eliminate the problem and marginalize gay people. The alternatives I have heard seem to me no less problematic than the singleness narrative, so I’m curious: what alterntive you would present?
Good question Joshua. I do believe this blog focused on friendship is part of the answer. But the key is that we talk about friendship, community, celibacy in the context of the very real challenges of celibacy. What I see happening is going too far on the pendulum to essentially saying, “Gay people should just suck it up. Its not like we need sex or marriage. Get over it. After all now you can serve the Lord!” And they say this as they go home to their own families. Or in Beaty’s case–say it when they are young and don’t really know much at all about what it means to be consigned to life-long celibacy. Most of us go through life reacting. Its very difficult to maintain balance. And so, for example the pendulum swings to the side of “If you are single you are doomed to a miserable life!” and the reaction to correct it is “No singleness can be a wonderful life with problems at all!” Most of the conversations we have in life go back and forth on this pendulum. Reactivity for reactivity. They all miss the truth. And when we don’t get the truth we fail to respond to life as it really is. For example when we suggest that singleness is no big deal we do not create space for lament, we do not acknowledge people’s real challenges, we ignore addressing pastoral issues on issues like our biological drive and the impact of living in a body, etc. I appreciate most of what is presented on this Spiritual Friendship blog. I did not appreciate Beaty’s article and feel in its presentation has the same effect as the “change is possible” slogan.
Karen, thanks for this comment. I think you are quite right. There is real loss in a call to celibacy, and there needs to be the honesty to acknowledge this and the space to deal with it in the church.
I’m not really in a position to compare the losses and gains of lifelong celibacy vs. married life, so I’m not sure if one “wins out” in the end in terms of benefit. Nor am I in much of a position to wax theological about this issue in general, since I’m married and therefore privileged on that score. I feel very out of place speaking authoritatively on such matters. I do wonder, from my limited perspective, whether each life winds up having its own unique set of costs, as well as its own unique set of benefits. I can at least testify to the (sometimes agonizing) challenges of married life, though it does give great benefit too. But again, I won’t presume to be in a position to make this kind of comparison. Either way, I think you are right that there are unique losses and pains to single life that aren’t even *felt* by the conservative Christian world.
Presumably the alternative would be to allow same-sex marriages.
I’m curious as to whether life-long monogamy will then be preached to a LGBT community that only stepped out of the shadows in the 1960/70s because Western societies adopted a secular sexual ethic based on consent. I don’t know any gay MEN who would pleased to be informed that married sex is more virtuous than consensual sex between singles (or any other variation on relationships that someone might decide is right for them).
Reblogged this on The Celibate Menace.
To everyone: Thanks for engaging the conversation. I am going to have to sign off now because I need to get work done! But here is what I would like to see:
1. An honest conversation in the church about celibacy as it relates to biological realities. This conversation is not happening at all. For years the church has been stuck in “change is possible” so celibacy wasn’t taken seriously because there was the idea people could just become hetero and marry. Now the challenge of celibacy is being ignored because life-long singleness is being treated as a normal biological/emotional state–which it is not.
So what I would like to see Christians do is engage in real research on this topic–including social scientific research, historical research, etc on what *actually* occurs when people try to live out celibacy. My question is: is celibacy possible for all people? Let’s do some research to find out that answer to that instead of relying on wishful thinking. People are so afraid of the “slippery slope” or facing outcomes that people don’t even want to do this research.
2. When we get a clearer picture of the realities of the single, celibate life let’s formulate pastoral care around reality and not what we wish reality was.
3. Straight people–especially married–need to be careful about engaging in the topic of life-long celibacy and making claims about it when they don’t understand what it means to live it out. Its patronizing to hear a straight married person say sex is not that big of a deal or singleness is a good thing when they are enjoying the intimacy of marriage and family.
If straight, marrieds want to address the issue find ways to make real connections instead of speaking abstractly. For example, couples who are infertile will be able to be more empathetic to the gay person who will never be able to have biological children.
Also straight single people like Beaty who want to stimulate culture change and speak on issues like gay marriage should seriously consider a life-time vow to celibacy so that they can better know of what they speak and therefore minister more effectively. The gay community simply cannot take Christians seriously on life-long celibacy when those who are making the demand on them are not living it out for themselves. If the church wants to be taken seriously, then more straight lay people will need to consider life long celibacy as a vocation.
Okay, I am signing out. Gotta get work done. So I won’t be making any more responses.
I am baffled by Karen’s intransigence. She says an honest conversation about biological realities isn’t happening, but that’s not at all how I read Wes Hill’s opening post, or Katelyn Beaty’s point, or the commentators trying to engage Karen. Seems to me that many people here are concerned about how to help celibates (or people trying celibately) to live with community, grace, growth in spiritual life, and forgiveness, and doing so fully aware of how difficult this is. I don’t see patronizing condescension – I see an attempt to build common fellowship en route to holiness. Wes’s opening question is whether our culture has over-valorized genital sexual activity to the point of reducing or obscuring other forms of Christian fellowship, love and friendship. That seems like an entirely reasonable part of the conversation Karen calls for; I would have thought she’d be more sympathetic. Like I say, I am baffled (puzzled) by her resistance.
The most constructive thing I can think to say about the objections Karen raises is that it reminds me somewhat of comments some married people make about their inability to practice Natural Family Planning. When couples say they can’t do NFP because it can require weeks (and rarely months) of marital abstinence, I want to ask – what do they mean by “can’t.” I think they mean that it is really really difficult, and that failures predictably happen on the road to spiritual maturity. But that is different from saying it is impossible. Someone who abstains – because they are gay and celibate, or because they are married and practicing NFP and need to avoid conception for a long period – might writhe around in agony because of unspent sexual longing. This person’s will power might collapse and he/she might masturbate or engage in some non-coital orgasmic activity. But if that’s your situation, you can also go to confession, get back in the saddle, not panic, perhaps laugh at yourself or otherwise acknowledge your weakness and dependence on grace, do penance, engage in works of mercy, and thereby grow in maturity and capacity slowly over time. Karen (or my hypothetical married couple who think NFP is not practicable) are hypothesizing that it is impossible to abstain from coitus for some people, but it’s hard not to wonder if what they’re really saying (perhaps not fully consciously) is something like “I can’t go from my current culturally entrenched dissolute self to chastity straight away, and, being the perfectionist that I am, or being under-catechized in what a long slow slog any repentance is, I am too impatient to try.”
Maybe that’s not quite the right paraphrase for every situation – people are complicated, and situations various, so I apologize if the suggestion is unfair to somebody’s particulars. But I am trying to hold this possibility out for consideration: when somebody says “I can’t possibly abstain, for I am driven by biological compulsion,” let us consider that statement honestly in light of Christian tradition. The saints commend chastity in all its many forms, and they were as red-blooded as any of us, so it is only doing due diligence to consider very carefully whether we are failing in imagination and hope when we deny the possibility of our own celibacy and chastity. Given the culture that we live in, and how all of us are tutored by our culture to be hypersexualized, it seems to me only prudent to consider with a little more openness the likelihood that “difficult and painful and lonely and odd in today’s culture” is not the same as “impossible” and might equal “path to holiness.” Karen mentions Ignatian spiritual direction at one point, which is a helpful perspective, suggesting to me that all of us put the question of chastity at the foot of the cross and ask for self-knowledge and freedom.
I’m uncomfortable with the notion of a call to a vocation being discerned by what seems to be an after-the-fact rationalization. The idea that a vocation is, in essence, undiscernable, implies that there’s no moral obligation to live it, unless we’re all to be held accountable for the things we don’t know and couldn’t possibly know.
Have you heard the Sermon Series on “Sexuality in a Sex-Crazed World” from the Evanston Vineyard? I really think it’s a model for how churches should address these issues. They really start with the foundations of sex, love, and marriage, and put it all into its proper perspective. Homosexuality is only one out of 10 sermons.
You can find it here: http://www.evanstonvineyard.org/sermons/archives/359/Christian%20Sexuality%20in%20a%20Sex-Crazed%20World