There might not be a greater controversy facing the American church than the one surrounding homosexuality. It has become highly sensitive, highly political, and highly personal, as such debates tend to become within our culture. Is the position the Church has held from the beginning wrong or are revisionist readings right? How should we minister to those within our midst who have same-sex attraction? Is the Christian sexual ethic even possible in this day and age? Pastor and author Ed Shaw has added light to the current debate with his work Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life. Ed Shaw currently serves the congregation of Emmanuel City Centre in Bristol, England. He also serves within a parachurch organization Living Out, which is a ministry aimed at helping people and churches wade through the difficult discussion surrounding same-sex attraction.
Shaw’s book is not an apologetic text aiming to prove homosexuality is wrong from the Bible. Other texts have shown such a position to be true. Shaw aims to show that the traditional position is plausible. It is livable and obtainable. In light of the demographics concerning the theological and moral beliefs of younger generations, this is a necessary and helpful endeavor. He writes, “A generation changing their minds of homosexuality today, not because they’ve suddenly revised their opinion of the cultural context of Leviticus, the meaning of ‘unnatural’ in Romans 1, the nature of homosexual practice in Corinth or the translation of the Greek words in 1 Timothy, but because what those texts demand just doesn’t seem plausible anymore. (18)” He accomplishes this aim by examining and correcting what he deems to be missteps, an erroneous idea or belief that hinders or hampers the debate.
Shaw’s book opens explaining the plausibility problem and how the problem is personal for the writer. Shaw experiences and has experienced same-sex attraction for as long as he recalls. He is writing as one who intimately knows the struggles from the inside and out. After the introductory chapters, Shaw corrects and expounds upon nine missteps. Misstep one is the idea that one’s identity is their sexuality. The problem with this idea is that our identity is whoever God says we are. That is the truest thing about us. Misstep two is a family is Mom, Dad and 2.4 children. Shaw corrects this by examining how the Bible describes and portrays the people of God. The most important family is the Church. When churches possess the communal life articulated in the Bible, it lessens and alleviates some of the loneliness for those who experience same-sex attraction. Misstep 3 is the lie that we ought to do whatever makes us happy. The problem with this notion is there is such a thing as fleeting pleasures. Furthermore, God is the ultimate authority in our lives—not human happiness. Obedience is what brings enduring joy and satisfaction.
Misstep five is the erroneous belief that sex is where true intimacy is found. Sadly, love is portrayed as nothing more than sex within our culture. Yet, there are greater and deeper experiences of intimacy to be found in meaningful, warm friendships with people. Misstep six is the half-truth that men and women are equal and interchangeable. It is true that men and women are equal. Both genders are fully made in the image of God. However, it is demonstrably false to argue that men and women lack tangible distinctions. The author notes we have been designed to be interchangeable in order to showcase the manifold love of God. Misstep seven is the notion that godliness equals heterosexuality. Many heterosexuals are ungodly and many who experience same-sex attraction have a vibrant walk with the Lord. Shaw notes how God has used his struggle to make him more Christ-like in many areas of his life. Misstep eight corrects the idea that celibacy is bad for you and someone is somehow lacking because they’re single. He peruses 1 Corinthians 7 to reject such a position. The apostle Paul and Jesus himself were examples of godly people who lived celibate lives. The final misstep corrected is the often-repeated belief that suffering is to be avoided. Suffering is often times used to make us more like Christ and accomplish God’s redemptive purposes. If our Lord received a cross, what should we desire? The writer sums up the work in his conclusion and includes two appendixes discussing the plausibility of the traditional interpretation of Scripture and the implausibility of new interpretations of Scripture.
Shaw’s book is immensely valuable. First, it was a different sort of book. The Bible’s clarity on the topic of homosexuality is paramount. I’m not sure we need more books defending the correct interpretation of the biblical text. We need books that help us apply the text to current situations with real people. How do we help those within our congregations authentically live the Christian life while still experiencing attraction to the same sex? This book helped answer such a question. Second, the book helped me understand the assumptions and positions floating around within the debate today. In a sex-saturated culture that is heading towards more excess, simply saying, “Just Say No” will not do. This book did not do that. It examined the underlying thought processes which lead people to abandon the position the Bible consistently articulates. Until we as a Church address these worldview assumptions, our message will continue to fall upon deaf ears and be rejected. Third, I can easily give this book to a brother or sister struggling with same-sex attraction without any reservations. God can use this book to encourage the child of God in the midst of an intense struggle with their fallen sexuality.
This book had way more strengths than weaknesses. It was very personal. The fact that the author was so affront with his own struggles and included so much narrative made it an engaging read. This is not all theory for Shaw; this is his lifelong battle against sin which will be complete when he stands before Christ. It was very respectful. The author apologized in advance if it sounded as if he had an axe to grind. I found his apology to be unwarranted. His tone, words, and arguments were nothing short of Christ-like. It was very convicting. As I read, I found myself convicted after realizing I have often consciously or subconsciously made the struggles of my brothers and sisters more difficult. By holding the missteps myself, I’m preventing my brothers and sisters from being able to hold on to hope while they struggle. He writes, “…when a same-sex attracted Christian embraces a gay identity and lifestyle, we need to recognize that it might be, to some extent, not just their fault but ours too….Are there things that we might need to actively repent of too? (29)” It was very practical. The work included an application question after each misstep. There were so many paragraphs where I highlighted various sentences so I could use the content in future discussions and ministry contexts. As a high school Bible teacher, I receive countless questions from students who either experience same-sex attraction themselves or know someone personally who walks through such a vexing malady. I’m excited to possibly take the content and tone of Shaw’s work and implement it in future, class settings.
I was highly impressed with the book in such a way that I did not spot too many weaknesses. Other reviewers disagreed. After reading some reviews, others have questioned that Shaw did not go far enough in expressing his views about certain questions relating to the debate. Is homosexual desire and orientation wrong, right, or neutral? Ron Citlau writes, “Orientation is a way to speak about whom someone could be attracted to. When reading Shaw, one wonders how he thinks about same-sex orientation. Is it broken? Morally neutral? How is it different from attraction and desire? Or is it?” I’m not sure I agree that such a question is even necessary to answer in the writing of this book. Even if Shaw thought same-sex orientation were a good thing, would it lessen the force of his arguments or somehow diminish the overall project? I also found numerous reviews that disagreed with the whole premise of the book but it was clear that such reviewers were writing from either a non-Christian perspective entirely or from the revisionist perspective. While someone writing from a different worldview might understand how we could believe such positions, it is understandable why they would not agree with our perspectives.
Shaw’s purpose was clear throughout the text. The author mentions two explicit reasons why he wrote the book. First, he wants to “…remind myself that it is still plausible to stick to what the Bible teaches and hopefully to persuade some other same-sex attracted evangelicals too. (28)” After reading, I think the author more than met this goal. He writes that his second reason was “…to enlist the wider church’s active support for our same-sex attracted sisters and brothers. (28)” His book moved me to greater compassion and understanding for brothers and sisters who struggle in this area. Again, he more than accomplished his purposes in writing this book. His audience throughout appeared to be those struggling, those desiring to help those struggling with same-sex attraction, and those tempted toward revisionist reading.
In conclusion, I would wholeheartedly recommend Shaw’s book as an excellent piece of apologetic writing that can be used in a wide array of contexts. As a younger minister who often thinks the debate has become more about politics and talking points and less about people, I found this book to be a refreshing, thought-provoking, and helpful. The Church has made tremendous gains in our discussions and ministries to the homosexual community, with this book being a good example of that.
 Citlau, Ron. “The Plausibility of the Celibate Life for the Same-Sex Attracted” The Gospel Coalition Website. December 4, 2015. Accessed March 16, 2016. http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/book-reviews-same-sex-attraction-and-the-church