Gay and celibate: sexuality, identity, and the church (Part 1)
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.
WESLEY HILL: This is one of those areas of Christian teaching where I think that a lot of people who don’t buy-in to the big picture story of the Bible – the story that God is a god of love, who made the world in love, who created male and female, that they’re not just a kind of accident of history, but that was God’s purpose for there to be male and female; and Jesus came to restore that broken marriage, that male and female relationship that’s been so compromised by sin, Jesus came to heal that and redeem that – if you don’t buy that story, if you don’t think all that’s true, you probably wouldn’t want to embrace the life I’m living. I think for instance, there’s a passage in one of Paul’s letters, his first letter to the Corinthians, where he says, “You know, if I didn’t believe that there was a future resurrection of the dead in which God is going to make the whole world right again, God is going to heal everything, then a lot of the choices I’m making in my present life would seem pretty foolish”. Paul says that outright. And I think that’s true for someone like me as well, you know if I weren’t a Christian, if I didn’t think that God was this kind of God, and God had created this kind of world, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be pursuing celibacy – this might not make a lot of sense apart from that story of what God’s done in Jesus.
SIMON SMART: Yeah, I can sense that you’re very much committed to that vision, and it gives you a lot of motivation to live this way. But what about the person who would say to you, “Why is it the case that God would create you in the way that he did – through no fault of your own you’re attracted to people of the same sex – why should you be consigned to this life of in some ways loneliness, at least some level of that? And how do you reconcile that with this loving God that you talk about?”
WESLEY HILL: One of the things that Christians believe, and it’s not necessarily one of the things about our faith that’s very intuitively obvious to people, but one of the things we believe is that God not only made each of us, he loved each of us into being, but we’re also fallen – that’s the word Christians use – fallen from what God originally wanted us to be. So we’re all born into a world where things are not the way they’re supposed to be, even down to the level of our DNA. We’re born with conditions, inclinations, longings that are for things that God didn’t originally intend us to be wired for. And I think that’s how I’ve tried to make sense of my life, is recognising that Christianity says to every single one of us, whether we’re gay or straight or bisexual or whatever our sexual orientation is, “You are ordered away, you’re wired, hardwired away from God’s vision for your flourishing”. And what happens to you when you come in to Christian community, you’re baptised into a new way of thinking, a new way of living, and you have to begin to unlearn a lot of the patterns that feel as though they’re just there, you’re just born this way. And Christianity says, “Well no, God is in the business of transforming us.” God is in the business of taking what feels most central to us, what feels like we were just created this way, and Christianity begins to transform those things, our walk with Christ begins to make us different than the way we were born.
SIMON SMART: Right, Wesley, but you’re not into necessarily this idea of the Christians aiming to heal people of being gay?
WESLEY HILL: I think that’s one of those areas where Christians have a really complex view that it’s hard to boil down into a soundbite, but basically what we believe is that all of us are being transformed, every single one of us who are in Christ, who are in the family of the church. We’re being changed, we’re being remade into the image of Christ. But that’s going to look different for every one of us. The way that Christians often talk about this is that we’re sort of caught in a tension between Jesus’ first coming – when he came and died on a cross and rose from the dead; and his future coming again – when we believe he will appear bodily, in glory, to redeem the whole world. We’re sort of poised in between those things. And what that means is that every one of us is going to experience profound change, profound transformation, but not always in the ways that are easy to predict. Certain gay and lesbian people may well find that their sexuality undergoes some pretty dramatic changes. I have friends who know themselves to be gay, but have ended up marrying someone of the opposite sex, and they would say that’s evidence of God’s change and healing in their lives. I have other gay and lesbian Christian friends who would say, “I haven’t experienced that at all. I’m seeking to live a chaste, celibate life”.
And I want to say that both of us, all of us, are living in the same place: we’re living in between the first and second coming of Christ. We’re expecting change, but we’re not setting the terms ahead of time for what that change is going to look like. For some of us it will be marriage, others of us it will be celibacy, but both marriage and chaste singleness – marriage and celibacy – are ways that God is grafting us in to the life of Christ, ways that God is sanctifying us and making us holy.
SIMON SMART: I want to ask you about identity then, because I think you’ll want to say that yes, you’re gay, but that’s not who you are in a central sense.
WESLEY HILL: That’s right, I sometimes will say that gay is an adjective that I use for myself but it’s not a noun. In other words, the most important thing about me is not my sexual attractions, the most important thing about me is that I’m baptised. Martin Luther had this idea that every day as Christians we come back again to the start of our Christian life, we come back to the moment when we were baptised and we say, “God, whatever else may be true in my feelings today, the most important defining factor of my life is that I have been claimed by Jesus Christ, I belong to Jesus Christ, body and soul. That’s who I am.” And all these other things about me – whether I’m white or black, whether I’m Australian or American, whether I’m tall or short, rich or poor – all those things are adjectives that are pretty central to how I live in the world, but the teaching of the New Testament is that we live in a world also looking forward to the day when those things will no longer define us in the same way they do now. And therefore, the most important thing, the central thing, is that we belong to Christ – we’re Christians before we’re anything else.
SIMON SMART: Are you confident that the church can become a place where gay and lesbian people – people of all different types of sexuality – will truly feel welcome?
WESLEY HILL: That’s what I really want. That’s what I pray for. I pray that our churches will be known as places where the doors are absolutely wide open to anyone, no matter what your background, no matter what your sexual experience or lack of sexual experience, you are utterly welcome at the table. And, I want the church to be known as a place of profound transformation, so if you are called in, you’re summoned in, you’re invited in, you’re drawn to this Jesus, you know what you’re getting in to when you come into that life is a life of change. God’s going to not affirm everything about you, your felt identity, whether you’re gay or straight, the church is not going to rubber-stamp that. You’re going to be ushered in to a life of change, a life of holiness, in which even your very sexuality is going to be called into question by Jesus, and he’s going to show you a better way, a new way to live, that doesn’t match the way you’ve identified and the way you’ve behaved up to that point.
SIMON SMART: Well Wesley, this is a fascinating, controversial topic; it’s so good to get your thoughts on it. Thanks for coming in.
WESLEY HILL: Well thanks, it’s been a pleasure talking with you about it.