Celibate Gay Christian?

In the episode titled “Celibate Gay Christian Bridget Eileen Rivera” of the You Have Permission podcast, the host, Dan Koch, is joined by Bridget Eileen Rivera, a sociologist completing her Ph.D. at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Thirty-one-year-old Rivera has come to be a prominent influencer on gay celibacy in the church, and she herself is lesbian. Rivera and Koch disagree on whether they believe “queer[1]  Christians” are called by God to celibacy. Although that did not prevent them from having a discussion.

While Rivera lives in New York, she grew up in and has spent most of her adult life in conservative evangelical circles. She still considers herself a conservative evangelical at the time of this podcast (I suspect by “conservative” she means she sees the bible as authoritative). She now talks a lot to people who are brand new to the idea of a “queer Christian” or “gay Christian.” She now attends a United Methodist gay-affirming church.

Getting to the meat of the discussion Rivera starts by saying being gay is not about who “we want to have sex with”. She explains in queer circles, it is about more than that. It is also about who you are emotionally and intellectually attracted to. She sums it up as how they are “relationally situated.” Koch affirms her thinking relating to how he is straight, but him being attracted to his wife is about more than sex. So far, I agree with both Koch and Rivera.

They then make it seem like those in conservative Christian circles do not accept the gay identity and would rather label someone who is gay as “same-sex attracted” instead. This is where I find myself on the spectrum, but I do not think every conservative Christian is there (ex: David Bennet). I do think words matter, and to allow someone to carry the label as gay Christian (Side B[2]) causes confusion about where the line between affirmation and sin is (which makes me a supporter of Side Y[3]). I think too many people associate gay with a lifestyle that includes homosexual behavior (which is sin – I will address this later). Although David Bennett says gay “does not necessarily refer to sexual behavior; it can just as easily refer to one’s sexual preference or orientation and say nothing, one way or the other, about how one is choosing to express that orientation.”[4] Even if I change my mind on the definition, there is still a substantial number of people out there that would still be confused. Also, why does that need to be a part of someone’s identity? Should I be telling people I’m a straight Christian? Our identity is primarily in Christ. Yet, I do appreciate Rivera at least using “gay celibate” together, so she is not just identifying her sexual orientation, but also the way she is deciding to live it out. But I could still then use that logic and ask if I should say I am a “greedy poor Christian”, for example, because (for the sake of argument) I am greedy by orientation, but I am not choosing to live it out by being poor.

Rivera then enlightens me pointing out that the term “same-sex attracted” comes from Freudian psychology (she makes it seem like that should bother someone like me, but it does not). She also points out the term directly descends from the term “homosexual”, which is a concept Freud popularized to explain sexual perversion. She says the queer community pushes back on this term because it defines an entire group of people by their sex. While I understand her contention with reducing everything to sex, I think she must grant that these terms cause confusion. Definitions of queer and gay are not narrow enough and are even subjective.

Koch asks an excellent question about what the issues are with embracing these certain terms while staying celibate. Rivera says the first thing to understand is the political implications because conservative Christians have become allied with conservative politics. She gives an example of Jerry Falwell sort of leading the pushback in this area. While she takes a dramatic tone describing her sense of reality on this issue, what she says is not wrong in her assessment that conservative Christian view homosexuality as a threat to Christianity and the nuclear family. I think this is noticeably clear in the Bible that homosexuality is a sin and is counter to the created order, which leads to countering the nuclear family.

Kock then asks her what she means when she says she is a Christian. Her response is Christ-centered, gospel-focused, and what I would accept if I were a pastor interviewing her for membership at our church. Koch even asks her what the gospel is to her, and she responds with a good description of the gospel but, I did notice she left any mention of sin and what Jesus saves us from (implications of this arise later in the podcast).

Koch then lays out his favorite argument for the gay-affirming Christian, who is claiming the biblical texts against same-sex marriage are part of a patriarchal worldview that no longer applies today. He even suggests Jesus did not hold this worldview. He ties in the logic that because we reject the views that slavery is ok and women are subordinate, which are also views of the text at the time (according to Koch), we should reject that homosexuality is not ok too. To him, none of these views apply today.

Koch then asks Rivera what her take is on his favorite gay-affirming argument. She agrees that it is “definitely persuasive and has a lot of things about it that are compelling.” She thinks these passages (the ones that condemn homosexuality) are not as “cut and dry” as people say and most people do not understand the full context of the text. She explains in ancient Rome the defining thing about sexuality was not attraction, like we consider it today, but it was an expression of dominance and power. She claims attraction was “primarily considered a thing dominant men did to someone else.” Koch affirms it was not negative if you were the “top”, but it was negative if you were the “bottom.” Even if this point were true, I do not see how this could even make sense for the Bible to tell people you must only be the top person. If that were true, gay sex would not occur between Christians because no male would be the bottom. So, were gay Christians supposed to be having sex with non-Christians? I do not see how this is any different than the violations in the Bible against sex outside marriage, or sex with a prostitute.

Yet Rivera holds a “traditional conviction” of sexual ethics. She explains she gets this holistically from the Bible. Although she does not really explain what her traditional conviction is other than the implication, we know already is her choice to remain celibate.

Koch then confirms her beating around the bush by saying his podcast is not the place to pick a position on the issue, which I find ironic with the title You Have Permission. The direction he then takes almost makes it seem like You Have Permission to affirm all ideas, which seems to be where we find ourselves in culture today. He calls it a “nice ecumenism and pluralism.” He goes on to nearly say he does not want to draw any lines anymore and disagree with anyone anymore. I almost find myself asking “what is the point of this podcast?” I suppose Koch’s goal is to just hear and consider all views, but not have any conclusion for the sake of avoiding disagreements.

They gave their take on what the Bible says. Now for mine. The opening direction is God’s standard for matrimony. The very earliest chapter of the Bible tells: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”[5] The following chapter of the Bible explains the earliest matrimony between Adam and Eve: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Emphasis mine)[6] Jesus later cites these two verses perhaps suggesting the strict standard God makes for all matrimonies (Matt. 19:4-6; Mark 10:6-8). David Bennet comments,

“If Jesus, the supreme interpreter of the Old Testament, God in the flesh reaffirmed this teaching, how could I keep resisting it and call him Lord? Also, Jesus, as the one who fulfilled the law of Moses, says that not one ‘tittle’ will pass from it, including such keenly relevant passages as Leviticus 18 and 20, which clearly condemn same-sex practice. In this sense, when Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, forbids sexual immorality (porneai) in Mark 7:21, it would refer to, at bare minimum, the Old Testament law and thus same-sex practice. Jesus saw himself as fulfilling a specific way of living, anchored in the requirements of and relationship with Israel’s God, his Father, developed over hundreds of years. This was not just a culturally relative definition of immorality.”[7]

Paul, a disciple of Jesus as well ardently echoes the identical verses in Romans 1:23-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9. Grudem asserts: “Jesus and Paul both assume the logic of sexual intercourse implied in Genesis: a sexual bond requires two (and only two) different sexual halves (‘a man’ and ‘his wife’) being brought together into a sexual whole (‘one flesh’).”[8]

So, what about Rivera’s take on ancient homosexuality compared to today? Paul starts Romans 1 by mentioning two women having sex. What does Rivera do with that, since part of her argument is all about men and power?[9] Therefore, with a good sense of theology, the reasoning of Jesus and Paul is applicable for the church still.

Additionally, Leviticus 18 and 20 apply wide language that includes all kinds of homosexual sex and are repeated in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, showing (as acknowledged above) they even apply now. Robertson McQuilkin and Paul Copan note on 1 Timothy 10 telling, “Here Paul applies the Ten Commandments to his contemporary context, and he includes ‘immoral men’ (pornois) and ‘homosexuals’ (arsenokoitais), emphasizing the socially acceptable active (as opposed to passive) homosexuality.”[10] Everything brought in concert gives no wiggle room when it comes to the Bible’s unambiguous direction on homosexuality that is applicable for the church today.

Both Koch and Rivera do harp on the fact these views on sex are not heresy. While I still have trouble defining “heresy” because we all seem to have different definitions, I generally agree with them. While I think a biblical sexual ethic is a grave issue today, I am not ready to say it is heresy if you are wrong on this view. But I do think it is a hill to die on because of how clear the Bible is about it, and how harmful making mistakes in this area can be.

At this point, Koch wants to address why Rivera is celibate. Rivera then headlines her view saying she wants to see queer people view celibacy as a healthy way they can choose, but not necessary. I must ask, what is the point of remaining celibate if you hold the view it is only an option? If the practice of having sex with a person of the same sex is not wrong, then why would celibacy be a possibility? Why not frame it as you have the possibility to get married or stay single? Why would a gay or queer celibate Christian even be a thing to identify as and practice? Why not just be a single Christian? Do heterosexual celibate Christians need to identify as such? She responds by saying there is a lot of “questioning” for queer people because of the “universal homophobia.” She does not define these terms or explain what she means by this. Koch does make a fair critique that the church does not know what to do with celibate people (I think he was implying even straight ones), to which I agree. I only know of three people who are committed to celibacy: Dr. Abe Kuruvilla, my brother, and a former colleague. I think most people would find them odd. Even my parents and my wife were in disbelief learning of my brother wanting to stay single. My former colleague moved to an entirely new state and into a house with other celibate men (like a monastery) to feel like he belonged. The church must do a better job at confirming these callings even if they are the minority for both heterosexuals and those with same-sex attraction. Rivera thinks we should think of it as a radical practice, not as oppressive as it has been turned into. I do not know that we want to think of it as “radical” if the whole point is to make it more acceptable, but I think we are mostly in agreement on this topic. She says she did not even come to celibacy through Christianity. She was introduced to celibacy by a queer atheist who did not want sexual or romantic relationships. This person thought those things were oppressive. Rivera does not take the time to explain that thought. It is interesting though she did not think being single was a possibility until she met this queer atheist person. She thinks most people are forced into a celibate life “to be holy” and to avoid sin – it is not a choice. While I do think the church does a bad job of reminding people being single and celibate is a possibility people can choose, did she not know any heterosexuals that chose the life of celibacy? I can see how she can perceive oppression if she did not honestly think that was a possibility for Christians, but perception is not always reality.

Then Koch and Rivera spend a good deal of time comparing what marriage was in the time of the New Testament compared to what it is now. I am not studied in this area yet, but I can believe them for now when the point they are making is marriage was not a romantic soulful thing then like it is now (although I bet it could be). They both acknowledge people tend to pair up in nature and have a deep soulful relationship. But Rivera wants to deconstruct the idea that it must always be in marriage. Koch then asks Rivera if it is possible to separate celibacy from “purity culture.” He defines purity culture as any sexual act outside of marriage (although typically a heterosexual marriage, he broadens it to homosexual marriage as well). Rivera does think it is possible to separate the two, and a big part of it is pushing back against celibacy being necessary for gay people to be Christian or to go to heaven. She acknowledges the slight contradiction I pointed out earlier that “it seems counterintuitive” to say celibacy is a good thing, but you do not have to do it. It all boils down to her of whether it is a choice or not. She does not believe it can be a good thing if it is not a choice, which is absurd. I must point out, while we have the choice to obey God or not, him giving us specific commands is what is best for us. For example, if we do not murder people, it is what is best for us (and other people). Even our parents or authorities give us specific commands to obey because it is what is best for us. My parents told me not to play in the street because they did not want me to get hit by a car. By Rivera’s logic, me playing in the street is just as good as not playing in the street because it is my choice. Me getting hit by a car is just as good for me as not getting hit by a car because it is my choice. I do not understand how she can hold this view with intelligence or integrity. Even the example she gives is not remotely sufficient. She says if someone put a piece of cake in front of her and forced her to eat it, even though the cake is a good thing (What is her standard or definition of “good”? Whatever brings pleasure?), why should she be forced to eat it like her life depended on it? I do not think eating cake and trying to follow a command of God is a fair comparison. I would rather she go back to arguing for a different interpretation of the text because I can at least grant her an attempt at critical thinking and coming to a different conclusion. But this is sloppy. She never gives her argument for why a gay Christian does not have to practice celibacy other than not giving them a choice is oppressive. Koch even clarifies with her that it is not about avoiding sin, but instead, it is all about freedom and choice. My thinking is you can apply that logic to everything, and it drops objective morals. How can she not see the huge hole in the argument here? Even Koch raises an objection that this is hard to buy. She responds by saying essentially, we have freedom in Christ, and the moment there are rules and regulations it reverses the gospel message. What I would like to ask her is, “In that case do we even need to believe in Christ to receive freedom? Is there even such a thing as sin? What is he freeing us from? What is he saving us from?” She goes on to harp on the law being death and misuses Scripture to make her point. She says this is “basic Christianity 101” and what I want to tell her is she needs to learn “interpreting the Bible 101” because she is either completely misusing Scripture to support her view or outright ignoring parts of it.

Koch then tries to summarize her view at the end. He says to have sex in a non-heterosexual way is probably sinful. She responds by saying “I think I wouldn’t say it maybe exactly that way.” She says she has a hesitancy to define things by what is sinful and what is not sinful, which is at least consistent with her prior confusing logic. She gives the examples of baptism and the eucharist, saying there are different beliefs, but they are not necessarily sinful if they are the wrong beliefs. While I agree, I again think she is not using fair comparisons. The Bible is not explicit about the different views of baptism and the eucharist, and it does not call any view sinful. But homosexuality is found in a list of sins. It is not merely a view of sexuality that the Bible left unambiguous to us. The Bible is explicitly calling it a sin.

I want to be as charitable as I can, but I cannot help but think her arguments are terrible. It upsets me because she sounds like a sweet woman who is well-intentioned, but she is so off base. I suppose this is what the Bible means about “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

[1] Generally used as an adjective for the LGBTQI community but also can refer to queer theory or queer theology, which are fields of academic discourse. Queer is often used to infer that one does not want to be limited, labeled, or expected to have simply one kind of attraction but has at some point been attracted to the same-sex. (David Bennet, A War of Loves [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018], 268)

[2] Affirms the Christian tradition; sees the sexual expression in gay marriage as wrong but incorporates a gay identity and seeing sexual expression in gay marriage as faithful to a Christian ethic. (David Bennet, A War of Loves [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018], 267)

[3] Like Side B but does not identify with the term LGBTQI. Prefers not to identify as gay but is more likely to use the term same-sex attracted or is reluctant to see sexual orientation as a category of identity or personhood. David Bennet, A War of Loves [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018], 267)

[4] David Bennet, A War of Loves (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 211-212.

[5] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 1:27.

[6] Ibid., Ge 2:24.

[7] David Bennet, A War of Loves (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 241.

[8] Wayne Grudem, Christian Ethics (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 846.

[9] David Bennet, A War of Loves (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 245.

[10] Robertson McQuilkin and Paul Copan, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics: Walking in the Way of Wisdom (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 295.

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