“Washed and Still Waiting”

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.

I discussed the kinds of things we’ve talked a lot about here—the sorts of habits and practices that will help sustain healthy celibacy.

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!

24 thoughts on ““Washed and Still Waiting”

  1. Do not forget Luke 17:1-10.

    Even if you should fail in your chastity and celibacy- forgiveness is possible, and as long as you are alive, you can climb back on that horse.

    And no- it isn’t any easier for straight people to stay on that horse. It is in fact, perhaps harder- because secular society doesn’t care about marriage anymore, at least, not enough to put lifelong heteronormative monogamy for the sake of procreation in the unique role it deserves to be in.

  2. You made such an important point. We prepare people for membership and with pre-marital counseling but have no preparation or system in place for helping sustain celibacy. Definitely will be reading more of your blogs. We have worked hard on spiritual formation, preparing people for marriage and supporting marriages but we have nothing on celibacy. Thanks for pointing out the need.

  3. I am a retired Pastor and Counselor in Switzerland and I am very grateful for “Washed and waiting”, which I I have finished reading just now. It really fills a huge gap. As a heterosexual man I have nevertheless struggled now for years with the question how to deal with homosexual Christians in the Church. Often I have felt torn apart between my love and faithfulness towards scriptural truth and compassion for homosexual Christians with their tremendous burden. I tried to soften the biblical statements with much effort, but did not suceed…. Wesley Hill gives a difficult answer, but he instills faith: It is possible and it is worthwile.
    But one torturing question has stayed unanswered since years and in all the ariticles and books I could not find a satisfying answer. It is 1Corinthians 6:9-10. I have come to the conclusion, after much research and praying, that Paul did not speak here from a special kind of homosexuality but of EVERY kind of homosexual acts. But in Vers 10 he clearly states, that such will not inherit the kingdom of God.
    I know sincere Christians personally, who have not chosen the way of celibacy, but the way of living faithful homosexual partnerships. I do not agree with them. But it seems to me, that they live with Jesus, that they know his voice, that they have the holy spirit. And some of them really have tried to change or to stay celibate.
    Are they really lost forever? Is there an answer to this question? It is not an academic question. It really haunts me.

    • The questions are hard, aren’t they? I can tell you really care. I think all of it boils down to what true happiness is. But what is true happiness? Different people will give different answers. I truly want everyone to be happy but at the same time I don’t want people to ignore the will of God in an attempt to be happy. I don’t think there is true happiness and realization outside the will of God.
      In regards to salvation, my catholic faith teaches that, at any given state of life a person can enjoy God’s grace or cannot enjoy it. This can happen many times throughout life. And when you die, if you are not enjoying the grace of God, you are not saved, which basically means that you will never again enjoy His grace.

    • Jens

      I can totally understand where you are coming from. I think you bring up a good point. Where do those who have chosen to be in same sex relationships— have chosen to be open to a same sex relationship or those who affirm same sex marriages, stand before God? It’s not just the married guys but those who support them that have to consider God’s will, God’s word. Yet, we also have to consider God’s relationship.

      You said “ But it seems to me, that they live with Jesus, that they know his voice, that they have the holy spirit. And some of them really have tried to change or to stay celibate.” and then you read the words in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and you feel haunted. That is cognitive dissonance. What we don’t understand about scripture or God’s will but we do understand about God’s presence is that He works with people where they are. So this comes to a conscience issue as well. If you think it is sin it is sin. If you think it is not sin it is not sin. But if someone else thinks it is sin be respectful of their conscience. One example of a sin which God looked over and saved the individuals was Rahab who lied. I am sure there are others like soldier who kill in war. We wrestle with the definition of sin more than we have to, instead we have to get to the business of caring for people. If anyone respects our conscience it is God. Even God understands that we can’t always see clearly that includes, me , you, Spiritual Friendship writers, Pastors and the Apostles.

      We can’t predict perfectly the future or someone’s salvation or understand the past and the day to day life and experiences Christians were having at the time Paul was writing, but we can love each other in the present. Spiritual Friendship does an amazing service to those who are celibate and believe same sex behaviour is sin, through their encouragement and edification. But for those who do not see it as sin there are ministers and Christians who are equally encouraging and edifying in the faith. It depends on the situation you find yourself in and the people in your life around you.

      I compare it to a war analogy. Some people are at the battlefront and life is much different for them than those who are at home in the safety and comfort of their beds. Thier life experience is much different. The rules are thrown out the window in the midst of the life and death battle— the hand to hand combat for those who face choices or consequences I don’t have to face. Wesley is right to say “If gay and lesbian Christians are to be able to embrace long-term sexual abstinence, they need more than biblical theology.” Therefore in the real day to day life of LGBT person we have to recognize and understand the position they are in. Are they at the breaking point? Are the choosing promiscuity over a faithful relationship? Are they living alone? Can they come out and be supported ? Are they safe?

      When you get that call and your LGBT friend is standing outside a gay club asking you to talk them out of it— when you get that 3 am text and they are heading into a risky situation you will understand then what kind of choices faithful Christians are being pushed to consider when they are lonely and starving for human connection. I can’t relate to everyone’s circumstances because I make my decisions and process life differently. I can be open about my sexuality, I can go to a gay club without picking up but I can’t judge anyone who sees a gay club as a sinful place and a place to go to have illicit sex. The gay club is perceived differently based on your perspective and beliefs about it. So your frame of reference is not determined by the Bible or the agreement of what the truth is about God’s will. Rather it is how you see thing through your lens. Therefore, at night when I go to sleep and lay my head on my comfy pillow, I am more haunted by the thoughts of my faithful God loving LGBT friends suffering in loneliness and perceiving everything about themselves as sexual temptation and the temptation to take risks than I worry about my same sex friends who have loving marriages.

      • Perception is relative. The will of God is not. Cognitive dissonance is very difficult to deal with. We have to be aware of our limitations and proceed with lots of caution but still there is an absolute Truth that pushes to be known and that we shouldn’t ignore. What I’m haunted by is the fear of offending God if I’m not loving and forgiving. The fear of pushing someone even further away from His beauty and loving presence. This pushing away can come about by being unkind and presenting the Truth in a hateful, bias way. But it also can come about by hiding the Truth, by being afraid to make it shine in front of all, being scare of hurting others with it is also a sure way of pushing people away from Him.

        God bless us all and guide us to His light.

      • I will add, that’s why I like SF so much. I think they do a wonderful job in upholding the Truth in a very kind and loving way. They live the Truth in spite of the personal cost and I sense (I hope) they are gentle not only with others but with themselves. I have so much to learn from them. I pray that God blessed their work as surely He will.

      • Jesus died because of absolutes he knows we can’t live up to them. He said whenever you clothe the naked you clothed me He made a statement bigger than how we treat others He made a statement about how he as God identifies with our suffering – our relative experiences.

      • Another thing cognitive dissonance acts as a warning system that something is wrong with our reality and the things we are told are true which don’t fit “truth” at all.

      • I think cognitive dissonance actually brings forth the tension that exits between our “reality” and absolute Truth or what is the ideal. People have to resolve this tension. Some hang to the ideal and are unforgiving of the ones that fall short, including themselves. Some get rid of the ideal all together denying even the possibility of absolute Truth. Both of these are wrong. Finding the correct resolution to cognitive dissonance is very difficult.

      • Let’s talk about tension then- sexual tension and what it really is (which is not cognitive dissonance.) Definitions are warranted.

        Exhibit A) Sexual tension- is a social phenomenon that occurs when two individuals interact and one or both feel sexual desire, but the consummation is postponed or never happens

        AND

        Exhibit B) Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance etc.

        Therefore the idea that the cognitive dissonance experienced by LGBT christians, brings forth tension is false . It brings forth suffering and that suffering is what this is all about. That we must suffer in this way and take up our cross and deny ourselves. Cognitive dissonance is discomfort. A quote from a psychology article “ According to cognitive dissonance theory, there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions. When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance.” So what SF proposes is that spiritual friendship will lessen the cognitive dissonance aka the suffering so that a LGBT christian can endure and even thrive as a celibate. I don’t disagree that this approach is viable but I have found it is not a panacea for all LGBT christian experiences and we must address that reality. I think God understands this despite what anyone thinks. He is working in other areas of the Christian body to help those who suffer from cognitive dissonance in different capacities.

        So what is sexual tension then? Sexual tension is a beautiful experience of romantic attraction and desire that elevates the person to experience appreciation for the ‘other’. If properly understood it can lead to an honorable expression of admiration. I propose that sexual tension is beautiful. Just like a man has a certain way with a virgin as written in the psalms a lesbian woman has a certain way with a woman that appreciates her beauty and honors her as cherished. It breaks my heart that LGBT persons do not have the freedom to express their romantic affections with flirting or dating. Sexual tension is the orientation that we talk about- the lens through which we view our personal interactions with other people. So that is a clarification on my part.

        thanks for engaging me Rosamin

      • Kathy, thanks for your insights. It was helpful to be reminded of God taking seriously the individual conscience, situation and battlefield. This morning I talked with my son, who is the SeniorPastor of the Church I am involved in, he has recently written an opinion paper about how to deal with LGBT people in our Church in the future and has started to discuss it with the other pastors and Elders. A son of one of the best and most mature families in our Church, himself a committed, spiritfilled, proven Christian, has outed himself as “helplessly” gay, very similar story to Wesley’s. He is just now in the process of planning his future and his way of life. Now it is in our midst…. My son and me also spoke about 1.Corinthians 6:9-10 and we developed these ideas:
        “not inherit the kingdom of God” – that is not an absolute statement about EVERYBODY, who practises homosexual sex, but it DOES point in a certain direction: It is just not good. It is a general statement from Paul and must not be applied to EVERY situation. Because there are so many differences. A bleeding person on the battlefield will be looked at differently by God’s judging but loving eyes.
        “Therefore in the real day to day life of LGBT person we have to recognize and understand the position they are in.” That is a really good statement from you.

      • Thanks you Jens

        I wish you and your son abounding grace and wisdom as you navigate this tender issue together. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful words. We all have much to learn and many to love.

        God bless you all

    • Consider the source. Paul was a butcher who specifically gloated about using trickery (lies) to win converts [2 Corinthians 12:16] in defiance of rules set forth by God [Proverbs 12:22, Proverbs 14:5, Revelation 22:15, and more]. He never actually even met Christ (there was the road to Damascus, but there were no credible witnesses to it, and we are dealing with a guy who we know to be a liar due to his own writing in Corinthians). I am not saying you have to throw him out or approach him in a full on Thomas Jefferson way but just remember that he is just a guy.

  4. I am a 56 year old Evangelical Christian man who is attracted to other men. Although it certainly has not been easy, with God’s help and a community of genuine friends I have remained celibate my whole life. I am happy and hopeful for even more future joy.

    My friend Tom Zuniga is starting a new blog in a few weeks where I will be sharing my story along with several other guys who also deal with gay attractions. Watch for it!

  5. I’m not entirely convinced that this post addresses Jeff’s concern. It’s not lost on me that most of the evangelical bloggers at SF operate in something of a cloistered context, as their jobs place them in contexts where they can fellowship with Christians who are less likely to hold prejudicial views about gay people.

    And while I like the ideas that are discussed here (and they’ve helped me better come to terms with being a gay Christian), I have severe doubts as to whether the SF narrative can be lived out in any meaningful way for an average churchgoer who works in the secular world. Evangelical churches are simply too full of people who harbor negative views about gay people. And we don’t have the option of retreating to the cloister on weekdays.

    In fact, one of my frustrations with this project is that it lacks a tangible plan as to what it’s aiming to achieve. How does it address the rank homophobia that persists in many evangelical churches? How does it address certain evangelical groups (e.g., CBMW, ERLC) that insist on falsely misrepresenting gay people so as to perpetuate homophobia within the church? How does it address the fact that our mobile society trends toward coupling as the primary form of interpersonal commitment? And, for those of us who are Protestant and view marriage as largely contractual, how does a bilateral spiritual friendship look any different from a same-sex marriage that’s light on sex (bearing in mind that Protestants generally believe that anything short of “home plate” is not sex)? What does that mean for those of us who are more emotionally and romantically inclined, and who prefer to hang out around second/third base?

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