29 May Why Celibate Gay Christians Don’t Need to Fear Hell
Revoice is just a week away! One of my biggest hopes is that this conference will carve out a space for LGBTQ+ Christians to adhere to historic teachings apart from threats of hell. If we ever hope to make conservative churches a safe environment for LGBTQ+ people, this absolutely must become the norm. Also, if you plan to be at the conference, please don’t hesitate to say hi! I can’t wait to talk!
Letting go of my white-knuckle grip of celibacy was the best thing I ever did.
Now wait a minute.
Letting go of celibacy?
But isn’t celibacy the very thing that gay Christians must desperately maintain apart from getting married to the opposite sex? Isn’t celibacy, like, the point?
In many conservative churches, it is. The focus upon “no gay sex” in Christian communities often amounts to a type of spiritual suffocation, whereby celibate gay Christians slowly strangle themselves under the mounting pressure to avoid gay sex. Okay, maybe they’re dying, but at least they’re celibate. So, like, it’s fine. Right?
Unfortunately, it’s not.
It’s impossible to cling to Jesus and receive his gift of grace when we’re desperately clinging to something else. God calls us to be desperate for Jesus, not works of the law, and to cling to his righteousness, not our own. But unfortunately, the counsel given to far too many celibate gay Christians amounts to a call to cling to their celibacy and not their Savior.
Why Celibate Gay Christians Choose Celibacy
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” – Gal. 5:1
When celibate gay Christians tell me their reasons for being celibate, one of the most common things I hear is, “I’m afraid of going to hell,” or some version of this idea.
Let’s allow that to sink in for a minute. “I’m afraid of going to hell” is literally one of the most common reasons for gay celibacy. Not Jesus. Not growth in his love and knowledge. And not even grace. Just hell. I’ve actually had countless gay Christians tell me that if it weren’t for their fear of hell, they wouldn’t be celibate at all.
This ought to horrify the mature-thinking Christian. We don’t perform acts of righteousness as a “get-out-of-hell-free” card. We grow in righteousness as a product of our faith in Jesus Christ. In a sermon on Galatians 5:1 (quoted above), John Piper observed, “The key to freedom is whether we have to do the work ourselves to escape punishment, or whether our Father comes down to be with us and help us.” If we do the work ourselves out of fear of retribution, we nullify the grace of God, choosing our works of self-righteousness over the gift of his Son (Gal. 2:21).
Nevertheless, when talking about homosexuality, Christians often reinforce a “get-out-of-hell” mindset by doubling-down on threats of damnation. After all, the thinking goes, if gay people don’t fear hell and damnation, then what’s to keep them celibate? Other Christians might not discuss hell explicitly but will communicate the same thing by questioning the salvation of any gay Christian who isn’t celibate and, by proxy, the gay person in front of them who struggles with the question of celibacy.
Such thinking betrays an anti-Gospel approach to the discipleship of gay believers. Instead of encouraging their gay siblings to rest in the finished work of Jesus Christ upon the cross, Christians communicate that Jesus Christ is not enough. Instead of teaching gay believers that their works are useless apart from Christ, Christians communicate that Christ is useless apart from their celibacy.
Gay Celibacy Doesn’t Impress the God of the Bible
“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” – Romans 3:38
These are some of the most basic principles taught to the most novice believers in Protestant Christianity. Our good works don’t save us. They proceed from Christ, not precede. “[T]he heart which is acceptable to God is not one which depends on its works,” John Piper said in a different sermon on Galatians, “…but rather one which trusts so fully in God’s grace that the result is a life of love.”
And a life of love fulfills the law of righteousness. “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word,” the Bible says, “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:14). We don’t achieve salvation by clinging to our righteousness. We achieve salvation by clinging to the love of God made manifest through Jesus Christ, who becomes our righteousness and who teaches us to live by teaching us to love (1 John 4:9, 19-21).
It’s for this reason that Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:3, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” Our grand displays of faithfulness don’t impress the God of the Bible. We could give away all that we have, even deliver up our bodies to be celibate, but if we don’t have love, rest assured, we gain nothing. Celibacy is a waste if it doesn’t proceed from the love of Christ.
Walking by the Spirit as a Celibate Gay Christian
“Walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” – Gal. 5:16
When we “walk by the Spirit,” the Bible says in Galatians 5:16, we “will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” But objections to this principle abound. It feels dangerous to exchange our white-knuckle grip of morality for Jesus. How could we possibly do so without falling into sin?
Indeed, Paul faced this very same objection when writing to the Romans. “What shall we say then?” Paul asked his readers in Romans 6:1. “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”
He knew his readers, and he knew what they would think of this “grace.” Just a fancy way to justify sin. But “by no means!” he said. (v. 2) The whole point of the Gospel is that righteousness is no longer a requirement for salvation but a product of it. A thing we grow into. A process that begins on earth and completes itself in paradise. Sanctification.
Thus, the life of the believer is not characterized by sin but, rather, by it’s ever upward growth into the righteousness of Jesus Christ. And this life is the gay Christian’s to live. Christ is calling us to let go of our self-righteousness as the path to salvation and to embrace our Savior instead. Celibacy can’t be good when it’s nothing but a desperate attempt at saving ourselves. It must come through following Jesus and Jesus alone.
Choosing Jesus, Not Celibacy
“Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’” – John 6:28-29
I never chose to be celibate. I chose to follow Jesus. And Jesus brought me into celibacy the way a teacher leads their student to their homeroom. I followed him there. And he made me desire to be there.
But just how many churches encourage their gay members to follow Jesus into celibacy? As opposed to maintaining their celibacy to follow Jesus? In my experience, not many. And what about celibate gay Christians? How many of us are celibate because we’re afraid of going to hell? And how many of us are celibate because our Savior simply brought us there?
The Bible calls upon gay Christians to follow Jesus and not a sexual ethic, however biblical and righteous it may be. Celibacy only becomes a life-giving vocation for gay people when we stop treating it like a ticket to heaven. Because it’s not. That’s Jesus.