Celibacy, Marriage, or Surrender?
If you or anyone close to you has struggled with exclusive same-sex attraction, you know that this is a particularly heavy burden to bear. I’ve heard painful story after story of men and women who wrestled in silence during most of their adolescence with confusion, shame, guilt, and increasing despair over the unrelenting experience of attraction to the same sex. No matter how many prayers they offered up, not only did their same-sex desires not go away, but desires for someone of the opposite sex never came.
More than ever before, we’re wrestling with questions of identity, sexuality, and what repentance and faithful living looks like for our brothers and sisters who struggle with same-sex attraction. Many churches and denominations have completely rejected a biblical sexual ethic and have embraced our God-denying culture’s definitions of love, identity, and sexuality.
But even within conservative biblical understandings of sexuality, there is still confusion and division over how to minister to our brothers and sisters wrestling in these ways.
I want to briefly address two common approaches to discipleship when it comes to the question of marriage, and then offer a third way that I believe is most helpful and most faithful to Scripture.
Most people who see life-long celibacy as the best or only option for Christians wrestling with exclusive same-sex attraction often explicitly or implicitly embrace a theology that sees same-sex desires as a core aspect of identity. Thus, many have no problem identifying as “gay Christians.” They’re not equating a gay identity with same-sex behavior—they still hold to the Bible’s design for sexuality when it comes to what is permissible sexual activity. But they also see exclusive same-sex desires as a largely unchangeable, life-long experience until the resurrection. Thus, the only option for the vast majority of these brothers and sisters is celibacy.
Pros of the Celibacy Solution
It’s commendable to see our brothers and sisters testify to the reality that Christ is all-satisfying. If following Christ means they’ll never experience sexual satisfaction, they willingly take up that cross. This choice of celibacy also points the entire church to what is eternal. Human marriage was designed by God to be a temporary sign that gives way to the reality of the church’s eternal union with our bridegroom, Jesus Christ.
The celibacy solution also recognizes the reality that there are many sin struggles in this life that God may allow to remain a formidable foe until we see Jesus face to face.
Lastly, the celibacy solution reminds us that while marriage is a blessing for many, it’s not a requirement for all. We can’t escape Paul’s provocative words when he states that “he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better” (1 Cor. 7:38).
Cons of the Celibacy Solution
The celibacy solution typically comes from an unbiblical premise, spoken or unspoken, which states: “My exclusive same-sex attraction is immutable, unchangeable, and God almost certainly will do nothing about it.” It would seem that this theology places same-sex desires in a unique category from other sins. When Jesus does a radical work of bringing dead hearts to life, making someone a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), this particular area remains unreachable from God’s grace.
This belief goes hand-in-hand with another unbiblical supposition: same-sex desire, if not consciously acted upon, is morally neutral. As long as you don’t allow the attraction to give birth to lust, there’s no need for change because this is not an area in need of repentance. But the church has historically rejected this premise which only identifies sin in the realm of conscious choice. The Bible makes it clear that the fall has corrupted not only our choices but our desires as well (James 1:14–15, Jer. 17:9).
While it’s important to maintain a distinction between “indwelling sin” and what we could call “willful sin,” both need redemption. When we limit the scope of sin’s reach, we also limit the scope of the gospel’s reach. To dive deeper on the topic of whether same-sex desires can be properly labeled sin, see my previous blog, “Is it Sin or Temptation?”
The call to repent of all sinful desires is non-negotiable. This will seem impossible if desire and identity are inseparably linked.
Some see same-sex attraction as morally neutral because they often see their attractions as integral to their identity. To lose this desire would be to lose a part of themselves that they don’t want to lose. Whether it be their creativity, their cultural tastes, or the way they interact with friends, they see their desires as foundational to their being. But to whatever degree repentance changes our preferences or the ways we interact with others, that can only be a good thing. The call to repent of all sinful desires is non-negotiable. This will seem impossible if desire and identity are inseparably linked.
In response to the celibacy solution, some conservative Christian thought leaders and pastors have advocated that many Christians wrestling with same-sex desires should place a high emphasis on seeking marriage with someone of the opposite sex. While they would not go so far as to say that it’s sinful for every Christian to remain single, they would say that in many (if not most) cases, true repentance of same-sex desires would eventually give way to new desires for biblical marriage.
They would also propose that the ethical opposite of same-sex desire is heterosexual desire within marriage. They would argue that Paul’s description of the call to singleness in 1 Corinthians 7 was not describing someone wrestling with exclusive same-sex desires but instead refers to those Christians who’ve been given the gift of great contentment in singleness. Therefore, it is not tied to a sense of inability to marry according to God’s design.
Pros of the Marriage Solution
The marriage solution fundamentally rejects the idea that exclusive same-sex attraction is tied to identity and therefore immutable. It also sees same-sex attraction as part of indwelling sin and therefore in need of redemption. It’s an aspect of the Christian’s experience that the gospel has the power to change. These pastors want believers who struggle with same-sex attraction to believe God is powerful enough to bring about incredible change even at the level of our desires. The very heart of the gospel is the proclamation that what was impossible with man is made possible with God (Matt. 19:26).
The very heart of the gospel is the proclamation that what was impossible with man is made possible with God (Matt. 19:26).
The marriage solution also rightly pushes back against an unhelpful feedback loop in the celibacy solution in which the belief that heterosexual marriage is impossible prevents the possibility of it. Our beliefs impact our desires, and vice versa. The more we believe a specific narrative, the more our expectations, hopes, and desires will be shaped by that narrative. If the narrative says someone should abandon realistic expectations of developing godly desires for marriage, then hope has no place to root itself. That desire will have no fertile soil to feed upon.
Cons of the Marriage Solution
The biggest problem with the marriage solution is that it turns the good opportunity of marriage into a command that Scripture does not warrant. There is no biblical backing to make a one-to-one correspondence between repentance and romantic desires.
Sexual desire is never commanded for a single Christian. If a Christian is already married, they’re called to cherish, love, and pursue their spouse—including, when appropriate, fanning the flames of desire so their attractions are devoted to their spouse alone. It’s also true that there may be a correlation between repentance of same-sex desires and a desire for marriage. As someone repents, the Lord may open their heart to an opportunity for marriage that he presents. If someone is convinced that their exclusive same-sex attraction is core to their identity, their unwillingness to consider marriage may indicate a lack of repentance. But that is a case-by-case area of wisdom and discernment.
But this gets to the question of the goal of repentance. The ethical opposite of same-sex lust is not heterosexual desire, but love (see The Opposite of Sexual Sin). The ethical opposite of lust is love for God and love for neighbor—in these two the entire law is summed up.
The Westminster Larger Catechism, question 138, asks, “What are the duties required in the seventh commandment?” The answer focuses on chastity as the main way we positively fulfill the seventh commandment. It says that marriage is a duty if someone does not have the “gift of continency”— “the exercise of self-constraint in sexual matters.” Self-constraint implies that there is something in need of restraining! Therefore, continency is not the absence of any sexual desire (whether hetero- or homosexual), but the ability to live a life of faithful obedience to God while lacking the proper context for sexual expression. This reflects Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:9 when he says that those who cannot exercise self-control should marry. We cannot conclude that the Bible requires marriage for someone who is faithfully repenting of sinful sexual desires with increasing self-control.
The marriage solution ties a heavy burden upon the necks of our brothers and sisters. It has too many similarities to the extra-biblical requirements of pharisaical laws. Just as forbidding marriage goes beyond the testimony of Scripture, so does requiring it.
I’ve sought to be accurate and charitable in my assessments of the first two solutions. Both views highlight some important truths and make fair criticisms of the opposite perspective. But their conclusions fall short of God’s wisdom.
Instead, if a brother or sister wrestling with same-sex attraction asks you if they should pursue marriage, see this as an opportunity to encourage them to bring their desires with open hands before the Lord.
For every unmarried Christian, the possibility of marriage must be fully surrendered to God. He claims Lordship over every part of your life.
Sometimes marriage seems to be the direction God is pointing them. They largely experience exclusive same-sex attraction but are open to marriage and desire to raise a family. If God calls them to marriage, there will be struggles (as in every marriage)—but it will also be an ongoing means of their sanctification and blessing. For others, their hesitancy to pursue marriage may be a lack of trust in their heavenly Father, revealing an idolatrous desire for control. The issue is not marriage itself, but what marriage is revealing about their hearts. For still others, they may not desire to pursue marriage because they are living contentedly with self-restraint as a single believer.
For every unmarried Christian, the possibility of marriage must be fully surrendered to God. He claims Lordship over every part of your life. We should hold up everything to God with open hands, including marriage, singleness, our career, where we live, how we spend our time and money, and especially including our desires. If you surrender to our Lord’s perfect will in this area, he will lead you. Perhaps God has a long, thriving season of service in the Kingdom that is only accomplished through singleness. That season of singleness may give way to marriage one day. The key is that your entire life is fully surrendered to him.
This is the standard for all followers of Christ! Jesus demands we give him everything (Luke 14:26). The only proper response to God’s amazing grace in salvation is to “no longer live for [ourselves] but for him who for [our] sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:15). Our plans and our desires no longer have control, but “the love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5:14). Our flesh naturally fights against this type of radical surrender, but the Spirit gently, patiently, sweetly, and convincingly continues to draw us into it.
My former colleague Dave White used to say that legalism and licentiousness are two sides of the same coin. They’re both sinful attempts to avoid a relationship with God. In a similar way, forcing or forbidding marriage cuts off the life of prayer that is required when considering such weighty decisions. For some of my single brothers and sisters struggling with same-sex attraction, God may be calling you to the scary work of praying about marriage. For others, you’ve been praying about this, you have submitted this to the Lord, and he has given you contentment in his call of singleness for your life.
A brief word to my married brothers and sisters who continue to battle against same-sex desires. You’re not alone in the fight to keep your desires singularly focused on your spouse. This is a battle every married person must faithfully fight. Remember, Jesus is Lord of your desires (Phil. 2:13)! Keep offering them to him. You may find it difficult at times to fan the flame of desire for your spouse, but this is an area that you can proactively cultivate by God’s grace. He wants to bless your Spirit-driven efforts at fostering a deeper longing for your spouse, as those efforts are the fruit of a singular and intentional longing for Christ.
Your heavenly Father can be trusted. He will not give you a scorpion when you ask for an egg, or a serpent when you ask for a fish (Luke 12:11–12). He loves you. He purchased you for his prized possession. He wants to lavish you with good things that result in praise and thanksgiving to his name. You can trust him with your desires, your future, and your entire life.