Yesterday I was honored to give a lecture at a plenary session for the annual Evangelical Theological Society meeting, held this year in Atlanta. The title of my talk was “Washed and Still Waiting,” riffing on my 2010 book title Washed and Waiting, in which I’d tried to describe my celibate gay Christian life as life of tension between the “already” and the “not yet”—I’m already washed, forgiven, and justified in Christ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11), and I’m waiting eagerly for the resurrection of the body (Romans 8:23).
A few years after the book came out, the journalist Jeff Chu—who, I’m happy to say, has since then become a friend of mine—wrote a book called Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America. Towards the middle of his survey of American Christian gay life, Jeff reflects on my Washed and Waiting:
When I finished Hill’s slim volume, I realized… that I would rather have read Washed and Still Waiting, the book that he might be ready to write three decades from now. It’s one thing for someone in his twenties to declare publicly his choice of celibacy—admittedly, a difficult, unorthodox, and bold thing. It’s entirely another to stand by that decision thirty years on. What are the effects of this kind of long-term chastity? What would life look like for the homosexual who, in his relative youth, chose this?
Taking my cues from Jeff’s questions, I decided I would use my ETS plenary lecture to reflect on how it might be possible for people like me to persevere in chastity over the long haul. Although I still can’t offer three decades’ hindsight, I do have some ideas about where to find hope.
In the lecture I explored three areas of pastoral theology that seem to me especially relevant for celibate Christian believers who are gay or lesbian. First—and I decided to take the tried-and-trusted Baptist preacher route of have three points with alliteration!—I discussed our need to rediscover the dignity of the celibate vocation in specifically evangelical Protestant settings. Second, I discussed our need for discipline in stewarding our sexuality. And third, I talked about how we need a theology of celibacy’s direction or destination.
Most of this is familiar territory for readers of this blog, I know. With regard to the dignity of the celibate life, I went over some of the New Testament’s teaching on celibacy:
Marriage in the New Testament comes to be understood as a sign of Christ’s love for the church (Ephesians 5:22-33) and as a figure for the eschatological marriage supper of the Lamb in the book of Revelation (19:9; 21:1-2). Alongside marriage, the celibate vocation witnesses to what Oliver O’Donovan has called the “expansion,” in the eschaton, of the fidelity of love that marriage signifies and makes possible. Insofar as there will be no marrying nor being given in marriage in the resurrection (Matthew 22:30), the celibate person’s life now serves as a direct sign of the eschatological state.
And here I quoted Ephraim Radner:
Virgins are the firstfruits of the Church’s destiny, in that their particular form of disciplined life acts as a figure of that holiness that all Christians in the Church will eventually embrace at the moment of their perfect readiness for their union with Christ…. Sexual virginity is… a shadow of something fuller to come, a shadow, that is, of the purified life of redemptive reconciliation.
In order for that chastity to be possible, though, we need to think hard about how to nurture, form, and sustain it. So, I also talked about celibate discipline:
If gay and lesbian Christians are to be able to embrace long-term sexual abstinence, they need more than biblical theology. They need their fellow believers to help them face the pastoral and practical questions of the lived experience of celibacy in the midst of ongoing sexual desire. Celibate gay and lesbian Christians are in need of churches who will not only continue to uphold the classic Christian teaching on marriage, celibacy, and homosexuality; they are equally in need of churches who will not denigrate the impossible ideal of celibacy but who will instead explore the intricate challenges and opportunities of that vocation with a view to the concrete specificities of daily experience.
And, finally, I talked about the direction of a celibate Christian life. The main point here is that we shouldn’t think of celibacy as giving up on love but instead as a particular way of loving. As Fr. James Martin wrote once, “Celibacy is not only an ancient tradition of asceticism, but more important, it is an ancient tradition of love. Celibacy is, in short, about loving others.” Here’s how I put it in my lecture:
It is a contradiction and a mistake—indeed I would go further and call it a failure of hope and love, a failure of moral imagination—for evangelicals to encourage abstinence from same-sex sexual behavior while offering no “thick” account of the direction or destination celibate love may assume. As one same-sex-attracted believer has put it, “When Christians sell books and preach sermons encouraging non-married people to embrace their ‘singleness’ as a blessing, we are promoting the destructive effects of the sexual revolution. ‘Singleness’ as we conceive of it in our culture is not the will of God at all. It is representative of a deeply fragmented society. Singleness in America typically means a lack of kinship connectedness.” What those of us who are seeking to live celibate lives need is encouragement to pursue relationships of spiritual kinship in which our celibacy may become not an occasion for isolation, loneliness, and self-indulgence but rather a practice by which we may begin to learn, alongside our married friends, the virtues of self-sacrifice and promise-keeping.
In these three ways (by rediscovering the dignity, discipline, and destination of celibacy), I said in conclusion to the lecture, in thirty, forty, or fifty years—please God—those gay and lesbian believers who are washed in the waters of baptism and waiting for the resurrection of the dead will be those who are washed and still waiting, still persevering in the hope of eternal life.
Finally, it may be worth mentioning that when I showed a draft of my paper to a sharp friend of mine, he emailed me about the double meaning of the title: Yes, gay Christians are eagerly waiting for the resurrection of the dead and the new creation, in which all pain and struggle will be gone forever, but we’re also waiting, here and now, to see whether our brothers and sisters in Christ will stand alongside us and help us in the calling of long-term chastity in our singleness. We’re waiting both in an ultimate, theological sense and also in a present-day, pragmatic sense. It’s probably easier for those of you who are straight to beat that particular drum in the church—to call on yourselves, so to speak, to be hospitable to those of us who are gay—but I thought it was a great way of picking up on a nice ambiguity in my title.
P.S. I’m hoping to publish the paper at some point, but until then, I thought it would be good to post my main points here and invite comments from readers. If you were there in the audience last night, thank you so much for being there. It was great to run into several of you afterwards!