Gay, Christian, and Celibate: The Changing Face of the Homosexuality Debate

Christians’ shift away from ex-gay therapy came amid larger cultural changes, including a wider societal acceptance of homosexuality and a rapid embrace of same-sex civil marriage.

When Julie Rodgers came out as a lesbian at age 17, her mom responded by taking her to an ex-gay ministry in Dallas. Rodgers had grown up in a nondenominational evangelical church where she assumed being gay wasn’t an option.

“With ex-gay ministries, it gave me the space to be honest about my sexuality,” said Rodgers, now 28. Yet that same honesty eventually led her away from ex-gay ministries.

Rodgers spent several years in Exodus, the now-defunct ex-gay ministry, before deciding she couldn’t become straight after trying to date men. Instead, she has chosen celibacy.

When Exodus shut down in 2013, some said it spelled the end of ex-gay ministries that encourage reparative or conversion therapy for gays to become straight. Ex-gay groups such as Restored Hope Network stepped in to the gap, but many religious leaders are now encouraging those with same-sex orientation or attraction to consider a life of celibacy.

For years, those who were gay or struggled with homosexuality felt like they had few good options: leave their faith, ignore their sexuality or try to change. But as groups like Exodus have become increasingly unpopular, Rodgers is among those who embrace a different model: celibate gay Christians, who seek to be true to both their sexuality and their faith.

Straddling one of America’s deepest cultural divides, Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart wrote in a recent piece for Slate that celibate gay Christians present a challenge to the tolerance of both their churches and the secular LGBT community. Those celibate gay Christians often find themselves trying to translate one side for the other.

But frequently, neither side really understands what it’s hearing.

“We can be easily misunderstood, to put it nicely, by both sides of the culture war,” Rodgers said. “For those who have a more affirming position, it’s as if we’re repressed, self-hated homophobes, encouraging the church to stand in its position on sexuality. And conservative Christians think that those who shift on sexuality are being rebellious.”

Moving from ex-gay

Christians’ shift away from ex-gay therapy came amid larger cultural changes, including a wider societal acceptance of homosexuality and a rapid embrace of same-sex civil marriage.

In 2009, the American Psychological Association adopted a resolution that mental health professionals should avoid telling clients that they can change their sexual orientation. Since then, California and New Jersey have passed laws banning conversion therapy for minors, and several other states have considered similar measures.

Earlier this year, the 50,000-member American Association of Christian Counselors amended its code of ethics to eliminate the promotion of reparative therapy, and encouraged celibacy instead.

“Counselors acknowledge the client’s fundamental right to self-determination and further understand that deeply held religious values and beliefs may conflict with same-sex attraction and/or behavior, resulting in anxiety, depression, stress, and inner turmoil,” the revised code says.

A number of leaders of the ex-gay movement have renounced the very teachings they once embraced. John Paulk, who was once a poster boy for the ex-gay movement, apologized in 2013 for the reparative therapy he used to promote. Yvette Schneider, who formerly worked for groups such as the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and Exodus, recently published a “coming out” interview with GLAAD calling for bans on reparative therapy. Last week, nine former ex-gay leaders denounced conversion therapy.

Mark Yarhouse, a Regent University psychology professor who has done research on ex-gay Christians, is just now beginning to study celibate gay Christians. “Evangelicals are so enamored with marriage, it’s been hard for them to value singleness and celibacy,” he said.

Some Christians left ex-gay ministries and eventually began to embrace a position that’s more affirming of gays and lesbians. Josh Wolff, a gay 2009 graduate of Biola University’s Rosemead School of Psychology who is now a licensed clinical psychologist, said he went to reparative therapy for nearly two years before fully embracing his sexuality.

“I’ve seen a real shift away from some of the language (that) you need to go to counseling, you can experience healing that can make you straight,” Wolff said. “When Exodus came forward and said ‘We’re sorry for some of the harm that we’ve done,’ I think it was a wake-up call to many members of faith communities that for the vast majority of people, these treatments don’t work.”

Alan and Leslie Chambers married in January 1998.

Rediscovering celibacy

Celibacy is a better trend for Christians than conversion therapy was, said Alan Chambers, who led Exodus before shuttering it last year.

“Celibacy is an age-old concept, so I think it’s a great option for a lot of people. People have been so afraid of it,” said Chambers, who has been married to his wife for 16 years. “The only option before it was to stay completely silent or adopt this ex-gay mentality.”

Some evangelicals mine Catholicism’s centuries-old tradition of celibacy, said Wesley Hill, a professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry, who wrote “Washed and Waiting,” a 2010 book on being gay and celibate.

Wesley Hill is a New Testament professor at the Trinity School for Ministry and author of "Washed and Waiting," a book on being gay and celibate.

“They already have a rich history of celibacy that I had to discover as an evangelical,” Hill said. “Twenty years ago, being gay would be considered irredeemably bad, something to be delivered from or be changed. (Celibacy) leads me to form close bonds with friends, to have self-denial and sacrifice.”

Eve Tushnet, a 35-year-old whose book “Gay and Catholic” comes out in October, is fast emerging as a significant voice on sexuality and Catholic teaching.

“I felt like there’s a lot of things I don’t understand, but I can do my wrestling and doubting from within the church,” she said.

Tushnet grew up somewhere between agnosticism and Judaism, and when she became a Catholic in 1998, she didn’t know of other openly gay Christians who were following the church’s teaching on sexuality.

“Because marriage, the standard American solution to the problem of the human heart, is typically unavailable to gay Christians, we’ve had to confront loneliness earlier and more publicly than many of our peers,” she wrote in The American Conservative.

Eve Tushnet is a conservative, Catholic writer and celibate lesbian.

In a 2013 study in the journal Symbolic Interaction, Hollins University sociologist S.J. Creek found that celibate gay Christians tend to prioritize their sexuality differently than others might, unwilling to compromise their Christianity.

For some like Tushnet, the loneliness of celibacy has been tempered by communities such as Spiritual Friendship, a blog for celibate gay Christians. Hill co-founded the blog with Ron Belgau, who grew up Baptist and converted to Catholicism at 24. Belgau said celibacy was one of the things that attracted him to the Catholic Church.

“The ex-gay message was appealing because the problem was solved and we didn’t need to talk about it,” said Belgau, who spent some time in the Catholic Church’s Courage ministry that encourages celibacy for gays and lesbians.

“If you realize that a lot of people will have an ongoing attraction to same-sex and can be kept secret, you have to deal with as a church how we’re going to talk about this. With the ex-gay message, we can farm this out and continue with our nuclear family model.”

Naming and claiming

Matthew Vines is an openly gay, Christian LGBT activist.

The mere presence of self-identifying celibate gay Christians requires other Christians to wrestle with theological challenges, says Matthew Vines, author of “God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships.”  Vines doesn’t promote sex outside of marriage but believes gay Christians can make a theological case for same-sex marriage.

“It’s a subtle but significant shift,” said Vines, who is openly gay, of celibate gay Christians. “They’re saying, ‘There’s nothing wrong with being gay in and of itself,’ and that is a big change.”

In fact, that’s the teaching of major religious traditions, including the Roman Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church and even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Homosexuality only becomes sinful when a person chooses to act on it.

Moody Bible Institute professor Christopher Yuan has been countering progressive messages like Vines’ with a more traditional message of celibacy for those who, like him, are attracted to the same sex. In his book review of Vines’ book for Christianity Today, however, Yuan, too, took a harsh look at conversion therapy.

“Sanctification is not getting rid of our temptations, but pursuing holiness in the midst of them,” Yuan wrote. “If our goal is making people straight, then we are practicing a false gospel.”

Some Christians are less eager to use the term “gay.” After Grady Smith’s widely shared article for the Gospel Coalition about coming out as a Christian while he worked for Entertainment Weekly, he also wrote a post about coming out as gay to other Christians. In an email, he said he regretted identifying as a “gay Christian” because of how it might define him as a person.

“I knew it was writerly and provocative and expressed attractions I’ve felt, and I hoped it was bridge-building,” he wrote. “But it in no way describes the life I am living — and I think most people interpret ‘gay’ to mean the cultural box of the gay, sexually expressed lifestyle.”

Some pastors, like John Piper, a respected Minneapolis preacher and author, still encourage the possibility of change for those who have same-sex attractions. And some Christians are debating over whether identifying as gay or having a same-sex orientation is itself unbiblical.

“My conclusion is that if sexual orientation is one’s enduring pattern of sexual attraction, then the Bible teaches both same-sex behavior and same-sex orientation to be sinful,” Denny Burk, a biblical studies professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote in a blog post for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Rosaria Butterfield is a former lesbian who rejects the ex-gay label.

Rosaria Butterfield, a former lesbian who rejects the “ex-gay” label  and the movement behind it, disputes Burk’s interpretation of sexual orientation. “The Bible doesn’t speak against attraction,” said Butterfield, a mother of four whose conversion story went viral after it was published in Christianity Today. “It speaks against attraction that becomes lust.”

While she affirms celibate gay Christians, she says they should not use “gay” as a descriptive adjective.

“The job of the adjective is to change the noun,” said Butterfield, who will speak at the Southern Baptist convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s fall conference on sexuality. “Our sexuality exists on a continuum, but our Christianity does not.”

Lead Image: Julie Rodgers is a gay Christian blogger who has spent time in ex-gay ministries but has chosen celibacy. Courtesy of Julie Rodgers.

  • nwcolorist

    I agree with Rosaria Butterfield that the sin of homosexuality isn’t in being gay, but in the behavior, and I believe the scriptural references regarding homosexuality in the Bible will confirm that.

    • steve burdan

      Jesus pointed out that sin starts as thought and impulse in the heart before it becomes action – sin is more than just action…

  • Tom from North Carolina

    This is just an awful trend. Let’s jump from one unnatural set of behaviors (gay to straight conversion) to another (celibacy). Mammals have evolved to want to have sexual relations and the human need for intimate relations with another human is just as natural, gay or straight. Substituting one unnatural act for another is a bad idea.

    • nwcolorist

      A sexual relationship with another person and intimacy are not necessarily the same thing. Sex is a physical experience while intimacy is an emotional one. Sex can occur without intimacy, and intimacy can be found in many ways besides sex. Two people sharing time and experiences together on a regular basis, intellectuals sharing their ideas about philosophy. Many older married couples have fulfilling relationships without sex.

      If you’re looking for an intimate relationship, there are plenty of ways besides sex to achieve it.

      • Osowoofy

        ….and yet it can and in most cases *does* involve sexual expression.
        Fancy that!

  • Carstonio

    There shouldn’t be a homosexuality debate. A consenting adult’s sexual orientation, and expression of that orientation in the choice of relationship partners, is not for others to decide or judge. This works both ways – if someone believes that it would go against his conscience to be gay, then that’s no one else’s business either.

    I question whether pushing celibacy for gay Christians is any healthier in the abstract than pushing conversion, assuming that the latter even works. But whether an individual gay Christian chooses acceptance, celibacy or conversion is not for anyone else to decide either.

    The real problem is when a religious group like evangelical Christianity insists that homosexuality is objectively and universally immoral for all humans, but can’t be bothered to present an objective and universal argument for this. Morality is about the effects of one’s actions on others, and by extension sexual morality is about consent. So from an objective standpoint, there’s nothing immoral about consenting adults having monogamous same-sex relationships. Any religious group is free to decide that its members should avoid homosexuality, but anyone who insists that all humans have a moral obligation to do so should present an argument for why such relationships are harmful to others. Citing any religion’s holy book, as though this settles the matter, is arrogantly dismissive of people who belong to other religions.

    • Guglielmo Marinaro

      You are absolutely right, Carsonio. Celibacy is a perfectly valid and legitimate way of life, provided that it is a genuinely free choice, made without any kind of pressure from others. To try to impose it on people as a moral obligation, just because they are gay, is wrong. They have no such obligation.

    • TJ

      You say “a religious group like evangelical Christianity insists that homosexuality is objectively and universally immoral for all humans, but can’t be bothered to present an objective and universal argument for this”. That’s absurdly false. If you think that evangelical Christians haven’t made an argument as to why they hold the view they hold, you have no business commenting on this as you are clearly too ignorant to do so intelligently. You can disagree with their argument all you want, but to say they don’t have one reveals either dishonesty to try to sound convincing or ignorance.

      • Carstonio

        My comment deserves more context than I originally provided. I would agree that evangelicals do cite Bible passages that they say forbid homosexuality. However, they cannot prove as fact that the book has divine authorship. Neither can any other religion that has a work of scripture – all religions that allege commandments from gods are in the same boat regarding the lack of proof.

        Every evangelical argument I’ve read against homosexuality has been some variation on the Christian god’s alleged intentions for the sexes – often the arguments substitute “nature” for “God.” The premise of such arguments is that Christianity is true and all other religions are false. Taking that stance with members of other religions is disrespectful at best, because it treats them as having no moral right to follow whatever religion they wish. If one wants to make a case that everyone in the world has a moral obligation to be straight, one should make a wholly secular argument that doesn’t require believing in any specific religion.

  • Michael Brooks

    Celibacy is not unnatural, and as a matter of fact, the Apostle Paul encourages it. Read 1 Corinthians 7:8-9, 25-28, 32-35. Also read Matthew 19:12. As a SSA Man, I have freely chosen Celibacy, yes, with all the Crosses that comes with it….all for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.

    • Barre Flynn

      I am not sure that Paul actually encouraged it as the norm. He did embrace celibacy as an option if you were able to contain your sexual desires. Is that not really the point. What do same sex couples do when they cannot contain themselves. Should they not be able to have a loving and committed relationship, even though it is not perfect. That is the real question.

  • W Maxwell Cassity-Guilliom

    Homosexuality is such an arbitrary subject, void of moral implications, for the abrahamic religions to turn vicious on. At least this celibacy trend is a step above conversion therapy, maybe. However this problem of arbitrary morality will persist as long as people continue deifying the opinions of 2000-year-old peasants.

  • Guest

    Should be interesting to see how she fairs at 40 years old rather than a 20-something. One day she will look around and realize other lesbians go to church, have families, and live full lives. By then it will be too late. I hope it will have been worth it for her on her deathbed when she looks back.

  • halehawk

    As a single, celibate, heterosexual clergywoman, I am WEARY of the assumption that celibate Christians must be homosexuals. I have lived with this cloud of suspicion hovering over me for the entire 24 years of my active ministry. The truth is that ALL single Christians (including those who have never married, the widowed, engaged couples, and those who are divorced) are called to celibacy until they marry. It is also true that CHRISTIAN marriage is defined as being a covenant between a man and a woman.

    Celibacy is not always easy, but it is NOT always connected to sexual orientation. For me, it is stems from my relationship to Christ, and my passionate desire to serve Christ and to seek the Kingdom of God as the first priority of my life. I advocate celibacy as a positive lifestyle for any unmarried Christian, in fact I think our faith virtually requires it.

    Sadly, my church has become lax in it’s teaching about it’s official standard of “celibacy in singleness”, and we do not generally expect adult singles to be celibate. Most of the couples I have married have been living together before the wedding; and I’ve known church leaders who engage in sex outside of marriage. This dismays me. We need to do better. We don’t need to change our standard,rather we need to lift it up, teach it, and hold to it. We also need to give due honor and respect to the celibate singles in our midst. We need to raise our expectations and hold to the standard “celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage (between a man and a woman).

    I am not disturbed that a gay person is choosing and advocating celibacy as a Christian–that is perfectly appropriate and responsible. I am disturbed that we don’t hold to the standard of celibacy for ALL single Christians. It is time to take this standard more seriously. I am also disturbed by the tendency to suspect that single Christians are gay–that is certainly not always true. Some of us are just faithful people seeking to live with integrity for the sake of Christ and God’s kingdom.

    • steve burdan

      Great comments! The shifts highlighted in this article seem to reflect more semantics and perspective shifts within a vocal and articulate niche sector. There are prob. far more heterosexual singles in the Evan. church who struggle with their “crosses/choices” than those brothers and sisters struggling with homosexual expression – either in thought or action.

  • Barre Flynn

    People have the need to be sexual. I think ex-gay therapy really does a number on people. Forcing them to fit into molds that they don’t belong. Telling them that their beings are somewhat off kilter really can create serious problems. Celibacy for many is unnatural and unattainable. It can create people who deviate on the sidelines. A friend of mine said that he was going to give God his best. He would not be out there having sex with anyone who was in front of him, but he was unable to live without a partner and woman repulsed him. His best was to stay in a committed gay relationship. He felt God would take care of the rest. His life was one of a servant and he constantly defended the faith. Every person has sin (lets call it the Gay thing)… We give ourselves lots of tolerance with our own Gay things (sin). It might be wasting money at a casino, or coming home drunk, or dressing to kill, or a few nights at a club, or fornication. The fact is that all of our best deeds are like filthy rags before God. God also says we are consigned to disobedience so that we might experience his mercy. I think this issue just gives Normal Christians some to stand next to so that they don’t have to spend anytime dealing with who they really are. I think my friend got it right. He knew that his life was not a perfect gift but he believed that even in that broken condition, God loved him.

  • The Irish Atheist

    “Christians’ shift away from ex-gay therapy came amid larger cultural changes, including a wider societal acceptance of homosexuality and a rapid embrace of same-sex civil marriage.”

    You mean every peer-reviewed medical paper on the subject demonstrated ex-gay therapy to be ineffective. Oh, and children who had been tortured started speaking out and it was sort of embarrassing.

    If an adult wants to remain celibate for whatever reason, that’s their choice. Forcing or pressuring people into celibacy with the threat of eternal hellfire, however, is spiritual abuse. Like every type of abuse, however, Christians repackage it as ‘love.’

  • Osowoofy

    What a sad, sad article.