This opinion piece is by Wesley Hill, assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa.
I have a friend — let’s call her Holly — who has wanted to be married for as long as she can remember. Although she’s a Christian, she doesn’t feel that she has the “gift of singleness” that her fellow believers sometimes talk about. A winsome, thoughtful woman with a quick wit, she’s always assumed that companionship and childrearing were in her future.
Holly doesn’t relish living in an apartment by herself or asking the waiter at the corner diner for a table for one. A textbook extrovert, she would never willingly plan a solo vacation. But now, as she’s entering her 50s, she’s finally admitted to herself that her dream of marriage and family won’t become a reality anytime soon.
Holly’s priest has encouraged her over the years to remain sexually abstinent. Although he grieves with her over the loneliness she’s experienced, he’s also reminded her of the coherence and beauty of the traditional Christian teaching on sexual ethics, to which Holly is committed as a baptized, churchgoing believer. God designed marriage as a relationship of total self-giving, in which each spouse gives of him- or herself to the other, remaining open to the blessing of children “when it is God’s will” (as the Book of Common Prayer puts it).
Any other sexual relationship, Holly’s priest has reminded her, finds no endorsement in the Bible or later Christian tradition.
I have another friend — let’s call her Andrea — who has also wanted to be married. Andrea isn’t wired to enjoy being single any more than Holly does. Given the choice, she’d rather share her apartment and her bedroom with a companion.
She wants someone to eat breakfast with in the morning and talk with about nothing in particular after she gets home from work. More than that, she wants someone to whom she can devote herself without reservation — and someone who will reciprocate.
When I listen to Holly and Andrea articulate their hopes for the future, they sound remarkably similar. The difference, though, is that Andrea is gay.
Andrea is also a Christian, and her pastor, too, encourages her to abstain from a sexual relationship for the same reasons Holly’s priest gives: The marriage of a man and a woman is the only God-ordained place for sexual intimacy.
But most of us instinctively feel there’s something vastly different between these two situations. I, at least, feel that. Our discomfort boils down, I think, to the issue of obligation or constraint. Although Holly can’t simply marry someone anytime she wishes (otherwise she wouldn’t be single right now), there’s also nothing in her Christian faith that would prevent her from marrying if she finds the right person.
Holly isn’t bound to celibacy in the strongest sense of that word. But in Andrea’s case, there is something in her faith that prevents her from marrying someone (or at least someone she’s likely to be sexually attracted to). Holly has at least some degree of choice in the matter, but for Andrea, there’s no real choice at all.
Because she’s gay, she feels that marriage to a man is not in the cards. And because she’s a Christian of a pretty traditional variety, marriage to another woman is not something she can consider and then freely decide for or against. Her sexual abstinence is a mandate.
It’s this particular conundrum of traditional Christian sexual ethics that my friend Julie Rodgers finds particularly soul-crushing for gay Christians. On Monday, Julie resigned from her role in the chaplain’s office at Wheaton College and, for the first time, expressed her support for people in same-sex partnerships.
“I’ve become increasingly troubled by the unintended consequences of messages that insist all LGBT people commit to lifelong celibacy,” she wrote. When celibacy is viewed as something LGBT people must commit to rather than something they may opt for, then self-hatred is a likely outcome.
As Julie put it, “No matter how graciously it’s framed, that message tends to contribute to feelings of shame and alienation for gay Christians.”
Julie and I both know that Christian churches and communities are often toxic places for LGBT people. Drawing only from my own small circle of gay friends, I could share stories of jobs denied, friendships lost, promotions refused and hospitality qualified — all because of what Julie describes, rightly, as “straight up homophobia.”
And yet I’m not sure that such tragedies are the result of the traditional Christian teaching on marriage and sex in and of itself. According to my reading of the Gospels, Jesus taught us that not only freely chosen sacrifices but also ones that you accept under constraint can be sacrifices that lead to honor, not shame.
In other words, Jesus endorsed certain kinds of “un-free” obedience — but then he turned right around and heaped praise on the very people making such sacrifices, elevating them to a place of distinction and dignity in God’s kingdom.
Consider, for instance, Jesus’s words about eunuchs in Matthew 19. He praises people who voluntarily commit to a life of celibacy for the sake of following him and participating in the newly arrived reign of God: “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (verse 12, NRSV).
Jesus isn’t describing people who literally castrate themselves for the sake of their faith, but he is describing those who leave behind earthly ties — including their closest relationships — to bind themselves to his community of disciples (see verse 29).
And then notice how Jesus also highlights the sacrifice of those who don’t get to choose their celibacy: “There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others” (verse 12). These eunuchs, unlike those who freely opt for the single life, are simply born or conscripted into it, through genital defects or — more poignantly — through slavery and forced castration. Jesus recognizes that some of us will be asked to shoulder burdens that we wouldn’t have wanted if we’d been given an option. He treats such burden-bearing as a normal part of life in the kingdom of God. As author Eve Tushnet often puts it, “The sacrifices you want to make aren’t always the only sacrifices God wants.”
The people who make such sacrifices, Jesus goes on to say, will be first in the kingdom of heaven (verse 30). They will, he promises, “receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.”
The late Anglican preacher John Stott once suggested that Jesus may have had in mind those with inborn sexual desires that made them unable to enter into a male and female marriage (see Matthew 19:1-9, which draws on Genesis 1:26-27 and 2:24) — the same-sex attracted people of first-century Palestine.
As a piece of history, I admit, I find that comment a bit far-fetched. But as pastoral theology, I find it beautiful.
Although friends of mine like Andrea don’t feel that they’re given a choice to be celibate — they feel that it’s rather a matter of obedience, that it’s just what God is asking of them, given their particular share in the world’s fallenness — they are in Matthew 19 given recognition and honor.
They are promised that their sacrifices will be remembered and rewarded. As an ancient Israelite prophet once wrote, in words that may have been in Jesus’s mind when he spoke about the same theme centuries late: “To the eunuchs who … hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 56:4-5).
What would our churches look like if we believed that those words were true of the gay and celibate among us? What if our churches gave gay Christians the same honor Jesus gives them? How would we have to change.
Wesley Hill is the author of “Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian” (Brazos, 2015).