Plausibility or Entrapment?
“Same-Sex Attraction and the Church—The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life” (2015 IVP Books) by Ed Shaw is an honest account of a gay man’s struggle with his sexual orientation.
[FULL review also on Amazon.]
Shaw, a pastor in England, avoids the term “sexual orientation” and instead uses nuanced language like “same-sex attraction.” The difference between the two terms is subtle and may seem inconsequential, but it is not. “Sexual orientation” indicates a natural state of romantic, emotional and sexual attraction. Even Shaw admits, and rightly so, that no one, including him, knows the cause of homosexuality: “As a theory on the origins of homosexuality, being born gay works for me better than any other on the market today.” (p 51)
Strangely, even if the cause of human sexuality variation were found to be genetic, Shaw still believes, “A genetic basis for homosexuality would not make it right.” (p 54) That seems rather odd. How can this be so?
Conveniently for biblical literalists, imperfections, problems, and traits that are unexplainable or undesirable are frequently labelled as having been introduced into God’s perfect creation “after the fall.” Shaw, a literalist, believing the Bible to be “inerrant and authoritative” (p 23) falls in line with this thinking.
Though some people may have indeed been born gay with a “sinful genetic inheritance” (p 54), homosexuality is a moral failing that needs to be dealt with like other “after the fall” sin issues. In seeing non-heterosexual orientations as a moral or sin issue, Shaw breaks with every professional medical health care and psychological organization which views homosexuality as a natural expression of human sexuality and writes, “potentially being born ‘gay’ (as it is crudely put) does not necessarily make it right for me to embrace a gay identity and lifestyle. (p 57)
“Embracing a gay identity” is a phrase that has been popping up frequently in the past few years and has become the core message of several recent gay-but-must-be-celibate books. Shaw says, “I think that a Christian should be very wary of doing anything that might root his or her identity in their sexuality. We need to be countercultural on this: our identity is, instead to be firmly rooted in Christ.” (p 35)
He continues, “You see, when a same-sex attracted Christian embraces a gay identity and lifestyle, we (the church) need to recognize that it may be, to some extent, not just their fault, but ours too.” (p 29) Shaw thinks it is a “misstep” that the church “allows” Christians to identify as gay, steering them away from the celibate life. So, Shaw and others engage in juggling nuanced words, identifying as an “Evangelical Christian who experiences same-sex attraction”(p 23), rather than a “gay Christian.”
For decades, LGBTQ people did not even have the language to express their life experiences that existed outside the binary. Now, they have the language and a way to express that their feelings and experiences which are often quite unlike those of us who are heterosexual. Is it really so difficult to allow people the space, language and community to define their experience as unlike yours (mine)? We have no hesitation declaring our denominational loyalties saying “I am a Baptist, I am an evangelical, I am a Nazarene.” No one yells back, “No, you are not, we are all Christians.”
Of course the linguistic trap here is that we are to all place our identity in Christ. The Bible tells us this, however using an identity label of “gay” does not negate Jesus or supercede Jesus. We straight Christians don’t need to label ourselves. We don’t need to say heterosexual Christians. We are the default; we are the “normal.”
Demanding, or expecting life long celibacy for gay people is a relatively new phenomenon. Aside from those who willingly take vows of lifelong celibacy in some religious orders, no other group of people is expected to submit to such a restriction. Before going further, I want to take a sidestep and look at the various expectations that have placed on those who identify as both LGBTQ and Christian over the past thirty-five years.
Prior to the 1970s, those who were gay and in faith communities, largely just navigated under the radar. In some denominations and church cultures, “don’t ask don’t tell” was in operation. At the time, culturally and medically, homosexuality was considered a mental illness and a perversion. This wrong assumption was corrected in 1973 when the American Psychological Association recognized their error, de-pathologized homosexuality, and saw it as a normal expression of human sexuality.
In the late 1970s, at the onset of the gay rights movement, as people began to come out of the closet, homosexuality, once somewhat ignored in churches, took on a new label, “sin.” Much of this re-naming is wrapped up in using homosexuality and gay people as a wedge issue to motivate conservative voters to the polls. (This history is a bit out of context of this review, but I cover it in detail in my book.)
Now a “sin” that needed to be dealt with, “traditional” belief held that gay people could change to a heterosexual orientation if they were highly motivated, submitted to God, and perhaps even marry heterosexually. These non medically-founded expectations of change continued for about thirty years.
Over several decades, It became quite apparent that gay people were not changing in therapy and/or heterosexual marriages.
Today, even in the conservative church and denominations, we have a growing witness of several gay Christian speakers and authors, Shaw included, who have diligently tried to change orientation with no success. Clearly orientation change was not working and if you believe as Shaw does, that homosexuality is a sin and people can be gay from birth, you need a Plan B.
Plan B is increasingly now in play as we the goalposts of behavioral expectations from orientation change to mandatory lifelong celibacy.
We’ve lugged the behavioral expectation goalposts down the field a few decades, yet still have constructed a conditional barrier to full inclusion for LGBTQ Christians—submit to celibacy in some faith communities, and still in others, submit to change.
Or, we can do what an increasing number of pastors and progressive Christians have done and get serious about doing the diligent work of studying ancient texts in ancient contexts while simultaneously allowing modern understanding of human sexuality to inform us.
Biblical authors did write negatively about same-sex behavior, that is clear. But, we need to stop lazily employing little to no foundational context while reading the six passages referring to same-sex behavior. If we continue reading without context and denying what is known about human sexuality, we end up trapped like Shaw and believing, “those pages (of the Bible) very clearly say that homosexual practice is wrong in his (God’s) sight. (p 22) and that “embracing a homosexual lifestyle was clearly a no-go area for an evangelical Christian like me.” (p 25)
Fifteen years ago, I would have been impressed with Shaw and his strict and pious adherence to what I too believed God required of gay people. Now, as I read Shaw’s words of desire and frustration, I see a man trapped by poorly translated words, taken out of context and never intended to address modern concepts of sexual orientation.
Read some of Shaw’s words:
“I have what I call ‘kitchen floor moments.’ I called them that because they involve me sitting on the kitchen floor. But I’m not doing something useful like scrubbing it, although it could always benefit from that. Instead I’m there crying. And the reasons for my tears is the unhappiness that my experience of same-sex attraction often brings. The acute pain I sometimes feel as a result of not having a partner, sex, children and the rest.” (p 61)
“I should get myself a nice man, have great sex, adopt some lovely children and be happy.” (p 61)
“I might not have actually had sex with a man, but I’ve imagined myself having sex with many over the years.” (p 25)
“And how tempting that is! I would dearly love to stay within evangelicalism and do that with a beautiful man by my side.” (p 26)
“But, of course, all of this is very painful for me and the thousands of other Christian men and women like me who would love to marry someone of their own sex, who wish we would change the essence of marriage. How do we cope with this clear message of the importance of sexual difference when we desire to have sex with someone of our own gender?” (p 91)
Shaw, despite his obvious longings to be in relationship with a man, has chosen life long celibacy and declares, “celibacy is a good thing.” (p 107) Quoting Catholic teacher Christopher West, Shaw writes, “Celibacy for the kingdom is not a declaration that sex is ‘bad.’ It’s a declaration that while sex can be awesome, there’s something even better – infinitely better! Christian celibacy is a bold declaration that heaven is real, and it is worth selling everything to possess.” (p 112)
It seems a quite strained analogy to suggest that celibacy suggests and points to the glory that waits ahead in heaven for believers. Equally odd is that sex points to the greater future: “God created the two sexes—and sex—in this world as a trailer for life in the world to come. To help us understand the power of his love for us in the here and now, and the pleasure that will be ours when we live with him and his new Heaven and Earth. As film directors put romantic scenes in their trailers to make us want to go to their movies, God has put sex on this planet to make us want to go to heaven.” (p 87) I don’t see any scriptural support for this ideology, nor is any offered.
Shaw goes on to praise those who are willing to suffer in their celibacy which, though not as bad as the suffering of martyrs, emulates the suffering of Jesus. “When I most struggle with the plausibility of suffering for Jesus as a same-sex attracted Christian, I look at the much greater suffering of the persecuted church and I see that possibility is proclaimed by the blood of the martyrs and the perseverance of the saints. I am also reminded that it is always been those who are willing to suffer for Jesus who have been the most effective at attracting people to Jesus.” (p 121)
Shaw adds, “Jesus came to suffer: he exchanged the comfort of heaven for an earthly life of suffering and a death that was the greatest act of human suffering ever. Suffering is what his life on this planet was all about.” (p 116) Shaw makes the analogy that the suffering of celibacy reflects the suffering Savior.
How freeing could it be, in combination with better understanding of ancient texts in ancient context, that Shaw would also focus on the loving Jesus? Jesus did not just come to suffer, He came to love.
Shaw writes, “All Christians I most admire have become Christ-like through suffering.” (p 123) Suffering through celibacy is not a special type of magic golden ticket that pushes one a few steps higher on the Jesus look-alike scale. Married people engaged in sex are most certainly not exempt from suffering becoming more Christlike and in their agony.
Though Shaw would clearly enjoy being in a marriage with a man, he holds to a literal reading of the Genesis 1 creation story as the blueprint for human sexuality and marriage for all time.
I need to state this again—read ancient texts in ancient contexts!
No Bible author ever addressed loving same-sex relationship. Such relationships were impossible in ancient cultures. Every example of same-sex interaction in the Bible is a situation of subjugation through rape or violence, or excessive or lustful behaviour with full disregard of acceptable social and sexual norms. We would not expect to see any favourable or positive examples of sexual relationships between two males of equal status in cultural literature, and certainly not in ancient texts like the Bible, anytime before the late 1800s.
Still, Shaw imagines godly, good marriages must be between a man and a woman, “Not being of a different gender from your marriage partner takes away some of the healthy tension that makes a good marriage. Your gender similarities (despite the other human differences) undermine the unity and difference that marriage is supposed to be all about.” (p 93) I assure the never-been-married Mr. Shaw, and others with similar concerns, having like style genitals does not erase the “healthy tension” two unique people bring to relationships. We are each different and “perfectly and wonderfully made.”
After investigating the plausible, his own chosen celibacy and suggesting it for others, Shaw concludes by looking at “the implausibility of new interpretations of Scripture” (p 153) where he proposes that the works of recent affirming authors are not as “plausible” as his suggestion of lifelong celibacy for LGBTQ Christians.
Shaw tells us that theological clarity has often come from divisive theological controversies challenging the church from Martin Luther and the Reformation as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. and the struggle for civil rights. He continues, “So the current controversies over sexuality should excite rather than dismay us—it is from times of profound disagreement that are sovereign God has often brought a return to radical biblical clarity in the church’s theology and practice. And the debate on sexuality is especially exciting, because it touches on so many areas of theology and practice in which we have lost our biblical roots. Many of us have dreamed of a silver bullet that would solve many of the church’s ills.” (p 133) While Shaw seems to think celibacy may be the challenging controversy propelling the church to “radical biblical clarity,” I believe the invitation to revisit ancient texts in ancient contexts, and committing to a journey toward full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians could bring the church “radical biblical clarity.”
Shaw imagines those with inclusive theology are not serious about Bible interpretation. He writes, “Although all (Justin Lee, James Brownson, Matthew Vines) claim to take the Bible seriously (and are from evangelical heritage), they all consistently failed to do so.” (p 153)
Shaw employs a commonly used tactic to minimize the works of affirming authors and speakers —dismiss them outright as not being “serious” about the Bible.
I can speak directly to the character and seriousness of the people with which Shaw takes issue with. Each of the authors he dismisses are friends and co-workers for justice and inclusion.
Justin Lee began blogging about his experiences as a gay Christian in 2001 and went on to found the largest online community of LGBTQ Christians in the world. I don’t think I have had a conversation with Justin in the over ten years that I’ve known him that he does not talk about faith, or Jesus. He shines the witness of Jesus.
James Brownson has been a professor and dean at Western Theological Seminary for thirty-five years. He revisited his beliefs about faith and sexuality when his son came out. Please read Dr. Brownson’s groundbreaking 300 page academic, well-footnoted, book filled with scholarship and discover for yourself if he is “serious” about the Word.
I’ve known Matthew Vines for five years and serve on his Board of Directors for The Reformation Project (TRP). I know of few people who have read as many academic and biblical books while researching and continually studying as has Matthew. TRP is centered on biblical teachings and contextual interpretation, and intersectional justice. He has focused on these topics for the past five years, yet Shaw dismisses Vines, along with Lee and Brownson, as not “serious” about the Bible.
Hoping to further undermine the message of Lee, Vines and Brownson, Shaw writes, “There are three chief weapons that I think they each deploy with expert skill: emotion, polarization, and doubt.” (p 153) Shaw seems to present Vines and Lee, in particular, as manipulators who use emotion to tell their stories. Each is simply telling the details of their own lives, struggles and journeys. Shaw continues, “They let personal experience trump revealed truth: this is a contemporary habit, but it is not the way to reconstruct Christian ethics.” (p 154)
Well meaning and intentioned Christians, both gay and straight, look to the Bible to help construct healthy and godly sexual ethics. Before imposing (or accepting for yourself) a demand of lifelong celibacy on those who are LGBTQ and Christian, be diligent in: reading ancient texts in ancient contexts, gaining a better understanding of the nature of sexual orientation, getting to know LGBTQ Christians, and even better, those in marriages and with families, and seeking God to imagine that perhaps indeed LGBTQ Christians are offering “radical biblical clarity.”
As for Mr. Shaw, I wish this too for him. He clearly longs to be married to a man and with a family. I hope in his “kitchen floor” anguish that he risks being wrong and finds freedom.