With increasing frequency over the past year, Equip has received some version of the following email from pastors and concerned friends: “I’m walking with a gay celibate Christian, and they mentioned that they’re interested in joining a celibate partnership. What is that exactly? From our brief conversation it sounded like they’d be romantically in love and consider each other to be dating and do stuff like passionate kissing, but they just wouldn’t have sex. They say it’s normal in gay celibate Christian circles now. Is that wise?”
The following explores these questions for pastors and those ministering to gay Christians committed to a historic sexual ethic, with the ultimate recommendation of discouraging gay celibate Christians from experimenting with certain expressions of celibate partnerships.
But first, what are celibate partnerships? Various phrases frequent public and private conversation: spiritual friendship, gay romance, queer platonic partnership, gay dating, celibate partnership, etc. An early challenge to identifying consensus wisdom on celibate partnerships is that different people use the previously listed phrases differently. At best, this causes confusion, and at worst, a lack of common language can shield morally questionable practices from accountability.
For the purposes of this article, when we at Equip use the phrase “celibate partnership”, we are specifically describing couplings between two people of the same sex, often both same-sex attracted, and often where there is mutual attraction (note: our definition may not encompass every pairing who call their relationship a celibate partnership). As defined, celibate partnerships are usually exclusive commitments (which means an individual could not simultaneously be in another celibate partnership or in a marriage) and often aspire to make lifetime commitments to their partnership. These celibate partnerships often involve living together, sharing a room, and even sharing a bed (again, as we use the phrase “celibate partnership”). Those in such relationships consider themselves to be dating, refer to each other as boyfriend/girlfriend, and welcome romance into their partnership, including physical romantic activity such as making out. Celibate partnerships (of the particular kind we’re considering in this piece) argue, “Straight people can date and make out without any serious prospect of marriage. Why can’t we?” Finally, while those in such celibate partnerships intend to refrain from sex and do not consider themselves married in the eyes of God, many are open to and eventually enter into a legal marriage with their partner.
Admittedly, this definition of celibate partnership does not represent every self-described celibate partnership. I believe the testimonies of those in celibate partnerships who joyfully share that they have honored the Lord in their relationship and grown closer to Jesus thanks to their relationship. Equip is not intending to offer wisdom about every possible expression of celibate partnership, but instead the specific definition of celibate partnership provided above. And while this particular expression is only moderately common among those presently living out celibate partnerships, it is particularly common among those hoping and searching for a celibate partnership. Yet few of those actually enter into a celibate partnership or remain in one for very long before they abandon a historic sexual ethic, and eventually, a belief in God altogether.
We’ll also need to define the word “romance.” While various reasonable definitions exist, let’s describe “romance” as an emotional desire for sensual love with another person, which often includes a number of courtship behaviors aimed at erotic love. From this perspective, romance is motivated by eros in that it is both exclusive and involves certain forms of physical intimacy associated with dating and marriage. Some behaviors are unavoidably sexual, like intercourse. Some behaviors are unavoidably romantic, like making out. Then there are other behaviors that, depending on one’s motivation, can be romantic or platonic, such as holding hands. While unsatisfyingly inexact for some, these guideposts for identifying romance are effective most of the time and correspond with gut-level Western sensibilities for romance. Another helpful litmus test might be to consider whether the combination of behaviors and motivations found in a relationship could healthily be found in the relationship between two 8-year-old friends, two siblings, or a parent and a child. Admittedly, though, romance and dating as we know it today did not exist in the Ancient Near East. Scripture may provide limited direct wisdom relevant to modern romance.
In light of all of this, what wisdom can the Scriptures and the Church offer those considering celibate partnerships?
Are celibate partnerships (as defined) an expression of spiritual friendship in Scripture?
Many of the pillars of the Christian faith depended on committed friendship to support their faithfulness: David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, Jesus and John, and Paul and Timothy. Some of these individuals were in opposite sex marriages outside of these deep friendships. Some were single. But all found themselves in non-sexual, non-romantic spiritual friendships (a phrase popularized by the blog Spiritual Friendship and Rev. Dr. Wesley Hill’s Spiritual Friendship).
Here’s how Ruth speaks about her friendship with Naomi in Ruth 1:16-18
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.
Here’s how Jonathan felt about his friendship with David in 1 Samuel 18:1-4
After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return home to his family. And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt.
And David in 1 Samuel 20:41
David got up from the south side of the stone and bowed down before Jonathan three times, with his face to the ground. Then they kissed each other and wept together—but David wept the most.
We have no reason to believe any of these women or men experienced same-sex attraction. We have no reason to believe their expressions of love were secret homoerotic declarations. This kind of spiritual kinship / chosen family / spiritual friendship between people of the same sex was common through much of recorded history. These spiritual friendships let each individual need the other and gave each person the permission to ask of the other’s time, energy, etc. They expected to get hurt and committed to forgive. These friendships were enough to sustain those who were single, and a hearty supplement for those who were married.
Yet, none of these spiritual friendships included romance or resembled modern dating practices in any way. None of those spiritual friendships kept either of the individuals from establishing deep friendships with others or even marrying. None of them were meant to be a replacement for marriage. Regardless of the morality of celibate partnerships (as Equip is using that term in this article), they seem too different from spiritual friendship for the biblical value of spiritual friendship to be relevant to the credibility of celibate partnerships.
Some have justified celibate partnerships by referencing Rev. Dr. Wesley Hill’s Spiritual Friendship. We will leave it to Rev. Hill to clarify whether he supports the specific kind of celibate partnership being considered in this article. Yet, an essay by Hill in Comment Magazine titled “Love, Again: On a celibate breakup and what happened after” offers pertinent wisdom. Hill describes falling in love with a friend named Spencer (despite his efforts to manage his desires) and explores how romance’s desire to exclusively enjoy another’s love ultimately destroyed his friendship and is, perhaps, inconsistent with God’s invitation to celibacy. Hill recognizes that in celibacy “giving up sex is only part of the deal, and there’s more than one line you can step across.” He describes a kind of spiritual bargain he eventually realized he had (tried) to make with God (although God never agreed): I’ll give up gay sex, as long as I can keep my romantic, exclusive relationship with Spencer, as long as I can love Spencer in a more-than-friendship way.
After romantic desires for exclusively and the resulting jealousy destroyed Hill’s friendship with Spencer, Hill sought out friendship with married couples. He seems to resist romantic feelings, noting, “I’ve gone out of my way to observe more emotional boundaries, and I bring up any attractions I’m feeling to my spiritual director.” To his delight, Hill’s non-romantic friendships with couples becamde a source of joy and fellowship, unclouded by romance. Yet, Hill makes clear that his friendships with couples aren’t meant to replace gay marriage. Nor are they meant to replace the coupling-without-sex bargain he tried to make with God. Instead, he’s given up the attempt of replacing marriage, and instead finds satisfaction in something wholly different yet equally fulfilling. In the end, Hill seems to recognize that romance rightly cultivates exclusivity when found in an intentional dating relationship that can lead to marriage. But celibacy is a call to the opposite. It is a call to possess no one exclusively. It is a call to love differently, more widely than the romance of married people. As such, the celibate must resist romance (not invite it), if he or she wants to faithfully walk the vocation of Jesus and Paul.
Are early Church teachings about spiritual betrothals relevant to modern celibate partnerships?
The oldest and historically consensus interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:36-38 is that Paul is encouraging celibate Christians in spiritual betrothals to remain celibate and faithfully steward their spiritual betrothal, if they can.1,2,3 Spiritual betrothals were non-romantic, non-sexual partnerships between two Christians of the opposite sex committed to celibacy. In the first decades of the Church, the urban committed celibate communities of the 3rd and 4th centuries and the monasteries of the middle ages were not yet available to offer celibate Christians committed companionship. Additionally, large numbers of female Christian converts were committing to celibacy, and therefore lacked the physical security and financial stability that 1st century marriage afforded. As a result, some celibate Christians entered into spiritual betrothals as a source of companionship, safety, and economic partnership. Yet, while Paul praises these spiritual betrothals, he also recognizes the risks the spiritually betrothed run and suggests they marry if they cannot keep their vows of celibacy. Paul’s words are understood to be a limited allowance for spiritual betrothals considering the limited options available for celibates to find community while still pointing out the risks.
However, the Church later forbade spiritual betrothals as the record of failed celibacy grew and wiser alternatives became available. Early Church Councils at Antioch (268), Elvira (300), Ancyra (317), and Nicaea (325) denounced spiritual marriage: “[A] bishop or any other clergy may have living with him only a sister or a virgin daughter dedicated to God; by no means shall he keep any woman unrelated to him.”4,5 This wisdom was reinforced by John Chrysostom,6 Jerome,7 Athanasius of Alexandria,8 and Tertulian.9 Max Thurian (one of only two Protestant theologians to offer a systematic theology of celibacy) notes that “[w]ith the appearance of ascetic groups which gave birth to regular communities, the dangerous and temporary practice in certain churches of spiritual betrothal had no longer any reason for survival.” Spiritual betrothals seemed to allow for at least some level of emotional romance, they were exclusive pairings, and those in them often cohabitated. When searching for biblical analogs for contemporary celibate partnerships, the closest comparison is not spiritual friendship, but instead these spiritual betrothals.
As such, we can’t ignore the early Church’s wisdom against these spiritual betrothals and, presumably, other arrangements that strongly resemble spiritual betrothals. With their shared invitation to exclusive pairing, openness to cohabitation, and the strong likelihood of romance, an observer can’t help but extend the Church’s caution against spiritual betrothals to celibate partnerships (as defined). To paraphrase Max Thurian: While community and companionship are necessary for the celibate to thrive in his or her vocation, monastic communities and other intentional Christian communities are available for celibate people to find family. So, celibate partnerships seem unnecessarily risky to the degree that entering into one may constitute sin. Those in celibate partnerships would be best served by joining a community of celibate people and aspiring to have equal depth of relationship with multiple people.
Are celibate partnerships genuinely celibate (in a Christian way)?
Christians have consistently understood Jesus in Matthew 19 and Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 to be particularly commending a committed singleness that is mutually exclusive with romance, dating, marriage, sex, and biological children. The Church has consistently used the word “celibate” to describe this state. Historically, when a person referred to Christian celibacy, it was understood that that celibacy was incompatible with romance and dating. Intuitively, Christians maintain this understanding today. One does not have to explain why a celibate Catholic priest cannot make out with a woman in his parish as long as they do not have sex. The word “abstinent” has consistently been used more broadly to refer to refraining from sex (while not necessarily refraining from romance). And the word “chaste” has consistently been used to refer even more broadly to faithful sexual stewardship, regardless of marital status.
In light of the consistent, historic use of the words “celibate,” “abstinent,” and “chaste” to describe a variety of relationships, celibate partnerships are not celibate. Regardless of one’s conception of celibate partnerships, if they invite romantic feelings and romantic physical intimacy, then they are not celibate. More accurately, these relationships could be referred to as abstinent partnerships, but regardless, it’s inaccurate to call celibate partnerships celibate.
Ultimately, are celibate partnerships wise?
It would seem that the specific expression of celibate partnerships we’ve considered in this article is inconsistent with spiritual friendship in Scripture, forbidden by early Church teachings, and not celibate. Moreover, they are morally risky, to a degree that pursuing them at all may be a sin.
We cannot deny that when two men call each other boyfriends or two women call each other girlfriends, it leads the heart in a general direction away from God-honoring sexual stewardship. We cannot deny the risk of intimate, prolonged kissing that inflames the senses, underpinned by an intoxicating desire to connect more deeply and an encouragement to exclusively enjoy and please a partner.
To this point, research about celibate partnerships left us at Equip curious: What relationship, if any, does an openness to celibate partnerships / gay romance / gay dating have with “Side B” gay Christians abandoning a historic sexual ethic and instead embracing a revisionist sexual ethic? A few high profile “Side B” gay Christians have publicly entered into celibate partnerships, only to later renounce “Side B” and eventually a Nicean Christian faith altogether. But were these isolated instances or part of a larger trend? Based on our highly unscientific, back-of-the-napkin math, about 2/3rds of public “Side B” gay Christians who have since adopted a revisionist sexual ethic were either in a celibate partnership or seeking a celibate partnership at the time of their ethical slide. For example, an openness to gay romance was a more common factor in abandoning a historic sexual ethic than shifting for purely theological reasons. An openness to gay romance and dating would seem to be a dangerous gateway drug to abandoning God’s wisdom and eventually abandoning a belief in God altogether. Perhaps that is a substance a few can partake in without complete destruction, but for too many, that has not been the case.
To be clear, we are not suggesting that healthy, non-romantic, intimate friendships are unwise. We were all created in God’s image to enjoy intimacy in the context of committed human family. Our sexuality is our need for intimacy, our need to be in relationship, to know and be known, to give and receive love, and because we are mind, body, and spirit, we need connection on an emotional level, intellectual level, physical level, and spiritual level. Including those of us called to lifetime celibacy! Yet, neither sex nor romance is promised in Scripture, and neither is necessary to meet our intimacy needs or to be whole. Instead, the Church has most consistently understood the Scriptures to teach that while vocational singleness is a call to permanently give up romance, dating, marriage, sex, and biological children to do kingdom work parents struggle to find the time, energy, and focus to do, it’s still a call to intimacy in family.
- 1 In Matthew 19:11-12, Jesus compares the celibate to Old Testament eunuchs who lived in the king’s family home while serving his kingdom. They often out-lived the patriarch. They were a part of the family. When Jesus makes this comparison, part of what He’s doing is promising us that we’ll find family in God’s family, with the King we serve.
- In Luke 18:28-30, Jesus promises 100-fold spiritual brothers, sisters, and children now in this present time to those who permanently give up spouse and children for the sake of kingdom work. He promises family, 100-fold family, to those committed to vocational singleness.
- In 1 Corinthians 7:36-38, Paul recognizes that those called to vocational singleness still need human companionship by blessing an early Church form of family for celibates.
- In 1 Timothy 5:5-15, Paul recognizes a proto-convent house that provided family to widows.
Every time Jesus and Paul speak of vocational singleness, they seem to recognize in some way that celibates still need human intimacy in permanent, lived-in family. And the wisdom of the Church has been for celibates to find that family and intimacy in non-exclusive, multi-person, non-romantic communities of people committed to celibacy. Early Church celibates didn’t live alone, cloistered and praying all day. Instead, they lived in intentional Christian communities with other celibates in the city, worshiped in local churches with married people and their kids, and worked in the community while using their availability to bring forth the kingdom. (Note: Committed celibate communities modeled after early Church practices should offer accountability to manage and resist romantic desires, but Christians should refrain from shaming celibates when they repent of sin, recognizing that shame will only make celibates more vulnerable to temptation.)
For all these reasons, we advise pastors and those ministering to gay celibate Christians to discourage them from considering or experimenting with the kind of celibate partnership we’ve examined here. Celibate partnerships (as defined here) are inconsistent with spiritual friendship in Scripture, forbidden by early Church teachings, and aren’t celibate. You might encourage those already in such celibate partnerships to re-examine the risks of their partnership, not only for themselves, but for others who might gamble with the potential pain of such partnerships because of their witness. You might recognize that celibate partnerships are responding to legitimate needs for healthy intimacy but point out how they respond by copying the romance idolatry of straight dating. In contrast, you can and should encourage the desire in gay celibate Christians for genuinely celibate companionship in the body of Christ. You can encourage those already in celibate partnerships to transform their relationship into a spiritual friendship or expand their relationship into a broader community of Christians modeled after the wisdom of the Scriptures and the Church.
A final note: dating, romance, and consistency
Many defend celibate partnerships by pointing to the prevalence of casual straight Christian dating. Those who advocate for celibate partnerships might rightly point out that forbidding celibate partnerships for gay people while allowing for casual straight Christian dating is inconsistent. Such a determination certainly looks hypocritical, and gay celibate Christians can’t help but wonder whether homophobia is a primary enabler of this double standard.
Those advocates are right to call for consistency, but we encourage pastors and Christian leaders to resolve the inconsistency by instead examining the wisdom of casual straight Christian dating.
When (if ever) is romance and dating outside of marriage wise? A key lever for that question is whether dating and romance are a theological on-ramp to Christian marriage. Is there a clear theological relationship in Scripture between dating/romance and Christian marriage?
If dating/romance isn’t a theological on-ramp to Christian marriage, then gay dating/romance and straight dating/romance outside of marriage are no different. The sexual difference necessary for Christian marriage would then be irrelevant to dating/romance. As such, pastors and Christian leaders should consistently disciple gay and straight Christians in the same way when it comes to dating/romance outside of marriage. Some pastors and Christian leaders may choose to allow romance/dating for both. Others may (as we would recommend) forbid it for both. Still, if dating/romance isn’t a theological on-ramp to Christian marriage, a pastor cannot bar gay people from dating and engaging in romance while cheering on the same behaviors among straight high schoolers.
On the other hand, if dating/romance is a theological on-ramp to Christian marriage, then pastors would rightly forbid gay dating/romance. But, they would also have to forbid casual straight Christian dating that lacks genuine intentions to eventually marry, likely including any dating during teen years, and for many, any dating in the early 20s.
We do not pretend to have fully developed how Christians ought to rethink dating, in general. For the purposes of this article, it suffices to call for consistency. But we would challenge parents and Christian leaders to explore further: Is deeper emotional and physical intimacy than shared by friends ever wise outside of marriage? Or even necessary to know if God has called you to join a certain person in Christian marriage?
1Thurian, M. (1959). Marriage and celibacy (Studies in ministry and worship) (pp. 73-77). SCM Press.
2J. Hering, La premiere Epitre de saint Paul aux Corinthiens, Delachaux et Niestle, Neuchatel, 1949.
3Peters, G. (2015). The Story of Monasticism (pg 25-29). Baker Academic.
4Hefele, Karl Joseph von, Joseph Hergenröther, Alois Knöpfler, and Henri Leclercq. 1907. Histoire des conciles d’après les documents originaux. 236. Paris: Letouzey et Ané. http://www.llmcdigital.org/default.aspx?redir=87181.
5Jurgens, W.A. “First Council of Nicaea.” In The Faith of the Early Fathers: Pre-Nicene and Nicene Eras, 283. Liturgical Press, 1970.
6“John Chrysostom: Instruction and Refutation Against Those Men Living With Virgins.” Translated by Patricia Cox Miller. Women in Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts, 124-125. Washington, DC.: Catholic University of America Press, 2012.
7St. Jerome: Letters and Select Works, tr. W. H. Fremantle. Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Ser. 2, Vol. VI (Edinburgh, 1892).
8Miller, Patricia Cox. “Athanasius of Alexandria: Second Letter to Virgins (selections).” In Women in Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts, 118-123. Washington, DC.: Catholic University of America Press, 2012.
9W. P. LE SAINT, Tertullian, Treatises on Marriage and Remarriage (ACW 13). Westminster, Md., 1951,42-64.