At times I miss the Church, a place where I found community, love and acceptance. But the ongoing debate concerning whether two people of the same sex can be allowed to express intimacy brings to the surface the ugliness the institution harbours.
The evangelical Christian view on same-sex relationships was one of several loose threads which ultimately unraveled my faith. Having come out as gay at the age of eighteen and left Christianity at twenty-five, I spent a good seven years attempting to reconcile what felt like disparate parts of my identity.
The Bible is by its nature a conservative document; it’s a collection of writings from the ancient Near East which takes for granted the second-class status of women, provides instructions for keeping foreigners in bonded labour, and forbids divorce and remarriage save for a few exceptions. Is it therefore any surprise that it contains a handful of verses which condemn two men having sex? Progressive Christianity makes an admirable effort of extracting the core message of faith from such burdensome societal casings, but for the conservative types who regard every word as ‘God breathed’, there follows an uncomfortable mapping of first-century social dynamics onto a twenty-first century world.
Fortunately, even the evangelical Church has, for the most part, moved past the idea that people have a choice over their sexual orientation. Aside from a few fringe groups, it has also largely abandoned the notion that therapy and prayer can cure people of their homosexuality and restore them to their heterosexual factory settings. This leaves Christianity with a problem, however: if gay people have not chosen their sexuality and cannot change it, what are they supposed to do?
How do you solve a problem like the gays?
The most recent move has been to advocate for celibacy. If gay people are forbidden from expressing an orientation which they cannot change, the only option remaining is for them to remain in a state of limbo whereby they accept the reality of their attractions without having them realised.
Those who promote this view will declare that, ‘We all have our crosses to carry, and this is yours. But this is God’s best for you’. Of course, it’s considered God’s best not on the basis of research into the experience and psychology of celibate people, but rather when set in comparison to the less favourable situation of eternal separation from God in hell. Celibacy is an ill-conceived solution to that which should never have been a problem.
For the majority of my seven years as an openly gay Christian, it was the solution I considered for myself; not because I thought by any stretch that it was the best way to live, but because I couldn’t imagine being a Christian while living in a way which defied God’s will and commands. I empathise with those who remain in this tension; homophobia is undeniably rampant in certain wings of the evangelical church, but some people are faced with a genuinely anguished decision which results from attempting to faithfully live out what they believe to be true.
Proponents of celibacy endorse this lifestyle by gesturing towards the experiences of those who are currently attempting it. Several people have written books to recount their journeys and express why they have chosen this path. Such accounts usually lack any overt joy at this undertaking, but are rather characterised by identifying the silver lining of the otherwise oppressive grey cloud: sure, I can’t experience romantic intimacy or have a life partner, but at least I now have more time for friendships, hobbies and serving God.
I would like to clarify that I of course do not believe that a celibate life is intrinsically lesser. Everyone’s journey is unique, and many will find themselves without a partner for any number of reasons and live a perfectly happy life. There is, however, a difference between singleness through circumstance and suppressing your feelings to avoid sin.
Several years ago I read an article in Premier Christianity which profiled three middle-aged men who had formed a support triplet to help live faithfully for God while struggling with their ‘same-sex attraction’. As much as the piece aimed to frame them as brave and courageous, living sacrificially for a noble cause, I couldn’t escape feeling that the whole enterprise was both thoroughly depressing and ultimately unnecessary.
One notable celibate practitioner, though not openly gay, is Mike Pilavachi, a high-profile youth leader in his sixties who was known to regularly declare before thousands of teenagers, ‘I’ve never had sex with animal, vegetable or mineral, and I’m okay.’ For a long time it seemed like he was; he was a charismatic, widely loved pioneer of a successful youth ministry, who would regularly travel the world with friends to speak at large events. Over the last few months, however, hundreds of people have come forward as part of an ongoing safeguarding investigation in which it has been alleged, among other things, that over a long period of time, Mike would wrestle with his young male interns and encourage them to receive oil massages from him in their underwear.
If true, the vision of a man living a vibrant, fulfilled life becomes diminished to someone who spent decades suppressing their feelings and longing for physical intimacy.
Is this a vision that anyone in the church has publicly acknowledged? No.
Discourse surrounding the allegations has focused on the dangers of placing people on pedestals and the need for greater accountability in leadership. Both of those are important points, but such emphasis rests on minimising the reach and damage of such behaviour without consideration for how it may be prevented in the first place. The response is understandable; after all, calling for leaders to be held to account is easy, makes you look good, and doesn’t go against any deeply-held beliefs, but questioning the ‘celibacy solution’ for those outside of heterosexual marriage does exactly the opposite.
If it were to become undeniable that obligatory celibacy is not a healthy long-term lifestyle, the Church would be left without a solution to the gay problem: they can’t change, they can’t have sex, they can’t not have sex.
I believe this to be the inescapable reality, and yet the evangelical Church continues to evade it. Human lives are sacrificed on the altar of orthodox beliefs.
As someone who has lived on both sides of the religious fence and spent the past decade considering myriad views on faith and sexuality, I simply ask: if you believe same-sex relationships are a problem and celibacy is the solution, who might you be hurting if you’re wrong?