Justin’s Last Post: Romance Matters

Talking about LGBT people and Christianity is a big part of my job.

As executive director of The Gay Christian Network, I spend a lot of my time in situations—public and private—where I’m asked to discuss topics like sexual orientation with people who disagree with me.

I do it willingly, of course. As a Christian, I believe these are important conversations to have. But, if I’m honest, these conversations can frequently be downright miserable. I’ve watched too many people—many of them self-professed Christians—talk to others with derision and disdain, claiming to represent truth and love while treating others in ways no one would want to be treated themselves. 

In far too many of these conversations, the Golden Rule is nowhere to be found—on either side.

And that’s what I appreciate most about this conversation with Eve. Over this series of essays, Eve and I have disagreed on topics of deep personal and theological significance for both of us. I know where Eve stands, and I know that she thinks I’m very wrong on some important points. Never once, though, have I felt belittled, disparaged, or dehumanized by Eve. She disagrees, but she also understands, and that makes all the difference.

A lot of people on all sides of these debates think that disparaging your opponent makes your argument sound stronger. It doesn’t. It just makes people less likely to listen to you unless they agreed with you from the start. Eve, thankfully, understands that. I felt heard and respected by her in this conversation, and though we still don’t agree, having this dialogue has only increased my respect and appreciation for her. I wish all conversations on these questions were so respectful!


That said…

Of course, respect does not mean agreement. Eve and I still disagree on several things.

Eve believes the church needs to do more to recognize non-romantic forms of love, and I agree with that. It’s important for all of us, and especially for those who are celibate—by choice or by circumstance. But I don’t think that’s a sufficient answer to the challenges gay Christians face. As I argued in my original article, I believe romantic love is also a critically important part of the puzzle, and I’m very concerned that it’s been neglected in many church discussions of LGBT people.  All too often, the arguments focus only on sex, and that speaks to me of misplaced priorities. I’d far rather endure a life without sex than a life without romance, but I don’t think we should be asking people to choose between them anyway. The two should go together, finding their home in marriage.

In her response to my article, Eve challenged my emphasis on romance, saying that my “approach is still too much shaped by contemporary American culture.” I disagree. Though the language and specifics have changed over the centuries, romance is hardly a modern American invention. It is, rather, a deeply ingrained part of the human condition. We see it in Shakespeare. We see it in Greek mythology. And we see it in the Bible.

When Genesis 29:20 tells us that “Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her,” what is that other than a description of passionately romantic love (though filtered through an unfortunately paternalistic culture)? And what is Song of Songs if not an extended poem about romance and erotic love? There is certainly romantic love in the Bible, even if the word “romance” itself doesn’t appear.

When I write about the importance of romance, I’m not talking about some mythical Hollywood rom-com fantasy. I’m talking about the kind of driving force that would make a man agree to work for seven years—fourteen years by the end of the story—merely to be with the woman he loves. I’m talking about a force far more powerful than sex, something that has been part of humanity since God created Adam and noted that it wasn’t good for him to be alone. 

There are other ways to not be alone, yes, and there are other ways to love. Not every person needs or wants a romance, and some who do want it don’t ever get it. But that reality must not lead us to underestimate the importance of romance or to deny its very possibility to those who eagerly seek it. Romantic love matters. That’s not cultural, and it’s not new. It’s human.


Romance is unique

Perhaps some of Eve’s disagreement with me is really about terms; maybe she would use different words to describe the same concept. I call it “romance” (or “romantic love”) because the English word “love” by itself can be rather imprecise: We say we “love” pizza, our pets, and our parents, and we mean very different things in each case. We are called to love our neighbors and to serve one another in love, and these are all good things. But the sort of love we describe as romance is unique. I might also have called it eros, but the point would be the same. It is a kind of love people have longed for throughout human history, and though there are many other kinds of love, none of them is a good substitute.

To be clear, by saying there is no good substitute for romantic love, I’m not holding up romance—or marriage—as a “gold standard” by which other loves should be measured. Quite the opposite. I agree with Eve that friendship, service, and so on should be measured on their own terms, not on their ability to approximate something they can never be. But that is precisely my point. Just as romance is no substitute for family, friendship, or service, those other loves are no substitute for romance.

Some individuals may, indeed, find fulfillment in other loves and feel no need for romance. Others may long for romance and yet accept other paths as a concession. But recognizing that some people can thrive without romance does not mean that all people can or should. Paul didn’t expect it of everyone, and neither should we.

Of course, I think marriage is the best and most stable place for long-term romantic love to thrive. But to those Christians who cannot accept marriage as a possibility for same-sex couples, I would argue that nonsexual romance must at least be a possibility.

Eve criticizes this idea of nonsexual romance as “marriage minus sex,” something that aspires to be like marriage but can never live up to the ideal. I agree with her on that, actually. I don’t advocate nonsexual romance as the solution; I advocate marriage as the solution. Nonsexual romance is, in my eyes, a less-than-ideal “next best thing.” Personally, I don’t think it’s a great solution, and in some ways, I think it’s a very bad solution. But I believe the alternative—asking people to be content only with other paths—is no solution at all. It may work for some, but it certainly doesn’t work for everyone.


The gift of celibacy?

I know that Eve disagrees with me on this point. She writes that “The more you talk to people who have actually vowed themselves to celibacy, the less you believe that celibacy is only meant for people who have a special ‘gift’ for it or who perceive a special calling to it.”

But this has been the opposite of my experience. Over the years, I’ve known a number of gay Christians who have committed themselves to lifelong celibacy, including several very close friends. The more time I’ve spent with them, the more I’ve noticed that those who have successfully made celibacy work long-term share certain traits in common—they do seem quite clearly to have a “gift of celibacy” not present in the general population. The trends are so strong that simply knowing these people caused me to believe in the existence of such a gift, even though I didn’t believe in it initially.

Eve points out that even those who feel called to celibacy may still struggle with celibacy. I have no doubt this is true. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t also gifted; it simply means that a gift of celibacy is no guarantee that the path will be easy. 

Today, I’m thoroughly convinced that there is a gift of celibacy. I do believe God calls some people to celibacy, and that those who are so called are also gifted to be able to follow that call and face its challenges. But I do not believe all people have the gift of celibacy, and I think we should follow Paul’s lead in not trying to force everyone onto a path they are neither called to nor equipped for.


Lingering questions

If this weren’t the final round of our conversation on this site, there’s a lot I’d still love to discuss with Eve. What strikes me more than our disagreements (on romance, celibacy, same-sex relationships, and the church) is the very different approaches we take to understanding the questions themselves.

Throughout this conversation, for instance, I’ve noticed elements of Eve’s writing that remind me of my good friends Ron Belgau and Wesley Hill, both celibate gay Christians who write at the blog Spiritual Friendship. In the past, I’ve joked with Ron and Wes that they tend to write about subjects like romance rather analytically and dispassionately, putting types of relationships into theological categories and working out the best scholarly language to describe this or that conceptualization of love.

Ron and Wes are not dispassionate people, but their writings (on a subject I find very stirring) could easily give that impression. Perhaps the difference between their approach and mine has to do with church backgrounds; Ron, like Eve, is Catholic, and Wes is Anglican. Or perhaps it has to do with occupation; Ron teaches philosophy and Wes teaches biblical studies. Whatever the reason, the difference between how Ron and Wes approach these topics and how I do is noticeable, and I’ve often wondered how much of it is due to their unique situations and how much reflects deeper differences in our theologies—or even something intrinsic to the experience of being a celibate Side B gay Christian in today’s world.

Given that background, I was fascinated when Eve responded to my discussion of romance by asking, “What is romance for him, as a theological category? What work is it doing that ‘love’ or ‘self-gift’ could not do?”

Hopefully I have answered her question already in this essay by explaining what I mean by “romance” and why I think it’s so important. But the question itself intrigues me, because it’s not at all how I approach the topic. Why, I wonder, does romance need to be a “theological category”? Why does it need to be doing a particular kind of “work”? Moreover, is its significance to the conversation not self-evident?

As a Christian, I certainly do approach the whole subject theologically; I hope that has been clear throughout this conversation. But I strongly believe that good theology is practical theology. Just as Christ met people where they were, caring not only for their spiritual needs but also for their practical, physical needs, I believe our theology must do likewise. Given that Eve’s own writing has been filled with practical concern for the well-being of celibate gay Christians, I suspect she’d agree with me. And yet this question sounds oddly detached to me. It makes me want to ask her a dozen more questions—about her own understanding of romance, about the thought process behind the question, and about whether she thinks I’m imagining a kind of detachment in Side B writings, or if not, why it exists. I think there’s a doorway here to a world of conversation about how Eve and I approach things differently, and I’d love to explore it.

In the end, my own approach to these questions is surely influenced not only by my evangelical faith, but also by the work I do. 

I oversee an organization full of LGBT Christians, all coming from different backgrounds and all having different temperaments and spiritual gifts. Although I’ve never set myself up as a “pastor,” my position has often pushed me into a pastoral role.

In that role, I often find myself being asked to give advice to gay Christians who feel deeply and desperately called to marriage—and who, in many cases, have fallen in love with someone in particular—but who are still struggling with their church’s condemnation of same-sex relationships.

For me, therefore, this isn’t just about philosophy or theology in the abstract, or even about what might work in my own life. It’s about how the church can support millions of LGBT people who want to please God. 

Might celibacy be a good choice for some of them? Yes, just as the monks Eve wrote about found fulfillment in their situations. But we were not all made to be monks, and as a Christian leader in a pastoral role, I simply cannot support a blanket denial of one of the most fundamental kinds of human relationship to all of them. 

On paper, it may seem reasonable. In practice, I am certain it is not.

So as I wrap up my part in this conversation, I find myself deeply moved. I am moved by Eve’s grace in disagreement and her friendship to me as we challenge one another. I am encouraged, too, by the depth of conversation we’ve been able to have in six simple articles. But I’m also reminded why these conversations are so important in the first place. Many hurting, lonely people’s lives hang in the balance.

My own position on this topic hasn’t changed, but my appreciation for Eve and understanding of her view has certainly increased, and I’d say that’s worth it. Respectful conversation of this sort is hugely undervalued in the church. It may not always change minds, but it is powerful and effective. Given the importance of this topic, we can’t afford not to listen to each other.

We are, after all, supposed to be known by our love.

(Oh, and Eve, if you ever do start a game show called “Arena of Sanctification,” let me know. I’m so there!)

15 replies
  1. sdawson1994@yahoo.com
    sdawson1994@yahoo.com says:

    First off, MIDNIGHT?! Obviously, my brain shuts down before that magic hour so I am doubly impressed by your focus and coherence. I have been struck by your consistently humble tone and the grace you are able to dispense to all sides. Displaying such gifts of the Holy Spirit as I've seen in you and others I met at the GCN conference in Portland (which we happened to stumble upon while attending a trade show) has been proof to me of where God is working; not only with this issue, but also other areas of social justice. The Apostle Peter's interaction with Cornelius and his household in Acts 10&11 was also a hefty weight to my tumbling over to Side A. Thank you.

  2. stef.dorough@gmail.com
    stef.dorough@gmail.com says:

    Justin, I have been trying to follow your reasoning in these articles, but I am still not sure what EXACTLY you are proposing. Jacob's romantic feelings towards Rachel were "about" sex. Not in the sense that they were solely sexual, but in the sense that his working was for the sake of a spousal union (i.e., a unitive and potentially procreative relationship) with Rachel. Song of Solomon also describes a longing for spousal union and warns us against "stirring up" or "arousing" love or desire until the appropriate time. How much more would we be well-advised to avoid arousing desire for something for which the appropriate time will never come? Desire that is temporarily unrequited is painful, but at least it is tempered by the anticipation of a sweetness to come. Desire that cannot be requited is bitter; to encourage it in yourself and in another person is to do harm to yourself and another person. If romance expresses desire for spousal union, which is consistent with the phenomenology of romance illustrated by your Biblical examples, then what is the long-term goal of intentionally fostering romantic desire between two people for whom spousal union is an impossibility? To keep one another in a perpetual state of temptation? To go back and forth between 1) an intentionally fostered state of temptation and 2) repentance without resolve to avoid intentionally fostered temptation in the future? That sounds like emotional torture and the purposeful endangering of souls, which is inconsistent with love.
    To be coherent, you must be in disagreement with at least one of these statements, but I am not sure which one(s) it is:
    1) Romantic feelings express desire for spousal union.
    2) Spousal union is both unitive and potentially procreative, thus impossible between two people of the same sex.
    3) Sexual acts that are not spousal are sinful.
    4) Sin is more harmful to us than the prospect of living without romance.

  3. diane.matous@gmail.com
    diane.matous@gmail.com says:

    I do think that Eve's question about 'what is romance, exactly?' is influenced by her Catholic theology. I have the same question. In our tradition, there is a specific term which is used for the love between a man and a woman, it is called "spousal" or "conjugal" love. "Romance" is not a term I have heard discussed much, except in popular American writings on the topic of Catholic marriage. Generally, it is said that romance is related to passing feelings and emotional experience, such as the "honeymoon" stage of marriage when everything seems rosy. It is a term which designates something secondary and somewhat superficial, kind of like the icing on the cake, rather than the real substance of love. Couples being prepared for marriage are often cautioned to be aware that 'romance' is not the basis of marriage. Coming from this tradition, I am also very eager and interested to hear exactly what you mean by the term. The term as I am accustomed to use it does not refer to anything that one could rightfully base a vocational choice on….in fact, it would be to base your vocation on a passing illusion and not on substance.

  4. Justin Lee
    Justin Lee says:

    Hi, Stefanie!

    My short answer to you is that I disagree with #2. While I agree that procreation is often an outcome of marriage, I don't think it's a requirement. There are many infertile couples who are nonetheless married, and I don't think their infertility makes their marriages any less valid.

    Even if I didn't believe that, though, I'd still argue that human intimacy matters, and that there must be a way for gay people to experience that intimacy. Whether you call it "romance" or something else like "spiritual friendship," something is needed that goes beyond typical friendship as we normally think of it. I believe it should be marriage, but I understand why many Christians disagree.

    For an even longer answer to your question, I wrote a whole book that explores this topic, and I frequently discuss these questions on my blog. 😉

  5. Justin Lee
    Justin Lee says:


    Thanks for the lovely comments. And yes, I stayed up rather late because I was late posting my final article! I appreciate Harold and Eve's patience as I tried to balance work and writing. 🙂

  6. Aravis
    Aravis says:

    Looking at this conversation from a traditional Catholic perspective, I feel like the biggest gap is in the idea that God wants us to be happy, in this world, unless there is some specific this-wordly reason (eg making others unhappy) why not. When you say perhaps the celibate vocation makes some people happy, and is good for them for that reason, I feel like a whole dimension of spiritual life has been left out: IE that you can be miserable, heartbroken, frustrated, and find that God is with you exactly there, in a way He couldn't be if you just ran away somewhere more comfortable.
    Whether someone is made for celibate vocation depends on whether it gets them closer to God and neighbour. It's about the shape of soul they are ultimately making, for their real life in eternity. It doesn't have much to do with whether they feel good here and now. Martyrs and mystics were never comfortable in the world but they aren't regrettable aberrations in God's plan for humanity, they are the model for the rest of us to emulate. Being a little hungry and a little sad seems to me to be the normal condition of a soul on earth that wants God.

    In that sense, Catholicism seems much more comfortable with the wild irrationality of faith than your theology seems to allow. For all our insistence on putting things in abstract terms and asking about what work concepts do, etc, I feel like the Catholic tradition proposes a much more bizarre, mysterious and heartbroken version of the spiritual life than the more Protestant traditions (setting aside the Anglo-Catholics). We are not at home in this world. We never will be. Even the best and brightest things in this world – our loves, our marriages – must have a crack in them, a space of unfulfillable longing. This is because they are too small and finite for our souls, which are made for infinite love. Now it could be that gay marriage, like straight marriage, is a this-worldly good that can bring us some precarious, permitted happiness and that is also good for our souls. As a Catholic, I think the thing marriage does for the human soul is linked to gender and complementarity but I can see the arguments against that position. What I find much harder to understand or sympathise with is the idea that a relation that leaves some longing unsatisfied – like a friendship that has erotic potential that mustn't be acted on – is for that reason inadequate to God's desires for us. I think unsatisfied longing is the human condition: in or out of romance or marriage or friendship or celibacy. The only romance that is actually fully and perfectly consumnated, so that every desire is fully satisfied for ever, is the marriage between Christ and the Church (and us, in her). That's where the grand romance is. Between humans, the possibilities are sex, affection, tenderness, laughter, loyalty and – necessarily – disappointment, mortality, and loss.

  7. gzauber@yahoo.com
    gzauber@yahoo.com says:

    Boy, I am with the others on this, I just don't get the idea of romance without sex as possibly healthy or even possible. I guess I see romance as erotic friendship that (for heterosexuals) has a naturally procreative, family-building outcome most of the time. You could say I have a relaxed Catholic or Reform Jewish perspective where I think gay couples should pursue romance, and this is bound to involve sex, but something is going to be missing if this romance does not produce and support children. I don't want to call that a sin or moral failing, but it is a felt loss for many people. I would advocate and encourage married gay couples in faith traditions that emphasize marriage and family to build their own families in the various ways this can be done.

  8. jhurshman@gmail.com
    jhurshman@gmail.com says:

    I also am struggling to understand the distinction being made between romance and sexuality. What is “romance” beyond the emotional aspects of sexual desire? As I consider the different relationships I have experienced in life, the only ones which seem to merit the description “romantic” are the ones which also involved sexual desire.

  9. seebert42@gmail.com
    seebert42@gmail.com says:

    What if homosexuality is not sexuality? What if the ONLY use of true romance is procreative, not recreative? What if emotion doesn't matter as much as intentional commitment?

  10. hyhybt@gmail.com
    hyhybt@gmail.com says:

    "In our tradition, there is a specific term which is used for the love between a man and a woman, it is called "spousal" or "conjugal" love."—What word would you prefer for that kind of love minus the presupposition that it must only exist between people of opposite sexes? After all, that's part of the point in dispute, so language that is neutral about it is essential to any meaningful conversation.

  11. Justin Lee
    Justin Lee says:


    Sorry, I wasn't ignoring you! Your post hadn't appeared yet when I responded to the first two.

    It may well be that Catholic language is part of the disconnect, but let me see if I can explain.

    I'm using "romance" here, not in the popular sense, but as a shorthand for "romantic love," essentially distinguishing the kind of love one would have for a date/partner/spouse as differentiated from the kind of love one would have for family or the more general love we're all called to have for our neighbors in general.

    What I'm saying is that there's a kind of human intimacy that is not met by typical friendship alone, and which I believe is important. I think this becomes particularly obvious when you spend time around adult singles and discuss the challenges they face in life. It's not just sex they long for. It's intimacy.

  12. Justin Lee
    Justin Lee says:


    I appreciate your perspective on suffering for our faith, and I actually agree with much of what you said.

    One clarification: You wrote, "When you say perhaps the celibate vocation makes some people happy, and is good for them for that reason, I feel like a whole dimension of spiritual life has been left out…" To be clear, that wasn't at all what I intended to suggest.

    I wasn't saying that celibacy is good when it makes people happy, but rather, that I think some people are better equipped to deal with it than others.

    I do agree that the Christian life is filled with suffering and self-sacrifice for the Kingdom; in my own life, I've often had to make hard choices and deny myself things in order to follow Christ. (Among other things, I've spent my whole adult life working a low-paying nonprofit job, spending much of my time in settings where people on all sides tell me how wrong I am. It's depressing. It's hard. It's lonely. But it's what I was called to do.)

    I don't object to sacrifice or hardship as part of the Christian life. I embrace it. But as I discussed in my first essay, I also believe the Bible is clear that we must be aware of the burdens we place on other people.

    It's one thing to know that I am called to a particular hardship; it's quite another for me to tell someone else they must endure hardships that they don't feel called to, especially in cases where I'm asking them to take on burdens that I don't have to take on and that I'm not actively working to help them with. That's a problem that exists in how much of the church (and especially the evangelical church of which I am a part) responds to gay people, and that's what I'm addressing.

  13. Justin Lee
    Justin Lee says:

    Gerry and JonathanH,

    Yeah, I certainly don't think that romantic love and sexual desire can be entirely separated. Physical/sexual attraction absolutely plays a role in that; it's how we're built.

    But I also think that there is a level of intimacy available even if sexual consummation isn't. It's like what Aravis said above in the final lines of that comment. Basically, yes, I want to be able to have sex, but for me, the biggest intimacy isn't about sex, so even if sex is forbidden, I'd still want an opportunity for intimacy that goes beyond what we typically think of as friendship.

    I do have friends in this situation: They have committed themselves to one another as a kind of celibate partnership because they believe it would be wrong to act on the sexual desires they have, but they still find incredible value in the partnership that they can have.

    That is not what I advocate; I advocate for marriage for same-sex couples. But I think it's still a better solution than if they were to be denied that partnership altogether. There is much value there even if their sexual desires are never fulfilled.

  14. drdanfee@yahoo.com
    drdanfee@yahoo.com says:

    Well this whole exchange has been good to read, and feels far too short. Talking from heart plus mind embodied (as individual biological creatures and as social animals who never live well, too far from inter-relatedness?) deserves to be as detailed and as deep as this series of posts reads to have been.

    I am very old now, well into my 60s. I tried the exgay and celibacy paths for at least ten years between about age thirteen and age 23 years. Then four or five decades on from back then.

    All that heartache could not in the end, be worth it. I should have been one of those guys who hung himself in the rafters of the empty garage with the abandoned house next door, or perhaps who found a wild moment to jump from the college bell tower or high rise science buildings. Instead, I just doggedly went on and on and on.

    Life has just about been like a forced prisoner of war march, or perhaps in shallower extent like the Native American trails of tears?

    I come at the human business of many-sided intimacy from a human sciences angle, so what I read as one of the hot button topics is what this empirical literature knows as pairbonding. It seems axiomatic, empirically looking, that human pairbonding is a domain as important or even more important, than sex as such. It also seems given that such pairbonding seldom survives without also being nurtured and sustained with multiple-dimensioned daily life realities of other intimate relationships.

    I'd even go so far as to say, again thinking empirically, that the best work is the work that calls for and gets its fair share of your love and can reflect back in suitable times and ways, that belovedness.

    If I had to characterize one deep fracture of our era, then, I would have to notice as a human scientist that we are living through a profound time of crisis and of (hopefully) transition in nearly all the significant ways that humans have been able – and needed to be able – to love, many-sided and well.

    Trying to find a one size fits all is misguided, I think. Creation indeed seems marked or infused with a Joycean extravagance. That living life involves our unavoidable human condition seems hardly a good or true reason for minimizing, dumbing down or miniaturizing all our inevitable and necessary dramas of real love, in all the forms that takes.

    I cannot much agree with the legacy believers who carry so often at such ongoing intensity, so deep a burden, in suspicion of the human body. Nor can I in good faith subscribe to the legacy notion that only heterosexuals in their (admittedly often flawed and finite) loves and intimacies are the clearer or more true bearers of covenant witness or of God's image.

  15. tim.dolores@gmail.com
    tim.dolores@gmail.com says:

    Justin, your writing teaches me that loving and graceful conversation is possible, even across wide chasms of disagreement. Thanks for modeling the way towards cooperation and growth. As a secular humanist ex-Christian, I care deeply about how I can talk to my family and loved ones about the challenging issues we face together. You model that so well, and I appreciate it.


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