Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life, by Ed Shaw (IVP, 2015)
Ed Shaw is the pastor of Emmanuel City Centre Church in Bristol, England, and is concerned about how the evangelical church relates to those who are attracted to their own gender. He is troubled by what he calls the plausibility problem and its impact on the church. In a nutshell, the plausibility problem is the notion that abstinence from any sexual urge is either impossible or highly unrealistic in our erotic environment. The common understanding that sexual relations are both inevitable and necessary for a meaningful life has even crept into the thinking of the broader church. Shaw writes, I keep hearing of same-sex attracted Christians who think that what the Bible asks is just not doable in today’s world.
Pastor Shaw disagrees and has written a lively, encouraging, and short book to explain why. In short, Shaw wants to make celibacy plausible in our sexually-charged atmosphere. What gives Same-Sex Attraction and the Church an added punch is that Ed Shaw himself is same-sex attracted. Shaw doesn’t call himself gay, but he has never known sexual attraction toward a woman. Nevertheless, the author believes that God has designed sex for heterosexual marriage and that sexual abstinence is both plausible and profitable for those who remain unmarried to someone of the opposite sex.
Shaw has written his book for the church but also for himself. He says that as a same-sex attracted male, he needs to remind himself—repeatedly—that it is indeed plausible to stick to what the Bible teaches!
The body of Shaw’s book deals with nine missteps he believes the evangelical church has made and is continuing to make. He writes not as an angry prophet decrying the failures of the church, but rather as a loving pastor who longs for the church to grow in both holiness and understanding. These missteps include:
Your identity is your sexuality. No, says the author. We are fundamentally children of God.
If you are born gay, it can’t be wrong to be gay. The author doesn’t know where his same-sex desires come from. He points out that he has enjoyed a loving and healthy relationship with both of his parents, he was not sexually abused as a child, and he does not think the scientific evidence supports the existence of a so-called gay gene. Shaw—who thinks and writes as a pastor-theologian—rightly observes that it is the very nature of sin that his same-sex desire is not freely chosen. We are all, the author reminds us, born hard-wired for sin. Shaw sees his own same-sex desires as part of his inheritance from Adam and only one flaw among many in a heart marred by sin.
Sex is where true intimacy is found. Again, Shaw protests. Yes, we need intimacy, and we will even die without it. And yes, sexual intimacy is a good thing within heterosexual marriage. But the hook-up culture has learned the hard way that genital contact does not equate with intimacy. Shaw argues that in the church we can and will find real intimacy in friendships, community, and loving relationships.
Godliness is heterosexuality. Shaw discusses how heartbroken parents are to learn that a son or daughter is same-sex attracted. Part of that, at least, is the tacit assumption that godliness is impossible for those who are attracted to people of their own gender. But if the goal of holiness is to be like Christ, then sexual holiness has as its goal not necessarily heterosexual marriage, but rather Christlikeness.
Celibacy is bad for you. Virginity is unthinkable in our time. We poke fun at abstinence and mock self-restraint. Consider The 40-Year-Old Virgin. I haven’t seen this movie, but the plot features a lead character who is somehow incomplete because he has never had sex. The comedy plays into our understanding that sex is the cure for loneliness and the solution to our quest for meaning. Shaw debunks these assumptions of our era and holds up lifelong celibacy as a good thing. He writes, I know that there are many people today who think that it is a great tragedy to die a virgin. But I hope I will. Because I know that I will not have lost out on anything too significant. Because 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 (Revelation 21:1-5).
As a pastor who is fully committed to the authority of the Bible as the revelation of God’s good and perfect will for his people, Shaw has lived the celibate life, and he is thankful for the way God has made him. Same-Sex Attraction and the Church is well worth our attention as we proclaim the good news to every people group, every orientation, every shade of sexual brokenness; as we proclaim the greatness of our God and the sweetness of the gospel.