Singleness, Same-Sex Attraction, and the Church: A Conversation with Sam Allberry, Rosaria Butterfield, and Christopher Yuan
Editor’s note: The following is an email conversation between Sam Allberry, Rosaria Butterfield, and Christopher Yuan questions on same-sex attraction, singleness, and the church.
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1) Suppose you have two single individuals, and one of them is single because he or she experiences strong same sex attraction (SSA) and assumes marriage is therefore impossible. How is pastoring or discipling the one different from pastoring or discipling the other?
Sam Allberry: Glad to be doing this with you all. Thought I’d get the ball rolling with some initial responses, and we can build from there.
In one sense there’s no difference: none of us knows what God has for us in the future and whether he wants us to be married or single. But there’s likely a difference in expectation. The person with SSA may feel it is less realistic that they will get married and so be looking at long-term singleness, whereas the other person may still be assuming or hoping that marriage is in their future. Either way, each will need confidence in what their heavenly Father has for them, and that whatever happens will be an expression of his goodness to them.
Both will also need to work to cultivate friendships. One mistake we sometimes make in pastoral ministry is to assume that those who are likely long-term single will need to work hard at establishing friendships but that those who are married do not. The longer I’m in pastoral ministry, the more I see the damage done by not investing in rich friendships, for both marrieds and singles alike.
Christopher Yuan: Sam, thanks for kicking this off with some great insight! Here are some of my thoughts.
I’m grateful the emphasis here is correct, centered upon pastoring and discipling. Often, same-sex attracted (SSA, I’m using this as an adjective) individuals who seek assistance fixate upon their temptations toward the same sex (as if those temptations were their only problem) and end up with an anthropocentric attempt to eradicate indwelling sin via developmental psychotherapeutic methodology. This is wrongheaded because the goal for any struggle with sin is putting ourselves in the path of God’s grace through the Word, prayer, fellowship, etc. Amidst all this, mentoring and discipleship plays a key role as we walk with and guide individuals through the means of grace.
On the one hand, we should help our same-sex attracted single friend know that their struggle with sin may feel unique, but it’s not fundamentally different. Each individual we pastor or disciple is an image bearer who experiences the consequence of the Fall: original sin, indwelling sin, and actual sin. The sin of same-sex sexual behavior or same-sex sinful desires aren’t the worst of all sins. So, in order to mortify the flesh daily, these SSA people require the same grace as everyone else. Unfortunately, SSA individuals often feel like and are treated like they’re the worst of sinners. To alleviate this, they must be reminded that they need the same grace as everyone else.
On the other hand, pastors are often concerned about SSA individuals developing an attraction toward the pastor/mentor. On this point, there are a few things that must be said. First, we must realize that just because an individual may experience attractions toward the same sex, this does not mean that this person is attracted to every person of the same sex.
In seminary, I sought out a classmate who I respected to begin praying together weekly. I knew he was aware of my background having lived as a gay man. The first morning we met, he told me, “I don’t ever want to be a stumbling block to you. Please let me know if you begin having attractions toward me.” It was one of the most awkward situations in my life. SSA men need be shown what healthy and godly same-sex friendships look like. I had loved men in the wrong way (sexually and romantically) and I needed to be shown how Christian men ought to love one another in God-honoring ways that are non-sexual and non-romantic but still intimate.
Certainly, we must acknowledge the possibility of attraction, but this often either begins with or goes together with co-dependency. Watching for co-dependency should be a part of any discipling relationship. In particular, lesbian relationships rarely begin sexually, but with unhealthy relational enmeshment. We must use godly discernment while pastoring/discipling, and be aware of unhealthy codependency, as we would with any person. There’s a line we must walk between fostering healthy intimacy and avoiding co-dependency. However, that line is wide enough where we can comfortably develop godly friendships. I trust Rosaria may be a good one to comment on co-dependency.
I often find SSA people to be at one of two extremes. Either, they believe that it’s impossible for them to ever get married, or they believe that marriage to someone of the opposite sex is the solution. In either case, I want to pull them away from a fixation with their sexual attractions and their relationship status and focus instead on the means of grace.
However, I would also want to dispel some false truths. For the first scenario, God is able to do anything, which means he can give a SSA individual—even one with strong attractions—the desire for a person of the opposite sex. I know several for whom this has occurred, even as same-sex temptations may not go away completely (similar to other sin struggles). I also don’t believe that sexual attractions need to be the bedrock of marriage. Agape love must be (self-sacrifice, selfless, holy love). Attractions and passion and desire must be present for marriage, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a raging sexual passion. Actually, marriages built upon sexual passions can turn out to not honor God and fail. I often tell people that I may actually have it easier to find my possible/potential spouse because I can see other women as daughters of the most high God and not as an object for my sexual pleasure. I can spot out her spiritual maturity, love for the Lord, and attention to the habits of grace, as opposed to being clouded in my discernment by strong infatuations.
For the second scenario (the individual who believes marriage is the answer), I would tell him or her that marriage is a great blessing but it will not be the resolution for your sinful desires. I’d tell him or her to keep that hope but put it on the back-burner. And for now, since he or she is single, I’d encourage them to focus on pursuing Christ without abandon as a single person. Preparing for marriage isn’t the goal of a single Christian, but it can be used as a healthy motivator toward proper ends. And there’s no better way to prepare for marriage than by being grounded as a woman or man of God. If we want to love someone and be loved, we must first love God. This is why the greatest commandment comes before the second commandment. The only way for me to love others well is to love God first. (Okay, maybe this answer was a little long!)
Rosaria Butterfield: First, I am so thankful to Sam and Christopher for launching these questions. You brothers covered so much rich and important terrain here, and I have very little to add. I’m going to focus my answers more on addressing the discipling of women in both examples above.
First, the difference between these two individuals is that the one with SSA may feel an oppressive, chronic loneliness, while the other may feel bitter envy about friends who have gone on to marry. It’s vital when standing with a Christian in her grief—whether we feel that grief to be well earned or not—to try to see things from her point of view. It does very little good to say, “Your broken leg is just like Bob’s!”
Jeremiah Burroughs book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment is a great resource to use when discipling either individual. In addition, I’d want to find out what each person is experiencing in church culture. A person experiencing SSA deals differently with many churches’ match-making culture. It can feel threatening, and it can also launch dangerous self-talk: “These people don’t understand me and they never will.” We do little good to disciple and pastor individuals well if our church’s culture is toxic—and too often, that’s the case.
Second, while it’s true that for many people sexuality and sexual attraction is fluid and changes over time, and also that the best marriages are between people who are spiritually and affectionally matched first and foremost, telling this to someone with SSA feels like you’re giving her a rebuke, that you’re telling her she just needs to snap out of it. I’ve discipled women who have deep, painful responses to even the thought of heterosexual intercourse. For women, SSA can be motivated by either a strong draw that becomes sexual over time, or a strong opposition to any sexual expression that involves penetration.
Third, for the woman who is seeking biblical marriage. We need to be aware that for many women, engagement requires a sometimes painful loss as well. Most college-attending evangelical women start out wanting to change the world, with dreams and plans that are grand and great. Generally speaking, these world-changing desires are the desires of individuals; they run parallel to other desires—marriage, family, etc.—but they seldom interact. But with the prospect of engagement comes the promise of headship—and a loss of a certain kind of independence. I’m not saying this to criticize it or condemn it. Biblical headship of wife to husband is a beautiful picture of Christ and the church. But when discipling women we would do well to know that women who want to be a godly wife must also pray for a tender heart to submit to her husband. In marriage, husband and wife learn by faith and discipling headship and submission; these things don’t come naturally to any of us. Single women need to know that while this “switch” in roles (from independent change-agent of the world to faithful wife and, if God provides, mother) is a God-ordained blessing, it also comes with a sense of loss of who you once were.
2) How can churches do a good job of integrating people who experience strong same-sex attraction into the life and body of the church?
Allberry: It’s perfectly OK to live without sex—Jesus himself did—but none of us is designed to live without intimacy. Tragically, we live in a cultural moment in the West where we have funneled all our thinking about intimacy into one expression of it—the romantic or sexual relationship. This is now virtually the only place where people believe they can find and express intimacy.
As long as this is the case culturally, and as long as it’s reflected in our churches, it will be very hard for any single person to feel as though the Christian sexual ethic is plausible. So we need to make sure our church family really is a family. Jesus promises that “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” So it should be the case that anyone who has joined our churches is able to say they’ve experienced an increase in intimacy and community. In other words, one of the most urgent ways of pastoring singles, SSA or otherwise, is to pastor the rest of the church about how to be family together.
And this needs to be two-way. I think it can often be a mistake to put all the singles together in a “singles ministry.” Married people often struggle from a lack of deep friendships outside their marriage, and children need the input and example of other honorary aunts and uncles in the church. Singles can be hugely blessed by being involved in family life. So we need to encourage friendships that cross generational and marital divides.
Yuan: I agree with Sam. Integration is key. As most churches can attest, the “College and Career Group”—what I often call the singles ghetto—is not always the place where vibrant and regular discipleship occurs. Often, it becomes something akin to a Christian meat market. I’ve learned so much from Barry Danylak who has written on a biblical theology of singleness. We need to realize that the nuclear family is temporary, while the church—the family of God—is eternal. Under the old covenant, the family of God grew by procreation, while under the new covenant, the family of God grows by regeneration.
The responsibility of integration rests upon non-singles (i.e., married people). It’s not usually appropriate for a single person to integrate and invite themselves into a family’s home. However, it’s more than appropriate—it’s a must—for families and couples to invite single sisters and brothers into their home. Single Christians are our sisters and brothers, our daughters and sons, our aunts and uncles—not related by human blood, but by the shed blood of Christ.
Butterfield: Evangelical churches have lost the art of integrating people into the Christian family and living communally as a family of God. The lost art of Christian hospitality has put undue burdens on single people and undue expectations on what the church is supposed to do.
My husband Kent and I and some of our children are the only believers in our family. If we didn’t have other believers take up their roles in our home, we wouldn’t have brothers and sisters, and our children wouldn’t have aunts and uncles and grandparents. This knowledge that worldwide believers are family of God extends beyond the home, of course, but that doesn’t minimize the importance of doing life together in the home.
Kent and I see the covenant of marriage as a launching pad for this kind of living. In our home, almost every night involves dinner with our extended family members in the church and people in our neighborhood. We linger long over our meal, and we bring out the Bibles and Psalters while the dishes are still on the table and people are still picking at their food. That’s okay. Jesus ate and drank, too.
After devotions, Kent gets out the flashlights and walks home the children who belong elsewhere, and the rest of us clean up the dishes. While the children take their showers, the adults talk. Almost every night is like that at our house, because our children are older and our house is relatively stable. We also use our guest room almost constantly, especially during holidays when loneliness creeps up on people.
Too often, Christians who struggle with SSA have been made to feel like the church’s outcasts. But we know that people who struggle in God’s way—mortifying sinful desires, drinking deeply of the means of grace, being faithful members of a Bible-believing church, repenting of sin and applying faith to the facts of our loss and pain—are actually heroes of the faith. When people know they belong and are loved, that changes everything.
This reality should come out of the Christian home, not the church-sponsored small group. Can you imagine what a difference it would make if all the Christian homes in all of our churches actually did this? Of course, there are seasons of life when we weren’t able to do this; for example, when my mother was dying, or when we had just adopted our teenagers out of foster care. There needs to be an ebb and flow on this. But if no homes in your church are practicing radical hospitality, then that points to a problem, a cultural problem from within.
3) How has the legalization of same-sex marriage made it harder to pastor singles generally?
Allberry: It has further reinforced the idea that a life without sexual fulfillment is not really worth living. So much of the rhetoric behind the push for same-sex marriage had to do with how unfair it is that some people can’t call their chosen forms of intimacy “marriage” and how this is an intolerable way for them to have to live. Therefore, the legalization of same-sex marriage has further increased the distance between how our culture understands sex and marriage—in particular, their relation to human flourishing and the biblical worldview. Singles are now made to feel even weirder in our culture, at least if they’re standing for celibacy. This unfortunately underlines the prevailing idea that the only real intimacy that matters is ultimately sexual.
Yuan: The legalization of same-sex marriage made pastoring singles harder in that it normalizes, romanticizes, and even celebrates something God does not—namely, same-sex relationships. With that being said, I do believe in a God who is completely and utterly sovereign over all things. What God says in his Word is true, specifically in Gen 50:20: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” Even in humanity’s sin, rebellion, and fallenness, God is still sovereign. So, although the world normalizes, romanticizes, and even celebrates something that God doesn’t, people are more ready to talk about their own personal struggles with sexual sin. And this opens up a door.
In what way? For the church to not only talk about sexuality from the pulpit in a pastoral and compassionate (i.e., not just treating this merely as an ethical issue, but more importantly as a pastoral opportunity) and with each other full of grace and truth (John 1:14), but also to talk about their own struggles, whether it be with pornography, whether it be with lusting after someone who is not our spouse, whether it be a tend toward relational idolatry (what I call co-dependency) and/or whether it be experiencing attractions toward the same-sex. This is an opportunity for the Church to talk about this and be able to begin praying for one another, holding each other accountable and thus, pursuing holy living together in the community. I believe that the best place to be working through issues of sexuality is not in the world but in the Body of Christ. The Church should be the safest place in the world. But are we safe?
The legalization of same-sex marriage has elevated marriage as one of the “highest ideals of love.” This is precisely what you will find in the last paragraph of the majority opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Rosaria and I wrote a response called, “Something Greater than Marriage,” in which we argue marriage isn’t the highest ideal of love. God is. We need to help people not idolize the good gift of marriage, but worship God alone. The main source of our contentment and joy should not be in another person such as our spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend. It must be in Jesus Christ alone.
Butterfield: Yes, because the legalization of same-sex marriage has made the concept of sexual orientation a civil right. Sexual orientation began as a 19th-century category invention that rejected the idea that people are made in the image of God and instead categorized people based on their different objects of sexual desire. This matters because Christians need to mortify individual sin while at the same time remaining aware of how sin is rooted in culture.
In the 20th-century, sexual orientation became an idol of sexual autonomy. By this century, it became a civil right. The gospel is on a collision course with sexual orientation as a category of personhood; this is precisely why the category of “gay Christianity,” celibate or not, is unbiblical and unhelpful. There’s no way to be “seeker friendly” in this climate without falsifying a biblical sexual ethic.
But the love of Christ that the church must teach today is real love—atoning love, the bloody love of Jesus, who knows his people best and loves his people most. We must proclaim that repentance of sin is the threshold to God; that repentance of sin brings glory to God; that repentance of sin refreshes and restores the believer.
The culture of same-sex marriage makes sexual orientation an excuse clause for sin, an invitation to bypass the blood of Christ. To counter this, the church must show that there is no shame in repentance, and that, instead, a life of repentance and humble submission to God is in fact the best barrier to shame, as all who repent and believe are given robes of righteousness, stand in the blood of Christ, and are called sons and daughters of the King. This is true even as we struggle with sin. The mark of a believer is union with Christ as we struggle with sin, including sin that we never chose in the first place.
4) In your discipling, do you encourage Christians who live with strong same-sex attraction to pursue marriage (biblically defined)? If so, what do you say? How hard do you push, etc.”
Butterfield: No. Christians are called to esteem biblical marriage as it reflects Christ and the church. Biblical marriage is by God’s design, but God did not design all Christians for marriage. And biblical marriage should not be seen as an end unto itself. Manipulating people into a calling that God has not given is cruel and crushing and dangerous.
We are to pursue holiness. Having said all of this, if I am discipling someone who struggles with SSA and desires to be biblically married, then we need to start with Christian disciplines that prepare her to be a biblical wife. No Christian should start the search for a biblical spouse by looking outside for someone to come along. You must look inside first; you must turn over the pages of your heart with the Bible in hand. For many people with SSA, the sexual love that God celebrates in biblical marriage grows out of strong biblical connection with your spouse, by a trusting and deep friendship, by the recognition that husband and wife are prayer partners for life, by the desire to serve and please and help you husband, by a trusting willingness to share, by an open vulnerability. If single Christians who struggle with SSA are pushed (manipulated, really) into biblical marriage by the church, the church needs to take stock of what this implies. This manipulation implies that the church sees singleness as second-hand gospel citizenship. And if singleness is second-hand gospel citizenship, then we are serving a second-hand King. God forbid.
Yuan: Great question. When I was teaching at Moody Bible Institute, I would often disciple young male students. There were some who experienced same-sex attractions and there were some who did not. My response would be essentially the same: I encourage them to pursue holiness. In my first book, I introduced a concept called holy sexuality which I am fleshing out in my forthcoming book titled Holy Sexuality and the Gospel: Re-centering the Sexual Identity Conversation around Biblical, Systematic, and Practical Theology.
Holy sexuality pertains to how Christians ought to live day-to-day in light of their sexual attractions. I chose this phrase to juxtapose and ultimately help us do away with the heterosexual/homosexual orientation as personal identity paradigm. Scripture is clear that there are only two options on how to live day-to-day in light of our sexual attractions. The first option, if you’re married (biblically defined), is complete faithfulness to your spouse. The second option, if you’re single, is complete faithfulness through chastity or sexual abstinence. Therefore, holy sexuality is either faithfulness in marriage or chastity in singleness.
When students ask, “How do I know whether I’m called to be married or single?” I tell them that I cannot foresee the future; however, I can see in the present. And whatever situation they are in now (married or single), live that out all for the glory of God (cf. 1 Cor. 7:17–24). I know that pastors often bewail that the young men in their congregations are dodging responsibility and commitment and don’t want to get married. I do think that this is a concern. But the problem is that these men are spiritually immature. They don’t need to be pushed to pursue marriage. They need to be pushed to pursue Christ and put themselves in the path of God’s grace through the means of God’s grace. The best way to pursue marriage is to grow in God’s grace.
From my experience in the church and in Christian institutions of higher education, the problem is not that people are avoiding marriage. The problem is that they almost idolize marriage (hence, Moody Bridal Institute). We know all the clichés: ring by spring, MRS degree, etc. But as people of the new covenant, we know marriage is not “better” than singleness.
Again, I want to point people to Barry Danylak’s excellent work, A Biblical Theology of Singleness. Marriage between a husband and a wife is temporary (Matt. 22:29–30). It’s just a shadow/mystery of the eternal reality of the eschatological marriage between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:32). And when the eschatological reality of our ultimate marriage is actualized, there will be no more reason for the shadow (of marriage between a husband and a wife). Therefore, singleness isn’t a temporary state before marriage. Marriage (between a husband and a wife) is a temporary state before eternity.
I would also tell single young men I’m discipling that a calling to singleness does not mean that the calling is lifelong or does not change. God’s calling can change over time. He may call someone to do something for a chapter of his life and then God can call this person to something else. We should be open and willing. If God—who is sovereign—has not provided a helper, then live fully in the calling of a single man, joyfully, consistently, and persistently putting himself in the path of God’s grace. If God has provided someone who could potentially be a helper, approach this relationship with care and in community—being sure to seek wisdom from strong Christian peers, mentors, pastors, and parents