Check out this transcript of Equip Director Pieter Valk’s message at a national conference about the challenges of involuntary celibacy for gay Christians committed to a traditional sexual ethic and how they can embrace and thrive in their celibacy. Photo credit: Gregg Webb.
Seven years ago, I wasn’t ready to take ownership of my celibacy because vocational singleness didn’t seem good. I was living in the second of what would eventually be four failed intentional Christian communities. I hadn’t yet discovered how God would use my celibacy to build His kingdom. I still had a fairly shallow appreciation of vocational singleness and Christian marriage but couldn’t help but assume celibacy was lesser as I watched everyone around me celebrating fairytale weddings and posting idyllic honeymoon photos.
I remember one wedding that typified my experience those days. The bride and the groom looked immaculate. And not because the guy tried. For the entire decade I had known him he’d had flawless skin, perfect blonde hair, and effortless abs—you know the type. But despite our meaningful friendship in college, I wasn’t asked to be a groomsman or invited to the bachelor party. Over the years as I shared publicly about my sexuality and challenged the idolatry of romance and the American dream, he stopped inviting me to couples-only events or hyper masculine no-homo adventures. So I sat in the back of the church at the wedding.
The sermon was a “greatest hits” of romance idolatry. The pastor said things like, “God made you specifically for each other to complete each other. Marriage is the best gift God has to offer, the highest form of love. On this side of heaven, nothing is more satisfying than marital love and being a parent.” The pastor reassured singles in the audience that God had marriage for each of us and that we could trust God because He is a good, good Father.
Every song at the reception was a reminder of what I wouldn’t have. “When God Made You” by Natalie Grant. “All of Me” by John Legend. “God Gave Me You” by Dave Barnes. “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston. I caught myself over-analyzing every moment of the wedding, looking for opportunities to feel bad for myself and to prove to myself that my lot was more difficult than theirs.
I left before they cut the cake. I got tired of faking a smile. Tired of being asked to join in on dancing with perfectly cheerful people all angling for who they’d take home that night. Tired of sitting alone at my table waiting for a socially-acceptable time to leave. So I left, sat in my car, and cried. But the tears soon dried up, leaving me numb. I desperately wanted to feel something other than pain. I opened up my phone and tried to guess the password my roommates had set to keep me from downloading problematic apps. I couldn’t guess it, but over the next few days my resentment, self-pity, and numbness lingered.
At some point I asked a roommate to unlock my phone so I could update my apps, and then rushed out the door a couple of minutes later because I was “late for a coffee.” But I knew what I was doing. I knew my phone was still unlocked. That was the plan all along.
I downloaded an app and arranged a meaningless meetup with a stranger. Even before I left his house, numbness was completely replaced with shame and self-loathing. I remember yelling at myself in the car, “What the hell am I doing?! What’s wrong with me?! Why can’t I stop?! How could I say I love God but then choose these things over and over again?”
My pity-party, bitterness, painful mistakes, and shame probably sound familiar to some of you. Unfortunately, many of us here have struggled with this kind of involuntary celibacy, right? And that phenomena isn’t unique to gay Christians.
The dangers of involuntary celibacy
In the 2000s a group of mostly white straight men frustrated by their lack of romantic relationship coalesced on internet forums like 4chan and Reddit. They called themselves “incels,” short for involuntary celibates. But their commiseration eventually turned to self-hate, blaming and resenting women they desired but couldn’t have, a sense of entitlement to sex, and, increasingly, violence. Self-identified incels have committed 8 mass murders since 2014, resulting in 61 deaths. To put it lightly, involuntary celibacy is dangerous.
Now there are plenty of ways gay Christians who see our celibacy as involuntary are VERY different from this mostly white, straight, male internet subculture. We’re gay, they’re straight. There are women and men among us whereas they’re mostly men. We don’t promote an entitlement to sex, quite the opposite. As far as I know, no one in our community has committed murder or perpetrated any grave violence.
But I do think there are some similarities. Many of us have felt forced into a celibacy that isn’t functionally good, blaming God or straight people or ourselves. And similarly, our resistance to celibacy seems to lead to self-pity, resentment, and self-loathing that Satan uses to tempt us to self-destruction. I think it is fitting to call some of us gay Christian incels because it highlights the danger of gay Christian involuntary celibacy.
We’ve already seen the Enemy drag too many people we love away from a traditional sexual ethic or even further, away from God altogether. I’m afraid we’re going to lose more if we don’t do something. We often call ourselves family. A chosen family of gay Christians committed to a traditional sexual ethic. I think we’ve got to have a family conversation about gay Christian incels. We’ve got to expose the ways the Enemy is lying to us and manipulating us so we can save ourselves and those we love. But we don’t just have to settle for surviving. We can embrace our celibacy and learn to thrive in it for a lifetime, together. First, we’ve got to diagnose the problem.
Why do gay Christians resist celibacy?
Why do we resist our celibacy? Often when someone references the gift of celibacy, many of us are quick to point out that our singleness doesn’t feel like a gift. It doesn’t seem good. And you know, you’re right. In practice, functionally, in reality, vocational singleness is not good in most of our churches. And that’s not our fault—it’s not because gay celibate Christians aren’t trying hard enough. No, celibacy is unlivable in most of our churches because so many Christian leaders over the past century, most of whom have been straight, failed to teach rightly about vocational singleness or support it.
They’ve skipped over Bible passages about vocational singleness or accidentally conflated the singleness we’re born into with the singleness of Jesus and Paul. They’ve taught that we only have to be single if we want to, and that desires to marry and have kids are a reflection of God’s desires. They’ve led us to believe that marriage is the default path, that we need romance to be happy, and that we can take marriage as long as we save sex for marriage. They’ve hesitated to teach publicly about a call to vocational singleness, stating in private that the calling is so obvious it never needs to be openly considered. And they’ve treated singleness as a disqualification for church leadership. As a result, few straight people have committed to a life without romance for the sake of the kingdom. And if there is a celibate person in our church, parents have often told their kids that there must be something wrong with the person if they’re still single at 40.
On top of that, Christian leaders over the past century have unintentionally made vocational singleness impractical by neglecting to offer us family. They’ve taught indirectly and sometimes directly that vocational singleness is a call to loneliness for sake of the gospel. They’ve said that celibacy is an exchange of less human intimacy for more intimacy with God. They’ve taught that God calls only a select few to vocational singleness and sustains them with a magical gift of celibacy so large that the Church doesn’t need to do much. They’ve indirectly and sometimes directly told straight singles, widows, divorcees, and single parents to just get married if they’re lonely. And then, because there are too few gay celibate Christians, they can overlook us and continue to resist offering any singles family in the body of Christ. We’ve been starved of intimacy and family.
Yet Christian leaders have still pushed us into celibacy, right?! We haven’t been given time or space to figure out whether we are convinced of a traditional sexual ethic. Instead we’ve been pressured to choose quickly, choose correctly, and become public apologists for a traditional sexual ethic. While there’s seemingly been few consequences if straight Christians cohabitated before marriage, ignored God’s design for Christian marriage to be a space open to raising children for the sake of the kingdom, or engaged in unbiblical divorce and remarriage, it’s been different for us. When we, gay people, slipped up or adopted a progressive sexual ethic or got into a romantic or sexual relationship with someone of the same sex, we’ve been quickly confronted over coffee, flooded with judgmental Bible verses, dragged into church discipline meetings, and uninvited to holidays. That double standard has made us feel less-than, hated, unlovable, dirty, gross, and ashamed, all while cultivating in us a poisonous victim mentality.
Not to mention that many of us have been genuinely afraid that making the wrong decision might send us to hell. Many of us grew up being told that merely believing in a progressive sexual ethic or engaging in same-sex romantic or sexual activity would be a fast-pass to hell. We’ve been told that God’s grace would never apply to a sin that shameful. Or maybe we’ve been warned that a progressive sexual ethic is a slippery slope to loss of faith altogether. These worries have complicated our discernment, made it difficult to listen for God’s whispers that might be sweetly inviting us to embrace vocational singleness, and ultimately eaten away at our convictions. We’ve asked ourselves, “Am I truly convinced of a historic sexual ethic? Am I following this because I believe it is best for me? Or have I just been manipulated by a fear of pain and punishment? When this fear has loomed over my study of Scripture, prayers for wisdom, and conversations with family and pastors, to what extent did I truly, freely choose any of this?”
Christian leaders have often taught poorly about vocational singleness, neglected to invite straight people to discern, failed to offer celibate people family, and pushed us into celibacy instead of giving us space and support to discern. All of this has made our celibacy unlivable.
The problem: the Enemy uses our resistance against us
So no, it’s not fair that an impractical celibacy has been forced on us. It makes sense that we haven’t wanted a celibacy that isn’t good. But here’s the problem: resisting our celibacy and hoping that someone else will make our celibacy good has been dangerous. It’s been dangerous because Satan has been using our self-pity and our resentment and our self-loathing against us—to lead us to destruction. He’s been tempting us with false ideas and false connection.
Sometimes the Enemy takes advantage of our painful attempts to walk out celibacy by tempting us with a revisionist sexual ethic. First, he probes the gay Christian with seemingly reasonable questions:
- Did Jesus even talk about gay sex?
- Weren’t the clobber passages just about rape or incest or adultery or gay cult prostitution or pederasty?
- Could the authors of the Bible have even been talking about monogamous gay couples like we have today?
- Weren’t the leaders of the early Church mostly sexist, homophobic patriarchs?
- Wasn’t the Bible wrong about women and slavery?
- Can I even trust my translations? Can I really trust the Church?
- God doesn’t make mistakes, so the fact that I’m gay must mean God wanted me to be gay, right?
- How could a good God say being gay is broken but then be unwilling to change it?
- Straight people can enjoy romance outside of marriage, why can’t I?
- Would a loving God really deprive me of a loving marriage?
After months or years of challenging a gay Christian’s convictions with these questions (often without the support of siblings in Christ to externally process), Satan successfully uses our self-pity and resentment to lead us to some version of the following:
“I’ve made up my mind. The arguments for a traditional sex ethic aren’t 100% convincing. There’s bad fruit of both a traditional sexual ethic and a progressive sexual ethic. Side A and Side B are basically morally equivalent. It just seems like a matter of personal truth. Celibacy is a personal choice. And I’m miserable in celibacy. And God is merciful. He understands. He wants me to be happy. Gay romance and sex can’t really be that bad, right? I mean, if something feels good, that means God wants it for me, even if it seems to contradict the Church and Scriptures? Gay romance and sex feel good, so I’ve decided they must be good.”
Even worse, some of these gay Christians tempted by false ideas eventually leave the faith altogether. At first they hesitate to call themselves Christians, and eventually they can’t bring themselves to confess the Nicene Creed at all, the universal statement of Christian faith.
To be clear: I do not mean to suggest that people go to hell for holding a revisionist sexual ethic or for having gay sex and failing to repent of it. When Jesus offered His gift of salvation and to forgive all of our sins, past, present, and future, He meant it. All sin. Past, present, and future. Forgiven and saved. And yet, these false ideas appear to be part of some people’s journey to abandoning Jesus. They are spiritually dangerous. We need to consider these questions. The danger is in neglecting to recognize how dangerous these questions can be without people to hold us up and keep us safe.
Other times, the Enemy takes advantage of our resentment and self-pity by tempting us with false connection. Even when gay Christians continue to be convinced of a traditional sexual ethic, they can be desperate for relationship to soothe the pain. Perhaps they make friends with queer people who hold different theological convictions—who can empathize while not complicating the relationship with reminders of the failures of the Church or the impossibility of their convictions. Those friendship are just fun.
But too often those fun friendships become romantic and then sexual. At first these gay Christians might confess their slip-ups, but messing around can became routine. Satan can use our resentment, self-pity, and self-loathing to make it too difficult to make celibacy good and too easy to embrace self-destruction.
Too many gay Christian friends I’ve loved have been led away by a revisionist sexual ethic or same-sex romantic and sexual relationships. My hunch is that their stories are familiar to you because some of you have been tempted with false theology. Or with false connection. Or both. So how have we responded?
What have we, gay Christian incels, often done when the Enemy tempts us intellectually and emotionally?
We just seem to wait.
At first, maybe we wait for someone else to make our celibacy good or for our own efforts to pan out, but we give up hope of that eventually.
So we leave the doors to our hearts and minds unlocked because we hope our self-pity, our protest will somehow convince God to change His mind. Or convince our churches or our parents to change their theology.
Or, let’s be honest, some of us seem to flirt with the best arguments for a revisionist sexual ethic and fool around with people of the same sex because we hope to force ourselves to change our minds. We want to give up but we don’t want to be responsible for the decision. So we wait, hoping enough anxiety and sadness and pain will overwhelm our own logic and finally trick us into changing our mind about all of this.
And, let’s be honest again, we aren’t fooling any of our friends or fooling God. We are just fooling ourselves. We are slowly putting down the cross Jesus has asked us to carry and opening our arms to the Enemy as if to say, “If you take me, I won’t resist.”
I know there’s a lot of worry in my words. Please believe me when I say that I do not want to add to you shame. What I’m doing is pleading us not to look away and for God to give us the strength to keep looking honestly. We have already lost so many in this community to an involuntary celibacy that leads to abandoning a historic sexual ethic or God altogether. And I’m scared we’ll lose even more of us if we don’t do something different.
We’ve got to do something different!
The most direct solution is for Christian leaders, a majority of whom are straight, to make our churches places where gay and straight people can thrive in vocational singleness with reasonable effort.
To teach what the Bible has to say about vocational singleness, help everyone discern, celebrate and value vocational singleness, and help celibate people find family. Because it is the responsibility of Christian leaders today, not gay celibate Christians, to undo the damage done by previous generations of Christian leaders, to follow in Christ’s footsteps by choosing to bear the burden of sins you didn’t commit to bring healing and wholeness to those suffering on the margins.
If I had another 30 minutes, I’d detail all of the practical steps you, Christian leaders, can take to foster thriving in celibacy. So if you’re a Christian leader or parent who wants to start taking practical steps, please send me an email. I’d love to talk!
But I want to spend the rest of my time speaking particularly to my gay siblings. Because we’ve already waited for Christian leaders to take practical steps. I’m worried that if we continue waiting for Christian leaders to make our celibacy good for us, it will be too late. And while we’ve waited, we’ve made it too easy for the Enemy to tempt us to self-destruction. So we can’t wait. Instead, we must work together with the Holy Spirit and other gay Christian incels to make vocational singleness good for ourselves.
We’ve got to own our celibacy. We’ve got to take intentional and incremental steps to embrace our celibacy by earnestly discerning.
I want to recognize that many of you have faithfully and laboriously tried to make your celibacy good already. You’ve fought hard. You are tired. And you may be disappointed by my solution, but hear me out. We don’t need to try harder. We need to try smarter. I think there’s some strategies we could better employ.
We’ve got to own our celibacy because there are significant advantages to being all-in. When you embrace your celibacy, you can make long-term plans with spiritual family and invest deeply in kingdom work, while others can only make short-term plans and invest shallowly because they’re keeping their options open to reorganize their lives around a future Christian marriage (or, let’s be honest, a future gay marriage). If you’re willing to commit to vocational singleness, you can mark those commitments publicly, celebrate and honor your celibacy with friends and family, invite them to hold you accountable and support you, and celebrate the anniversary of that commitment each year—renewing you and drawing you forward. When you embrace your celibacy, you’re free to focus on your kingdom work and spiritual family with undivided attention, instead of wasting time and energy questioning and deliberating and convincing yourself to be celibate for one more day, day after day after day. Owning your celibacy may help you see yourself more fully in the vocational singleness of Jesus, Paul, and so many heroes of the faith. Plus, the oldest Christian traditions teach that in order to receive the fullest gift of grace from God to thrive in vocational singleness, you have to actually settle down into the vocation. In short, even if vocational singleness feels like the only option, there are huge benefits to embracing your celibacy versus spending a lifetime running away from it and choosing not to own it.
And discernment can help us own our celibacy. You see, discernment is about much more than just identifying the most likely path forward. It’s also about accepting, embracing, choosing, taking a leap of faith, seeking confirmation, and stepping forward. Discernment can help us move from seeing our celibacy as involuntary to seeing our celibacy as chosen.
I can’t offer you a foolproof, step-by-step process. But I can at least share what my discernment has looked like and what helped me embrace my celibacy. Maybe you’ll find in my story risks you haven’t taken yet, resources you haven’t gathered before, or full measures where you’ve only previously taken half measures.
My discernment started with mourning.
Pauline Boss’s book Ambiguous Loss explains how we get stuck in unresolved griefs when our losses aren’t named or honored by the community around us and there are no rituals or customs for mourning. My involuntary celibacy and my sense of losing the possibility of marriage was an ambiguous loss. So I named that hurt before God. I processed my sadness and anger and fear around celibacy with my therapist, and while we were at it, we tackled some of my self-pity, resentment, self-loathing, and self-destruction. Some of you might find it helpful to gather with others of similar circumstances who empathize most easily, hold the pain of involuntary celibacy before God and each other, and give yourself time and space to feel. Hurting parts of us won’t let us reach toward the future if they’re still hanging on to unresolved grief in the past.
Second, I was able to start patiently discerning by growing my capacity for general Christian discernment.
I read the book God’s Voice Within by Mark Thibodeaux, a great primer for the oldest form of Christian discernment. That book taught me how to bring a question before God, consider Scripture, consider practical aspects of my question, seek advice from spiritual mentors, arrive at a potential conclusion, hold that conclusion before God, seek confirmation through small steps, and move forward with confidence. Some of you might find it helpful to meet with a spiritual director to guide your discernment. Oh, and I said patiently discern. I started intentionally discerning about four years ago, and I’ve still got at least another two years of formal discernment before I make lifetime commitments. And throughout that time I’ve asked a prayer team of friends, my parents, people at church, mentors, and pastors to pray for my discernment and speak into my discernment.
Third, deepening my understanding of vocational singleness and Christian marriage helped me discern and own my celibacy.
I pored over how the Church has historically spoken about God’s design for the vocations of celibacy and marriage, and I discovered that they are both more beautiful and more difficult than cultural Christianity had led me to believe. I discovered that the vocational singleness Jesus and Paul lived and taught about is a lifetime calling to abstinent singleness for kingdom work with undivided attention. That vocational singleness done right leverages the first fruits of our labors to bring about the New Jerusalem more quickly, blessing our communities and giving the whole Church hope for Christ’s return. That it’s still a call to lifelong, lived-in human family that images the Trinity and through which God tangibly loves celibates. In short, vocational singleness and Christian marriage are equally beautiful and difficult, equally kingdom-building and gospel-sharing, equally a call to family and bringing life to a broken world. Plus, being a godparent gave me a chance to see these ideas lived out. I saw firsthand that marriage isn’t better or easier than celibacy. That the grass isn’t greener on the other side. Spending consistent time with Christian marriages faithfully leaning into their vocation convinced me I’m not being cheated and made it easier for me to embrace my call.
Fourth, figuring out what kind of kingdom work I could do with my availability in vocational singleness also helped me discern and own my celibacy.
Pastors, teachers, and those in the helping professions that require numerous hours of work after 5pm will tell you that it’s difficult to be a good parent to both children at home and your church, classroom, etc. In 1 Corinthians 7:32-35, Paul praises vocational singleness because committed celibates can do kingdom work with undivided attention. We don’t have to split our focus between the important and costly kingdom work of raising kids and other kingdom work. The point of vocational singleness isn’t to sit on a shelf for God to admire our virginity like some never-opened comic book. The point of vocational singleness is to be available for kingdom work. Yes, we’re called to abstinence, but the key to thriving in vocational singleness is actually leveraging our availability to participate in a unique way in God’s work in the world. Years ago when I accepted God’s call on my life to teach parents and pastors how to better minister to gay people like us according to a historic sexual ethic, that calling gave purpose to my celibacy. And the more I’ve stepped into the kingdom work God has called me to, the more I’ve become convinced that my celibacy isn’t an accident or an after-thought. My celibacy is necessary, because my kingdom work would suffer if I had to divide my time and energy between work and raising children. I’d encourage you to check out the book Kingdom Calling by Amy Sherman. In it, she defines kingdom work broadly as any work that brings wholeness to those who are hurting, treats workers justly, and uses resources responsibly. And the book explores how Christians can discover the kingdom work God has for them. Dream with God about what He might be calling you to.
Fifth and probably most importantly in my discernment, I had to find family.
After college I was part of four different houses with vague aspirations of intentional Christian community. But each fell apart because guys got married, moved for a job, or ran away from conflict. And every time I connected deeply with people in healthy ways—only for that connection to be torn—I was injured. Eventually my heart started yelling and screaming in resistance, “Not again! This is too painful!” My heart made clear that I couldn’t connect deeply again unless it was safe. I knew what safe meant: permanent. I was made for consistent, intimate family that is physically and emotionally present. In time this recognition of my need for lifelong, lived-in human family as a celibate person led to the formation of the Nashville Family of Brothers. We’re an ecumenically Christian monastery building family in Nashville for men called to vocational singleness. We’re still a part of our local churches. We’ve got jobs outside of the brotherhood. We’re still connected to parents and their kids. And seven of us pray and eat and worship and vacation and serve and live together in a home as a family as we discern whether to make lifetime commitments to each other. To be honest, if I hadn’t built the Nashville Family of Brothers, it’s likely I would’ve already abandoned celibacy and probably belief in God altogether.
And I don’t think my need for this kind of family is unique. I think God has made all of you for stable, intimate human family that embodies the mystery of God’s love by imitating the permanent, faithful nature of the love in God’s family. But finding lifelong, lived-in human family is difficult. And we can’t wait for our pastors to incubate intentional Christian communities in our churches. So go find or make the family you need. And know that the real options available to you among biological family, nuclear families at your church, and intentional Christian communities will probably appear far from ideal, but I’m confident something is better than nothing. You can learn to cherish the imperfections of your family if you ask God for the grace to do so. I have. You may need to change jobs or cities for the hope of a family. People have done crazier things for their marriages. God might even be calling some of you to do the difficult work of building intentional Christian community where others can find family.
So mourning my involuntary celibacy, growing a capacity for and practicing general Christian discernment, deepening my theological appreciation of vocational singleness, figuring out the kingdom work I’m called to, and building the lifelong, lived-in family I needed have all helped me intentionally discern my celibacy and actually make it good. Can I challenge you guys to do the same? I’m not special. Any of you—empowered by the Holy Spirit—could do all of these for yourself as well.
There’s still one last step I need to take. I need to embrace my celibacy in a final way.
So far I’ve made 1-year and 3-year commitments to vocational singleness. Perhaps starting with short-term commitments would help some of you enjoy that freedom from having to reassess your celibacy every day without having to take the intimidating step of making lifetime commitments.
But I do plan to make public lifetime commitments, and I think you should too. I’ve still got two more years of patient discernment, but I’ve already started dreaming about my lifetime commitment ceremony and experiencing the joy of finally embracing my calling.
At the rehearsal dinner the night before, I’m going to treat my mom to the mother/son dance she’s always wanted, and we’ll share some joyful tears. Maybe it won’t be the dance she expected decades ago. But it will be beautiful.
When the brass quintet and organ play, when my godson Bentley carries my ring down the aisle, and when I look across the pews at 200 smiling faces who’ve set aside that day for me, it will be easier for me to believe that my celibacy is equally worth celebrating.
When I kneel at the front of the sanctuary, face my brothers in the pews, and make my commitments, those gathered will understand more fully the gravity of the moment and my need for ongoing support in my vocation.
And when my mentor, a foremost scholar on early Church monasticism, gives the homily and when pastors from a variety of denominations dressed in full vestments lay hands on me asking God to give me the full gift of vocational singleness, I will grow in confidence that God has provided me with abundant grace to thrive in my celibacy.
Let me close with an encouragement.
It’s true, others have made celibacy impractical in many of our churches. And resisting our celibacy with self-pity, resentment, and self-loathing makes sense. But I beg you not to let the Enemy use those to deceive you to self-destruction. Instead, discern-to-embrace your celibacy. Mourn, discover a deeper appreciation for vocational singleness, grow your capacity for general Christian discernment, ask friends and family to pray for you, explore what kingdom work your celibacy might empower, take practical steps to find family, give yourself time, and eventually own your celibacy with public commitment and celebration. We are not doomed. We do not have to settle for surviving. We can thrive together in our celibacy, if we will only embrace it.