A consistent criticism to vowed friendship and celibate partnership is that these unions “imitate marriage”, which for the traditional Christian, is an institution reserved for one man and one woman. These critics argue that since same-sex relationships resemble heterosexual marriage in significant ways such as sharing a home, finances, or lifelong commitment, they become same-sex marriages in functionality.
I find this view genuinely puzzling. In attempting to criticize LGBT+ people as unorthodox, conservative Christians reveal their own unorthodox definitions of marriage.
Historically, the Church has interpreted the Scriptural passages on marriage in order to define it as a one-flesh union of husband and wife ordered toward the procreation of children. According to this view, marriage enables husband and wife to act as co-creators with God to bring forth new life in sexual complementarity, modeling the love between Christ and his Church.
Conservative Christians in recent years have criticized progressive definitions of marriage that include same-sex relationships. Marriage can’t be defined as two people who love one other, conservatives argue, since friends can also love one another. Friends or siblings can live together, share finances, and commit to one another, but it doesn’t make them married. Celibate LGBT+ Christians typically agree with conservatives on this point if they hold to a traditional sexual ethic. Yet, in a different conversation on celibate partnerships, conservatives seemingly walk it back.
It’s almost like the celibate LGBT+ Christian hears two contradictory conclusions articulated from the same faction of people in two different theological contexts.
In a debate about gay marriage the conversation might go something like this:
Progressive: Two people of the same sex who love one another should be able to get married.
Conservative: Marriage isn’t defined by two people loving one another or living together. If two friends loved one another and lived together, would you consider them married?
But in a separate conversation about celibate partnerships, the dialogue goes like this:
Partnered LGBT+ person: My best friend and I are committed to living out our vocation to celibacy as a team with shared resources, finances, love, and commitment.
Conservative: That’s not biblical because it’s two people imitating marriage with shared living and commitment.
So which is it? It seems like the definition of marriage becomes a moving target. Was Ruth guilty of “imitating marriage” when she told Naomi, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.”? (Ruth 1:16)
Just because two vocations resemble one another in specific ways, doesn’t mean one is imitating the other. A Christian might observe a prayer and fasting rule, but that doesn’t make them a monk, even though a large part of monasticism includes praying and fasting. Similarly, just because two celibate gay people have love and shared life in common with married couples, it doesn’t make them married.
Culturally, marriage is boiled down to romance, doing life with your “best friend”, and sharing finances. We shouldn’t be surprised when Christians think celibate partnerships “imitate marriage” based on this revisionist understanding.
LGBT+ Christians with a traditional sexual ethic are usually more conservative than their theological gatekeepers. When the Church is struggling with the brokenness of heterosexuality in divorce, pornography, and fornication, it’s rather surprising when people are refocusing their rebukes toward gay people striving for chaste companionship, even describing their vocations as sinful.
I don’t think people who are opposed to celibate partnerships are consciously trying to water down their theology. I do, however, contend that they have internalized cultural assumptions about marriage, and have prioritized these assumptions over historical Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality. When someone claims gay people are imitating marriage by entering into a partnership or vowed friendship, what they’re really saying is straight, married people have the monopoly on love, commitment, and shared life. The narrative of Ruth and Naomi, the Eastern Christian tradition of brother-making, and the liturgical friendship rites of the Western church prove this notion false.
We exhibit an impoverished view of love when we attempt to find sin where there isn’t. It isn’t wrong or contrary to God’s design to prioritize specific human beings of the same sex in our daily lives.
No, the celibate partnered Christian isn’t imitating marriage; you just misunderstand it.