Book Review: Same-Sex Attraction and the Celibate Life
Author: Ed Shaw
Publisher: IVP Books
Reading Level: Leisure
"Church family is God's answer to his own observation that it is not good for a human being to be alone." (106)
There are certain topics and issues were people do not even feint neutrality. The growing discussions of same-sex marriage, homosexuality in the church, and the ethics of celibacy are lightening rods for ethical discussions. Close friends and strangers now broach these subject in both liberating and crippling ways. Unfortunately, lost in the culture wars and some of these discussions are the many individual struggles within the church. The church needs resources to both engage the culture wars and their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Books like Ed Shaw's Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life (henceforth, SSA and Church) is one such resource.
Shaw is a celibate pastor who experiences same-sex attraction. His transparency makes for equally heartwarming and uncomfortable moments in SSA and Church. Shaw admits to moments of complete despair on kitchen floors. The liberal church begs him to change his mind on what the Bible teaches. The conservative church is confused on what it wants to say. Shaw has one principal thesis — the church must correct some of its missteps to regain a doctrine of celibacy. Celibacy has become an "implausible" position for heterosexuals and those who experience same-sex attraction because of the church's own direct and indirect teachings. In SSA and Church, Shaw provides pastoral stories and counsel to nine "missteps" that "haven't just damaged the same-sex attracted members of our churches, they've crippled us all" (22).
The first misstep is one that has been adopted from the secular world — identity by sexuality (chapter 3). The church must find its primary identity in Jesus Christ. Labels such as "homosexual" are recent inventions (34) and provide nothing more than a distraction from our union with Jesus Christ. In accommodating for the world's language the church in agreement, or even disagreement, has not spoken consistently about union with Jesus Christ. As Shaw says, "we need churches that don't airbrush the reality of sin from the gospel and our lives, we also need churches that enable their members to identify themselves primarily as children of God" (37). This practice of insufficient identification is particularly prevalent with sins. To strengthen its community, the church needs to reassess the elements of its preaching to the affirmations found in the gospel.
Two other missteps of particular importance are the incorrect emphasis on biological family (chapter 4) and sex & intimacy (chapter 7). Both sex and the biological families that often result are true blessings from God. Yet, through emphasis countering the secular culture, both have become stepping stones in the way of developing a healthy doctrine of celibacy. Speaking on the testimony of the New Testament church, Shaw is correct when he says, "the biological family matters much less than it used to...It's noticeable that the stress is now on growing church rather than your own biological family" (43). The church-as-family is not a PR stunt. It is supposed to be a reality where families within the church treat the church as family. To practically practice the opposite is devastating as Shaw says, "that can mean that unless you have a family, you feel you have no one at all" (44).
The same can be said of intimacy being equated with sex. In an over-sexualized culture, this has denigrated intimacy by limiting it. This occurs both in the world and the church. This practice denies the intimacy that can be found among friends of differing genders and can cripple the church by limiting its community. The applications of this are far reaching. Shaw uses the research of Christian psychologist William Struthers to postulate "godly male intimacy as the main answer to the current epidemic of pornography addiction among male church members" (76). Intimacy, not sex, is what celibate individuals need. And in understanding how to provide intimacy without sex, the church will foster the intimacy within its community. Of course this will not come without some difficulties, Shaw states this involves "intentionally making sure my friendships with members of both sexes are more appropriately intimate" (77).
In conclusion, Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life is a must read for all Christians (as many of the endorsements on the back cover claim). Christians in ministry or those who simply want to strengthen their community will appreciate Shaw's transparency and pastoral insight. These insights should be used to reach out and learn more about the church and develop intimate friendships. Ultimately, the answer to the plausibility of the celibate life is found within the union of the church — both together and in Jesus Christ.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.