Gay Students at Christian Colleges: What’s Our Vision for Their Flourishing?

In January, I spoke to a room full of Christian college presidents for the annual gathering of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. The topic they set for me was how to talk about a Christian theology of marriage with real compassion for students wrestling through questions of sexual identity. The CCCU has now transcribed my remarks, and you can read them here.

An excerpt:

I want to suggest to you that one of the most important things you can do on your campuses is cast a vision of what a hopeful future could look like for your students who are same-sex attracted. For so many of us, when we think about living out our lives in the evangelical church as gay—and as celibate, probably, for most of us—the future looks blank. We can’t picture what it would look like because we don’t have models of how this goes. I’ve spent all my life in the church, and I have rarely seen people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who are talking openly about what it looks like to embrace a vocation of celibacy.

I remember recently talking to a Roman Catholic friend of mine who grew up in the church. He said, “From the time I was 4 years old, it was a huge question in my mind as to whether God might call me to be celibate”—because God might call him to be a priest. As soon as I heard him say that, I thought, “Our childhoods were so profoundly different because it never occurred to me that God might call me to be celibate. It never occurred to me to contemplate the single life.” I always simply assumed I’d go to college and meet my spouse like my parents did and live a Christian life by having kids and being part of a family values church. That was the future; that was the path. It never occurred to me that God might have in mind a vocation of celibacy. I apparently never read 1 Corinthians 7.

But this is the challenge for you, to cast a vision—and it doesn’t have to be one vision; I think there are 100 different models that this could take for your students—but to cast a vision [for your students]: “This is what a hopeful future looks like for you. If you’re same-sex attracted, and you’ve tried everything, and you haven’t experienced one iota of change in your same-sex attraction, and you’re wanting to give your life to God in celibacy, that does not have to equal loneliness. That does not have to equal isolation. … There’s a life for you. There’s a future for you that doesn’t simply look like alienation from your fellow believers in the church who seem to be so fixated on the nuclear family.” … What I am praying for you is that you will find yourself thinking of your same-sex attracted students not as a liability on your campus, but as people you’re in solidarity with.

You can read the rest here.

4 thoughts on “Gay Students at Christian Colleges: What’s Our Vision for Their Flourishing?

  1. Thank you, Wesley, for your insights. It is true we need to be more attentive to teaching and providing examples for gay young people striving to know how to live their Christian values, particularly as a celibate Christian. This is an urgent need in the Catholic Church. The choice for living according to the church’s teachings often look, as you worded it so well, “blank.” And yet, we have a rich tapestry on which to draw from Scripture, the lived history of Christians (and others) and contemporary witnesses to the good life (although we need more!). Peace be with you and may God bless your witness. -Fr. James

  2. Hi Wesley,

    Thank you so much for your honesty, vulnerability, and thoughtfulness in how you engage in discussions both in writing and in your talks. I am so thankful God made smart people like you! You often seem to articulate so well the things I am feeling or trying to think but fail to articulate or formulate cohesive thoughts hah. You are a hero of the faith, and I know you’re still young and will hopefully have many years to go, but to me you’re one of my heroes!

    I find two things thought perplexing that I want to keep pondering: the idea of finding a vocation in my same-sex attractions vs the push to “recovery” only and the other one is how to cast a vision for a hopeful future that has more than three options for one who is navigating same-sex attractions and wants to honor God with their sexuality. I see how both of those actually can help each other.

  3. I wonder if this question isn’t too narrow. I’m asexual and don’t find myself to be well suited to domesticity. At this point, I’m single. But even if I were to marry, I suspect that my marriage would follow a different model from the hearth-and-home model that pervades the evangelical imagination.

    So, it’s not just that church life looks blank for gay people. It looks utterly blank for anyone who isn’t interested in settling into a traditionalist family structure.

    When I last attended church regularly, I was living in a city that was 45% single. And, if you excluded people without college degrees, it was about 70% single. Even so, at my PCA church there, more than 85% of members and 70% of regular attenders were married couples with children. Assuming that the church is only pulling from a college-educated demographic, that means that the church did only 1/6 as well at attracting single regular attenders and 1/12 as well at attracting single members. But this wasn’t a substantial concern at all. Instead, the church’s outreach efforts were focused on a Somali immigrant community in the city’s far reaches. Week after week, the church would pray about its outreach to this Muslim, non-English-speaking community that lay a good 7 miles away. Meanwhile, the church had no interest in reaching out to the litany of single professionals who lived within a three-minute walk.

    I fear that we miss the point when we focus too much on the narrow question of what the church is supposed to do with single gay Christians. Heck, the church doesn’t even know what to do with single non-gay Christians. If we can focus on the broader question of what the church is to do with single Christians generally, then I suspect that we’ll implicitly address many of the concerns of single gay Christians.

    I recently moved and decided to attend church after a 15-month hiatus. Big mistake! The couple next to me saw that I was single, and obnoxiously went out of their way to introduce me to a single woman during the passing of the peace. Then, when going to the front for communion, they asked me if I wanted to join them for communion so that I wouldn’t have to do it alone. After taking communion, I headed straight for the door. It’s clear that evangelical churches are deeply uncomfortable with singleness, and generally see it as a problem that needs to be fixed. Until that changes, I see little hope that we can find any adequate answer for what role single gay Christians are to play in the church.

    That said, I foresee little hope for change. In most cases, the “family values” theology is far more central to evangelical identity than anything in the Nicene Creed. I see no need in wasting my time trying to fit into the existing institutional structure of evangelicalism. In my view, it’s time for institutional evangelicalism to face some Schumpeterian creative destruction. I’m much more interested in exploring institutional alternatives to evangelicalism. that are more explicitly post-evangelical from the ground up.

    • I had a giggle at your experience in the church of being introduced to a single woman during the peace and then the offer to go to communion with the couple so you wouldn’t be alone. Oh how it resonates.

      I recently went to a wedding overseas. As a 52 year old single man, I cant say I go to many weddings but their were compelling reasons to support this particular couple. I had a nice few days in the country by myself before the wedding then caught up with some of the others attending at the hotel we were staying at. While seated, before the wedding started, I was seated next to a man I know only a little. He said to me “I hear you need prayer about getting married….” I kind of stiffened, and a little gruffly asked how he knew that (it isnt something I have specifically asked for prayer about) and then a little more softly simply said I was happy to be prayed for about all matters.

      A couple of days later, I teamed up with a married couple who are friends and had attended the wedding, for a road trip for a few days before flying home. I hadn’t been on a trip with the before, or spent so much time together. The first day, the woman said to me while we were in the car ” we won’t talk too much because we understand that as you live alone you might find that uncomfortable”,……..I managed to suppress my feelings of offence and we had a nice few days.

      I guess I am just sharing these couple of recent experiences because they are kind of funny, but also they hurt a little. I mean, really, some folks seem so clueless about relating to single people, as if they feel they need to have read a book about it before they do, or they need to treat a single person in a careful and special way. In my experience within the church there are often two extreme reactions – either pity and an attempt to rectify my singleness, or what is almost contempt or a sense of being quarantined because there must be something wrong with me… The first is frustrating but well intentioned and I try and look at it as a clumsy attempt at showing me love. It can make me a bit angry at times, but what hurts more is the other extreme of rejection.

      I attended an independent baptist church for a year, which had generally good biblical teaching. I am fairly outgoing in getting to know people, initiating contact and inviting people to my home for a meal. I spent a year trying this with folk there and was largely ignored or politely smiled at. I made invitations which were brushed off, and I never received an invitation myself. I managed to get the pastor and his wife around to my home, but only I think because my parents were visiting at the time. After a year of being effectively ignored I moved to a different church.

      An older couple, who left the church at the same time, became more friendly afterwards, and wanted a lot of contact and support because of their experience in the church. I have often found that couples are needing my support but not always so much thinking I might need some support too!

      It has been a battle since to feel I can connect with people in congregations and I really haven’t been part of a regular congregation for a couple of years now. I am not happy with this situation but honestly feel so burned, and despite research simply cannot find a likely church anywhere nearby that I could attend. But I do believe the Lord will provide – I am looking to him and pray for grace not to be consumed with self pity by these experiences. I also wonder, given events in our world and the increasing rejection in western societies of any christian principles that church may become very different in the near future and that perhaps home based groups will again become the normal church experience.

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