The Celibacy Mandate

In our post addressing 7 Misconceptions about Celibacy, we highlighted the misconception that celibate people are only celibate because of oppressive, conservative religion. Unfortunately, the idea that Christianity in particular tries to suppress the sexuality of LGBT people has significant evidence in its favor.

Last week on Twitter, we saw a friend offer this tweet:

We know better than to consider this kind of biting comment an isolated instance. In too many Christian communities, insults directed at LGBT people are accepted as a part of Christian discourse. Many LGBT people feel as though they need to try and mimic the normative experience of heterosexual people before even setting foot in a church near them. Some “Christian” advocates will attend Gay Pride events to suggest that “God has a better way” where LGBT people can become straight or celibate. Many LGBT people (rightly) perceive that some conservative churches “reach out” to the LGBT community in order to encourage LGBT individuals to excise their sexualities.

Straight Christians will frequently quote Bible verses (and official Church documents, if applicable) that explicitly condemn homosexual acts. This kind of approach draws a line that an LGBT person can never pass over if that LGBT person wants to remain “acceptable” to the Church, and to God. In these contexts, celibacy can be experienced as an unfunded mandate where the LGBT person is left to his or her own devices to figure out how to live a celibate way of life. These contexts rarely provide a person with a positive definition of celibacy.

To say it very succinctly, we hate this kind of celibacy mandate.

To put a bit more flesh on our objection, we believe this kind of celibacy mandate prevents the Church from developing a framework for a life-giving, generous approach to celibacy outside of religious life. This celibacy mandate excuses the Church from all responsibility to help LGBT people integrate their sexualities within a broader, embodied sense of self. After all, the counsel for managing one’s sexuality boils down to, “Don’t have sex.” You can fit “Don’t have sex” 8 times within 1 tweet on Twitter. It is far too simplistic a message to be the sum total of all advice the Church has to offer an individual seeking life in Christ.

Another thing we have observed is that often, Christian communities telling LGBT people that they must be celibate have very underdeveloped views of both celibacy and marriage. In many of these communities, the vast majority of the congregation is happily heterosexually married with children. If statistics are to be believed, several of these families might be comprised of people who have remarried after securing a divorce. We would call these churches “American Dream” churches. In an “American Dream” church, marriage is frequently treated as a rite of passage: Boy meets Girl. Girl and Boy fall in love. Boy proposes to Girl. Girl (and Boy) plan wedding. Boy and Girl get married in some venue using a self-designed service presided over by a clergy person of their choice. Girl and Boy live happily ever after. When something important like your wedding is a necessary adult rite of passage, then it seems heartless and even cruel to deny anyone access to this kind of event.

We would rather be a part of a Church that encourages every person to find abundant life in Christ. We are grateful to be a part of a Christian tradition that has a rather clear theological vision for marriage. In our Christian tradition, it does not make a lot of sense to view marriage as a necessary rite of passage. At every parish we have attended, we see people of all ages actively trying to discern their vocation. We are blessed to know other people who think that God is not calling them to work out their salvation within the vocation of marriage.

It’s worth mentioning that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches are frequently portrayed as issuing the celibacy mandate to all LGBT people. However, we think that the popular perception of these liturgical traditions overlooks a lot of how they present a theological vision of marriage and celibacy. We do agree that the liturgical churches could do a better job of presenting a more holistic view of their teachings on marriage and celibacy. And honestly, we wouldn’t be surprised if LGBT Christians in some Catholic and Orthodox parishes experience a sense of an unfunded celibacy mandate within their local communities. We challenge those parishes to do better.

Consider the following scenario. You are a straight person. You have grown up all of your life with messages that in order to find yourself fully in Christ, you must get married. Failure to marry is evidence that you lack faith, are completely undesirable, and have no gifts to offer your community. You try to comply with the expectations, entering into various dating relationships, but nothing seems to work. Eventually, you reach an age at which your church offers various mixers so adults above a certain age can meet and greet. Pressure from your family mounts. Finally, they have no choice but inform you that you will be entering an arranged marriage in 3 months or face shunning from your faith community.

We know that scenario sounds nuts. It was supposed to sound nuts. But that’s how we imagine churches might behave if they issued a marriage mandate. Minus the bit about entering into an arranged marriage, we know several middle-aged Christians who are single who have felt a ton of pressure from their faith communities to get married. However, instead of presenting marriage as a mandate, many Christian communities spend time talking about what a marriage might look like, how God can bless people through marriage, and what the Church can do and is doing to support families. Christian churches are constantly describing marriage as a possibility for people in their congregation. The ideal of marriage is almost never presented as a mandate, a demand from a holy God, or an oppressive burden.

We think that many LGBT people encountering the Celibacy Mandate live that nightmare scenario as it relates to being celibate. What is most tragic, in our opinion, is that many Christian communities who believe that celibacy is the best vocational choice for LGBT people tend to avoid talking about celibacy as a possibility that can be absolutely life-giving.

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