Day 4: Celibacy as Vulnerability

This is Day 4 of 7 of my Devotional Series on Celibacy written a year ago. While much of my thought process has changed since then, it is important to share where I sincerely was in my journey with God and my vocation.

21 When Jesus had said these things, He was troubled in spirit, and testified and said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, one of you will betray Me.” 22 Then the disciples looked at one another, perplexed about whom He spoke.

23 Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved. 24 Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask who it was of whom He spoke.

25 Then, leaning back on Jesus’ breast, he said to Him, “Lord, who is it?”

26 Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I shall give a piece of bread when I have dipped it.” And having dipped the bread, He gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon.

John 13: 21-26

This is one of my favorite narratives in the New Testament that can help us understand relational intimacy in the context of gay celibacy. John’s title as “whom Jesus loved” demonstrates that, even to Jesus who loves all, a specific friend or partner can hold a tender places in one’s heart. John and Jesus’ friendship is a model for holy, celibate same-sex love. They did ministry together, traveled together, and developed a close friendship. When every other male disciple abandoned him at his crucifixion, Jesus gave his mother to John as his own, expanding the notion of kinship beyond biological connection.

But I’d like to focus on John’s posture to Jesus in this reflection. John laying his head on Jesus’ breast highlights one of the core values of celibacy: vulnerability. The Eastern Orthodox icon of Jesus and John captures the posture of trust, hope, and tenderness that deeply resonates with my experience of partnered celibacy.

In her book “Daring Greatly”,  Dr. Brené Brown, defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure”. She continues: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper or meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” (p.33)

Vulnerability is an essential component to the celibate life. In the monastic tradition, monks and nuns confess their thoughts to one another and to their spiritual fathers and mothers. Intentional Christian communities or “new monastics” must prioritize open communication for the sake of trust between members. Single lay people need mentors and spiritual directors for discernment. In my experience as a partnered celibate, I have come to see vulnerability as the life-blood of any successful relationship.

Kyle and I foster vulnerability within our relationship by sharing our goals of the day in the morning and debriefing our day in the evening. In pursuing emotional intimacy, we notice changes in tone, behavior, and mood in one another more easily than our other friends because we are committed to full disclosure.

Vulnerability allows Kyle and me to learn more about each other’s personalities, which makes us sensitive in our interactions with everyone else. Because we are partners, natural feelings like jealousy may arise, which gives us an opportunity to share these feelings with trust and security. This is an especially important task because celibacy requires us to continually look outward and not inward. In sharing our insecurities as a team, we engage in the freedom to allow other friendships to enrich us. In perspective taking, we can empathize with one another’s particular challenges and hold one another accountable to our shared values.

To those of you who aren’t pursuing the celibate vocation, you might assume that vulnerability centers around sexual sin and boundaries; that certainly can be the case, but when you stop to realize queer people are so much more than our sexual lives, there are many other day-to-day items that take priority. Sexual immorality isn’t usually the biggest sin on our list of topics to discuss.

There are times when I feel the uncertainty of Christian witness perhaps in the way John felt uncertainty in hearing of Jesus’ impending betrayal. I rely on Kyle in the midst of my insecurities. This can manifest itself in reclining my head on his chest to receive comfort the way John did to Jesus. Maybe I have to set aside my pride and ask Kyle for answers when I’m unsure of something in the way John asked Jesus his questions. Celibacy doesn’t mean isolation; it requires friends we lean into with vulnerability. I’m grateful to lean on Kyle.

Whether it’s lay or monastic vocations, celibates need people who aren’t only  hearing polished life updates every once in awhile. It’s necessary to have people who know our thoughts: the good, the bad, and the just plain mundane. Vulnerability goes beyond confessing sins or sharing secrets; it means practicing transparency, however imperfectly, in order to grow. Married people need this from their spouses, but everyone needs this from their friends.

Lord Jesus, give us the grace to recline into you the way John did. Cast away our fears of intimacy. Forgive our dishonesty. Increase in us vulnerability with ourselves and others. We ask this in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Day 3: Celibacy as Shared Spiritual Life

This is Day 3 of 7 of my Devotional Series on Celibacy written a year ago. While much of my thought process has changed since then, it is important to share where I sincerely was in my journey with God and my vocation.

8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. 9 May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”

Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”

11 But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”

14 At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.

15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”

16 But Ruth replied, “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. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely,if even death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. Ruth 1: 8-16 (NIV)

In contemporary Western society, the notion of family is often restricted to the nuclear family. The term “soulmate” usually exclusively refers to romantic or sexual partners. The example of Ruth and Naomi may not be a “gay” relationship, but it’s certainly same-sex kinship. Celibate queer Christians can serve as a witness to the broader world by imitating the kind of shared spiritual life these two women possessed.

Shared spiritual life is a foundational mark of the celibate vocation. In the monastic life, monks and nuns meet together multiple times a day for corporate prayer and breaking of bread. They observe a liturgical calendar and fasting schedule for mutual encouragement and accountability. How can celibate gay Christians cultivate shared spiritual life for the strengthening of their vocations?

I want to look at Ruth’s plea to Naomi as a model for queer people discerning celibate partnerships and committed friendships. I know in my experience, creating a space of spiritual intimacy is of utmost importance in our theosis (becoming like God).

Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you.

It’s understandable when LGBT+ people internalize messages that tell us we are unworthy of love, belonging, connection, relationship, and intimacy. Am I willing to allow other persons made in God’s image to be a conduits of grace when I need it?

Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.

Celibacy doesn’t equal singleness or loneliness. The Triune God has baptized us into a Body of believers for the sake of Their Kingdom. Celibacy requires a daily forsaking of self for others. It may also require us to lay aside our pride by partnering with other people in tasks we cannot accomplish ourselves. Are there other Christians that God is directing me to share lodging, finances, and vocation with?

Your people will be my people and your God my God.

I know within my own relationship, I am tempted to view my spiritual obstacles as “me” problems. The reality is that my walk with Christ is tied not only to my salvation, but the salvation of others. Kyle exhibits a willingness to make my friends his friends and my spiritual life his spiritual life. We both have faith in the same God. It’s also a priority for us to be edified by the lives of other LGBT+ Christians, regardless of their sexual ethic or denominational membership. Are we consciously affirming other queer people as “our people” even if they are not celibate like us?

Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.

This sounds almost like a wedding vow. The kinship of Ruth and Naomi reminds us that our friendships endure eternally. The celibate life is one of anticipation that in Jesus’ New Creation, there will be no marriage, but there will be friendship. Death may end a marriage but it cannot end enduring communion between persons. Because of this, we must pray, fast, and walk alongside our friends with the same kind of fervor someone would have for their spouse. Am I cognizant of the “soulmates” God is placing in my life in preparation of eternal fellowship?

Our eternal lives will be ones of everlasting friendship as we worship and praise the Holy Trinity. If celibacy is a foretaste of the Kingdom, it is essential for us to live into this reality now. We can pray, fast, and cultivate vocations with other celibate queer Christians. We can observe a liturgical calendar, celebrating the Great Feasts, and participating in the Church’s fasts. There is a whole world of intimacy that goes beyond marriage and sex available to us. Celibacy is not a “no” to sex; it’s a “yes” to love.

Holy Spirit, you enlightened the hearts of Ruth and Naomi to give us an example of shared spiritual life. Enlighten our own hearts to seek your will. Crush any force that seeks to idolize marriage as the only path to family. Illumine your Church to heed the example of LGBT+ people crafting their own families, homes, partnerships, and friendships by your grace. Just as Ruth clung to Naomi, keep us clinging to you now and forever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Day 2: Celibacy as Commitment

This is Day 2 of 7 of my Devotional Series on Celibacy written a year ago. While much of my thought process has changed since then, it is important to share where I sincerely was in my journey with God and my vocation.

1 Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”

4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days,7 and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”

9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light.10 It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”

11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” John 11:1-11 (NIV)

On the day before Palm Sunday, the Orthodox Church commemorates the raising of Lazarus from the dead as a prefiguring of the universal resurrection each of us will experience in Christ. The hagiographic texts give Lazarus the title “Friend of Jesus”, a title which puzzled me the first time I heard it. Aren’t we all friends of Christ? But if we look deeper, Jesus is demonstrating a core value of celibacy: commitment.

Commitment is an odd subject in contemporary straight, conservative Christian discourse on LGBT+ people. When celibate queer people commit to other queer people in partnerships or spiritual friendships, it is often viewed with suspicion or a near occasion of sin. Many conservatives are critical of same-sex friendship, especially celibate partnerships between gay people, because “exclusivity” is supposedly only for marital relationships.

Yet conservatives downplay the importance of commitment within the celibate vocation when they voice these criticisms. Monks need to commit to their brother monks first before they can commit to serve and minister to the world. Celibate partners commit to one another so they can be stronger together in following God’s will for their lives. Jesus traveled to weep for his friend Lazarus specifically, even if he loved every other person who died in Bethany earlier that week. Even though Jesus was committed to raising every person from the dead in the universal resurrection, he chose his friend first.

Commitment is the birthplace of virtue. How can I hope to be patient with the world if I cannot even be patient with Kyle? How can I forgive my enemies when I am still learning to forgive my partner? How can I repent of my sins to fellow Christians when I haven’t properly learned to repent to my chosen family? Commitment isn’t exclusion; it’s intentional life-sharing that makes broader inclusion possible.

The way the Church and contemporary society have explained friendship goes something like this: If you want committed love, you must get married or have a sexual relationship. You might have friendships, but those can never be as passionate, intimate, and life-giving as marriage.

I obviously rebel against this narrative.

Jesus is God, and God is Love. During his ministry on earth, he called Lazarus “friend”. Jesus wept for his friend’s death. To say humans need marriage in order to participate in the fullness of love is to say Jesus isn’t Love or that Jesus isn’t human. Jesus loves all, yet was able to love Lazarus in a particular way. I love Kyle in this particular way too; this is commitment.

A common question Kyle and I receive is “Aren’t you two just trying to imitate marriage?” I think this question is a symptom of society’s much larger problem of idolizing marriage. Friendship has become an afterthought to sexual relationships.

LGBT+ Christians are some of the most gifted people when it comes to commitment. When so many of them have received rejection from their biological families, they have been able to find spiritual family within their queer communities. We need friendships that are no less committed than marriages in order for our celibacies to flourish. By God’s grace, let us focus on intentionality in our relationships so that we can expand the bounds of love and kinship.

Lord Jesus Christ, we thank you for having fashioned Lazarus in your image as a beloved friend. Create in our hearts a flame to burn brightly the tenderness, commitment, and delight for our own friends. Help us embrace our queer siblings as chosen family. Give us a spirit of intentionality in the friendships and partnerships to which you are calling us. We ask this of you, friend of sinners, and we glorify you with your eternal Father and all-holy, good, and life-creating spirit, now and forever. Amen.

Day 1: Celibacy as a Foretaste of Heaven

This is Day 1 of 7 of my Devotional Series on Celibacy written a year ago. While much of my thought process has changed since then, it is important to share where I sincerely was in my journey with God and my vocation.

23 That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 24 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him. 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. 26 The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. 27 Finally, the woman died. 28 Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”

29 Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. 30 At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.31 But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”

33 When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching. Matthew 22: 23-33 (NIV)

I’m someone who doesn’t live a conventional lifestyle. I grew up mostly secular, came to faith when I was 17, and didn’t realize I was gay until I was 18. I came out to my close friends two days later and learned nearly all of them were queer too. Now I’m 24, openly gay, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, and have an amazing partner named Kyle. Did I mention that Kyle and I are remaining celibate the rest of our lives together?

This is the part of my story that can start to make other LGBT+ believers uncomfortable.  Hearing the word “celibacy” can trigger negative memories or even abusive experiences in the Church. Celibacy defined by many churches boils down to “Don’t have sex, and if you do, then God finds you utterly displeasing.” I want to offer a different framework for gay celibacy.

I remember an Episcopal priest privately messaging me on Facebook saying “If you and your partner are celibate, then why do you even mention it? That should be private. Your story reeks of moral superiority.” In light of his past experience with spiritual abuse, his frustration was understandable, but I believe his definition of celibacy to be incomplete. To those called to celibacy, hiding our vocation is equivalent to telling a couple to hide their marriage.

Is celibacy defined by mere abstinence from sex? No. That’s like defining marriage as the mere engagement in sex. We miss out on exploring the dynamic, life-creating nature of celibacy if we only define it by what someone is or is not doing with their genitals. On their blog “A Queer Calling”, my friends Lindsey and Sarah define the four core values of celibacy as commitment, vulnerability, shared spiritual life, and radical hospitality. This isn’t an all-inclusive list since there is overlap with other vocations. It’s like if you try to define marriage by your commitment to your spouse; you’re going to have commitment in common with non-married folks who are committed to their friends, family members, and partners.

Celibacy can be lived out in singleness, monasticism, committed friendship, celibate couplehood, queer platonic partnership, intentional community, and a myriad of other forms of deep, meaningful connection with other human beings. The four values aren’t exhaustive, but they are characteristic of the rich history of celibacy in all of its forms.
Jesus offers us a life-giving vision of the celibate life in the passage above to the Sadducees. In making a statement that marriage will not exist in Heaven, he indirectly says a lot about celibacy. Celibacy in the Christian tradition is understood as a path that renounces marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Celibacy, like marriage, is one path to manifest the Kingdom in our own lives. It’s a path that St. Paul embarked on to be “all things to all people” in the universal Church.

Marriage, Jesus says, won’t exist in the New Creation, which means friendship will. While husband and wife will not be spouses in Heaven, they will remain friends. Jesus during his time on earth stresses friendship as the highest form of love: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” If Heaven is where we experience the fullness of love, then it’s where we will experience the fullness of friendship. This means celibates are living as a foretaste of what is yet to come since they aren’t engaged in the sexual relationships that will eventually pass away.

I am called to a celibate partnership with my best friend, Kyle. We believe that as a team, we can enable one another to advance God’s Kingdom on earth. I want to dispel the myth that celibacy necessitates a lack of companionship. I’m hoping this devotional series will be a blessing to you no matter your theological perspective or vocation. All of us come to celibacy in differing ways, so please do not take my experiences as prescriptive or normative of all celibate people. Let’s reflect on how God is using his celibate queer children to prophetically lead and teach the rest of the Body.

Lord Jesus Christ, you are our example of what it means to be truly human. You offer us your life of love and intimacy which is not contingent on sexual love or marriage. Help us follow your example of celibacy in our own lives. Correct us in our pride. Give us eyes of faith to see the eschatological reality of celibacy in the Church. Amen.

Celibacy Devotional Preview

Hi all! I had a busy spring semester and the summer term has just begun. With the Revoice Conference next week, I thought now would be an excellent time to release a devotional I wrote last year on the vocation of celibacy. While some of my thoughts and beliefs on the subject have changed since then, I believe it is an important time capsule to where I genuinely was at the time. I pray it is helpful for those discerning the vocation of celibacy, or others just wanting to learn more about it.

I picked seven different Scripture passages to meditate over the course of seven days. I hope my reflections are fruitful for you, no matter where you are in your faith journey.

Day 1: Celibacy as a Foretaste of Heaven

Day 2: Celibacy as Commitment

Day 3: Celibacy as Shared Spiritual Life

Day 4: Celibacy as Vulnerability

Day 5: Celibacy as Radical Hospitality

Day 6: When Celibacy isn’t a Gift

Day 7: Celibacy as Romance

I’m a Gay Christian Man with a Celibate Partner: A Response to Sam Allberry

An Uncommon and Relatable Testimony

An article by Sean Doherty from Living Out, a ministry for same-sex attracted Christians, was written as a response to an email from a same-sex couple seeking counsel on how to raise their child and live a celibate life together after converting to Christianity. Sean makes an important observation in this rare case:

And it makes excellent sense for two friends to live together and share their lives in this way. It would be very natural for friends who were living together to share the parenting of any children who are there too. Of course, the couple will need to think and pray carefully about whether the history of a shared sexual relationship will be too much of a temptation if they continue to live together. But that is a matter for discernment, not a matter of right and wrong.

My story is quite different from this couple. Their relationship began sexually active and transitioned into a celibate way of life; my relationship began celibate and remains that way. Still, there is a lot of inspiration I can take from their testimony.

As you can imagine, there were some who were not pleased with this piece.
Sam Allberry, the founder of Living Out, published an article this morning titled “Can SSA Christians Have Non-Sexual Romantic Relationships?” as a clarification to his ministry’s initial piece. Allberry’s thesis is that romance is not an appropriate quality for same-sex attracted Christians to possess within their friendships.

As someone in a committed partnership that could be understood as “romantic”, it’s crucial that I evaluate Allberry’s arguments in a charitable fashion.

Introduction and Common Ground

Allberry starts by introducing the reader to the current discourse of two people of the same sex in a non-sexual relationship:

When it comes to same-sex relationships and the church, I’ve heard more and more people propose some sort of committed, same-sex, non-sexual romantic friendships for those who want to uphold the Christian sexual ethic.

I have been interested in the conversation on celibate partnerships for several years, and I can’t say I have seen many advocate for romanticism as a defining characteristic for non-sexual relationships. The closest idea was a reflection I wrote almost a year ago and it was, if anything, asking for an exercise of caution when using the word “romantic” in our critiques of celibate partnerships. If Allberry means advocacy for celibate partnerships has increased in general, then perhaps. But celibate partnerships are not necessarily understood as romantic in nature.

This, they say, avoids the supposed loneliness of singleness while upholding biblical standards of sexual behavior.

I agree with Allberry that partnerships or committed friendships cannot solve loneliness. Plenty of married people experience loneliness even though they are happily in love with their spouses. I experience loneliness too, even though I have a committed partner and plenty of close friends. No one, to my knowledge, is advocating for celibate partnerships as a cure for loneliness. There are some of us who believe partnerships are vocations that can offer unique support for some in meeting their needs and circumstances.

Intimacy in Friendship and Marriage

Allberry goes on to describe how the supposed confusion of marriage and friendship has developed within this conversation:

On this view, there is a sort of relational continuum, with regular friendship at one end and marriage at the other. Marriage is the most intense expression of relational intimacy, and friendship is a less intense expression. By this reckoning, there’s a point somewhere along the spectrum where two friends can enjoy romantic intimacy without transgressing into the sort of sexual intimacy reserved for marriage.

I agree with Allberry that marriage and friendship aren’t on a relational continuum where marriage is the most intimate area of the spectrum. In fact, I am saying the opposite. No amount of relational intimacy will make my relationship a marriage.

Some friendships can be more intimate than some marriages, but that doesn’t mean those friendships are always increasing in degrees of eroticism. Scripture describes David and Jonathan’s souls as being “knit together” (1 Samuel 18:1) which seems to be the closest kind of intimacy possible, but I see no reason to believe they were in a sexual relationship. People in celibate partnerships are simply saying that married people aren’t the only ones who can experience deep longing and emotional attachment to people they love.

Exclusivity

He continues that a romantic element within a same-sex friendship is imitating the essence of marital union:

“Marriage isn’t just close friendship with added sex. Nor is close friendship marriage without sex. Marriage by definition and necessity must be exclusive. It is covenantal. If it isn’t exclusive, its very essence is violated. This isn’t the case with friendship. Friendship doesn’t require exclusivity. My friendship with even my closest friend isn’t threatened by the growth of a similar friendship with someone else. It’s not a zero-sum game.

I agree with Allberry that marriage isn’t merely close friendship with added sex. Nor is close friendship a marriage minus sex. But it is unclear how he is teasing out the difference. He says that marriage should be exclusive, but not friendship. I have mentioned before that I do not consider my partnership as defined by exclusivity. We base our relationship on priority.

I made this clear in my previous reflection on exclusivity:

Priority is a necessary, healthy concept. We prioritize people all the time. It would be impossible to commit to every person the same way. Even Christ had particular endearment for his friend Lazarus, for whom he wept. You’re going to have traditions with family and friends, but not acquaintances. You are going to call one person over another if you get news of a serious illness. In my own life, I financially support a friend through college, something I wouldn’t do for just anyone; I do that for family.

Human beings need priority. When I say Kyle is my priority, I do not mean he exclusively meets all of my spiritual, physical, and emotional needs. I do not mean he is the only one I am called to love; rather, he is my partner, my best friend, and my advisor. I mean that if he became sick or unemployed, I’d stick my neck out for him in ways I can’t do for everyone. I mean that together, we can encourage and hold one another accountable; to invite others to share in the table of Christ’s fellowship. That’s priority, and it’s hardly exclusive.

Allberry mentions his friend inviting another person on a hiking trip to Scotland as an example of friendship’s characteristic inclusivity. He quotes C.S. Lewis that friendship is the “least jealous of loves”. I agree that our friendships should seek to include others and shouldn’t be jealous. Yet, I don’t see how this addresses the practical reality of prioritization and the witness of covenantal friendship within Scripture.

Exclusivity is a very odd term to bring up in the context of relationship because it doesn’t seem to be used by anyone actually participating in a celibate same-sex partnership (If you don’t believe me, look at the available blogs on the subject). Exclusivity makes a lot of sense when discussing sexual fidelity within marriage, but it’s confusing when brought into this discussion. I don’t see how it follows that because I have made commitments to one person in regard to finances, lodging, mutual support, and priority, I can’t make commitments with people in other areas of my life. Folks like myself in these kinds of relationships need to know what is sinful about prioritizing particular people for particular purposes, and Allberry fails to do that here.

Covenants

Perhaps Allberry’s concern isn’t with the degree of priority, but the covenantal nature of partnerships and spiritual friendships. It’s not clear from his writing here, but his view might be that marriage is the only licit covenant two human beings can make with one another. But this proves too much. Scripturally, we have a clear example of Jonathan “ma[king] a covenant with David because he loved him as himself” (1 Samuel 18:3). Ruth also makes a promise to Naomi: “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God” (Ruth 1:16).

The covenantal argument fails to account for the Church history of adelphopoiesis (the brother-making rite) which was practiced between people of the same sex, while being completely understood as a non-marital relationship. I am not saying these unions were romantic relationships between two gay men; I am saying it’s possible to have covenants that look “exclusive” in their vows to God and one another without being misunderstood as marriages.

Romance

Allberry describes three relational aspects that are restricted to marriage: exclusive, covenantal, and romantic. This last concept, romance, is the most unclear.

The moment [friendship] becomes romantic, we’re confusing two different categories of relationship, attempting to pursue friendship in a framework designed ultimately for something covenantal. The result (marriage without benefits?) becomes an unstable compound—something that will struggle to remain non-physical, or else won’t remain romantic and exclusive. Something will likely give.

I agree with Allberry that if you are in a celibate same-sex partnership while experiencing constant longing for the relationship to turn into something “more”, then you are going to have problems down the road. Resentment will start building if you have physical and emotional longings for the relationship to have an essence that it currently “lacks” (e.g. sex , marriage, etc.). If you don’t see your partnership as a vocation manifesting the Kingdom of God through radical hospitality, service, and community, but merely as a loophole to go on dates, then I don’t think it is going to serve you or your partner well in happiness or faithfulness.

There are legitimate concerns which Allberry brings up, such as physical boundaries. I’m thankful he is concerned and willing to bring it to the forefront. However, just because some romantic relationships have unhealthy relational dynamics, it doesn’t follow that romance is to blame. It’s important for him to explore how romance is intrinsically linked to codependency, temptation, and fornication in the way he asserts here.

Notice that Allberry never gives a definition for what romance is. He says that “the moment” a friendship becomes romantic, we become confused. How do I recognize this “moment” of transition from the platonic to the romantic when I haven’t been told what I’m looking for? A few possible suggestions could be: holding hands, a squeeze on the arm, buying dinner, giving flowers, remembering anniversaries, among other acts I do in my friendships. These actions seem culturally “romantic” to most of us, but I fail to see why they’re necessarily sinful.

If we are going to use the word “romance” at all, then I’ll be the first in this dialogue to offer a definition. I appreciated Fr. Mac Stewart’s definition of romance in the area of friendship:

All of this suggests to me that there is a whole wonderful realm of relational intimacy that our culture misses out on by loading all of its human-closeness eggs in the basket of specifically sexual intimacy. We tend to refer to these latter relationships as “romantic,” and yet perhaps our sense of romance here is a bit impoverished. Perhaps there is room for a kind of romance with our beloved friends: doing for one another the little deeds of affection that we often associate with a lover wooing his or her espoused, things like writing letters that affirm the beloved’s virtues and beauty, attending carefully to the things that delight their soul and spontaneously and gratuitously fulfilling them, forbearing with their irritating eccentricities while dwelling on their excellences, overcoming their occasional coldness with a deeper kindness.That we have a hard time imagining romance outside of relations of closeness that are consummated in sexual intercourse may simply be a mark of how far we have fallen from our created glory. Was not the whole created order supposed to be the scene of one great big love story, one cosmic romance?

Fr. Mac offers a helpful, intuitive definition of “romance” as relational closeness while Allberry doesn’t offer any. If we’re going to bring up romanticism, then I’m going to reference this definition until I receive a better one.

I’m not saying all forms of romance are morally licit, but I am saying romance is a social construct that is almost impossible to ground theologically. Most people in church history did not experience romance within their marriages due to family arrangements and social alliances, and yet Christ was present in their union and producing saints out of it. Romance is not what the authors of Scripture, the Church Fathers, or the ecumenical councils had in mind when they discussed the theology of marriage. They were concerned with a union that typified Christ and His Church; a one-flesh union of husband and wife that allowed them to be co-creators with the Holy Trinity.

Allberry rightly argues that marriage isn’t “just sex”, but then makes the mistake of reducing its ontological reality to subjective feelings. This is because sexual exclusivity is an objective reality, while romance is a culturally changing, subjective understanding of tenderness and infatuation. It comes and goes within marriages and in friendships; it’s perceived differently between individuals and couples. To ask that same-sex attracted Christians not have particular feelings in their close relationships is to “tie up heavy, cumbersome loads” and place them on gay people’s shoulders (Matthew 23:4).

The Adultery Objection

People ask, “If it’s morally licit for a same-sex attracted Christian to have a romantic non-sexual relationship, then do you think a married man should be able to have a romantic non-sexual relationship with a woman who is not his wife?”

Allberry didn’t address this in his piece, but it is a response I have seen on social media. To this question, I would first have to ask, as I did earlier, “What do you mean by romance?” Critics cannot call every emotional behavior they find problematic “romantic” and believe that is a valid argument. If we are not referencing Fr. Mac Stewart’s definition, but instead referring to an emotional affair, then no. Men and women make marriage vows to one another as a one-flesh union. A husband should not be engaging in deception, which affects himself, his wife, and his children. That doesn’t mean men can’t have tenderness and relational intimacy with women who they are not married to; it means that spouses should be involved in who is speaking into the family’s well-being.

Married people make vows of sexual exclusivity. If celibate partners make vows, those vows are to support one another in their vocation to celibacy. Critics shouldn’t use the word “romance” for celibate partnerships when they mean “tenderness” and then go on to use the same word to mean “adultery”. It’s a conflation of terms; a comparison of apples to oranges. I’m not saying Allberry did that here, but it is an objection that needs to be addressed.

Pastoral Concerns

Ultimately, I am writing this response not because I am determined to call my partnership a “romantic relationship”. I do not desire a relationship that looks like marriage. I am responding because the concept of romance is rooted in cultural connotations that are not necessarily Scriptural. It is not a reliable basis for sexual ethics. My concern is that even if a close same-sex friendship is chaste, many conservative Christians will still label it “romantically sinful” when it challenges our cultural assumptions about intimacy. Romance is a moving target; it will be the go-to term when same-sex attracted people make Christians uncomfortable in the way they demonstrate affection to one another.

We can spend all day parsing out the difference between romantic and platonic; friendship and marriage, etc. My contention is simply that deep, intimate, and abiding relationships between people of the same sex have a place in the Kingdom of God, even between two gay people who feel tenderness and warmth for one another. St. Gregory the Theologian described his friendship with St. Basil the Great in this way:

We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit. Though we cannot believe those who claim that everything is contained in everything, yet you must believe that in our case each of us was in the other and with the other.

Can I describe my friendship with my partner in this way? Is it too romantic? Is it too covenantal? Too exclusive? I don’t think those are the most helpful questions. The primary question is, “Is it holy?” And I think it can be.

10 Ways Conservative Christians Can Support LGBTQ+ People

I’m often asked by straight people, “What exactly do you want from the Church? Are you saying the Church needs to start blessing same-sex marriages in order to be loving?”

I always find this question perplexing because if you read my writings, I never advocate for a change in Church teaching on marriage or sexuality. In fact, I’ve often defended its integrity on public platforms and articles. But I do think there are some practical steps that can be made from both priests and laity who are theologically conservative, yet want to make the Church a safer place for LGBTQ+ people.

1. Don’t quarrel about terminology.

We get it. As a straight person, you’re probably used to associating words like “gay” or “lesbian” with a particular sexual lifestyle. Remember that you likely don’t associate the word “straight” or even opposite-sex sexual activity with a specifically “heterosexual lifestyle” though. Either way, keep a humble attitude and listen to the reasons people share for identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc. before jumping to conclusions.

2. Save the apologetics for another time.

I promise you that we’ve heard the scriptural verses that prohibit same-sex sexual activity. Some of us are obedient to those passages; others believe God blesses same-sex sexual activity within marriage. Wherever we end up on the sexual ethics question, it’s important to note that LGBTQ+ Christians have been wrestling with those questions in a way that straight people never had to. We are very familiar with the arguments. Your reminders will only serve to distract from potential areas of agreement.

3. Preach love outside of marriage.

Every Christian is called to love, even if they aren’t called to sex. Avoid setting up marriage as the expectation for everyone. Watch how you’re projecting a married future on your children when the possibility exists that they are called to a celibate way of life. Encourage your friends and family to consider monastic vocations and speak highly of them. Don’t use your words in such a way that imply marriage is the only way humans can access love, commitment, and intimacy. These are human needs for everyone, celibate or non-celibate.

4. Don’t assume you know our sex lives.

When someone says they are LGBTQ+ or even in a relationship with someone of the same sex, don’t assume you know what they are doing in the bedroom. Many celibate LGBTQ+ Christians are going to live happier, healthier lives with someone by their side. Get to know celibate couples and covenanted friends, and learn from them. Allow yourself to see God working within the committed love of two people striving to live holy, chaste lives. You might not understand it at first, but if you stay curious and avoid rushing to judgment, you may be surprised. Start with the assumption that these two men or two women want to know and love God together.

5. Support liturgical rites and blessings for friendship.

If a priest can bless a house or car, surely he can bless two committed friends. Public liturgies would be a groundbreaking way for friends to make promises of commitment to one another’s virtue and salvation. Rather than scoff at this idea as some slippery slope to same-sex marriage, think about how we are neglecting friendship as an honorable way to love God and neighbor. And great news: the Church has totally done this before!

6. Rebuke homophobia when you see it.

LGBTQ+ friends of yours need you to speak up when you hear slurs or dehumanizing stereotypes about them. We understand that is uncomfortable, but we appreciate when we see someone stand up for us.

7. Speak out on injustices toward the LGBTQ+ community.

Out of all the issues affecting the community, we hear a lot about gay sex. When the Church is silent about homelessness, job/housing discrimination, hate crimes, bullying, suicide rates, mental health disparities, familial rejection, and spiritual abuse that disproportionately affect non-straight and non-cisgender people, we notice your priorities. Lead Them Home is a great resource if you are a conservative Christian just now educating yourself about these injustices.

8. Invite LGBTQ+ Christians to speak at your church.

Many churches have sermon series on sexual ethics (even specifically homosexuality), but most of these events don’t even feature actual queer voices. There are many qualified queer theologians on this subject who can speak to your church. At the very least, invite LGBTQ+ friends to share their testimonies at an event.

9. Be open to feedback.

If we tell you something you said was hurtful or unhelpful, believe we are being sincere and not looking to attack you. We are sharing our hurt because we think there is hope you will demonstrate humility and listen. Even if you don’t understand in the moment, do your best to ask questions and think about the feedback we are giving you. We are offering honesty because we believe in you! If we didn’t, we likely wouldn’t be sharing.

10. Get to know us.

If you claim to love queer people, but don’t have any close, queer friends, then you likely only love the idea of loving queer people. Realize we all come at these issues with different ways of thinking and opinions. You can’t rely on one gay person to give you all the information you need to know. You will see your life enriched when you surround yourself with people different from yourself!