4 Reasons We Abstain from the “Is Gay Sex a Sin?” Debate

Within the few days before officially launching A Queer Calling in January 2014, we had many impassioned conversations about our vision for this writing project. We started writing in the first place because after we led a workshop titled “Celibacy Involves Family” at the annual Gay Christian Network Conference, several attendees approached us to inquire more about celibacy, celibate partnership, and ways we see ourselves growing in love for Christ through the joys and challenges of doing life together. These folks, some who have known and supported us for years and others who quickly became new friends, were the inspiration for our blog. Our initial concept, which we have generally maintained, was to post regular reflections on topics relevant to celibates, people interested in celibacy, and the more general conversation about Christianity and the LGBT community. We both have strong personalities and enjoy vigorous discussion, so we haven’t always agreed on how to approach certain topics. But one area where the two of us have always agreed heartily is our commitment to abstain from what many know as the Side A vs. Side B debate. If you don’t know what those terms mean, read this before continuing with our post for today.

As a result of our decision not to participate in discussions of, “Is same-sex sexual activity sinful?” and “Does God bless sexually active same-sex relationships?” we’ve been met with cynicism from people across the moral spectrum on these issues. On a typical day of blogging, we hear from “Side A” folks concerned that we’re trying to lure sexually active LGBT people into celibacy through false pretenses and from “Side B” folks ready to tell us that our contribution to this discussion means nothing unless we decide to start making pronouncements about the sinfulness of gay sex. Those remarks notwithstanding, we remain committed as ever to the original purpose of A Queer Calling, and we sense now more strongly than ever before the need for a space to discuss LGBT celibacy outside the Side A vs. Side B dichotomy.

As we’ve written in other posts such as this one, this one, and this one, both of us came to celibacy because we felt the Holy Spirit pulling us toward celibate vocations. Before meeting each other, we explored monastic life and we both felt deeply convicted that God was calling us to live our vocations within the secular world. Though we belong to a Christian tradition that teaches a conservative sexual ethic and do our best to allow ourselves to be formed in the wisdom of the Church, neither of us decided to pursue celibacy because of a desire to avoid sin. More often than not, telling people this leaves them scratching their heads. We get follow-up questions like, “Does that mean you don’t think same-sex sexual activity is a sin? Isn’t that against the teachings of your church? Why in the world did you choose celibacy if that choice wasn’t motivated by fear of falling into sin?” We’ve also been told by straight Christians within our own faith tradition and other members of the celibate LGBT community that we would find more support for our relationship and our writing project if we would simply make a habit of affirming the rightness of a traditional sexual ethic (and consequently, the wrongness of a progressive sexual ethic). Some have been especially forceful in advising us to point each piece of writing we do back to the central theme of “gay sex is a sin, and celibacy is better,” pointing out that otherwise, conservative Christians might not listen to us as all. They’re probably right about these things. It’s likely we would find more of an audience if we started writing apologetics for our tradition’s teachings instead of reflections on our personal experiences of celibacy and being LGBT in the Church. So why don’t we do that? There are many reasons, but today we’ll open discussion on these four:

1. Christian traditions with teachings on sexual morality generally make those teachings clear. Additionally, other LGBT celibates have already written apologetics for their traditions’ teachings on sexual morality. There’s no gaping hole to be filled here. It’s no secret what conservative denominations teach about gay sex. One need only perform a Google search for “Christianity and LGBT people” to see this. We’ve yet to come across a person who is truly confused about what a given Christian tradition teaches on sexual morality, unless the tradition in question is experiencing a theological change in its previous position. We believe that continually reiterating what our own Christian tradition teaches on these matters (especially because we have chosen not to reveal what our tradition is) would add nothing new or edifying to the discussion of LGBT Christians and our inclusion within the Church. Even before we both converted to our current Christian tradition, we were well aware of its teachings on human sexuality. No one had to tell us. Yet to this day, we experience reminders being shoved down our throats at every turn. We find this not only unhelpful, but also presumptive and alienating. On our blog, we want to foster an atmosphere of radical hospitality. If we feel muzzled and condescended to when other people continuously remind us of their Christian traditions’ already obvious teachings on human sexuality, we have no excuse for doing the same thing to our readers.

2. Limiting discussions of LGBT celibacy to “gay sex is a sin” misses an opportunity for perfect love to cast out fear. When a person focuses solely on avoiding sin, it seems natural that he or she would experience significant worry and fear. A person who focuses on sin as the primary reason for pursuing celibacy might become so terrified of the possibility of committing sin that he or she ceases to delight in many of life’s experiences—every moment of connection with another person is seen as a liability because within in moments it could turn into an occasion of sin. He or she might also begin to focus on people-pleasing: what others perceive as scandalous can reach paramount importance within the person’s life, even if those “scandalous” things are truly innocent and there’s no clear reason why others should point fingers. None of this is purely hypothetical. What we’ve just described has happened to other LGBT people we’ve known, and is very common for some LGBT celibates. Avoidance of sin is an important part of the Christian life, and we would never deny that. We’re not saying that discussions of sin are bad. But when an extreme focus on sin prevents a person from being able to recognize God’s love and exist in healthy relationships with other human beings, it’s a serious problem. A commitment to celibacy does not have to be fear-based, and we believe it’s most sustainable when not rooted in fear. 1 John 4:18 tells us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” Here at A Queer Calling, we desire to create space for discussing how celibacy as a vocation can be an expression of love for God and openness to experiencing God’s love.

3. By focusing on the practical rather than apologetics and doctrines, we can meet people where they are and have conversations about real life. We can also learn from others as they meet us where we are. The way sexuality is often discussed in conservative churches has left innumerable LGBT Christians feeling as though they have no choice but to remain silent or leave the Church altogether. It’s not simply that “people don’t like to hear the truth about how sinful they are,” as has been suggested to us many times. In our experience, conservative churches in general do not make any attempt to meet LGBT parishioners where we’re at in life and provide spiritual direction from there. The sum total of guidance offered by these churches is usually, “If you’re gay, you can’t have sex. It’s a sin. Our denomination can never support same-sex sexual activity.” Some denominations still promote ex-gay ideologies. When an LGBT person chooses to remain in such a Christian tradition and pursue celibacy, he or she will likely experience social and spiritual consequences upon falling short of sexual abstinence. LGBT Christians already face far too many expectations of perfection with minimal room for forgiveness. We believe it would benefit both the LGBT community and the Church as a whole if straight Christians would make a better effort to meet LGBT people where we are and learn about the ways we experience life. This isn’t the same as saying, “We have no doctrine and anything you want to do is okay.” Rather than providing doctrinal reminders ad nauseum, we think a more helpful approach is to ask questions to understand people’s individual needs, challenges, fears, strengths, etc. Therefore, on our blog we also want to meet people where they are, and we hope our readers can do the same for us.

4. Shifting the conversation from “sin” to “vocation” creates space for discussing all vocations. We believe that every person has the capacity to love and glorify God through his or her vocation. We also believe that all of us fall short in our chosen vocations. There is much to be gained from engaging in broader conversation about this issue rather than limiting discussions of LGBT celibacy to, “Gay sex is a sin.” Both marriage and celibate vocations are ultimately about manifesting the kingdom of God. With that in common, all Christians can learn from each other’s successes and failures because we all have the same primary calling: to show others the good news of Christ. If we were to focus the conversation entirely on what is or is not sinful behavior for LGBT people, we would be promoting naval-gazing in the extreme. We would be placing a stumbling block for people who are trying to develop a sustainable manner of celibate living. On our blog, we have chosen to discuss celibacy as a vocation because we see it as intricately connected to other Christian vocations in God’s plan of salvation for humanity. It is our intent and purpose to make room for all interested folks to share/inquire openly about celibacy’s joys, sorrows, blessings, and challenges. We do not see how our entering the “Is gay sex a sin?’ debate would contribute anything to that goal.

Having said all this, we would like to close today’s post by clarifying that we do see the Side A and Side B discussion as important. In the past, the two of us benefited from engaging with arguments on both sides. We do not want to suggest that other LGBT celibates who write about sexual sin would be better served by avoiding this topic altogether. But as for our own writing project, we believe that God has called us to hold a different kind of conversation. The Internet (and the Church) has plenty of room for both.

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17 thoughts on “4 Reasons We Abstain from the “Is Gay Sex a Sin?” Debate

  1. “We’ve yet to come across a person who is truly confused about what a given Christian tradition teaches on sexual morality, unless the tradition in question is experiencing a theological change in its previous position.” As a Catholic, I come across people all the time (Catholic and non-Catholic) who do not understand that the Catholic Church has a Side B position and not a “Side X” position (that being gay is sinful and can be changed). I think this is because many Catholic leaders are outspoken on the issue of same-sex marriage and so Catholicism tends to be seen as “anti-gay” in every way. I think Pope Francis is helping to change this somewhat, but it’s still a common misunderstanding that I try to correct whenever possible — particularly because it is often LGBT people who have left the Catholic Church expressing this misunderstanding.

    • Good point. It’s true that there are people who are confused by whether a church teaches a traditional sexual ethic or actually teaches an ex-gay ideology. When we wrote that line, we were thinking more about the difference between churches that teach a liberal sexual ethic (or leave sexual ethics up to the individual) and churches that teach a traditional sexual ethic. For example, we’ve never met anyone who thinks that the Roman Catholic Church teaches a liberal sexual ethic, because that tradition makes its more conservative position on this matter very clear. Still, we could have worded that better. Thanks for pointing it out to us.

  2. I personally think that it’s wise to abstain from the “Is gay sex a sin?” debate or even from choosing a side (A or B). Choosing a side is polarizing and many (and I bet there a lot in this boat) who are in the middle or those who think both sides have valid points can end up being alienated and disenchanted. When a debate turns into “it’s either you’re with us or against us” type of scenario, the debate itself is unhealthy and detrimental to the whole Christian LGBT community. Sometimes on twitter, the arguments about almost any topic (not just about homosexuality) can reach that point, which is sickening.

    Thank you for pointing out the absurd claim that celibacy are practiced by those who are “fearful of sin.” As a Catholic who have met and admired many priests and nuns, I find that claim insulting. From my understanding, any celibate vocation is more than just avoiding sex but rather it’s a way of life that one perceives pleasing to the eyes of God. Comments like that is simply coming from a limited understanding of the concept of “vocation.”

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience with us. We’re rather weary of the “you’re either with us or against us” mentality that exists on both “sides” of the conversation on LGBT people and Christianity. We don’t think this conversation will continue to progress unless people lose the focus of, “Which side are you?” and begin thinking more about the actual problems that exist.

  3. Sarah and Lindsey,
    I agree totally that a commitment to celibacy can’t be sustained or life-giving if it is fear based– it’s a good distinction you make that you both are not pursuing that lifestyle so as to not sin, but because you feel called (I think of Eve Tushnet saying “there can’t be a vocation of ‘no,'”. I’m kinda bummed at this point in my life because if I’m honest, my main motivation to not pursue marriage to a woman is because it is wrong. If not for a fear of spiritual consequences, I would do it. I know this isn’t the noblest of reasons, and it makes me unconfident in my witness at this point– Maybe somewhere deep down I’m doing it because I believe God is good and I take His word for it – but man, it’s hard to experience a sense of spiritual freedom in it and ownership of it. Do you think some people start off this way and then maybe grow into the state that you’re in? If I keep pursing and trusting and finding love in community, then perhaps my core motivation will change? I want my motivation to be because I LOVE God and experience his love and peace.

    • Hi Michelle. We see living into any vocation as a lifelong growth process. We’re nowhere near finished growing and likely will not be in this lifetime. Surely some people might begin cultivating a particular vocation by approaching it with fear, though that isn’t our own experience. And we think it’s just as likely that a person might marry because of fear–this an issue for celibates only. But in order for that way of life to be sustainable, we believe there’s a need to go deeper than fear, worry, and anxiety and find something in that way of life that is fulfilling and valuable.

    • Alex, that’s not necessarily true. On our blog, we intentionally don’t discuss our views in terms of sides because we find framing it in this way unhelpful. No, we do not make the broad generalization that everyone who disagrees with us is sinning.

  4. […misses an opportunity for perfect love to cast out fear.]

    Types of Love: (according to Catherine of Siena – The Dialogue)
    1- servile love – obedience due to fear of punishment (hell)
    2- mercenary love – obedience due to desire for reward (heaven)
    3- filial love – obedience due to gratitude for God’s goodness

    #3 is the state of perfect love. #1 & #2 are states of imperfect love.

    The perfect reason, therefore, to practice celibacy is, not for fear of committing sin (and incurring punishment) or desire for a high degree of glory in heaven, but in order to please God.

    Any good resolution that is not based on on the third kind of love will be impossible to sustain for long. This is why Catholics need the sacrament of reconciliation. Very seldom does one achieve the state of perfect love (perhaps saints were given the grace to attain that).

    • As we see it, love that comes from a place of wanting to obey God due to gratitude for God’s goodness would be much more likely to manifest if a person could focus on celibacy as a sustainable way of life and not simply a desire to avoid sin.

  5. I’m just getting caught up on your posts! I’m glad you stay out of that debate because it’s harmful to the future of LGBT people in the Church. I don’t know why people on both sides can’t see how much hurt they cause the other with the “with me or against me” mentality.

    • Hi Cat. Thanks for your comment. As we replied to another reader’s comment, we are also troubled by the “you’re either with us or against us” manner of framing this discussion.

  6. Hi,

    I understand your concerns for privacy, and you may have mentioned this in an earlier post, but I was wondering both of you share the same faith tradition. If not, do you ever encounter conflicts between the traditions (ie. one tradition is more willing to change theological doctrine, or shifting standards diverging from the other tradition). If an honest reflection shares more than you would feel comfortable with, I understand.

    • Hi Danny. We do share the same faith tradition, but we’re both converts to that tradition. We came to it from incredibly different backgrounds, so often we do encounter differences regarding spirituality, but we do not experience differences on theological doctrines.

  7. Beautiful post. Thanks, you two. I love the angle of understanding celibacy/marriage as vocational callings. It feels like a way to hold up both as gifts of the spirit, not in competition but in compassionate co-existence.

    • Thanks Emmy. We think it’s possible to bring a different tenor to this conversation by focusing on how marriage and celibacy bear witness to the Kingdom of God.

  8. “We believe that continually reiterating what our own Christian tradition teaches on these matters (especially because we have chosen not to reveal what our tradition is) would add nothing new or edifying to the discussion of LGBT Christians and our inclusion within the Church.”

    I think that this is a good point and one that I wish a lot of other people would follow.

    There is one particular major denomination here in the US that is known for being, shall we say, incredibly outspoken about the sinfulness of homosexuality. During the leadup to SCOTUS and aftewards, it felt like this denomination’s major leaders were issuing proclamations every other day lamenting the sexual revolution and same-sex marriage. I feel like they’re doing a lot of damage to their witnessing potential by constantly going on and on about this. At this point, EVERYONE knows what their stance is. To me it seems like they’re less concerned about the sin itself and more concerned that other people know just how bad they think it is. The appearance of being righteous, in other words. It’s like they’re afraid people are going to forget what their opinion is if they go a week without saying something. And they talk about telling the truth and judgment in love, but too often I find that their words contain too much judgment and not a whole lot of love. Not to mention more arrogance (“if you don’t agree with us, you’re not a real Christian”) and not enough humility.

    I just don’t know what their end goal is. Do they really want to win people over to God? Because this is not the way to do it, I think. They’re just driving more people away. I used to be a part of this denomination, and after reading their constant belligerent articles and tweets and blogs, I will never go back. Ever.

    On the flip side, there are blogs like yours, along with some others, that I appreciate because you guys seem to focus on more love/compassion and less judgment (without forsaking what you believe is true). Plus you stay away from the no true Christian (er, Scotsman) fallacy. I’ll admit that as I don’t subscribe to the traditional/conservative Christian sexual ethic, I came to this blog having a dim view of celibacy, because it’s usually been pressed upon me as something that all gay Christians MUST do or they’re not true Christians. Then I read your blog, and it helped dispel most of my assumptions and made me realize how unfair I was being. You made me realize that this can be a valid choice for some LGBT Christians, and that I shouldn’t take away their sense of agency by implying it isn’t. So, thank you, this blog has been very illuminating in the best way.

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