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.**
* 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…”