Friday, 15 June 2018

Douglas Wilson's Letter From America

Revoice, Bundling, and the Borders of Celibacy

Douglas Wilson

[This piece deals with the growing trend of evangelical Reformed Christians to make peace and room for Christians who want to walk half a step beyond the pagan world. Ed.]


One of the good things coming out of the Revoice conference is that it is making us thrash out a number of things we should have thrashed out years ago. It is making us confront the fact that these things should have been confronted a long time ago.

“For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you” (1 Cor. 11:19).

The whole thing has made it obvious how far the rot has advanced and, in a related point, how long the rotting has to have been going on. “This is really bad, ma’am. These termites have et clean through all your floor joists. Must’ve moved in right after Noah landed.”


The basic take of the Revoice organizers is that being same-sex-attracted is a morally neutral condition, and that as long as these attractions are not acted upon, there is no sin. What such persons should do, as the thinking goes, is to come to grips with the fact that they are required by the scriptural standard to remain celibate, and that they should therefore figure out how to use their legitimate gayness that exists on this side of any sexual consummation in the service of the church. In the words of the promotional material for the conference, “What queer treasure, honor, and glory will be brought into the New Jerusalem at the end of time (Rev. 21:24-26)?”

There have been a number of able responses to all this. I would mention Phil Johnson, and Owen Strachan, and Fred Butler, and Kevin De Young, and Denny Burk, and Todd Pruitt, and various writers behind the multiple posts at Warhorn.

What it all boils down to is the plain fact that the Scriptures do not just condemn sin when it has finally gotten to the brink of giving birth to death (Jas. 1:15). Sin is condemned as sin long before it gets to the point of action. Sin is condemned by Scripture in the inception, long before it does anything. Sin is condemned for what it is, and it is what it is as soon as the egg is fertilized.

“Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5).

Now of course, we all agree it is not a sin to be tempted. The Lord was tempted, yet without sin. “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). But it is a sin to want to be tempted, and that is exactly what a disordered and inordinate affection wants. It is a sin to tempt the devil to tempt you. It is a sin, when you know that you have a deep desire to throw yourself into the void, to walk along the edge of the precipice.

When it comes to our fight against our own lusts, we are not nearly as stalwart and courageous as we believe ourselves to be. “Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin” (Heb. 12:4). One of the things we are most reluctant to do is to mortify sin early, as early as possible, at the first stirrings of it.


That hardy-oak Puritan once observed that if you tie an animal up, he will know the length of his tether by morning. That is an issue I want to explore for a bit. Fair warning to any genteel readers: I am going to speak directly about this, and without any euphemism.

As I began writing on this topic, I read Wesley Hill’s new book Spiritual Friendship. Given that he is committed to celibacy, many conservative Christians—always willing to believe the best—say that this must mean we’re good, right? That commitment removes any explicit sexual expression from any same-sex relationship, and that is what the Bible requires, right? Right, the Bible does require that, but it also requires much more than that.

As Hill’s book makes plain, a commitment to celibacy does not prevent one from falling in love with a best friend, or from being heartbroken when that friend moves away. So on one end of the spectrum we have a prohibition of sexual consummation, and in the context of this Revoice conference, no one disagrees about that. But on the other end, what is legitimate? Where is the line supposed to be? When does okay turn into not okay?

Some of my questions might seem ludicrous, or impertinent, but I am in deadly earnest. Suppose that an oath-bound set of friends—what Hill is arguing for—is living together. They are committed to celibacy, which means . . . what, exactly? What does day-to-day life look like in the home? We would appear to know of the one thing prohibited (although even the boundaries of that may be uncertain), but there would also appear to be a wide range of things that still need to be discussed.

But in this new world of blurry definitions, what does celibacy not allow? Is hand-holding out? When they are watching a movie, how close can they sit together? Can they cuddle? When a man falls in love with his friend, is that a violation of the commitment to celibacy? I think it is high time for someone to define celibacy. What do you mean by it? Does a commitment to celibacy exclude sleeping together? Showering together? Nudity? Physical, affectionate contact? Hand-holding? Back rubs? Falling in love? If there is sexual arousal, but no orgasm, is that still celibacy? If a man falls in love with his celibate partner, and they kiss, but it goes no further, is that celibacy?

In early New England there was a form of rationalized sexual weirdness called bundling. For some reason, people decided that it would be a good idea for young couples who were interested in each other to sleep together—but with a bundling board plank running down the middle of the bed so that everyone could maintain the illusion of propriety. Whatever else this was, it should not be filed under great ideas in the annals of courtship history. So why did people do it? What do you mean, why did they do it? Interested swain gets to spend the night with a comely wench—it was still legal to talk that way back then—and you want to know why he wanted to do it? And she wanted to let him? People like sinning, and they also like teetering along the edge of it.

In another context where lusts—whether emotional or physical— demand to be gratified, the Westminster Confession once said that men are apt to “study arguments.” It all depends, as you may recall, on what is is. There is no legalist like the one who is arguing that getting to second base doesn’t count as fornication.

This is why the Lord’s teaching on divorce and remarriage was so outrageous, both then and now. The reason everyone was so dismayed was that He soaked all their rationalizations in lighter fluid, and then tossed a match on the pile. Sinners want their all-consuming passion to be the central ring of fire, but instead the Lord turns all their lame excuses into an even bigger ring of fire.


Here’s the thing. One of my bits of stock advice to young engaged couples is this: don’t preheat the oven if you are not going to cook the roast. Don’t get yourself into a state if there is no lawful release available. This is helpful advice for a hetero couple whose wedding date is still two months off. They have a lawful release in principle, and it is marked on the calendar. They sent out invitations, and they know when they can have at it. This is difficult, but is can be done. But part of the reason it can be done is that they have an actual end game.

But when people are attracted by their own sex, there is no lawful release, ever, period. Quite apart from the lawfulness of it (and recall, it is not lawful), to get into a close emotional friendship with someone you are physically attracted to, and they are attracted to you, and you both commit yourselves never to “do it,” but the Bible never said anything about back rubs, all you are doing is signing up for a life of guilt, self-loathing, and torment. Whoever could think that this was a good idea?

I can easily imagine genuine struggling Christians, trying to stay out of this emotional sinkhole, and having a hard time of it. Believe it or not, my heart really goes out to people who are trapped in this way. I am a pastor, and have ministered to people who are in this terrible place. But the last thing in the world we ought to do is establish such individuals as teachers. Teachers receive stricter judgment (Jas. 3:1), and men who have been justifying all the premises while trying to deny the conclusion are not men who ought to be teaching on this subject at all.


But there is a reason why this particular “gay but celibate” argument works on us. In a healthy time, not only would there have been an outcry (we have had that), but there would have been an efficacious outcry. The conference would have been cancelled by this time, and it would have been cancelled, with apologies, because of the public reaction to it.

But the reason it hasn’t been is that we have been practicing this particular kind of legalism for a long, long time. The methods of reasoning resonate within us. When a gay celibate Christian says that the only thing that matters is not taking that last fateful step—but prior to that, who’s to say what goes and what doesn’t?—we recognize the structure of the argument. You can use women in the worship service in any way you like, just so long as you don’t take that last fateful step and ordain them. You can be accepting of the LGBTQ+ community just as long as you don’t have a wedding service in your sanctuary.

The reason gay-friendly conferences are now a thing is because a gay-friendly evangelical world has been a thing.

By the way, what does the + include in that LGBTQ+ community stuff? What other sexual minorities (what the heck?) are included in that? What treasures will the foot fetishists bring into the New Jerusalem? Jonathan Edwards and Richard Baxter, born centuries too soon, did not live long enough to consider this question.

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