Gay and celibate: sexuality, identity, and the church (Part 2)
Dr Wesley Hill talks about same-sex attraction, singleness and marriage, and spiritual friendship.
Dr Wesley Hill is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Pennsylvania. He is a committed Christian who is also gay and celibate, and has written about his experiences in his book Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. He talks to Simon Smart about why he’s convinced that homosexual practice is not an option for Christians; the Bible’s view on marriage, singleness, and community; and how the figure of Jesus is compelling enough to inspire a very counter-cultural life of celibacy.
SIMON SMART: Traditional Christian teaching on sexual ethics, especially the idea that sexual activity is reserved for heterosexual marriage, is to many people today looking outdated, repressive, and, especially when it comes to gay people, cruel. Well Dr Wesley Hill is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School of Ministry in Pennsylvania. He is a classical Christian; he’s also gay, and celibate, and he’s the author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality.
So, Wesley Hill, great to have you in.
WESLEY HILL: It’s great to be here, thank you for having me.
SIMON SMART: Now you are a gay, celibate Christian. It’s fair to say the church doesn’t have a great reputation for caring for people like you like you. That reputation is somewhat deserved, isn’t it?
WESLEY HILL: I think it is, sadly. I was lucky enough to grow up in a very loving family (loving, Christian family), a good Christian church context, and I knew that I was compelled by this vision that my parents and my Sunday School teachers and my youth pastors were telling me – that God loved me, that God had sent Jesus to live this life for others, and he gave his life for us on the cross, and he rose from the dead – and I was blessed to see that lived out in powerful ways in my family and in my church context. And yet at the same time, I was also feeling alienated and feeling as though I couldn’t talk about this aspect of my life with my fellow Christians. And so, it was sort of this paradoxical tension of knowing that I loved this Jesus, but also feeling a sense of shame and embarrassment around my fellow Christians, and wondering if I needed to keep my sexuality hidden from them so that they wouldn’t reject me. So, I think you’re right, Simon, that many of our churches have a long way to go in making people like me feel welcome and at the heart of things.
SIMON SMART: Yeah, some people might think that where you grew up would be about the most hostile place for a gay person to be – the Bible Belt of America. What was it like when you started to articulate this reality about yourself?
WESLEY HILL: I think initially, it was very much something I thought I ought not to talk about. I was deeply loved by my family, I was cared for in my youth group and by my pastors, but at the same time I thought: this is not something I can share, I need to wrestle with this on my own. I think I even had thoughts at the time of: I hope that I’ll go to the grave without ever telling anyone about this. That sense wasn’t necessarily because anyone had told me gay people are especially bad, they’re especially worthy of condemnation – that was just part of the cultural air that I breathed, and I decided in the secrecy of my own thoughts that I would try to keep this as a secret for as long as possible.
SIMON SMART: What changed?
WESLEY HILL: I think what changed – I went off to university and I began to try to make an effort to date women and hope that that would shift something in my sexuality so that I could be “normal”, and what changed was the feeling of: this is not working. This is not a very healthy way to live. I’m trying my hardest to engineer some kind of shift in my sexuality, and it’s not contributing to my health as a person – I mean, let alone a Christian, just as a human being I’m not flourishing. And I came to the point where I realised, if I’m going to go on and live a healthy life, and if I’m going to go on in my Christian faith and be someone who can love God and love my neighbour as myself as Jesus said, I’ve got to find a way to not be bound up with hiddenness and secrecy, I’ve got to talk about this with someone. And so I did that at university, I began to look for those few trusted friends that I could confide this in, and began to explore questions about my sexuality with.
SIMON SMART: Now you’re a classical Christian who holds to the traditional Christian teaching that sexual activity is within heterosexual marriage, now, what’s happened, Wesley? Have you been brainwashed? How is this possible?
WESLEY HILL: I think for me, it very much flows out of being a Christian, being a member of the church, is the most important thing about me, and so I recognise my sexuality as central to my personhood, but it’s not so central that it eclipses or displaces my Christian faith. So my story is very much one of coming back to Scripture, coming back to what the church has always believed for 2000 years, and looking at it again, and feeling that as much as I would love for it to be different, as much as I would love for the Bible to teach something different about marriage, I actually think the church has been right all these years when it says that there’s a unified thread running right through the Bible, that goes from the beginning where God creates male and female in his image, to be his representatives in the world, and then the next chapter of the Bible, Genesis Chapter 2, talks about this male and female coming together for a covenantal bond with each other, for a marital bond, and then bearing children. And if you follow that thread right through the Bible, you come to the Gospels where Jesus is asked about marriage – the religious leaders come to question him about what he thinks about divorce and marriage – and he goes back to Genesis and he quotes from those stories about God making male and female and he says: this is not just an accident of history, this is not just a fluke of evolution, this is what God intended. God wanted this pair, this male and female bond, to be together for life. And that’s the appropriate context for sexual intimacy.
And you keep reading in the New Testament, and Paul – Jesus’ especially commissioned spokesperson – Paul teaches the same thing in Ephesians Chapter 5. He mentions that Genesis text, and he says this male and female coming together is a kind of image, it’s a parable, of Jesus’ love for the church, his bride. And then you go right to the end of the Bible, the very last chapters of the book of Revelation, and you see again, God uses this picture of male and female as an image for Jesus’ love for the church, and the final scene of the book of Revelation is this wedding supper of Christ and the church: the wedding supper of the Lamb, it’s called.
So, I felt that although I would like to see space there for same-sex marriage, because that’s what I want, I don’t – I don’t see that. And so what’s most important for me is I want to be a Christian before I want to be gay-married. I want to be committed to Christ and the story that Christians have always believed before I do anything else.
SIMON SMART: Lots of people today would hear that and think that it’s a cruel thing, both for you and others who are told this stuff. How do you respond to that? How is it not cruel?
WESLEY HILL: I think one of the ways that it can be cruel is when Christians try to teach a biblical vision without becoming the kind of community that makes it possible for people to live into that vision. So think, for instance, about other places where the Bible presents a really hard teaching, where for instance it asks young women who may not want their pregnancy to choose life. That’s a hard teaching. And one of the ways that we do a disservice to people is when we say: Well that’s your burden to bear, this is a hard command, God just wants you to go and do it, you know grit your teeth, stir up your willpower and do it. And one of the problems with that is that’s not the way the Bible presents things, the Bible says, you know, all of these callings that are so difficult, that make our lives hard, nobody can do those things on their own. You have to be part of a community that helps make your obedience possible. So I think I would want to say, if someone is feeling that this is a cruel sentence – embracing this teaching about marriage is going to make my life lonely – I would say that the burden falls back on us as the church, to make it possible for that person to live into that vision. I mean, the only way I’ve been able to embrace this hard teaching is that my fellow Christians have come alongside me and said: we’ll link arms with you and help you obey God in this way.
SIMON SMART: And that has been you’re experience, then?
WESLEY HILL: It has. I have been really blessed in the church. When I came out, I was warmly embraced. I was not shunned. I was not shunted off to the margins of the church – people befriended me. And I think that’s the only way that I’ve been able to pursue a life of celibacy, is having those what I now call spiritual friends. People who come alongside me and say: we want to help you pursue discipleship to Jesus in this area of your life.