"Washed and Waiting," Chapter 1: Celibacy and the Gospel Story


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
Washed and Waiting - Wesley Hill.jpg

Today we continue our discussions of Wesley Hill’s book, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, as part of our yearlong series on sexuality and the Church.

Wesley’s book is meant to both complement and contrast Justin Lee’s book, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel From the Gays-vs-Christians Debate, which served as a starting point for our discussion. Both Justin and Wesley are gay, but whereas Justin concluded that a relationship with another man could be blessed by God, Wesley has chosen celibacy. I picked these two books because I think Justin and Wesley represent the very best in civil, gracious, and loving disagreement on this issue…which for them is not a mere issue, but a deeply personal journey with deeply personal implications.

To catch up on our discussion, check out our Sexuality and the Church category.

A Story-Shaped Life

In Chapter 1, Wesley explains why he believes scriptural witness and church tradition require him not to act on his homosexual desires and how the gospel enables him to fulfill this demand.

He begins by briefly addressing some of the same biblical passages we addressed in our discussion of Torn—Leviticus 18:22; Genesis 19:1-11; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; I Timothy 1:8-11; Romans 1:18-32—as well as Genesis 1-3 and Jesus’ teachings on divorce in Matthew 19:3-9 and Mark 10:6-8, which Wesley says “presents marriage between one man and one woman as the God-given context for human sexual expression and thus, in principle, rules out homosexual practice.”

“On the basis of texts such as these,” Wesley concludes, “the Christian church has consistently and repeatedly said no to homosexual practice.” (p. 53)

Wesley doesn’t gloss over the challenge of this conviction .

“To say no over and over again to some of my deepest, strongest, most recurrent longings often seems, by turns, impossible and completely undesirable. If a gay Christian’s sexual orientation is so fixed and ingrained that there seems to be little hope of changing it, should he or she really be expected to resist it for a lifetime?”

After all, Wesley notes, Genesis 2:18 says it is not good for man to be alone, the apostle Paul writes that it is better to be married than to burn with passion, and Jesus warned against religious leaders tying up “heavy burdens, hard to bear,” and laying them on people’s shoulders (Matthew 11:30).

But Wesley concludes: “In the end, what keeps me on the path I’ve chosen is not so much individual proof texts from Scripture or the sheer weight of the church’s traditional teaching against homosexual practice. Instead, it is, I think, those texts and traditions and teachings as I see them from within the true story of what God has done in Jesus Christ—and the whole perspective on life and the world that flows from that story, as expressed definitively in Scripture.” (61)

Wesley identifies six streams of this narrative that give him a context in which he can see how his commitment to celibacy makes sense.

Forgiveness

The first, he says, is the fact that “the Christian story promises the forgiveness of sins—including homosexual acts—to anyone who will receive it through Jesus’ death and resurrection.” (p. 62)

“Christianity’s good news provides—amply so—for the forgiveness of sins and the wiping away of guilt and the removal of any and all divine wrath through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,” he says. “Seen in this light, the demand that we say no to our homosexual impulses need not seem impossible. If we have failed in the past, we can receive grace—a clean slate, a fresh start. If we faith today or tomorrow in our struggle to be faithful to God’s commands, that, too, may be forgiven.” (64)

The Demands of God

The second element of the gospel story that Wesley says puts his celibacy in perspective is a God who is “known by his threat to our going on with ‘business and usual.’”

“Far from being a tolerant grandfather rocking in his chair somewhere far away in the sky, God most often seems dangerous, demanding, and ruthless as he makes clear that he is taking our homoerotic feelings and actions with the utmost seriousness.” (67)

Wesley says this is true for all Christians, whatever their sexual orientation, who to one degree or another, “experience the same frustration [Wesley does] as God challenges, threatens, endangers, and transform all of our natural desires and affections.” (65)

“Engaging with God and entering the transformative life of the church does not mean we get a kind of ‘free pass,’ an unconditional love that leaves us where we are,” writes Wesley. “Instead, we get a fiercely demanding love, a divine love that will never let us escape from its purifying, renovating, and ultimately healing grip. And this means that our pain—the pain of having our deeply ingrained inclinations and desires blocked and confronted by God’s demand for purity in the gospel—far from being a sign of our failure to live the life God wants, may actually be the mark of our faithfulness.” (68)

The Corporate, Communal Body of Christ

“The Christian story proclaims that our bodies belong to God and have become members of the corporate, communal body of Christ,” writes Wesley. “This is yet a third reason Scripture and the church’s no to homosexual practice makes sense to me.” (68)

Wesley argues that, from the gospel’s point of view, there is no absolute right or unconditional guarantee of sexual fulfillment for Christians.

So “if all Christians must surrender their bodies to God in Christ whenever they enter the fellowship of Christ’s body,” he concludes, “”then it should come as no great shock that God might actually make demands of those Christians and their bodies—demands proving that God, and God alone, has authority over us.” (70)

Fellowship in Christ’s Suffering

Finally, Wesley points to the long-suffering and endurance of celibate Christians as a participation in the suffering of Christ.

“One of the hardest-to-swallow, most countercultural, counterintuitive implications of the gospel is that bearing up under a difficult burden with patient perseverance is a good thing,” write Wesley. “The gospel actually advocates this kind of endurance as a daily ‘dying’ for and with Jesus. While those in the grip of Christ’s love will never experience ultimate defeat, there is a profound sense in which we must face our struggles now knowing there may be no real relief this side of God’s new creation.”

One way Wesley says he has received help in dealing with his particular struggle has been through reading about the unfulfilled desires of others and how they have dealt with them. He has drawn particular inspiration from Henri Nouwen and Gerard Manley Hopkins in this regard. He also quotes from stories from C.S. Lewis and Wednell Berry, and from W.H. Auden. (This lit major has sure enjoyed his literary references throughout the book!)

Jesus – fully human, celibate

Wesley makes one more point at the end of this chapter that I actually found more intriguing than any of the others.

“Woven into the fabric of Christian theology,” he writes, “is the insistence that Jesus Christ is the truest, most perfect, most glorious human being who has ever lived,” and all the evidence suggests that Jesus lived as a sexual celibate.

“It may come as a surprise in our age of personal gratification that Jesus never married and never had sex—with a woman or with a man,” writes Wesley. “And yet he was the truest, fullest human being who has ever lived.” (77)

This doesn’t mean that everyone who wants to share the true humanity of Jesus must be celibate, he says. But it does “shift the terms of our modern thinking about sexuality. It dislodges our assumption that having sex is necessary to be truly, fully alive. If Jesus abstained and he is the measure of what counts as true humanity, then I may also abstain too—and trust that, in so doing, I will not ultimately lose.” (77)

Reflections

Once again, I am impressed by Wesley’s depth, thoughtfulness, and honesty as he shares his story, and I am personally challenged by his commitment to follow Christ, no matter what. His point about Jesus makes a lot of sense to me, and it forced me to confront a patronizing sense of pity, perhaps even condescension, I have for Christians who have, for whatever reason, chosen celibacy. Wesley’s right. Our sense that an active sex life is required for a fulfilled life is indeed misguided and should be confronted.  Those who have chosen celibacy—for whatever reason— can teach us some important, critical things about self-denial and discipline. They should be celebrated, honored, esteemed, and included in our faith communities, not with pity, but with admiration and friendship.

However, I’m still reeling a bit from my reading of The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, and so I can’t help but note that it’s one thing to choose suffering for oneself, and quite another to require it of others. Is it right for the church to demand that all of our LGBT brothers and sisters choose celibacy? Might that be “tying up heavy burdens, hard to bear,” and laying them others’ shoulders?

Questions for Discussion

1.     What did you learn from Wesley’s observations about the story of the Gospel? How might they be applicable to your life?

2.     Do you think sex is a requirement for a fulfilled life? What about romantic companionship? What about community?  (Note: I don’t want to reduce any partnership—same-sex or otherwise—to sex, but it’s worth discussing whether a romantic partnership is necessary for fulfillment in life.)

3.     Do you think it’s possible to respect and honor Wesley’s decision to remain celibate while also respecting and honoring Justin’s decision to remain open to a same-sex relationship? Can those of us who have not had to make this difficult decision affirm both, or does support of one somehow diminish the other?

I’ll be monitoring the comment section closely to ensure that things remain civil. I’ll plan to shut down the thread after about 36 hours. Thanks for weighing in!

To catch up on our discussion, check out our Sexuality and the Church category. 

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