When Celibacy Fails

Since the first week we began sharing our story as a celibate couple, numerous readers have extended us the privilege of listening to their own stories. We’ve heard from celibate and non-celibate LGBTs as well as straight people. Folks questioning their sexual orientations and gender identities have also written to us. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and atheists have dropped us a line to express interest in the specific way we address LGBT Christian topics. One common topic request we’ve received from at least someone in each of these groups has been: how would you suggest that Christian traditions respond to LGBT people who have given their all to celibacy only to see it fail them?

This is one of the most challenging questions facing churches today as they grapple with how to welcome LGBT members as full participants in the Body of Christ while also remaining faithful to the Christian tradition. Before going any farther in this post, we’ll confess to you that we do not know the best and fullest answer to this question. Perhaps no Christian does. Perhaps only God does. We struggle with this issue, and we consider that a good thing. And we will go so far as to suggest that if you’re a Christian and aren’t finding this question difficult, you should be.

To explore this issue more deeply, it would be beneficial for Christians and Christian traditions as a whole to consider first another question: are we imposing sexual abstinence as an unfunded mandate with dire consequences for LGBT people who do not succeed? Especially as more people are coming to awareness of their sexual orientations and gender identities at younger ages, it is irresponsible and cruel for churches to repeat, “You can’t have sex!” and refuse to offer any additional support. In Matthew 23:4, Jesus admonishes his disciples and the multitude not to do as the scribes and Pharisees: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” This is exactly what many of today’s priests and pastors are doing: they attempt to force celibacy on the fifteen-year-old boy who has just realized that he might be gay, telling him that failing to be celibate will make him unwelcome at services and offering no counsel besides, “Choose to develop heterosexual desires. Don’t have close relationships with other boys. Until you’re starting to think about marriage, don’t have close relationships with girls either.”

In the eyes of many young people, the only two options in this situation are 1) force yourself to be sexually abstinent with no sense of future vocation or present support, or 2) don’t force yourself into a permanent state of abstinence, but simultaneously risk being excommunicated, barred from entering the church building, and/or kicked out of your parents’ house. It shouldn’t be surprising that with no other alternatives, numerous young LGBT Christians find themselves crushed by the pressure from priests, pastors, parents, and faith communities. Collectively, we’ve heard this type of story from hundreds of people, including friends we’ve known since long before our blogging adventure began. It’s not rare, and all Christian traditions imposing unfunded celibacy mandates should be shamed by its prevalence.

If you’re reading this as a straight Christian, think about your own experience of beginning to realize your sexuality at 13, 15, 18…whenever that was for you. How has your experience of your sexuality developed over time? How have you grown in your understanding of sexuality? How would you have felt if at that age, the only guidance the leader of your faith community had for you was, “You’re going to be celibate for life. You have to be. That’s what the Bible says. End of discussion”? We’re not anticipating that every straight person would have the same responses to these questions. Likewise, no two LGBT people have the exact same responses to discussions of sexuality and celibacy.

It is not fair to assume that all LGBT Christians who are genuinely committed to Christ and the Church will respond positively to the demands of a celibate vocation. A reality that many Christians have trouble reconciling is that not all LGBT celibates experience this way of life as emotionally and physically bearable, let alone joyous. However, there are people who remain just as dedicated to living celibacy no matter what pain it brings. When we share our perception of the celibate life as a blessing and a gift, that is our story—not a normative expectation that can be applied to all LGBT celibates. The not-having-sex part of a celibate vocation is more challenging for some than it is for others, and no, we don’t have a catchall answer as to why that is. For the purposes of this post, that question might not even be relevant. Nonetheless, we know that for some of our friends who have chosen to pursue celibacy, remaining sexually abstinent is an enormous burden. At times, it becomes impossible to bear.

Just as we’ve heard stories of folks who have known and delighted in the realization that God has been calling them to celibacy since age 7, we’ve also listened to painful cries of, “I’ve failed again, and I don’t know how I’m going to get through the rest of this day.” We’ve also experienced our own failures at living fully into celibate vocations. In the recent past, we discussed the fragility of vocation—that all vocations are challenging and must be nurtured in order to succeed. An experience of failure does not mean that one has completely failed at a celibate vocation. Churches that expect celibacy of their LGBT members would do well to recognize that, and to acknowledge the variety of ways celibates experience celibacy—even if it means discovering that straight Christians don’t fully understand what they’re asking of their LGBT brothers and sisters.

There are experiences of celibacy that it seems few people in conservative churches are willing to consider without immediately trying to diagnose. These stories lie at the heart of our question for today: what about people who have made every possible effort to live celibacy and have become emotionally, spiritually, even physically unable to continue? Straight Christians (and even some celibate LGBT Christians) can be quick to assume that something must be wrong with a person who has lived this experience. People begin to make guesses about what went awry: did she lose her faith? Was she slacking in her prayer and fasting disciplines? Did she let herself become envious of other people in sexually active relationships? She couldn’t have been living celibacy correctly if this happened. These speculations show a lack of empathy and a general lack of Christian charity. When a person becomes unable to continue in celibacy during a certain season of life, that doesn’t mean the vocation of celibacy has failed the person, but also doesn’t necessarily mean the person “did celibacy wrong.” One could make a comparison here with situations in which marriages fall apart. Divorce is never an ideal outcome of the vocation of marriage, but because we live in a fallen world it is sometimes necessary. Still, that doesn’t mean the person whose marriage failed because of his wife’s infidelity and inability to acknowledge her own sin “did marriage wrong.”

Until churches begin to acknowledge that the issue of celibacy is not as simple as “Don’t have sex, or else…” LGBT Christians will continue to suffer needlessly, and as a result the entire Body of Christ will suffer. As a Church, we need to be more open to holding these difficult conversations and stop passing down unfunded mandates with potential consequences that leave honest, humble, faithful (though often scrupulous) people terrified to darken the doorways on Sunday morning. Would it be at all possible for conservative churches to make some accommodation for people who, after hundreds of attempts, have been unable to live celibate vocations? Would it serve the state of a person’s soul to be in one committed, sexually active relationship for a lifetime if the only realistic alternative would be falling to the temptation of a hookup once a month while earnestly trying to live celibacy? Does a traditional sexual ethic leave any space for the possibility that not everyone pursuing celibacy feels called to it, or that sometimes vocations fail even when people do everything possible to nurture them? We don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions. But back to the more general query at the beginning of this post: how would we suggest that Christian traditions respond to LGBT people who have given their all to celibacy only to see it fail them? The only answer we know to give is: respond with a heart full of compassion.

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