A Church of Pure Imagination

I’ve been asked multiple times in the past month why I am still side-B, why I am still pursuing celibacy as a gay 23 year-old in these United States of America. What is interesting to me is how, with each inquiring friend, it was implied that we weren’t discussing theology or the interpretation of certain notorious texts. The “why” was really more of a “how.”

It’s a refreshing change.

One of the more frustrating things about the current conversation is how it so easily gets sucked into the myopic quicksand of “what the Bible says.” Please don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the authority of scripture and the importance of right interpretation, and I probably wouldn’t be celibate if I didn’t think the Bible taught it, but there is a dangerous attitude of “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” running rampant in many churches.

The idea that the conversation straight up ends with interpretation is, honestly, lethal to true religion, strangling the imagination out of faith and poisoning the endlessly complex “how then shall we live” of the Christian life. I think the rate at which gay Christians are abandoning celibacy is a pretty good indicator of that fact; though not always the case, the majority of people I know who have made the switch do so not because they’ve been convinced by “affirming” theology but because celibacy and an abundant life seem mutually exclusive, which, I need to add, is a kind of theological reason in its own right.

I think what this is revealing about conservative American churches, and perhaps churches in general, is that they are deeply mired in a failure of imagination.

When churches neglect to preach and model the good of singleness and celibacy, when they glut themselves on the opium of romance or oversell marriage to the detriment of both married and single people, they aren’t just straying from the truth of the Bible – they are corroding and constricting the imaginations of those in the congregation. What the men and women and children sitting in the pews can or cannot imagine as possible or good is greatly affected by what the church speaks of as possible or good.

At its redemptive best, this imaginative proclamation allows aching and isolated people to believe that there is a God who loves and desires them and that they can know his transformative grace and be welcomed into a community of hospitality and passion. But, tragically, that proclamation is often drowned in a flood of toxic sentiment, leaving many unsure of their worth and unable to form healthy relationships with other people or even God. The callousness I have seen some church-goers display in response to this pain is incomprehensible.

So I am no longer surprised when a friend of mine “switches sides,” and I am beyond tired of the way some Christians demonize them as simply weak or selfish or histrionic.* Do I find my friends’ reasons for switching entirely satisfactory? Rarely. But I also don’t find most churches’ reasons for not switching satisfactory, either. Unless a community is seriously modeling a commitment to hospitality and grace for all stages of life, its sexual ethic, no matter how “orthodox” it may sound, will never seem viable or good in any meaningful way. This imaginative failure is also a moral failure, with churches leaving their gay members with little to no ability to actually live – or god forbid thrive – within the rich tradition of church teaching.

So when I am asked why I’m side-B, my first thought has little to do with how I interpret Romans 1. Instead, I think about how I was surrounded by a loving group of friends who gave me the space and freedom to process through the initial fear and confusion of realizing I wasn’t just “temporarily-not-straight;”

I think about how I was blessed with mentors and counselors who were constantly feeding me and challenging me and supporting me and blowing my mind with the truth of the gospel, who called out the lies that had been choking me for most of my life;

I think about the months I spent working in a drug rehab center in South Africa or an orphanage in Guatemala and how unbearably full and alive I felt, how enmeshed I became in those vibrant communities that taught me so much about hospitality and service.

I think about how all these experiences enabled me to imagine a future of abundant life as a celibate person.

For most of my college career I was haunted by a singular image that I thought would define the entirety of my existence: When I closed my eyes I saw, I felt, myself closing the door to a cold and dark apartment, entirely empty, devoid of anyone who would witness my life and show me that I was known and loved. The frozen silence of it all was terrifying.

That I thought this was my inescapable future after a lifetime of sermons and biblical education is unequivocally depressing. That this vision is hardly unique to me is even more so.

But then two years ago, while coming out to some of my closest friends as we prepared for graduation and all that lay beyond, that image of despair was finally replaced. As I finished up my story one of my friends looked at me and said, “You know, Matt, as you were talking I just had this picture in my head of you surrounded by laughing children, and you were so happy. Maybe that means something.”

That was a gift of imagination, my brothers and sisters joining with me to envision a better future, an abundant future, one that has empowered me to live more joyfully and passionately in the present.

But I’m one of the lucky ones. The number of stories where loneliness and isolation remain the dominant themes, where the message of the church is bound up with shame and hopelessness, is staggering. More truthfully, it is infuriating.

So I’m praying that churches would rediscover their blessed ecclesial witness. I’m praying that, in my own journey, I can do justice to the vision of abundant life the gospel and my community have helped me believe is possible. I’m praying that we would really listen to the numerous testimonies of pain, that we would repent, that we would learn to love better, and that together – because we can only do this together – we would become the kind of people that Jesus imagined we could be when he lived and died and rose again for all.**

Matt

* If you have come to find your capacity to feel hope and joy oppressive, take a peek at the comments section of any number of Christian publications about homosexuality and let the sweet, sweet darkness sweep over you.

** I am not saying that if everyone had my experiences they would have come to the same conclusions I did, nor am I saying that my anecdotal evidence can be applied even close to uniformly for every LGB Christian. But this imaginative chasm between “celibate” and “happy” is incredibly prevalent – evident in the number of times people say to me, “You’re celibate? But… you seem so happy…”

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18 thoughts on “A Church of Pure Imagination

  1. Thanks for this post, Matt.

    I appreciate the vision you cast and the way you are living it out. I have had a similarly supportive environment while coming out Side B, and many of my friends have helped me build a supportive and life-giving community.

    I also am blessed to have a therapist who regularly speaks truth and vitality into my future when he talks about how he pictures me living a full life of service based upon my current work with adults who are homeless and living with mental illness.

    I don’t always capture the same imagination he has for my life, but this post has inspired me to keep dreaming of how my life can become even more full and abundant as I move through the second half of my 20’s and into the years that are more stereotypically depressing for single folks.

    All the best to you, Matt. It would have been fun to have you at GCN Conference, but maybe next year.

    -Andrew

  2. Thank you for posting this, Matt. Charmingly written and pertinent to our times as always; and dealing with an issue that wears on me personally a great deal. My own espousal of the traditional view has a background almost opposite to yours — more or less purely intellectual, and lacking any particular sense of support or uplift from friends. I worry about that a lot: that my outlook on this issue for myself is kind of grim, very much the closing-the-door-on-a-dark-apartment vision, and wondering to what extent that affects my witness. I’ve experienced firsthand the callousness, or the simple thoughtlessness, of some Christians (well, and of my own superego) in insisting basically that a spouse and family shouldn’t really matter to me — a lecture that once came from a married friend of mine who was holding his newborn at the time.

    Man am I a downer tonight. Sorry, maybe I’ll try again later. I did really like this post is my point!

    • I hear what you’re saying and have, in a different kind of way, experienced something that sounds similar. Basically there was a time in my life where it all hurt so much and my friends weren’t quite supportive enough that I just decided, “Well, I guess Mother Theresa and I will be spending a lot of time together in the darkness, being God’s little nothings.”

      I think it was healthy for me, in a way, to go through that time. That was when I realized that I really did believe God was worth all of this, and that far more difficult things had been asked of other people in all times and places. Fortifying that intellectual assent (faith?) – when it was really the only thing keeping me afloat – has proven essential for those times when my emotions are going a bit wild.

  3. Thanks Matt! I am encouraged. Even though I have found some support & encouragement from my church, it still often feels like what you described, and I’m working through how to discuss such things without being branded a heretic :-/

    I’ve explicitly been told that my church’s love & support only extend to me if I continue to agree with them on their interpretation of sexual ethics – which I do, and I honestly don’t anticipate that changing. But I so much as hint about some thoughts & doubts I was struggling with (specifically after mentioning Stephen’s “Sacred Tension” blog), and now I suddenly feel less welcome (and apparently, Stephen’s eternal security is probably in jeopardy unless he repents…thanks.)

  4. St Ephrem the Syrian seems to quip what you’re saying best in an extremely profound way worth contemplating:

    “Truth and love are wings that cannot be separated,
    for Truth without Love is unable to fly,
    so too Love without Truth is unable to soar up:
    their yoke is one of harmony.”

  5. Hi Matt –

    What a nice surprise to see this post on my feed this morning! I always value your perspectives.

    There’s a lot to unpack in this post; but I’d give my unsolicited perspective on two points.

    I agree that the church generally sucks at providing meaningful support to people who are single, and I too am chagrined at how we often idolize marriage. But even if that were different, I think the church still fails people who are gay.

    The major failing of the church is not the absence of community; it’s tying heavy, cumbersome loads onto people who are gay. Traditionalists demand that all gay brothers and sisters live contrary to God’s creative intention – they flout the relational nature of humanity and deny the goodness of God’s gift of sexuality. Even Wesley Hill, who has literally built his own support community, often writes openly about his bouts of isolation and loneliness caused by celibacy. While some people who are gay may be “gifted with” or “called to” celibacy, that’s clearly not the case for all. Too many people have been emotionally crushed by this demand. Healthy, physically-intimate relationships create a unique and profound bond. Community and friendship are not the same thing as, nor a replacement for, covenant relationships. The traditionalist theology has done demonstrable, undeniable harm; in my view, churches that choose to subscribe to it are perpetuating injustice and injury.

    On a different but related note, I’ve dropped the “sides” language and would encourage us to banish it from the discussion. There is a spectrum of Christian belief regarding the sinfulness of homosexuality that ranges from totally exclusive to totally inclusive. Creating the false dichotomy locks people into their “camps”; but the lived faith-walk is more nuanced. For example, I’ve spoken with plenty of conservative Christians who now subscribe to accommodation theology. They still believe that gay sex is sinful, but they believe that gay covenant relationships are morally permissible because that is the “most chaste” life possible for gay people not gifted with celibacy. That perspective doesn’t fit into the “Side A/ Side B” model.

    My very best to you.
    David

    • Ford1968:

      I have seen your posts everywhere, yet I see a unifying theme.

      Your posts and Sacred Tension really cement by side B views.

      The truth is not affected by the fact that some people feel crushed by it. It is important to read the scriptures without reading one’s desires into it. Your posts are a strong reminder of this.

      I actually almost have more respect for sexually active gays who abandon Christianity. I find that perspective much more coherent.

      All the talk about “gift” of celibacy is not any way consistent with how life is. If a Catholic cannot get his/her marriage annulled, one must remain celibate for life unless one’s spouse dies first, not something one is free to pray for. It does not matter if one supposedly has the “gift” of celibacy. Morality is not flexible like that. Moreover, many, if not most, lifelong singles are not that way by choice. They just end up so. Some do poorly, but many find ways to thrive.

      My honest reading of scripture leads me to conclude that marriage is between a man and a woman and it is not flexible just because I or a few others might be attracted to the same sex. If that offends you or some others, so be it.

      For myself, I just remember that there is no sex or marriage in heaven, but a loving, warm, spiritual, community that shares a bond far more joyful than any I can imagine here on earth.

      Thus, to say that warm, deep, spiritual friendship cannot fulfill one’s emotional needs is just utterly illogical.

      Your posts remind why I do not seek friendships with non-celibate gays, because such would be, at best, a severe distraction from my spiritual focus on transcending physical desire. A great many I have seen here and in similar places are actually very toxic.

      • Hi Mike,

        I agree with some of your statements, disagree with others, and in general find myself saddened by the attitude displayed in your comment.

        Scott has consistently proven to be a thoughtful commenter, and though we certainly diverge in the way we see things I have found his challenges to be more gracious than most.

        I hope you might understand why your words that “The truth is not affected by the fact that some people feel crushed by it” come across as very callous. I see what you’re getting at, but such a sentiment, untempered by compassion, denies the reality that people feeling crushed *is* a serious problem that demands the church look closely at its teachings and seek a pastoral response rooted in a serious concern for those who have been hurt.

        Because it’s not just that people are feeling crushed by truth, it’s that people are feeling crushed by *other people* who claim to be speaking the truth but have forfeited grace in the process. A part of the truth (perhaps THE truth) is that these people are loved by a God who desires them to find a home in the church. Many in the church are failing in that proclamation, so it is no wonder why some feel crushed.

        Your statement on the gift of celibacy is something I resonate with. One of my pet peeves is the way that phrase is often thrown around as if it is instant justification for not being celibate.

        I don’t know you well enough to know exactly what you mean with your last paragraph, but such a statement strikes me as foreign to the character of Jesus. Even in disagreement, my friendships with people who are side-A are still great friendships, especially *because* our friendship is about so much more than just that point of contention.

        Anyway, I hope you can see where my concern is coming from. I often feel like we don’t get to the heart of our theological or whatever-ological disagreements because we spend so much time mired in rhetoric that is inhospitable to clarity, dialogue, and truth.

        Peace.

      • Mike,
        My sincere apology if I caused offense. That is not my intention. My only intention is to add perspective to the dialog – as I think you did by honestly sharing your reaction.
        I wish you peace,
        David.

  6. I found myself wondering, after reading this, what a “satisfactory” reason for switching might be. You’ve said you’ve only “rarely” received an argument that met this criteria and that hints that you’ve received at least one. So, I wonder, if an individual is completely unable to envision his own flourishing within a Side-B community, wouldn’t he be morally obliged to leave it, and could this be a completely satisfactory rationale doing so? That seems to be the implication in this post.

  7. “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” running rampant in many churches.”

    While that is true, the Church Fathers also say many so-called “homophobic” things. Are we simply to dismiss their criticisms and their understanding of the issues?

  8. Brilliant post, Matt. I personally find the lives of the Saints, so many of whom were celibate, incredibly beneficially in cultivating this “imagination” of which you speak. (I was recently reading about St. Agnes, a consecrated virgin, whose feast day was Jan. 21)

    May the church continue to grow in the love of our Lord, and the love of our neighbor.

    Peace, my brother.

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