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.
In the sex-saturated culture in which we live, both progressives and traditionalists have come to embrace overly sexualized narratives of sex, marriage, and family. Both tend to idealize sex as a fundamental part of human flourishing, essential to personal wholeness. Progressives emphasize the goods of sex to such an extent that they have largely abandoned the notion that good sex can only take place within a heterosexual, married relationship. The only ethical guidance they seem to be able to provide individuals seeking sexual flourishing is to tell them to respect the consent of others and do what seems right to them. Traditionalists, for their part, idealize the permanent union between a man and a woman and the nuclear family that is supposed to flow from it as if it were the greatest and most wonderful relationship that any person could know in this life.
These narratives have deeply shaped Christians too. Progressives in the church increasingly find themselves questioning classic Christian prohibitions of fornication (i.e., sex before marriage), homosexuality, and divorce, while traditionalists cling all the more tightly to the glories of the married relationship to which everyone is called and for which everyone who is not having sex must necessarily wait. Progressives are abandoning gender as merely a human construct, while conservatives are holding to gender distinctions all the more rigidly as the inviolable decree of creation. Both groups seemingly despise the celibate life, finding it deeply implausible, and both tolerate divorce in virtually every instance in which a couple really wants it.
From the perspective of the gospel, both of these narratives are deeply flawed. True, Jesus clearly affirmed traditional Jewish teaching regarding sexual immorality, and he affirmed that marriage is between a man and a woman because that is how God declared it to be from creation. Up to that point, at least, the traditionalists are right.
But Jesus said so much more than that – the gospel says so much more than that – and that is getting lost in the debate. If the church hopes to truly exercise a prophetic voice in the midst of a culture whose radical oversexualization produces ever greater numbers of abused, scarred, and disillusioned victims, it needs to recover the good news of Jesus for sex, marriage, and the family.
Catholic ethicist Julie Hanlon Rubio points out that Jesus consistently challenged his followers not to hold too tightly to marriage and family. Jesus, like his most famous follower, the Apostle Paul, lived a celibate life, and like the Apostle Paul he did not hesitate to characterize the celibate life as one that is especially conducive of devotion to the kingdom of God. He called his disciples to leave their family members for the sake of the kingdom, using language that still shocks us today (if we have ears to hear it):
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26-27)
The problem, for Jesus, was not sex. The problem was that marriage, like other familial bonds, places on human beings a host of demands that can easily distract us from the things of God. It calls us to serve one another with absolute fidelity. It tempts us to pursue a life oriented to pleasure, property, and the pursuit of happiness. It makes us, like the rich young ruler, unlikely to be willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus once we have considered what the cost of such discipleship might be.
Indeed, when the disciples heard the extent of Jesus’ teaching on marriage their response was not, as it is for so many traditionalist Christians today, to yearn for it all the more deeply (and feel ever more guilty for denying sex to those who are not yet or cannot be married). On the contrary, they exclaimed, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10). And Jesus does not rebuke them for this conclusion. On the contrary, he said,
Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it. (Luke 19:12)
When is the last time you’ve heard a sermon on that text? Jesus, like Paul, recognized that there is something better than sex in this life, a calling that far transcends gender roles, and one that is worth pursuing for those willing to receive it. He himself chose that path, rather than the path of marriage.
And yet, his point was not to reject the family. His point, rather, was to get his followers to look beyond their own marriages and families to the much more important family of those who have been reconciled into communion with one another and God. When his own biological family came seeking him, attempting to interrupt his kingdom work, he spoke words that would shock us if we actually took them seriously:
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Luke 12:48-50)
Nor was Jesus simply thinking of his own unique messianic situation when he said that. On the contrary, each of the synoptic gospels records Jesus, immediately after his conversation with the rich young ruler, pointing his own followers in the same direction. As Mark’s version puts it,
Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundred-fold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Mark 10:29-31)
To be sure, sex, marriage, and family are good things, gifts from God. But they are not the best thing. And if the words of Jesus or Paul mean anything to us at all, there is something about the celibate life that is, in fact, closer to that best thing. The early church saw that (indeed, they took it much too far), but our culture has blinded us to it.
If the Christian sexual ethic has become less plausible in American churches today, if churches are less and less willing to call their followers to the path of radical discipleship, indeed, if the celibate life of the Christ to whom we are supposed to be conformed has itself become inconceivable to us, then that is a testimony to just how much Christians – progressive and traditionalist alike – have failed to hear the gospel and believe it. Just like our culture, we have idolized sex, marriage, and family. We have confused the American dream with the gospel.
If that is indeed the case, then as Ed Shaw puts it in his must-read, Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life, the church should give thanks for the phenomena of homosexuality and same-sex marriage because it might just serve as the wake-up call the church needs. In the words of the songwriter Rich Mullins, “We are not as strong as we think we are.” If progressives are caving in to the spirit of the times, then traditionalists are too often basking in a hypocritical self-righteousness. Both need to repent and return to the gospel.
If the church wants to speak a prophetic word that is indeed good news for a culture steeped in sexual confusion and scarred by a pandemic of abusive and failing sexual relationships, it must once again hear this word from its lord. Starting with ourselves, we must give up our idols, take up our cross, and follow him.