When many of my friends moved toward a theology that affirms gay sexual relationships, they did so because they grew weary of saying “no” to love. Several of them described an experience where they were fully committed to the church’s traditional teaching on sexual ethics when they grew to deeply love someone of the same sex. They remained chaste for a season and prayed for direction, then eventually sensed the Lord saying: You’re free to love.
While many Christians considered their shift an act of rebellion—a plunge into sin—they saw it as the only path to love and intimacy. They recognized that “It’s not good for man to be alone,” and they longed to serve the one they love, share their lives with the one they love, and mutually draw energy from that love to better serve those around them. Many felt like the traditional ethic required them to cut off fundamental aspects of being human in order to be chaste: they felt saying “no” to sexual relationships meant saying “no” to love, and that saying “no” to love meant saying “no” to any intimacy, and that saying “no” to intimacy meant saying “no” to feelings altogether, which eventually led to detachment and isolation. The burden felt unbearable.
To be honest, I sympathize with this response and feel it in my soul. I believe church teaching to be true, but the practical application of the theology often creates a division between the head and the heart that we intuitively know not to be good. It seems the problem is less related to theology than with the way it’s applied to gay people in many Christian communities. We tend to be fearful that if people open their hearts to love then they’re inevitably going to have sex. I know when I’ve had feelings of affection for other women, Christians have often bolted me with questions about those affections: Were they appropriate feelings? Did I have inappropriate thoughts about her? Was it the result of a deficiency in me that I was using her to fill? Was it actually enmeshment masking itself as love? What boundaries had we put in place? Were we watching how much time we spent together? Were we spending time together primarily in groups? Were we open to accountability to ensure we remained free from stumbling?
The underlying message was that if I didn’t place myself and the relationship under a microscope, inviting others to peer through with a critical eye, then there was a good chance it was a broken sort of love that would naturally end in sex. Gay sex. Lots of gay sex. While I appreciate the accountability and want to be encouraged to love well, it often comes off as more fear-based rather than helpful. Eventually many feel they’re better off avoiding love and intimacy altogether rather than risking the sex and the microscope. Many then shut down. Many lock their love away. Many manage to be chaste by managing not to love at all.
Christian theology values love, friendship and intimate connection in a way that probably pushes the boundaries of what many are comfortable with in our modern context (think David and Jonathan). When my friends have heard they’re free to love, I believe it was because they’re truly free to love. The question is whether or not love = sex, and unfortunately we live in a society where deeply sharing life with another person primarily occurs within a union that points toward marriage. So when many decide they’re free to love, they believe the path of love to be a sexual relationship or one that leads to gay marriage.
However, that doesn’t seem like the only response one can have to the realization that we’re free to love. Jesus told us to love our neighbors, but I can’t imagine He meant to have sex with our neighbors. He told us to love our enemies, but obviously didn’t mean to have sex with our enemies. 1 John says we’ll be known by our love for one another, and we realize that doesn’t mean we’ll be known by our sexing with one another. It’s not unreasonable, though, for Christians to feel like love and intimacy naturally progress into sexual expression when the primary place we see love celebrated in the church is through romantic relationships that lead to marriage.
In many ways we’ve affirmed the idea that love = sex by freaking out about sex when one opens up to love. Rather than freaking out about sex, we could begin to elevate the myriad manifestations of love that we’ve often devalued in our modern context. We could explore what it looks like to press into intimacy, affection, and self-giving love in a way that recognizes the risks of isolation are greater than the risks of relationship. This would offer gay people the freedom to love and allow the church to be a greater witness to the surrounding culture: that we are, indeed, a people rooted and built upon love, and that we affirm the expression of rich intimacy through non-sexual relationships just as much as we value marriage. Then when gay Christians feel deep love for someone of the same sex, it won’t be an occasion for shame and despair that potentially leads to a departure from orthodoxy; rather, an occasion for celebration.
I believe Christians who express concern about the nature of a gay person’s affections are well-intentioned and often wise. You want to encourage us in our quest to be chaste. But I long for Christians to acknowledge that just like love does not equal sex, chastity does not equal a rejection of love and intimacy. We need room to discern how chastity and intimacy hold hands. If gay Christians continue to feel like Christian theology requires a denial of love and suppression of affection, then many will continue to depart from orthodoxy when the isolation becomes unbearable. Thankfully, the denial of love is the result of application rather than theology, so we can prayerfully explore what it looks like to recover a robust expression of love between two people.