There’s been a bit of a storm created over the last few days about the Revoice Conference. The conference description says: “Supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality”.
This has created a big discussion online – for a start, Douglas Wilson has some links to different people as well as his own take. The gist seems to be (1) is it OK to identify as a ‘gay’ Christian? (this is what Owen Strachan takes issue with); (2) it’s not right to explore the bounds of celibacy as to what is appropriate for same-sex attracted Christians.
I don’t want to talk about the first issue as that has been going on for some time. I do want to talk about the issue of celibacy, as it’s relevant to what we’re about here at Friend Zone.
Doug Wilson says this in his piece:
As Hill’s book makes plain, a commitment to celibacy does not prevent one from falling in love with a best friend, or from being heartbroken when that friend moves away. So on one end of the spectrum we have a prohibition of sexual consummation, and in the context of this Revoice conference, no one disagrees about that. But on the other end, what is legitimate? Where is the line supposed to be? When does okay turn into not okay?
Some of my questions might seem ludicrous, or impertinent, but I am in deadly earnest. Suppose that an oath-bound set of friends—what Hill is arguing for—is living together. They are committed to celibacy, which means . . . what, exactly? What does day-to-day life look like in the home? We would appear to know of the one thing prohibited (although even the boundaries of that may be uncertain), but there would also appear to be a wide range of things that still need to be discussed.
But in this new world of blurry definitions, what does celibacy not allow? Is hand-holding out? When they are watching a movie, how close can they sit together? Can they cuddle? When a man falls in love with his friend, is that a violation of the commitment to celibacy? I think it is high time for someone to define celibacy. What do you mean by it? Does a commitment to celibacy exclude sleeping together? Showering together? Nudity? Physical, affectionate contact? Hand-holding? Back rubs? Falling in love? If there is sexual arousal, but no orgasm, is that still celibacy? If a man falls in love with his celibate partner, and they kiss, but it goes no further, is that celibacy?
This is interesting because I think it raises a question around the nature of sin and sanctification which underlies this disagreement.
Sin, I think all would agree, is more than simply actions – it comes from the heart. Luke 6:45 says, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (ESV). It’s not just the mouth – we know that sin proceeds because our hearts are impure, not the other way round. Our actions do not make us impure – impure actions flow from impure hearts. Therefore – the only solution is to fix the heart problem, not to fix our actions. God alone can fix our heart problem – these oft-quoted verses from Ezekiel 36 prophecy what God was to accomplish in Jesus: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
So we need new hearts, we need to be renewed by the Spirit. I think all would agree so far. God takes our sinful desires and transforms them into gospel desires. We are renewed from the inside out. It’s important to remember that the goal is not for us simply to avoid what is sinful but to love.
The issues seem to be (1) here exactly does same-sex attraction ‘fit’ within this? Is it ENTIRELY bad, or is there something good which is horribly distorted by sin? (2) is it actually possible for our desires to be truly transformed? Is it reasonable to expect that this side of glory?
Let me give an example from my own life. I am a married man, but I occasionally find women who I am not married to attractive. I used to think this was an entirely sinful thing and repent of it all – but, the thing is, it didn’t stop attraction happening, and it actually led to me basically avoiding women for fear of what might happen. In my mind, avoiding women became the way I dealt with sin. Over time, I have started to see that I was wrong here – or at least, only partially right. As I said previously, attraction is not one-dimensional: it has multiple dimensions – some of them are good and right and godly, some of them are bad and wrong and sinful. It has been in recognising this that I’ve been able to take steps towards friendship – when I meet a woman where there is attraction, I find it helpful to think that there are some good things about my feelings as well as some which are sinful. Through prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit, as I repent and turn to Christ, I hope that what is bad is decreasing whereas what is good is increasing. I wonder if something of this is going on with Christians who experience same-sex attraction – is the desire entirely wrong, or is there something which can be redeemed?
I often return to 2 Peter 1:3, “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” We don’t lack the tools here – we have the Holy Spirit, we have the gospel, sinful hearts can be made new and desires restored.
Returning to Doug Wilson’s piece, I disagree with his argument around celibacy. It seems to me the Revoice conference is not about trying to push the boundaries of what might be permissible – the Bible is quite clear that we are called to absolute sexual purity. You can’t have a little bit of sexual purity! At the same time, I think it is right to explore what celibacy and friendship looks like – not for the point of ‘pushing the bounds’, but rather what love might look like in these cases. Physical contact is not necessarily sexual – in some cultures, for example, it’s quite normal for two men to hold hands. It’s not about trying to do everything right up until crossing some kind of red line! It’s about working out what sanctification and holiness look like in a specific set of circumstances.
My contention, and this is partly why Friend Zone is here, is this: we live in a sexually saturated world. Everything is affected by it. Christians need to show the world not just how to avoid doing anything wrong, sexually, but more – that there is a better way. Sex is not God. Desires can be transformed, sinners can be forgiven – and that love is truly possible without the corruption of sexual desire. Maybe I am being over-optimistic, but what I read from the pages of the New Testament is that God doesn’t call us to anything which he doesn’t also provide the resources for. If God is calling the church to a new area of sexual purity and holiness, one which has perhaps been unexplored for a long time, then maybe it’s time for the church to listen.