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!
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.
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!)