Finding love in the church: reflections of a gay celibate Christian
When I look back on these last four years at Columbia, the times I’ve spent with my friends are—without a doubt—some of my fondest memories. Remembering “study sessions” that extended into the wee hours of the night, fan-girling about the latest Pentatonix video, losing track of time while deep in conversation over a meal, or laughing (cackling) uncontrollably at a particularly funny joke all bring a smile to my face. My friends have shown me unconditional love and support. There was one period during my sophomore year when I was having doubts about my faith and struggling with sins that wouldn’t go away. Although I closed myself off a lot during this time, my friends wouldn’t let me isolate myself and were always there to lend a listening ear. Also, through the difficulties of navigating through personal differences and conflicts in friendships, I have come to learn and understand a little better how Christ loves us, seeing past our flaws and having a deep, gut-wrenching compassion for us.
I love my friends and they love each other, some of them so much that they are getting married. The prospect of seeing some of my closest friends getting married or being in relationships brings me so much joy and also makes me think about my future as a single. As a gay Christian, I feel called to faithfully serve God and the church as a single committed to celibacy. This stems in part from my belief that marriage is a covenantal lifelong union between a man and a woman that reflects the reality that in the beginning “God created man in His own image… male and female He created them.” 1 The creational order/precedent of man and woman as the two members of the marital union is one of the reasons that I adhere to traditional Christian sexual ethics.
For me, this belief about marriage means that I will live a life without marriage. Does this mean that my life has less meaning or fulfillment? Am I missing out on an intimate love that I can only find in marriage? As Paul would say, me genoito (roughly translated as “by no means” or “hell no”). Will life after college, when I won’t be going to school with all my college friends anymore, mean that they will fade into the background? Again I say, me genoito. One thing that I’ve experienced here at Columbia is deep, intimate friendships that have provided me with a love that I used to think was only available in marriage. I have found that this same sort of intimate love is also available in friendship. The commitments I’ve made to my friends have established bonds that will be lifelong. ‘Til death do us part, you could say.
In my friends, I have found a treasure trove of love. I think back in particular to the beginning of senior year during Columbia Faith and Action’s fall conference. I was going through a really hard time in my relationships with my family and it had been consuming me. It seemed like I was spending every waking minute agonizing over how the next argument would go, dreading having to go back home for winter break, and thinking about what (if any) communication would look like in the years to come. I couldn’t focus in class and much of my free time was spent trying to deal with feelings of anger, depression, and frustration. At fall conference, I was able to pray with a close friend and she confided in me her own struggles with her family. As we prayed for each other and let our tears flow, I realized how much our friendship was a blessing to me. It was also a reminder of how much my friendships at Columbia had been a blessing in my life.
Being gay and staying committed to Christ does not mean giving up love or leading a life of loneliness. Rather, it entails an invitation to intentionally pursue more deep and intimate friendships, and to experience that special kind of sacrificial love—agape— in these relationships. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” 2 Jesus uttered these words to his disciples, encouraging them to love one another. He then took this call to love even further by dying not only for the disciples, who were his friends, but also for his enemies. Surely, then, friendship is something that should not be dismissed as a secondary or less powerful form of love. It should be embraced as a way to experience and live out the sacrificial agape love perfectly exemplified for us by Christ’s death on the cross.
Thinking back to moments like these, I can see that the way I view my sexuality has transformed during my time at Columbia. I used to see it as something that imposed a set of “thou shalt nots” on my life. No, you can’t have a boyfriend. No, you can’t have a husband and a family. No, you can’t experience the “true love” of a marriage. What I came to realize, and as author and blogger Eve Tushnet puts it, is that “you can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of No.” 3 I was focusing so much on what my sexuality was preventing me from having and not at all on how it enriched my life. In trying to understand this, it is useful to remember the story of Job, in which Job proclaims that “The LORD gives, and the LORD takes away.” 4 The prospect of marriage or a romantic relationship was something that was taken away. However, the vocation or calling of friendship was something that God was giving me and blessing me with. My faith has grown immensely during my time at Columbia, in part through the witness of my friends.
My sexuality, though it has led to blessing in my life, is still a kind of brokenness. However, pastor and theologian John Piper would add that “it’s [not] sin to be broken. It’s the result of sin to be broken”. 5 Living in a broken world as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve is something that I share with all of mankind, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” 6 My sexuality, though a reflection of a broken and fallen creation, invites me to more vehemently pursue love and intimacy through the vocation of friendship and the blessing of community. Being gay thus gives me a positive vocation of Yes, allowing me, for example, to have very close and intimate bonds with my female friends that would be difficult or awkward to maintain strictly as friendships otherwise.
Being a Christian with same-sex attractions has certainly blessed me in ways that I could not have foreseen. However, the call to friendship and celibacy that I feel is by no means limited to members of the church who find themselves not exclusively or not at all attracted to members of the opposite sex. At a place like Columbia (and in this specific time of my life being in college), most of the people I know, and who are my age, are single. For all of us who are single, it is important to know that just as marriage is a gift from God, singleness is also a gift from God. Paul writes to the church at Corinth that “each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that” 7 and that “each person [should] lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” 8 Thus, singleness for me is not just the state of not being married; it is a gift from God that I am called to. Some are called to singleness, which is a gift; some are called to marriage, which is also a gift. Singleness is my gift from God and friendship is the vocation through which I live it out.
Thus, just as being gay in the church doesn’t mean an end to love and intimacy, neither does being single. The call to pursue a sacrificial agape love through friendship is a wonderful and joyous invitation for all of the church, but especially for singles and LGBT members of the church, who may be more prone to face isolation and struggle with loneliness. This means that the church needs to be, and should work toward, becoming more welcoming for singles and should foster a community in which friendships can thrive. Churches should also be sending out the message that singleness is a gift from God, as is marriage, rather than singularly glorifying marriage as the be-all end-all of human love and happiness. Putting marriage on a shiny pedestal and then telling LGBT people they can’t have it should not be the message the church is sending out. These things take time to change but there’s no better time to start than now.
No matter whether you’re gay, straight, bi, or somewhere in between, we all have our own crosses to bear, but through friendship and community we don’t have to bear them alone. When we face difficulties in our lives and wrestle with our personal struggles and temptations, we can turn to Jesus, our ultimate Friend who laid down his life for us. We can be reminded that God redeems and loves us even, and especially, in our brokenness, and that He “works for the good of those who love him.” 9 As I count down the days until graduation, I relish the time I have to spend with my friends, cherishing every laugh, lunch, and late night conversation. I thank God for the amazing love He has shown me through my friends over the past four years as I move ahead into the future of graduate school with my friends by my side.