Wesley Hill is a gay, celibate Christian. While I can’t speak for all people in all places, his 2010 book Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality was groundbreaking in my corner of biblically conservative evangelicalism. In a topic that had become bifurcated into only two camps, Wesley presented a third camp: Christians who were gay, but who were remaining celibate to obey and honor the Bible’s demand (Wesley’s word) that sex and marriage are for a man and a woman.
I’m doing lots of summarizing here of the overall conversation (not necessarily from Wesley or his book), but this third way argues (successfully in my opinion) that homosexual attraction is not a sin. That any time the Bible speaks against homosexual sin in Scripture, it’s referring to sexual actions, not attractions. This is no different for a heterosexual like myself. We can’t control our attractions. I’m attracted to women other than my wife, it’s what I choose to do with those attractions that determines if I’m in sin or not. In Wesley’s story, he discovered he was attracted to other males while he was going through puberty, around the age of 13. I have a gay friend who made this discovery at the age of 7. Wesley, and the vast majority of other stories I’ve heard from gay or same sex attracted people do not describe this discovery as a choice; they discover it as they would that they are right-handed or six feet tall. There’s no choosing or praying it away, try as they might. This is a huge shift away from the popular mindset the Church had in the 1980’s and 1990’s that homosexual attraction or orientation could be healed and changed, a mindset that inflicted significant trauma on many. There are some individuals for whom their attraction is a choice or who have been able to see some change, but by and large this is not the norm.
This is why many gay Christians, like Wesley, use the term gay Christian to describe themselves. If the attraction of being gay is not a sin and is out of your control, then why douse yourself in shame over it? The other ingredient here is that being gay doesn’t just involve having sex, it involves who you are as a person. This is a difficult one for some heterosexual conservative Christians to get our minds around. But when Wesley says he is gay, he isn’t lying, even though he isn’t having sex with anyone. I can’t put eloquent or even clear words to it, but it’s something my gay friends are able to articulate well. I’ll ask Wesley about it when I interview him in an upcoming podcast interview (January 2021) so he can give you the eloquent and clear answer!
Other Christians prefer to use the term same sex attraction to describe their struggle. For some of them, “gay” carries a sin connotation with it that they don’t want to identify with. For others, they don’t see “gay” as who they are all the time, but are able to compartmentalize this as something that only affects who they are attracted to. I apologize in advance to my gay and SSA readers, knowing I am butchering both of your reasons for choosing the words you do to describe yourself. My point is only to give an lay of the land for readers who are new to this conversation and most importantly to say that I do not believe we need to divide ourselves further by making passionate arguments why gay / SSA Christians should not call themselves “gay” or should not call themselves “same sex attracted.” I think there are valid reasons on both sides and both are choosing words that lessen shame for them. This is such a divisive (and incredibly painful) topic already, and those who hold to the view I’m describing are already in such a minority, that we should not divide ourselves into even smaller camps of disagreement. Both for the unity of the Church, and to give our gay / SSA brothers and sisters as much support within the Church as possible.
In Washed and Waiting, Wesley helped create a world and a community where gay / SSA Christians can be gay, while remaining celibate and faithful to Scripture’s demand that sex is meant for a man and a woman within marriage. He takes this world a step further in his 2015 book Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian.
Spiritual Friendship is our current Flip Side Book Club book, which you are welcome to pick up a copy of and participate with us in reading and discussing.
Spiritual Friendship is spurred by the idea of loneliness. In some ways, it is a sequel to Washed and Waiting. Now that a gay Christian has committed themselves to celibacy, does it also mean they are committed to a life of loneliness and a life without love? It is all too easy as a heterosexual, married pastor to preach a sermon on celibacy for gay Christians and never have to wrestle with the grit of loneliness that this entails for those actually living this life.
And let’s be honest, the Church doesn’t have much to offer in the way of community for single folks in general, whether gay or straight. We’ve elevated marriage to unbiblical proportions while creating an unspoken stigma around singleness.
In Spiritual Friendship, Wesley dives deep into the Church’s history of non-sexual, physically intimate same-sex friendships. He explores vows made between friends. Covenantal vows between two same-sex friends that they would always be there for each other. Often these friends were married to a spouse of the opposite gender, but the culture allowed for them to maintain both of these covenants at the same time. There were even times in history when friendships were seen in law and policy, the way you only see marriages today.
Wesley talks about how today the only love we consider important is romantic love, thus it’s the only love we deem worthy of giving a vow ceremony to. Particularly in contemporary Protestant circles, we have lost all concepts of vows outside of the marriage vows. Monastic vows and even godparent vows are largely forgotten, making a vow of friendship feel even more unrealistic. Friendship today is a matter of convenience and is temporary. We easily move across the country for a new job, not thinking twice about how this virtually ends our friendships and makes us start over anew. And on the flip side, any show of love is seen as erotic or romantic. This is why guys say things like “no homo” to one another, because our culture doesn’t allow for any same sex intimacy anymore without it being sexualized.
When Wesley discovered these covenantal friendships throughout Church history, he found “that there exists, for someone like me, a location for my love.” (Page 22) As he dives into the topic, his hope is to give a vision of friendship for celibate gay Christians like himself, but also for all Christians, single and married, who need the community and intimacy of true friendship in their lives.
Some questions that I’m interested in asking Wesley in our interview are around the sustainability of the type of covenantal vow friendships he casts a vision for within a culture that doesn’t have supports built in for these. I know one main avenue for these friendships is gay celibate Christians like Wesley. This seems like it will work because you have two single people who don’t have other commitments to a spouse, children, etc. who can really build their time around this one friendship. But I don’t know how a friendship like this could work in my life where my time and attention is needed in my marriage and children, as well as the introvert time I love and need. Some of Spiritual Friendship‘s principles thus far seem aimed at elevating all friendships to a higher bar, while other principles seem aimed exclusively at this one covenantal friendship. I wonder if you could have more than one of these covenantal friendships, or if they are meant to be exclusive, similar to a marriage. There’s also the “pink elephant” in the room question you may be thinking about as a reader, and that is regarding two gay celibate Christians having this vow of friendship with each other. While that’s not Wesley’s sole purpose of the vision of this book, it certainly is a primary one. This is likely where he has received the most amount of pushback or criticism from conservative Christians, as it feels you are setting people up to sin by creating an environment of temptation that would be too much to bear.
This is a legitimate concern that needs to be wrestled with seriously.
Wesley responds to this pink elephant by saying:
I find myself wondering which is the greater danger—the ever-present possibility of codependency, sexual transgression, emotional smothering (and other temptations that come with close friendship) or else the burden, not to mention the attendant temptations, of isolation and solitude created by the absence of human closeness?Page 41, Spiritual Friendship
It is a heavy weight to think about the burden and temptation that come with isolation and solitude, including pornography, promiscuity, substance abuse, severe depression, and even suicide.
These are not light topics we are dealing with here. What God is putting on my heart as I read Spiritual Friendship is I need to get out of the ivory tower that is so easy to blog and preach from when talking about LGBTQ+ issues and get into the grit and grind of what actual people are dealing with on a daily basis.
I’m only through chapter 2 of Spiritual Friendship and will write another post on chapters 3-4 in a few weeks. I am thankful for Wesley Hill’s bravery and boldness in writing this book. It is a fruitful effort to help many gay / SSA Christians who are stuck between devastating loneliness and living against God’s demands in Scripture. Whether you agree with all of it or not is not the point. To me, this is a rally cry that we must do more in the Church to create a space for our gay / SSA brothers and sisters to be in community and give and receive love, while they try, like the rest of us, to live according to God’s design for sex and marriage.
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