If you are at all familiar the broader community of celibate gay Christians, you will have heard something like, “our experience of being attracted to the same-sex, according to the grace of God, has been transformed and redeemed to become a vocation.”
Eve Tushnet has written, and Wes Hill has echoed, that “You can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex; you can’t have a vocation of No.” instead, as Hill has stated, we need a “vocation of yes”.
Now, this means a bunch of different things to a bunch of different people of different traditions in different environments. Here’s what I think is of primary importance when we speak about a “vocation of yes”.
Whenever Christians talk about vocation, or purpose, or calling, what must come first is the question, “how can I demonstrate Gospel truths through my experiences in my context?” Manifesting the effects of the Gospel in our lives should be central to how we discuss a sense of calling. And this is not just an individualistic thing – I believe that the celibate gay Christian is in prime position to remind the Church of some foundational things.
It’s clear to me that the first Gospel truth that the same-sex attracted/LGB Christian has to reckon with is that of costly obedience. Faced with the sexual ethic and imperatives of the Bible, sexual relationships with people of the same-sex are on the no-go list for the biblically obedient person. This is no small thing. But it’s also not an exclusive burden on gay people.
Jesus says in Mark 8:34,35, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross to follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”
Sacrifice is a fundamental principle of life for those that want to follow Jesus. It is the shape of discipleship. Hebrews 12 says, “Jesus, who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God.” This is the model we are given for the Christian life. We anticipate a greater joy than this world can offer and so we choose to go without. Sacrifice is an integral aspect of following a saviour who sacrificed all to gain all.
Much of the western Church has enjoyed a rather long period of comfort and privilege and so perhaps this understanding of costly discipleship has dimmed in our minds. The uncovering of celibate, same-sex attracted Christians in the Church has meant that, not only the gay individual, but by extension the broader Church, has had to think seriously about what is worth leaving behind to live in union Christ.
A friend of mine made me tear up recently by telling me that, if they and their partner continued in ministry they would have to consider not having kids, even though they would very much like them. My friend wrote, “I’m starting to wonder if, since God calls some people like you to sacrifice romantic relationships for the sake of the gospel, it’s not unreasonable to think that he might be calling me to give up something I long for too.”
One of the most common questions I get is, “how do we make our churches better places for same-sex attracted people?” Whenever I’m speaking to churches or leadership teams, I explain that, to make the Church a better environment for LGB/SSA people, the best thing that any church can do is to strive after being exactly what a community of disciples is meant to be.
If, in most cases, the gay person is to give up marriage and sex (things that we’re made for!) then that will become more plausible if it’s apparent that the Church community, as a whole, is defined by costly obedience.
I realise that talking firstly about sacrifice is to give the impression that celibacy is in fact a “vocation of no”. In some sense it is, but it’s not arbitrary; it’s not no for no’s sake. It is an absence, to be sure, but an absence that testifies to the wholeness Jesus offers.
Philippians 3:10 says “I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of His resurrection, and to participate in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His Death…”
Paul (the writer of Philippians) is essentially saying that he wants to know Christ by coming to resemble Him. To do that, he needs to know what Jesus experienced as He put aside His life for the sake of others as He did in so much of His ministry. Paul, in this passage, wants to feel what it’s like to go without so as to understand and imitate the model that Jesus sets out, while filling his heart with the hope of what Jesus’ began with His resurrection.
It is true that choosing to go without same-sex sexual partners for those that want them is a way of participating in Jesus’ sufferings. Everyone who chooses celibacy knows what it is to ache, deep in our bodies, for release, to detach from God’s design and commands but to, instead, stay.
By staying we are coming to know our Saviour through common experience. We are learning to say “Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance. I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me. I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With Him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” (Psalm 16:5-8)
This flows directly into my next point; we’re not giving things up for the sake of gaining nothing. The celibate gay Christian is a living demonstration that an obedient life is lived in anticipation for the fulfillment of God’s promises. By our presence in The Church, we embody, not just the sacrificial dynamic of discipleship, but also why we should be willing to give things up now.
Sam Allberry has said about singleness,
“By foregoing marriage now, singleness is a way of both anticipating this reality and testifying to its goodness. [It’s like skipping the entrée to be hungrier for the main course.] It’s a way of saying this future reality is so certain that we can live according to it now. If marriage shows us the shape of the gospel, singleness shows us its sufficiency.”
While marriage is a good and rich thing that symbolises something true about our relationship with God, singleness too has a unique way of testifying to the goodness of the gospel. Marriage is a sign of what we’re destined for – a consummated, permanent intimacy in the presence of God. At the same time, we’re also destined for “singleness” in the sense that we won’t be in human marriages in the New Creation. Of course, that’s something that we haven’t arrived at yet, and so meanwhile singleness is an accurate portrayal of our situation in the here and now, while we wait for the consummation of this age.
It takes both-and to holistically capture our relationship to God. Both marriage and singleness are gifts for the benefit of the Kingdom, teaching us the nature of what we are, what we’re destined for and what it is to know God.
If I may wax anecdotal for a moment to close this article, I often get told that I operate with maturity beyond my years which, I realise, sounds like a brag. Maybe it is? Every now and then I put myself in the shoes of 17-year-old Tom and look at myself now – I think young Tom would be astounded, pleased even at who he grows up to be. If that’s pride, then I don’t think it’s the toxic kind. Plus, it surely testifies to God’s goodness, not my own.
Anyway, I think the major thing that has driven me forward into whatever spiritual maturity (to say nothing of my general maturity as person) I might have is, not that I’ve mastered the vocation described above, but that I’ve had to wrestle with it for as long as I have been aware of my sexuality. Most Christians who enjoy the privilege of being white and straight and western don’t often have to come to grips with the sacrifice and anticipation paradigm at any great pace. Of course, I enjoy a lot of privilege too, but by virtue of being gay, I have, at least, had to think hard about what discipleship means in the realm of sexuality.
A leadership podcast I listened to a few years back explained that one of the most integral things that makes a productive worker is the ability to delay pleasure and instead focus on the task at hand. Now this is something that in everyday life I’m really quite bad at (just ask the chocolate biscuits that are no longer in my cupboard), but I’ve always understood that following Jesus involves imitating the kind of life He lived – a life where we put aside some pleasures for now so as to focus on living up to our purpose.
Again, I say this not to make much of myself. My point is that the life of the celibate LGB/SSA Christian, my own and those of my brothers and sisters who experience similar, brings with it a certain perspective which is to everyone’s benefit.
What might be easily forgotten or ignored in the comfortable majority is impossible to lose sight of when your heart and body is forever reminding you of what you are leaving behind and, by extension, what you are moving towards.
I am trying to embrace this as part of my vocation in the Church, and I am grateful for those that have already demonstrated the value of this to me, to Christianity more broadly, and to the world. It’s the purpose of The Integrate Project to promote testimonies that illuminate precisely this so that others can see how the LGB/SSA person can be for the enriching of God’s people in our time. It’s my prayer that more people will feel equipped to offer themselves to the weight of evidence put forward here.
(Part 2 is coming soon. There we will think further about community and the role of aesthetics in it.)