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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9 thoughts on “Crossing the Chasm between Ex-Gay Ministry and Celibacy

  1. Sarah you said, “The sexual ethics of ex-gay ministries are fear-based and spiritually abusive.” I agree with this based on the brief experience I had in a church which promotes an ex-gay approach. As well, I think many of those in churches who promote the ex-gay approach do so out of fear and loyalty to a tradition they feel is being threatened. The frame of mind is one of holding their position at all costs even in light of using the misnomer of ex-gay. To say you are ex- gay but still are attracted to the same sex, no matter how much those attractions have faded, is false, is it not? This always bothered me when I spoke with ex-gay Christians who admitted they still have crushes or sexual desire for the same sex.

    However, I think we need more specifics on how we can recover from the damaging effects of fear and spiritual abuse. We hear so many stories about the horrible experiences people have but we need to hear the hopeful stories of how people recover from it.

    And from my experience, being new to this, there is a big difference between recovery which leads to finding a vocation as celibate and actually living that vocation. Many LGBT believers are coming form a place of suffering and damage. They need to get strong before they can live that vocation. Some need triage rather than put to work.

    How long did it take to feel you were loved by God rather than afraid of His condemnation? What questions did you ask and how were they answered? What pitfalls are there along the way? How can we look at scripture without being traumatized? Do you see what I mean?

    There is a big empty space between ex-gay and side b. That vast gulf should not be walked alone!! I think you have hit on the first step which is asking questions. But where do we find peace and relief and solid ground when we have believed and accepted harmful assumptions and conclusions about ourselves for so long?

    • Hi Kathy, I’ve seen a lot of different Christian traditions. Usually ex-gay approaches are found in traditions keen on saying, “X, Y, and Z are sins!” A lot of these traditions emphasize staying on the “right” side of God’s law. I suspect that a lot of the rhetoric is attached to the temperance movement where it was very easy to say, “Drinking is a sin!” and require people to abstain entirely from alcohol. A similar rhetoric gets employed by traditions where they say, “Homosexuality is a sin!” and require people to abstain entirely from anything associated with the “gay lifestyle.”

      The reason why I bring this issue up is that I found myself having to migrate to a new Christian tradition in order to understand the questions I was asking. It helped that I started to question the very legalistic, cut-and-dry approach to complex decisions. When I realized that the rhetoric of “Sex outside of marriage is a sin!” was causing significant harm to my friends who were following all of the rules, I felt even more freedom to query the wisdom within the broader tradition. When God drew me to a different Christian tradition through a series of completely unrelated events, I felt like I had discovered that Christian traditions could give you tools to think with rather than pat “right” answers.

      I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone to move into one particular Christian tradition. We avoid naming our current tradition in part because we don’t want to send a message that we think one Christian tradition has all of the answers for LGBT folk. However, if I were advising someone in a tradition that offered ex-gay ministry, here’s what I would say: 1) take a massive break from attending anything related to sexuality ministries in your church, 2) spend time fellowshipping with other people in your congregation as a person, 3) look for opportunities to grow spiritually that focus you on Christ, the Gospels, and the overarching themes of Scripture, 4) do something physically with your body to improve comfort in your own skin, 5) build relationships with other people despite the voices that try to shut you down and tell you you’re doing it wrong, and 6) when you’re ready for it, explore what your Christian tradition teaches about marriage beyond “Marriage is between a man and a woman.” The harms of ex-gay ministry are incredibly real, and I think that a person can zoom in on points 2 through 5 for a lifetime.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment! -Lindsey

      • thanks for awesome points Lindsay. I would say very good advice in the right circumstances. However a few things came to mind. One is that some Christians in their conservative churches are not just saying homosexuality is sin but they are saying it is an ‘abomination’ or ‘disgusting’. Or ex-gay adherents are saying you can’t be saved unless you declare yourself as ex-gay. The adjectives are much more powerful and wounding and for someone who is immature or new in the faith. There is a pressure to denounce all that is gay without first processing all the questions you have. That is not a safe environment at all because if you do come out you are tagged as the person who is being fixed and if you don’t come out you cannot make authentic relationships. However, ( I am howevering my however ) all churches need side b type Christians who are visible and authentic as fabulously LGBT as they are but not all of us have arrived at the ability to meet that challenge presently. I see your point.

        • It’s very possible to have particular congregations where people say everything possible to dehumanize an LGBT person. In such congregations, it can be impossible to maintain any degree of focus on my earlier points 2 through 5. It takes a real act of courage to leave a spiritually abusive environment. Sometimes I think people are genuinely unaware of the hurt their words are causing, and a LGBT person can help give a bit of an education. Organizations like the Gay Christian Network are great for helping equip LGBT people to have these conversations. Other times, I think people are deliberately malicious and cruel. In that case, it’s time to leave.

  2. Viewing celibacy as a calling or choice makes it more appealing than an lgbt christian saying they are celibate out of obedience to church teachings.
    I would really like to say that celibacy out of obedience isn’t negative but from how I see it…it just seems like the only acceptable way to be apart of such a church while gay is to be celibate, so it does seem more like a mandate, less like a choice and more like an obligation or an only option. Celibacy out of obedience can appear self loathing because your willing to say same sex relationships shouldn’t exist nor should gay marriage because there is only a place for hetero relationships and marriage. (Maybe even your own sexual orientation is more of a disorder. .) Recently I’ve been thinking about more traditional conservative churches…Their theology does not even seem to encompass reality but rather a more glorified version of what is or should be the acceptable or right way to live for the majority of people.
    I really wish churches would actually have conversations with lgbt people instead of at us about how they perceive us to be….

    • Speaking as a traditional (not sure about conservative) Christian, I think this is why it’s so important for those of us who are traditional believers to continually focus our ethics on the love of God, otherwise it too easily comes across as us being obsessed with strange little superstitious rules, trying to be ‘good’ in a rather cliched sort of way – nice and respectable and polite etc. for it’s own sake, as opposed to in service of the transcendent.

      I am someone who is celibate as an LGBT person out of obedience rather than a calling (of course in reality it’s hard to separate the two) – my (hopeful?) calling for religious life for example isn’t a calling to celibacy per se, but simply giving my all to God. I also wouldn’t say I was self hating, even if I were to say my sexuality is disordered. However, that’s probably because I think all of humanity is disordered but as it hasn’t put any of us outside of God’s love, what it means to be disordered is probably a lot more interesting and not a cause for the kind of self-loathing often inflicted on LGBT people by the Church. What’s interesting is that I didn’t come to this understanding thanks to an often hateful and blinkered Church – I had to find it for myself, which is something I think we as a community need to stress more and be willing to be generous if people have a calling we might not understand or even agree with.

      Ultimately, I think you are right that viewing celibacy as a calling is more helpful and healthy. Indeed, I would say that I wish many of our (traditional Christian) ethics would be viewed in that light. Otherwise they are too often seen as restrictions of the human potential, and methods for control, as opposed to paths to a freedom, which they can be.

      • Thanks for your feedback here! We wrote a post where we tried to outline reasons why people choose celibacy. We said, “These reasons include, but are not limited to, having a passion to love and serve the world differently than a married person, developing an affinity for a particular monastic community, not perceiving a call towards parenthood, deciding one’s spirituality is more focused on God when one is not pursuing a marriage relationship, enjoying one’s life as it is without marital obligations, or sensing that one has the gift of celibacy. It’s also not terribly uncommon for people to embrace the celibate vocation out of obedience: they sense that God is asking them to commit to celibacy for reasons they do not understand, they respect their Christian tradition’s teachings on marriage and realize that they are not keen on embracing a marital vocation, or they want to remain faithful to their sexual ethics despite an extended season of involuntary celibacy.”

        It’s so hard to put the exact reasons why people choose celibacy into words because there are so many varied experiences. -Lindsey

    • One of the things that I’ve learned from getting to know kids is that obedience is always a choice. To be sure, the best parents and teachers frame questions of obedience in positive terms. A question to a two year old like, “Do you want to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt?” carries with it the expectation that the child will be obedient and wear a shirt.

      I do see the questions principally from a standpoint of “What does it mean to be a child of the Church?” (I’ve written a fuller reflection at http://aqueercalling.com/2014/05/14/on-being-a-child-of-the-church/). As people grow in their understandings of God, Christ, themselves, the Gospel, the Church, community, and family, different people will have various questions. However, I think many more conservative traditions have positioned the locus of authority on a heavy-handed right answer that renders certain questions as incorrect questions. I consider this to be a form of bad parenting that makes it impossible to explore the Christian tradition with safety and security. As I replied earlier to Kathy, some traditions have emphasized statements like, “X, Y, and Z are sins!” to a fault, and I think teachers in these traditions would do well to reconsider the fullness of the Gospel. When I hear emphasis on “acceptable or right way to live” I can’t help but gravitate towards the various legalisms on parade as Christianity in our modern context.

      My experience has shown me that it’s also far too easy to prooftext one particular aspect of a Christian tradition’s teaching on LGBT issues. I frequently recommend that people take several steps back to consider what the tradition teaches regarding cultivating a Christ-centered way of life, relationships, marriage, and sexuality as a whole. The language a particular tradition uses comes from somewhere, but I’ve found it’s far too easy to assume I know how Christian traditions use words even if particular words have a range of meanings. -Lindsey

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