“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.

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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