Being a celibate gay Christian means being an object of suspicion. The wider LGBTQ community sees you as shockingly conservative (“You think gay sex is wrong?”), while the wider evangelical community sees you as worryingly liberal (“You call yourself gay?”).
One day, someone will be expressing disgust toward your “fundamentalist” beliefs. On the next, someone else is targeting your “perverted” sexual orientation. Disparate groups see you as an existential threat, and their attacks can be fierce, as recent online responses to conferences like Revoice and ministries like Spiritual Friendship and Living Out would attest.
Researchers Mark Yarhouse and Olya Zaporozhets step bravely (foolishly?) into this battleground with their comprehensive study of people like me: Costly Obedience: What We Can Learn from the Celibate Gay Christian Community. It’s an important book with an academic feel that grows more pastoral as you read on. Yarhouse has written multiple volumes on LGBTQ experience based on careful research from the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity at Regent University in Virginia, where both of the authors teach. I wouldn’t agree with everything he’s ever written, but I thank God for the gracious tenor of his contributions.
This newest book is essentially a listening exercise, based on an in-depth survey of celibate gay Christians. You hear their stories of milestone events and experiences in church life and ministry—as well as research that maps their mental health outcomes and relational challenges. But they are not the only voices recorded: There’s also input from friends, along with some fascinating insights into the perspectives of some evangelical pastors. The authors helpfully add their own measured reflections.
Certain conversation topics could prove controversial. We hear differing thoughts, for instance, on such questions as the origins of same-sex attraction, the correct labels to use (is it “gay,” “same-sex attracted,” or something else?), the possibility of same-sex desires that aren’t wholly sinful, and the prospect of changing one’s sexual orientation. But one of the authors’ strongest points is the need to discuss these issues more carefully. They write, “Some church leaders and some celibate gay Christians seem to us, at times, to be describing two different things, rather than disagreeing on precisely the same thing.”
This appeal for a better conversation within evangelicalism couldn’t be timelier. The danger today is that some celibate gay Christians who appear to be drifting away from orthodoxy will make a clean break, precisely because of the lack of understanding (at best) and hatred (at worse) coming from more conservative voices. The book provides stories and statistics that help evangelicals appreciate where celibate gay Christians are coming from. Too much miscommunication is happening via angry tweets and polemical blog posts, and the careful research presented here could help set things right.
The standout chapters of Costly Obedience come toward the end. Chapter 5 contains excellent advice on how churches can better care for celibate gay Christians, including a moving and persuasive plea to “drop the language war” around sexual identity labels. As a pastor, I heartily second the authors’ request to “maintain a consistent standard” when it comes to challenging any sexual sin: It is amazing how blind we can be to our double standards.
I most appreciated chapter 7, “How Celibate Gay Christians Could Strengthen the Church,” which offers a wonderful counter-narrative to the fear that gay people only ever pose a threat. I wanted to cheer out loud when I read passages like this:
What we are suggesting is that the costly obedience of celibate gay Christians should impact the full church by being a model of what we are all called to live into: a life of sacrifice in which the hardships we face are given meaning and significance in relation to the passion of Christ. And the church needs to consider what it means to share in that cost.
In God’s providence, I ended up reading this book during Holy Week and writing this review the morning of Good Friday itself. Costly Obedience has encouraged me to continue taking up my cross and following Jesus. And it has given me a renewed hope that my lived experience will benefit not just myself but the wider church that Christ has bought through his own, infinitely costlier obedience.
Ed Shaw is the pastor of Emmanuel City Centre in Bristol (UK) and author of Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life (InterVarsity Press).
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