Crossing the Chasm between Ex-Gay Ministry and Celibacy

A reflection by Lindsey

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen many bloggers asking the question, “Is celibacy the newest ex-gay ministry?” They note that some LGBT Christians, after spending years in ex-gay ministries, have decided to embrace celibacy. Exodus International closed down after conceding that sexual orientation change efforts rarely succeed and often do harm. We’ve shared previously about our own past experiences in ministries with ex-gay ideologies. As I’ve been reading all the recent articles and blog posts suggesting that LGBT celibacy is simply the new face of the ex-gay movement, I’ve found it striking how many commenters overlook the chasm between the sexual ethics of ex-gay ministries and the charisms of a celibate vocation.

On one level, I understand the confusion. I participated in ex-gay ministries for three years in college. These ministries had connections with churches and promised to help people with same-sex attractions lead holy lives. Slogans like “Change is possible,” and “The opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality, it’s holiness,” still ring through my ears when I think back to that time in my life.

However, ex-gay ministries have a particular kind of sexual ethic — one that I and many other celibate LGBT Christians consider colossally unhelpful. Ex-gay ministries focus on helping people avoid sexual sins. Sexual purity takes on a particular kind of theological importance. In the ex-gay ministry I was a part of, we spoke of lust, pornography, and masturbation as the “unholy trinity.” People did their best to reorient themselves towards Christ whenever they had lustful thoughts. We frequently reminded each other that we were commanded to “take every thought captive” so we could submit everything to Christ. We talked about the proper place of sex within marriage, the benefits of keeping ourselves pure for a future opposite-sex spouse, and the importance of confessing past transgressions in order to receive forgiveness. When it came to discussing sexual morality, these ministries stressed the importance of keeping the marriage bed holy. There was no discussion of celibacy, but there was significant conversation about marriage and abstinence.

Eventually, I wore out my welcome in ex-gay ministries. I started asking questions about how the ministry interpreted Scriptures. Many ex-gay ministries justify their existence by quoting from 1 Corinthians 6. According to these teachers, Paul clearly lists homosexuals among those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. Christians had hope to change because Paul tells those in Corinth, “such were some of you.” I got into trouble because I started asking questions about the implications of the passage as a whole:

Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated? No, you yourselves do wrong and cheat, and you do these things to your brethren! Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.

Why was Paul talking about lawsuits? Given Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, would it be possible for Christians to say rightly that there was no chance they were ever idolaters, thieves, covetous, or extortioners? When the ex-gay ministry I was a part of dismissed my inquiries as being little more than a distraction, I couldn’t help but question the ministry as a whole.

Eventually, I came to see ex-gay ministries as purveyors of spiritual abuse. They used any information they could think of to showcase the evils of the “gay lifestyle.” They taught people to fear most forms of human interaction lest they find themselves falling down the slippery slope to inappropriate sexual intimacy. I was watching people leave the ministry with their faith in tatters, noting how the pastors in charge of the ministry expected everyone to revere their every word.

Embracing my celibate vocation required that I distance myself from nearly everything ex-gay ministries taught about sexual ethics. Things began to crumble when I started asking questions like, “Why am I trying so hard to be straight when I have no desire for children?” and “How could a ministry teach people to be afraid of every peer relationship?”

When I made a choice to cultivate a celibate vocation, I had to look at relationships differently. It was far from a linear journey as I came to define celibacy. I’ve reflected more on my journey elsewhere on the blog. As I’ve read authors who equate celibacy with ex-gay ministry, I have to wonder where they got their information on celibacy. It does not seem like they have talked to anyone living celibate vocations. I recognize a lot of their talking points as coming straight from mischaracterizations of celibacy promoted by people who have had negative experiences with celibacy. I am puzzled as to why nearly all of these authors are implying that LGBT Christians are only just now pursuing celibacy because ex-gay ministries have closed their doors.

This might come as a surprise, but celibacy is not a new idea. Christians of all sexual orientations and gender identities have been choosing celibacy for well over 1500 years. As I’ve discerned my own celibate vocation, I have sought both historic and current examples of people who have lived and who are living celibacy. Embracing a celibate vocation required me to embrace my sexuality rather than repress my sexuality. Along my way, I read author after author who affirmed the absolute need for celibates to integrate their sexualities. Discerning a celibate vocation allowed me to affirm and celebrate my uniqueness as an LGBT person. I was able to move beyond the destructive navel-gazing that characterized so much of my experience in ex-gay ministries. I learned to see myself as Lindsey rather than as a liability who should be accepted in community as a charity case.

Finding my celibate vocation required adopting a more holistic view of Scripture. Indeed, even reading the chapters that contained the oft-quoted verses began to shift my thinking away from what the ex-gay ministry said a particular verse meant. I sought the Holy Spirit’s guidance for what passages of Scripture might be especially important for me to ponder as I developed my sense of vocation. I learned to listen to the Scriptures within a particular Christian tradition, seeing how men and women through the ages have allowed the Bible to shape their vocational journeys. If you want more specifics on that aspect of my journey, you can read about how I discerned my sexual ethic. I’m quite honestly baffled that anyone could read my writing and suggest that I’m somehow a hardcore biblical literalist or that I don’t accept queer sexual orientations. I can’t think of any celibate LGBT person I know who fits these stereotypes.

To be completely fair, I think most people don’t understand that there is a chasm between the sexual ethics of ex-gay ministries and the charisms of a celibate vocation. Researching celibacy is challenging. It can be far too tempting to dismiss celibate people as “those weirdos who don’t want to have sex.” If you throw a sense of religious obligation into the mix, then one might think of repression, angst, existential crises, and really all the makings of a great soap opera. The net effect is characterizing celibate LGBT people with a stereotype of pitiful souls who have no conception of God’s love, who cower in fear and spend their whole lives trying to entrap other members of the LGBT community. On a certain level, that incorrect characterization makes sense to me if a person conceives of celibacy as nothing more than doing one’s best to white-knuckle sexual abstinence. However, that notion of celibacy saddens me in the extreme because it completely denies how celibates are able to love and serve the world — especially other human beings — with joy.

I can relate to people who say that nothing could ever make them go back to ex-gay ministry. I agree with them whole-heartedly. The sexual ethics of ex-gay ministries are fear-based and spiritually abusive. Discerning and living into my celibate vocation has brought me immense joy where I have rich relationships with other people. Embracing celibacy has changed my approach to the Christian life, and I sit here amazed at how God has given me such a wonderful gift to challenge me to grow in love.

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