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.   Continue reading

How Should the Bible Be Used for Ethical Practice?

This is the fourth 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.

In the previous post, I summarized key arguments in the debate on homosexuality. Traditionalists believe the biblical authors’ rejection of same-sex relations is rooted in God’s design for creation and, therefore, not culturally relative. Progressives interpret the prohibition in its cultural context where homoeroticism was primarily exploitative and, therefore, believe the inspired authors do not address covenanted same-sex partnerships. This is where the debate tends to stalemate. Even traditionalists who might be empathetic to the plight of gay people feel their hands are tied. This is not because traditionalists don’t accept arguments based on cultural relativity. Most conservative churches do not require women to wear head coverings.[1] Sermons against sex with a menstruating woman are unheard of despite the prohibition appearing in the same Levitical list as homoeroticism. And egalitarian traditionalists readily support women in leadership in the face of 1 Timothy 2:12. In other words, traditionalists do understand there is a cultural context and that some directives can be set aside. So why not the prohibition against same-sex relations? Traditionalists believe a creation ordinance is an absolute and unchangeable ethic.[2] How God ordered the universe transcends culture. The question now is whether this conclusion is always warranted. In this post, I explore how we draw ethics from Scripture.  Continue reading

Key Arguments in the Debate on Same-Sex Relationships

This is the third 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.

Note: This post is two in one. I have intentionally placed the key arguments for both sides in one post as I consider it best to read them together.

Recently, I attended a public meeting at a church whose denomination is debating the morality of same-sex relationships. Two high level officials in the denomination were invited to give a presentation on the topic. I was curious how they would handle the issue. They addressed it with grace and respect, but I was dismayed by the simplistic and outdated information. The presentation summarized six verses commonly cited to prohibit same-sex relationships (see footnote for guide to all verses on homoeroticism).[1] The same content could have been heard 30-40 years ago. These six prooftext verses have been rehashed countless times over the past few decades. In fact, despite the proliferation of books on the Bible and homosexuality, most of them regurgitate the exact same thing. Yet, these six verses are not the sticking point of the current debate. As indicated in the last post, there is much agreement between traditionalists and progressives on why the biblical authors condemned same-sex intercourse (at least for men). Rather, the debate centers primarily on gender and anatomical complementarity. This post will present common key arguments from both sides. First I begin with the traditionalist point of view, followed by the progressive perspective.  Continue reading

Homoeroticism in Ancient Israel and Early Jewish/Christian Thought

This is the second 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.

What does the Bible say about same-sex relationships? The first crucial step to answering that question is exploring the context of the biblical authors. What did they think about homoeroticism? In the current debate both traditionalists and progressives can fall into anachronistic interpretations. That is, each side tends to project modern ideas onto the Bible that are foreign to the biblical authors. As a result, our interpretations are that of our own imagination rather than the meaning the divinely inspired authors intended to convey. As Hebrew Bible scholar Marc Brettler puts it, we must first read Scripture like an Israelite (or an ancient Jew or Christian).[1] Once we understand what the biblical authors believed about sexuality, then we can determine our reasons for retaining, discarding, or expanding upon that tradition.

Homoeroticism in Ancient Israel and Early Jewish/Christian Thought

Homoeroticism is rarely mentioned in ancient Near Eastern texts, including the Old Testament. Middle Assyrian Laws (c. 1076 BCE) condemn same-sex rape and punish false accusations of same-sex intercourse (A 19-20). However several ANE law codes are silent on the matter. Little evidence is available to determine whether same-sex activity was generally rejected or accepted at least until the Greek period when pederasty was tolerated. Notably, almost all references pertain to males. Perhaps the earliest undisputed reference to females is from Plato’s Symposium in the 4th century BCE (7th century poet Sappho is debated).  Continue reading

The Conservative Church’s Response to the Gay Community: A Historical Perspective

This is the first 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.

The countercultural movements of the 1960s instigated significant social changes, including ushering a hidden gay and lesbian community into public view and conversation.[1] Tired of constant police raids on gay establishments, the famous 1969 Stonewall rioters launched a visible fight for dignity and fair treatment. Shortly thereafter, in 1972, the United Church of Christ began ordaining gay and lesbian pastors, the first mainline denomination to do so.[2] This new freedom allowing gay people to openly share their lives was the same freedom that enabled the ex-gay movement to develop. In prior years, sexual minorities stayed in the closet out of fear of persecution.  But now Christians distressed by their sexuality were increasingly risking self-disclosure to seek help. In 1973, the father of the ex-gay movement, Frank Worthen, started a ministry near San Francisco called Love in Action. Worthen had lived as a gay man for 25 years before having a spiritual experience that led him to renounce same-sex relationships and marry a woman (Anita). He founded his ministry to help others who wanted to live congruently with their traditionalist interpretation of the Bible.

In 1975, Worthen discovered other fledgling ex-gay ministries, including one called EXIT (Ex-Gay Intervention Team) that operated out of Melodyland Christian Center. EXIT was founded by two gay men in their 20s, Michael Bussee and Jim Kasper. Worthen collaborated with EXIT to host the first ex-gay conference attended by 65 people (60 men and 5 women).[3] This conference birthed Exodus International, an information and referral organization that eventually grew to more than 200 member ministries world-wide. Exodus thrived until its closure in 2013 when then-president Alan Chambers shocked conservatives and progressives alike by admitting that the majority of ex-gays had not experienced change in their sexual orientation. Continue reading