Celibacy, Choice, and Obedience: In Defense of the “Forced”

A reflection by Sarah

We’ve shifted to a Monday, Wednesday, Friday, plus Saturday Symposium posting schedule, so I feel a bit odd writing an additional post for today. But the writing bug bit me, and I figured I could take a quick break from working on my dissertation and the response we’re currently writing to Maria McDowell’s recent piece at the WIT blog (that will be coming out on Monday, in case anyone was wondering. We’ve received a ton of email about it).

Over the past few weeks, gay celibates have been receiving quite a bit of media attention. It began with this article at Slate by Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart. Then more recently, Sarah Pulliam Bailey at Religion News Service wrote another article on gay celibacy featuring Julie Rodgers, and Eliel Cruz at The Advocate published an op-ed defending the place of celibate gay Christians in both the Church and the LGBTQ community. Several responses have been written already. Eve Tushnet, a celibate gay Catholic, published this article yesterday, arguing that celibacy (as understood solely in terms of “sexual abstinence”) is not really the point: vocation is. Francis DeBernardo wrote a post on New Ways Ministry’s blog suggesting that celibacy is becoming the new reparative therapy for LGBTQ Christians, and that it is harmful to those who don’t feel a sense of call to celibate vocations. Then, Stephen Long at Sacred Tension published a post today reflecting on Cruz’s piece and stating, “I do believe that it should be a private choice and that neither the church nor the gay community should pressure them. But, as long as the church believes that gay sex is universally sinful, I honestly wonder if that will ever fully be a reality.”

As I’ve read each of these and the comment responses they’ve received, I’ve seen a troubling implication arising over and over again — that there are two types of celibate gay people: those who choose celibacy because they feel called, and those who are forced into celibacy by their faith traditions. I’ve never been good at following the first rule of the internet (“Don’t read the comments!”), so over the past few days I’ve been devouring the comments sections on the three news articles and responses. I’ve seen hundreds of statements such as, “I don’t mind celibate gays as long as they don’t try to force me to be celibate,” and “There’s nothing wrong with gay people who feel called to celibacy. It’s a spiritual gift for some people. But gay people who are celibate just because their church says they have to be are oppressed and delusional.” These comments show a grave misunderstanding of the commitments that some LGBTQ Christians make to celibacy. They fail to consider that regardless of the reason for choosing celibacy, many LGBTQ celibates are — like Eve Tushnet says in her article linked above — more concerned about developing a meaningful, Christlike way of life than with simply abstaining from sex or telling other people they shouldn’t be having sex.

As Lindsey and I have stated repeatedly on this blog, our choice to live celibacy comes from the deep sense of call. We are, like Francis DeBernardo says, the sort of LGBTQ people whose “celibacy is a calling, a response, and a choice.  For them, it is a joy.” We are the category of people Stephen Long says he isn’t talking about in his response to the Cruz piece. It would be all too easy (not to mention prideful) for us to pat ourselves on the back and say, “People are recognizing that some LGBTQ Christians feel called to celibacy. Maybe we’ve had a small role in helping folks to see this.” But that’s not what we’re doing today. Instead, we grieve the false dichotomy that this discussion has furthered.

One of our primary purposes on this blog has been to discuss celibacy as a vocation, and that discussion falls shamefully short when limited to celibates whose stories are like Lindsey’s and mine. We wrote recently that celibacy as a vocation can be meaningful regardless of the celibate person’s level of choice. For a person who is truly interested in making a lifelong commitment to celibacy, whatever the reason, that way of life has to be meaningful in order for it to be sustainable. Lindsey and I did not come to celibacy in the same way as many of our celibate LGBTQ brothers and sisters, but all of us deal with the common struggle of living, as best we can, as imitations of Christ. And we see that as far more important than the question of why a person chose celibacy in the first place.

We use the word “choice” very often in our own writings. We also hear it from others, and it has become a sort of buzzword within the past week. But it seems to us that “choice” does not have the same meaning every time it’s included in an internet comment. Most of the commenters I’ve read this week have implied that celibacy can only be good and valuable when, to borrow Aaron Taylor’s analogy, it’s just another option in a well-stocked grocery store. There’s a common assumption that in order for a choice to be a choice in the truest sense, there must be at least one other available alternative. Most folks who advocate for celibacy being a “choice” rather than a “mandate” are actually saying that celibacy can’t be a choice unless gay marriage is also an available choice within every Christian tradition. They see no possibility that an LGBTQ person could choose celibacy freely as a response to his/her Christian tradition’s more conservative theologies of marriage and sexuality. But people like Eve Tushnet and many of the folks at Spiritual Friendship often counter this assertion when they discuss celibacy as a choice to obey the teachings of their churches.

When I think of the word “choice,” I cannot separate it from the word, “obedience.” All the choices I make every day, no matter what they are, have some connection to my obedience to Christ. For a Christian, no choice can occur in a vacuum. Some of my choices seem freer than others. Whether they actually are or not is up for philosophical and theological debate. Perhaps material for another post.

Back to the topic at hand, I make choices all the time that are for my own good rather than because I necessarily want to select a certain option. Due to a recent diagnosis of Meniere’s disease, I’ve had to shift my diet entirely to very low sodium foods. If you know me in real life and are aware of how much I enjoy sushi, Thai food, and other high sodium cuisines, you probably have a sense of how much I resent that choice. But I made it anyway because I wanted to do everything possible to prevent further permanent hearing loss and minimize my number of missed work days due to vertigo. I chose to obey my doctor because he knows better than I do what will minimize this condition’s damage to my hearing and balance. Some might be thinking, “But you didn’t have a choice. You were forced into that choice because of your medical condition.” Actually, that’s not true. I could be choosing to eat California rolls with extra soy sauce every day. Some days, I do make that choice. And I pay for it with my health, because all choices have consequences. In this situation, the best choice is not the choice I like. It’s a choice that limits how I get to experience certain aspects of life. Some days, it even makes me depressed. It’s a choice I made because there was no other healthy alternative. But it was still my choice. There was a point at which I finally felt ready to say to my doctor, “You’ve told me this is what I have to do in order to be healthy. I don’t understand it, I don’t like it, I’d rather be making a different decision, but I’ll trust you on this one.” However, I hope that someday, I will be able to say that I’ve found a sustainable way of life as a person with Meniere’s disease. It’s because of experiences like this one that I can see why a person might choose celibacy out of a sense of obedience, but still see celibacy in vocational terms.

Obedience is a gift freely given. True obedience comes from a desire to do what is being asked of you, even if you don’t have a full understanding of why it’s necessary or why other possible options would be worse for you in the long run . It does not come from being beaten into submission. If you’ve ever watched a child for an afternoon, you know that it’s impossible to make a child obey if she is absolutely intent on being disobedient. If you’re a good caregiver, you’ll be firm without resorting to abusive tactics to get the child to do what you’re asking of her for her own good. In many cases, the child will eventually come around and choose to obey. But if you’re abusive, she will probably come to resent you. If she does what you ask her to at all in this case, it’s likely coming from survival instinct rather than true obedience. When I hear people talking about forced celibacy, I have to wonder whether they’re speaking strictly of churches that abuse and bully their LGBTQ children into submission, churches that ask all their children to practice a conservative sexual ethic, or both. Most of the time, I think people conflate the two. I get this impression every time I hear someone suggest that people like Eve Tushnet, Ron Belgau, and Wesley Hill have been “forced” into celibacy and are delusional. Have they chosen celibacy in obedience to the teachings of their Christian traditions? Absolutely. But is this the same as being sexually abstinent because of fear that abuse will come your way otherwise? I don’t think so at all.

I think we need to change the direction of the recent conversation on “chosen” versus “forced” celibacy and “gay celibates who feel called” versus “gay celibates who are celibate because they have to be.” The truth is, we’re all the same in that we’re living every day, making choices, and trying our hardest with God’s help to be Christlike. Lindsey and I would never advocate shaming, beating, manipulating, harassing, or bullying anyone into celibacy. Neither would any of the other LGBTQ celibates we know personally, yet they’re accused of such regularly just because they chose celibacy from a place of obedience rather than a place of, “This is my personal calling from God.” I think the number of people who are actually forced into celibacy through abusive means and stick with it is very, very low. But the number of people who have experienced these sorts of abuses and have eventually chosen non-celibacy is very, very high. Perhaps that’s what leads so many to slap the label of “forced celibacy” onto celibates who don’t feel a “call” to it, but chose to pursue it as part of their Christian vocation because that’s what their churches ask them to do. I hope that future discussions about this topic will involve more kindness, compassion, and questioning. Attempting to judge who chose celibacy for the “right” reasons and who chose it for the “wrong” reasons benefits no one.

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10 thoughts on “Celibacy, Choice, and Obedience: In Defense of the “Forced”

  1. Since I wrote that Slate piece, I’ve entered into several long discussions with people who espoused those sorts of sentiments. Many of them have expressed very real fears of losing some of the recent gains LGBT people have made. They fear that we could lose the momentum towards civil rights and widespread acceptance and face a backlash at some time in the near future, and they feel a need to preemptively fight against that possibility. These people believe that churches which insist that all gays and lesbians must be celibate could become every bit as odious and destructive as churches in the past have been when their leaders condemned us as unnatural, suggested shipping us off to islands to die of HIV, and worked to oppose us at every step in our journey towards greater acceptance and equality.

    It’s a bit hard, I think, to separate out their feelings towards a person who chooses a celibate way of life out of obedience to an authority that they personally accept, and the feelings of fear that such authorities may one day be in a position to coerce the obedience of those who do not recognize them as legitimate. I’ve tried to reassure people by reminding them of the progress we’ve made, by pointing out that very few LGBT people are in the celibacy camp, and that churches with traditional sexual ethics are rapidly losing influence and seem unlikely to regain influence in our increasingly secular society.

    Is there a better answer I could give to those who fear a return to a world where the full power of the law lines up on the side of anti-gay-sex religious sentiment?

    • I think I would respond to the question by asking those who fear anit-gay-sex religious sentiment “Who do you want to be?”

      I know that some celibate gays are trying to “bridge the gap” between the two opposing sides. But I doubt that is the main goal of many celibate gays. Most of us just want to be who we are a live in accord with our choice. If we can be friends with those on either side of the debate also, that would be nice. But, I, at least, have lived a celibate life for over 30 years without close friends on either side. It’s no fun. But I can live a couple more decades this way if I have to. I’d rather be true to myself than have friends if having friends means losing who I am.

      Given that, the question is, “Who do you want to be?” I have watched both sides of the debate react in almost precisely the same way and use virtually the same tactics. Both sides act out of irrational fear. The one side fears they will lose the gains they have made. The other fears the changes they see around them in society. Both sides fear that accepting celibate gay people will bring about what they fear. The one side fears our existence will bring back a loss of legitimacy of their point of view. The other fears that in allowing me to have a “gay identity” they are letting the camel’s nose in the tent and taking the first step toward moral license.

      Both sides use the same tactics, the same bullying methods, the same attempts to silence the other side, even the same methods of argumentation.

      So, “who do you want to be?” Because the more you fear my existence, and the more you fear my choice for celibacy, the more you become like the very people you are struggling against. So I would ask them, “is that really who you want to be?”

    • I think one issue that arises here is that many non-celibate LGBT people mistakenly believe that celibate LGBT people (and straight people, for that matter) who see same-sex activity as sinful also want it to be illegal. This is very rarely true of any celibate LGBT person. None of the celibates we know who believe gay sex is sinful would ever support the criminalization of homosexuality. In fact, many (e.g. the folks at Spiritual Friendship) have been quite outspoken against recent legislation in countries like Uganda. There’s a huge difference between believing that something is sinful and believing that people should not be free to make the choice to do it anyway. I’ve heard so much stereotyping from the non-celibate LGBT community that celibates advocate every possible kind of anti-gay legislation and discrimination. It would be great if more non-celibates realized that celibates have a variety of opinions on legal issues, and we face many of the same problems as everyone else in the LGBT community. -Sarah

      • To be honest, I can understand their reluctance to trust. Exodus International did, at one time, advocate against laws allowing gay marriage etc. (I don’t recall what their stand was on Uganda). So, yeah, with a 30 year history by the largest ex-gay organization in the world, I can see why people are reluctant to trust us celibate gays. Especially since some in the current celibate gay culture were, at one time, in the forefront of Exodus.

        I think it will take time to demonstrate that the current celibate gay culture is very different from the ex-gay culture.

        But I would ask that people have patience and give us a chance to demonstrate that we are not about trying to force others to make the choice we have.

      • I agree that celibates deserve a chance- my view is that people should be viewed as individuals, and that it’s important to remain open to people with vastly different ways of seeing things and at least trying to understand them first, before judging.

        On the other hand, it’s hard, even for me, to fully understand someone who accepts the authority of the exact churches that seek to influence the laws to be as anti-gay as possible. If a celibate gay accepts their church’s teachings on the sinfulness of gay sex, how does that square with rejecting the political calls to action the very same church may make? If a person feels free to disagree with their religion about what the laws should be, why accept their views on gay sinfulness?

        The Catholic Church was once the highest legal authority. Protestantism was also highly involved in law-making throughout its history. In America we have separation of church and state enshrined in our constitution, but I believe most of the more conservative churches would seek any legal authority that was available to them. They hate the separation clause and seek to limit the freedoms of non-believers in every way possible.

        • (On the other hand, it’s hard, even for me, to fully understand someone who accepts the authority of the exact churches that seek to influence the laws to be as anti-gay as possible. If a celibate gay accepts their church’s teachings on the sinfulness of gay sex, how does that square with rejecting the political calls to action the very same church may make?)

          I think the confusion arises because you are thinking of a member of a church as accepting the authority of the Church. This will vary from denomination to denomination. But, for the most part, when people join a Church, they don’t fully put themselves under “the authority of the Church.” When one joins a Church, one understands that people are sinners and that sinners in large groups are simply large groups of sinners, no matter how religious they are. They understand that there times when their denomination or congregation are, quite simply, going to be flat out wrong.

          Two different people may have the exact same interpretation of a biblical text, for instance, yet have vastly different opinion on how to apply that text practically.

          I agree with my denomination’s interpretation of the texts. I often disagree with my denomination’s political stand. My other choice would be to turn to a denomination whose politics might be more in line with mine in some ways but whose interpretation of Scripture is based on pretty flaky stuff.

          There is no perfect church.

          Nor is there the option not to be in a church. Christianity has never been merely a matter of “me and God.” The Christian is part of “the Body of Christ” and can not simply cut ones self off from other Christians. Not to mention the fact that the sacraments, such as the Lord’s Supper, are communal activities.

          Or, to put it another way, a Church is a family. my church has been my family since I was little. Now my dad is a great guy and I love him. But his also a bit of a ditz and lives in his head like a lot of highly intelligent people. I love him. I honor him. Evan as a adult, I usually accede to his requests and, thereby, obey him. But there are times when I have to say “Dad, that just isn’t going to work” because his idea is, well, dumb. But I am not going to leave my family because my academically gifted father is sometimes a social idiot. Nor am I leaving my christian family just because sometimes and on some issue they do stupid things. (and, just like my dad, they often do some absolutely wonderful things, like feed the hungry. My denomination’s agency is often one of the first on the scene in any disaster and often stays to help long after others have left)

          So we do what we can. I am in a church which has a strong view of Scripture while doing what I can, as an individual, to remind my denomination that there is no biblical call to “win the culture for Christ” and that our call is not only to preach the Law but also to announce the good news of forgiveness in Christ. And all of this is part of the whole process of growing in Christ. None of us are spiritually mature and to expect any church to be perfect is the same as expecting a 6 year old to drive a car.

          By the way, about your comment, “..but I believe most of the more conservative churches would seek any legal authority that was available to them. They hate the separation clause and seek to limit the freedoms of non-believers in every way possible.” Up above I mentioned how the two side in the debate wind up being very much like each other. Your characterization of “more conservative churches” seeking to limit freedom of non-believer in every way possible is strikingly similar to the comments I hear in my conservative church where people tend to characterize all gay people as “promiscuous,” libertine” and “seeking to force all Christians to bow to the “liberal political establishment.” Might I suggest the extreme characterizations on either side are not particularly helpful.

          it’s OK to have questions but please try to get to know people before you assign negative motivations to them.

          • I really enjoyed reading your response, Matt, so thank you. I’m in a position I often find myself in (so regularly that it must say something about my character), which is of arguing for the minority position in whatever group I find myself. It’s how I managed to land a spot as the conservative LGBT writer for a progressive website, despite being brought up in a very liberal tradition, and it’s also how I find myself defending the strong version of certain liberal positions here at a queer calling.

            Some people find it charming? I certainly don’t intend to assume negative motivations. My most deeply held conviction is one of my own ignorance and fallibility. At times in my life when I felt the most certain of what I was doing and why, it later turned out that I was completely and totally wrong.

        • People from different Christian traditions will have different responses to this question. Matt gave one possible response. A person from another tradition might point out that there’s a significant difference between: 1) a teaching that has been handed down throughout the generations and believed to be part of the Church’s wisdom, and 2) a bishop’s (of group of bishops’) way of responding to that teaching.

          A lot of this depends upon where authority comes from within a particular Christian tradition. Some view personal interpretation of scripture as the highest authority. Others view a bishop or group of bishops as the highest human authority. Others emphasize the body of believers as a whole. There are so many different ways of viewing authority within Christianity. But most forms of traditional Christianity hold that their leaders can make mistakes and be wrong, even though the teachings handed down through the generations can never err.


  2. I’m astonished at how people seem to think “religion” works. To take a representative sample from your paraphrasings, “But gay people who are celibate just because their church says they have to be are oppressed and delusional.”
    As C.S. Lewis said, “Men who have gods worship those gods; it is the spectators who describe this as ‘religion.’” And it seems these days that “religion” is almost universally seen as an imposition from outside the believer.
    But that’s false to the experience of people who have gods and worship, valuing that relationship above all else and believing that some behaviors will interfere with it – not because the’ll p*ss God off, but because that’s the nature of things in the sense that realists versus nominalists believe that reality is structured.
    They don’t believe that anything is bad “just because their church says;” they think the church says it’s bad because it really is. Are they imposed upon? Are they not free, especially where church is seen legally as a voluntary society, to pick up and move on if they think their current church is bearing false witness about reality?
    I don’t know how better to say it than that, and can only hope that it’s evocative for some reader who has missed that point thus far in life.

    • To be fair, I do think it’s good to be wary of certain kinds of expectations that some religions have for their adherents. For example, cults like the People’s Temple also count as religions. That said, I think there are people today who seek religions that ask much of them, and there are also people who think that any religion that asks you to do something challenging must be a cult. This came up one semester in a course I was teaching. We were talking about cults, and as I was challenging the students to think more deeply about what makes a cult a cult, I noticed that quite a few students claimed to believe “any religion that asks you to do something you don’t want to do” fits the definition. I found that quite troubling. -Sarah

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