Same-Sex Attraction and the Church
REFORMATION 21; by Matthew Tuininga; JULY 2016
Ed Shaw. Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life. Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2015. 172 pages. $16.00.
For far too long in this country it has seemed possible to enjoy both the Christian life and the American dream. Christians have conflated the way of Christ and the pursuit of happiness. It has never worked as well as it was supposed to, but the inconsistencies and contradictions have always seemed relatively minor. Now that has all changed, and in this excellent little book Ed Shaw, pastor of Emmanuel City Centre in Bristol, England, is calling the church to wake up.
Christians, including young evangelicals, are increasingly being persuaded that it is unreasonable, or, as Shaw puts it, implausible, to ask those who experience exclusively same-sex attraction to live celibate lives. Sexuality is considered to be central to human identity, and sexual experience is thought to be an essential part of any decent life. To expect a person to be celibate – for his or her entire life – is to ask that person to deny his or her very own self. It is to reject any and all possibility of happiness. And for many Christians this is simply too difficult to stomach. God wants us to be happy, doesn’t he?
Shaw captures the humanity and emotion of the argument for same-sex relationships in his opening story about a young man named Peter. Peter is an enthusiastic member of his evangelical church. Like other teenagers, he has experienced the excitement, the challenges, and the temptations of puberty, struggling to manage the fascinating new phenomena of sexual attraction in Christlike ways. But unlike all of his friends, Peter knows that he doesn’t merely have to wait, to practice abstinence until he finds the right woman. Peter is exclusively attracted to men and hasn’t been able to change that, and he knows that according to Christian teaching, that means he may never have sex.
Shaw captures the angst:
But boy, does Peter want to have sex. He’s growing up in one of the most sexualized cultures since pre-Christendom… Talking to the youth group guys in a males-only session afterward, the husband said sex was the best experience he’d ever had – God was so good to have created something so pleasurable. It would be that good for them too – if they kept it for marriage. But Peter won’t be getting any if he sticks with what he’s been told, if he lives in the light of the Bible’s teaching. And that seems unreasonable (to say the least) for seventeen-year-old Peter. Sex is everywhere. His desire for it is overwhelming. And his church says no to that – forever (14).
Shaw points out that there is a growing number of Christian churches, theologians, and Christian writers willing to welcome Peter and affirm that he can be a Christian while practicing homosexuality. Given that, and given the power of our hyper-sexualized culture, simply quoting the standard litany of Bible verses on homosexuality is becoming less and less persuasive to people. “Just say no!” is no longer going to cut it.
Shaw finds this to be a powerful indictment of the Christian church. Christians have accepted so much of what our culture teaches about the good life, and our understanding of what following Christ means has become so compromised, that the clearest demands of the gospel no longer seem realistic to us. They no longer seem plausible. And Shaw’s objective in this book is to help make those demands plausible once again.
The book is structured as a discussion of nine “missteps” the church has taken that have undermined the plausibility of a genuine Christian life, making believers less likely to be willing to take up their cross and follow Christ, and consequently making it seem hypocritical and unnecessary to require believers who struggle with same-sex attraction to do so. Shaw seeks to correct these nine missteps and so to recover for Christians a plausibility structure that is rooted in the gospel. In short, Shaw’s book is not just another look at the biblical texts. It gets at the heart of why so many young Christians are caving in to affirm same-sex sexual relationships. It shows why the practice of homosexuality doesn’t simply run contrary to the Bible; it nullifies the heart of the gospel.
I do not have the space here to summarize the nine missteps Shaw identifies, and I want to give you a good reason to go and read the book – which every thoughtful Christian should do. But I do want to draw attention to what I take to be some of Shaw’s most important points. At the foundation of his argument is his observation that believers ought not find their identity in their sexuality – whether gay, straight, or otherwise – but in Christ. This is, indeed, a central theme of Christian ethics from start to finish. The seductiveness of the argument for affirming same-sex relationships stems from its claim that gay Christians are and always will be gay in their orientation and that this necessarily constitutes their identity. It is who they are. And to resist this is therefore to resist the way God has made them. But, as Shaw demonstrates, even if a person’s sexual orientation is unchangeable (and Shaw thinks that in this life it often is), this claim is fundamentally false. Sexual orientation does not constitute identity. Our identity is in Christ. We are children of God, and we are to consider ourselves dead to sin. The first and most important step to recovering the plausibility of the celibate life is recovering our identity in Christ.
From his foundational point about identity in Christ Shaw critiques evangelical churches for their idolization of heterosexuality and the life of families married with children. Christians, especially Protestants, have bought into the cultural lies that sex is where true intimacy is found and that celibacy is a bad thing. They have lost sight of the ways in which the New Testament points to a new and greater kind of community, one that transcends biological family ties and that is reflected in the kingdom-focused, celibate lives of Christian exemplars like Jesus and Paul. If the essence of the Christian life consists in conformity to Christ, and if Christ lived a perfect, celibate life, how can it be implausible for Christians also to walk that path? As Jesus himself said, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields – along with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30) (Cited on p. 47).
It is a commentary on the weakness of the Christian church that we no longer find this vision of discipleship – so emphatic and consistent in the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament – plausible. It says far more about our lack of faith in the gospel than it does about anything we have supposedly learned from science or experience.
The power of the argument for affirming same-sex relationships, Shaw recognizes, is the assumption – fundamentally alien to Christianity – that happiness in this life is our primary objective (“If it makes you happy, it must be right!”) and that suffering must be avoided at all costs. That this perspective is increasingly being confused with New Testament Christianity – the way of life of a crucified Lord – is as powerful an indictment of western Christianity as could be mustered. Jesus “in effect, defines his disciples as those willing to sacrifice themselves for him. We need to grasp the full danger that we run into when we stop clearly asking people to sacrifice personal happiness. In not asking people to stick to Jesus’ costly commands about evangelism, married life, financial decisions or sexuality, we have (unintentionally) put their very salvation at stake” (120).
And yet Shaw sees an opportunity here. Just as he sees his own same-sex attraction as a gift from God – a means God has used to draw him to greater fidelity and conformity to Christ – so the presence of people who experience same-sex attraction and the controversy that accompanies it comes as a “divine gift” to the church, a “divine gift, because it’s just what we needed at this time in our history to help us see the whole series of tragic missteps we have taken to the detriment of us all, as well as to the detriment of the world we are trying to reach” (133). In short, wrestling with what it means for those who struggle with same-sex attraction to follow Christ will help all of us learn better to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him.
Shaw concludes the book with an appendix that offers sharp observations of some of the most popular arguments for the affirmation of same-sex marriage by Christians, including those of Jeffrey John, Justin Lee, James Brownson, and Matthew Vines. It is a powerful, much-needed book. Get a copy and read it.
Matthew J. Tuininga is the assistant professor of moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.