How Churches Can Better Support LGBT+ Christians

A celibate gay Christian on how traditional churches fail to provide a space for lgbt+ people to thrive.

It always feels a bit strange how the primary reason anyone reads anything I put on the Internet is that I’m a Christian who also happens to be gay who also happens to be celibate — a decently rare trifecta that somehow makes my rambling slightly more intriguing.

You can imagine my frustration that it doesn’t translate so well into ‘real life,’ since “Hm, yes, but have you considered the fact that I’m a celibate gay Christian?” hasn’t managed to get me even one discount at any local cafés. (Yet. Philippians 4:13, y’all.)

Anyway, since this is the Internet, let me tell you a little about what it’s like being a celibate gay Christian . . . who is also white, male, educated, socioeconomically privileged, living in Los Angeles, addicted to hunting down new music, attempting to pursue systemic justice with integrity, finite (so they tell me), in-process, and distressingly prone to not answering emails in any way that could be described as ‘punctual.’

All those qualifiers are important because one thing I have found as a ‘celibate gay Christian’ is how little that phrase actually communicates about my life. So it tells you I’m attracted to guys and that for religious reasons I’m not romantically pursuing said guys, but it doesn’t say much about what makes me come alive, what sustains me and urges me through each gray-scale or technicolor day.

And this is, I think, a part of the problem: in a conversation as complex as the one surrounding faith, sexuality, and human flourishing we are too easily trapped by shallower questions or disagreements that prevent us from moving forward in more constructive ways.

Since I was recently informed that I am in fact just one human being (and since I wrote a previous draft of this that ended up being way too long), I will be primarily addressing Christians who claim to hold a more traditional sexual ethic, talking about how my current church home has created a space in which the traditional sexual ethic feels coherent, and in which celibacy seems not only sustainable but good. I will then use that as a springboard to discuss why I think other ‘traditional’ churches are failing to provide a space in which lgbt+ people like myself can thrive.

There will always be more to say, more nuance that should have been included, but I’ve only had one cup of coffee today so, really, you should just be impressed that I’m managing to use punctuation in a recognizable way.

Don’t have gay sex can’t be our one job

So.* I belong to a predominantly Latina urban church for which the pursuit of justice in its city is simply a part of its daily existence. When I first stumbled into the sanctuary a year and a half ago, I had no idea that I was about to become knit into the fabric of a community that was so inextricably tied to its immediate surroundings. Despite being small and hilariously underfunded, my church is a source of transformation in a context riddled with systemic and personal brokenness (like, you know, everywhere).

When I joined, I simply became a part of that redemptive movement. This is an enormous blessing, because — believe it or not — I really want to proclaim the gospel through ministry and advocacy. (And, as a white dude brimming with privilege, learning how to do this in a way that doesn’t reinforce inequality can be a challenge!) I want to be a Christian, and I want my church to urge the congregants on in our shared vocation of pursuing justice for the marginalized (which includes a sizable portion of the church population itself).

Often lgbt+ Christians are treated as if we have one job this side of Jesus’ return: don’t have gay sex. But, as Eve Tushnet so quotably stated, “You can’t have a vocation of no,” of only avoiding something. We need something to live for, and let me say that Christianity never makes more sense to me than when I am witnessing or participating in a Christian community that is unified toward imitating and proclaiming Jesus’ liberative gospel.

Although I talked to the pastor right at the start about my sexuality, the most pressing questions posed to me were instead concerned with how I was going to get involved in church life. That said, my experience as a sexual minority has not been ignored, and I am (with my consent) used as a resource both formally and informally to help the church serve its community better. There is definitely a range of beliefs throughout the congregation, as well as some trenchant ignorance about lgbt+ people, but the support I receive from leadership and friends has ensured that I don’t feel unsafe or threatened by any possible reactions.

It is far from perfect, but this community has become my home in a city I never expected to live in, much less fall in love with, and I am so grateful for everything I’ve learned.

3 suggestions for ‘traditional’ churches

But here’s the thing: I’m one of the luckier ones. I know a lot of lgbt+ Christians,** and a majority of them are either still mostly closeted due to fear of backlash or are out and experiencing a level of anxiety and distrust from their church that withers the soul. This should not be the case.

So here are three (way-too-brief) suggestions for churches that want to embody a traditional sexual ethic:

1. Be intensely concerned with the pursuit of justice in your context.

This is a foundational and universal mandate for all Christians. Christianity is not a static constellation of doctrinal statements (although doctrine is important!), but a dynamic Christological narrative that draws us into itself — it has purpose and movement and power.

The possibility of being single my whole life, especially since I’m not particularly ‘gifted for celibacy,’ started to seem far more viable when I began to envision a future proclaiming the gospel while fighting against injustice alongside a familial community, rather than a future fighting against Netflix’s automated episode queue alone in a dark apartment.***

(Also, and I wish I could say more about this, if a church ‘takes a stand’ for the traditional sexual ethic because it ‘cares about the future of this country’ and yet is largely silent on the blights of racism, socioeconomic exploitation, environmental degradation, abortion, misogyny, ableism, the prison-industrial complex, etc., then it merits every leaden ounce of the label ‘hypocritical.’)

2. Preach the ‘traditional sexual ethic’ in a way that catches up the whole congregation.

We shouldn’t be preaching this solely to members who are sexual minorities. Most ‘traditional’ churches seem to ignore the very real pain suffered by lgbt+ people at the hands of Christians or church communities, and any true articulation of the traditional sexual ethic must begin with an examination of how that particular church must change to become a community in which celibacy is not a social death sentence.

3. Maintain open (but not suffocating) communication with lgbt+ members of the congregation.

Don’t assume their primary ‘struggle’ or preoccupation is with their sexuality (although it might be). One of the most marvelous realities of Christian community is the process of congregants discerning their respective vocations and learning how those vocations might bless the church and the surrounding community, and it should go without saying that lgbt+ people are no exception to this vivifying movement of the Spirit.

These are obviously just a start, but it is hard for me to overemphasize how important it is for Christians to lay down the weapons of the ‘culture war’ and pick up once again the humble cross of Christ through which love and justice were and are offered to a weary world.

For the sake of the gospel, we have to do better

It continues to amaze me how hard celibate lgbt+ people have to work to find space in churches that claim a more traditional sexual ethic. The social burdens experienced by sexual minorities in these communities vary widely, but usually include increased scrutiny and suspicion, painful comments from congregants who may or may not know about one’s sexuality, reduced ministry possibilities (e.g. I was once stripped of an internship and prevented from helping with a youth group because I wasn’t trying hard enough to be straight), insanely exhausting language policing,**** and at times, the general ache of being single in a culture that over-valorizes marriage and romance to the detriment of the church’s calling to be family.

I’m not sure how churches decided that the best ‘defense’ of the traditional sexual ethic is to place excessive burdens on those trying to abide by it and then fail to provide the support structures that would make such an ethic intelligible and healthy . . . but, well, here we are.

I believe the traditional sexual ethic is beautiful and good — I try to live according to it for a reason! — but I also believe that the way churches have approached the topic of human sexuality has largely failed to do any justice to the scope and nuance of the doctrine and has, in fact, done injustice to countless people who should have found a home and family within the church, and this requires sincere repentance.

I’ve been fortunate to experience what it’s like to live in a community that is working hard to get the traditional sexual ethic ‘right,’ which makes the blistering failures of so many churches all the more upsetting.

For the sake of the gospel of Christ and the sake of the world that God so loved, we have to do better.

* 50 points to Ravenclaw if you guess which work of literature I (accidentally) imitated.

** Y’all . . . like, a lot. When Frozen came out on DVD, you would not believe what my Facebook feed looked like.

*** Both of these futures, of course, involve an obscene amount of cats.

**** I have no intention of disavowing lgbt+ language — as some Christians demand — so long as lgbt+ people continue to suffer injustices. The recent SCOTUS ruling hasn’t changed the fact that queer and trans people of color face life-threatening violence and lgbt+ youth experience disproportionate levels of homelessness, among other tragedies. The embedded links in the body of the post are to some of the innumerable responses that have been written to challenge the ‘label policing.’

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Matt Jones
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