Celibacy is a gift, not a mandate
NON-AFFIRMING MESSAGE: If gay Christians cannot marry someone of the opposite sex, the Bible’s prohibition of same-sex relationships requires them to be single and celibate for life.
AFFIRMING MESSAGE: Celibacy is a gift, not a mandate.
The Bible teaches that celibacy is a gift, not something that should be forced upon anyone. In the Old Testament creation narrative, God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).
• In the New Testament, Jesus says celibacy can only be accepted by those to whom it is given (Matthew 19:11-12). Paul, too, says that while he would prefer everyone to be celibate like him, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” (1 Corinthians 7:7-9).
• Requiring all gay Christians to be single and celibate for life stands in tension with these teachings, which the Christian tradition has affirmed for two millennia.
Aren’t straight people who never find an appropriate partner “forced” into celibacy in the same way?
• No. One difference is that if a straight person eventually finds an appropriate partner, they would be free to marry, while a gay person would not.
• But more foundational is the reason a person is celibate. For the first 1,500 years of the church, Christians regarded celibacy as a superior calling to marriage, but even then, they didn’t condemn marriage itself. They couldn’t regard sex as inherently sinful without undermining the biblical doctrines of the goodness of creation, the incarnation, and the resurrection.
• Moreover, as both Protestant and Catholic theologians have argued, celibacy should serve as a positive affirmation of marriage rather than a negation of it. Celibate Christians remind married Christians of the ultimate relationship their marriages point toward: our eternal union with Christ.
• But non-affirming theology requires gay Christians to be celibate as a rejection of their sexuality, not as a fulfillment of it.
“It is not good for the man to be alone.” -Genesis 2:18
Facts About “Ex-Gay” Ministries
For decades, conservative Christians encouraged gay people to pursue “ex-gay therapy” in order to develop a heterosexual orientation.
But in 2013, the leading “ex-gay” ministry, Exodus International, shut down and conceded that “reparative therapy” efforts have been deeply damaging to many LGBTQ people.
• The year before, Alan Chambers, the president of the organization, admitted that “99.9%” of people he knew “have not experienced a change in their orientation.”
• Chambers apologized for the “shame,” “false hope,” and “pain and hurt” his organization had caused to countless people. He no longer supports orientation change efforts.
Sexual orientation is not a choice, and it is not something people can change.
• A wide range of leaders—from professional health organizations to the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention—now reject reparative therapy efforts. Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore has denounced such efforts as “severely counterproductive.”
“Please know that I am deeply sorry… I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts.” -Alan Chambers, former president of Exodus International.
Isn’t it devaluing celibacy to say that it is harmful for gay Christians to be required to be celibate?
• No. Celibacy should be honored as a spiritual vocation. But it’s an entirely different experience to be celibate because you regard every experience of sexual attraction you have as a blameworthy temptation to sin.
• In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that we should avoid not only sinful acts, but also the desires for those acts—lust in addition to adultery, anger in addition to murder (Matthew 5:21-30). If all same-sex relationships are sinful, then same-sex attraction would be morally culpable as well.
Although many non-affirming Christians increasingly want to say there is nothing wrong with being gay as long as you aren’t in a gay relationship, this distinction is not supported by Scripture. It makes no more sense to say “it’s OK to be gay as long as you don’t act on it” than to say “it’s OK to feel greedy as long as you don’t steal.”
• Jesus was tempted in every way as we are (Hebrews 4:15), but there are two different kinds of temptation described in Scripture. One is an external sense of testing, and the other is an internal desire for sin. Jesus was tempted in the former sense, but not the latter, and under a non-affirming viewpoint, same-sex attraction would fall into the latter category.
• Consistent non-affirming theology requires gay Christians to actively loathe and repent of every sexual desire they ever experience. The failure of the “ex-gay” movement has shown how destructive that approach is. That’s why the former president of Exodus International has apologized for the trauma his organization inflicted on LGBTQ Christians.
Requiring gay Christians to be celibate as a rejection of their sexuality undermines the historic Christian understanding of celibacy.