A Review of A Letter to My Congregation by Ken Wilson

For our resource review this month, we’ve decided to read A Letter to My Congregation: An Evangelical Pastor’s Path to Embracing People who are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender into the Company of Jesus by Ken Wilson. This book has generated much discussion as it outlines a “Third Way” for Evangelical Christians to respond to the controversies about sexual orientation. (We have also reviewed The Third Way film associated with the Roman Catholic Church.)

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?

Throughout the book, Wilson thoughtfully details his position as a pastor of an Evangelical congregation. He serves as the founding pastor of the Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor in Michigan. In his pastoral role, Wilson constantly provides guidance and care when people come to him asking tough questions. He wrote his letter to explain how he has adopted a different approach to counseling LGBT church members.

Wilson makes a powerful argument for using discernment when providing pastoral care to LGBT congregants. One reason why the “gay controversy” is so controversial is that so many Christians have already decided on their response to LGBT people and believe there is no need for further discussion. Expounding upon the role of discernment, Wilson states, “discernment of God’s will is reserved for choosing between two or more possible goods. When faced with a choice between a good and an evil option, no discernment is necessary. Choose the good and shun the evil” (pg. 26). The existing dominant argument within many Evangelical traditions is that it is not necessary to enter into discernment with an LGBT person because same-sex sexual activity is plainly evil. Importantly for LGBT Christians who live or want to explore celibacy, Wilson frames his experience with the dominant argument as follows:

As I first encountered the question of homosexuality, I saw it as a simple matter of choosing faithfulness to God over unfaithfulness to God. …. I assumed (of course) that all homosexual acts and relationships were outside of the bounds of morally acceptable behavior. For me, this was a received tradition. It came with a set of exclusionary practices, but I didn’t examine the practices carefully for two reasons: 1) at first, I wasn’t personally in charge of excluding anyone, and 2) when I was, exclusion per se didn’t need to be exercised because gay people who wanted to remain gay stayed away.

I should emphasize: everyone I respected held this view; no one I respected questioned it. I had other pressing pastoral concerns. It didn’t occur to me to explore the matter further. (pgs. 26-27)

Wilson’s letter may connect with celibate LGBT Christians who perceive that their churches respond to their questions with pat, superficial answers. In problematizing the received argument, Wilson offers space for Christians to use LGBT language and to explore questions about sexuality and gender identity more deeply.

In the quote above and throughout the book, Wilson constantly references exclusion. The question of exclusion undergirds a considerable portion of his argument. We get a sense of what he means by “exclusion” when he says:

Pastors must learn to say no. If someone wants to distribute literature at election time to tell us who God would have us vote for, I’m the one who tells them no. And then listens as they tell me what a weak-kneed leader I am for not standing up for truth. I’ve refused to perform weddings if I didn’t think the marriage had a chance. That conversation hardly ever goes well. I’ve told a member or two of our prayer ministry team that they cannot pray for people in ways that I deem harmful. I’ve called the police to forcibly remove a disruptive person, called protective services to investigate possible child abuse. I’ve asked a lady who brought her tambourine to church and played it with no particular connection to what the worship team was doing to please stop, as it had become a distraction. (pg. 12)

We’ve read much of what has been said about Wilson’s “Third Way” around the blogosphere, so we think it’s crucial to be explicit about how A Letter to My Congregation presents its specific Third Way approach. Wilson argues that the standard responses to LGBT Christians exclude people from the church. When a congregation has already decided that the questions around homosexuality are a simple matter of choosing faithfulness to God over unfaithfulness to God, two extremes surface. Evangelical churches have typically pronounced that gay sex is universally sinful to the point where some churches have actively excluded LGBT people from membership. Congregations with a modern, liberal sexual ethic sometimes exclude anyone who is not fully onboard with various justice initiatives undertaken by the church community. As a pastor, Wilson has had to make calls that have excluded people. Pastors make countless decisions when determining where the boundaries are in their communities. Wilson’s own litany of exclusion highlights areas big and small in which a pastor has to decide where the buck stops.

Ultimately, Wilson’s Third Way seems positioned to avoid exclusion on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity alone. Pastors using Wilson’s approach would still need to draw lines somewhere, but these pastors can discern the boundaries in different ways. Sometimes, the boundary will be clear cut, while at other times, the pastor may make determinations on a case-by-case basis. LGBT Christians exploring celibacy may find that this approach encourages pastors to offer better spiritual direction, gives grace should an individual struggle to maintain his or her celibacy, and removes stigmas associated with being a gender and sexual minority in the church.

However, celibate LGBT Christians will find little by way of practical advice in living their vocations. Wilson spends a considerable amount of space arguing about why certain Scriptural passages need not be read as an outright condemnation of same-sex sexual activity. Unfortunately, his engagement with other passages about marriage lacks the same depth that he displays when talking about re-interpreting the clobber passages. In making a case as to why it’s acceptable for a pastor to lean towards supporting gay marriage, Wilson repeats many arguments about how unrealistic it is to expect LGBT people to remain celibate. The central question he asks regarding gay marriage is, given the broader witness of cisgender heterosexual Christians who are widowed or divorced and remarried, why couldn’t accommodations be made for the marriages of same-sex partners? He writes:

Some people can bear celibacy graciously. But others cannot. For them, the now traditional teaching that the biblical view of marriage–one man, one woman, for life–is descriptive but not prescriptive in the case of remarriage, is absolutely prescriptive in the case of gender. This means that it can only ever be for a man and a woman. Can we understand how that might constitute an unbearable burden? (pg. 154)

Wilson’s analysis of how and why pastors accommodate divorce and remarriage is thoughtfully developed. However, we find ourselves wishing that he had included at least some examples of welcoming celibate LGBT Christians into his congregation and attending to their pastoral needs. It seems to us that like some other “Third Way” approaches, this book implies an assumption that non-celibate LGBT Christians need more support, love, and acceptance than their celibate brothers and sisters.

We hope celibate LGBT Christians will be encouraged by Wilson’s intense commitment to discernment throughout the entire book. Wilson delivers a passionate case for why pastors must be willing to journey alongside their LGBT congregants and welcome them into full participation within the congregation. He shares his own heart for spiritual direction when he writes, “I am willing to be led by the fire of divine love” (pg. 176). We hope that Wilson’s journey connects him with celibate LGBT Christians if for no other reason than to catch a glimpse into the unique features and textures of their celibate vocations.

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.

Celibate Gay Christians, Recovering Addicts, and Communities of Abstinence

A reflection by Sarah

It seems that once every few weeks, there’s a news story about some pastor, activist, celebrity, or politician who has made a comparison between recovering addicts and gay people who abstain from sexual activity. The most recent of these has resulted from a post on the Family Research Council’s blog, in which Peter Sprigg uses Robin Williams’ death and history of addictions treatment as a jumping off point for an argument in favor of sexual orientation change efforts. As I read that post, I was absolutely mortified. It has made me even more certain that the topic of “homosexuality and addiction” warrants further discussion. As of now, the conversation is relatively shallow: mostly folks on one side of the aisle or the other yelling back and forth about whether they’re looking at apples and oranges, or apples and apples.

I wrote once before on why making certain comparisons between homosexuality and addiction is problematic. It doesn’t matter if the person making the analogy is suggesting that gay people can become straight or sexually active gay people could become celibate if treatment programs were offered. The comparison between homosexuality and addiction is rife with misconceptions about both gay people and addicts, and I believe that dispelling these is exceptionally important. But when we who write on this topic focus exclusively on pointing out all the ways that homosexuality is or is not like addiction, we miss opportunities to consider this topic from alternative angles. Today, I’d like to begin exploring one of these other dimensions.

After publishing my own post about why homosexuality and addiction analogies fall short, I began to reflect on some of the the unexpected similarities between communities that celibate LGBT people form and fellowships that recovering addicts form. As I have shared before, I am both a celibate gay Christian and a recovering addict. Over time, I’ve come across phenomenal groups of people in each of these worlds, and I’ve found that the best communities of celibate gay Christians share certain attributes in common with the best recovery communities. But unfortunately, both tend to be characterized incorrectly in similar ways by outsiders. Those looking in from the outside often assume that these communities are focused exclusively on abstinence and have little else to offer their members.

I’ve had dozens of conversations with people who have not experienced either type of community, but nonetheless envision both celibates and recovering addicts as constantly white-knuckling their abstinence. All too frequently, outsiders frame addiction recovery as, “Just stop doing/using (the addictive behavior or substance).” And I must admit, I held this assumption when I first began addressing my own addictions. When I began seeking treatment for bulimia, I believed naively that if I could learn how to force myself to eat normally, all would be perfect in my universe. It didn’t take long before I realized that nothing about recovery is this simple. When an addict tries to explain that it’s difficult to stop using a substance or engaging in a behavior, it’s easy for those who don’t understand this experience to imagine that the addict will spend the rest of his or her life hanging onto a metaphorical ledge by a fingernail.  Every minute a person spends abstaining is then perceived as torturous. With some regularity, I have to clarify that this is not my experience of recovery, and after doing so I’m often met with confusion: “If you and most of your friends at your meetings aren’t struggling regularly to stay in recovery, why go? What’s the point?” Similarly, many outsiders to celibate LGBT communities posit that celibacy is nearly impossible, and that those who do succeed must live in constant agony, ready to bend and break at any moment. Once I began discussing my celibacy openly, I noticed that the majority of people in my life had the same reactions as when I’d become more comfortable sharing my seriousness about recovery: “That’s a long, hard road, Sarah. You’ll be fighting temptation for the rest of your life. What a struggle it must be for you to avoid slipping.” And I’ve lost count of how many friends have suggested that I’m denying myself one of life’s greatest pleasures, and I must have no reason to interact with other gay celibates beyond helping them not to have sex and asking them to support me in not having sex.

A related misunderstanding about both addiction recovery and celibate LGBT communities is that when we aren’t white-knuckling together, we must be commiserating instead. Truth be told, trying to live intentionally — whether as a husband or wife, a celibate, a person in recovery, or a person in any number of other life situations — is full of difficulties. Sometimes, making decisions aligned with a particular way of life is incredibly hard. However, neither my recovery journey nor my commitment to celibacy can be characterized only by the tough parts. It’s not unusual for people in my life to ask me about my support group meetings, “Do you all just sit around and talk about how much it sucks not to be able to do x, y, or z anymore?” And as I share about my experience of fellowship with other celibate gay Christians, the same folks usually ask the exact same question. Non-celibate people, both LGBT and straight, often want to know what celibate LGBT spaces, both in person and online, are like. But it can be challenging to hold that discussion with interested outsiders who first conceive of these spaces as dreary, mournful corners of the internet where everyone bemoans his or her sexual orientation and the challenges of living celibacy. It takes a great deal of time to show others that a commitment to celibacy doesn’t necessarily indicate that life is absolutely horrible and meaningless on just about every metric of human flourishing.

A third common misconception about these two types of communities is that we look down upon others who are not part of our circles. To an extent, outsiders who perceive our communities in this way probably have good reasons. When a person adopts a new way of life, he or she can be especially zealous. For example, it’s not unheard of for an alcoholic who has just begun attending recovery meetings to begin assessing all of his or her friends’ levels of alcohol use. Similarly, I’ve known folks who have spent their first few months of committed celibacy critically examining their other LGBT friends’ non-celibacy. Very few people are comfortably “out” regarding their statuses as recovering addicts or celibate LGBT Christians. But because so many people in my life have had negative experiences with folks in either group (or both), I am told with some regularity that forcing others into a certain way of life is the only reason someone might share openly about his or her journey in a community of abstinence. I’ve lost count of the number of times an acquaintance has told me, “The problem with celibate gays is they all demand that every other gay person has to become celibate.” Yet despite these sentiments from people outside the celibate gay community, rarely have I met a celibate gay Christian who would actively approach a non-celibate gay person with a wagging finger, spouting choice bits of Christianese, and inquiring about the specifics of that person’s sexual behaviors. Likewise, I’ve found that members of addiction recovery communities who would engage in this sort of behavior toward outsiders are very much in the minority.

Healthy communities of any kind focus on a positive vision for life. If someone where to ask me how I’ve benefited from participation in addiction recovery communities and celibate gay communities, I couldn’t conceive of responding with a simple, “They helped me to stop doing a, b, and c.” My active participation in addiction recovery communities has brought numerous gifts. I have received support for living a way of life that is purposeful and fulfilling. I’ve come to see that being accountable is not merely providing an answer to, “Have you avoided particular behaviors?” but is instead thinking deeply, “Am I living a way of life that promotes wellness on multiple axes?” I know that no matter what, I will find acceptance, love, and compassion in these communities. No one is going to shame, berate, browbeat, or belittle me if I experience a relapse. Instead, they’re all going to be there for me as they love me, embrace me warmly, care for me, and remain with me through my challenges. They won’t see me as a hypocrite; they’ll see me as a human. They can witness my struggles and defects of character while at the same time seeing me as a human being worthy of love. I’ve been blessed to observe these same dynamics at play in celibate gay communities. Members of celibate gay communities know that it’s essential to help each other discern a way of life that extends far beyond what we aren’t doing: most of us are much more interested in learning how to draw near to God than in policing whether anyone else is having sex. Having a foot in both of these worlds has taught me that any community of abstinence is healthiest when it is uplifting and welcoming rather than fear-based and forceful.

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.

When Marriage Becomes the Default Vocation

One benefit of cultivating a celibate vocation is that we get to know other people who live celibacy. It can be reasonably challenging to find celibates until one figures out where to look for them. Unfortunately, it’s rare to see celibacy discussed much, if at all, in the majority of Christian traditions outside the question of whether LGBT people should be celibate. Some argue that LGBT people do not have any opportunity to discern their vocations because so many Christian traditions seem to present celibacy as the default option. We’ve seen these types of conversations ourselves, so we have no doubts that some churches give LGBT people unfunded mandates to be celibate without providing any practical support. Additionally, we believe that many who criticize “celibacy as a default” overlook how conversations about sexual ethics in some traditions emphasize marriage as the default vocation for all people.

Consider the ways Christians are taught about sexual ethics. Many denominations exhort people to “save sex until marriage” and believe that “true love waits.” We know several LGBT Christians with relatively progressive sexual ethics in terms of same-sex marriage who are completely committed to waiting until they are married to have sex. Justin Lee, the executive director of the Gay Christian Network, articulates his convictions that sex should be reserved for marriage. Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian, has defended his commitment to stay abstinent until his wedding day. So many people define a Christian sexual ethic as not having sex outside of the marriage covenant. But by presenting sexual ethics solely in this manner, many traditions unwittingly overlook how Christians cultivate chastity by learning to steward their bodies responsibly.

We have engaged in conversations where people argue that sexual ethics should focus primarily on the choices humans make about when and with whom to have sex. We agree resolutely that the choice to have sex is deeply personal. Whether any other person on the planet is having sex is none of our business. However, emphasizing the permissibility of sex as the primary issue makes an assumption that every person is looking for an opportunity to have sex.

Celibacy is not a new idea within Christianity. Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and some other Christian traditions have well developed views on the marital vocation, celibate vocations, and the discernment process. The two of us have had different levels of experience with a range of other Christian traditions and have discovered that celibacy is rarely discussed, except in the context of spiritual gifts. Lindsey has seen spiritual gift inventories that ask people questions about their levels of sexual desire in an effort to discern the gift of celibacy. Often, these inventories posit that only asexual people or those with very low sex drives have been gifted with celibacy. We’re left asking, “What happens when any person who does not fit this description wants to explore the possibilities of celibacy?”

Experience has shown us that many Christians tend to diminish the presence people exploring celibacy. If someone visits a new congregation alone, greeters will ask the visitor if he or she is married and has children. Newly engaged friends can tell all their single friends not to worry because, “Eventually, your day will come.” Singles ministries provide people with ample time to mix and mingle. Conversations at church frequently check in on how someone’s children are doing. When you comment that you’re not married, some people go so far as to shoot you a pitiful glance before quickly exiting the conversation. In Lindsey’s former Christian tradition, Lindsey frequently heard other people laughing and ridiculing the idea that anyone would have the “gift of celibacy.” They would ask jokingly, “How is it even possible that a person has such a low level of sexual desire?” and imply that Paul must have been crazy if he suggested not wanting sex was a spiritual gift.

Within some Christian traditions, an LGBT person who indicates that he or she might be considering celibacy frequently receives a hostile reception. Celibacy is treated as a code word for internalized homophobia, self-hatred, self-loathing, religious oppression, patriarchy, absurd self-denial, or sexual deviancy. In the last two weeks alone on the internet, we’ve seen significant evidence of this hostility. One author suggested that people pursuing celibacy “will almost always end up having sex on the DL anyway, and that leads to higher rates of HIV transmission” and lead lives that are analogous to cutting fruits and vegetables out of their diets. Another author said that encouraging celibacy is linked to any number of negative health outcomes including “depression, anxiety, self-destructive behavior, sexual dysfunction, avoidance of intimacy, loss of faith and spirituality, and the reinforcement of internalized homophobia and self-hatred, to name a few.” A recent internet meme portrays a celibate person as experiencing intense desires for sex only to say, “No! I mustn’t!” Another recent article runs through a list of passages, which we’ve termed the other clobber passages, to make an argument that celibacy is rare, difficult, and a “nearly impossible vocation.” These assertions, while disappointing, are far from surprising as we’ve encountered similar sentiments when we’ve visited Open and Affirming congregations.

The net consequence of these discussions is that it’s incredibly easy for people to get the message that marriage is the default vocation for all. Marriage becomes a rite of passage to adulthood, and being unmarried is a stigma in some faith communities. When people within a Christian tradition argue that the celibate vocation is incredibly rare, they are making an argument that essentially says, “99.99% of people marry. There might be a very small number of people gifted with celibacy, but the chances that you might be one of this minority are slim. So there’s no real reason to consider the possibility.” We believe that the Church as a whole is impoverished when Christians never anticipate meeting a person with a celibate vocation.

We understand why people want to affirm that some are gifted with celibacy and emphasize that this gift may be rare. Paul clearly references the gift of celibacy in the Scriptures. But of equal importance is that people have diverse reasons for entering celibate vocations. 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. The exact reasons why people have embraced celibacy are between them and their spiritual advisors unless they choose to share with others.

When people acknowledge and affirm a broader set of reasons to embrace celibate vocations, it becomes more obvious that God is not asking every person to enter a martial relationship. Vocational discernment becomes prayerfully seeking answers to the questions, “God, what would You have me do as I seek to love You more? Who have You created to me to be? How can I more fully image Christ’s likeness to everyone I meet?”

Christians need to stop mocking the gift of celibacy by suggesting that living the celibate vocation requires superhuman strength and a nearly complete absence of sexual desire. When celibacy is presented in this way, it becomes an inhuman way of life to the point of being seen as inhumane. However, celibacy is an entirely human vocation. Real men and women have borne witness to the kingdom of God for centuries through myriad celibate vocations. Christians would benefit from getting to know real people who live celibacy — some of whom might be in their midst without their awareness. Why did they embrace celibacy? How did celibacy provide a way for them to learn to love themselves, their neighbors, and God? What gifts did they share with the world as they embraced their vocations fully?

(Stay tuned for more profiles of real celibates!)

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: The Conflation of Celibacy and Ex-Gay Ministries

Hello readers! It’s been an exciting month in our household. Lindsey has returned to full-time work and is having a blast. Thank you so much for your prayers and support over the last several months. We remember many of you and your loved ones in our prayers.

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 seen a lot of articles lately discussing LGBT celibacy. With ex-gay ministries like Exodus closing their doors, Christians opposed to homosexuality are having a harder time saying, “God can help a gay person to become straight.” Several authors have argued that Christians opposed to homosexuality are increasingly saying, “God can help a gay person be celibate.” Yesterday, Lindsey reflected upon how embracing a celibate vocation requires rejecting the sexual ethics of ex-gay ministries. This week, we are interested in how people could critically discuss the sexual ethics found in many ex-gay ministries. Why are so many people falsely equating celibacy with ex-gay ministries? How can people affirm the celibate vocations of LGBT people? Is there a way to talk about LGBT people choosing celibacy out of obedience to their Christian tradition without equating this choice to ex-gay approaches? What rhetorical traps have you observed people falling into when arguing against celibacy? Are there ways to talk about destructive messages associated with conservative sexual ethics that do not also promulgate a different set of stereotypes about LGBT celibates?   

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.

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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