A Review of Two Words by Emily Timbol

Today, we’re delighted to review Emily Timbol’s book entitled, Two Words: Why Hearing “I’m Gay” Changed My Straight Christian Life. In the interest of full disclosure, Timbol sent us a copy of the book. On Twitter several weeks ago, Timbol was sharing about how Christian media outlets found her book inappropriate for Christians to discuss. Our natural response was to read the book and review it here.

As with all of the resources we’ve reviewed, our review of Two Words will focus on two primary questions: 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?

To begin, Two Words doesn’t have any apparent message to LGBT Christians who are living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations. It’s a memoir of how one straight Christian learned to love her gay friends. Emily (as she refers to herself by first name throughout the book) became introduced to the LGBT community when her close friend Chris told her that he’s gay. Chris waited a while before coming out to Emily even though they had been friends. Emily was forced to reconsider everything she knew about gay people and directly confront her misconceptions. Her book is full of stories about the questions she began asking herself. Consider this excerpt detailing when Chris came out:

I leaned forward. “Can I ask you something?”

Chris nodded.

“Were you afraid if you told me, I wouldn’t be your friend anymore, because I was so religious?”

“Yeah,” he said without pause, “that’s probably the biggest reason I never told you.”

His confession ripped through me. How could he ever think I would cut our friendship off over his sexuality? (pg.18-19)

We appreciated how Emily shows love to the gay community by taking friendship as the first principle. We enjoyed learning about how Emily got to know the gay community by hanging out with her existing friends and making new friends along the way. The book is jam-packed with anecdotes of real people, transporting readers with Emily along her journey.

Celibate LGBT Christians might find this book challenging to read after catching a glimpse of Emily’s openness to questioning what she has always been taught. Immediately after Chris came out to her, Emily found herself reflecting on the day she learned her new friend at church, Craig, was gay. Craig recounted his story of trying to pray away the gay, coming out, getting kicked out of his parents’ house, and finding support from friends. Emily records the story in detail and includes this climax:

“After praying, I started to feel God’s presence again. I felt Him tell me He loved me for who I was, and He didn’t want me to be alone. That it wasn’t wrong for me to want to be in a relationship. I was still His child.”

He stopped talking. Leaned his head back against the seat and sighed. Silence filled the car.

My mind reeled, thinking of the implications of what Craig just said. Could it be true? If it was, it went against everything I was taught. But I felt a fluttering in my heart. The one I’d experienced at different times all my life. The feeling that let me know that the Holy Spirit was present. Like God was in the car with us, wanting me to speak.

“Thank you,” I said, “for sharing this with me. I think… God loves you very much, and there is nothing that can tear you away from Him if you want to be in His presence.”

The words came out before I could process the ramification of what I was saying. It was the first time I’d ever spoken a contradiction of scripture. Or rather, my previous interpretation of what the scripture meant. Instead of feeling the urge to take them back, I felt at peace. Almost as if the words hadn’t come from me, but the Holy Spirit. (pg. 23)

Regardless of your perspective on sexual ethics, you might be tempted to stop reading because you’ve heard it all before and you know exactly where Emily is going next. There are various culture war talking points scattered throughout, and most of the stories do have predictable endings. Nonetheless, for readers who can appreciate the stories rather than focus on these talking points, the book is a welcome invitation to move beyond the culture war mentality in order to see that all people have the option to choose to love the real LGBT people in front of them. Following Emily’s journey, readers might find themselves confronted with the reality that loving other people well is incredibly, tremendously, and unbelievably hard. There is a lesson in this for celibates as well as non-celibates.

As celibate LGBT Christians ourselves, we couldn’t help but see that Emily’s commitment to loving her LGBT friends likely extends just as much to us as to her friends Chris, Craig, and Tyler. However, we couldn’t help but notice that Emily did not have any personal story related to an LGBT Christian living out celibacy or discerning the possibility of a celibate vocation. Consider the following exchange with Emily and her pastor Lee with our emphasis added:

I interrupted [Lee]. “Look, I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to say that the church is hateful, or bigoted, or bad in anyway. It’s not. In fact, I would feel totally comfortable bringing any of my gay friends here on Sunday. The problem is, most of my gay friends are married, and active in the community and want to serve. So it’s hard to invite me to a church where they couldn’t do that.”

“We’ve never had that situation, ” Lee said.

“What?” I asked.

“Well, like I’ve told you before, we have several gay leaders in the church right now, who believe the best way to serve God is for them to be celibate, but we’ve never had a gay married couple, who were believers, ask to lead.”

“Are you saying you wouldn’t flat out reject them?”

He leaned back in his chair. “I… whew, that’d be hard. If they were married and spiritually healthy? I don’t know, I’d really have to pray and seek advice and wisdom from others. That’s not something I’ve ever thought about.” (pg. 171)

If the church had celibate gay Christians in leadership roles, we wonder why Emily didn’t include any of their stories. It’s possible that she doesn’t know any of these leaders personally. However, it’s also possible that such stories were excluded intentionally for one reason or another. We’re not here to make accusations, but would be interested in learning about whether any celibate LGBT Christians have played a role in shaping Emily’s journey as an ally.

Finally, this book raises two very clear issues relevant to LGBT Christians living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations, and for straight allies who want to support them:

1. LGBT Christians might experience difficulty seeking ways to share their lives more holistically within the Church. Though this book contains no stories of interactions with celibates, unwelcoming circumstances in church are just as present for celibates as for non-celibates. We know that this is a challenge because we’ve been counseled many times ourselves that we should never mention being LGBT, especially in church settings. This book led us to wonder, what might happen if churches helped allies committed to loving the LGBT community connect with their celibate LGBT members?

2. Straight, Christian friends might be more supportive of you, your identity, and your vocation than you might otherwise think. One thing we most appreciated about Two Words is that it lets readers look in on three years of friendship. There are a lot of stories that show Emily’s commitment to loving her friends unconditionally. We think that celibate LGBT Christians who feel disconnected from their church communities might be encouraged by the possibility that one of their straight friends has a heart similar to Emily’s. If you get up the courage to come out as a celibate LGBT Christian, then you might find a friend who is willing to continue in friendship, pray with you and for you, and love you with no strings attached.

In closing, we do wish that more straight Christians would consider sharing the following message from Emily with LGBT people in every kind of life situation:

The point, is how messed up the church is, when it comes to people like Chris. The church is not a welcoming place for anyone who’s gay. And lots of them want nothing to do with the church. It doesn’t really matter what I think about whether it’s a sin or not, because I know what IS a sin. The way most Christians treat LGBT people. That’s what I want my ministry to be. Reaching out to the LGBT community and showing them that God loves them. (pg. 47)

And after reading Two Words, we’d certainly welcome a chance to get to know Emily and her husband Ryan much better.

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4 thoughts on “A Review of Two Words by Emily Timbol

  1. Thank you for the review of this book. I bought it and read it yesterday.

    I kind of got the impression that it wasn’t just that she didn’t know any of the celibate gay leader personally but that these celibate individuals were not “out” to the Church. Obviously the pastor knew who they were but he did not name them and Emily herself seemed surprised when the pastor said there were celibate, gay people in leadership roles. So she did not know who they were. Given that she was a weekly attender it would seem impossible for her not to be aware of them if they were public about their orientation. I think her silence is reflective of the state of the Church vis-a-vis celibate gay men and women. We tend to be “welcomed” by the church as long as we are silent about our orientation and simply pretend we have not yet found the right man or woman to marry. If we do speak out then we become either a problem for the Church because of our orientation or we get stuck in the role of the token gay person who is held up as a threat to other gay people – “see, this guy manages to be celibate, why can’t your?” Both options leave us separated from both the Christian community and from those gay people who might otherwise be our friends.

    I have found, by the way, that even heterosexual celibate people find themselves in a similar situation. Many of them, also, though to a lesser extent, have to pretend they simply “have not yet found the right person” or are “just so focused on ministry right now there is no time to date.” To admit that one is celibate in the protestant church today, for whatever reason, is one of the surest ways of making sure that promotions in ministry are very limited. Churches want people with family, or who at least have the potential to have a family, in the primary leadership roles. Look around and you will find very few unmarried pastors of large and growing metropolitan and suburban churches. At one time my denomination had 4 unmarried pastors in Colorado. Every single one of the four was placed in a small church on the eastern border of the state, 3 hours away from any major city. The fact was that few pastors’ wives were willing to go to such isolated parishes and the large congregation in Colorado Springs and Denver wanted married men whose families could bolster their childhood and youth ministries and whose wives could do some of the pastoral work for free. So I think that even heterosexual, celibate people find it hard to have a voice in the Church.

    So, in a way, her silence on celibate gay people does speak volumes to our situation.

    That being said, I enjoyed her book very much. Like so many others, it opened the door to understanding what it is like to be gay in the conservative church today. The lives of her three friends reflect what I have heard again and again of the experiences of young people growing up gay in the church on all positions of the affirming/celibate/mixed-orientation-marriage spectrum. Whatever we choose to do with our sexuality as adults, our teen years are unsurprisingly uniform. To grow up gay in the conservative church is to experience intense guilt, shame and loneliness in our preteens – early twenties. The more we help the Church see the misery gay teens experience, the more hope we have that Christian may become more caring.

    One question her books raises in my mind is, “how then, can a church maintain a tradition stand on sex and marriage and still be loving to those gay people who do not agree with that stand?” For instance, what about her friends Tyler and Craig, who were told they could not be part of the ministries of the Church because they refused to promise celibacy. On the one hand, her pastor’s answer was unsatisfying and felt wrong. On the other hand, both men refused to agree with the stated theology of the Church. So what could the pastor have done to maintain the Church’s theology while, at the same time, showing compassion and welcome to these two men?

    I don’t think her book would have been the appropriate place to answer that question. But it does raise the question. And frankly, the only answer I can think of as I read the account of her conversation with her pastor was that I kept thinking, “Lee, instead of just a ‘meeting’ in which you explained the church’s stand to Emily, you should invite those two men out for a few beers and have a conversation with them and just listen to them.” Later when Emily was asking her two friends if they would be hurt if she returned to Church, I kept wondering why the pastor had not done something similar to that, why he had not sat down with them and just talked with them and gotten to know them. It seems to me that was pretty much what Jesus did when he ate with tax collectors, that His presence and His fellowship demonstrated that He did really care.

    • Thanks for your comment Matt. There’s definitely a lot of food for thought. We’ve noticed ourselves that people living celibacy tend to be invisible. How do you talk meaningfully about a vocation perceived by many to be little more than an absence of sex?

      We found ourselves wondering about the journey of the church. How could the church pray about welcoming gay married couples who were spiritually healthy into leadership if the church wouldn’t welcome single gay people unwilling to commit to celibacy into leadership?

      Reading Two Words, we noticed relationships again and again and again. Emily remained present to her friends as their friend. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if the pastor of the church would have continued to be in relationship with Tyler and Craig.

  2. First off, thank you so much Lindsey and Sarah for reading and reviewing my book. Your concerns about my not mentioning celibate LGB Christians is fair, and I thought I’d address them here if that’s OK 🙂

    1) Like Matt guessed above, when I had that meeting with Pastor Lee I was shocked when he told me there was a celibate gay person on staff. I had no idea who this person was (I actually still don’t) and had never heard that there was someone else who was LGB in our congregation. It’s possible that they were/are “out” and just not someone in my social circle, but who knows.

    2) Right before I published the book, I had another good friend come out to me. This friend was also from church and, unlike my other friends, felt that they couldn’t in good conscience pursue a relationship with someone of the same sex. That was a couple years ago, and they’ve been celibate and slowing coming out to friends since. I wrestled with whether to delay publishing the book to include this friends experience, because they were the first celibate gay Christian I knew. Ultimately, I decided not to, but looking back I can absolutely see how the book would have been stronger with this friends story included.

    3) To be clear, I fully support LGB Christians who choose celibacy. I have struggled at times with how many straight Christians use these celibate ones as “idols” who they try to get every other LGB Christian to emulate, but that’s not the fault of celibate gay Christians. While I may not believe monogamous, committed same-sex sex is a sin, it is absolutely not my place to argue with LGB Christians who THEMSELVES feel that it’s not something they can in good conscience pursue. This is different to me than straight Christians who argue the same, since it’s not about these Christians personal convictions, but their desire to judge others. So I fully support my celibate LGB brothers and sisters, just as I accept my sexually active ones, whether they’re in committed relationships or not. Because ultimately, my job as as ally is to support people who have been marganalized and persecuted by the church, without imposing my own beliefs on them.

    Hope that helps clear some things up, but feel free to ask me anything else you may be curious about!

    • Hi Emily! Thanks for your comment here. We had a strong suspicion that you didn’t know who the leader in your church was, but it helps to clear that up. Matt’s comment above shares a lot of reasons why celibate LGBT folks in churches tend to be under the radar.

      We’d love to hear more about your relationship with your celibate LGBT friend. It can be all too tempting for churches to exalt celibate LGBT Christians as the people who are doing things “right” rather than to journey alongside as friends in community.

      We sincerely appreciate the way you see your job as an ally, and hope that you’ve been able to have many fruitful conversations with straight people interested in being better allies of the LGBT community.

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