One Brief Thought on the “Architecture” of the Various Christian Callings

This past weekend I visited City Church in San Francisco to have a public conversation with my friend Julie Rodgers about moral disagreement over same-sex marriage in the church. The goal of the conversation was to explore our differences—Julie is “Side A,” which means she believes God blesses same-sex marriages, and I’m “Side B,” believing that marriage is “male and female”—and to talk about what it might look like to find friendship and some kind of common cause in the midst of disagreement.

I won’t go into all of what happened at the event—the audio recording should be posted soon at the church’s website, and you can listen for yourself—but I did want to reflect a bit here on a couple of the points of divergence between Julie and me, in the hope of continuing the conversation…

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Desiring Differently

For my money, some of the very sharpest, most creative, most genuinely helpful stuff being written on Christian faith and (homo)sexuality is by my friend Steve Holmes, a Baptist minister who teaches theology at the University of St. Andrews. I’ve mentioned Steve before here at SF—if you haven’t already, do read about his “Queer Hippo” project, and check out this interview with Vicki Beeching—and I wanted to mention him again today because he’s just posted the paper he gave at this year’s meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.

Here’s an excerpt that I hope will entice a lot of you to go and read the whole essay:

At some point in the twentieth century, we in the West became convinced that sexual activity is necessary for healthy and properly adult human life. Let me, inexactly, call this the ‘Freudian’ position. The call to celibacy in this context sounds like an act of astonishing cruelty, depriving someone of a basic necessity for human flourishing.

Our inherited ethical tradition does not have the language or arguments to deal with this challenge, because it is not the challenge it was crafted to address. We have, literally, nothing to say theologically (and this is true whether we think the right way forward is conservative or progressive, which is why there are presently so few good books on sexual ethics from any side).

It gets worse, though: for a couple of generations, we Evangelicals – and all other Protestants – essentially surrendered to this error by making marriage an inevitable part of Christian maturity. We constructed church programmes on the assumption that single people were either young adults preparing for marriage or elderly and widowed; we doubted ministerial candidates who was not married, because they could therefore not be properly ‘grown up’. This was a capitulation to an error, but it sort of worked OK – until the churches were forced to acknowledge that some people are lesbian/gay/exclusively same-sex attracted, and so not able to accept the inevitability of (traditional) marriage. If we think marriage belongs necessarily to the fulness of life, not in a response to death, then we have no answers for lesbian and gay disciples that are not culturally unimaginable and unspeakably cruel.

We can see this capitulation working itself out in the way in which, in many churches, the beginning and end of sexual ethics is telling young people to ‘save themselves for marriage’ as if sex was an uncomplicated human good that merely needs to be properly located by our moral reasoning. Let us be completely clear: that is not a Christian sexual ethic; that is the ethic of a pagan fertility cult that worships sex because it cannot believe in the resurrection of Christ. We should rather teach people, young and old, married and single – and in complex erotic relationships – that their lived responses to their sexual desires must be ever increasingly ordered to the resurrected life of the Kingdom.

The deep reflection of the Church on the Scriptures has led to the conviction that there are two, and only two, ways of life that are so ordered: marriage and celibacy. Marriage – if it is to be something good, and not merely a concession to our stony hearts, is absolutely not a space for the unlimited indulgence of sexual desires. Rather, it is a set of practices in and through which we learn to desire differently. We’ve heard already Paul insisting on a mutual bodily surrender between spouses in 1 Corinthians; these internal acts of mutual submission, of re-ordering our sinful and selfish desires, are reinforced by the necessary openness to procreation that exists in the marriage relationship. Children, in the light of the resurrection of Christ, are not a way of responding to death, but an opportunity for our crabbed and incurved selves to be opened out in love.

Celibacy, if it is to be something good, and not merely the presence of an absence, is similarly a set of practices in and through which we learn to desire differently. Lacking the opportunity to endlessly submit to a spouse, the celibate Christian will intentionally seek ways to open her life out in love – and the church, if it is to be faithful to the gospel of the resurrection – must offer her such ways. Inevitably these will involve practices of community, probably ordered by rule; I strongly suspect that they will need to involve the sorts of vowed friendships that Wesley Hill was talking about in part on Tuesday night.

Please read the whole thing.

The Future of Asceticism

Over the last couple of years, Eve Tushnet and I have batted around the idea of co-writing a blog post or essay as if we were looking back on the present from the vantage point of fifty years or so. What will be different in Christian conversations about homosexuality in several decades? And what will we wish we had changed sooner?

I’ve been thinking again about this as I’ve been reading the Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley’s newest book this past week, The New Asceticism: Gender, Sexuality and the Quest for God, which I hope to write a lot more about here in the days to come (and which I’ll be reviewing for Books & Culture). One of the main things Coakley is concerned to do in this book is to help us all achieve better, more Christian disagreements with each other, and the sort of future she imagines for “sexuality” discussions is one that I am powerfully drawn to.

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Why Should A Straight Person Care About Spiritual Friendship?

Editor’s Note: Matthew Loftus, a family physician, will soon leave his current life in Sandtown, Baltimore to move with his wife and children to South Sudan, where he will serve at His House of Hope Hospital. A writer for multiple publications such as MereOrthodoxy.com, ChristandPopCulture.com, First Things, and The American Conservative, he is also a regular columnist for Christianity Today. Matthew is a personal friend to some of us who write here at SF, and it’s an honor to have his first “guest post” with us today. — Wesley Hill

The author with his family, some of whom have disordered inclinations towards the natural use of their tongues.

The author with his family, some of whom have disordered inclinations towards the unnatural use of their tongues.

Unlike many other people who write or post on social media about the Church and LGBT relations, I don’t have a lot of gay friends. I have a handful of close friends who are either out publicly or who have confided about their sexuality to me, but I haven’t had to walk through the same difficult journeys that many others have experienced as they tried to support and care for loved ones who wrestled with their faith and sexuality. Even the intense conversations I’ve had with my gay and lesbian friends who introduced me to Wesley Hill’s Washed & Waiting and the rest of the Spiritual Friendship crew have not exactly been epochal for any of us involved.

When Wesley found out about this, he asked me to write about why I was still so interested in Spiritual Friendship. It had never struck me that a big emotional investment was necessary to be sharing and commenting on SF posts, but the question was a great opportunity for me to reflect: why should straight people care about Spiritual Friendship and the questions taken up here?

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Are Evangelicals More Revisionist on Marriage than We Think?

Wedding Rings

Over at the Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax asks whether Evangelicals are more revisionist on marriage than we think?

Catholics, of course, have our own problems; if we have not altered our teaching on sexual ethics, few in the pews take it seriously. And so there is substantial pressure on the Synod Fathers from within the Church to alter teaching on remarriage after divorce, as well as pressure to alter the teaching on same-sex unions. In highlighting Evangelical discussions of inconsistency in sexual ethics, I’m not trying to cast stones at other Christians, but simply drawing attention to an important discussion of the need for greater consistency in discussions of marriage.

After discussing several ways that Evangelicals have adopted the view of marriage held the surrounding culture, Wax concludes:

When we share the same undergirding ideas about marriage as the culture, the Christian’s “no” to same-sex marriage looks arbitrary and motivated by animus toward our LGBT neighbors rather than being a part of a comprehensive vision of marriage that counteracts our culture in multiple ways.

We are not called merely to reject wrong views of marriage; we are called to build a marriage culture where the glorious vision of complementarity, permanence, and life-giving union of a man and woman, for the good of their society, can flourish. Rebuilding a marriage culture must be more than lamenting the current state of the world at multiple conferences a year. It must include the strengthening of all our marriages within the body of Christ: from the truck driver, to the police officer, to the teacher, and the stay-at-home mom.

Success is not having church members say gay marriage “is wrong.” Success is when the Christian vision of marriage is so beautiful that revisionist definitions of marriage “make no sense.”

For more on these themes, see my Ethika Politika article on The Abolition of Marriage, and this discussion of a First Things article, What Is Marriage to Evangelical Millennials?

And, of course, be sure to check out Trevin Wax’s full article at the Gospel Coalition.

The Pastoral Promise of “Vowed” Friendships

Sam Allberry, a Christian minister and someone who has been open about his own same-sex attraction, has written a review of my Spiritual Friendship book, and this week I’ve been posting some responses to it (see the first one here and the second one here). I’m grateful to Sam for his engagement of what I’ve written. And because his reaction to my book is one that I’ve encountered before, I thought it would be worth talking about. So here, again, is Sam’s basic worry about my book:

… it seems to me that resurrecting “vowed” friendships will only add to the current confusion about friendship. It’s hard to imagine such friendships not being confused with sexual partnerships. We also need to be mindful of the potential danger, particularly for two friends with same-sex attraction, of fostering unhealthy intimacy and of emotional over-dependency…

This line of criticism is something we at SF tend to hear a lot, and I hope a lot of us here decide to write more about it in the near future. Francesca Aran Murphy voiced a similar worry about Eve Tushnet’s book Gay and Catholic: “It just seems to me that there’s something inherently erotic about ‘vows,’ so that ‘vowed friendship’ [as Tushnet calls it] is friendship perpetually on the verge of turning into erotic friendship.”

In a previous post I already gave some indication of how I’d respond to this: Basically, the fact that close, promise-bound friendships can be problematically “eroticized” doesn’t mean must be. The fact that something can become distorted doesn’t automatically mean the thing itself is bad. (For the positive case—that vowed friendships are, or can be, good, I’d say go read Eve’s book!)

Now for today here’s one other thought. Sam’s criticism seems to assume we’re talking about two gay Christian people who are contemplating entering a vowed friendship. But what about those who are already in such relationships?

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Forsaking All Others

For one of my graduate school classes last year we learned to create lists of goals with a counseling client, a process called “goaling.” Our professor went through the process with a classmate and then asked each of us to break up into pairs and work through goaling with our partner. After dictating to my partner, a close friend of mine, we were instructed to begin talking through how to order them and to make sure they were just hard enough to be difficult but not so difficult as to be impossible. After doing this together I had assembled what I felt was a good list. It covered the major areas of my life: spiritual, educational, personal, and financial. My partner felt that after looking at my list something was missing. He didn’t say what he thought that could be other than that it just felt like my list was missing something. At that point it dawned on me the things that everyone else in my class’s list included but were missing from mine. So I leaned over to complete my list that he had been recording on his laptop and wrote the following at the top of my list:

  1. To marry the man I love.
  2. To have a family who is centered on Christ and that we would grow closer to Him and to each other.
  3. To have a home that is a refuge for many.

After writing these it took me a moment to absorb the shock of actually verbalizing these desires. My friend was then satisfied that I had written an honest list rather than merely the list I felt I should write. After looking at it for a moment I then deleted the three additions and left the list as it was originally.

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Copyright 2015 Gregg Webb

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Hoping for Love

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My friend Alan Jacobs, a traditional sort of Anglican Christian, wrote this the day after the Obergefell ruling:

Perhaps I am soft on sin, or otherwise deficient in serious Christian formation — actually, it’s certain that I am — but in any case I could not help being moved by many of the scenes yesterday of gay people getting married, even right here in Texas. I hope that many American gays and lesbians choose marriage over promiscuity, and I hope those who marry stay married, and flourish.

I know what he’s saying. I felt that too.

But I was thinking more today, What is that experience? For those of us like me who hold to a Christian view of marriage that contradicts the SCOTUS definition, what does it mean to be moved by scenes of gay marriage?

Well, for starters—and I’m speaking for myself here, not necessarily for Alan—I think that for many, many (not all) gay people in America today, the options have not been (1) belong to a healthy, vibrant Christian community in which celibacy is held in high esteem and deep spiritual friendships with members of the same sex and opportunities for loving service and hospitality abound or (2) be in a romantic relationship with a partner of the same sex. That has not been the choice facing many gay and lesbian people. Instead, for many (not all) today, the options have been (1) be ostracized (or worse) in church and effectively live without meaningful same-sex closeness of any kind or (2) be in a romantic relationship with a partner of the same sex. Listen, readers, this is the reality for many gay people who have had a brush with the Christian church in recent years:

So many people have been told (explicitly) that they aren’t welcome, treated as problems rather than persons. They’ve been disowned, had their trust betrayed and their confidences exposed, been kicked out of their homes and their churches, threatened with expulsion. They’ve listened as preachers proclaimed that people like them were destroying the church, that their desires were uniquely and Satanically destructive, that homosexuality by its nature cut them off from God; that their only hope for a faithful Christian life was to repent of their homosexuality, become straight, and get married. All by Christians who claimed that their actions were the result of their faith in Jesus.

And often this abuse—I know labels can obscure complexity but in this case I think naming the abuse is important—is inflicted on people who are trying to live out the full Christian sexual ethic. The treatment they receive would be unjustifiable even if (and even when) they reject Christian teaching on homosexuality, but what’s sort of amazing is that simply self-identifying as gay or even “struggling with same-sex attraction” will earn you condemnation and shame in many Christian communities. Your shame is treated as a sign of faith; any hints of self-acceptance are treated as rejection of God. It should come as little surprise that many of the people who receive this mistreatment eventually reject (what I believe to be) the Christian sexual ethic, and often reject Christianity entirely.

So, I think part of the reason I got a lump in my throat on Friday as I was scrolling through news feeds and seeing gay friends’ pictures pop up on Facebook and Twitter is because I know that for so many of these people, the alternative to their current jubilation has been a gulf of loneliness and marginalization. I persist in believing in the traditional Christian picture of marriage—what G. K. Chesterton once called a “triangle of truisms,” i.e., “father, mother and child”—but I know that when many people depart from it, they’re doing so after undergoing a significant amount of ill-treatment.

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The “Benedict Option” and the Dazzled Pagan Eye

After yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage (about which more here), there’s been a lot of chatter in my Twitter feed and email inbox about the so-called “Benedict Option”—the view that we traditionalist Christians, who continue to believe that marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman, are in a kind of cultural exile and that our calling, therefore, is to “a limited, strategic withdrawal… from the mainstream of American popular culture, for the sake of shoring up our understanding of what the church is, and what we must do to be the church” (as Rod Dreher puts it). In other words, a lot of my orthodox Christian friends are asking what it looks like to be faithful to Christian teaching now that the state’s definition of marriage diverges so widely from the church’s biblical and traditional definition.

One of the earliest posts I read on this approach was by the Duke Divinity School theologian Paul Griffiths, published years ago on his now (alas!) closed-down blog. Probably around 2006 or 2007, from what I can remember, Griffiths wrote this:

In the America of our day, it is about as difficult (or as easy) to make what the Church teaches about marriage comprehensible and convincing (the latter more difficult than the former) to the educated locals as it is to make the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception or the Real Presence so.

If that empirical claim is right… , then the conclusion strongly suggested by it is that the Church should not, at the moment, oppose legal recognition of same-sex unions. Those who have undergone a profoundly pagan catechesis on these questions will believe and behave as pagans do; it would be good for them and for the Church if the Church were not to attempt to constrain them by advocating positions in public policy based upon the view that what she teaches resonates in all human hearts—because it doesn’t, true though it is.

What the pagans need on this matter is conversion, not argument; and what the Church ought to do to encourage that is to burnish the practice of marriage by Catholics until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.

Griffiths has since the time of this writing apparently shifted his views on same-sex marriage, but I’m not interested in exploring that change here. What I am interested in is Griffiths’ final sentence from this old blog post, which has haunted me ever since I first read it: The church’s calling now, and all the more so now that Griffiths’ hypothetical legalization of same-sex marriage is now the law of the land, is to burnish the practice of marriage until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.

On the surface of it, I’m not sure how that strategy would work. How is it that Christians’ purifying of their own male-and-female marriages will work to convince, say, a happily satisfied pagan couple to give up their gay sex and convert to traditional Christianity? How is that, to return to the Benedict Option mentioned above, Christians’ strategic withdrawal from mainstream culture and our commitment to our own re-conversion will prove attractive to an indifferent, or hostile, pagan world?

I’m not sure what the answers to these questions are, but I am increasingly convinced those are precisely the questions to ask.

But let me go ahead take a stab anyway at imagining some answers.

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An Initial Response to SCOTUS: Where Do We Look for the End of Loneliness?

Over at First Things, I’ve contributed to a symposium on yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling. The questions each of us were given to answer were these: “How should we respond to how the Supreme Court has ruled? What’s next?”

My answer started off with a riff on a really affecting gay memoir:

In his memoir Denial: My Twenty-Five Years Without a Soul, the gay journalist Jonathan Rauch says that there once existed a frightened young man tortured with the certainty that there was no place in the world for the love he experienced. That man was Rauch, and there was no home for him—none, that is, until he and his fellow Americans decided he had the right to marry. “They and he have found, at last, a name for his soul. It is not monster or eunuch. Nor indeed homosexual. It is: husband.”

When I read Rauch’s book, that last sentence left a lump in my throat. That receiving the word husband felt to Rauch like the relief of a negative biopsy—“You’re not sick or twisted or crazy; you’re just hindered from giving and receiving love, and now the hindrance is removed”—goes a long way toward explaining the jubilation so many gay and lesbian people feel in the wake of the Obergefell v. Hodges SCOTUS ruling. Finally, their loves may be dignified not with the anemic moniker friend or partner or the clinical epithet disordered or the disdainful slur pervert but rather with the venerable, ordinary, immediately recognizable words husband or wife.

You can read the rest of what I wrote by clicking through—basically, in my contribution, I fault us Christians, the churches themselves, for our complicity in promoting erroneous views of marriage (“we,” not just “them,” share the blame!)—but I wanted to take the opportunity here to say a little bit more.

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