The Plausibility of the Celibate Life for the Same-Sex Attracted

The evangelical church is in the midst of a passionate debate about homosexuality, and who wins the argument matters. Where evangelicals land on homosexuality will surely affect the many men and women who struggle with same-sex attraction, love Jesus, and are looking to the church for answers. The debate is concerned with both the moral legitimacy of homosexuality and the practical implications of how a same-sex attracted person can faithfully follow Jesus.

As with any important debate, there are multiple sides. On one side are leaders like Justin Lee who advocate for committed same-sex marriages as a viable option for those who are same-sex attracted and love Jesus. On another side are those like Catholic theologian Andrew Comiskey who advocate for the healing and transformation of the same-sex attracted. On yet another side are leaders like Wesley Hill who embrace a gay identity and celibacy in the framework of “spiritual friendship”—same-sex relationships that while non-sexual are committed and intimate. These are all smart and passionate leaders articulating specific views of the gospel and homosexuality. Among all the sides, the church is struggling to remember which side is up. This is why Ed Shaw’s new book, Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life, is such an important contribution to the conversation. It helps us keep our bearings. What’s unique about this book is that Shaw interacts with the ideas of Lee, Comiskey, and Hill, and shows how a conservative, traditionally biblical view of sexuality is actually feasible and beautiful.

Thankfully, his responses are not trite, glib, or moralistic. They’re good answers to hard questions that enable the church to offer genuine good news to the same-sex attracted.

Countering Missteps with Truth 

Shaw, pastor of Emmanuel City Centre in Bristol, England, has one aim in his book: “We just have to make what the Bible clearly commands seem plausible again” (21). In other words, he attempts to show how the biblical commands are actually livable for the same-sex attracted Christian.

He organizes his book around nine missteps that the culture and church have sometimes made:

1. Your identity is your sexuality. ​2. A family is mom, dad, and 2.4 children. 3. If you’re born gay, it can’t be wrong. 4. If it makes you happy, it must be right. 5. Sex is where true intimacy is found. 6. Men and women are equal and interchangeable. 7. Godliness is heterosexuality. 8. Celibacy is bad for you. 9. Suffering should be avoided.

For each misstep Shaw identifies he also shares his perspective, which is saturated with Scripture and the life of the Spirit. And given that he’s a celibate Christian who’s same-sex attracted, he knows what he’s talking about. There’s much to commend, but I want to share four contributions Shaw makes. They are implications of the gospel and are truly good news for the same-sex attracted believer. This book is a must-read for those who want to be gospel light in our sexually sick culture.

Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life
Ed Shaw
IVP. 172 pages. $16.

(1) Biblical Clarity 

First, Shaw offers biblical clarity on issues of identity, sexuality, and the gospel. He observes:

“I’m gay” is—at one level—the quickest way of clarifying my sexual orientation in our world today. People instantly think they know what I mean. But the problem is that they don’t. They will equate me saying “I’m gay” with me embracing a gay lifestyle and identity, which I’m not. They’ll expect me soon to be introducing them to my partner Brian or to be thrilled if they match me up with their gay friend Barry, which I won’t be. This statement needs so much clarification so soon that it’s actually easier to use different language. (31)

Instead of embracing a cultural label, Shaw encourages a biblical one. Many of us agree with him and have said so; what’s unique about Shaw is his connection between identity and sanctification. First, he reminds us why Christ-centered identity matters: “What I want to avoid is any other identity that might attempt to displace my fundamental identity as a Christian. Because the thing that defines me most in life is not my sexuality but my status—as a son of God” (32).

Moreover, if the same-sex attracted Christian aligns more with his broken sexuality than his Christian identity, he might miss out on the good the gospel can do in his broken sexuality. “I think it can restrict our openness to the potential for change,” Shaw writes (35). He’s not over-promising transformation; he’s reasonable, realistic, and deliberate. But he also cares deeply about holding out space for Jesus to do what he wants. In this way, Shaw is profoundly biblical. He gives the same-sex attracted believer a powerful reason to not embrace a gay identity: such identity might close the very doors of mercy they seek.

(2) Prophetic Clarity

Second, Shaw brings prophetic clarity to sex and intimacy. “I once Googled the word intimacy and found the images to be 99 percent sexual,” he writes. “In our Western world today, intimacy equals sex” (71). He continues, “We live in a society whose only route to true intimacy has become the joy of sex” (72). The danger of such fixation is that those who are same-sex attracted can feel like they’ll never experience real human intimacy. Here, Shaw speaks prophetically: “If our churches put as much time and energy into promoting good friendships as they do good marriages, life would be much easier for people” (74).

This is an important point. It’s good to be against homosexual activity, but we must provide places for the struggler to have deep relational connections that can ease loneliness and empower holiness. For Shaw, these friendships enable him to live a life of holiness and fidelity to Jesus: “My personal experience is that the power of sexual temptation lessens the more time I spend among friends with whom I am non-sexually intimate” (77).

By talking about friendship, Shaw navigates tumultuous waters. The “Spiritual Friendship” movement of Wesley Hill, Ron Belgau, and others seeks to take friendship into places evangelicals have never imagined (and most historic Christians for that matter). Shaw believes rich Christian friendship is essential for the same-sex attracted but doesn’t try to make it something it shouldn’t be. He shows his wisdom and puts friendship in its proper place. If people want to know how friendship can help the same-sex attracted, they should listen to him.

(3) Clarity on Celibacy 

Third, Shaw gives a seasoned and wise view of celibacy. He draws from the rich resources of Catholicism, specifically Christopher West, and articulates celibacy in a way that can be of huge service to evangelicals. He notes:

Celibacy is a good thing. Our Bibles make that very clear. The good sermon we’ve never heard that promotes lifelong singleness is there in 1 Corinthians 7. Paul is the preacher, and he manages to promote both the gifts of marriage and singleness at the same time, in a way that most generations have failed to do. (107–08)

Shaw wants to show that abstaining from sex is possible because sex is but a shadow of what will be given to us in the age to come. He continues:

The Bible teaches me that I will have missed only the brief foretaste that sex is meant to be of the eternal reality of the perfect union between Christ and his church that I will one day experience forever (Rev. 21:1–5). Any fleeting pleasure I’ve given up in the meantime will be more than worth it then. (112)

Shaw puts sex in its proper place—a secondary joy. And he also puts our relationship with Jesus in its proper place—the only joy that matters. For Shaw, those who live celibate lives are a vivid sign reminding us that our deepest joy is found in Christ alone.

He also moves the conversation away from sexual ethics to theological anthropology, and helps us understand why celibacy actually exists. In other words, he gives us an embodied theology. Celibacy isn’t just the lot for the sexually broken; it’s a place to find deep joy even amid temporal sorrow. This is the purpose of celibacy for the Christ follower. It’s a relational state that the church should honor and celebrate.

(4) Goodness Even in Broken Things

Lastly, Shaw shows that even in broken sexual desire, God can do his work of sanctification:

[God has] given me his Word to demand change in this area (1 Cor. 13:4). He’s given me his Spirit to empower change (Gal. 5:16). He’s given me motivation to change in the gospel (Titus 2:11–14). And he’s used my struggle with same-sex attraction to force the change. . . . My same-sex attraction has directly led to godliness; they can exist together. I would be less godly without it. (99–100)

Here Shaw is asserting that in his same-sex attraction, God has made a way for him to become like Christ. His broken sexual desires have not excluded him from the good Jesus can do in his life; on the contrary, through them God is accomplishing good. He is using something that is anything but good and is creating a great good through it. This is the beauty of the gospel.

Of course, Shaw’s same-sex attraction “has been the most visible sign of much deeper problems” (101). His same-sex attraction is not good in and of itself. Instead, it’s Jesus who is good. It’s Jesus who can do marvelous, redemptive things. It’s Jesus whom Shaw points us to.

Same-Sex Orientation

There is one area where Shaw leaves the reader with a small sense of ambiguity. Sexual orientation is the primary way a person is sexually attracted (same-sex attracted, heterosexual, bisexual, etc.). It’s not sexual desire (or action) but the inclination toward a certain kind of sexual desire (or action). Orientation is a way to speak about whom someone could be attracted to. When reading Shaw, one wonders how he thinks about same-sex orientation. Is it broken? Morally neutral? How is it different from attraction and desire? Or is it?

There are two ways of understanding what Shaw writes. One is that Shaw is testifying that through his same-sex orientation the gospel has produced the fruit of holiness—he is becoming like Jesus! Shaw can see that through his broken orientation God has done great good. We don’t need to be afraid of our kids dealing with same-sex brokenness because the cross can bring about holiness even there (as it can anywhere). In this reading, Shaw sees same-sex orientation and same-sex attraction as interchangeable terms; for the purposes of this book, he’s decided “same-sex attraction” is the best way to speak about orientation and all that’s involved in the conversation. Same-sex attraction is a result of sin and the fall but isn’t outside of God’s redemptive purposes.

There is another way to read this section of the book. Shaw could be saying his same-sex orientation is in and of itself a morally neutral reality that doesn’t need to be redeemed. It’s a weakness perhaps, but only sinful if acted upon, and it is different than attraction. If this were true, challenging questions are raised: Does a same-sex orientation have good in and of itself? Should it be embraced even as one shuns same-sex desire (lust) and activity? It seems Shaw moves between a conversation about desire, attraction, and orientation without helping the reader understand how they are different—or if they are. I’m sure Shaw has strong feelings about all of this. It would just help all of us navigate these waters better had he been more explicit in the book.

Either way, Shaw believes godliness does not solely mean healthy heterosexuality. Godliness deals with more than one’s sexual proclivities. Godliness is about embracing Christ’s mercy and being changed—the whole person. In such an embrace the old will give way to what is new. For some of us this means there might be a change in sexual orientation but for others it will mean walking with the limp of same-sex attraction until we are fully redeemed. Whatever one’s journey, for those who embrace Christ, he will be found faithful.

Read This Book

Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life is a vital work. Overall, it makes plausible the celibate life for the same-sex attracted Christian. If you care for the same-sex attracted, you need to read it. Thank God there are men like Ed Shaw willing to walk so authentically and vulnerably in order to show us what the gospel can actually do.

I cannot recommend this book enough.