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.