How Are Churches Walking With Those Pursuing Celibacy?

The following post was written by Kevin Harris, our Director of Community Relations at The Marin Foundation.

Are you aware of a church that holds onto a more traditional understanding of scripture and homosexuality that is proactively seeking to construct support systems and help create life-giving realities for gay and lesbian individuals in their congregations that are pursuing celibacy? What are they doing they you find to be helpful?

Earlier this year in June, Exodus International closed its doors after operating for 37 years. Among reasons listed for their decision to close, Alan Chambers stated, “We’re going out of business so the church can do its job.” Implied in his statement seemed to be the understanding that Exodus needed to step out of the way in order to help the more traditional churches take responsibility, when for too long many of them have been essentially outsourcing members of their congregations because they did not know what to do.

While a few lesser known organizations are trying to hold onto the practice, the closing of Exodus seems to be another indicator that the idea of reparative therapy is slowly losing its relevance and coming to an end. Now that the dust is starting to settle after the closing of Exodus, I’m left wondering how churches adhering to a more traditional interpretation of scripture are walking alongside those that have abandoned the idea and that they are calling to celibacy.

I have to admit that I’m a bit biased in asking this question. I don’t ask it in an antagonistic or condescending way as I’m genuinely looking for voices, but at the same time I have not heard of many churches or pastors that while upholding a traditional sexual ethic are inviting their congregations into imagining what it tangibly looks like to walk with gay and lesbian individuals on this journey in seeking to live life abundantly. There are individuals initiating conversations about ideas they think may be helpful like spiritual disciplines, finding friends and families to spend time with and adopt them in a sense, ‘spiritual friendship’, finding mentors, and so on. These voices tend to be those that are pursuing celibacy themselves though (whom are never in lead pastoral positions themselves in evangelical churches as it tends to not be a possibility for some reason).

I’ve come across variations of people feeling surprised by celibacy and others feeling crushed by it, and while those are extremely important I’m waiting to hear about (and possibly missing) pastors adding their voices to this conversation in churches and online in a way that invites individuals to imagine life-giving narratives and subsequently leading others into them. Calling an entire group of people to celibacy without seeking to create systems of support would simply be irresponsible and reckless, so I imagine the conversations are happening.

In asking this question, I’m not seeking to imply that these different ideas or practices are a substitute for a romantic relationship or that they will necessarily cause imposed celibacy to be life-giving. I’m also not getting into the argument of whether celibacy is only a gift or something all are called to when it comes to those holding a more traditional ethic. Acknowledging the reality that a sizable number of churches will be calling gay and lesbian individuals to celibacy for the foreseeable future, I’m wondering about the steps that pastors and congregations are discussing and taking in the present while conversations about celibacy and theology are (hopefully) happening.

So coming back to the question: What have you come across in terms of ideas and practices that churches are inviting those into that are pursuing celibacy that you think are helpful? What ideas and practices would you like to see churches discuss, pursue, or implement? If you’re gay or lesbian and pursuing celibacy, what has been helpful for you?

Much love.

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  • Preston

    “Calling an entire group of people to celibacy without seeking to create
    systems of support would simply be irresponsible and reckless”

    Great word, Kevin! Especially when someone pursues celibacy for ethical reasons without a prior call to celibacy.

  • Micah Seppanen

    I’ve honestly not run across much (if anything) in regards to what churches have offered for their LGBT members in regards to calling them to celibacy (or really anyone called to celibacy).

    While I’m honestly not sure what God is calling me to in my life in regards to celibacy, what has helped me through seasons of truly feeling called to celibacy is close and intimate friendships. People who I can bear my heart and soul to. Who I will trust with anything and they do the same with me. I can cry on their shoulder when I’m overwhelmed or leap for joy when they get engaged. Without these friendships I do not know how I would stay grounded in the truth: That God loves me regardless of my relational or sexual status and that neither are an indication of God’s level of love for me.

    I’ve also been blessed with an amazing community of believers where I can be open and honest about who I am.

    However, one of the greatest challenges for me is living in that community as it is a near constant revolving door of new faces and friends. Outside of the married/dating individuals, there are no commitments between individuals and staying within near proximity of one another. People easily come and often easily go. For me, this is the hardest part of celibacy. No commitment from other individuals to live life together. What can be done to change this? Should it be changed? How else outside of marriage can we have committments to live life with others?

    • kvnharris2

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Micah. Considering that we have become a rather transient culture, particularly within cities, I think your question about commitments outside of marriage in order to live life more intentionally with others is a particularly important question to be exploring. I’m not sure about anything off the top of my head, but I imagine there would be plenty of common ground between individuals and church communities around the concepts of stability and commitment in order to explore tangible expressions of what that might look like.

  • Jeremy Erickson

    In a lot of more traditional churches, any celibate gay Christians are closeted. Coming out in that setting can be terrifying, and it’s only starting to become somewhat common. So I think a lot of straight Christians are genuinely unaware how great the needs of celibate gay Christians are and how poorly they’re doing at meeting them. That’s part of why I’ve chosen to be open about my own story as a bisexual Christian with traditional ethics, and to frequently talk about the much greater difficulties that my more exclusively gay friends with similar convictions face. I also find that Christians with traditional ethics will often listen to me or to a celibate gay Christian in a way that they simply won’t to an affirming gay person. So I think that with more celibate gay Christians coming out in their churches, things can get better.

    My current congregation is pretty small, so the only sexual minorities I’m aware of are myself, another bisexual person, and someone who has since moved away. I’m not aware of any gay person currently facing celibacy, although it’s entirely possible that someone is just too closeted to talk even to someone as open as me. Nonetheless, we do have some older straight single people who have been facing the weight of long-term singleness, and I think our church does better than many in terms of providing outlets for companionship and ministry. We even had an over-30 single woman lead a Sunday School series on singleness. Even though there are obviously big differences for gay and straight singles, there are also commonalities, and I think straight singles often get left out to dry as well. But I’m encouraged to see some steps in the right direction.

    In terms of explicit conversation, my church did have one sermon specifically addressing gay issues. I even came up and briefly told my story, to put a face to things. There was some discussion of the need to support people in celibacy, and the sermon text was Romans 12:9-16 rather than one of the “clobber passages,” thank goodness. It’s just a start, but I’m encouraged to see steps in the right direction. I also know that another local pastor in the same denomination gave an extended session talking about gay issues with some of his congregants. I actually attended and thought it was pretty good, although it could have used more discussion about how to support celibate gay Christians in particular. Nonetheless, there was a lot of helpful stuff about how poorly Christians have often treated gay people. So I’m seeing good things happen, even though there’s a lot more work to do, and I’m thinking that as more celibate gay Christians come out we’ll see a lot more good.

    • kvnharris2

      Thanks for sharing, Jeremy. I imagine visibility is a big part of it as I’ve noticed the same thing in many (if not a majority) of celibate gay and lesbian individuals staying in the closet for the most part and possibly talking to just a couple safe people if they do share. I obviously don’t know for sure, but I imagine as culture continues to shift in terms of legal equality and stigma for gay and lesbian individuals continues to dissipate, we’ll see larger numbers of celibate gay and lesbian individuals come out in their congregations.

  • Kathy Arnold

    I would have to echo much of what Jeremy Erickson said and add that some churches will expect orientation change and believe orientation change is a product of repentance. So someone who identifies as a gay Christian may not be considered as fully repentant and therefore it throws suspicion on them.

    In addition, some straight Christians find it uncomfortable to be around gay people as they don’t have much experience interacting with them in their everyday life. They are not encouraged to seek out and befriend gay people either. So the preconceived notions some Christians have towards gays in general is one of reservation. Oftentimes even though the pastor is trying to be inclusive, members of the congregation may have hang ups themselves.

  • Daniel Lee Fee

    Making inferences from all the direct and indirect church life indicators with which I’ve crossed paths so far, I guess the biggest dividing boundary/marker is still probably the difference between those LGBTQ folks who are still ‘inside’ church life in some effective sense, and those LGBTQ folks who in innumerable ways by reason of many different situations/events/exchanges are now ‘outside.’

    So far as I can tell, a whole lot of perhaps hidden/invisible ferment is happening among the celibate ‘inside’ folks. The ‘inside’ continuums appear to vary, from one extreme where people are dutifully making every kind of effort to embrace their sufferings as given (a kind of ‘just the way life is/I am’?), to another extreme where people bear witness to a kind of ‘breaking through’ or ‘lifting up higher’ wherein inner life-embodiment simply do not seem to any longer be problematic or tricky concerns.

    In this regard, two notions come quickly to mind. Firstly, it seems like perhaps many ‘inside’ folks are going/have gone through whatever their own personal grief steps are or might have been at one time. We grieve what looks for a time being, like something that ‘just cannot be’ however I would have wanted church life to be. Here a whole new/old mix of dynamics may come into play. Strategies for grieving and advancing in coping may employ ‘prayer closeting’ not just church life custom imposed ‘closeting.’ People may carefully select a trusted few who can really get to know them more fully. People may work hard to focus on ‘what is’ and ‘what can be in the near future’ while working hard not to focus on ‘what is lacking’ and ‘what cannot readily come to fruition any time soon.’

    A second notion is development, life growth, life cycles. Where a person starts out at a certain age as an ‘insider’ is not where he or she will necessarily be along the way, nor even where a person will end up pausing for deep lungfulls, camped out for a while. The sense of lifelong multiple sided inner/outer development for a person who is ‘celibate’ is simply not well known, nor well understood, nor imaged-represented-engaged much in the most common forms or mores of standard church life. Alas.

    I think the relative shallowness/emptiness/silence from pastors, church life leaders, and so forth mainly stems from viewing celibacy in incomplete, distorted, and shallow ways. Personalized life journeys for single people are at best, dimly imaged in echoes of mainstream couplehood, parenting, family life. The vast widths and depths are rather uncharted ocean, too often populated if at all by disembodied glorifications of some kind of ‘call’ or ‘service’ for which one has supposedly been ‘freed’ by not having a wife/husband, children, and all. Just as impoverished is the mystery of adult life growth/development which also remains slightly repugnant, fearful, and uncharted.

    So long as the inner life/embodiment depths of being human are collapsed into distorted partialisms about sexual sin, lust, so that in embodied touch/intimacy realms all feeling/desire/need are sinful; then the pastoral care simply fails to help because it almost exclusively aims at eliminating occasions of ‘temptation’ which at the worst rather empties out and demeans real embodiment and actual intimacy. One is most holy when one is pretty much carefully and selectively ‘closed off’ and thus ‘distanced’ effectively from what is too completely presumed to be sin plus temptations that are precursors of even more overt sin.

    Once that gets going, then celibacy as such is similarly collapsed and emptied out into just being a matter of consistent numbing, avoidance, and similar layers in church life. (This kind of distorted pastoral care can even diminish and empty out couples intimacy, at least so far as a well meaning but false modesty is taking over?) But buffering embodiment as a reality of humanness, along with damping down the life of the body as much as possible, aside from accepted mores of religious fervor, simply is NOT the pastoral care needed by we humans who will continue to have bodies and be our bodies until we die.

    Celibacy is thereby mistakenly rendered into a sort of abstract, false construction in which the pertinent liveliness of the body has been rendered off limits, muted, if not excavated pretty much so far as embodied inner liveliness goes – like digging a hole in the ground lot where a high building’s hidden basements will theoretically be at some vague future point in time.

    The legacy church answer to this area has been pretty much confined to the slightly different iterations of the known religious orders. And even in that response, some communities make it into thriving, while others survive by doing even more assiduously what the partial model of celibacy as an absence in body/feeling/desire must be.

    For ‘outside’ LGBTQ folks, a whole different cluster of complicated troubles may come into play. Worst case scenarios can include the whole religious language of love/community/communion having been undermined by hidden but very difficult if not outright cruel, realities of what ‘cannot go on’ at all. For example, I somehow survived nine years of exgay church life/counseling …. only to find that almost any mention of the standard narratives (scripture, liturgy, song, prayer, preaching, teaching) triggers subtle, many-sided, and runaway episodes of stress injury …. all it takes is just a little bit before I’m off into covert splitting, a kind of craziness that still sets in for the worse, five decades later. I’ve got it sorted intellectually; but body/feelings/insides are still a balled up, blurry, relentless storm of extreme pain-anger.

    Bottom line is, I just had to stop hanging out in religious situations with religious people, period.

    Another different extreme among ‘outsiders’ are the pioneering LGBTQ folks w allies who have managed to combine/integrate their faith with their body and a variety of ethically wholesome intimacies, not all of which by any means are framed in being a special couple. LGBTQ parents and parenting probably falls into line somewhere in these ballparks, too, I would guess. I’m inferring that you don’t stay ‘true’ to one another, let alone parent, unless you find some palpable life ethic, which serves as a form of spirituality, too. That’s typically too out of bounds or off limits for traditional faith communities. drdanfee