I was recently sent a talk by a popular Christian speaker in which the speaker shared the following critique of gay Christianity, bringing a strong charge against Wesley Hill and others from Spiritual Friendship, who are attempting to live chaste lives as celibate gay Christians. Here is an excerpt:
I shudder to think about how much more rigorous, painful, dangerous, and difficult my conversion would have been had it taken place in 2016… Why? Well, if my conversion to Christ had taken place in 2016 and not 2009, likely I might have been told that I was a gay Christian….
I likely would have been told I was just a gay Christian and there are two tracks in life for a gay Christian like me. I can have “Side A” with Matthew vines, Justin Lee and the Gay Christian Network – embracing a revisionist biblical understanding that Scripture is neither inerrant, inspired, nor trustworthy and affirms the goodness of gay sexual relationships. Or, hey, I could go “Side B” with Wesley Hill and the Spiritual Friendship gang, where I would learn that my sexual desires for women were sanctifiable and redeemable making me a better friend to one and all. But for the the sake of Christian tradition I should not act on them….
I think that sexual strugglers need gay Christianity and all of its attending, liberal sellouts, including the “Side B” version, like fish need bicycles…
While some people see a difference between acting on unholy desires and simply cherishing them in your heart, our Lord would say otherwise….
The difference that factions of gay Christianity, the differences between Matthew Vines and Wesley Hill take place on a razor’s edge…
When the speaker mentions “Side A” and “Side B” gay Christians, she is referencing language used by the Gay Christian Network (that originated with Bridges Across the Divide) in which a decision was made to move away from “pro-gay” and “anti-gay” terminology that would demonstrate a preference based on language (think about how “pro-choice” language shapes perceptions in the abortion debate). Rather, they landed on “Side A” (that some same-sex sexual relationships can be morally permissible) and “Side B” (same-sex relationships are morally impermissible).
In any case, when I first watched this segment, I wasn’t sure how to digest it. I occasionally blog at Spiritual Friendship and count it a blessing to call many of the people who do blog there my friends.
Also, I am currently working on a writing project on the experiences of celibate gay Christians titled, Costly Obedience. I know from research with this population (and from personal conversations with friends) that, for some celibate gay Christians, there has been a history of attempts to change, of many hours in prayer or involvement in ministries asking God to remove the “thorn in the flesh,” as it were.
I do not know the speaker personally, and this is not a full critique of her argument. There is much that could be written in response, and I would prefer to dialogue with her out of a relationship at some point down the road. I also know other people who have a similar testimony of what God has done in their lives that mirrors in some ways what I have read about her. Nothing here is meant to detract from her testimony.
However, I am concerned that she may be doing something I’ve seen others do when they have taken how God worked in their lives and developed a standard by which they measure what should be expected from others (and what pastors should allow or support in their pastoral care). Such an exhortation can come from a good place. It can be well meaning. Developing a standard based upon one’s own personal journey of healing, however, can overlook the efforts made by others and the different ways in which God works in a person’s life.
I should not have to say this, but I am obviously not defending revisionist theology associated with a “Side A” perspective on Scripture. I am simply saying that many gay Christians (those designated as “Side B” in her talk) who are pursuing a life of chastity are doing so with quite a history of attempted healing. Suggesting to them that more is needed is perhaps not the appropriate response. Chiding pastors who make room for Christians who are pursuing celibacy is perhaps not the best step forward.
A few days after I watched that clip, I was reading the new book, Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life. In one letter, Henri Nouwen writes to a woman who was critical of Nouwen for not “taking the correct approach to healing himself” (p. 188).
…Your statement that my vision of God is askew, that the emotional imagery of my heart is also askew and I simply need to become available for healing, feels really quite distant and makes me feel somewhat condemned. It simply sounded like: “You know there must be other healing available for you; why don’t you get your act together and accept the healing that is there for you.” If you had any idea of what I have been struggling with over the past eight months and how I have been trying to really enter into the furnace of God’s love and give up everything else in order to really let God heal me, you probably never would have written these words. (p. 188-189)
Nouwen did not use the language of “gay Christian” or “celibate gay Christian,” but I was struck by how living a celibate life can come under attack by others who want more for a person. They want more of a testimony of healing, and they place the responsibility for the lack of healing on the gay individual. It was strangely comforting and disconcerting that Henri Nouwen faced a similar charge.
I was also struck by Nouwen’s charity toward the woman who made the charge. He tried to foster in her some cognitive complexity:
…I know that you don’t want to hurt me and that you do care for me. So I hope that you also can be patient and trust that God will do his work when His time comes. It quite easily might take another ten or twenty years until the deepest wounds in me are healed. It might even be that God wants to teach me how to live with them as a way to participate in the suffering of Jesus. I really don’t know, but, healing or no healing, I trust that God is greater than my heart and that He desires to show me His love. (p. 189)
Perhaps the church is at its best when it recognizes the different ways in which God responds to the cries of His people. Perhaps the church is at its best when it recognizes that God is sovereign and is working out His purposes in the lives of the those who, often out of a place of great anguish, are bringing their requests to Him.
One thought on “How Nouwen Responded to Criticism of His Celibacy”
This feels like a reasonable but somewhat emotional response. I listened to the talk, and I think the work she did on Romanticism and its creation of the category of sexual orientation is pretty important. And if the creation of the category of sexual orientation is an anthropological category confusion, then Side B is on the wrong path. And if it’s popularity is gaining ground in the PCA as the speaker claimed, then giving a pointed warning with strong language might be pastorally warranted. This doesn’t come down to her manner, it comes down to her claims. If she’s right, then she was right to say what she did. If she was wrong, then being wrong, her words could create harm, and whatever wounds they create would not be a faithful one. But is she wrong? Her view is definitely more in line with the historic Christian tradition on sexuality than many of the modern versions. I think that is where the discussion must lie. This felt a little like a cheap shot to me against those who believe that orientation categories are misguided- just as I think you felt like her talk was a cheap shot against people who have found distinguishing between orientation and faithfulness to be a helpful conceptualization refuge.