Questions related to sexual orientation and same-sex marriage have been the subject of great discussion and much controversy within the Church for the last several years. I recently read Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity by Gregory Coles, an upcoming book from Intervarsity Press. Coles’ book is a poignant narrative about growing up as a sexual minority in the Evangelical Church and a fascinating discussion of the role that sexuality plays in Christian discipleship. I spoke with Gregory about his upcoming book, his thoughts on sexuality, marriage, and the church, and his experiences writing Single, Gay, Christian. My sincerest thanks to Gregory for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk with me.
JR: As we’re having this interview, your book isn’t out yet. Could you give potential readers a brief overview of your story?
GC: I grew up overseas (in Indonesia) and deeply in love with Jesus from a pretty young age. But I realized when puberty hit that my sexual desires weren’t developing the way my evangelical youth group had told me they would—that I was gay. My book tells the story of that discovery and of everything that has happened to me since then: trying (and failing) to become straight, trying (and failing again) to believe that the Bible left room for me to pursue a same-sex relationship, and finally choosing to follow Jesus as a celibate gay Christian. But even more, the book is about how my life has unfolded since making that choice. It’s about the places I find sorrow and hope, about the ways the Church has loved and wounded me, about what it looks like and feels like to follow Jesus from within my shoes.
JR: Your book deals with intensely personal matters- in fact, you discuss your sexual orientation with only a small number of people throughout the narrative. What made you decide to write this book?
GC: The whole book was kind of an accident, actually. I’d been working on a (totally unrelated) novel for a while, but I kept getting writer’s block, so my literary agent advised me to take a break from the novel and try writing “whatever pours out of you.” I took his advice and started writing down thoughts and memories related to my sexuality—telling stories I’d been too afraid to tell, saying things I’d been dying to say but had only ever spoken aloud to a handful of people. Before I knew it, I’d written a rough draft of this book. After a few months of prayer, I showed the manuscript (with no small trepidation) to several folks I trusted and just asked them, “What do you think about this?” And all of them—even the ones I thought would hate it—said, “This is a story that needs to be told.” So I decided to tell it.
JR: What are you hoping that readers will take away from Single, Gay, Christian?
GC: First and foremost, I hope that folks who read this book will be challenged to follow Jesus in costly obedience, regardless of their sexual orientation or theology. I hope that sexual minority readers with stories like mine will be encouraged in their pursuit of Jesus, and that straight readers will be equipped with a few more ideas about what it means to love sexual minorities well. And finally, I hope readers of all theologies and sexualities will be inspired to show compassion and respect to people who differ from them, no matter how fervently we may disagree.
JR: One of the things that was most helpful to me in your book was the way you talked about language. I had no idea, for example, that the phrase “same-sex attraction” was so closely associated with conversion therapy and the “ex-gay” movement. Could you give us some guidelines for discussing these issues clearly and respectfully? What can Evangelicals be doing to have better conversations about this subject?
GC: The language around this conversation is diverse and constantly in flux. Words and phrases that may feel loving to one person aren’t necessarily going to be understood in the same way by others. Messier still, words and phrases that have felt loving to certain people at one point in their journey might not feel so loving a few years down the road. (For example, there was a time in my own journey when I didn’t care whether people called me “same-sex attracted” or “gay.” But the more I learned about the history of the phrase “same-sex attracted,” the more I started to prefer the word “gay” for myself.)
As evangelicals, we’re so often looking for a single “right answer,” for someone to tell us the words and phrases that we’re “allowed” to use in all contexts and with all people. But the example of Jesus is radical in part because he’s constantly adapting his language in such a way that his listeners understand and recognize his love for them. To the woman at the well in John 4, with five ex-husbands and an insatiable desire for love, Jesus offers a living water that quenches every thirst. To the woman caught in adultery in John 8, who has only ever known the Pharisees’ condemnation, Jesus surprises her with the declaration that he does not condemn her. If we want to talk like Jesus, we need to stop asking what we’re “allowed” to say and start asking which words will best communicate the love of Jesus to those we’re talking with.
The best thing evangelicals can do to enter this conversation, then, is to listen to sexual minority voices and ask them what language will honor them. Don’t be afraid to say, “Please forgive me and correct me if any of my words feel insensitive or unloving. I want to learn from you so I can do a better job of loving you.” I’ve never been offended by someone who genuinely adopted a humble posture and was willing to learn from me. But I have felt wounded by people who never cared enough to learn how to communicate love to me, even when those people thought they were saying all the “right” things.
JR: Another thing I found fascinating about your book was your discussion of the spiritual benefits of being single and gay in the context of Christian discipleship. You note, for example, that you don’t have the same temptation to objectify your sisters in Christ, and that being voluntarily single and celibate keeps you from having to agonize over questions of romantic relationships and marriage. Could you speak more about this? What does the church have to learn from its single members? Its gay members?
GC: A lot of evangelicals get nervous when I say that there are advantages to being gay (and celibate) as a Christian. They’d feel more comfortable if I talked about my orientation as something entirely negative, as a source only of temptation and hardship and sorrow, as something I’m still trying to pray away. Certainly, temptation and hardship and sorrow are all a part of my experience as a celibate gay Christian, but being gay also means so much more than those things. Just like heterosexual orientation has unique challenges and opportunities for those who follow Jesus, my gay orientation has also given me unique challenges and opportunities.
Being gay and celibate means that I have never once had a lustful thought about a woman. (I doubt there’s a straight man alive who can say that!) Being gay and celibate means that it’s impossible for me to tell the story of my life—the choices I’m making, and the sorrows and joys that come with them—without talking about Jesus. Being gay and celibate means that I’m reserving the deepest parts of my heart, the truest intimacy I will ever know, for Jesus alone. When I sing worship songs that talk about my devotion to God, I get to sing with a wholehearted, whole-bodied devotion that is different in kind from the devotion of a married man. That’s not to say that my singleness is superior to someone else’s marriage. On the contrary, marriage is a unique gift, a unique and holy image of Christ’s relationship to the Church. But singleness is also a gift—at least, that’s what Paul claims in 1 Cor. 7, and I think it’s about time evangelicals started taking him seriously.
JR: Single, Gay, Christian is as concerned with the first word as with the second. What do you think the Church needs to do to become a more welcoming and supportive environment for single people of any sexual orientation?
GC: I long to see the Church get over our idolatry of marriage. The narrative I heard in my younger years from a lot of Christians was that God had a spouse in store for everyone who followed Jesus, including me. It wasn’t until much later that it occurred to me to ask: if Jesus himself didn’t have a spouse, why must we? If we really started taking Paul seriously in 1 Cor. 7 when he talks about the advantages of singleness, I suspect we would start teaching our kids and teens that God might not call them to marriage, and that there is nothing inherently wrong or deficient or less fulfilling about a life of celibacy. Our message about sexuality can’t just be, “Wait for marriage.” Instead, it needs to be, “Follow Jesus and rely on him for intimacy, whether you’re married or single, straight or gay.”
Along the way, I pray that the Church will become less suspicious of its single members. I’ve had people assume that my singleness means something is wrong with me or the people around me (“Why hasn’t anyone snatched you up yet?”), or that I’m not yet mature enough for marriage (“As soon as you’re ready to be a selfless husband, God will provide the right woman…”). But biblically speaking, singleness can and should be a final destination for some people. Celibacy isn’t a purgatorial default zone where selfish and immature people hang out until they get their act together. It’s a calling, every bit as God-ordained and holy as the calling to marriage. If I’m not mature enough to honor God as a married man, then I’m not mature enough to honor him as a single man. There is no “default calling” for selfish people except to stop being selfish.
JR: Finally, what’s next for you? Do you have any other writing projects that we can look forward to?
GC: I’ve got a few projects in varying states of disarray right now, but nothing close enough to completion that you should pencil it into your calendar just yet. For now, I’m going to try to finish my dissertation, which is the last thing standing between me and a PhD in English from Penn State. (But I doubt you’ll want to look forward to the dissertation, unless you’re as much of a dweeb as I am…)
Single, Gay, Christian by Gregory Coles will be available in July. You can (and should!) preorder it here.
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