I always hated reading animal stories when I was a kid. Horses, cats and dogs live nowhere near as long as humans and so, inevitably, the furred hero of the story would die in the end. I quickly learned to turn to the last chapter of such books first so that I would know if this was yet one more time when the story would end with the death of the title character. If it did, I did not read the book. I did not want to make an emotional investment in a fictional creature that would leave me depressed in the end.
I would hope no one has been anticipating this last chapter or asking themselves “yes this Gospel is nice and all – but how do I convince LGBT kids in my congregation to live their lives within the sexual boundaries set by the Bible? What made you choose celibacy and how can I convince the teens in my care to do the same?” If you have, this ending will leave you as disappointed as Old Yeller.
I hope you have not been asking that because, first of all, I am not going to give you any advice or method to make any one choose anything. We are talking here about a very fragile population, often adolescents who are highly distressed over the conflict presented by their beliefs and their sexuality. They experience a high level of inner shame, dislike and discomfort toward themselves and their bodies, and a significantly higher rate of depression and suicidality. Any general advice I might give would far too easily backfire and cause even more distress and damage. The reality is that the LGBT person is not presented with any good options. He or she can choose to live out their sexuality and find support and friendship in the gay affirming community. But that may come at the cost of rejecting at least some of the foundations of the faith of their childhood and certainly create a rift between themselves and the church and family in which they grew up. Or he or she can choose celibacy or a mixed orientation marriage in line with the demands of the Church. But doing so will mean living with little or no close spiritual friendship or support. There was much wrong with Exodus but it did at least provide a sort of support system for conservative Christian LGBT people. With its demise there is literally nothing left. So to choose either celibacy or mixed orientation marriage means choosing to be isolated and very lonely in a church culture where they will hear themselves and people like them degraded verbally.
Not only will depression and stress likely be high, it can lead to some very dangerous behaviors and reactions. One of the situations gay people face in the Church, and this is most evident in the Roman church because of the more formal practice of confession/absolution, is that intentional sin is considered significantly worse than unintentional. So a gay person who commits to having sex with only one other person of the same sex is sinning worse than one who gives in to temptation on the spur of the moment. What happens, on a practical level, is, firstly, that temptation toward sex is increased by loneliness and isolation and, secondly, that those LGBT people who are unable to maintain celibacy often wind up having sex with multiple partners, often without protection, because to commit to one partner or to carry condoms would mean the sin was intentional and even worse than just sex. Physically and emotionally this is highly destructive behavior. Yet too many are trapped in it.
The fact is the church culture has become so toxic to the LGBT believer, even one seeking to be obedient, that there is no good third option. There are very few places where a LGBT person can choose to be faithful to the biblical view of sex and marriage and receive emotional support or close friendship. They just do not exist. The LGBT person today has to choose between the lesser of two evils, two bad options. I do not choose to push anyone, especially teens, into either option. I simply will not take that responsibility. So I'm keeping my mouth shut on this one.
Secondly, the path that led me to choose celibacy as a teen and maintain it as an adult is not one that makes any logical sense outside of the Gospel. There is no magic word or theological voodoo that will make anyone choose to live life alone or to endure the special challenges of a mixed orientation marriage in a world that sees “falling in love” as the only foundation for marriage and in a culture in which people often are taught to find their worth in the sexual desire of their spouse. Most natural law arguments are pitiful and some are downright degrading – they accomplish nothing, least of all influencing a gay person to live for Christ in sexual abstinence. Obedience must flow from the Gospel or it will not happen at all. So if you try to lead any LGBT young person down the path those like me followed without generously applying Gospel every step of the way, you will fail.
This also means, by the way, that your actions and treatment of individuals must also flow from the love and compassion of the Gospel. That means you will have to show love, compassion, understanding and practical friendship to those who are gay affirming as well as those who abstain. It is impossible to disdain one and love the other without creating a system of work-righteousness. How you love the gay affirming is how you will love those who choose biblical obedience. So you will have to support rather than criticize those who do things like send comfort dogs to the survivors of shootings at gay clubs. In fact, you will not only have to support those who try to love the gay community in action, you will have to do similar things yourself or you will not be able to convey compassion to those to whom you do minister. Otherwise you send the message that the way to your love, and God's, is through works and woe be the kid who messes up or makes a mistake. The Gospel must be evident and the compassion that comes from it must be shown to all if we are to call anyone to obedience. Yes, obedience is hard. But it is not the calling of the Church to make it harder.
I will say this as well, though it will get me in deep trouble, I do not believe that a person who decides to find a partner in a gay relationship or marriage is going to hell because of that. There are those who do accept the argument that the Bible does not speak to modern same sex relationship. I think they are wrong. But I also think my Calvinist friends are wrong to deny the physical presence of Christ in communion. Yet my friends are not going to hell because they are wrong on one aspect of doctrine and live their lives accordingly. Neither do I think my gay friends are going to hell because they live according to a misunderstanding of interpretation. Then there are those who simply can not achieve celibacy and knowing they can not love a person of the opposite sex the way that person would deserve, instead, commit to a single same-sex partner. It may not be the choice I would make. But trying to limit the danger of anonymous sex is a legitimate concern that they are facing the best they can. I will not condemn them for that. I don't really know of any couples who say “since Christ has forgiven me, I can do what I want and screw around with a same sex partner.” I do know of one straight pastor in the ELCA who essentially says that. But that kind of obstinate and rebellious attitude is seldom evident among the gay people I know. For most of the gay Christians I know, God is too important for such childish rationalization and they are just doing the best they can under the circumstances. So, no, I don't think gay couples are all going to hell and many gay-affirming LGBT people I know probably have a stronger faith than I do. At least I doubt they daily question God's love for them in the way I do which, frankly, I think is a far worse sin than having sex since it questions the person of God Himself.
That being said, at the same time, I do hope LGBT issues don't wind up going the same way as divorce in which pastors remain silent except to debate whether a abused wife can divorce her husband – thereby trapping spouses in a dangerous situation and loading guilt on those already beaten down by abuse. Silence on the law produces silence on the Gospel with the result that the most vulnerable are the most hurt. If we simply drop the topic of LGBT issues I think the same will happen there. It is true I don't believe gay marriages, or gender transition for that matter, are going to send everyone who does them to hell. But just as I believe my Reformed friends are not going to hell for their views on the real presence does not mean that we simply overlook our differences. They have not separated themselves from the Body of Christ but they are still a differing confession and we honor that difference by not trivializing it and by treating each other's differences with the respect they deserve. And sometimes those differences mean that we do not lead worship services together or take communion together. Neither do I want the LCMS to ignore the law in dealing with LGBT issues. A pastor who never proffered any law regarding homosexual sex would only be signaling to me that he is unable to understand why I chose to remain alone or the sacrifice that takes. I just want to see the law applied with compassion and gentleness. I am not saying you should withhold communion from the gay teen or even the married gay couple who may, for one reason or another, be members in the LCMS (and those situations will begin to happen). I leave their private sexual lives to them and to you to figure out – and remember some things take a while and lots of patience to work through so go gently and slowly. I am only saying the law can not be ignored. But that law simply must be accompanied by a great deal more Gospel and graciousness. And when dealing with LGBT members and issues, especially with adolescents, the pastor should proceed with care and patience.
OK, so why do I choose celibacy? I think I was about 16 or 17 when I began working through this question seriously and about 21 when it fully came together.. Up to then I had hoped and prayed I was just going through a stage and would “grow out” of being gay. Here are the steps that led me to conclude that God simply would not be pleased with me developing a sexual relationship with a man:
First I asked myself if my happiness and my desire to fall in love with a guy, all of which seemed to be the most natural of things for me to want and to do, could play any major part in any decision I would make of how to handle my sexuality. There were three realities I faced:
- If God is perfect and I am a sinner, it is reasonable to conclude that He will, sometimes, forbid me to have something I want. Therefore my desires for a sexual relationship with a guy are not a strong enough argument for me to consider a gay relationship morally right.
- In the same way, because I am finite and a sinner, it is only reasonable to assume that some of what God forbids and some of what God commands will not seem logical to me. So the fact that I do not see any harm or negative consequences of having a gay relationship is not enough for me to choose a gay marriage.
- Happiness is not the goal. The Bible does not promise happiness, joy, satisfaction or, really, anything good in this life. In fact, the only real promise it makes is a cross.
Putting together these three things meant that, yes, God might demand something that is unreasonable, miserable and that makes no sense.
Secondly, what about the Bible? Do I truly believe it is the Word of God and should be obeyed? There is a lot of discussion these days among the more “liberal” denominations about what the Bible means and what inspiration is. There are those who opt to believe that the basic message of the Bible is true while the actual accounts and many of the themes of the Bible are merely myths or cultural conventions. Aside from the mountains of evidence from archaeology and history that the Bible is true and accurate (and there is rather a lot of that) I had three problems with that kind of view:
- The Bible is often counter cultural and not afraid to be so. Some of Paul's statements about marriage and human worth are absolutely astounding. In many way the Bible is highly counter-cultural to the ancient world in which it was written. Many of the laws, often misread today, upheld the human worth of slaves, women and the poor. Such attitudes were unheard of in many ancient societies and even anathema in many philosophies. That the Bible would bow to mere cultural convention just did not make sense.
- The Bible also tells of the incredible love of Christ. If I reject the Bible's truth on one message – that of the Law, can I accept its truth on the other, the Gospel? I had a hard enough, if not impossible, time believing God could give a rat's butt about me. To reject part of the Bible would call into question the veracity of the rest and shatter the only foundation and hope I had that I might find a God who cared.
- I noticed that among those who rejected parts of the Bible as culturally driven there is a tendency to wind up proclaiming their own ideas. It was interesting how the Bible wound up, for them, saying only what they wished it said or thought it should have said. That really had no appeal for. I honestly did not want to build my life on the wishful thinking of others.
So, no, I could not find any argument strong enough to lead me away from the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. And I certainly could not find any other religion or philosophy with a God willing to sacrifice Himself for His creation. So that meant sticking with the Bible as the basis for faith and guidance in living for God.
About homosexual relationships themselves, having acknowledged that I did believe the Bible and that it might call me to something that would be against my inclinations and my happiness, here is what I found the Bible said about homosexuality itself:
- The only times sexual relationships between men are mentioned in the Bible, they are clearly pictured negatively.
- The gay-affirming arguments that such sexual relationships in the ancient world were very different than equal, loving relationships being espoused today and that, therefore the Bible does not condemn modern expressions of same sex love, are simply weak. They rely on a lot of assumptions and guess work that is simply not historically demonstrable. (this was not a big consideration when I was a teen as such arguments were far less common then than today)
- There are no positive comments about homosexuality anywhere in the Bible. There are literally thousands of verses about marriage between a man and a woman; extolling, commanding, regulating it. As I said before, the Bible was very counter cultural. There is the beautiful discourse on marriage in Ephesians 5, which is even more astounding when we consider that upper class Roman culture found romantic love between a man and wife to be unseemly. One Roman author even said that love is for mistresses and boys but a wife is only for bearing children. Cato the Elder was even reported to have kicked a man out of the senate for kissing his own wife in front of their daughter. Paul is utterly counter cultural when he says the only place for romantic love is within the marriage. Yet not one of the biblical writers, who were so ready to confront cultural assumptions, says a single positive thing about homosexual relationships – ever. This was probably the biggest factor in my decisions to forgo a sexual relationship.
Basically it comes down to this; the Bible portrays a God who is a very loving God, who created an amazing world and then, when we disappointed Him, answered by dying and rising for us. It pictures a God who delights in us and rejoices in us. Even when I can not make myself believe His love applies to me, which is often, that does not change the reality of who God is. He is a God worth serving, not only for His glory and majesty but for His love and compassion as well. For this reason, I want to serve Him.
Maybe it would be true that God would not angry if I were to choose a gay relationship, as the gay affirming churches claim. At least no more angry than He is at divorce and remarriage. But when I say I want to serve Him I don't mean that I merely want to avoid making Him angry. I want more than that. I want to do what God likes and approves of. I want to do something positive, not just avoid anger, but to be that good and faithful servant in whose service the master delights. And that means choosing a path the Bible clearly says God approves of rather than gambling on one that might not make Him angry. If God's love for us is so big He laid down His life, can our love for Him be so small that we turn our relationship with Him into just hoping we don't make Him angry?
I have never understood why pastors speak of the 3rd use of the Law in a negative or neutral manner. Sometimes it seems the 3rd use is dreaded. It seems pastors sometimes talk as if they feel they have to manipulate or threaten people into obedience to the Law – a not very appetizing prospect. Or, at best, pastors talk about the Gospel motivating the 3rd function of the Law. This results in pastors either ignoring the 3rd use of the law, because we have made it unpleasant, or inserting it into sermons artificially and kind of brutally. I bring this up because the attitude that we need to hammer home the third use of the Law seems especially common when speaking of sexuality. In fact it is kind of odd when I have asked pastors to present the Gospel, how many times I am told “but we can't neglect the Law” as if the two – the Law and the Gospel – were opposed to one another and could not both be proclaimed.
I like the Law. I want a pastor who will encourage me to obey it and walk with me as I strive to do so. You don't have to be afraid to call me to a costly obedience or a high view of Christian service.
Frankly, I am not really sure the Gospel and the 3rd function of the Law quite can be so clearly separated – at least not in such a way as to make them opposed to one another. It seems artificial somehow. I think the two are more organically linked than we often realize. If I love and worship God and if I believe He loves us, even though I may not feel it most of the time, why would I not want to do what He desires? Why would I not want to serve Him to the best of my ability? The 3rd use of the Law, it seems to me, just flows naturally from the Gospel, not merely motivated by it.
Or, perhaps, pastors are afraid that, given the Gospel, congregational members will use the forgiveness of Christ to avoid obedience. I guess this is sometimes true. Teens do sometimes think in that manner, at least when asking question in confirmation. Certainly, the man Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 5 was using the Gospel as license to sin. But, over all, I think using the Gospel as an excuse to sin is really an immature and pretty rare attitude among Christians. I have been a Christian my whole life and have only rarely met one who was not concerned about how to live and who did not desire to be obedient to a God who loves them. Most Christians really want to do what God desires them to do. They don't need manipulated or guilted into obedience.
For this reason, I think we do need to talk about how a Christian should live for God. But, as Paul does, it should always flow from the Gospel. “Because you were bought with a price, therefore, glorify God in your body.” Because you are members of one body...If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together “
So, wanting to obey a God of love and seeing that there is nothing in the Bible that in any way hints that same sex romantic relationships serve Him or please Him while, on the other hand, there are a handful of verses that clearly seem to indicate the opposite; well God's love for us is just too big for me to intentionally leave a path I know He approves of, celibacy, in favor of a committed same sex relationship on the very weak arguments presented in their favor. At best I would never know if I was serving Him. At worst, I would suspect I was disappointing Him.
So the main reason I chose celibacy was simply that I trust God really loves people more than I love myself and so I want to serve Him more than I want to be happy.
I guess I will add in one other reason for celibacy. Part of obedience is living for the resurrection. The argument often made is that heterosexuality and marriage is the default blessed by God and homosexuality is the perversion and result of sin. Frequently, well, pretty much always, that sends the message that I should be like you, straight, in order to be loved by God, that I have to want to have sex with women to be truly saved. But the Bible does not call me to be like you. It calls me to be like Christ and, as far as we know, He did not experience desire for women and He certainly never married. Further, it is quite clear that in the resurrection there will be no marriage and, therefore, I assume, no sex. In the Roman Church, part of the theology of celibacy is that the celibate person is living into the resurrection, striving now for what will be true in eternity. Living into the resurrection in the present sinful world is never an easy task whatever form it takes. But I trust God that is has a purpose.
I think in the letter I wrote for Daystar I mentioned when my father taught me to ride a bike. I fell off that bike many times. I got a lot of bumps and bruises. I came to hate that bike that summer. But I kept trying because my dad insisted and I trusted my dad even though it seemed painful. My dad kept insisting because he knew something I did not, that being able to ride a bike would give me more independence and enjoyment in the coming years. Obedience in this present world is going to cause bumps and bruises and pain too. It makes little sense and is often unpleasant. But I do trust that God knows something I do not, that there is something great waiting in the resurrection that makes living for it now worth while. Oh, and I guess I kind of enjoy the joke that after decades of being ashamed that I am not straight like you, in the end, in the resurrection, you will be celibate like me. Joking aside, why would I strive so hard for heterosexual normalcy and marriage, knowing that it will not last past the grave, when I can strive instead for that which will last forever? Or, to put it another way, maybe celibacy should be seen as a greater vocation than it is and not just for those with some kind of weird spiritual gift that makes them non-sexual beings – which, by the way, is not taught in the Bible though it becomes a common argument in the Reformation. Maybe there is good in living the resurrection now.
That's it. That's all there is. It's just a desire to serve God – no matter how imperfectly I carry it out. And I think most of the other gay people I know or know of who have chosen to forgo acting on their same sex attractions say similar things. Chastity and obedience are not practiced in a vacuum. For most of us denying ourselves does not actually make a whole lot of logical sense. But we have all learned to love Christ for other things. Some, like Eve Tushnet were drawn first to the beauty of the doctrine, philosophy and teachings of the Church. Others were convicted of other sins and then received the forgiveness of Christ, after which they worked to bring their sexuality into line with God's Word. Still others were struck by the love or compassion of an individual Christian in their lives. It might be good to watch the video “Desire of the Everlasting Hills” from courage international. It is an interview with several same sex attracted individuals in the Roman Church and what drew them to change their lives. One, at least, was intrigued by a nun he watched on TV discussing doctrine. None were convicted of the wrongness of homosexuality prior to first being drawn to Christ. Or you might want to read “Is Love Wrong?” by Chris Plekenpol and Kendall Reid. It is the account of a gay man who began to interact with evangelical college students. What is interesting is that, as frustrating as their interaction was, when the man died these college students found out that even on the little exposure to the faith the man had experienced, he had quit having sex. With even a little Gospel, often badly put, the man was willing to try for obedience. Whatever the first movement toward faith among all these people, it very seldom was a conviction that homosexual sex is sin. By and large, choosing to reject homosexuality is not the first stage of Christian growth. People are willing to forgo their own desires for sexual intimacy after they have learned to trust Christ – not before. But it is very rare for anyone to do so prior to faith. We learned the love of Christ first, and because we have learned of the love of Christ we are willing to do without sex – or at least strive to do so.
And that is why you, as a pastor, are going to have to elaborate and apply the Gospel when speaking of LGBT issues. That is why you will not be able to get away with a casual “God forgives sins” but must be sure the Gospel actually is dominant. Not only is it the only way that people may be saved. But, if you want to see a change in people, if you want people to forgo loving gay relationships, you will have to present something better – you will have to offer that which creates faith before you can ever expect anyone to choose against their own health and happiness in favor of serving God with their bodies. In fact, you have to put aside that desire to see change and, instead, act out of a desire to apply the Gospel.
No, it will not “work” for everyone. Many won't agree with you. Many will leave the congregation and seek out a more affirming church. That's life. The gospel is not a panacea to all the world's problems and, frankly, God might be working on some other area of an individuals life and faith and ignoring homosexuality for now – He actually did that a lot in the Old Testament, ignored certain sins because there was something more important He was trying to accomplish among His people. But the Gospel is all we have. That's it, that's all there is. No magic wand. No miracle but that of faith and the cross. Be a pastor and apply the Gospel. That's all you can do, It's what you were called to do.
Thank you for reading
And God bless,