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“Gay Christian” is not an oxymoron. Many gay women and men hold on to a resilient faith despite hostile religious environments and culture war complexities. It isn’t easy to be a Christian in the gay community; it isn’t easy to be gay in the Christian community.
Among gay Christians there can be a fair bit of diversity. Some experience God’s grace in a mixed-orientation marriage (that is, they are married to an opposite gender spouse, despite being same-sex oriented). Others have committed to a celibate life. Many are searching and struggling and unsure of what to believe about the potential of a committed same-sex relationship. Yet others have promised to be faithful to one life-partner in whatever civil capacity is available to them.
Regardless of how they are navigating their life of discipleship, these men and women and fellow-followers of Jesus need the fellowship of a hospitable church community as much as any other Christians do. Some make the decision to attend an overtly affirming congregation. But for others, for a variety of reasons, that is not an option.
As I talk with gay Christians, I am often surprised at their interest in being part of churches that are welcoming but not officially affirming of same-sex marriage. They’ll often tell me that they don’t necessarily need agreement, but that they are looking for a safe place to dialogue and to have the space to own their own convictions.
Early in my tenure with New Direction Ministries and connecting with gay Christians, I sensed the Lord say to me, “I’m jealous for them. I am jealous for their gifts, their creativity, and their beauty. I am jealous because my Body is not complete without them.” I am convinced that the church is impoverished when we choose to exclude.
So how can churches more effectively engage gay Christians?
Open the conversation.
A lot of Christians will tell me that “the Bible is clear” in its prohibition of homosexuality. But when I probe a little deeper, I often encounter folks who have not really done their homework. They might mumble something about Sodom and Gomorrah, but they are not remotely current on the work of Bible scholars who are engaging this matter. If we want to demonstrate to gay Christians that their lives really do matter, then we should go and study. Read diverse perspectives. Engage in conversation with others. Listen to people’s stories. One place to start is with these three books: Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill; Torn by Justin Lee; and Bible, Gender, Sexuality by James V. Brownson.
Move from theoretical certainty into the questions real people face.
The majority of people in the church have never really thought about their own sexual orientation or God’s intention for them as heterosexual people. Many straight Christians are completely unaware of the privilege and power that affect their reflections on these matters. This lack of connection and empathy can make a place of fellowship seem unsafe for a gay Christian to really express needs, questions, and struggles. What straight people need to do is suspend their position temporarily so that they can really enter into the dilemmas that gay Christians face: “Celibacy is seen as a gift in Scripture — so why is it imposed on me?” “Paul said it was better to marry than to burn — why doesn’t that apply to me?” “God said it wasn’t good for man to be alone — yet I’m supposed to go without a life companion, intimacy, or a family of my own?”
Challenge your assumptions about how God will move in a gay person’s life.
I often hear straight Christians make the simplistic assumption that God will change gay people who are truly repentant and who ask Jesus to transform them. I hear comparisons made with alcoholism. I hear testimonies regurgitated from last week’s Christian radio program. The truth is that God can do anything. The reality is that God does not always do what we want or expect him to. In my twelve years in ministry, I have very, very rarely encountered an individual who says that God took away his or her same-sex attraction. I’m not saying it is impossible. But I am saying that it is most definitely not the typical experience, despite people committing themselves to prayer, exorcisms, support groups, and therapy for years of their lives. What is much more typical is that people need to be helped to shed their self-hatred and to move into a place of acceptance where they can truly experience and believe that God loves them just as they are.
Confront the shame about sex.
There’s no question that we live in a very sex-saturated culture. Christians are bombarded Monday through Saturday with the sexualisation of everything from shampoo to cars. Yet the church is often strangely silent on the matter of our sexuality. A church that risks having frank discussions about sexuality — both from the perspective of God’s good gift and of the challenges we face — will be much better equipped to provide a safe place for the gay Christian who is seeking God’s guidance in the expression of their sexuality.
Commit to journey as mutual pilgrims.
Nobody wants to feel like a special project. People come to church to be part of a community of believers, where the ground is level at the foot of the cross, where we all come to the same place needing the same mercy and grace. Who could experience the encouragement and healthy accountability of community if they felt under constant scrutiny and judgment? We don’t do that to overweight people, people who gossip, or people who fail to tithe — we give them space to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling” and trust that “it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13). We need to learn to give gay Christians space, too — to live consistently with their conscience — even if we disagree with their decisions. As Tony Campolo says, “God never said to love the sinner and hate his sin. God says love the sinner and hate your own sin!”
The reality is that people who love Jesus deeply and who honor the authority of the Scriptures can come to different conclusions about whether or not God extends his grace to gay Christians to pursue a committed same-sex relationship. Even gay Christians themselves disagree about this. And while this dilemma can create tension within the church, if we consider these five invitations, we can move forward together in humility, nurturing a generous spaciousness and ensuring that no one who desires to pursue relationship with Jesus Christ will be turned away.