31 Mar A Better Conversation About LGBT People In The Church

My recent conversation with Wesley Hill at City Church in San Francisco got me thinking about all things gay celibacy. Wes was one of the founders of Spiritual Friendship, a blog that hosts thoughtful gay Christians who believe marriage is between a man and a woman and lifelong celibacy is required of anyone who’s not hetero married. My conversation with Wes was wonderful (super honest and respectful) and you can watch it here.

I’ve been wanting to write about Spiritual Friendship a while—about Wes and Eve and the community of writers who have shaped me in such positive ways over the past few years. I’ve also wanted to share some concerns about traditionalists who latched onto part of their message and missed the larger vision.

I understand the heart of their movement to be one that reimagines friendship and hospitality in our modern nuclear-family-obsessed Christian context. They’ve felt the effects of messages that made marriage the primary place to find intimacy and the entry into Being Fully Human. They urge conservative Christians to take the call to hospitality as seriously as they take the call to chastity—to commit to friendship as passionately as we commit to the family.

Me and my close friends who affirm same-sex marriage often say Spiritual Friendship’s vision has made us healthier affirming gays. As we date and some marry, we see in ourselves a commitment to friendship that doesn’t wane when we couple up. We note a marked difference in our love for same-sex friends vs. our love for same-sex partners (a distinction celibate gay writers often blur a bit), but we feel a sense of solidarity with them in our shared pursuit of a vision that celebrates friendship as much as we celebrate marriage. We agree that “the one” won’t meet all our needs for intimacy and we hope our future spouses will share our passion for hospitality, a passion that Spiritual Friendship ignited in so many of us.

What strikes me as strange is the way many conservatives have latched onto them simply because they hold traditional views of marriage. While Spiritual Friendship’s project is actually a critique of the church’s obsession with the nuclear family, they’re often promoted by conservatives as a group of LGBT people who defend a theology that mandates celibacy for gay people. They’re a group these Christians can hold up and say: “Yes! Gays with traditional views of marriage! We’re not bigots—they’re saying it, too!”

While they do hold traditional views of marriage (and their belief that celibacy is required of all gay and lesbian people certainly fuels their passion for friendship), they don’t spend much of their energy defending that view. They’re more interested in creating a positive vision for gay Christians. They’re more concerned about the significant changes the church needs to make to become the kind of community where gay people feel wanted and worthy of love.

Which is why it’s so troubling that they’re usually promoted as a defense of traditional marriage. When conservative Christians began to realize gay Christians exist and that we cannot change, a sense of fear swept through. And just when they thought they might have to take uncomfortable steps toward welcoming (and learning from) the LGBT Christians in their midst, they found another answer:

“CELIBACY! Yes! Why hadn’t we THOUGHT of it?!”

What could be a valuable resource for people to better understand how homophobia plays out in the church is often turned into another justification to quarantine the gays.

It’s not the celibacy part that’s disturbing—many people will not marry and we need to right the wrong that’s relegated single people to second class status in the church. The disturbing part has been the way these stories have been coopted to serve a fear-based posture toward the inclusion of LGBT people (with a range of beliefs) in all areas of the church. When I attempted to walk that path for a season, too many Christians made passing statements about how they needed me to defend traditional marriage and call all gays to celibacy because it would carry more weight if it came from a gay.

“I can’t promote this view as a straight person without sounding homophobic,” many would say before I spoke.

It wasn’t long before I felt like my quest to create safer places for gay people in the church (along with my passion for friendship and community) was something conservatives saw as a cute part of a spiel that fought for traditional Family Values. While less than 4% of my attention went to mentioning that I leaned theologically conservative, I increasingly felt like I was participating in the oppression of already marginalized LGBT people because of the way my story was used.

There are many conservative Christians who humbly seek to learn from people like Wes because they find his vision compelling. But in my experience, there were far more whose fears sent them grasping for any new answer that might return the church to the comfortable time when they didn’t have to wrestle with the possibility of vibrant same-sex couples in their communities.

The church needs to embrace and support sexual minorities who interpret Scripture through a conservative lens. But I hope the heart of their message will come through: that all gay Christians are a gift to the church and straight Christians have something to learn from us. I hope their message of friendship and hospitality will be received as a good in itself, not as a means to a conservative end. I hope they will be celebrated as a community that promotes under-valued forms of love rather than an answer people can point to in a desperate attempt to avoid considering how the Spirit might move through same-sex couples.

We need to have a better conversation about LGBT people in the church, and that will happen when we receive the whole of each side’s message rather than picking out the parts that serve an agenda that was determined before the conversation started.

  • Snoopy
    Posted at 12:09h, 31 March Reply

    “But in my experience, there were far more whose fears sent them grasping for any new answer that might return the church to the comfortable time when they didn’t have to wrestle with the possibility of vibrant gay Christian couples in their communities.”

    I feel as though most people like that don’t even like the fact that celibate gay Christians refer to themselves as gay in the first place? Because something something you’re defining yourself by your sexual attractions instead of by Christ something. When you gave that talk at Q Ideas with Matthew Vine last year (?), people were happy enough to overlook that you called yourself gay, but only because they had bigger fish to fry with that awful heretical apostate (/s) Vines.

  • Julie Rodgers on Spiritual Friendships | Leadingchurch.com
    Posted at 17:48h, 31 March Reply

    […] Julie Rodgers blog […]

    • Elaine Falk Parker
      Posted at 00:11h, 12 August Reply

      I love your writing and so wish I could force some of my conservative friends to read this article!
      My daughter Madalyn is marrying her love Jacklin on September 8 at the Wheatland music festival in Remus Michigan. Unfortunately she has abandoned Christianity and identifies more as Buddhist, which breaks my heart.
      Congratulations on YOUR engagement!
      Keep fighting the good fight!

  • Christine Callan
    Posted at 19:43h, 31 March Reply

    Vibrant same sex couples enhance the church because we ARE the church. It is for freedom we have been set free. Why would anyone deny God the opportunity to love us through the “vehicle” of physical affection from another human? I respect these words Julie. Thank you for sharing your heart. Additionally, Matthew Vines is not a heretic, contrary to some who may say. God gives us the opportunity to choose “life to the full” as the scriptures say. Withholding ourselves from another person is withholding ourselves from the living God.

  • Kathy Arnold
    Posted at 22:55h, 31 March Reply

    Thanks for this Julie, I agree wholeheartedly it is not celibacy that is disturbing (celibacy is a beautiful calling for those with the capacity for it and with a support system in place. It is not for everyone). Rather, for me, it is the exclusion of those who are affirming from full fledged fellowship that is disturbing. As well as the lack of understanding that those who choose a Side A position have come to an understanding through a rigorous process of evaluating scripture, experience and reason. As for me, I am surprised my beliefs about same sex marriage has changed. I did not intend it but was compelled along this path even as I dedicated myself to chastity with the intention of someday making celibacy a firm commitment. My heart kept turning towards those who are affirming Christians. The people I encountered were Side A and I saw their good fruit, their humility, their gentleness, their kindness. I could not harden my heart against them instead my heart softened and compassion gave way.

    May I say (and if I am being overly sensitive then I apologize) that no matter the empathy that is shown or the ‘soft music’ that is played by traditionalists in their efforts to ‘speak truth in love’ towards us, I find there is a sinister underpinning which communicates a silent condemnation, as if we are compromising the gospel. I think the fact that traditionalists primarily hold their views, because they believe same sex behaviour to be immoral, underscores the reason they hold out against affirmation. And I sense we cannot have a better discussion with the veiled threats of repercussions for our decision to follow an affirming path. ie: we will support you while you wrestle with this but you are only wrestling with this and we can’t take you seriously at this time and finally if you don’t land in the same place as us we will have to cut ties with you ie: eventually dissolve your membership in our church.

    If this sound hopeless— it sure seems that way, sometimes, when I look at the big picture. The only course I see that would mediate this polarization is if we all realize that according to conscience some have come to understand same sex marriages are blessed by God and some have not and it is love that will unite us to the end— an enduring ‘tough’ love.

  • Norman Birthmark
    Posted at 08:45h, 01 April Reply

    Thank you for continuing to share your journey, Julie.

    Can you clarify or expand what your meaning in this statement: “…We agree that ‘the one’ won’t meet all our needs for intimacy…” Are you applying this limitation to all spouses or just same-gender spouses?

    The concern many of us who have survived the ‘ex-gay’ experience is that celibacy groups like Spiritual Friendship are merely another version of the ‘ex-gay’ movement. It seems that if someone believes same-sex behavior is sinful, then they must also conclude that same-sex attractions are inherently psychology and spiritually unhealthy and lacking compared to heterosexual marriage. In the end, such a perspective isn’t much different than the ‘ex-gay’ movement.

    • Annie Faye
      Posted at 17:57h, 06 April Reply

      Hello Norman!

      I’m someone who’s been reading Julie’s blogs for over a year now, and she’s always strongly encouraged everyone (regardless of sexuality) to embrace loving friendships. I remember she once wrote that she has a vision that friends might move across the country with one another (just like most people would do with a spouse). While I can’t speak for Julie as I am not her, I believe that her statement about “the one” applies to people of all orientations. Julie has heavily implied before (and probably explicitly stated, but I don’t want to put words in her mouth) that the church puts too much emphasis on finding a romantic soulmate to fit all your needs for intimacy, and often fails to recognize that we also need close friendships as well. There is a special intimacy that can only be found in friendship, and this intimacy is important for everyone, whether you’re straight or gay.

      I don’t think that her statement about “the one” was suggesting that same-sex relationships, and only same-sex relationships, are incomplete. Rather, perhaps all romantic relationships are incomplete because we all need close friends as well.

      Hope this answered your question, and also I’m hoping that Julie might join this thread as well because I bet she can explain it better than I did.

      Oh and thank you Julie for another wonderfully insightful post!

      • Norman Birthmark
        Posted at 10:19h, 08 April Reply

        Hi Annie,

        Thank you for your speculation about Julie’s meaning. I want to believe that Julie’s “the one” caveat applies to both opposite- and same-gender spouses, but the paragraph it was made in was focused on same-gender marriages.

        I’ve never heard a similar caveat placed on heterosexual marriages. I agree that no spouse should be expected to fulfill all of their partner’s needs. That’s what bro’s/gal’s, colleagues, offspring, clergy, extended family, etc are for. However, spouses are traditionally expected to share a special and exclusive intimacy with their spouses.

        Maybe I’m reading too much into it or maybe Julie is still sorting-out the issue, but I’m not sure why the caveat was mentioned. Again, part of my concern is that this is carry over from the ex-gay/Spiritual Friendship schemes that suggest that homosexuality is inherently broken or less than the hetero-ideal.

  • Mark Perkins
    Posted at 19:34h, 21 June Reply

    Just a thought: I definitely agree that a good deal of the support Wes Hill and others receive from conservative Christian circles has to do with finding “cover” to defend views that are increasingly marginal in mainstream society. But this also sort of makes it sound like celibacy is a brand new practice… and not, you know, something that’s as old as the New Testament. (For example, one of the very many delightful things I learned from Wes Hill’s ‘Spiritual Friendship’ was the story of Aelred.)

    Granted, lifelong celibacy probably is brand new to most evangelicals–I certainly grew up with the idea that everybody is supposed to get married–but it’s certainly not new or novel in more historically rooted branches of Christianity.

  • Mark Halpin
    Posted at 19:39h, 28 June Reply

    Julie, I have enjoyed following your path…if your up for it, lets find a way to connect by phone.