I Am Not Asexual, and Why I Care What Others Call Me

A reflection by Sarah

Last week, I wrote a post on some problems I see with defining LGBTQ terminology rigidly and attempting to qualify who is or is not LGBTQ. I’m thankful for all the stimulating discussions that post initiated with friends and readers, including some folks who were encountering our blog for the first time. One of my favorite aspects of blogging is witnessing how quickly a 1,500 word reflection can spark multiple conversations that take off on trajectories I never would have anticipated. In my post from last week, I had stated the following:

I am a lesbian. I experience attraction to women. Occasionally that attraction does include sexual thoughts. However, I experience sexual desire rather infrequently. I can’t even remember the last time I had a desire for sex. I am committed to sharing life with a partner whom I love, but to whom I am not sexually attracted, and who has trouble picking out which letters of the alphabet soup are the best fit.

I was surprised to see that a fair number of the resulting conversations, including one on that post’s comments section, involved suggestions that I must be asexual. Perhaps part of it was because in some of these conversations (particularly on Facebook and Twitter), I was using the example of an asexual lesbian to demonstrate that LGBTQ sexual identity doesn’t necessarily have to involve the desire for sex. But in most cases, even after I explained that I am not asexual, the assertions continued. Over the past week, I’ve been wondering what exactly has led so many readers to assume that I’m asexual, why I’m so quick to claim that I’m not, and whether the answers to these questions are even relevant to the conversations Lindsey and I are trying to initiate. After several days of reflection, I’ve come to see how important the topic of asexuality is to explorations of celibacy, so I’ve chosen to address it for the first time today.

Most of the time, I resist writing posts that delve deeply into topics that are only vaguely related to my own experience of life. I’m quick to call out straight Christians who make ignorant statements about gay/lesbian topics despite their lack of firsthand knowledge. I don’t want to do the same thing to asexuals, so let me make clear: everything I say in this post is from my own experience, and it should not be taken as a critique of the asexual community, or as evidence that all people currently embracing the term “asexual” will eventually realize that they are wrong.

My first reaction to seeing the aforementioned conversations about my blog post was, “Whoa…blast from the past!” Very early in my coming out process, I did experiment with the term “asexual” as a possible identity descriptor. There was a time, back in the earlier years of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) message boards, when I interacted regularly with the asexual community and thought I might be one of them. While most of my now-closest friends were beginning their affiliations with the Gay Christian Network (GCN), I was spending much of my spare time chatting it up with the folks at AVEN. I met some great people during my time on the AVEN boards and got back in touch with a couple of them once Facebook became a more popular way of keeping up with friends, but in time I saw that the term “asexual” was not a good fit for me and it has been years since I’ve even thought much about asexuality.

AVEN currently defines the term “asexual” as, “Someone who does not experience sexual attraction.” There aren’t many other definitions available because asexuality is not widely recognized as a sexual orientation as of 2014. AVEN’s definitions page offers other terms as well such as “demisexual” (someone who can only experience sexual attraction after an emotional bond has been formed) and “gray asexual” or “gray-sexual” (someone who identifies with the area between asexuality and sexuality). As many readers have pointed out, my description of my own level of sexual desire could easily fit somewhere within the broad spectrum of asexual self-identification. One reader referred to me as gray-sexual and insisted that this was an appropriate label for me whether I like it or not. Generally, I believe it is a sign of respect to honor other people’s identities as they understand them. I can’t think of too many things that make me feel more disenfranchised than another person claiming to know better than I do what I am or am not, or what I believe or don’t believe. Could someone with the exact same level of sexual desire as I have rightly claim a term like “asexual” or “gray-sexual”? Sure. If a person sees nonexistent or limited sexual desire as a key component of his or her identity, who am I to say that is unimportant? But it doesn’t change the fact that I don’t identify with these terms.

So does my preferred terminology (lesbian) have any relevance if I’ve chosen a way of life that doesn’t include sexual activity? If Lindsey and I are intentionally celibate, why does it matter what I call myself? Yes, I think it does matter, and two reasons come to mind immediately.

First, identifying as “asexual” rather than “sexual” would change the meaning of my commitment to celibacy. I understand my celibacy within the context of vocation. All vocations involve giving of oneself and making sacrifices for the sake of the Kingdom. Lindsey and I believe that God has given both of us the gift of celibacy, which makes certain aspects of our daily living different from that of other LGBT people who have chosen celibacy purely out of obedience. But this doesn’t mean our celibacy comes without consequence. Sometimes, a way of life that one feels called to comes naturally and is easy, but at other times it is challenging and even feels painful. There are occasions when I begin to think that the grass might be greener on the other side of the fence. As I’ve mentioned before, I felt drawn to celibacy for several years before actually committing to it. I spent a few years second-guessing myself, shifting back and forth between liberal and conservative approaches to sexual ethics, and trying to determine if being obedient to my Christian tradition would necessitate squelching my attractions to other women. As I was dealing with all of this, I didn’t even question whether possibly spending the rest of my life without sexual activity would be a sacrifice — I knew it would be. I knew that in making the decision to live celibacy I would be giving up one very important way of connecting with others, and that would be hard. Especially since pursuing celibacy with Lindsey, I’ve only seen confirmation of this. I still experience sexual attraction to other women, even though it’s rare and even though I’m not sexually attracted to Lindsey. I’ve been in sexually active relationships before, and there’s no denying that these kinds of relationships are vastly different from what Lindsey and I share. Once in a blue moon, I’ll think back on those and miss that kind of connection. Thus, the idea of identifying with asexuality just doesn’t sit well with me.

Second, I have radically different emotional associations for the terms “lesbian” and “asexual,” and I see this as at least partially related to my experience as a survivor of sexual violence. It’s erroneous to suggest that a person who is LGBTQ (or a person who is asexual, for that matter) would necessarily have been heterosexual (or sexual at all) had it not been for a sexual trauma. It’s also incorrect to say that spending time in therapy to heal from sexual trauma will make a gay, lesbian, or bisexual person straight, a transgender person identify with his/her biological sex, or an asexual person sexual. I believe that my lesbian sexual orientation is completely unrelated to my sexual abuse, but I also believe that some people form their entire concept of sexual orientation around those kinds of experiences. If I’m totally honest with myself, I have to admit that’s exactly what I was doing in experimenting with the asexual label for a season of life. During that time, I knew deep down that I had a sexual orientation; I just didn’t want one. I was fearful of what it would mean to accept myself as a sexual person, and I knew that the rare sexual attractions I experienced were toward women. In my mind, adopting the term “asexual” was the easy way out of acknowledging my PTSD and having to struggle with questions of faith and sexuality. It would also save me from total rejection, I thought. I knew that sooner or later, I would have to tell people I wasn’t straight. All the assumptions and questions about why I didn’t have a boyfriend were weighing on me heavily. I was aware that whether I came out as lesbian or asexual, everyone who knew of my being a survivor would blame my abuse and tell me that I should seek counseling to become “normal.” But I thought, “At least if I tell people I’m asexual, they can’t say I’m doing anything wrong.” At the time, the asexual label seemed like the amoral option. I stopped identifying with “asexual” after realizing that use of the term was causing me a great deal of sexual frustration. Oddly enough, I’ve never experienced stronger and more frequent sexual desire than I did during my season of identifying as “asexual.” I consider that more than enough evidence that this label is not the most fitting for me. It’s interesting how coming to identify freely as “lesbian” was part of what opened the gift of celibacy up to me.

The problem with claiming to know another person’s sexual identity better than he or she does is that no two journeys through life are exactly the same. Two people who experience almost identical levels of sexual, emotional, and romantic attraction can have profoundly different senses of identity due to their histories and worldviews. Assigning a sexual identity label to a person other than oneself privileges one’s own self-understanding to an extent. It’s overly simplistic to assume that a one-sentence definition can convey accurately how every person who uses a particular term would describe its meaning. Regardless of whose definition for “asexual,” “gray-sexual,” or any other term a person might fit, his or her own internal sense of self should be honored and respected.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Reflections on Discerning a Sexual Ethic

A reflection by Lindsey

Lately, I’ve been receiving a lot of reminders that I’m getting older. I teach students who were born after 2000. I have passed my 10 year high school class reunion. Graduates of colleges next May will comprise the Class of 2015. I’m at the upper age limit for events geared towards young adults. If I’m getting my personal timeline right, I’ve been navigating my own journey of faith and sexuality for 17 years. I empathize with so many people just getting started on their own process and want to do what I can in order to help them along their ways. I have sat in a lot of uncomfortable “middle” seats between contrasting life ethics where I have been shoulder-to-shoulder with other people who think about these questions in different ways than I do. Along the road, I’ve developed a surprisingly profound respect for people who have a wide range of convictions.

It can be tricky to talk about how other people craft their personal sexual ethics. On one hand, convictions about sexual ethics are individual because of how deeply they inform a person’s manner of living his or her life. On the other hand, sexual ethics are necessarily communal because they draw us into relationships with one another. No one forms his or her sexual ethic in a vacuum. Equally, most consider it respectful to leave what happens in an adult’s bedroom a private matter. Many feel attacked when others express ethical convictions that run counter to their own ways of life. It doesn’t help when people with traditional sexual ethics absolutely reject the idea that progressive sexual ethics can have some kind of organizing logic. Similarly, meaningful conversation stalls when people with progressive sexual ethics deny that traditional sexual ethics have any potential to be life-giving. It seems to me that often, people on both sides rely on the exact same sources when trying to discern their convictions on sexual ethics.

When I first got started on my journey of reconciling faith and sexuality, I would have told you my convictions were rooted entirely in Scripture. Now, after 17 years of searching the Scriptures and trying to live in accordance with my ethical sensibilities, I see that things are a bit more complicated than “the Bible tells me so.”

If I were to ask my friends what Scriptures have the most substance in informing their sexual ethics, I would probably get a wide variety of answers. I’m sure I’ll shock some by saying that my sexual ethic has been shaped largely by Luke 10:

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’

I have been reflecting on this particular bit of Scripture since 2003. It’s a huge part of the reason why I was even open to the idea of being in a celibate partnership with someone else. I can’t help but see vulnerability, radical hospitality, a shared spiritual life, and commitment running through this passage. I love this Gospel account precisely because it helps me pattern my way of life towards serving the world.

I’ve come to believe that a sexual ethic serves as a pattern for one’s life. As I see it, my sexual ethic informs how I interact with everyone I meet. I look to see how other people around me live into their vocations. I rejoice to be invited to attend weddings; I cannot help but note how Christian traditions have varied wedding customs. I have investigated the marriage service in my own tradition in an effort to understand how the prayers that bless a marriage provide a foundation for visioning the Kingdom of God in this vocation. I love looking for examples of faithful Christians throughout history; I never know who is going to inspire me to follow as closely to Christ as I can possibly manage.

But really, my point is that everyone draws upon a wealth of sources to develop their sexual ethics. Nearly every LGBT Christian I’ve ever met has wrestled with the Bible verses that specifically address homosexuality. Many see problems with proof-texting the Bible and try to discern the wider narrative arcs that describe marriage, sexuality, gender, and God’s love for everyone created in God’s image and likeness. I know others like me who embed particular passages of Scripture into their consciousness and ask for God’s grace to live these passages out. Because sexual ethics must be lived and embodied, questioning how particular sexual ethics are bearing fruit in one’s life is important. Also, it’s impossible to create one’s sexual ethic without considering the experiences of other people one knows.

I don’t know many people outside my own Christian tradition who study the marriage services in their Christian traditions to shape their personal sexual ethics. I have found doing so immensely helpful, and I would encourage any Christian in any denomination to consider this approach. At the same time, I can appreciate the experiences of people who would say, “My Christian tradition resolutely encourages two individuals to craft a customized wedding service. In my tradition, it seems like marriage means whatever two people want it to mean.” In such cases, I think Christian traditions ought to consider how they guide people towards discerning vocation. Learning how my Christian tradition prays for people on their wedding day has been so formative in my own journey. Speaking selfishly for a moment, I’d love a chance to compare notes with other people who have undertaken this kind of study in the context of their own Christian traditions.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Saturday Symposium: Choosing a Letter of the Alphabet Soup

Hello, folks! It’s been another great week here on the blog. Some of this week’s discussions have taken off in directions we never would have considered. We like being challenged, so keep it coming. Our retreat last weekend was a refreshing experience. Thanks to everyone who prayed for us.

Now let’s discuss our new Saturday Symposium question:

How this works: It’s very simple. We ask a multi-part question related to a topic we’ve blogged about during the past week or are considering blogging about in the near future, and you, our readers, share your responses in the comments section. Feel free to be open, reflective, and vulnerable…and to challenge us. But as always, be mindful of the comment policy that ends each of our posts. Usually, we respond fairly quickly to each comment, but in order to give you time to think, come back, add more later if you want, and discuss with other readers, we will wait until after Monday to respond to comments on Saturday Symposium questions.

This week’s Saturday Symposium question: We’ve written before on the LGBTQ alphabet soup and why some people might prefer certain terms over others, and this week   Sarah wrote a personal reflection on the difficulty of defining LGBTQ terminology without undercutting the mysterious aspects of sexuality and gender. People have many different ways of determining what terminology suits them best, and we’re wondering what you think about choosing letters of the alphabet soup. Are there necessary “criteria” for identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer? For example, can a person who experiences romantic and emotional attraction to the same sex but not sexual attraction rightly consider himself/herself gay/lesbian? Does a person have to be interested in medical transition in order to identify as transgender? Is it even appropriate to attempt to qualify who is and who isn’t LGBTQ?

We look forward to reading your responses. If you’re concerned about having your comment publicly associated with your name, please consider using the Contact Us page to submit your comment. We can post it under a pseudonym (i.e. John says, “your comment”) or summarize your comment in our own words (i.e. One person observed…). Participating in this kind of public dialogue can be risky, and we want to do what we can to protect you even if that means we preserve your anonymity. Have a wonderful weekend!


Sarah and Lindsey

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

A Review of Does Jesus Really Love Me? by Jeff Chu

July is almost over, and we’re finally getting around to our monthly resource review. More than one reader suggested that we review Jeff Chu’s Does Jesus Really Love Me?, and we agreed heartily that it would be an interesting resource to discuss on our blog. After snagging a signed copy at the 2013 National Book Festival, we’ve been reading it slowly over a period of months. We had originally planned to publish this review the week after the Gay Christian Network had announced Chu as a speaker for its 2015 conference. But we decided to take some extra time to reread parts of the book, and we’re glad that we did. We found it an enjoyable read, and are excited to hear Chu speak (and hopefully meet him!) in Portland this coming January.

As usual, we will keep most of our thoughts related to our two focus questions for every review we write: What does this book have to say to LGBT Christians who are living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations? How does this book contribute to conversation about celibacy as a way of life that LGBT Christians might choose?

Does Jesus Really Love Me? is a different sort of resource than others we have reviewed so far. It neither takes a theological position on LGBT sexual ethics nor offers pastoral guidance for discussing LGBT issues within Christianity. Instead, it tells the stories of several people with different levels of involvement in the conversation. One of the book’s greatest strengths is the level of respect with which it treats each story. Chu is incredibly compassionate, even when taking on interviews with members of Westboro Baptist Church. It’s clear that in writing this book, Chu needed to step as much as possible outside his own assumptions in order to honor his interviewees’ experiences. Of course it is impossible for any writer to ignore his or her biases entirely, but as we read and remained on the lookout for an overt or hidden agenda, we couldn’t find one — unless you count “share people’s life experiences and perspectives on sexuality and Christian spirituality in America.” Celibate LGBT Christian readers, who often face harsh judgments from both liberals and conservatives, will likely find Chu’s empathic approach refreshing.

Another impressive aspect of Does Jesus Really Love Me? is Chu’s appreciation for the process of coming to terms with one’s sexuality and spirituality. From beginning to end, this book conveys the reality that the concerns of LGBT Christians in America extend far beyond the question of whether same-sex sexual activity is sinful, and that no one comes to a place of reconciliation on every possible issue immediately after coming out. Celibate LGBT readers will likely appreciate this point because it opposes the increasingly prominent message that reconciling faith and sexuality is as simple as reading and accepting (or reinterpreting) six Bible verses. The book’s four major divisions — Doubting, Struggling, Reconciling, and Hoping — speak to stages that most LGBT Christians experience in different seasons of life.

One of the more obvious ways that Does Jesus Really Love Me? will appeal to celibate LGBT readers is its treatment of celibacy in Chapter 8. Chu begins the chapter with a brief discussion of Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting, which leads into his interview with fifty-seven-year-old Kevin Olson of Minnesota. We were impressed by the way Chu frames this chapter generally, but also had some reservations about how it fits into the book’s overall narrative. Like most people involved in the conversation about Christianity and LGBT issues, Chu seems aware of the assumption that celibacy is just a layover on the way to self-acceptance and sexually active relationships. But unlike those who disparage LGBT celibacy as a temporary state that rarely lasts and almost always leads to despair, Chu has decided to explore the questions: “What are the effects of this kind of long-term chastity? What would life look like for the homosexual who, in his relative youth, chose this?” (p. 180). These are necessary questions for discussing issues around long-term celibacy: its sustainability, its emotional impact, and its meaning for those who choose it and those who do not. We were glad to see Chu’s interest in learning about these aspects of celibacy.

Chu tells Kevin’s story with integrity. He speaks to his respect for Kevin’s faith and asserts that Kevin taught him much about celibacy, particularly that it is a continual series of choices rather than a one-time commitment. He also does a fantastic job of using elements of Kevin’s story to describe how quickly people both inside and outside Christianity reject celibate (and non-celibate) LGBT Christians. However, there are elements of Kevin’s story that some readers might interpret as evidences that celibacy is necessarily oppressive, and is at least tangentially related to the ex-gay movement. For example, Chu chose to include that Kevin considers himself “homosexually oriented” rather than “gay” because in Kevin’s eyes, the term gay means acceptance of a sexually active way of life. He also makes mention of the fact that Kevin’s father did not treat him affectionately. Though we have no doubt that these bits of Kevin’s story are true, we wonder if Chu was aware that they might be interpreted as a statement that all LGBT celibates are really operating from within an ex-gay framework. It doesn’t help matters that Kevin’s story appears in the “Doubting” section — the same major division of the book where Chu interacts with Exodus International. We realize that only so many stories can be included in a work such as this, but we wonder why Chu opted to showcase only one celibate person and why he chose a man who admittedly lives the life of a solitary and does not identify as gay. It seems to us that other narratives of celibates who do identify as LGBT and lead lives full of rich interpersonal connectedness would have fit within the scope of Chu’s project, and would have provided a helpful complement to Kevin’s story.

Though the stories Chu tells come almost exclusively from evangelical Protestantism and rarely from any other Christian context, we felt encouraged by the book’s overall message that sharing one’s story as an LGBT Christian is a good thing. Not only does Chu show compassion and respect for all the people he interviews, but he seems genuinely interested in knowing all the details of their stories and how they got to the points in life where they were at the times of their interviews. He’s willing to learn from everyone, and we see that attitude so infrequently when interacting with culture war topics. Though Chu is a non-celibate LGBT Christian, as we read Does Jesus Really Love Me? we sensed that he is the sort of person who would offer encouragement to celibates interested in sharing their stories. Throughout the chapters, he models vulnerability by offering pieces of his own journey of faith and loss of faith and using what he has learned from the interviewees as opportunities for introspection. His writing sends a clear message that LGBT voices in Christianity matter, and that sharing one’s personal experience is helpful both to the sharer and the listeners. Chu seems to believe that we can all learn something from every other human being on the planet, and there’s a lesson in that for all of us celibate LGBT Christians who speak publicly on matters of faith and sexuality.

Despite some minor quibbles, we had great fun reading this book and believe it makes a meaningful contribution to the current conversation. We recommend it to all our friends and readers, regardless of sexual orientation or approach to sexual ethics. If you haven’t had much personal experience with LGBT Christians, you should definitely read Chu’s work. If you are an LGBT Christian, you might read it and find yourself inspired to tell your own story.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Calling or Conviction: “If it’s not about avoiding sin, does LGBT celibacy still matter?”

Today, we are responding directly to a reader question that came after last week’s Saturday Symposium question:

“The tenor of your blog puzzles me more and more with every post. Not saying that’s bad. It’s just that everyone else who talks about this stuff does so while making an affirming or non-affirming argument. My question is do you think a celibate gay person’s commitment to celibacy matters if it doesn’t come along with a statement that gay sex is wrong? Is it good enough that a person feels called to celibacy, or does that call have to come from a place of conviction of sin in order for it to matter or have meaning?”

Before we get started on this one, we refer you to another post where we wrote about why  we choose not to engage in the “Is same-sex sexual activity sinful?” debate here on the blog. We recommend reading that one first before continuing with this post. The decision to frame our writing project outside this particular debate does not mean that we have no opinions on sexual ethics for LGBT Christians. It also doesn’t mean that we think the question is unimportant. It only means that here in this space, we are trying to have a different conversation. That said, we can proceed to addressing this reader’s question.

To begin with, if a person feels called to celibacy, it makes sense to discuss this calling in terms of vocation. Vocations enable people to manifest the Kingdom of God. They bring people into relationship with God, other humans, and the world as a whole. They call people to live more intentionally. Because of this, our initial response to reading this question was, “Why wouldn’t a person’s vocation matter?” We believe that regardless of a person’s reason for pursuing a particular vocation in the beginning, for the duration, or in the end, the choice to pursue it is significant. It means that a person has decided to follow God in a way of life that will help him or her to grow in holiness. Why would that not be important and meaningful, even if you don’t agree with that person’s reason for making the commitment?

It seems absurd to us that in the eyes of some, LGBT celibacy isn’t “valid” or “real” if a person offers, “I feel called” instead of, “I’m avoiding sin” as his/her reason for pursing celibacy. Rarely do we hear anyone apply the same standard to the vocation of marriage, even though within some Christian traditions one could make a biblical argument that avoidance of sin is the primary reason a person should choose to marry. In 1 Corinthians 7:9, St. Paul writes, “But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.” It wouldn’t be terribly difficult to argue that based on this scripture, a person should marry if marrying is the only way he or she can avoid sexual sin, and other possible reasons for marrying are less meaningful. But nobody makes this argument. Or at least nobody we’ve ever met or read. We don’t hear this argument because most Christians across all denominations would find it ridiculous. Traditions like Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and some Protestant denominations have thorough, developed theologies of marriage that span far more than “better to marry than to burn.” Ask yourself, “Does marriage still matter if the married person entered this vocation because of a calling rather than a desire to avoid sin?” Ask a friend. In preparation for this post, we’ve asked several, and every one of them thought the question absurd.

Some who hold to a conservative sexual ethic might say at this point, “A personal calling is fine. Nothing wrong with that. But gay sex is still a sin, and if the celibate person doesn’t believe this, he/she holds a heterodox belief. Without orthodox belief, LGBT celibacy means nothing.” The problem with this statement is that Christianity involves both belief and practice. Believing in a certain sexual ethic is not a prerequisite for practicing celibacy. A person who holds to a belief that your tradition considers theologically unorthodox may very well be engaging in a practice that is orthodox according to your tradition’s teachings. One does not negate the other. You can hold that a person is wrong about a theological issue and still appreciate that person’s commitment to a vocation. Let’s assume for a moment that you belong to a Christian tradition that considers use of contraception a sin. Would you say that a married couple’s marriage is meaningless if that couple isn’t using contraception, but disagrees with the teaching that doing so would be sinful?

This isn’t exactly the same as our reader’s question, but we believe it is related: an argument we hear from some Christians with a liberal sexual ethic goes something like, “No LGBT person can choose celibacy freely unless his/her Christian tradition also affirms gay marriage. If the celibate LGBT person belongs to a non-affirming tradition, a sense of calling doesn’t matter. If all vocation options aren’t open, the choice to pursue celibacy — the only option — is meaningless.” We do believe that people should be able to discover their vocations rather than experience vocation as a mandate. However, we are also aware that this belief is influenced by our modern context. Anyone who has basic familiarity with Church history should know that for the first several centuries of Christianity, most people had very little personal choice in the matter of whether they would marry or live as celibates. To say that celibacy doesn’t matter if it’s the only choice available is to declare that thousands of people’s life experiences were meaningless. To those making this argument we ask: are you willing to suggest that there was no meaning to the celibate life of Hildegard of Bingen because her parents — not she herself — decided that she would become a nun? Are you willing to assert that because Hildegard didn’t choose her own way of life, she never experienced a sense of call to monasticism?

Along with this, we think it’s important to point out that people’s understandings of theology and personal calling usually develop over time. As children of the Church, we will grow and change. No one can answer every question about his or her vocation immediately after deciding to follow Christ. We don’t expect people to know everything there is to know about the Bible, Church history, or practices of Christian worship. Relative to marriage, we think most people would find it unreasonable to assert that newlyweds know everything there is to know about marriage. Some of our closest friends have told us that they were married for over five years before starting to have any degree of appreciation for what it meant for them to be married. A novice entering a monastery is hoping to discern what monastic life has to offer him or her. Beginnings of one’s vocation can be an especially spiritually fruitful time as one notes the sparks of “first love” for a particular way of life. In our own lives, we have embraced the process of maturing towards celibacy. We have begun to see our vocation’s first fruits as we have journeyed together, and we look forward to how God will continue to guide and direct our steps. All stories of vocation have meaning precisely because they dramatize how God has walked with particular people throughout their lives.

We sincerely appreciate our reader’s question. This question dovetails into existing conversations about LGBT Christian sexual ethics. Privileging the discussion of whether same-sex sexual activity is sinful can prevent Christians from seeing the practical questions around discerning vocations, and this happens quite often in discussions about LGBT issues. We consider it distressing that due to where the conversation is currently, “Does vocation have any meaning?” is actually reasonable question. When we begin talking more broadly about vocation, we can also talk about how LGBT Christians image the Kingdom of God in our midst. We believe it especially important for people who hold a traditional sexual ethic to focus on the positives of vocation rather than the negatives of trying to stay on the “right” side of the line that separates the “good” gays from the “bad” gays.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.