Progressive Gay Celibacy: A Response to Nick Roen

Nick Roen, pastor and public writer on faith and sexuality, wrote a fascinating take on the state of the “Side B” movement in the Church. Side B has been a term used to describe any person who does not believe God blesses same-sex sexual activity or same-sex marriage. Conversely, “Side A” describes people who do not believe same-sex sexual activity is always a sin. Nick admits that he is no longer comfortable identifying with the Side B movement because it is a term that is too inclusive and too vague to be meaningful in casting a traditional Christian vision of human sexuality.

I have enjoyed reading Nick’s reflections the past several years. Our interactions on Twitter have always been edifying, and I continue to have much to learn from him in the coming years. Even though I recently moved to a fully affirming position on same-sex sexual relationships, I found myself agreeing with much of his analysis on human sexuality discourse within the Church. The progressive/conservative rift within the Side B community has been an issue I have expressed concern over in private conversations over in the past year. I want to go through some of the excerpts from his piece that I found the most illuminating.

I’ll mostly focus on one main reason that I feel compelled to distance myself from the label, but there are no doubt more. For example, even the very language of Side A and Side B presents as two sides of the same Christian coin. 

I deeply resonate with this concern. The Side A/Side B dichotomy has often led to a kind of theological relativism. I have heard self-identified Side B Christians say something akin to “I am personally Side B, but I think Side A is a valid option. Not everyone is called to celibacy.” This view makes little sense because if same-sex sexual activity is a serious sin, then it should be something from which we refrain; we cannot leave it up to personal preference. Similarly, I have heard self-identified Side A Christians say phrases like “Side B is fine if people choose it for themselves; it’s when they start saying queer relationships are wrong that I have a problem.” This description of Side B is unhelpful as well, because the traditional position is intrinsically connected with the concern of same-sex sexual activity being a sin. If it weren’t, then we are only describing personal celibacy, which is perfectly compatible with affirming theology.

I think my biggest concern with the Side B movement has come down to this: there is such a wide diversity of beliefs that flow downstream from the broad source of a “traditional sexual ethic” that it is impossible to pin down what Side B actually “looks like”. Really, the only thing you can definitively say is that Side B is a whole bunch of people from a whole bunch of Christian backgrounds saying that they believe sex is reserved for a one-man, one-woman marriage while also rejecting promises of certain orientation change.

This is a fair assessment of the limitations of Side A/Side B language. Even when I identified as Side B, I sometimes felt like I had more in common with particular Side A individuals than I did with other self-identified Side Bers who discussed their same-sex attraction solely as a source of struggle. At the time, many of my affirming friends shared my outlook in feeling connected to a broader queer community and culture, while many of my traditional friends felt alienated by it.

For me, the most personal example of the progressive/conservative rift in Side B spaces was the topic of celibate partnerships. My Side A friends were generally accepting of our relationship and our choice to refrain from sex, while many Side B people had serious moral reservations. I agree with Nick that answering one question (“Is same-sex sexual activity a sin?”) is not the most effective way in promoting a particular sexual ethic.

But can Side B ecumenism surrounding only a traditional view of marriage win the support of more broadly conservative Christian circles that are watching?

Here, Nick is concerned with the Side B movement’s perception among conservative Christians. Now, I want to offer my thoughts here with the full acknowledgment that Nick has been far more involved in pastoral ministry, study, and public witness than I have. I want to offer my pushback with that understanding in mind. I don’t believe the lack of conservative support to sexual minorities has much to do with lack of Side B unity. In fact, Ron Belgau, the co-founder of Spiritual Friendship and other writers repeatedly clarified the positions of their articles in response to conservative criticisms of Revoice. Revoice later released their Statement on Sexual Ethics. The result has been consistent misrepresentation from conservative critics. I readily admit that I am speaking as an observer here, so I very well may be inaccurate in my understanding of the ongoing conversation. Judging by the repeated mischaracterizations from Rosaria Butterfield, Denny Burk, and Christopher Yuan, I am forced to infer that conservatives are ignoring public intellectuals regardless of the diversity of viewpoints within Side B.

In my view, I believe the past few years have shown that a “traditional view of marriage and sex” isn’t enough unity to get that job done. It’s a great starting point, and a good initial test of orthodoxy.

I concur with Nick that our definition of marriage should be one of the first questions we ask. However, I have difficulty assigning a teaching not found in the ecumenical councils or ancient creeds as an adequate test for theological fidelity. For myself, I disagree with divorce and remarriage in most cases, and yet I would not immediately label a Reformed Baptist as a heretic merely for holding a more liberal position on the matter. I currently think the creeds and councils are the best initial test for “orthodoxy”, but I am open to amending my view if I hear a better one.

For example, one might believe that sex is reserved for heterosexual marriage while also believing that same-sex orientation is not (at least totally) disordered, but is rather a good to be celebrated. And so he or she will refrain from gay sex, but celebrate Gay Pride and talk of their orientation as a feature, and not a bug, of the experience of their embodied soul.

I appreciate Nick’s nuance in describing the plurality of views within the Side B movement. Considerations of the moral status of same-sex attraction, same-sex sexual activity, and one’s own relationship with the secular LGBT community are questions of utmost importance. As mentioned earlier, I am not familiar with any public figure within the Side B conversation who is saying same-sex sexual desire is not a result of the Fall or recommending that Christians should attend Pride festivals. And even if there were, it should not be presumed that these folks are affirming or unorthodox for simply coming to a different conclusion in how the traditional sexual ethic should be lived out.

Nick writes a thorough, accurate analysis of the progressive views that have been gaining traction among lay people within Side B circles the past few years, in particular celibate partnerships, queer culture, and sublimation of gay desire. He sums up his critiques of these views by saying:

I guess what I’m really saying is that a traditional view of marriage isn’t enough for me to feel comfortable being affiliated with a movement. Side Ber’s can all say “We believe this one thing” while living their lives very differently. And the differences, in my mind, matter a great deal. If a hypothetical person can legitimately be Side B who is in a celibate partnership, celebrates Pride, does not believe same-sex orientation is disordered, and affirms the faith of practicing Side A folks, then I simply can’t claim the label Side B. I suspect I’m not alone.

I am sure this made a few self-identified Side B Christians uncomfortable, but it was the excerpt of Nick’s reflection that struck a chord for me. There are certain tensions that I experienced when I was Side B and held more progressive positions on certain issues. It was difficult for me to 1) Believe in the sinfulness of same-sex sexual acts and 2) Think it was good to possess an attraction towards those particular acts (i.e. “It is good to be gay”).

When I identified as Side B , I attempted to separate “queerness” from the sexual aspects of queer relationships. While I agree that queerness is not merely reducible to sexual desire or sexual action, it is unclear how one separates queerness from sexual and romantic love. Not every queer person has sex, but sexual experiences are still part of most queer lives. If people lacked same-sex sexual attraction (a fallen desire in the Side B view), then queerness would not exist as we know it. The stigma of gay sexual and romantic love is an essential part to the narrative of queer marginalization and identity.

There was definitely friction between myself and more conservative-leaning Side B people. I interpreted St. Paul as saying every kind of gay sex is sinful when he says, “Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1: 27). But in discussing my own same-sex attraction and orientation, I could not to resonate with the language of “God gave them up to the sinful desires of their hearts” (Romans 1:24). I will continue to support other progressive-leaning Side B friends in their conclusion that queerness is beautiful and that same-sex attraction is not a sinful or disordered desire, while also recognizing I could not find a way to resolve that tension. It is important for Side B organizations like Spiritual Friendship and Revoice to include diverse voices who are publicly and private wrestling with these questions in their own ways.

In my experience, the tension among different “camps” within the identified Side B movement needed to be named and addressed. I became a Christian at 17 years old as an atheist who did not attend church. Before my conversion, I saw the beauty of same-sex relationships and believed there was nothing wrong or disordered about my gay friends for being attracted to the same sex. I struggled with coming to terms with my sexuality, not because I was convicted there was something broken about same-sex attraction, but because other Christians had told me I should be ashamed of it.

When I discovered the truth about our God made flesh in Jesus Christ, dying for our sins, and granting us life in Resurrection through the Spirit, I tried my best to make my moral intuitions compatible with the conclusions stated in my catechism. It said gay sex was wrong and that same-sex attraction was “intrinsically disordered”. In my past sexual experiences with other men, I knew they were sinful, but not really because of the their gender. I knew they were wrong because they were hookups in absence of covenantal commitment. I was told to be faithful to Christ meant becoming a traditionalist, so I always said I believed same-sex sexual desire was the result of the Fall, hoping my heart would catch up to my words. I tried different ways to make sense of my personal experience in light of Church teaching by praying “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, make me to understand Thy statutes”. I hoped for the possibility of celibate romance and attempted to reframe what it meant for same-sex attraction to be a struggle. Eventually, I realized my position was untenable. I suspect some (not many, or even most) in the “progressive wing” of Side B might be midst of a similar challenge in making sense of their moral intuitions in light of what their Christian leaders, peers, and churches are saying the Bible teaches about human sexuality. That requires honest dialogue and disagreement made in good faith rather than immediately saying “This isn’t truly Side B.”

I appreciate Nick’s charity and directness in explaining his shift away from identifying as Side B. Rather than finding a new label, I simply hope he becomes more outspoken in support for individuals he thinks get it right on sexuality. I would love to hear more of his thoughts on Revoice’s Statement on Sexual Ethics and if it is a sufficient statement to continue identifying with the movement. It would be wonderful for him to continue to enter into more public dialogue with the writers of Spiritual Friendship. Dialogue and collaboration are not tantamount to theological affirmation. While I ultimately disagree with his conclusions, Nick has made an invaluable contribution in asking the Side B community to wrestle with its public perception, beliefs, and consistency.

Edited on 7/5 to make language less generalized in describing Side B views and experiences.

From Celibate Gay Poster Child to Future Gay Husband

The most humbling thing I ever have to do is admit when I am wrong. It’s not humbling because I hate changing my beliefs; I kind of delight in being less wrong, actually. The thing I dislike about shifting my beliefs is that it tends to alienate people with whom I have developed close friendships based on a shared personal conviction.

I dread the thought of disappointing many of you in writing that I am fully affirming of same-sex marriage as a blessed covenant before God. In this reflection, I will not make the arguments for my position, but provide little bit of context to the process that got me (and my partner) there.

The Backstory

In the past eight years of being a Christian, I have always held the traditional view of marriage and sexuality, initially believing God was calling me to marry a woman. I was told to do otherwise would be tantamount to abandoning my newly formed faith. My thinking about marriage changed when I ended my four-year-long relationship with a female friend in 2017. Things got even more complicated a year and a half ago, when I fell in love with Kyle. Neither him nor I wanted to cut off the deep bond we were forming, but our consciences did not allow us to pursue a sexual relationship. We eventually decided to begin a celibate partnership, immediately seeking advice from priests, pastors, and our community in order to do something we had no idea how to do.

While most people were unable or unwilling to give us a lot of advice, I wrote a lot of blog posts and social media updates on what living in a celibate partnership was like, never intending to be a poster child for any movement or cause. I have always been upfront that I am not a theologian or an expert; I simply want to live with integrity and transparency with my readers and faith community. Writing is my process of thinking out loud.

It has always been a challenge for me to intellectually defend the traditional perspective on sexuality. My blog from the onset was not an apologetic for the traditional position, but a personal reflection on how I was doing my best to live into my conviction on sexual morality. Regardless of my view on sexual ethics, I strongly believed that God was calling me to share life with Kyle in companionship for the attainment of my sanctification. As we grew deeper in love, I saw a more patient and tender Kyle come to life . I became less stubborn to doing things my way. I have witnessed us become better together than previously when we were apart.

We did our best to be open about our partnership, damaging some longstanding relationships with other Christians, friends, and family members. It resulted in Kyle leaving his church and both of us feeling unsupported by gossip and suspicion in our communities.

The Turning Point

The turning point for me began in March of this year when I wrote a response to Sam Allberry defending non-sexual same-sex relationships. While I felt it was one of the best articulations of my support for same-sex love, I felt unsatisfied. While that piece was sincerely written to defend my choice to be celibate in a relationship that I did not believe was a sacramental marriage, I could no longer grasp how or why I would be harming my relationship with God if Kyle and I decided to marry and express sexual intimacy within that marriage. Why was I trying so hard to prove my relationship was not imitating marriage? I needed answers.

Around the same time, a friend of mine posted on social media describing God’s alleged prohibitions against same-sex sexual activity as timeless commandments that “lead to human flourishing”. I found myself feeling annoyed. What evidence does he have that this prohibition leads to flourishing? Why does marrying someone of the same sex seem to be so obviously wrong to him but not to me? I should not have felt angry, I reasoned. If I truly believed same-sex sexual activity was wrong, then shouldn’t I wholeheartedly endorse this kind of language? We shouldn’t merely tolerate God’s commands, we should delight in them. And yet, I could never sincerely say to my affirming friends “What you are doing is harming yourself and your relationship with God”.

It dawned on me that when my gay friends got married, it didn’t grieve me in a way that sin should have. While I was trying my best to faithfully receive the traditional teaching, I struggled with being able to articulate my reasons for believing God was calling every gay Christian to celibacy or marriage with the opposite sex. There was a cognitive dissonance in my heart that was starting to boil to the surface. I had to do something about it.

The Discernment

This led me to reading a lot of books, journaling, listening to lectures and debates, seeking the counsel of Christians, and praying for better discernment. During that time, I did not publish any new content on my blog, publicly defend celibate partnerships, or argue a defense for the traditional sexual ethic. The most I did was publicly defend celibate gay Christians from slander and criticism. Additionally, I consulted a dozen celibate gay Christian friends for advice and support during my process, some of whom I discussed with for hours on multiple occasions. I even deleted my social media for a month to step back to hear God’s voice over all the noise.

Kyle was also embarking on a journey of his own. Since leaving his last evangelical church, Kyle and I have been learning and wrestling with theological concepts through robust dialogue. The sexual ethics conversation was no different. I remember one evening when I was particularly more upset than usual at the prospect of becoming affirming, he tightly wrapped his arms around me and said, “I am not with you because of your theology. I am not with you because I expect us to be married or have sex in the future. I am with you because I love you. None of that changes.” Kyle has been a channel of grace and peace to me.

After several months of intense discernment, both of us arrived at the affirming position. We no longer believe sex between two people of the same sex is always a sin. We believe God established the Sacrament of Marriage for the salvation of both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Both are in equal need of the grace for their theosis.

This has not been a simple process. I have read more than I have ever cared to read (and that is saying something!). I have sobbed into my pillow asking God to convict my conscience to the traditional position again. I pleaded with God to take this thorn out of flesh that puts me at odds with the people I love. I have felt like a failure to the dozens upon dozens of celibate gay Christians who email or message me saying this blog gives them hope to live out celibacy. That’s the weird thing about beliefs: We don’t choose them. Beliefs form as the result of a weird intersection of faith, hope, reason, experience, and conscience.

I have wondered why, if the traditional view is true, couldn’t the arguments be better? I have wondered why, if the affirming position is true, couldn’t the Tradition of the Church demonstrate explicit support for it? There is a lot I am still wrestling through in my frustration with both conservative and progressive Christians who have added on a lot of unnecessary shame in asking these questions.

The Unknown

There is much to look forward to in this new season of life. I am excited in the coming days to explore with you publicly the reasons for changing my position. I am praying for the day, sometime in the future, when Kyle and I decide to make vows to be husbands to one another before the Lord.

But I can’t pretend that I am not grieving. I was recently talking with an affirming friend who described abandoning non-affirming theology as lifting a huge boulder off his back that he had gotten used to carrying for years. That resonates with me. It feels freeing that, once married, Kyle and I will renew our marital vows in the one-flesh union of sexual intimacy. We no longer have to explain ourselves to skeptics. Our consciences will be clear.

And yet, the thing is, part of me misses that boulder right now. That boulder kept me in communion with so many other celibate gay Christians carrying heavy, but beautifully rich burdens of their own. It is a community where right now many feel very betrayed, disappointed, sad, confused, and angry by our departure. Some speculate that our change in position is because we could not handle the burden of celibacy. Others think we are abandoning our obedience to Christ. Others feel we are taking the easy path to fulfill the desires of the flesh. Certain people perceive that we pretended to be a voice for the celibate gay movement while our convictions were drifting to a different place, despite us taking a step back during that process. And yet, at this moment, I feel more vulnerable to losing the love, commitment, and security the celibate, non-affirming boulder allowed me to have.

I worry who will still be there for us when they read this. I get anxious about one day having to worry about who to invite to my wedding, wearying over who will reject the invitation. I respect everyone’s right to grieve our choices, but I would be lying if I said it doesn’t hurt when I see yet another celibate gay Christian unfriend me on social media. I wonder what will happen to me in my own Christian tradition. Will I be excommunicated once I marry?

The unknown frightens me, but I could not live with myself if I were dishonest.

Costly Obedience

I recently attended the Revoice Conference for the second year in a row. While I walked away edified by much of the content, it was a bittersweet experience this year. Much of the rhetoric surrounding gay celibacy centered on “costly obedience”. To be sure, celibacy costs a lot. It is a sacrifice that pleases Jesus. But the logical implication is that sincerely being convicted of the affirming position, marrying Kyle, and doing my best to follow Christ would somehow cheapen grace; as if making a covenant before God to give our very lives and bodies over to one another forever is to throw away our Cross.

Thankfully, St. Paul calls marriage “a profound mystery [of] Christ and the Church.” (Ephesians 5:32). Marriage is typified by the Incarnate God who humbled himself in submission to the Father and poured out on us His Spirit. The Bridegroom of the Church who washed our feet and exhorted us to “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34) becomes the model that Kyle and I will follow in holy matrimony. Christ our Master became a servant of submission, as spouses “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). When a man marries a woman, they both pick up their crosses to follow Christ. We don’t call them selfish. Even if you disagree with affirming theology, I hope we can agree lifelong commitment costs something.

The Eastern Christian wedding service illustrates marriage as an ascetic discipline. The spouses wear crowns on their heads, representing the crowns of martyrdom in establishing what Fr. Alexander Schmemann calls a “little kingdom”. What a beautiful foretaste of the Kingdom to come!

Abandoning Tradition?

I still agree with St. Paul that celibacy is the highest calling (1 Cor 7:7) but I no longer believe it is the calling of every gay Christian who is not married to the opposite sex. My beliefs about marital fidelity and sexual morality have not changed; only modified in when and how they are applied. I will later argue in my blog that they are the same principles that we apply for any Christian who “if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor 7:9). My theology is very much rooted in the creeds, the councils, the Scriptures, and the saints. That is not going away.

I do not believe in throwing out Holy Tradition or pretending the Holy Fathers and Mothers condoned same-sex sexual activity (they didn’t!). I want to write about the deeper questions that I have been pondering the last several months:

Is the same-sex sexual activity condemned by biblical authors morally analogous to the monogamous, lifelong covenants that two baptized men or women are seeking to establish in Christ within contemporary times?

Is the male and female pairing in Genesis a prescriptive model for all marital relationships or a descriptive model for the origins of humankind?

What is the purpose of sex and its context within marriage?

Can creation ordinances from God change based on human need and the alleviation of suffering, even if its the ordinance of marriage?

Does the marriage or sexual intercourse between male and female portray the love of Christ and the Church in a way two men or two women cannot?

How did the Holy Fathers and Mothers understand gender and its fulfillment in the Eschaton? What does this mean for gender identity, gender roles, ordination, and marriage today?

What is sex complementarity and how can it be grounded with the existence of intersex bodies?

Even if male/female marriage is the ideal, can we condone same-sex relationships in a similar way as divorce and re-marriage in the Orthodox and Protestant traditions?

Whether you think I am right or wrong, I welcome the opportunity to inquire these topics with you.

I do not know what the future holds in its entirety. I feel the weight of tension in being in a traditional church that does not know exactly how to pastorally care for gay people like us. Please keep me, Kyle, and our loved ones in your prayers as we embark on this new journey. If I am wrong, I pray that God and my fellow siblings in Christ extend grace to me in the midst of my error.

God, in your mercy, forgive my moral faults, as well as my intellectual ones. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Recommended Reading

Books:

Sex Difference in Christian Theology by Megan DeFranza

Bible, Gender, Sexuality by James Brownson

Modern Kinship by David Khalaf and Constantino Khalaf

Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same Sex Relationships by Karen Keen

Debating Same-Sex Marriage by John Corvino and Maggie Gallagher

What’s Wrong with Homosexuality? by John Corvino

Articles:

Same-Sex Complementarity by Eugene Rogers

A Theology of Marriage Including Same-Sex Couples by Eugene Rogers, Deirdre Good, Willis Jenkins, and Cynthia Kittredge

GUEST POST: Straight Christian Celibacy by Matthew Rumsey

A big thank you to Matthew for writing our first guest post! Matthew and I connected on Twitter shortly after the 2018 Revoice Conference, and quickly developed a mutual respect for one another. I appreciate his willingness to learn from the broader LGBTQ+ Christian community. Because many of my readers are single, celibate gay Christians, I believe it is important to share a variety of stories that can be helpful to this largely unsupported demographic. As a disclaimer, the views presented by guest contributors are not necessarily representative of my own views.

Guest Post:

My name is Matthew. I’m a single, straight, and Christian man, currently in a season of life where I’m at peace with God taking me down a path of either lifelong celibacy or lifelong marriage. As I write this post, I’m both taking advantage of all the opportunities that singleness provides, and actively participating in the dating world as a means for the path of marriage, all while being at peace with either path. How did I arrive at this state of peace, you might ask? It was through celibacy that God brought about this peace that I now share with you.

This peace didn’t arrive overnight though. Celibacy was, for the better part of my now 14 year walk with Christ, something that I never gave much thought. I knew, according to 1st Corinthians 7, that it was an “option” for me, but one that seemed unlikely and honestly too difficult to pursue. It seemed difficult for me because celibacy involves the foregoing of sex (no further explanation needed for that). Also, the loneliness that was (and still is for many people) associated with celibacy made it seem even more difficult. These were the all too common factors that convinced me to dismiss celibacy. Marriage, on the other hand, was a given: one day I will be married to a woman and live the rest of my life within that context. That truly seemed like a given to me, or so I thought.

When did this journey begin? My earliest memories of interest in celibacy were in early 2018 when I read Party of One by Joy Beth Smith. The book discusses celibacy (among other topics) and so I believe that was when God planted the seeds of interest in me. But the watershed moment for this journey was the Revoice conference later that year in July. For those familiar with Revoice, that should likely come as no shock. For those unfamiliar with Revoice, celibacy is heavily discussed at Revoice. And so during this conference, God essentially urged my spirit to no longer dismiss celibacy but accept it as a legitimate path that God could take me down. And thus the journey began. There are many things God has taught me on this journey, but one very important thing He did, was use celibacy to take something good away from me and reveal to me something exceedingly better.

You see, when marriage was a given, it was like I could look ahead and picture part of my future with near absolute certainty: I’m married to a woman who loves me and I love her, raising children who love me and I love them, attending church with my family, living in community with others as a married man, serving my wife and children practically and spiritually, doing family devotions with my wife, helping my children with their schoolwork, attending sport events and cookouts, travelling with my family on vacation, spending the holidays with them, attending graduations, watching my children grow up and perhaps get married and have children of their own, and growing old with my wife. There were a lot of good things to look forward to, or so I thought.

But, as celibacy slowly but surely became a serious option, this once certain future slowly but surely disappeared. Now all I see is an open future, in which I could either be celibate or be married. I can no longer picture a married life, and all of its associated events and milestones, with the near absolute certainty I once had. All that was given for me, was taken away from me. And it terrified me. Why? Because I had something taken away from me that gave me some kind of assurance that my life wouldn’t be a waste. This future marriage, as hypothetical as it truly was, assured me that I will have people in my life (a wife and children) who will love me and I will love them. But if that future is no longer a certainty and an assurance (and never was those things to begin with), then what am I looking forward to? Or should I ask… who am I looking forward to?

It’s amazing how something as good as marriage can distract you from something better. That should be no surprise, good gifts from God can and often do become idols, and marriage is no exception. With this hypothetical future now gone, I no longer have it there to distract me from the one and only certainty and assurance I need: God Himself, my blessed and eternal future. Every step I take in this life, whether in celibacy or in marriage, will be one I take with Him and towards Him. I’m pursuing Him first and foremost. All of my desires to love and be loved find their apex, ultimacy, and fulfillment in God. His love never fails. And in that assurance comes peace. And from this peace comes the freedom to love God and others in whatever way God calls, whether I’m celibate or married. He is trustworthy.

As I said, God used celibacy to take something good away from me and reveal to me something, or rather, someone exceedingly better: Himself. I don’t know what my future will look like exactly, and that’s okay. I don’t know if I’ll be celibate or married in the next five, ten, or even twenty years, and that’s okay. But I do know the God in whom I have entrusted my future. Whatever my future will be, He will be with me always. He will never leave me nor forsake me (Hebrews 13:5). And “surely goodness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6).

You can follow Matthew at @RumseyME 

Day 7: Celibacy as Romance

This is Day 7 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.

11 Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.

12 Greet one another with a holy kiss. 13 All God’s people here send their greetings.

14 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. 2 Cor 13:11-14 (NIV)

In New Testament times, and even today in many non-Western cultures, it was customary for people to kiss one another as a form of greeting. This gesture is seen in my country as “romantic” and therefore, it’s uncommon between people who aren’t pursuing marital or sexual relationships. Celibate gay Christians walk a difficult line within conservative spaces on the topics of physical affection and romance.  Are gay Christians able to have romantic friendships and relationships within their celibate vocations?

Romance is a socially constructed category that was developed relatively recently to describe particular kinds of loving relationships. I have yet to see an argument from Scripture or Holy Tradition that prohibits romance between two people of the same sex, even within the most traditional, historical versions of Christian sexual ethics.

At what point do forms of tenderness, compassion, closeness, and mutual delight become “romantic”? I think we do ourselves a disservice if we connect every form of romance to sexual intimacy. In my own partnership, the attraction I experience to Kyle can’t be reduced to genital desire. I crave to be in union with him in heart and mind. I want to steward my affection in a way that helps us delight in one another the way Christ delights in us. When I hear conservatives balk at the idea of celibate romance, it seems that they believe Paul’s “holy kiss” just wasn’t meant for us.

Same-sex romance isn’t exclusive to living a life of chastity. I see romance when Kyle and I walk in the park holding hands or when he places his hand on my knee as I’m being comforted. I feel excitement when he takes me out to a new place for dinner. I sometimes give him a peck on the cheek and say that I love him. You might call these acts of “romance”, but they are, most importantly, ways in which we sustain one another amidst the challenges of celibate couplehood.


I wonder if we’ve associated celibacy with isolation for far too long which makes this idea seem radical. The reality is that most of us have basic needs: to be held, to be loved, and to be desired. Rather than eschewing these things entirely because temptation might occur, we need to reorient our desires to be ones of holy affection for our friends and partners. We can say no to using our friends for sexual objectification and say yes to loving them.

An Episcopal priest named Fr. Mac Stewart says it best:

“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. . . 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 cosmic romance?”

Fostering romance within my partnership enables me to think imaginatively about the tenderness I am called to give others. Kyle isn’t the only man who can receive my “holy kiss”. Our celibate vocation can serve as a reminder of this great cosmic romance Jesus calls every person into.


Holy Spirit, you are the fountain of life. Instill in us the belief that every human being is created for tenderness, belonging, and love. Enable us to engage in chaste expressions of emotional, spiritual, and physical affection. Reorient our minds to love our bodies. We ask this in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Day 6: When Celibacy isn’t a Gift

This is Day 6 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.

66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. 67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. John 6:60-71 (NIV)

Do you feel a calling to celibacy? If I were to answer this question I usually say I think so. I first noticed the beauty of the celibate vocation when I was seven years old. I remember talking to my mom and somehow the topic of unmarried Roman Catholic priests came up. “Why can’t they get married?” I asked. “Doesn’t everyone get married?” My mom answered, “Well, priests don’t marry so that they can better serve the Church. The Church is a priest’s spouse and his children are the parishioners.” I remember my heart leaping. There was something so compelling about that.

Growing up, I never pictured a wife or kids in my future. My fantasy was my own place with plenty of space for friends and family to stay with me if they needed it. I wanted people to always be in and out of my home. I imagined sharing my life with my best friend or a roommate, but my naïve brain didn’t understand this was rare for people outside of marriage and romantic relationships. Was this a call to celibacy? Perhaps. Or I was just gay and had no word for it yet.

When I became a Christian at age 17, I visited monasteries and befriended Roman Catholic priests. The freedom within celibacy enabled by its asceticism and hospitality continued to speak to me. The routine of prayer, fasting, and hospitality I saw in monastic communities was the kind of life I desired for myself.

Would I be celibate regardless of where I end up on the question of sexual ethics of same-sex marriage? Perhaps. I hope so. What Kyle and I have is beautiful on its own. This doesn’t mean my vocation always feels like a gift.

I struggle to frame celibacy in terms of gifting. In American culture, we put so much stock in autonomy that we overlook the complexities in how people arrive at their state in life. Not all vocations feel emotionally satisfying or seem to be the best possible world we can live in. Perhaps you have become the caretaker of a sick family member; a path you wouldn’t have chosen for yourself but no one else can do it. Maybe you became a widow at a young age and feel distant from God in the midst of unplanned grief and confusion. How are you supposed to find meaning in your circumstances if we keep insisting vocation is always a gift?

I have close friends who feel their call to celibacy is rooted in God prohibiting them from a same-sex relationship. I know other queer folks who want to be married, but have tremendous difficulty finding a spouse. In my case, my Christian tradition prohibits same-sex sexual activity, I fell in love with a man, and have tried to honor God in the best way I can.

Whatever the case may be, God is present. He gives meaning to our joys and sufferings even when our state in life doesn’t seem like a gift. Queer people are usually doing their best to follow Jesus, and I have to believe that counts for something. Whatever the reason you find yourself living a celibate vocation, know you are a beloved queer child of God who keeps praying, “O Lord where shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”

Life-creating Spirit, give us peace that you are are in the midst of our confusion and uncertainty. Brighten our days with your warmth. Give us peace in our discernment to follow your will. Direct us to mature in our vocations with a clear conscience. Amen.

Day 5: Celibacy as Radical Hospitality

This is Day 5 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 Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. 2 Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. 3 Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” Hebrews 13:1-3 (NIV)

So far we have reflected on the first three characteristics of celibacy: commitment, spiritual life, and vulnerability. The heart of the celibate Christian tradition is radical hospitality. You see the commitment to hospitality in monasteries and consecrated religious orders. I love the Rule of St. Benedict which reminds the monks “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.”

How can LGBT+ celibates renew the Church’s understanding of radical hospitality? From the examples of monastics and personal experience, here are some practical suggestions:

If your situation allows, consider having a guest room at your house. Monasteries usually have guest housing when people need to make a spiritual retreat. Consider holding space for others in this way, especially if someone is transitioning to your city or is encountering unemployment.

Foster outward friendships and relationships. A blessing in my celibate partnership is Kyle pushing me to focus on others. Brainstorm with your roommates, close friends, and partners about which people you are encountering, and how you can combine resources to bless them.

Lean into your celibate freedom. Be available to have that late night phone call with your distressed friend. Take an acquaintance to the airport for their early morning flight. Watch your friends’ kids so they can have a night out for once. Drive a friend to go grocery shopping or church if they don’t have a car. You may have the time and resources that others don’t.

Break bread with others. Meals can be acts of sacred hospitality. Host people over often and let them feel like part of your home. Host singles and friends estranged from family over the holidays. Don’t just do a “friendsgiving”; make them part of your Thanksgiving.

Allow imperfection. Jesus invited himself into Zaccheus’ home before Zaccheus said a word. You don’t have to have your physical or spiritual house in order to welcome someone in the way you would welcome Christ. It’s okay if your place isn’t spotless or you’re missing that fancy bottle of wine. Let your hospitality be a gift in whatever state. You have grace to give and receive.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of suggestions, but it can be a good start for wherever you are in your celibate journey. Celibacy isn’t restricted to saying “no” to sex. It’s saying yes to hospitality, yes to freedom, and yes to a new family in Christ.

Almighty God and Father, open our eyes to see fellow human beings as image-bearers. Remind us that how we treat our guests reflects how we treat your Son. Forgive us of our tendencies to look inward. Deliver us from conceit as we look to our example, your Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.

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.