Response to a Review: On Celibacy, Human Identity, and the Orientation/Behavior Distinction

I would like to thank Sam Allberry and The Gospel Coalition for reviewing my book, God and the Gay Christian. I am grateful for Allberry’s kind, measured tone as well as his personal testimony. I’ve had the pleasure of being able to talk with Allberry since he published his review, and I look forward to getting to know him better in the time to come.

Allberry disagrees with my book, and he grounds his objections primarily in anthropology. As he writes,

[T]he most troubling aspect of this book is its anthropology… We in the West find ourselves amid a culture that increasingly encourages us to seek ultimate human meaning in sexual fulfilment. Our core human identity is found in our sexuality, which in turn is defined by our desires and attractions. Yet this is an appallingly inadequate way to account for a human being, and contributes as much as anything else does to the bad fruit that Vines so rightly laments. And yet so much of his anthropology seems to take this perspective in unquestioningly. And so to deny someone full expression of his sexuality is tantamount to causing him to hate his very self. Indeed, Vines goes as far as to say it makes them less human and less like God (166).

But this is not a biblical understanding of what it means to be human…. If my sexual feelings are who I am at my core, then they must be fulfilled in order for me to even begin to feel complete and whole as a human. My sense of fulfilment is cast upon my sexual fortunes, and everything seems to depend on it. But being a Christian gives me a different perspective. My sexual desires are not insignificant; they are deeply personal. But they are not defining or central, and so fulfilling them is not the key to fullness of life. I suspect our culture’s near-hysterical insistence that your sexuality is your identity has far more to do with the prevalence of torment, self-loathing, and destruction than we have begun to realize.

As I told Allberry in our recent conversation, I believe we actually have a fair amount in common on this point. I wholeheartedly agree with him that locating our core human identity in our sexuality is “an appallingly inadequate way to account for a human being,” and I would affirm his critique that Western culture in general places too great an emphasis on sexual fulfillment—and that this overemphasis has indeed contributed to widespread harm and bad fruit.

But contrary to Allberry’s critique of Western culture at large, I do not argue that ultimate human meaning is to be found in sexual fulfillment. Nor do I say that our core identity should be rooted in our sexuality. In fact, in chapter 9 of my book, I write, “Certainly, sexual union isn’t necessary to live a fully human life. After all, Jesus lived the fullest life of anyone, and he was celibate” (155).

So Allberry and I are agreed on that point. Where we begin to differ is not on whether our sexual desires must be fulfilled in order to feel fully human—they do not—but whether all of our sexual desires can be condemned without tarnishing the image of God in us. This is a crucial distinction, and it is core to the chapter on celibacy in my book. The biggest problem with mandatory celibacy for gay Christians is not that it requires them to abstain from sex for life—although for those who lack the gift of celibacy, that is itself a major problem. The most crushing burden of mandatory celibacy, however, is the way it requires gay Christians to view their sexual selves: it requires them to actively loathe and renounce every sexual desire they ever experience.

Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount that it isn’t enough to avoid sinful actions. We also need to renounce the very temptations to those actions. So while adultery and murder are sinful, lust and anger are morally culpable as well (Matthew 5:21-30). Applied to same-sex relationships, that means that, if all same-sex relationships are sinful, then all desires for those relationships are also morally culpable and must be renounced at every turn.

In his book Is God Anti-Gay?, Allberry acknowledges this in part, but not in full. He describes same-sex attraction (“SSA”) as a continual struggle, and he chooses to identify as a Christian who experiences SSA rather than as a gay Christian in order to underscore his non-acceptance of his sexual orientation. But he then argues that his ongoing experience of SSA is not something for which he is morally at fault. Allberry writes,

There is a parallel with suffering. The presence of particular suffering in someone’s life does not mean they’ve sinned more than someone suffering less. Rather, the presence of suffering anywhere is an indication that as a race we are under God’s judgment. Similarly, the presence of homosexual feelings in me reminds me that my desires are not right because the world is not right. Together we have turned from God and together we have given over to sin. (32)

But this is the wrong analogy. Suffering, such as a physical disability, is not something for which the Bible holds us morally responsible. But Scripture regards internal temptations to sin as categorically different from blameless suffering. Within a non-affirming framework, same-sex desire should be viewed no differently than lust or anger: a temptation to sin that we should not only resist, but for which we also must repent. As James writes, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14-15).

So within a non-affirming framework, same-sex desire is not merely a sign that “the world is not right.” It is also a sign that one’s own heart and mind are not right. Like any other desire for sin, it is a symptom of a heart in rebellion against God. Now, it’s true that all of our hearts are in one way or another in rebellion against God, and certainly, a perfect life is not a prerequisite for being a faithful Christian. But as we invite the Holy Spirit into our lives to regenerate and redeem us, the fruit of genuine faith should involve at least some change in our sinful desires. Consequently, within a non-affirming framework, while experiencing same-sex attraction is itself no worse than experiencing impulses toward greed, anger, or adultery, experiencing persistent and exclusive same-sex attraction for a lifetime should call into question whether one has truly surrendered one’s heart to God. Certainly, a Christian who is always angry with his brothers and sisters has a deeper heart problem that he needs to address: perhaps pride, self-seeking, or a failure to love his neighbor as himself. Likewise, within a non-affirming framework, a Christian who always experiences same-sex attraction must have a deeper heart problem he needs to resolve. So long as his same-sex attractions persist, his deeper problem of moral alienation from God has not been sufficiently addressed.

Allberry, like many other celibate, non-affirming LGBT Christians, skirts over this issue of moral responsibility for his same-sex attractions. In so doing, he makes non-affirming theology easier to live out, but at the cost of introducing profound theological confusion and inconsistency. Now, of course, I am highly sympathetic to the reasons why Allberry and others have, largely unintentionally, created this theological muddle. The consistent non-affirming response to same-sex attraction I have just outlined is essentially “ex-gay:” not only is acting on being gay wrong, but being gay itself is also wrong, so Christians struggling with “SSA” should constantly seek to eradicate their same-sex attractions and replace them with heterosexual ones.

While that approach is theologically consistent to a certain point, Allberry and others reject it as a favored pastoral prescription for “SSA” Christians for good reason: it doesn’t succeed in eradicating or even significantly diminishing same-sex desire in the vast majority of cases, and it is a recipe for constant torment and crushing shame, the burden of which has proven far too great for many gay Christians to bear. Given the rank failure of the “ex-gay” approach, non-affirming Christians like Allberry have sought to find a middle way, wherein they do not have to feel morally at fault for their persistent same-sex desires but can still regard any and every expression of those desires as sin.

Sympathetic as I am to that attempt at a middle ground, however, it cannot hold from a biblical perspective. The Bible simply does not allow us to consider ourselves blameless for internal temptations to sin, nor does it allow us to view unchanged sinful desires as a sign of a vibrant, faithful Christian life. In that respect, part of the reason Allberry finds his non-affirming beliefs livable is because he has already watered down his beliefs in order to make them livable.

To be clear, I would not advise Allberry or anyone else to embrace a truly consistent non-affirming perspective, as the fruit of that perspective is torment and destruction. It should be commended to no one, and pastors who recommend it are setting up their LGBT parishioners for a world of needless hurt, misery, shame, and failure. But that is precisely my point in my book. One does not have to embrace the flawed view that our sexuality is the most important part of our human identity in order to see the profound harm caused to LGBT people by condemning all same-sex relationships as sin. A non-affirming perspective does tarnish the image of God in LGBT people, not because sex is necessary for their flourishing, but because hating and repenting of their every sexual desire is necessary if they are to live into the full implications of a non-affirming position.

Now, some will understandably respond (as Sarah and Lindsey at A Queer Calling already have), “There are also positive reasons why an LGBT Christian could be celibate. Loathing your sexuality isn’t a necessary part of being celibate.” This, of course, is true—but not if LGBT Christians view all same-sex relationships as sin. Straight Christians who are celibate do not need to feel shame for and repent of their heterosexual attractions. They can live into celibacy as a freely chosen, positive spiritual vocation. For LGBT Christians who view all same-sex relationships as sinful, while there may be positive reasons to be celibate, those reasons cannot be divorced from their need to constantly repent of their same-sex attractions as morally blameworthy temptations to sin. LGBT Christians who live celibately but do not resist and repent of their sexual attractions at every turn are effectively living as though not all same-sex relationships are sinful, even though they may profess to believe that.

Of course, there is another option: If some same-sex relationships are morally good, then same-sex desire at least has the potential to be sanctified. That would not make all same-sex desire acceptable, but it would mean that same-sex desire, like heterosexual desire, can be channeled and disciplined in a holy, godly way. And that, as I argue in my book, is precisely the potential of monogamous same-sex relationships that are grounded in a lifelong covenant. Through a covenantal expression of their sexuality, LGBT Christians can become more closely conformed to the image of our relational, covenant-keeping God. They do not need to pursue or experience such a relationship in order to be fully human, and celibacy pursued as a fulfillment of their sexuality—rather than a negation of it—is no less valid a path. But for gay Christians to have to loathe every sexual desire they experience, even those that are oriented toward a covenantal relationship, impairs their relational development and makes them less able to bear God’s covenant-keeping image. One need not buy into the mistaken beliefs that Allberry justly critiques in order to agree that condemning gay people’s sexuality is no better—or more biblically faithful—than treating sexuality as a means of ultimate fulfillment.