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.

Why Do We Think the Bible is Against Same-Sex Marriage?

I’ve just returned from Calgary, Alberta where Justin Lee, the founder of the Gay Christian Network (GCN), and I had a public dialogue on All Things Gay and Christian for the Anglican Church of Canada diocese there. It’s not the first time he and I have done something like this, but we both agreed that this one seemed to touch on all the major issues—debates over biblical interpretation, the church’s need for repentance for its treatment of LGBTQ persons, the need to celebrate singleness, to name just a few—in a way we felt was particularly effective. And it helps that Justin such a gracious and generous friend.

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The Benedictine Confessional

The righteousness of the saints in this world consists
more in the forgiveness of sins
than in the perfection of virtues.
—St. Augustine

To my knowledge, I’ve only written about the so-called “Benedict Option”—the subject of Rod Dreher’s new bestselling book—once, and it was after the SCOTUS Obergefell ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in all fifty states. In that post, I quoted from the Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths:

What the pagans need on this matter [of same-sex marriage] 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.

In other words, if anyone is going to be convinced of the Scriptural, traditional Christian teaching on marriage and sex, it’s going to be because of winsome, attractive, beautiful Christian practice of that teaching. The living out of the biblical teaching on marriage is what will be persuasive, when all political and theological arguments seem to be ineffectual. And that viewpoint, it would seem, is what the “Benedict Option,” at its best, is all about. It’s about strategically regrouping and recommitting ourselves to serious discipleship so that the world can see we’re not just interested in “culture warring” but that we’re mainly about living out what we profess to believe.

I still think, two years after Obergefell, this is basically right. But I’ve also been thinking lately, since Dreher’s book has been published and I’ve now had a chance to read it, about a qualification or addendum I’d want to make: When Griffiths talks about Christians’ “burnishing the practice of marriage,” that can’t mean “practicing Christian marriage ‘successfully’ or flawlessly.” It also, and inevitably (given the reality of what the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion call the “remaining corruption” of those who are regenerated in Christ), must mean confessing sin and finding forgiveness and pursuing reconciliation in our marriages.

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Unchosen Gay Celibacy?

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A recurring theme that shows up in many articles at Spiritual Friendship is the concept of unchosen gay celibacy. As I’m in a mixed orientation marriage, it’s to be expected that I have a complicated relationship with that idea. In this post, I’d like to share some thoughts on unchosen gay celibacy from the perspective of a gay man who has chosen marriage to a woman. This is not a refutation or criticism of what’s already been written on the topic. Rather, I see it as a sort of addendum to what I believe are excellent articles that have no doubt ministered to celibate gay Christians who face the particular challenges associated with that calling.

My marital status notwithstanding, so much of what’s written here, here, and here resonates deeply with me. That’s because I’m not just nominally gay. It’s a real part of my life. Yet the calling of celibacy that those articles, as well as most of the relevant material out there, assume for gay Christians does not pertain to me. So what is the difference maker? What’s different about those of us who are contributors or who frequently participate in the conversation here at SF for whom marriage, not celibacy, is God’s calling?

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“Jigs for Marriage and Celibacy”

Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers! I know I speak for Ron and all the other contributors too when I say that we are so grateful to be in this virtual community with you all, and we’re thankful for every interaction we’ve had with you here.

Just today, Comment magazine unlocked a piece I wrote for their latest print issue on “how to die in marriage and celibacy.” An excerpt:

… Jesus goes on to discuss the matter of singleness, on which topic he is equally stringent. Don’t make the mistake, he seems to say to his followers, of thinking that if you opt out of marriage, you are thereby exempted from martyrdom. Whether one is unmarried due to a biological incapacity for spousal union or prevented from it by circumstances or embracing that state voluntarily, Jesus imagines the unwed as those whose lives are to be lived “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (19:12). Christian singleness too, like Christian marriage, is not about “brief joy and long sadness,” to return to Luther’s quote above. It is instead one more way in which we begin to unlearn selfishness, to embrace a kind of spiritual martyrdom, and find our desires redirected toward the city of God. Singleness too is about holy dying, about the sanctifying transformation of desire and belonging.

The whole piece is about how, whatever vocation we’re led into, it’s going to be a pathway of dying to our “old selves” and embracing our new life in Christ. As C. S. Lewis memorably put it, “Die before you die. There is no chance after.”

Maybe it’s an odd thought for Thanksgiving Day, but I hope that it’s an encouraging one in a roundabout way. So many of you who stop by here to read and think with us are living this life of daily death-and-resurrection, and it inspires me to no end.

A “Spirituality of Sex”?

For the month of October, Patheos is hosting a conversation among different faith traditions on “the spirituality of sex,” and they asked me to contribute an entry. Here’s how it starts:

Next time you’re near a time machine, I recommend traveling back to one of the earliest Christian churches—say, in 2nd-century Rome—and paying close attention to what you see and hear. You’ll be struck, of course, by the diversity and the odd, sometimes troubling juxtapositions: Here is a community where slaves and slave owners are drinking from the same Communion cup, where the grip of Caesar’s reign is loosened by a stronger cry: “Jesus is Lord.” Here is a group of people who give alms to the poor, who fast and sometimes mourn for the world’s pain, and sing hymns in open defiance of death, as if dying has somehow lost its terror for them. And here, perhaps most strikingly of all, is a community in which a large percentage of people are single—by choice.

The early Christians, in spite of the “family values” their differing Jewish and pagan pasts had taught them to celebrate, prized virginity. Women and men alike in the early days of the new Jesus movement gave up sex and marriage in droves. As many historians have noted, it’s one of the most extraordinary things about the beginnings of Christianity. In a world where sex was as readily available as the body of the slave in your anteroom or the prostitute in the brothel down the street, a disproportionate number of Jesus-worshipers opted for celibacy. And this may be our first clue as to what a Christian “spirituality of sex” might be: Sex, for Christians, isn’t necessary. It doesn’t “complete” anyone. It isn’t god, and it doesn’t save. If the early Christians shocked Rome by their refusal to worship Caesar, they were equally shocking in their refusal to worship sex.

You can read the rest here.

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Positive and Negative Precepts

Several years ago, Eve Tushnet wrote, “you can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of No.” This need to focus on the positive side of Christian discipleship has often been echoed by other Spiritual Friendship writers. Most recently, Melinda Selmys said, “If we are going to say ‘no’ to gay marriage, we have to provide gay people with human relationships where we offer love, fidelity and mutual support.”

stations-of-the-cross-460271_1280-1024x511This focus on the positive vocation to love is not an original formula we came up with. It is a basic element of Christian and Catholic teaching, applied to the particularities of ministry to lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons.

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Celibacy vs. Mixed Orientation Marriage: Is there too much celibacy talk in Side B?

I was talking with a friend of mine the other day about the message we send to gay people who are trying to figure out what to do with their sexuality in light of their desire to live faithfully as Christians. He, like me, is a gay man in a mixed orientation marriage. So much of what Side B writers have communicated resonates strongly with him and certainly reflects his own experience, as it does mine.

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Still, when you’re a minority of a minority of a minority, as is the case when you’re a Side B gay Christian in a mixed orientation marriage, the conversation often defaults to something that doesn’t really pertain to your situation. And my friend challenged the status quo of the Side B conversation, warning against a determinist attitude that sort of forces gay Christians into celibacy, rather than allowing them to receive it as a vocation. This is certainly not a new critique; it has been brought up before by Side A writers and thinkers, as well as those who would oppose the very language of sexual orientation. But is there something to it? Something that even Side B Christians can acknowledge should be tweaked or corrected—or at least clarified—in our remarks on faithful Christian living for gays and lesbians?

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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.