Voluntary Or Not, Celibacy Is A Gift

Sunrise view taken by the STS-109 crew aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. NASA Identifier: sts109-345-032

Wes Hill has just written a wonderful (favorite I’ve ever read?) reflection on “the long defeat” of the Christian life, and how that intersects with the call to celibacy outside of a marriage between a man and a woman. Please read it!

As I was taking it in, another thought struck me, one that I and others have written about before, but came into sharper focus as I read Wes’ words. It has to do with the charisma, or gift, of celibacy. I have heard this gift used as an argument against the traditional sexual ethic. The case, as fairly as I can put it, goes something like this: throughout church history celibacy has been a voluntary state chosen in conjunction with a call from God. But to “mandate” celibacy for all gay Christians removes it from the realm of voluntary and places it in the realm of requirement. And requiring celibacy for those who have not discerned the gift of celibacy for themselves is cruel and outside the heart of God.

This would be an appropriate place to discuss the calling to a mixed-orientation marriage (MOM), but that is for a different post. As I was reading Wes’ piece, it struck me that neither Jesus nor the Apostle Paul speak of the gift of celibacy as strictly voluntary. Rather, both affirm the notion that if you are in a state of celibacy, regardless of the circumstances that led you there, it is to be viewed as a beautiful gift from God.

The first text to consider here is Matthew 19. Here, Jesus has just presented a hard teaching on marriage and divorce, and his disciples respond in verse 10 with, “If such is the case, it is BETTER not to marry.” And amazingly, Jesus agrees with them. He says in verse 11, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.” So Jesus is saying that it is given to some to marry, and it is given to others to remain celibate. And for those who are celibate, it is better for them than marriage. In other words, it is a gift.

Now, to whom is this gift of celibacy given? Jesus continues in verse 12, “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.

Ron has written about these verses before, and I preached a sermon on this text last year. Here is my interpretation of what is going on here:

A eunuch in Jesus’ day was basically any person who for whatever reason was forced into celibacy, either by birth defect, impotency, or external means such as castration, which was common among royal servants who were responsible for the harem of a King. But Jesus’ emphasis here is not on the physical organs, but rather on those people who are celibate, and by extension not married. So when he says Eunuch, he is talking about a celibate person. And he gives two broad categories of celibacy: involuntary and voluntary.

First he mentions eunuchs who have been so from birth, either by birth defect or impotency, and then eunuchs who have been made so by men, either by castration or perhaps accident. In both of those cases, the celibate person did not have a choice in the matter. It is simply their reality that whatever specific circumstance has led to their celibacy, it is part of their life and beyond their control. They probably didn’t choose it.

And then, he mentions another category of celibacy. He says in vs. 12, second half, “And there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Now it is not likely that Jesus is talking about self-mutilation here. Much more likely, he is simply referring to people who have decided to remain single and celibate voluntarily. So those are the two different categories; those who are involuntarily celibate and those who are voluntarily celibate.

Finally, he ends verse 12 by saying again, “Let the one who is able to receive this receive it”. I think he is directly applying the categories he just mentioned, and saying that these are two different groups who can receive the saying that it is better not to marry. In others words, Jesus is saying, “Whether you chose celibacy voluntarily or it was chosen for you, receive it as a good gift.”

So for Jesus, celibacy need not be strictly voluntary for it to be a good gift. Indeed, for many, it may not be voluntary. But for all who find themselves in such a state, it is good, indeed BETTER for them than marriage itself.

The Apostle Paul agrees. In 1 Corinthians 7:7, Paul says, “I wish that all were as I myself am (that is, celibate). But each has his own gift (charisma) from God, one of one kind and one of another.” He then goes on in verses 8-9 to describe the two gifts he has in mind: marriage and celibacy. But notice who Paul identifies as possessing the gifts of marriage and celibacy. The one who is celibate has the gift of celibacy, and the one who is married has the gift of marriage. In other words, the state of celibacy is spoken of as the gift itself. Therefore, everyone who is celibate in Christ at any given moment possesses the gift of celibacy, regardless of whether it is voluntary or not.

The reality is that in the Christian life, there may be circumstances which prevent a person from getting married. I think of a good friend of mine who has desired marriage her whole life but has not found it. I think of those who were married and then divorced, but because of their churches teachings on divorce and remarriage, a second union is not possible. I think of those like myself who have no attraction to the opposite sex, but rather an exclusive orientation toward the same sex.

In all of those things, might it not be possible that God, our loving Father and the one who knows what is best for his children, is using life circumstances as a calling to a positive vocation? Is it not possible, indeed probable, that God is using sexual orientations, past relationships, or current singleness to call many in the church into the beautiful gift of celibacy? After all, is our God not a God who uses means to accomplish his purposes? Indeed, Paul’s thorn in his flesh was intentionally used by God for a purpose beyond Paul’s experience, a calling to display God’s power in weakness (1 Corinthians 12:7-10). Perhaps all of these circumstances ARE a positive calling.

No matter what the situation may be, one thing is clear: celibacy remains a gift. As Wes has so beautifully reflected, this does not mean easy. Every gift has it’s own set of trials, it’s own way of drawing us into the life and death of our Savior. But it is a gift nonetheless. My hope is that the church would actually view it that way, as a gift to be enjoyed for the glory of God, a place where devotion to the Lord and to others can thrive, where sacrificial love can point outward toward those who need it most. This is the biblical vision of celibacy.

Voluntary or not, celibacy is a gift from God.

The Long Defeat and the Long Loneliness

One of the primary ways I’ve thought about my own life as a gay, celibate believer and also about my larger project of trying to make the church more of a nurturing haven for other gay/SSA/queer believers is in terms of what J. R. R. Tolkien called “the long defeat.” His regal character Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, surveying the long years of her immortality and all the seasons of mingled loss and triumph she’s witnessed, says, “Through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” And Tolkien himself identifies with her: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

Alan Jacobs comments:

It seems to me that this philosophy of history, if we may call it that, is the ideal one for anyone who has exceptionally difficult, frustrating, even agonizing, but nevertheless vitally important work to do. For such people, the expectation of victory can be a terrible thing — it can raise hopes in (relatively) good times only to shatter them when the inevitable downturn comes. Conversely, the one who fights the long defeat can be all the more thankful for victories, even small ones, precisely because (as St. Augustine said about ecstatic religious experiences) he or she does not expect them and is prepared to live without them.

This perspective on history and on the individual Christian pilgrimage has meant a lot to me. As someone who hasn’t received one iota of the promised “change” in my sexual orientation that some Christians have held out to me, and as someone who also hasn’t been able to embrace a more progressive understanding of same-sex marriage, I’ve often felt like I’m fighting a kind of long defeat: I’m gay but not seeking a same-sex partner, and I’m still gay and so also not seeking an opposite-sex spouse, and what that feels like is… well, it often feels like the way St. Paul describes his rather stark view of the Christian life in Romans 8: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

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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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Lessons from the Journey

A few days ago on Twitter, my friend Mollie Hemingway linked to a piece written by a pastor friend of hers, Todd Peperkorn, on depression—or, more specifically, on lessons he’s learned from a decade of surviving depression. I resonated with it very much and found myself almost immediately making connections between Pastor Peperkorn’s experience and my experience of same-sex desire.

Before I go any further, though, I have a caveat or two. I’m wary of Christian portrayals of same-sex attracted folks as “special cases” who are always prone to depression or excessive lust (or whatever). I worry about the power dynamic in play when straight Christians view gay Christians as charity projects. When Christian leaders write sentences like this, “At the heart of the homosexual condition is a deep loneliness, the natural human hunger for mutual love, a search for identity, and a longing for completeness,” I’m not really satisfied unless they turn around and say the same thing about fallen-heterosexuality-as-we-know-it. We’re all prone to weakness, temptation, and sin, and any Christian talk that implies otherwise needs to relearn the gospel.

Furthermore, I think there are crucial differences between the experience of depression and the experience of same-sex sexual desire. The former is something that tends to isolate the sufferer and hinder engagement with others, whereas the latter—misdirected though traditional Christianity understands it to be—is fundamentally about the longing for love, about the desire to give oneself to another human being made in God’s image.

Caveats aside, though, there are genuine connections for me between my same-sex sexual desire and other Christians’ experiences of various forms of suffering. If there is, as Chris Roberts likes to say, “solidarity amongst the many ways of patiently cultivating chastity,” there is also the more fundamental solidarity of sharing in the same fallen condition. Insofar as my sexual orientation directs me away from the kind of sex God intended to be experienced in marriage, I experience it as a “trial.” And in that way, I feel a real kinship with Pastor Peperkorn and his experience of depression. We’re both trying to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12-13) while contending with what Francis Schaeffer once called our own peculiar mix of the fall.

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Holy Saturday for Gay Christians

One of the first Christian books I ever read (once I started reading books on my own, simply for pleasure, in high school) was Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew. It ends like this:

The other two days [besides Holy Saturday] have earned names on the church calendar: Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Yet in a real sense we live on Saturday, the day with no name. What the disciples experienced on a small scale—three days, in grief over one man who had died on a cross—we now live through on a cosmic scale. Human history grinds on, between the time of promise and fulfillment. Can we trust that God can make something holy and beautiful and good out of a world that includes Bosnia and Rwanda, and inner-city ghettoes and jammed prisons in the richest nation on earth? It’s Saturday on planet earth; will Sunday ever come?

That dark, Golgothan Friday can only be called Good because of what happened on Easter Sunday, a day which gives a tantalizing clue to the riddle of the universe. Easter opened up a crack in a universe winding down toward entropy and decay, sealing the promise that someday God will enlarge the miracle of Easter to cosmic scale.

It is a good thing to remember that in the cosmic drama, we live out our days on Saturday, the in-between day with no name. I know a woman whose grandmother lies buried under 150-year-old live oak trees in the cemetery of an Episcopal church in rural Louisiana. In accordance with the grandmother’s instructions, only one word is carved on the tombstone: “Waiting.”

Longtime readers of this blog will know that my entire framework for thinking about my life as a gay, celibate believer is built around that idea of “waiting.” In the midst of ongoing loneliness and struggle, I am “wait[ing]… for the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). And that’s been true for several years now, ever since my early twenties when I was just beginning to work through what my Christian faith meant for my homosexuality.

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Gay, “Conservative,” and Anglican — What Now?

For those few of you who may be interested in this kind of reflection, I’ve got a post up today over at Covenant, the blog of the Episcopalian magazine The Living Church, on what it looks like to try to be faithful as a gay, theologically conservative Episcopalian/Anglican.

Earlier this month, the Archbishop of Canterbury invited all 37 Primates of the worldwide Anglican Communion to come to Canterbury and talk and pray together for the future of Anglican unity. And, predictably, homosexuality and same-sex marriage proved to be one of the difficult issues that came up.

I wrote about what this gathering means for those of us who, like me, belong to the Anglican Communion as gay believers who are theologically “conservative.” Please have a look, if that interests you.

The Gift of Singleness

Caravaggio - The Calling of St. Matthew

Caravaggio: The Calling of St. Matthew

I recently preached a sermon on “The Gift of Singleness,” based on Matthew 19:10-12. The main point of that text—and therefore the sermon—was that for those called to it, singleness should be received as a gift from God. I organized the sermon into three points to help unpack and support that thesis:

  1. “The Gift is Given (vv. 10-11)”
  2. “Circumstances are Seen (vs. 12)”
  3. “Singleness is Savored (vs. 12)”

So that is where we are going.

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Always Consider the Person

World Meeting of Families Transcript

This is a transcript of my presentation with my mother, Beverley Belgau, at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, in conjunction with Pope Francis’s first pastoral visit to the United States. The World Meeting of Families is a global Catholic event, like World Youth Day. The first World Meeting of Families was called together by Pope St. John Paul II in 1994 to celebrate the International Year of the Family. It has grown into the largest gathering of families in the world, and this year’s meeting in Philadelphia beat all previous attendance records.

This was also the first time in the history of the World Meeting that an openly gay—and celibate—Catholic was invited to speak about his experiences in the Church and in his family. 

Because of a room scheduling snafu, we started late (the room was filled to overflowing and hundreds of people were reportedly turned away). To make up, we cut some material on the fly. This reflects the original transcript, not the presentation as delivered. Because this talk highlights a lot of points we have made at Spiritual Friendship over the years, I’ve included links to other posts, if you want to learn more. 

After the formal presentation, we answered audience questions for over two hours; even then, we only left because the Convention Center staff said we had to leave; there were still dozens of people in the room listening, and people in line waiting to ask questions. This speaks to just how important it is for the Church to take more time to talk about how families and parishes can respond to their lesbian and gay members with Christ-like love.

Given the length of the presentation, I have added numbered paragraphs to help locate material within the text.  
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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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Spiritual Friendship and Julie Rodgers

Julie RodgersJulie Rodgers blogged for Spiritual Friendship between August, 2013 and October, 2014. Prior to that, she had spent a decade with Exodus International, serving as a keynote speaker at the final Exodus Freedom Conference in 2013. Until this past Monday, she also served in the Chaplain’s Office at Wheaton College, counselling students who were struggling with sexual orientation or gender identity issues.

On Monday, Julie resigned from Wheaton and put up this blog post. The post was mostly a cri de cœur about the damage done by conservative Christians who bind heavy burdens on LGBT people—particularly youth—without doing much to help. But she also wrote, “Though I’ve been slow to admit it to myself, I’ve quietly supported same-sex relationships for a while now.”

Although I spoke with Julie briefly as recently as a week before she put up this post, I had received no indication at all that her views were shifting, and did not learn of it until a friend drew my attention to her post Monday afternoon.

Julie is right that conservative Christians have done a bad job of showing Christ’s love to LGBT people.

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