“The Question of Celibacy for Gay and Lesbian People”—A Review Essay (Part Nine)

In this essay I will continue my review of Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships by examining chapter six: “The Question of Celibacy for Gay and Lesbian People.” The first sentence of the chapter states well the question that drives the chapter. “Does the difficulty of life-long celibacy provide biblical grounds for considering same-sex relationships morally acceptable?” Keen answers yes. How does she arrive at this conclusion? Does she make a compelling case?

Exceptions for Extreme Circumstances

The first step in Keen’s argument is to establish that the Bible and evangelical churches make exceptions to moral rules under certain circumstances. In normal circumstances divorce is forbidden, but Paul allows divorce in the case of abandonment (1 Cor 7:15). In this circumstance the option of saving the marriage does not exist. Thoughtful evangelicals, who view abortion as a terrible evil, recognize that in the situation where saving the life of the mother will come at the cost of her unborn child and saving the child will cost the mother’s life, abortion is permissible. You cannot save both, and there is no good option.

Keen now applies the principle derived from the extreme cases discussed above to less extreme cases. In 1 Corinthians 7:1-7, Paul instructs married couples not to use their devotion to God as an excuse to deprive one another of sexual fulfillment. Paul advises unmarried people to remain unmarried, but, if they are unable without great distress to remain celibate in this condition, they are free to marry. According to Keen, Paul thereby makes a compassionate concession to human weakness and need by approving marriage as an alternative to celibacy or promiscuity.

Celibacy as “Suffering.”

To prepare the reader for her application of Paul’s situational thinking to same-sex relationships, Keen’s first task is to establish a strong analogy between the two types of relationships, heterosexual and homosexual. According to Keen, long pastoral experience and recent psychological studies have demonstrated that being gay and lesbian is not a choice and can very rarely be changed. Moreover, single gays and lesbians who attempt to remain celibate, like single heterosexual people who make this attempt, usually fail. Hence traditional alternatives to forming covenanted same-sex relationships within which sexual fulfillment can be achieved are unrealistic: for most gays and lesbians, marriage to a person of the opposite sex is not a workable option, and changing one’s orientation is nearly impossible. In Keen’s estimation celibacy is “unfeasible,” produces great “suffering,” is “impossible” for most people, and produces “physical and emotional death.” She roots the suffering and unfeasibility of celibacy in divine creation:

“But the reality is that human beings are biologically made for sexual relationships, not life-long celibacy.”

“God created us with a strong familial drive to couple with another person and build a home.”

Compassionate Accommodation

Keen now closes the loop. Paul understands that most single people cannot without great unhappiness devote themselves to a life of celibacy. As a matter of caution in view of temptation to fornication and compassion in view of the suffering involved in celibacy, he permits them to marry even though he thinks that in the present circumstances it would be better to remain single (1 Cor 7:29-31). Keen argues that Paul’s logic can be applied to gay and lesbian people. Given the divinely created drive to “couple with another person” for companionship and sexual fulfillment, the pain of celibacy, and the lack of alternatives, the Pauline concession to marry can be applied to gay and lesbian people as a “humanitarian” exception to the rule. Keen is not arguing that if Paul were confronted with the predicament of contemporary gay and lesbian people and armed with the new knowledge we possess about sexual orientation, he would come to her conclusion. No one can know what Paul would do. She argues, rather, that if we exercise the same concern for human weakness and compassion for suffering as Paul exercised in First Corinthians 7, we will come to the conclusion she does. We will provide a way out of the “ethical dilemma of the gay person unable to achieve celibacy.”

Traditionalists’ Lack of Compassion

For the most part, Keen admirably refrains from impugning the character of her traditionalist opponents. However near the end of this chapter, she slips into a plaintive mood. The contemporary church’s lack of sympathy for the plight of its gay and lesbian members, she speculates,

stems from traditionalists’ bias towards concerns more familiar to the majority of church members…their neglect of gay and lesbian people and their plight reflects traditionalists’ grievous disregard of minority church members’ needs—not unlike the early church’s favoritism of Hebrew widows over Hellenistic widows during food distribution (Acts 6:1-4).

In making this accusation, Keen draws a not so subtle analogy between traditionalists’ rejection of same-sex relationships and such irrational and ugly prejudices as racism and sexism. Why does she insert these barbs? Is she “preaching to the choir” of people who already agree with her conclusions? Or, is she appealing to those evangelicals who have already been influenced by progressive culture’s successful categorization of gay and lesbian people as an oppressed minority? (The “nagging question” I mentioned in my previous post.) In any case, it seems out of character with the thrust of the book.

Keen’s Conclusion

Keen concludes the chapter with an answer to the question with which she opened it:

By extrapolating from Paul’s instruction that people with strong passions should marry, a case can be made for the moral acceptability of same-sex covenanted relationships.

Analytical Thoughts

Keen’s Argument Concisely Stated

1. If Paul makes exceptions to moral rules in view of human weakness and to prevent the suffering and harm that would be caused by imposing them, we may also make such exceptions under the same or analogous circumstances.

2. Paul makes such exceptions.

3. Hence we may also make such exceptions in the same or analogous circumstances.

4. Contemporary Christian gay and lesbian people find themselves in a predicament the same or analogous to the predicament of those people for whom Paul made exceptions to otherwise binding moral rules.

5. Hence we may also make an exception to the moral rule against same-sex relationships for Christian gay and lesbian people for whom other alternatives are not possible or would cause grievous suffering and harm.

Critical Questions

Regarding #1: The first clause of premise one is conditional. The truth of the second clause depends on the truth of the first.

Regarding #2: Number 2 appears to be false. Does Paul really make exceptions to moral rules based on circumstances? In the case of divorce (1 Cor 7), he seems simply to acknowledge that abandonment by the unbelieving partner constitutes a de facto divorce unrelated to a decision made by the believer. With regard to Paul’s advice for single people to marry if they cannot remain celibate, Paul never asserts that celibacy is a moral requirement for anyone. Hence permission to marry is not an exception to a moral rule. If Paul does not in either of these cases make an exception to a moral rule, he sets no precedent and gives no guidance about how to make exceptions to moral rules. At best, he gives us guidance about living wisely within a general moral framework.

Regarding #3: Because #2 (the minor premise) is false, #3 (the conclusion) does not follow and may also be false. Its truth, if it is true, would have to be established on other grounds.

Regarding #4: Because the conditional clause in #1 is false, the minor premise #2 is also false, and #3 does not follow, #4 is to some extent moot. It goes nowhere. However it still deserves comment. If I am correct that Paul did not make exceptions to binding moral rules in 1 Corinthians 7, then #4 contains a false assertion. The two situations are only superficially analogous. Finding yourself abandoned by your spouse is to be a victim not a perpetrator of an immoral act, and for unmarried people to enter into traditional marriage was never against divine law. Keen’s argument serves no purpose unless it presupposes that same-sex intercourse was forbidden. And Paul does not give people permission to engage in forbidden acts.

Regarding #5: As a conclusion to the entire line of reasoning, we cannot say that #5 is false, only that it does not follow. Making a weak or fallacious argument for a thesis does not prove the thesis false. If you believe on other grounds that Keen’s thesis is false, a weak or fallacious argument may confirm your doubt. However, if you believe on other grounds that Keen’s thesis is true, you may overlook her argument’s weaknesses, or you may draw on those “other grounds” to support your belief, or you may attempt to formulate stronger arguments.

Next Time: “Is it Adam’s Fault? Why the Origin of Same-Sex Attraction Matters” (Chapter 7).

6 thoughts on ““The Question of Celibacy for Gay and Lesbian People”—A Review Essay (Part Nine)

  1. paulsaruni

    Thanks Ron for unraveling her complicated and confusing argument by showing the logical fallacies in it. It makes me wonder, according to her line of reasoning, if Paul would make exceptions for adultery if the people involved were miserable in their desire and lust after the other person who was not their mate. Or, what about the man who is not satisfied or happy with one wife and feels compelled to marry another one? Where do the exceptions end and what are the boundaries? One’s beginning assumption makes all the difference in the world. If one assumes that same-sex relationships are neutral then this would lead one to certain conclusions. However, if one assumes that same-sex relationships are sinful then this would lead to other conclusions. Are there any places where Paul or Jesus clearly encourage others to do morally sinful acts? Paul

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      In response to your last question, scripture nowhere excuses transgression of moral law. Forgiveness is possible, excuse is not. To the contrary, Paul and Jesus urge obedience to the moral law even when it is very costly. I plan to develop the the logic of the first points you made above…that is, what other moral transgressions could be justified on the basis of Keen’s logic. I want to be careful in doing this. Otherwise people will dismiss it as a careless “slippery slope” argument. Thanks! rch


  2. Karen

    I have to admit, I am disappointed in this post as it again inaccurately characterizes my discussion. I already stated previously that my argument is primarily about impossibility not “unhappiness” or even suffering. I expected to see that better accounted for here. For example, you do not engage with the fact that Christian tradition has widely understood that life-long celibacy is not, in fact, possible for every person who attempts it. Here is a sampling of quotes: https://karenkeen.com/2019/01/08/is-life-long-celibacy-possible-for-everyone-quotes-from-christian-tradition/

    This creates an ethical dilemma that requires legal deliberation. Casuistry. Even traditionalists engage in casuistry for other issues, but neglect for this. Pointing out this neglect is not a “barb” as you say. I have sensed that throughout your blog posts, you have tried to cast doubt on my character and motives. Likely because of certain presuppositions that you have about gay people.

    My book engages with legal revision on the part of biblical authors in Scripture more broadly than Paul (legal revision in Scripture is commonly acknowledged by biblical scholars). Those who want a more thorough and accurate understanding of what I am proposing are invited to read the book for themselves.


    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      I am aware that you used the word “impossible” with reference to the inability of gay people to embrace and carry out a lifetime of celibacy. However you also used other words, such as unfeasible, to describe that inability. Unfeasible and impossible are not synonyms Unfeasibility optains when something possible in some circumstances is not possible in the circumstances being contemplated. Hence I could not be sure in what sense you are using the word “impossible.” It can be use of logical or physical impossibility. If something is logically impossible, no one can do it because it involves the combination of two mutually exclusive alternatives, it affirms and denies the same thing. If something is physically impossible, it is beyond the power of a particular nature; for example it is impossible for humans to fly like the birds by flapping their arms. Are you really saying that remaining celibate is impossible in either of these senses? I assumed you were not asserting impossibility in either of these senses. If I believed you were using the word in one of these senses, I would have disputed your claim at that point. Celibacy is not logically or physically impossible. I would also dispute that it is unfeasible in the sense of the word I stated above. I would admit only that it may be very difficult for some or most people.


  3. ifaqtheology Post author

    I do not wish to misrepresent you. That would be a cheap victory. If you like and you think it’s worth your time,I invite you to write a 1,000 word reply to my series to be posted in a future post. I would post it without comment…except to explain what it is. And of course, no one should accept my interpretation of your book as what you either say or mean. Your guest post could invite my audience to read your book for themselves.



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