To be clear, when I say that the church’s theology surrounding love is woefully inadequate, carrying huge implications for celibate gay Christians, I am not trying to set up a case for gay marriage. Some accuse me of trying to create some sort of back-door argument that legitimizes gay marriage because it’s simply too hard to be celibate. But that’s not at all what I’m trying to say. Instead, in this post and others, I’m trying to build a case for changing the culture of the church, because much of our current atmosphere makes celibacy feel like a death sentence. This is not an argument for gay marriage. Rather, it’s an argument for changing our culture to align itself with the biblical vision for Christian community. It’s about making people flourish in the God-given vocation of celibacy.
Churches that seek to be faithful to the traditional sexual ethic face a tough reality. For better or worse, most people find love through marriage. It’s not the way things ought to be, but it’s the way things are. And if that’s the way things are, we’ve got a problem. Just how exactly are gay Christians supposed to experience love if they can’t get married to the people they love?
Christian community must provide a viable path for expressing love outside of marriage. Without it, we’re just as “anti-love” as all the caricatures portray. Unfortunately, despite everything the Bible has to say about love, evangelical theology remains woefully inadequate on the topic.
This means that love outside of marriage is difficult if not close to impossible for people to find, carrying huge ramifications for celibate gay Christians.
So it’s time to change.
Playing Dress Up With Love
“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” – 1 Cor. 13:13
Christians love to attach “love” as a qualifier to their behavior. Take the small-group member who “shows the truth in love” to a wayward friend. Or that couple who “lovingly witness” to their neighbors. Or those ladies who organize a meal-train to “love on” Ms. Suzie who just got surgery.
Love rhetoric abounds in the church. And for good reason. Love ought to be central to the Christian life, as Jesus commanded, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
But dressing up actions with lovely words won’t give you love anymore than dressing up your dog in a fluffy dress will give you a child. (Though I’m sure people try it.)
Far too often, Christians dress up their behavior as if it were love when it’s not. Making Suzie a casserole dish, for example, is a wonderful thing, even sacrificial. But it doesn’t mean you love her. Maybe you do or maybe you don’t. But if you think that you’re “loving on” her just because you made her a casserole, well, quite frankly, you’re deceived. Until you actually love her, you’re not loving her. You’re just being nice.
Christians call everything “love” these days, and it’s usually things that are good! But we mustn’t conflate good words or deeds with love. Recognizing the difference is crucial because love-postering has a devastating effect upon Christian community. The conflation of love with “being nice” is the reason why statements like, “You are loved here,” mean little if anything at all to people who really, actually need love.
Especially to Christians who are gay and celibate.
More Than a Choice or a Feeling
“No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” – 1 John 4:12
Growing up evangelical, I learned to reject the notion that love is a feeling, believing instead that love is a choice. Feelings come and go, I learned, but it’s our responsibility to choose to love, regardless of how we feel. The man who “falls out of love” with his wife has a choice, for example. He could follow his emotions straight out the door, or he could choose to stay with his wife, deciding to love her in spite of his feelings. So the argument goes that love is not about how you feel but about what you do.
However, I want to suggest that this simplistic definition does love an injustice. Certainly, love is more than just a feeling, but to say that love is actually a choice seems to partake of the same problem. Experience tells me that love has aspects of both but is also much, much more.
In his collection of essays, Fundamentals of the Christian Faith, Peter Kreeft observed that love is inherently enigmatic. A mystery that can’t be explained. When asked by his son, “Daddy, why do you love me?” Kreeft found himself without an adequate answer. Instead, he settled for saying, “Because you are mine.” The point is that he couldn’t explain it. The love that he felt for his son was more than a feeling and more than a choice. It was a reality. A palpable truth.
“Love goes beyond worth, beyond justice, beyond reason,” Kreeft said. “Reasons are always given from above downward, and there is nothing above love, for God is love.” Is it really within the scope of human capacity to say that we can actually choose to do such a thing at will?
Unfortunately, many believers focus their attention on the structure of love, thereby neglecting its substance. I frequently hear Christians say things like, “I might not like this person, but I can love them anyhow,” and it baffles me. It speaks to the way in which we’ve stripped love of its divine power and turned it into a matter of will-power. Let’s be honest. If anyone said such a thing about you, would you actually believe they loved you the next time they brought you a casserole?
A Story About Love
“Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart.” – 1 Peter 1:22
As a school teacher, working with dozens of snotty-nosed little kids every day that were prone to fits and tantrums, I learned more about love than I ever wanted to know. One five-year-old girl in particular exposed my heart. She may have been the most difficult student I ever had. So bad in fact that when she moved to my school, her previous teacher got me on the phone and actually apologized that I would have to deal with her!
Month after grueling month I endured her screaming, her cussing, her spitting, her shouting, and her daily destruction of the classroom. The year came to a close and, when most teachers would finally say goodbye to their students, she got held back! The two of us earned a whole nother year together.
Did I love this girl? I never meant to. But I came to love her. Or rather, it came to me. The way a tide creeps in without you knowing. Halfway through our second academic year together, I had a breakthrough when she misbehaved in the hallway. I wrote about it a few years ago:
“I yelled at her — the first time I’ve truly yelled the entire year — and sent her to sit in silence at my table. Several minutes later I delivered yet another reprimand and forced her to walk the entire length of the hallway over again.
By the time she reached the end of her death march, this five-year-old child wore a scowl uglier than the worst of my teacher-looks. She was angry. I was angry. And likely the whole school had heard me yelling. As I knelt down to look her in the eyes and deliver a final summary of what she ought to learn from this experience, I discovered a different set of words on my lips:
‘Are you okay?’
A soft moan edged past her mouth, and her bottom lip began to tremble. One tear and then another stained her cheeks, and she broke down into sobs. I held her in my arms as her tears soaked my shoulder, and I softly said, ‘Did you know that I love you?’
My students hear me say this every day, but saying it now felt different, and her sobs broke out even louder as I spoke the words. ‘l love you. Did you know that?’
In these moments I realize that my students and I are learning something that is not included in my unit plans or standards. The child who looked at me like I was Bloody Mary at the beginning of the year now rests in my arms and says ‘I love you’ back. And I find, to my shock, that I really love her too. I’m no longer just saying it. I’m meaning it. I find my own eyes filling up with it.”
Love as an Encounter
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” – John 15:12
How many Christians could honestly say that when they talk about “loving their neighbor” they actually refer to the same sort of visceral, heart-swelling tenderness that characterizes the sentiments of their closest relationships? My guess, not many.
But it’s this kind of love that ought to characterize Christian community. The kind that comes from giving your life to another person day after day after month after year, until finally your souls encounter each other. The kind that Christ gave to us.
When I told that little girl, “I love you,” it had all the strength and fortitude of something infinite overcoming us both. It wasn’t there the year before. But somehow along the way, unbeknownst to me and certainly against my inclinations, I’d come to love her. I’d come to realize that I would lay down my life for her.
I never chose to love her, though I certainly chose to be her teacher. I chose to smile every morning and to smile again when she got on my nerves. To wipe her dirty fingers when she smeared soil into the carpet and to listen to her babble incessantly when it should’ve been nap time. But none of these things were love.
Instead, love happened to me in the midst of these choices, the way sunshine happens to the horizon. You can’t make the sun rise, but you can certainly choose to wait in the dark til it does. And love is the same. It’s only possible when God’s own transcendent love fills up the horizon of our souls and pours into the people that have our hearts. It’s an experience, a three-way encounter between God, ourselves, and another. Until that happens, we haven’t loved.
Sticking Around Until You Love
“We love because he first loved us.” – 1 John 4:19
Herein lies the problem. Churches are teaching Christians that rising early and waiting in the dark is the actual sunrise. Turn the other cheek, they say, do someone a favor, sacrifice your time for another. The result is that far too many Christians substitute nice behavior for love. It’s no wonder that “finding love in Christian community” feels so shallow compared to finding love through a marriage. We all sense the truth that nobody wants to admit — that “finding love in Christian community” just means “finding a bunch of nice people.” And that’s not love.
Instead, love happens when we meet God in the midst of a relationship. As the Bible says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). When people think anything less, they’ll talk about love and perform the mechanics of love, but the eye-brimming truth of it will escape them. They’ll pat themselves on the back for “loving their neighbor” and return to bed before the sun is up.
And celibate Christians will suffer. Christian community will suffer.
So let’s make sure this doesn’t happen, at least within our own congregations. Let’s stop calling nice things “love” and start calling them what they are. They’re nice. Let’s stop enabling people to pretend that they’re loving when they’re not, and let’s challenge them to stick around until they actually do. That’s the only way the church will ever develop actual, life-giving love and thereby build a community. By mingling your heart and soul with another and sticking around til God shows up.
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Edited 3/2/2018 for clarity.