I looked nervously across the table, fidgeting with my coffee cup. Do you realize what you’re asking of me? he questioned. We’d been meeting for more than an hour, talking about his struggle with same-sex attraction and his decision about whether to enter into a more intentional relationship with his boyfriend. He’d been part of our church and community group for a couple of years, always intelligent and effervescent, exhibiting many marks of a mature Christian. Yet my friend’s dark internal struggle had finally reached its culmination, and here we were together in a coffee shop, grappling with the reality of his decision.
Do you realize what you’re asking of me? I did. I was asking him not to act on his same-sex desires, to commit to a celibate lifestyle, and to turn away from an important romantic relationship. Yet as I reflect on that discussion, I now realize I didn’t fully understand what I was asking of him. I was asking him to do something our church community wasn’t prepared to support. I was asking him to make some astonishing and countercultural decisions that would put him out of step with those around him. In many ways, I was asking him to live as a misfit in a community that couldn’t yet provide the social support to make such a decision tenable, much less desirable. No wonder he walked away.
Several years have passed since that conversation, but it’s convinced me of the vital relationship between sexuality and ecclesiology. There are many churches like ours that believe there are two possible paths for followers of Jesus to live obedient sexual lives: heterosexual marriage and sexual abstinence. But among churches that are committed to a biblical sexual ethic, there are few, I’m afraid, that make living out that ethic plausible for the average person dealing with same-sex attraction.
I’m now convinced any church that holds a traditional view of sexuality must also foster a radical practice of Christian community in which living out a biblical sexual ethic becomes plausible and even attractive.
Thick Communities as Alternative Plausibility Structures
More than two decades ago sociologist Peter Berger coined the term “plausibility structure” to describe the sociocultural systems of meaning, actions, or beliefs that are basic to community life and tend to remain unquestioned by individuals in a given society. Had you told someone 50 or 100 years ago not to have sex before marriage, even if he transgressed he’d still agree abstinence “makes sense” and is “the right thing to do.” This idea was an axiomatic part of his plausibility structure, his shared sense of meaning with the broader culture.
But today, what the church affirms about sex and sexuality is so radically out of step with what’s commonplace in the culture that we cannot expect anyone to innately “get” the Christian view. Our beliefs are no longer part of the cultural plausibility structure.
I believe one of the most serious callings of the church in our age is to create new, countercultural plausibility structures that make the demands of the gospel plausible, practical, and attractive. If a gay friend is going to embrace a life of chastity for Jesus Christ, she must be able to look into the future and see not only the loss and pain but also the possibility that a real fulfilling life can be lived. If we don’t work at this task, if we don’t create the kinds of communities in which the countercultural lifestyle we’re advocating is supported and upheld, we’ll continue to see people choose plausibility structures that make more sense and have greater support from the culture.
For this change to happen churches have to be actual communities, not just buildings people enter once a week. Jesus calls individuals into a new family that lives out the joys and demands of the gospel together, bearing burdens and cheering one another along the Calvary road. Jesus even promises that those who take up the hard demands of following him will be given a new community to support the consequences of the losses they endure:
Truly I tell you, no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life. (Luke 18:29–30)
Christ’s consolation to those who follow him isn’t new religious activity; it’s a new family.
Bearing the Cost
Do we realize what we’re asking of our friends with same-sex attraction? One the one hand, God is asking of them the same thing he’s asking of us who are heterosexual when we start following Jesus. He’s asking for every part of our lives to come under his lordship, including our sexuality. If we’re single, that means committing to sexual abstinence or chastity.
Those of us who are heterosexual must realize, however, that even though God is calling us to the same thing (chastity), our LGBTQ friends will experience this calling differently. When heterosexuals commit to chastity, they do so knowing they may meet someone, get married, and be able to have sex. When those tempted by same-sex attraction commit to chastity, though, they’re doing so knowing that unless God changes their sexual desires, they may never know the intimacy of a sexual relationship. That realization can be devastating, and too few heterosexual Christians have gone to the depths with a friend into that experience. Bearing this pain with another is part of creating a social environment where the possibility of this kind of life isn’t a horrific prospect.
The sexual demands of discipleship will become more plausible and practical to our gay (and straight) single friends if they see everyone in the community taking seriously all the demands of the gospel, not just the sexual ones.
Imagine two scenarios for a friend we’ll call Bob. Bob is same-sex attracted. He’s just become a believer in Jesus and is now coping with the idea that Jesus may be calling him to live a life of chastity. He has one Christian friend, Steve, who initially invited him to church. Steve’s a nice guy, is married, has three kids, is wealthy, and seems happy. As Bob struggles with the prospect of chastity, he cannot help but feel it’s unfair that he was born with same-sex attraction while Steve happened to be born straight and pretty much has a perfect American life. If this is the only Christian environment Bob knows, he likely won’t choose the way of Jesus.
Now picture the other scenario. Bob’s been introduced to Jesus by a community group at the invitation of a colleague. The group shares deeply and vulnerably, confessing sin and praying for one another. As Bob struggles with the prospect of chastity, he looks around the group and sees ways others in the group have embraced hard things because of the gospel. At least two other singles in the group are straight and have also embraced chastity. There’s a married couple who are honest about their struggles and failings but committed to not leaving each other despite the immense pain. Another person wasn’t willing to participate in the fraudulent activities of her company, and lost her job because of it.
In this scenario the demands of Jesus don’t lessen for Bob, but he does look around and see he’s not the only one being asked to lose certain things for Jesus. He sees a mixed community of married and single, same-sex attracted and straight, all bearing their crosses together and helping one another bear those heavy burdens. Our gay friends must see a church community in which all of us—not just those who battle same-sex attraction—are facing the demands of the gospel and the struggle against sin.
Honor Singleness, Demystify Marriage
Another way we can create healthy countercultural plausibility structures is by removing marriage from the idolatrous pedestal on which it’s often placed. At times marriage, and the presumed sexual joy therein, is cast as such an objective for Christians that it starts sounding like the supreme goal, surpassing Jesus himself. Talk about “family values” cements this idea, suggesting God’s basic desire for human flourishing is for you to be married and start a family and, if you’re not experiencing that, then hurry up and try.
But the great chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13, isn’t describing love between husbands and wives or parents and kids but love between Christians in a church community. The Bible sees the church, not the nuclear family, as the primary level of relationships in our new kingdom life.
Further, we must return the New Testament’s honoring of the single life. Whenever we treat singleness as a “second tier” calling or minor league to marriage we’re communicating to our single brothers and sisters that they’re experiencing less of the full human experience. This is obviously not the case. Jesus was single, and he was the perfect human. Paul advocated for singleness and even dubbed it a “higher calling” than marriage: “He who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better” (1 Cor. 7:38).
Imagine a community in which many celibate singles, both same-sex attracted and straight, are taking full advantage of their singleness as they live the life of the kingdom together. Imagine a community in which sex and marriage are seen as good gifts but not ultimate gifts—indeed, things a follower of Jesus can live without. In such a community, the plausibility of a single life of chastity wouldn’t be the fate worse than death it’s sometimes portrayed to be.
Embrace a Theology of Unfulfillment
Whether it’s shopping, sports, jobs, or sex, Western values encourage people to discover what they really want and go for it. Sadly, the church often coopts this narrative and makes it part of our own. God has given me these desires and wants me to be happy, and God helps me get what I want. At times it’s difficult for us to understand why Scripture might prohibit our desires, since this completely contradicts the cultural plausibility narrative we often embrace.
But when we read Scripture we see a theme of unfulfillment, incompletion, and brokenness everywhere. “We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit,” Paul writes, “groan inwardly as we eagerly await for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). Or elsewhere: “For this light and momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). This is the normative Christian experience—to live with incompletion, unfulfillment, and an awareness that the gospel’s imperatives will challenge and frustrate our natural impulses in many ways.
If we’re going to summon people to sexual chastity, we should be welcoming one another into a community in which we are all wrestling with unsatisfied desires that will only fully and finally be met in Christ. Such a community will help create a plausibility structure in which our same-sex attracted friends living with daily unfulfillment see that they are not the only ones.
No Magic Bullet
I realize what I’m proposing here leaves many unanswered questions. The church’s social arrangements aren’t the only factor that will enable us to live faithful sexual lives, for even the best Christian community will utterly fail without the power of the gospel and the Holy Spirit at the center. I’m simply trying to make the case that as we espouse the historically Christian view of sexuality we must also embrace a radical view of community that makes the biblical ethic viable, practical, and plausible. Self-denying sexuality needs robust ecclesiology.
May we create communities as Jesus did—communities in which all sorts of people with all sorts of pasts are welcomed and given the support they need to follow him together until the day we see him face to face.