Since our ongoing discussion around Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian, has highlighted an affirming view of same-sex relationships, I wanted to make space here for another perspective. Thankfully, my new friend Julie Rodgers was quick to graciously agree to join us for another installment of our “Ask a….” series: “Ask a (Celibate) Gay Christian…”
Julie writes about the angst of growing up gay in the church and the hope she finds in Christ's story of restoration. She blogs about all things sexuality, celibacy, community, and (mostly) flourishing on her personal blog and with friends on the Spiritual Friendship blog. Julie earned a Masters in English for the sheer pleasure of stories (nerd alert), served urban youth the past four years through a ministry in West Dallas, and recently joined the chaplain's office at Wheaton College as the Ministry Associate for Spiritual Care. She's known to laugh loud and hard at all the wrong times. Julie loves Jesus. She says she “loves that He entered into the human experience and alleviated suffering in those around Him, and that He absorbed the pain of the world with His life, death, and resurrection.”
You asked Julie some fantastic questions. Here are Julie's responses:
Thank you, Rachel, for creating the space for me to share on your blog. Thank you also to those of you who asked thoughtful questions with a gracious spirit. Not only are your charitable spirits encouraging to me personally, but I also imagine that kind of posture calms the anxiety of silent observers who wonder if they can be honest about their sexual orientation and religious convictions, and also treated with tenderness and respect. We offer a gift to them when we’re gracious toward others in this conversation, assuring them they’ll be valued as human beings made in the image of God no matter what.
From bperickson: Should a gay Christian committed to celibacy still come out publicly as gay? Why? What do you feel you have gained from doing so yourself?
One benefit is that the church needs more celibate gay Christian role models. They need to see gay Christians leading vibrant lives filled with intimacy, passion, and adventure. I know when I first envisioned a life of celibacy, I got an image of the future version of myself as a lonely old woman knitting in a cold cabin with famished cats everywhere. Part of the reason the future looked so bleak was because I couldn’t look to many others who were living into compelling stories as celibate men and women, and the future story the church imagined for me hinged on marriage. We need more celibate gay Christians to help the church imagine a robust life for single men and women, with an expectation that God will surprise us with His faithfulness.
I can’t speak to what everyone should do since one’s sexuality is so personal and each situation so unique, but I would at least encourage people to open up to their inner circle. I felt strangled by shame during every stage of coming to terms with my sexuality (when I first acknowledged my orientation and then again after extensive involvement with Exodus International). “Coming out” simply meant I invited others into a corner of my heart that whispered lies that no one would love me if they really knew me. When they embraced me in that place I felt like I could finally breathe. I went from feeling isolated and unknown to believing intimate relationships were a real possibility for me.
There are still countless misconceptions about gay people in the church. Many still don’t realize this group of people they perceive as “those people out there” are actually in here, in the church, seeking to love the Lord with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength. When I was a teenager, I felt like I had to either lie about my sexuality or leave the church altogether. Encountering other gay Christians gave me hope that I could work out my questions about sexuality inside the church—in the context of a loving Christian community—instead of lying or leaving. Also, I’m not sure we can know or feel God’s love if we don’t experience His love through His people. When I shared more of myself with other Christians and was embraced in that place, I thought: “If they know all about me and still love me, maybe God still loves me, too.”
From Guest: Like most churches in America, my church is generally made up of families. How can a church be sensitive to the needs of a person who has embraced celibacy?
The short answer: Consider inviting a celibate person to live with you (short term or long), have single people over for dinner on a regular basis (while your house is still messy and your dishes still dirty), and establish normal rhythms together like running errands or ordering takeout or watching Breaking Bad again.
The longer answer: It seems like most of us tend to roll with people in similar life stages, and all of us would benefit from breaking out of those categories to build relationships that cross common barriers: age, race, sex, or marital status, among others. As a celibate woman observing families from the outside, it often seems like folks are solely focused on their own nuclear families. The relationships they do have outside of that are those they encounter in their natural circles: other soccer families or church families or PTA friends. While we all miss out when we lack diversity in our relationships, single people—particularly older single people—feel the blow badly. Let’s be real: celibacy isn’t considered a super sexy lifestyle. Few people choose it because the misconceptions cause people to feel they’ll be destined for a life devoid of love. This means there comes a time when only a small number of people share their life situation, so they actually WILL end up alone if we don’t intentionally step outside of our homogeneous circles.
When we settle into our separate pockets of society, our relational lives start to look like scheduling an event a week or two out, where we meet up and tell others about the life we’ve lived over the weeks that have passed. What we long for, though, is everyday intimacy where we can put on our fat clothes and think out loud with one another without editing ourselves. In order for that to happen, we need to spend time together in the common routines of life. Both families and single people would benefit from this.
One example: I’m new here to Wheaton and I’ve developed a friendship with a young family that welcomed me when I first arrived, providing a room for me in their home while I searched for a permanent place to land. Just this past week, the mom was sick and the dad stayed home from work in hopes of keeping the kids alive for another day. As I was getting off work, they shot me a text asking if I could do something—anything!—to help them make it through the day, and it was no problem for me to show up at their house with frozen pizzas, ice cream, and wine. Then I helped the kids with their nightly routine and we all decompressed together: everyday intimacy.
From Christina: How do you feel that your decision to be celibate affects your relationship with gay friends who have not made the same decision?
Each relationship is unique so it varies from person to person, but my friends and I tend to see a whole human being when we look at each other rather than just a “GAY” or a “SIDE A GAY” or a “SIDE B GAY”. I also tend to be drawn to those who seek to be gracious and humble, so whenever differences arise we’re able to acknowledge the tension of our different beliefs without feeling personally threatened by one another. Most gay Christians have been deeply scarred by the culture war, and most of us barely held onto our faith (many barely remained alive), so we’re pretty understanding of one another’s need for a lot of space and grace as we grow in our understanding of what it means to honor the Lord with the whole of our lives (including our sexuality).
From Danner: I believe a person's sexuality is an integral aspect of who he or she is as a human being. Unlike my preference for black coffee vs. lattes, my sexual identity (and sexual relationship with my wife) is a very significant aspect of who I am as a person… Do you disagree with the assertion that sexuality is integral to the identity, and what are your thoughts on why God created you as a gay woman while forbidding you to ever live that out in a relationship with another woman?
I don’t know how integral one’s sexuality is to his or her identity (perhaps it varies from person to person, depending on the weight each person gives it). I believe my sexuality matters in the same way I believe it matters that I’m a woman or that I’m an introvert: they affect how I exist in the world and how I relate to other people. What’s most important to me with regard to my identity though—what I choose to give the most weight—is my faith. The deepest part of who I am is a follower of Christ who’s been rescued by Him, and the Bible informs my understanding of why I’m here and what I’m to be about. I might see through a slightly different lens because of my orientation, but it seems the Lord uses all the different parts of me—including my sexuality—to write a unique story of restoration that creates a little more beauty in the world.
I don’t have a strong opinion about why some people are gay: research implies both biology and the developmental process likely influence a person’s orientation, and the extent to which one is more influential than the other probably differs from person to person, as sexuality is so layered and complex. I’m more comfortable saying, “God allowed me to have a gay orientation.”
Regardless, I do not believe He wants me to be alone. We’re wired for intimacy, and while we can live without sex, we cannot live without intimacy. The more we celebrate sustained, non-sexual, sacrificial relationships in our society, the less people will feel like the only way to experience love and intimacy is in the context of a marriage or a sexual relationship. It would also be helpful if Christians would resist the urge to hit the “panic” button whenever gay people experience deep affection for those of the same sex. As a young person, I was so concerned about the “risk” of relationships turning sexual that I erred on the side of suppression and isolation (which leads to destructive explosions). It was so life-giving to exhale and move away from a fear-based approach, choosing instead to be more concerned about the risks of isolation. That has enabled me to actually remain chaste for years because my needs for intimacy are met through rich relationships with both men and women, which didn’t happen when I was disconnected out of fear. We were made for relationships, and we can work out what it means to be healthy, whole, Christ-honoring men and women in the context of relationship.
From Rachel P.: have you ever been in love? How did it go? And supposing that your views on celibacy will not change, is being with someone romantically (perhaps someone else committed to celibacy) a viable option for your future?
While I’ve certainly felt the butterflies for a few women, I’m not sure I can say I’ve experienced the sustained and mutual affection that’s necessary for love to really take root. It seems like true love is discovered over time with another person, and since my relationships with women are directed toward friendship, perhaps my experience of love is shaped and informed by that end. There’s much more to explore there, but if I ever do experience a sustained and mutual intensity of attraction that feels overwhelming, I hope I’ll find a way to express it through intimate friendship.
Sharing life with other people is important to me. I would love to end up in a communal living situation with solid folks who are married, single, gay, straight, and devoted to living into the New Testament’s vision of community and hospitality. I’m also entirely committed to having an extra room for down-and-out little hooligans to crash when they need a safe space to land (read: potential foster care or at least a place for hurting teens to belong).
From Joshua: Do you ever feel like your personal struggles and decisions are being used as a tool by those on one side or the other in the debates concerning same sex relationships, and if so, what would you want those people using your decisions to advance their causes to know or consider?
Yes, and I’m very uncomfortable with that, particularly when it’s used to shame those who, for one reason or another, are in a different place. I see this as less of a Gay Debate Problem and more of a Human Problem though: we play the comparison game in almost every area of life and it inflates egos, breeds feelings of inferiority, or causes jealousy (among other terrible ways of internalizing the comparison culture).
If it’s not in the context of the comparison game though, I do think it can be encouraging for people to connect with others who share their experience. I know it’s been life-giving for me to connect with celibate gay Christians because I felt so alone for so long. Even beyond the sexuality conversation, it’s encouraging for me to observe those who lead faithful lives—to learn from their examples, both positive and negative. I think we need role models, but a role model is very different than a story that’s used to shame or coerce someone else.
Ultimately, I hope Christians will simply point people to Christ as our example. It’s been my experience that the more I’m captured by the beauty of the Gospel, the less I’m concerned about what will or won’t happen in every area of my life, including my sexuality and future relationships. I didn’t choose this path because of someone else’s story and I certainly didn’t choose it because others shamed me into it: I chose it because I fell in love with Jesus and this has been my response to His rescue. While these conversations are important, they’re simply not as important as people encountering the beauty of Christ’s sacrifice and experiencing His love in the deepest parts of their hearts.
A big thanks to Julie for taking time out of a busy life to talk with us. Be sure to check out our series on God and the Gay Christian (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) as well as the other entries in our "Ask a..." series.