Over the next few weeks, on Wednesdays, we will be discussing Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. (Read Part 1.)
I chose this particular book because I think it provides the most accessible and personal introduction to the biblical and historical arguments in support of same-sex relationships, and because Matthew is a theologically conservative Christian who affirms the authority of Scripture and who is also gay. His research is sound and his story is compelling. And he’s a friend—someone I like and respect and enjoy learning from.
Today we look at what is perhaps the most controversial and intriguing chapter in the book—Chapter 3, in which Matthew argues that Scripture does not support mandatory celibacy for gay and lesbian Christians. (Note: As a complement to today’s discussion, look for “Ask a (Celibate) Gay Christian…” next week. I want to make sure our brothers and sisters coming from that perspective get a fair hearing as well.)
Definition of Terms
Before we get into today’s discussion, I want to backtrack just a bit to the section in Chapter 2 where Matthew defines his terms, as this is particularly important to today’s discussion. Acknowledging that labels like conservative and liberal, evangelical and progressive, pro-gay and anti-gay all fall short in these conversations, he suggests that identifying Christians as either affirming (supportive of same-sex relationships) or non-affirming (not supportive of same-sex relationships) can be helpful. So, both Matthew and I are affirming, in the sense that we do no consider monogamous same-sex relationships to be inherently sinful (though, as you will see, we have slightly different reasons for arriving at that belief!). However, someone like Wesley Hill, a celibate gay Christian, or Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics &Religious Liberty Commission believe any same-sex relationship is inherently sinful and are therefore considered non-affirming. Obviously, no labeling system is perfect, but for the purposes of this particular discussion, these may be (at least momentarily) helpful. Make sense?
There seems to be an increasing consensus, even among non-affirming Christians, that some people simply experience fixed attraction to members of the same sex. And thankfully, efforts to “correct” this orientation through “reparative therapy” are falling out of vogue, as they have been shown to ineffective and damaging.
The predominant view among non-affirming Christians regarding gay and lesbian Christians is that if they wish to remain faithful to Scripture, they must pursue celibacy. “According to non-affirming Christians,” writes Matthew, “gay people’s sexuality is completely broken, so mandatory, lifelong celibacy is their only real option.” (You see this position reflected in a recent Gospel Coalition post, where those with fixed, same-gender attraction are described as “having SSA”—same-sex attraction—and encouraged to pursue celibacy.)
“Celibacy has a long, honored history in the church,” writes Matthew. “We associated it with Jesus and Paul, with Mother Teresa, and with thousands of dedicated brothers and sisters serving Christ in far-flung corners of the world. But there’s a problem. Christians throughout history have affirmed that lifelong celibacy is a spiritual gift and calling, not a path that should be forced upon anyone. Yes, permanently forgoing marriage is a worthy choice for Christians who are gifted with celibacy. But it must be a choice. Jesus and Paul both taught this view, and the church has maintained it for nearly two thousand years.”
Then Matthew unpacks this argument…
Non-affirming Christians generally argue that the creation of Adam and Eve reveals the limits of God’s blessing for sexual relationships: one man and one woman. As an opposite sex couple, Adam and Eve were best suited to fulfill God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”
But Matthew argues that 1) the account of Eve’s creation does not emphasize Adam’s need to procreate; it emphasizes his need for relationship (“it is not good for the man to be alone”), 2) the concern for procreation with this particular couple is obvious, as they are the first couple and need to populate the planet! and 3) the Genesis 2 text does not emphasize the gender differences between Adam and Eve but rather their similarity as human beings.
(There will be more on the creation narrative in subsequent chapters.)
Jesus on Celibacy
In Matthew 19:11-12, when Jesus spoke about celibacy he said, “Not everyone can accept [the decision not to marry], but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there were eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept this.”
Writes Matthew: “Notice that none of the three categories Jesus mentions describes what we would call gay men. Instead he describes three types of men who do not marry: men who are sexually impotent, those who are castrated, and those who pursue a call to celibacy. In light of the stringent restrictions Jesus places on divorce, his disciples suggest they would prefer to be celibate. But Jesus says celibacy can only be accepted by ‘those to whom it has been given.’”
Celibacy is a gift, Matthew argues, and those who do not have the gift should feel free to marry.
Now, some will certainly notice that this teaching by Jesus is immediately followed by a reference to creation: “Haven’t you read,” Jesus said, “That at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?”
But according to Matthew, this reference does not address, specifically, gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians. “When we study biblical writings about marriage and celibacy the question is not whether Jesus, Paul, or anyone else endorses same-sex marriage,” he writes, “or whether they instead enjoin gay people to lifelong celibacy. They don’t directly do either one…Our understanding of same-sex orientation is uniquely modern, so the question we face is how to apply the basic principles of the Bible’s teaching to this new situation. And what we do see in Jesus’ teaching is a basic principle: celibacy is a gift that not all have.”
Paul on Celibacy
The apostle Paul was a big, big fan of celibacy. He even said he wished all men could be like him—celibate and happy about it (I Corinthians 7:6-7). BUT, he says, “each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”
“It is better,” Paul writes, “to marry than to burn with passion.”
(Boy was that verse a favorite one on my Christian college campus!)
In his letter to Timothy, Paul (or whoever is writing as Paul…I know, I know) warns against false teachers who, among other things, mandate celibacy. “They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods,” said Paul, “which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth” (I Timothy 4:1-5).
Once again, a New Testament writer speaks of celibacy in terms of a gift for those called to it, not a mandate. Even for a big fan of celibacy like Paul, celibacy does not appear to be mandated for any group.
Matthew works in some solid research here, which suggests the tradition teaching on celibacy, for most of Christian history, is that it was a calling, not a mandate.
Augustine wrote that “no one can be continent unless God give it,” Ambrose that “virginity cannot be commanded” but “is the gift of few only.” Calvin went so far as to say that Matthew 19 “plainly shows that [celibacy] was not given to all, so if anyone “has not the power of subduing his passion, let him understand that the Lord made it obligatory on him to marry.” Even Pope John Paul II in his landmark Theology of the Body argues that celibacy cannot legitimately be forced on anyone. In his view, even clerical celibacy is not forced, because Catholics who feel called to marriage are not obliged to pursue the priesthood. And Karl Barth, in the 20th century, wrote that “a suspicion of or discrimination against sexual life” is not a valid reason to avoid marriage.
Sexuality is Good
Here, drawing from the creation account, the incarnation and resurrection, and even church history and the rejection of Gnosticism, Matthew makes the case that— though broken and imperfect—“creation is good. The body is good. Sexuality, as a core part of the body, is also good.” Therefore, any doctrine that teaches Christians to detest their sexual desires is unorthodox, contrary to the most central teachings of the Church.*
(*Matthew has offered further clarification on this in the comment section.)
The Meaning of Celibacy
Matthew concludes that “the purpose of celibacy is to affirm the basic goodness of sex and marriage by pointing to the relationship they prefigure: the union of Christ and the church. Mandatory celibacy for gay Christians does not fulfill that purpose. It undermines it, because it sends the message to gay Christians that their sexual selves are inherently shameful. It is not a fulfillment of sexuality for gay Christians, but a rejection of it.”
Matthew will go on to address, in subsequent chapters, the question of whether same-sex marriage can fulfill the meaning and purpose of Christian marriage, but his point in this chapter is rather straightforward: Throughout the New Testament and church history, celibacy is set apart as a special calling and never mandated for a specific group of people.
Of course, let’s face it. There are also no examples in Scripture (or, to my knowledge church history) explicitly supporting same-sex relationships. So it seems these are the two uncomfortable realities we hold simultaneously…at least for now.
Note: Matthew sent me a message this morning pointing me to an article he recently wrote responding to a review that was critical of this particular chapter. Writes Matthew: “In short, the main misreading of my argument is that I'm saying that celibacy, for LGBT or straight people, necessarily involves a rejection and hatred of one's sexuality. As I explain in my blog post, I only think that celibacy requires a devaluing of one's sexuality when at least one of the reasons someone is celibate is because they believe all of their sexual attractions are temptations to sin. That's what non-affirming readings of Scripture require gay Christians to believe about their sexual orientation, but that's quite different from orthodox understandings of celibacy, and quite different from how celibate gay Christians can view their sexual orientation if they affirm at least some same-sex relationships.” Read the whole post here.
Also, if you want to learn more about the Bible and sexuality, check out the Reformation Project conference in Washington D.C., November 6-8. Speakers include David Gushee, Allyson Robinson, Gene Robinson, Justin Lee, Jane Clementi, Danny Cortez, Frank Schaefer, James Brownson, Kathy Baldock, Alexia Salvatierra, and Amy Butler.
Questions for Discussion:
- I'd be interested to hear from those readers who, for whatever reason, have chosen a vocation that involves lifelong celibacy. How did you know that this was your calling? Why did you choose it?
- I'd also welcome the stories of those gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians who have chosen to pursue relationships. Did you struggle at all to feel free to follow that path?
- Finally, what do you think of Matthew's argument here. Do biblical and historical prohibitions against mandated celibacy apply to those gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians trying to decide what their sexuality means for their faith?
I will be monitoring the comment section closely over the next 24 hours, after which the thread will be closed. Thanks for your participation!