"I want to go to college, TAMU or ACU, and either be an engineer or a minister, pulpit or youth. I want to marry a Christian wife and have at least 4 kids. I want to serve God always."
I wrote that at church camp the summer after my junior year of high school. I was hurrying through questions about identity during a morning devotional, and the first question was broad: “What are some things you want for your life? What are your goals?” Evidently I wanted to go to college to be an engineer or a minister, I wanted to marry and have four children, and I wanted to serve God always.
Three years before that, the other eighth grade boys and I spent the spring in “True Love Waits,” a curriculum designed to help teenagers explore benefits of saving physical intimacy for marriage. A worksheet asked me to envision my life five, ten, and fifteen years down the road: How far along would I be in my education? Where would I be spiritually? Under “Family,” my answers were as concise as the answers of thirteen-year-old boys tend to be: In five years, I’d be “Dating.” In ten years, I’d have reached “Marriage.” And in fifteen years, I’d “Have children.”
Ten years later, I’m not married. I’m not married to a Christian wife, and I don’t have at least four kids. This is primarily but not entirely due to the fact that I’m physically and emotionally attracted to men, a reality I’ve recognized since before eighth grade but fully acknowledged only four years ago. I don’t remember ever receiving a clear call from God to marry a woman. I don’t remember any older Christians directly telling me it was imperative that I marry a woman and have children. Somehow, though, that became the inevitable outcome towards which my life was heading. It wasn’t that I felt pressured or obligated to find a partner, although questions from curious adults about my dating life were persistent. It was simply that, in spite of being drawn to men, I couldn’t and wouldn’t imagine any other outcome. Christians married opposite-sex partners and had children, and that was that. Growing up in a denomination that didn’t ordain ministers, I regarded celibacy as something only certain Catholics did. Same-sex relationships were a nonissue, the stuff of hushed conversations and snickers.
Throughout middle school and high school, my awareness of my orientation elicited a range of emotions. On bad days, it was agonizing, especially because my prayers that God would aim my desires at women were ineffective. On good days, it was merely puzzling, as I was still heading towards finding a wife and felt uncertain about how my private attraction to men would affect our physical and emotional intimacy. On very good days, it was trivial, since I optimistically assumed a change in my orientation was still only a few months away and then everything would make sense. My first year at college was when I stopped perceiving marriage as an inevitability, because that was the year I took a class with a professor from my denomination who was celibate. Celibacy provided a solution for the dilemma that had felt agonizing on bad days, puzzling on good days, and trivial on very good days: I’d avoid the complications of marrying a woman by staying single, and I wouldn’t ever have to acknowledge my orientation. Mere months later, I finally admitted to myself I had been exclusively attracted to men as long as I had been attracted to anyone, and I slowly began coming out to friends and family.
For many years, I presumed the way to submit my sexuality to God was to keep hidden that which made me different, to find a way to function within the limited confines of relationship patterns my faith community provided me. Hopefully you recognize my error, because of course we cannot submit anything to God if we keep it in darkness. We submit to God by bringing ourselves into God’s light, which requires a posture of humble honesty with ourselves and with other people of God. When I began coming out and asking candid questions about my sexual orientation, my relationship outcome was no longer certain, and it was extraordinarily painful for me and for people who cared about me to begin re-envisioning my future in light of the reality of my circumstances. But it also opened the door for conversations and, more importantly, prayers that were sincere and upfront, free from the interference of pretense and posturing.
I have no statistics, but my experience tells me the majority of Christians will eventually marry an opposite-sex partner and have children. Many Christians will not. This division is not synchronous with the division between Christians who are straight and Christians who are sexual minorities, because many Christians who are straight do not marry or have children, and many Christians who are sexual minorities do marry opposite-sex partners and have children. The kingdom of God includes those people who will not marry or procreate. It was the same professor who taught me not every Christian marries that also taught me Christians are the people who get to imagine the world different from how it is. God’s re-creating work is foundational to our identity as people who have been made new in Christ, so we see the world through eyes fresh with hope from the bigger picture of God’s activity through the story of history. One of the ways in which many Christians in our particular setting have failed to exercise their imaginations, I think, is in our concept of the family. We’ve perceived benefits of the heterosexual nuclear family structure to the degree that we no longer imagine healthy and satisfying relationships outside of that formal structure, and we’re unconscious of the way Jesus initiated a new family paradigm that was an absolute economic and social necessity for many of the people who left brothers or sisters or mother or father or children to follow him.
The casualties of this lack of imagination have been those people who don’t fit well into a network comprised of heterosexual nuclear families. This includes those sexual minorities who choose not to commit to mixed-orientation marriages, but it also includes people who don’t marry or can’t marry, people who don’t have children or can’t have children, and anyone else who does not follow a five-ten-fifteen year pattern of date-marry-procreate. The problem is not that we’ve catered our programming to the majority—that’s unavoidable for institutions—but that we’ve ceased to perceive anything outside of that majority as desirable or even viable. We didn’t err when we told our teenagers to wait for marriage before becoming physically intimate; we erred when we implied our teenagers were all necessarily waiting for marriage and that the only legitimate expression of their God-given sexuality was physical intimacy. We withheld other options in part, I suspect, because we revered heterosexual nuclear families and desired that outcome for our children, but we didn’t anticipate how isolated they’d feel when that didn’t happen for them or how readily they’d discover alternate options outside of the church. So long as we force people into darkness, we prevent them from submitting to God’s light. It wasn’t until I could be honest with myself and with others about my orientation that I could genuinely seek God’s will for me related to marriage—whether God would have me pursue a relationship with a woman (being entirely forthright with her about the particulars of our relationship), remain single, or pursue a relationship with a man.
My perception is that many young people growing up in churches today are encountering the same limited paradigm I encountered but that many others are beginning to acquire the skill of imagination, including an imagination for the atypical structure of God’s family. Such imagination results from many influences: It comes from churches that invite people to be entirely honest about their experience of the world, churches that promise and deliver a safe environment for people to submit the totality of their identities into God’s light. It comes from positive role models who do not belong to heterosexual nuclear families but who are committed to the sexual ethics of the faith communities in which they participate (and I’m including in this category those who belong to mixed-orientation families)—and it comes from an attitude of support, respect, and admiration for those role models from the other members of the church, free from gestures of pity or condescension. It comes from a holistic understanding of our sexuality that is much broader than (but still includes) what a husband and wife do together in their bedroom. It comes from conscious attention to the impact of our language and our assumptions, with less attention on which terms are in vogue and more attention on how our words can best honor the experiences of the specific people in our midst who are minorities. It comes from courageous, trusting love.
In these sorts of communities, I suspect we’ll each comprehend more fully how it feels to be (as in Ephesians 2) no longer foreigners and strangers but rather fellow citizens with God’s people, members of God’s very household.
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