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When I was an undergraduate, I read two of the most important ex-gay books of the time:  Coming Out of Homosexuality   by Bob Davies and Lori Rentzel, and  Straight & Narrow?   by Thomas Schmidt.

Coming out of Homosexuality  was 208 pages long, and offered three chapters devoted to topics related to heterosexual dating and marriage. They then turned to the topic of those who remain single:

We have taken a detailed look in the past several chapters at different aspects of moving toward heterosexual relationships in terms of dating, engagement and marriage. This is an appropriate place to reaffirm the validity of being single.

The majority of former homosexuals are single, even those who have been out of same-sex immorality for many years. Some left homosexuality while in their late twenties or older and simply have not found a suitable potential spouse. Others have been married previously and hesitate to initiate a new marriage. Some are content in their singleness and feel no desire to begin dating. Whatever the reason, the Bible assures us that singleness is a positive thing; it should not cause us embarrassment or shame.

Although they recognized that the chapters on heterosexual dating were relevant only to a minority of “former homosexuals,” and that the majority of those who chose obedience to Christ would remain single, they devoted just 1 1/2 pages to issues specifically connected with singleness and celibacy (some content of the book, of course, was relevant to both those who are single and those who marry).

When I read the book as an undergraduate, I threw it across the room when I came to the end of the section on celibacy. This was, I realize now, a somewhat immature response. But it was very frustrating to discover that all they had to say about celibacy was found in a few platitudes. It was nice that they affirmed a single life, but they gave no help at all with the practical problems connected with celibacy that I had to deal with.

Schmidt’s  Straight and Narrow  was slightly better: he offered just over 3 pages addressed to those who remained celibate. And although he didn’t have much practical advice to offer either, he did include a sentence which told the reader where to look: “The monastic and priestly traditions of Christianity, both Roman and Orthodox, offer vast experience and literature on the gift and discipline of celibacy.” (Of course, this tradition is mostly about voluntary celibacy, and there is still a need to think about involuntary celibacy. See  Seeds of Celibacy  and  The Gift of Celibacy  for more on that topic.)

Taken together, the two books offered about 1800 words addressed directly to the  majority  of “former homosexuals” who would not marry. Several points were repeated in both books. In other words, between two of the most prominent ex-gay books of the 1990s, you got about a couple of blog posts worth of discussion of celibacy, almost none of it directed to practical problems celibates face.

It is not enough to simply say gay sex is wrong, and to tell people to abstain. As Eve Tushnet  writes , “you can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of No.” These books did have a positive message—if you had a vocation to marriage. But for the majority who were called to celibacy, they had little to offer.

Celibacy is difficult; in the monastic tradition, it is always connected with some form of community, with spiritual direction, and with disciplined prayer. At the same time, the monastic tradition is broad, and celibate community can take many forms.

In a culture like our own, which exalts sex and disparages celibacy, it is little surprise that many fail when they attempt celibacy without much support from the church, without clear models, and without practical advice in facing the challenges they face. But this may be less an indictment of celibacy, and more an indictment of the way that the ex-gay movement failed to take celibacy—which Davies and Rentzel admitted was the experience of the  majority  of their members—seriously, failed to seriously study the resources on celibacy available in the Christian tradition, and failed to collect and reflect on their pastoral experience with celibate members in a systematic and practical way.

One reason for this, I think, is that many Christians thought of marriage as an expression of divine healing, while celibacy was seen as merely settling for a fallen condition.

This is a serious mistake.

Celibacy is a high and difficult calling, and to live it well requires deep inner transformation.  Spiritual friendship , too, requires an inner transformation that purifies the heart.

To pray for healing and to pray for orientation change are not identical. Paul says that though some of the Corinthians had engaged in various forms of sin, including homosexual activity, they were washed, sanctified, and justified. Some have used this as proof that God promises orientation change. But in the very next chapter, he praises celibacy as a higher calling—a better way of serving Christ—than marriage. If we are to “earnestly desire the higher gifts,” and to pray boldly for them, then there surely is nothing amiss if we pray boldly for this gift.

To live celibacy well requires in some ways a deeper healing, and a more dramatic inner transformation than opposite sex marriage would require. Although our pursuit of chastity—whether in marriage or in single life—begins with difficult self-denial, and often involves ongoing seasons of deep struggle, we shouldn’t think of celibacy primarily as a “booby prize”: the consolation given to the losers whose prayers for “healing” (understood solely in terms of orientation change) go unanswered. Nor should we view the sometimes gradual but resolute approach to Christian perfection in the life of those whose orientation has not changed as evidence that God has not healed. To do so involves a radical misunderstanding of vocation and of the work of the Holy Spirit.

[ Cross posted from Spiritual Friendship . For more on the same topic, see The Gift of Celibacy by Jeremy Erickson. ]

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