The Question of Celibacy for Gay and Lesbian People

This is the last post in a five part series on same-sex relationships. The series is intended to be read in order. Each essay is essential for understanding the full picture. Click here to see all posts.

When I contemplate life-long celibacy, I feel both joy and sorrow. Joy when I think of Mother Teresa or theologian John Stott, both self-sacrificial people whose celibacy enhanced their life’s work. Wesley Hill also comes to mind, a celibate gay professor of New Testament who has blessed the church with rich theology of friendship and community. But my heart is sorrowful when I think of Ryan Robertson, a young man who grew up in a loving evangelical family and didn’t have the strength to bear the burden. For years he earnestly prayed, received counseling, and worked the program. The inability to change his sexual orientation and face a life without a family of his own became too much. The pain led to self-destructive coping mechanisms and he died at the age of 20. There is no question in my mind that if Ryan had been heterosexual, he would still be alive today. More specifically, if Ryan had been extended mercy by the church, instead of forced to do something beyond his capability, he would still be with us.

Life-long celibacy is beautiful and meaningful for those who have the grace and call for it. But it can lead to death for those who do not. In the discussion on same-sex relationships, traditionalists have not adequately wrestled with the question of permanent sexual abstinence. Is life-long celibacy achievable for anyone who attempts it (including an entire demographic, comprising millions of people)?[2] Does requiring mandatory life-long celibacy for gay and lesbian people inflict undue suffering that warrants mercy?[1] Sidestepping these questions, two recent books by traditionalists focus their attention on sexual orientation change and mixed orientation marriages before giving cursory attention to life-long celibacy.[3] Yet, research has shown sexual orientation change is uncommon and mixed orientation marriages have higher rates of divorce. A transparent response to the ethical debate requires seriously grappling with the question of mandatory life-long celibacy.  

Suffering and the Christian

Most traditionalists can empathize, to a certain extent, with the pain of life-long celibacy. But while this suffering might be enough to convince some to extend mercy to same-sex couples, other traditionalists see it as a necessary cross to bear. Still others struggle to apply mercy because the power of law and the fear of potential disobedience is so strong. Violating a rule just feels wrong no matter what–even when we see Jesus and the biblical authors applying law with discernment and nuance. Yet to err on the side of mandates without the influence of virtue is to fall prey to the same temptation as the religious leaders of Jesus’s day. They didn’t want to get it wrong, but their zeal ensured they did.

We have to ask ourselves for what purpose gay and lesbian people are being asked to suffer. The beauty of a self-sacrificial life is too often distorted into a theology of suffering for suffering’s sake. But one of God’s primary missions is to alleviate suffering (Acts 10:38; Rev 21:3-4). As we have seen from the discussion thus far, the debate primarily comes down to complementarity and spiritual symbolism. Certainly these are good things. But if mandatory life-long celibacy can be harmful, while covenanted same-sex partnerships can exhibit the fruit of the Spirit, are traditionalist arguments sufficient? I argue no.

But for those not persuaded on the basis of suffering, I want to spend most of this post addressing the question of whether life-long celibacy is even possible for everyone who attempts it. In that case the demand is fruitless and only leads to despair.

The Truth About Sexual Orientation Change

Research has confirmed that change in sexual orientation (that might enable a healthy heterosexual marriage) is uncommon.[4] This is the conclusion of not only progressive scholars, but also conservatives who hold a traditionalist view. Almost 20 years ago, evangelicals Dr. Stanton Jones (Wheaton College) and Dr. Mark Yarhouse (Regent University) admitted: “However the orientation toward homosexual preference develops, there is substantial agreement that it is not a preference that can be easily changed by the simple act of the will.”[5]

Seven years after they penned the above statement, Jones and Yarhouse conducted a longitudinal study with ex-gays who attended Exodus support groups. While they knew sexual orientation does not readily change, they wanted to counter progressive claims that sexual orientation can never change or that change attempts always cause harm. While the study results did not indicate harm occurred, shifts in sexual orientation were quite low. Only 23% reported a shift after six years of trying and most of the change was toward bisexuality (or “complicated heterosexuality,” as the authors put it). This percentage is likely optimistic since several study participants dropped out before it was completed. In other words, even an optimistic view suggests nearly 80% of gay people will not experience a change in sexual orientation, despite years of actively attempting to do so.

In 2014, Mormon psychologist, Dr. John Dehlin, and his colleagues published a large study, surveying 1,612 current or former members of the LDS church (where motivation to change is high). Only 1 out of 1,019 respondents who had attempted to change reported a shift to heterosexuality (.1%). Participants also reported negative effects from the attempts (for more on this study, watch Dr. Dehlin’s presentation at Calvin College).

Recently, Dr. Warren Throckmorton, an evangelical psychologist, who previously believed sexual orientation was amenable to change, summed up scholarly consensus:

I think most therapists now understand that sexual orientation is durable and rarely, if ever, changes dramatically as the result of change therapy . . .  As for the goal of ending change therapy for youth, I am a supporter. Despite years of research and effort, no safe, effective and ethical approach to sexual orientation change has emerged. The very few people who still claim effectiveness are small operations with no research of their own methods. The anecdotes of harm are convincing and the candid admissions of people like Alan Chambers that the change they claimed didn’t happen is enough to cause significant skepticism. My own professional experience researching change efforts in clients and research participants informs me that any claimed change is unlikely to be lasting or complete. The biological research, while not conclusive, supports a very early establishment of sexual desires (especially for males).”[6]

This is not to discount those who profess a change in orientation. However, those testimonies represent a small minority.[7] As traditionalists increasingly come to terms with the truth that sexual orientation change is unlikely for the overwhelming majority, a robust engagement on the feasibility of life-long celibacy is much needed.

Single People Today

One common argument that traditionalists make is: “Gay people are no different than straight people who can’t find a mate and must remain chaste.” But there are problems with this assertion. First, saying “no” to temptation is not as difficult when no one is available to tempt one’s desires; it’s a different story to resist the love of your life. When straight people fall in love, they marry. When gay people fall in love they must find herculean strength to say no, not only in the moment of desire, but to every dream of marriage and family. Second, a profound difference exists between someone who happens to be single but can actively pursue dating and marriage, versus someone who is forbidden to do either. How many heterosexual singles would be willing to cease dating, give up the hope of marriage, and make a life-time vow of celibacy? Not many. Yet, that is essentially what traditionalists are requiring gay people to do.

Third, and perhaps most significantly, straight, unmarried people often don’t succeed at celibacy either. While some straight people might have the ability to live in permanent sexual abstinence, not everyone can. In fact, “single” is a misnomer since many unmarried heterosexuals, including Christians, are dating, cohabitating, or otherwise involved in romantic or sexual relationships. In other words, arguing that gay people must be celibate because heterosexuals also need to be chaste ignores the reality that many straight people are equally unable to achieve life-long celibacy. This cannot be blamed only on moral weakness. Rather, God designed human beings for intimate relations. Life-long celibacy is an atypical state that goes against our biology.

Learning to control our sex drive is part of maturity, but puberty creates real changes in the body that impel us. Physical and emotional attractions to another person, which are rarely conjured by choice, change our chemistry such that resisting mutual affection often requires significant external support. That’s why even devout teenagers who sign “Love Waits” pledges are, statistically, only able to hold out 18 months longer.[8] By the age of 21, they are just as likely to have had sex as non-pledgers.[9] Studies of evangelicals between ages 18-29 show rates of non-marital sex at 44-80%.[10] Similarly, an evaluation of Catholic priests indicates achieving life-long celibacy is difficult even for those who actively choose it. Psychotherapist, Richard Sipe, a Benedictine monk for 18 years, estimates that up to 50% of Catholic priests are involved in sexual activity at some point in their career.[11]

Some voices argue that we do not need sex for human flourishing, and we only think we do because we live in a hyper-sexualized culture. I understand why this argument is made. We have an unprecedented number of unmarried people in our society. The church wants to encourage singles who feel alienated by the idolization of marriage. And certainly, the value of life-long celibacy (for those who have the grace and call) has not received due esteem. But, the reality is human beings are biologically made for sexual relationships, not life-long celibacy. Pretending that is not true will only enhance the disorder we see post-sexual revolution.  People will have sex either within marriage or outside of it. Once we appreciate (not deny or fear) the way we are wired as sexual creatures, we can have reasonable conversations about what it means to live in this world as such. For a church that cares about sexual holiness, that means inspiring the kind of loyal love that led Ruth to cling to Naomi.[12]

Christian Tradition on Celibacy

Certainly, life-long celibacy is possible for some people. Many religious traditions around the world honor the practice, especially among their leaders. But the claim that anyone can achieve a lifetime of celibacy is not representative of Christian tradition. This recent assertion seems to have developed as a way to counter gay marriage, as well as make sense of the unusually high number of unmarried people in our modern Western culture. But, throughout church history, the answer to the question of universal attainability has been, “No.” Despite high regard for the celibate life, it has been readily understood that some are too “weak” and require the accommodation of marriage to live a holy life.

To understand Christian tradition on celibacy, it will be helpful to provide a brief overview. When Jesus and Paul came onto the scene, celibacy was an anomaly in Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures. In fact, Roman law penalized those who did not wed and propagate.[13] In early Jewish tradition, marriage and procreation were considered biblical mandates (per Genesis 1:28). Sexual abstinence was permitted or required only temporarily for purity purposes.[14] For example, the book of Exodus describes Israelites refraining from sex for three days in preparation for God’s appearance on Mt. Sinai (19:14-15; see also 1 Sam 21:4).[15] The author of Jubilees refers to sexual abstinence on the Sabbath (50:8). The Testament of Naphtali speaks of ceasing to have sex for a period of prayer (8:8).

In the New Testament, a similar purity theme appears in Paul’s instructions for couples to refrain temporarily from sex for prayer (1 Cor 7:5), as well as in Revelation’s eschatological scene of 144,000 elect male virgins who have “not defiled themselves with women” (14:1-5). But, early Christianity did more than affirm temporary abstinence for purity reasons; it saw celibacy as symbolic of the eternal age to come. Traditional Jewish theology envisioned fertility in the eschaton (e.g. Isa 11:8; Wisdom 3:13; 2 Baruch 73:7), but Jesus said marriage and procreation do not exist in the age to come (Luke 20:34-36). Possibly, the idea of sexual abstinence in the coming age developed from framing the end of time as the ultimate Sabbath (e.g. Heb 4:8-11) or a holy space where the presence of God perpetually dwells like the earthly Temple (Rev 21:1-3).

On the other hand, Paul also acknowledges that the body is a temple for the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:12-20), and while he gives that as a reason to refrain from sexual immorality, he does not consider celibacy a requirement for Christians to experience God’s presence through the Holy Spirit. In fact, he counters Christians who apparently preached mandatory life-long celibacy in anticipation of the eschaton. These teachers asserted that “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (1 Cor 7:1). Against this severe asceticism, Paul corrects them and says that marital sex is important for living a holy life. One should only refrain from sex in marriage for temporary periods of prayer.

Paul understood the power of the sex drive. While he esteemed celibacy, and wished more Christians would embrace that way of life, he readily acknowledged that not everyone has the ability to remain in a permanent state of sexual abstinence. Not only does he tell married couples to employ sex in marriage to reduce temptation (v. 5), but he also urges single people to marry if they cannot achieve celibacy: “But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion . . . If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly . . . if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin” (v. 8, 36; ESV). For Paul, marriage is considered vital in helping a person to achieve a holy life. Jesus similarly acknowledges that not everyone can attain life-long celibacy; only those to whom it has been given (Matt 19:10-12). He states that despite the realities of the eschaton, in this present age people marry and are given in marriage (Luke 20:34).

Paul counseled temporary sexual abstinence for purity reasons (prayer), but his motivation for life-long celibacy was freedom to serve God (1 Cor 7:32-35; see also Luke 18:29-30). His encouragement to remain unmarried was also flavored by his belief that the eschaton was imminent (1 Cor 7:29). There was no purpose in getting married and starting families when the Lord was returning any moment. The early church took Paul’s example of celibacy, and that of Jesus’s, to heart. In doing so, they blended purity reasons for abstinence with those pertaining to service. Ironically, what Paul attempted to correct in his letter to the Corinthians was used to argue for essentially the same thing as the heretics. Church leaders latched onto Paul’s statement of abstaining from sex for prayer, combined it with a separate scripture about praying without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17), and developed a theology out of it. Syrian Christianity went so far as to require life-long celibacy for anyone who received baptism; one had to prove the ability to endure permanent sexual abstinence before undergoing the rite.[16]

Within 200 years of Jesus and Paul, the church was actively encouraging life-long celibacy for as many people as possible, including married people. Marriage was considered inferior because it did not reflect the coming age and was considered a product of the Fall. Sexual differentiation and intercourse became associated with Adam and Eve’s disobedience.[17] Psalm 51:5 was employed to argue that parents conceive children through an act of iniquity. In his essay, On Virginity, Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-395 CE), asserted that procreation gives birth to death (mortal children), while those who embrace celibacy give birth to life (spiritual children). However, on the positive side celibacy was considered a way to draw close to God in prayer and view the world through spiritual eyes. Rather than objectifying other people for one’s own desires, celibacy allowed one to love others in a selfless way.

What is striking about this zeal for celibacy that lasted until the Reformation is that despite viewing life-long sexual abstinence as superior to marriage, the same theologians acknowledged not everyone could attain it. If anyone might have demanded mandatory celibacy, it would have been them (and we see in a few extreme cases such as Syrian Christianity it essentially came to that). But the majority considered marriage a legitimate accommodation for weakness. Ambrose writes: “For virginity cannot be commanded, but must be wished for, for things which are above us are matters for prayer rather than under mastery . . . I do not then discourage marriage, but recapitulate the advantages of holy virginity. This is the gift of few only . . .” (Concerning Virginity, I.V.23, 35). Augustine who esteemed celibacy above marriage, nevertheless, acknowledged that marriage serves those who are unable to attain celibacy: “[T]he weakness of both sexes, with its inclination to depravity and ruin, is wisely saved by honorable marriage.”[18]

When Reformation leader, Martin Luther, came onto the scene, he went further than advising marriage as an accommodation; he argued for its necessity. From personal experience as a monk, he saw how clergy struggled to keep vows of celibacy. He was also concerned that celibacy had become a type of works righteousness. Luther maintained that no one can be justified by celibacy, but only through faith.[19] Celibacy does not gain a person more merit in God’s eyes than marriage. In fact, Luther argued that the majority of people should marry. The reason celibacy has not played a role in Protestant tradition is because of Luther’s insistence that we need marriage for a holy life.

I quote Luther at length below as I believe it is helpful to our discussion on gay people and mandatory celibacy.[20] In doing so, I am not arguing that Luther or other church fathers would have supported same-sex marriage. I suspect they thought a  person with same-sex attractions could just choose heterosexual marriage as an option for sexual release, not truly grasping the nature and durability of sexual orientation. Rather, I present Luther’s comments to further demonstrate the prevalent belief that celibacy is not possible for all people:

“Much as chastity [celibacy] is praised, and no matter how noble a gift it is, nevertheless necessity prevails so that few can attain it, for they cannot control themselves. For although we are Christians and have the spirit of God in faith, still we do not cease to be God’s creatures, you a woman, and I a man. And the spirit permits the body its ways and natural functions, so that it eats, drinks, and eliminates like any other human body. . .

When St. Paul says, ‘But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry,’ it is as though he were to say: ‘Those to whom God has not given a special gift but lets their bodies retain their way and nature, for them it is better, yes, necessary, to marry and not remain a virgin or widow. For it is not God’s intention to make this special grace a general one; rather marriage is to be general according to God’s original institution and creation in both bodies. He will not cancel and deny his creation in everyone.

Furthermore, a Christian is spirit and flesh. According to the spirit he has no need of marriage. But because his flesh is the common flesh, corrupted in Adam and Eve and filled with evil desires, therefore because of this very disease, marriage is a necessity for him and it is not in his power to get along without it. For his flesh rages, burns, and fructifies just like that of any other man, unless he helps and controls it with the proper medicine, which is marriage . . .

Need commands it. Nature will express itself, fructify, and multiply, and God does not want this outside marriage, and so everyone because of this need must enter into marriage if he wants to live with a good conscience and in favor with God. . .

Now such heat is stronger in some, and weaker in others. Some among them suffer so severely that they masturbate. All these ought to be in the married estate. Truly it can be said: for every chaste person there should be more than a hundred thousand married people.

It will be best to give you an example. St. Jerome, who glorifies chastity and praises it most solemnly, confesses that he was unable to subdue his flesh with fasts or wakes, so that his chastity became for him an unimaginable plague. Oh, how precious time he must have wasted with carnal thoughts! But he insists that chastity is something that we can achieve and a common possession. You see, this man lay in heat and should have taken a wife. There you see what ‘aflame and passion’ means. For he was of the number who belong in marriage, and he wronged himself and caused himself much trouble by not marrying. We can read of many more such incidents in the lives of the fathers . . .

Consider how foolish are those teachers and administrators who drive young people to chastity in monasteries and nunneries, claiming that the harder it is for them and the more unwilling they are, the better their chastity is. They should play around with other things and take something besides chastity, for it cannot be voluntary without special grace. Everything else can be voluntary, if only faith is present. They act like the Jews who burned their children in honor of the god Molech (Jer 32:35), so that I sometimes think that St. Paul used the word “aflame” because he wanted to touch upon and refer to this abomination. For what is it to allow a young person to suffocate in such heat in a monastery or elsewhere his whole life but to burn a child to death in honor of the devil by making it observe a miserable, lost chastity?”

Christian tradition from the time of Jesus and Paul has acknowledged that not everyone can be celibate. Even the most zealous church fathers and mothers who viewed celibacy as superior to marriage conceded that marriage is a necessary accommodation. Martin Luther went even further to say that marriage is a necessity, and that mandatory celibacy leads to sin and undue suffering.

What Next?

What we need going forward is a more robust and realistic theology of sexuality that speaks to the needs of both gay and straight people. The assumption in the same-sex marriage debate that life-long celibacy is possible for everyone is not supported by evidence from Christian tradition, social scientific studies, or commonsense observation. In fact, conservative evangelicals regularly recognize this fact (as this Focus on the Family article demonstrates). Moreover, this argument does not begin to address how actively depriving people of marriage is an issue beyond sex. Marriage is about kinship ties that support us in myriad ways through life.[21] A good sexual ethic will take these realities into consideration.

I know I am stretching traditionalists to consider new ways of thinking. People on both sides of the debate have strong positions because we care about the gospel vision in which all things are reconciled in God and shalom reigns. But, I hope that what I have offered in these five posts demonstrates how supporting gay couples in covenanted fidelity can participate in that Kingdom vision. And I hope traditionalists might have new reason to extend a merciful hand.

In summing up this series, I offer the following thoughts going forward:

1. Supporting covenanted same-sex partnerships in no way discounts the beauty of male-female complementarity. Traditionalists are right to say there is something incredibly meaningful about what women bring to the world as women and what men bring to the world as men. The fact that this complementarity can result in new life is also amazing. Male and female is a gift from God. But, when we take a blessing and convert it into a compulsion that causes significant suffering, it is no longer beautiful. We can uphold the goodness of male and female, while simultaneously acknowledging the goodness of covenanted kinship for gay and lesbian people.[22]

2. The world needs more examples of faithful love that mirrors Jesus’s example of “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Our sexual struggles are primarily related to that lost virtue. Sex is a means of forming lasting kinship. When used for other reasons, we begin to pursue pleasure more than holiness. The fidelity of Christian gay and lesbian couples can serve as a sanctifying influence in the gay community and more broadly. That means we need to provide the same community support all married couples need to maintain their vows. Gay Christians who have discerned that marriage is the best way to live a godly life should be fully embraced by their church. Treating these relationships as somehow tainted will make fidelity and, therefore, holiness much harder. When Jesus approved of David eating the consecrated bread, it was not an inferior accommodation; it was literally life-giving freedom (Matt 12:1-8).

3. Acknowledging that not everyone has the grace for life-long celibacy does not in any way diminish the value of that vocation. Supporting same-sex covenants does not mean all gay or lesbian people should marry. Every person, gay or straight, must seek God for direction. There are good reasons to pursue a celibate life, including serving God with greater freedom. Rather than being a source of restraint, celibacy can be liberating for the person called to it. Celibacy trains a person to view the world with spiritual eyes and to treat others with the eyes of heaven.

4. Scripture shows us that biblical ethics requires discernment. It involves listening to the wisdom of Scriptural tradition and bringing that into conversation with contemporary concerns. The biblical authors teach us by example how to interpret Scripture. Sometimes laws are applied in nuanced ways or even suspended to fulfill the intent of God’s law. The interpretive key is always mercy. God’s law is for humankind.[23] Trying to force life-long celibacy on gay people has had harmful effects. Supporting covenant partnerships will lead to greater holiness and holistic flourishing.

Further Related Reading:

Raymond F. Collins, Accompanied by a Believing Wife: Ministry and Celibacy in the Earliest Christian Communities

Annemarie S. Kidder, Women, Celibacy, and the Church

William Loader, Making Sense of Sex: Attitudes toward Sexuality in Early Jewish and Christian Literature (pages 91-104 for discussion on celibacy)

Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing (a book on Christian spirituality generally, but good discussion about the body and sexuality)


I want to thank a few dear friends who took the time to read drafts of these essays and provide helpful feedback: Gene Schlesinger, Brian Hui,  and J. who asked to remain anonymous for job security reasons. Acknowledging them here does not constitute agreement or disagreement with the content of these posts.


[1] Mixed orientation marriages do exist and can be successful for some. But they do have higher rates of divorce. Most gay people do not have enough sexual flexibility to function heterosexually. Sex is not everything to a marriage, but it is a crucial aspect.

[2] Studies give different estimates for the number of gay and lesbian people in the United States. The differences are often related to what is being measured (i.e. sexual identity versus sexual attraction or behavior). For example, some attracted to the same-sex do not take on the label of “gay.” Also, because of differences in male and female sexuality, more men identify as gay than women and more women identify as bisexual than men. A 2011 Williams Institute study indicated 1.7% identify as gay or lesbian and 1.8% as bisexual. That is, 3.5% of the population. However, the same report found that 8.2% of Americans had experienced same-sex activity and 11% had experienced some attraction to the same-sex. One study of Facebook data found that in states where there is less acceptance, people underreport their same-sex attractions. This study estimates about 5% of men are gay. Overall, studies tend to fall in the range of 3-5% if that includes those who are bisexual. For comparison, Jews comprise about 2.2% of the U.S. population.

[3] Traditionalist authors Kevin DeYoung and Preston Sprinkle downplay the reality of life-long celibacy, suggesting sexual orientation change or heterosexual marriage before giving attention to celibacy. Neither seriously considers that life-long celibacy might not be possible for everyone. Sprinkle carelessly quotes an anonymous friend who reports a 50% change rate for his clients. No name or citation is given to verify or test this claim. And such a percentage is quite out of sync with actual studies. Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 109-115; Preston Sprinkle, People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just An Issue (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 157-175.

[4] Regardless of the causes of same-sex attraction, sexual orientation has been shown to be fairly fixed for most gay and lesbian people. Sexual fluidity, which is different than sexual orientation change, occurs more often among women than men. But not all women with same-sex attraction experience fluidity or flexibility. For more on causes of attraction to the same-sex, read this excellent summary of the research: J. Michael Bailey, et. al, “Sexual Orientation, Controversy, and Science.”

[5] Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse, Homosexuality: The Use of Scientific Research in the Church’s Moral Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 121. They also point out that previous studies that had inflated rates of success were problematic: “Most of the published empirical studies on change were conducted during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s . . . The early research on change was often of poor methodological quality by today’s standards . . . Measures of change in the older research, for example, were often based on the judgments of the person serving as therapists, and often these ratings used categories (such as Very Improved and Somewhat Improved) that fail to provide detailed information about change. When the patients themselves were queried, their self-reports were again quite simplistic . . . Use of therapists’ ratings is particular problematic by today’s standards, based on concern that the therapists have a vested interest in reporting their own success. Rigorous examination of indices of sexual orientation were rarely if ever used.”


[7] Some confusion in the discussion occurs because those who experience sexual fluidity or flexibility are lumped together with those who do not. The fact that someone used to be in a same-sex relationship, but now is married to the opposite sex does not necessarily indicate a change in sexual orientation. For example, some ex-gays who proclaimed healing were bisexual or experienced sexual fluidity. Joe Dallas, a prominent spokesperson for the ex-gay movement acknowledges a history of relationships with both women and men. Rosaria Butterfield, who has never been part of the ex-gay movement, but is nevertheless toted as ex-gay by many conservatives, had heterosexual relationships until her late 20s before she began dating women. That does not mean shifts in sexual orientation don’t occur for a small percentage, but it’s false and unethical to hold up singular cases as evidence that anyone can become heterosexual.

[8] P. Bearman and H. Brückner, “The Relationship Between Virginity Pledges in Adolescence and STD Acquisition in Young Adulthood. After the Promise: The Long-Term Consequences of Adolescent Virginity Pledges,” Journal of Adolescent Health 36 (2005): 271-78. Some research indicates pledgers with high religiosity show greater levels of success than pledgers who do not have a high level of religious commitment. However, the Grey Matter study (see below) was conservative in its definition of evangelical (i.e. tested for level of religious commitment). Thus, even a conservative estimate provides a high rate of 44% of evangelicals have had non-marital sex by age 29.

[9] Janet Elise Rosenbaum, “Patient Teenagers? A Comparison of the Sexual Behavior of Virginity Pledgers and Non-Matched Pledgers,” Pediatrics 123 (2009): 110-120.

[10] The 80% is from a December 2009 study conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. For more, see Tyler Charles, “(Almost) Everyone Is Doing It,” Relevant Magazine 53 (2011). The 44% is from a 2012 Grey Matter study. Of note, the Grey Matter study did not define “sexually active.” If participants interpreted the question as referring to sexual intercourse, that would exclude a lot of other types of sexual involvement. For example, oral sex might not be defined as sex, yet such activity clearly indicates the person is not celibate.

[11] A.W. Richard Sipe, Celibacy in Crisis: A Secret World Revisited (New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2003).

[12] By using this example of Ruth and Naomi, I am not suggesting the Bible depicts a lesbian couple. Rather I am referring to the kinship fidelity between them. However, they are an inspiring example for gay or straight couples. The same word “cling” is also used to refer to Adam with Eve.

[13] Men could lose their inheritance, and women had to remarry within two if divorced or widowed. However, families with at least three children were rewarded. The rare exceptions to marriage in Roman society were Vestal Virgins and eunuchs. Lex Iulia de maritandis ordinibus; Lex Papia Poppaea. For more on this see Raymond F. Collins, Accompanied by a Believing Wife: Ministry and Celibacy in the Earliest Christian Communities (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013), 66-68.

[14] My discussion on purity here draws from William Loader, Making Sense of Sex: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Early Jewish and Christian Literature (Grand Rapids: WB Eerdmans, 2013), 91-104; as well as Collins, Accompanied by a Believing Wife.

[15] Philo considered Moses to be in a permanent state of purity to converse with God (Mos. 2.68-69).

[16] April D. DeConick, The Thirteenth Apostle (London: Continuum, 2007), 18-19.

[17] The reason for associating Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience with sexual desire is because they are not depicted as having sex until after their rebellion (Gen 4:1). Obviously, this theology conflicts with the goodness of sex and procreation in Genesis 1.

[18] Augustine, Genesi Ad Litteram, v. II.7-12, trans. John Hammond Taylor (New York: Newman Press, 1982), 77.

[19] Annemarie Kidder, Women, Celibacy, and the Church (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2003), 171-73.

[20] Martin Luther, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7,” in Commentaries on 1 Corinthians 7, 1 Corinthians 15, Lectures on 1 Timothy, Luther’s Works 28, ed. Edward Sittler (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing, 1973), 25-31.

[21] For an excellent description of what partnership can provide, see celibate gay Ron Belgau’s, “What Does ‘Sexual Orientation’ Orient?

[22] One barrier to people considering same-sex relationships as potentially good is simply a personal aversion to the thought. In fact, a writer for the Gospel Coalition actually urges Christians to focus the debate on “sexual behavior in all its yuckiest gag-inducing truth.” The author proceeds to graphically describe same-sex acts in animalistic fashion (without realizing such crass discussion of heterosexual sex would also be off-putting). The problem with arguing ethics on the basis of disgust is that human beings tend to feel an aversion to anything out of the ordinary or foreign to one’s own experience. For example, an 1881 Chicago ordinance banned people with physical disabilities from public view on the grounds that they are a “disgusting object.” The law was not repealed until 1974.

[23] Protestants are the only ones who demand celibacy from lay people, but prefer their leaders to be married. The opposite is true in most other religions. Getting hired as a pastor of an evangelical church while still unmarried is often quite difficult. The fact that evangelical leaders demand life-long celibacy from others, but don’t live it themselves is telling. Growing up, I always heard that the sin King David committed was that he stayed home instead of going out into battle at the front lines to lead his soldiers. Traditionalists will say that gay marriage is destroying civilization, and yet I know not one straight evangelical traditionalist that is willing to lead by example. By that I mean straight leaders who deeply wanted to marry and have kids but chose in their 20s to vow life-long celibacy instead. Perhaps, if more straight, evangelical culture war leaders were willing to live out what they demand, their theology would become much more merciful and nuanced.


5 thoughts on “The Question of Celibacy for Gay and Lesbian People

  1. Karen, I have really enjoyed this series and it has given me a lot of food for thought. I do think there is a natural follow up question– and that is the issue of children in same-sex marriage homes. While no one denies that a gay person can love a child just as well as a straight person, there is something unique brought to a child’s upbringing by having both a mother and a father. Of course society is a broken mess in this department, but should that cause us to forsake this as the ideal? Are you familiar with some of the research that has been done on this topic?

  2. Hi Laurie, thanks for your comment. The question of whether gay couples should be allowed to parent is a separate ethical question from whether gay people should be allowed to marry. I realize there is a potential connection, although not all couples choose to have/raise children).

    I think your question while important, distracts from the question at hand, which is whether life-long celibacy is humane, let alone possible for gay and lesbian people. You have to address that first. So I hope you will truly wrestle with that actual question.

    The topic of sexual ethics is vast. And we definitely need more in-depth, comprehensive conversation on this that includes both straight and gay people. The question of parenting is not just one for gay people. It also raises questions about how heterosexuals have children. For example, should heterosexual couples be allowed to employ IVF? Is it ethical for heterosexual couples to create a child through IVF that uses a donor if that means the child will not be raised by a biological parent? Is it ethical for Christian heterosexual couples to spend thousands of dollars on that procedure rather than spending that money to care for an orphan? Is it ethical to bar gay people from adoption if that means children will not have any family at all (which is, in fact, the reality).

    So, I think we need to have a broader sexual ethic on IVF that includes both straight and gay people. And we need to have a broader ethic around adoption, one that actually takes into consideration the millions of children living on the streets around the world (let alone the half million waiting for adoption in our own country). Basing ethics only on a fantasy ideal world where children are only raised by Christian heterosexual moms and dads in an intact marriage who are biologically related perpetuates violence against children by not addressing what the real needs are in our world today. Children will always be without their parents, even for no other reason than things like cancer, car accidents, etc. So, addressing the moral issues like divorce etc. won’t change the *actual* world we live in and the needs of children.

    Gay couples comprise an extremely small percentage of the population, and not even all of these raise children. Singling out this tiny group is a problem. Far, far more heterosexual people are raising children without both biological parents. Would you suggest single people cannot raise children? What about missionaries like Amy Carmichael? And all the other single women who have cared for orphans?

    Here is a good video of a gay couple who adopted four children. Watch this video and tell me if you think that what these men are doing is unethical. I pose that to you as a serious question. Do you think these men are sinning by raising these kids? And, if you don’t want these men to raise these kids, are you willing to open up your home to raise them instead? If you are not willing to adopt, are you suggesting that it is more ethical for these children to have been left in the foster care system than to be raised by couples like Rob and Reece? And no, they would not have necessarily been adopted by a heterosexual couple. Otherwise we wouldn’t perpetually have thousands of kids on the adoption list in the US that are never adopted.

  3. Thanks of the video, it’s very touching. Of COURSE, I would never say that what this couple did was unethical or sinful. I am all for adoption by anyone–gay, straight, single–who will provide a loving home for a child. I should have been more specific in my question. I am thinking about surrogacy, sperm donor babies, etc.–where a gay couple specifically bring a baby into the world in a home without a father or without a mother. Of course, I know this goes on in the single heterosexual world as well, and I am just as critical of it.

  4. Hi Laurie, one can be opposed to IVF broadly or opposed to donors for IVF or surrogacy without gay couples being singled out by virtue of being gay. IVF wasn’t created for gay people. It was created for straight people. Gay people are simply joining the existing system. So, it is a matter of having consistent sexual ethics across the board, whether straight or gay.

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