A BEHIND-THE-SCENES LOOK AT THE CONFUSING NARRATIVES SURROUNDING GOD, THE LGBTQ+ COMMUNITY AND MARRIAGE

By: MIGHTY PURSUIT TEAM

Few things carry a more complicated history than that of God, the church and the LGBTQ+ community. For gay people, the church has long been seen as public enemy number one and the primary culprit behind the historic injustice against their community. One Barna poll revealed that a mind-boggling 91% of respondents felt that the church was anti-gay. Sit with a lesbian or gay person who is in their late 20s to late 40s and it won’t be long before a childhood story pops up about being condemned, mocked, heckled or even physically abused within the confines of a church. In the words of David Bennett, author of A War of Loves, “The gay and Christian communities are often seen as polar opposites: one a progressive, inclusive community, the other a community of oppressive, archaic laws.”  Elsewhere in the world, it’s not just the church, but religion in general that poses a threat to the LGBTQ+ community. Some of the most dangerous parts of the world for gay people are in Africa, the Middle East and Saudi Arabia. Generally speaking, these are some of the underlying messages that gay people have received from religious circles over the years:
    1. There’s something wrong with you, simply because you’re attracted to the same sex.
    2. Hiding your desires is the best course of action. But if you do confide in other believers, expect wide-eyed looks and judgment, not compassion.
    3. The thing we care about most is making you straight (i.e. conversion therapy).
    4. In the most extreme cases, emotional abuse or physical violence might be taken against you simply because you have these attractions to begin with.
    5. Oh… and you’re going to hell because you’re gay.
 Bennett, who is gay, writes of his personal experience, “I thought that simply by being who I was, I was the worst of sinners.. unacceptable to the very one who made me.” Of course, it would be irresponsible to say that every religious institution has put out these messages. But it’s easy to see why someone who is gay would not feel safe or welcome within a church.  Discovering that you are attracted to the same sex presents its own challenges emotionally. But on top of that, gay people also have had to deal with feeling deeply unloved, uncared for and rejected by the church.   In Born Again This Way, Rachel Gilson writes:  “I was sexually attracted to women. I still am… in my eyes Christianity was not only stupid but cruel. I was culturally aware enough to have gotten the impression that Christians hated gay people. Hated them through legislation; hated them through signs waved. Hated them in jokes exchanged gleefully; hated them sometimes even in brutality.” Depending on where you live, what you’ve experienced and what media outlets you consistently listen to, this may be all you know as it relates to this conversation.  But if you're willing to listen, there's more to this story. The messages above are not authentic to the true message of Jesus. The hurtful behavior of Christians is not at all representative of how God feels about gay people. Let’s explore why.

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A REALLY UGLY CARICATURE

Few illustrations represent the LGBTQ+ conversation and the church better than a caricature. If you haven’t heard of this concept before, Dictionary.com defines a caricature as a, “grotesquely exaggerated representation of (someone or something).” Some will argue that the harmful messages above have biblical origins, but we also live in the most biblically illiterate generation in history. Meaning, we have no idea how to interpret or read the Bible. Context matters. When trying to understand what the Bible is communicating, we must consider who the passage was written to, what the cultural context was, what the original language was (for accurate translation) and lastly, what literary genre each passage fits into. To bring this down to practical level, in 2014 a Tempe pastor advocated for killing gay people based on Leviticus 20:13. This is a reckless misreading. Not only did he cherry pick a verse, but he pulled it out of its cultural context to weaponize the Bible for modern-day use.  There was a time in which the books of the Bible didn’t have chapters or verses, so it was almost impossible to cherry pick things out of the text and miss the big picture entirely. Chapter breaks and versification of the Bible didn’t come onto the scene until 1,550 with Estienne’s edition of Jerome’s Latin vulgate. Visually, this forced readers to read with curiosity and locate the text in the larger story of scripture. So if we’re going to gain an accurate perspective into the LGBTQ+ conversation, we must first understand what the overarching theme of the Bible is.  Sam Allberry, who is also attracted to the same sex, puts this beautifully: “Our understanding on the subject needs to be read in the light of the bigger themes of Scripture. What the Bible says about homosexuality does not represent everything God wants to say to homosexual people.” Written over 1,500 years by more than 40 authors, the Bible is one unified story that points to Jesus. The central theme can be summed up in one word. Love. Quite literally, Jesus said that all of God’s commandments could be summed up in two things: to love God and love others (Matthew 22:36-40). In fact, the Bible mentions the word love 745 times in the ESV translation.  The most famous passage in the Bible, John 3:16, starts by saying “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…”   One of Jesus’s original disciples, John, writes in 1 John 4:7, “let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”  From Genesis to Revelation, we repeatedly see this core message: that God is love and we were made to reflect him in that loving nature. So if we’re going to talk about how God feels about gay people, this is where the conversation starts.  He sees them with eyes of love. Full stop.

CONSIDERING THE BIBLE

To the gay person, this revelation might bring a *cautious* optimism.  Yet there are still troublesome passages to deal with. Before we go any further, we need to consider what to make of the Bible as a whole. If you don’t believe that the Bible actually comes from God, then it would make complete sense that you find it irrelevant when it comes to the LBGTQ+ conversation. Why would I listen to what some ancient book has to say about my sexuality and love life? To those outside the church, it might seem ridiculous that such a thing has had such a massive impact on the conversation of what gay people should or shouldn’t do with their love lives. Within the secular worldview, it’s hard to find a reason to continue this conversation to begin with. But for those trying to find common ground, then it’s critical to understand that Christians actually do believe the Bible comes from God and has ultimate authority over the matters of life. This isn’t something to simply write off. There is significant reason to believe that the Bible actually does have divine origins. There is evidence that must be dealt with, that ultimately points to a reasonable and logical conclusion. Why does this matter? Because to followers of Jesus, the Bible gives us insight into what God intended when he created the world. In the earliest pages of Genesis, we read what he created was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). We learn that the world was intended to be a harmonious place, overflowing with love and peace, both between humans and God himself. But along the way, humans rebelled and decided to follow their own ideas of what would lead to the best life, over God. In making this decision, humans deviated from his original design and it is the primary reason why the world is in the broken condition that it is today.  The word the Bible often uses to describe that broken condition is “sin”. And this is the same word that carries so much baggage in the LGBTQ+ conversation.

IS BEING GAY A SIN?

Time and time again, pastors who have gone on television usually get pummeled with this question. But it’s usually not asked in good faith with genuine curiosity. Rather, it’s charged with hostility and the underlying assumption that you’re a homophobe or bigot if you claim it’s a sin. One of the biggest problems with this conversation is semantics. Because of the hurtful messages we discussed in the opening paragraph, many of us are immediately triggered when we hear the word “sin” mentioned in the same sentence with gay people. How did we get here?  As famed political strategist Frank Luntz writes in his New York Times bestseller Words That Work, “one reason why the definitions of words have blurred or changed over time is simply because of their misuse.” There are large segments of the Christian population that are not only biblically illiterate, but have been improperly discipled into the way of Jesus. In the most extreme cases, it’s led to groups like the Westboro Baptist Church perpetuating hateful messages like “God Hates Fags”.  Ultimately when we ask, “is being gay a sin”, we find the Bible doesn’t attach the same meaning to the word as our society does. A few years ago, the Bible Project created a brilliant video about this topic. In the original Hebrew, the word that translates as sin, Khata, literally means to “miss the mark.” Think in terms of archery, like Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games.  So when we sin, we miss the bullseye on what God intended – which as Jesus said, was ultimately love. As we mentioned in the last section, the Bible teaches God as a creator designed all things. So in essence, through the Bible, God gives us the “instruction manual” for how everything works together. To really grasp this concept, let’s use the painful process of putting together an IKEA dresser as an analogy. In this example, assume that as the manufacturer IKEA plays the role of God. Since IKEA created the dresser, only they know how to put each part together. To help us put it together correctly, they created an instruction manual to go along with each dresser. If we use the instruction manual, we flourish and have success in putting the dresser together. If we don’t, we fail. This is the same concept that Jesus followers believe about life itself.  They believe God ordered life in such a way that if we collectively decide to follow his instruction manual, all of humanity is set-up to flourish. When we don’t follow his instruction manual, there’s a breakdown in society. Our desire to do things our own way creates division, disunity and destruction.  This concept may be easier to grasp when it comes to many topics. In investigating this further, you’ll find that many of the biblical values correlate to what you strive to live your life by. God’s manual calls us to love radically — encouraging us to live self-sacrificially for others, to care for the needy and to even love our enemies. Beautiful, right? It also calls us to treat everyone with dignity and respect, to be compassionate and to support each other through hard times. Incredible. So you might be thinking, of course things like greed, racism, gossip and pride are sins. To most, it would be obvious how these things miss the mark of loving God and others. But homosexuality? This is where the conversation gets more thorny.  The first misconception we must separate is orientation from practice. There are six passages – three in the Old Testament and three in the New Testament – that directly address homosexuality. None of them say that being attracted to the opposite sex is a sin in itself. This is why the question “is being gay a sin” can be problematic, because there is no universal definition as to what gay means. Bennett writes, “the word gay does not necessarily refer to sexual behavior, it can just as easily refer to one's sexual preference or orientation and say nothing, one way or the other, about how one is choosing to express that orientation.” This is important, because if you believe that you were born gay, there’s not something wrong with you for simply existing. Conversely, we learn from the earliest pages of the Bible that God made humans in his image. Quite literally, this means that we are all born with an “imprint” of God, designed to be a mirror of his love, grace and compassion to the outside world.  This also simultaneously affirms that because we are all made in the image of God, we have inherent worth, that nothing we can do could make us more or less valuable than we are right now. So the truest thing about a gay person is that they are made in the image of God, inherently worthy and loved. What all of these six passages DO equate with sin is the act of engaging in gay sex and same-sex relationships. And to a gay person, hearing this can be deeply confusing. You might be able to wrap your head around the idea that casual sex or sexual promiscuity violates God’s design. But how is it a sin to have a loving relationship between two members of the same sex? How does that miss the mark on God's bullseye of love? Gilson writes, “To my mind, God’s prohibition on same-sex relationships made no sense… I wasn’t craving murder or theft, but love, intimacy and companionship!” In good faith, some have tried to come up with alternative explanations for these passages, but this essentially becomes a game of biblical gymnastics. If you’re interested in exploring the meaning of these six passages, this is one of the most thorough talks we’ve heard. To truly understand how same-sex relationships miss the mark, we must take a deeper look into God’s blueprint for marriage and human sexuality.

GOD'S SEXUAL ETHICS

In the earliest pages of the Bible, we discover God’s basic design for marriage and human sexuality. We read in Genesis 2:18-25, “the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him…Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. The keyword to zoom in to is “suitable”. Those who propose that the Bible affirms same-sex relationships have argued that this is a neutral term, in which God is saying that the basic foundation of the marital relationship is simply two humans. But what’s missing in this interpretation is an understanding of the meaning behind the Hebrew word “suitable”. Author Preston Sprinkle unpacks this in his book People To Be Loved: “The Hebrew word translated “suitable” by the NIV is kenegdo... Kenegdo is somewhat difficult to translate into English, since it is a compound word made up of ke, which means “as” or “like,” and neged, which means “opposite,” “against” or “in front of.” Together, the word means something like “as opposite him” or “like against him.” It’s a complex word that captures how it is that Eve can qualify as the perfect partner for Adam.”  Why does this matter? “If it were simply Eve’s humanness that made her a helper, then the word ke (“like”) would have been just fine. The verse would have then read: “I will make him a helper like (ke) him.” But to make the point that Adam needed not just another human, but a different sort of human – a female – God used the word kenegdo. This word potentially conveys both similarity (ke) and dissimilarity (neged). Eve is a human and not an animal, which is why she is ke (“like”) Adam. But she’s also a female and not a male, which is why she is different than Adam, or neged (“opposite him”),” Sprinkle continues. Which means the original design for marriage and human sexuality include three variables: 
    1. Both partners need to be human
    2. Both partners need to be from different families
    3. Both partners need to display sexual difference 
 In establishing this framework, we find that three sexual alternatives stand outside of God’s original design: relationships with animals, relationships with family members and relationships with members of the same sex. From a biological perspective, the need for sexual difference in relationships is obvious for procreation. Humans would cease to exist unless sexually different partners continually come together to make more humans. To modern culture, it’s less obvious from a romantic perspective why same-sex relationships wouldn’t be included in God’s design. Here’s Gilson’s take in Born Again This Way: “The male and female sexes were not accidental. God could have created three sexes or one sex, but he made two. Both of them together made up humanity – if one were missing, humanity would be incomplete… there is a dynamism that emerges when both sexes work together.” In recent years, there’s been a rejection of this male-female dynamic. There’s been a push to expand the definition of gender, and to acknowledge a variety of pronouns. As we consider the Hebrew word for a “suitable” helper again, modern-day thought would propose that any two humans can have a successful romantic relationship.  Not only does orientation not matter, but neither does gender. It’s important to consider why the rejection of this binary is happening to begin with. Prior to the last ten years, we’ve often been given narrow definitions as to what masculine or feminine looks like. And when people don’t feel like they fit into that, it’s natural that they would look to alternative solutions for love, identity and belonging.  Allberry reflects on this in his own book, remarking:  “Battles with [sexuality] can sometimes be related to not quite measuring up to expected norms of what a man or woman is meant to be like… for example, to imply that men are supposed to be into sports or fixing their car, or that women will want to “talk about everything,” is to deal in cultural [ideas] rather than biblical ideas of how God made us. [There are] many ways in which people are reflecting some of the biblical aspects of manhood and womanhood that culture overlooks.” In other words, how God defines masculinity and femininity is not the same as the sometimes harmful binaries we were taught in the 20th century. The biblical story teaches us that men and women are equals who complement each other, but are distinctly different. They were designed to fill in each other’s gaps, which makes the “dynamism” that Gilson describes possible.  Ultimately, the Bible teaches that there is a created order to things.  As humans, we live with a limited lens into this reality. But God sees how it all works from a 30,000 foot view. If we are trying to grasp his original design, it’s critical to open our eyes to how the created order surrounds us in various ways.  This is obvious from a scientific and material perspective, as seen in Will Smith’s One Strange Rock. The oceans, the rainforests, the mountains, the weather patterns – it all works together in harmony to make life possible. But order also rings true from a relational, moral and sexual perspective as well. If we abide by that design, humanity flourishes. If we don’t, it cracks the foundation of society and creates a ripple effect not unlike the six degrees of separation. With a limited lens into reality, we don’t claim to know how every detail works. Yet would it even make sense that we would always agree with how God made things?  As Gilson puts it in her book: “If God never says anything that contradicts us, if we find ourselves in total alignment with a perfectly righteous all-knowing being who comprehends all mystery, which is more likely: that we’re just like him or that we’re missing something?” Ultimately though, as we mentioned before, either the Bible comes from our Creator or it doesn’t. Either there is a blueprint for human flourishing or there isn’t. That’s something for you to explore on your own and decide if it’s something you want to align your life with. At the very least, this helps give context into what the Bible actually has to say about this topic. However, this is just the starting point of the conversation, as naturally what we’ve learned provokes many more questions.

ARE CHRISTIANS ANTI-GAY?

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, the predominant narrative in our culture is that the church is anti-gay. We hear this everywhere. It’s written in news articles, blogs and baked within the plots of films and TV shows. Just within the last year, the anti-gay narrative played a central role in the plot of The Whale, a film in which Brenden Fraser won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Charlie. M. Night Shyamalan released his latest film Knock at the Cabin in 2023, where we saw a gay couple held hostage in a remote cabin. The underlying narrative and dialogue portrayed religious teachings as anti-gay, even going so far as to see the gay couple get attacked in a local bar for simply being public with their relationship. Dopesick was nominated at the 2022 Emmy Awards for best limited series, for its recreation of the events that led to the opioid crisis in the United States. In the series, one of the main characters is gay and her parents go on to reject her due to biblical teachings. The reason why these narratives exist is because they are based on actual experiences, both past and present, that have led to the horrific mistreatment of gay people. So in this sense, it is right to say that the church and Christians have behaved in ways that are anti-gay. But that doesn’t mean that the biblical teachings or followers of Jesus are actually anti-gay. It simply means that a biblically illiterate generation has utterly failed in upholding the totality of Jesus’s teachings. Nowhere in the Bible will you find the message “God hates fags”.  Nowhere in the Bible will you see a command to commit violence against gay people.  Nowhere in the Bible will you see the act of engaging in gay sex elevated into some special status above other sins.  Nowhere in the Bible will you see a command to treat gay people as less-than, to “other” them, to shame them, condemn them or make fun of them. NONE of these message should have ever been allowed to be broadcast in church circles. They are an obvious form of bigotry, which has led to the opression of an entire people group for generations. Remember, the central message of the Bible is not about sexuality, but of sacrificial love. With this is mind, it would be impossible for anyone to be more pro-gay people than Jesus.  Jesus said that the trademark of his followers would be love (John 13:34). He said that all the teachings of the Bible are summed up in one word: love (Matthew 22:36-40). And he said that there is no greater love than that in which we lay down our lives for our friends.” (John 15:9-17) Practically speaking, this means to go out of our way, even to the point of inconveniencing ourselves, to love our neighbor. This means selfless service on behalf of another person. And Jesus himself was the ultimate representation of this. With Jesus, it is possible to hold the tension of the sensitivity related to this issue, to uphold the truth of the biblical teachings, while also loving gay people in radical ways. In fact, what the Bible DOES say is that we should bear one another’s burdens and hurt alongside those that are hurting (Galatians 6:2). It calls for our love to be sincere (Romans 12:9), for us to be hospitable to one another (Romans 12:13) and for us to bless one another with our words (Romans 12:14).  With this in mind, you might be thinking, what does this look like practically speaking? How do we hold the tension? Let’s debunk some myths.

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DEBUNKING MYTHS

It’s important to get into the practicals, because that’s where we tend to get stuck on this topic. That’s often where the tension arises, whether you are gay, a follower of Jesus or someone just reading this because you’re trying to develop a better understanding of how this all works.

On gay people being welcome in the church

One of the most ridiculous questions we constantly see is “are gay people welcome in the church?” It’s tragic that we’ve gotten to the point that this even needs to be asked and even more tragic that people are genuinely confused if gay people are allowed in the church.  So let’s clear that up. YES, gay people are welcome in the church. And here, we are defining gay as anyone who experiences an attraction to the same-sex. Those who have ever held a stance that gay people are not welcome, are not a true representation of the churchAsking if a gay person is welcome in the church is like asking if an employee should show up for work everyday. The question shouldn’t even need to be asked. It is a given. It’s the absolute bare minimum. A gay person shouldn’t have a second thought as to whether they’re welcome or not. But we should be doing so much more than that. We should be hosting gay people in our homes for dinner and grabbing coffee with them on Saturday afternoons. Gay people should be a permanent fixture amongst our families, our friend groups and smaller community gatherings.  The point is that we should be going above and beyond, not operating at the bare minimum. It’s only when we are developing these types of relationships and modeling these patterns in our lives that the radical self-sacrificial love of Jesus is made possible.

On making gay people straight

When it comes to the LGBTQ+ community, one of the skeleton’s in the closet for the church is the dark history with conversion therapy. Which goes to say, the goal of the Christian life is NOT to make gay people straight, but rather that everyone collectively would look more like Jesus.  “What is known as [conversion therapy], a program which aims to “create” heterosexuality, is a false gospel – it makes promises God does not and is not even scientifically valid, let alone biblically valid,” Gilson writes. Much of the hurt and triggers within the LGBTQ+ community come from the long history of damage associated with conversion therapy, as seen in Netflix’s 2021 documentary Pray Away. “For [those] who grew up in the church in the 1980s, 90s, and beyond, same-sex attraction was largely cast as utter perversion that was actively chosen in order to demonstrate hatred for God. So if you experienced same-sex attraction but loved Jesus, you usually kept dead quiet or actively sought to “pray the gay away,” or both. People spent earnest, tear-soaked years begging God to change them. Only to find that he didn’t – and that most of their contemporaries experienced no lasting change either,” adds Gilson. Bennett also viewed conversion therapy as a major hindrance to faith, reflecting: “This outdated science saw homosexuality and same-sex desires as a pathological disease and viewed the production of heterosexual desires as the cure. Problematic on every level – theologically, psychologically, scientifically, clinically… They missed the point that God, not heterosexual marriage, was the goal of our desires.” If someone who is gay voices that they want to pray about their desires, then support them in that pursuit. But nowhere in the Bible does it guarantee our desires will change, or does it even advocate for making such prayers about heterosexuality. Can attractions change? This is a complicated question, because of the baggage we just mentioned above. But if we’re able to put that aside, research suggests that some people’s sexual desires are the result of “nature”, meaning they were born that way. With others, their desires are the result of “nurture”, or influenced by the circumstances that they’ve experienced in their life. It’s worth mentioning that we’re living in an extremely sexually fluid culture. It seems like everyday in the news you read of people switching between gay, straight or bisexual, entering into different kinds of relationships. So if we’re using that as a barometer, anything is possible. Nonetheless, Gilson writes, “You may be sure in your bones that your patterns will never change; indeed, you may be right! The best evidence indicates that, especially for those who experience near-exclusive opposite-or same-sex attractions, those patterns don’t change.”

On avoiding the conversation

In recent years, because of the immense cultural backlash related to this conversation, some churches have chosen to stay silent on the issue. Within these contexts, gay people hear the message that they’re loved and accepted by God, yet no one seems to want to talk about sexuality to begin with. This comes across as dishonest, where our words are saying one thing and our actions another. It starts feeling like the elephant in the room. When gay people eventually realize what the church's biblical stance on sexuality is, it feels like a bait-and-switch. This story has been told over and over again in recent years. Clarity is kindness.  We should constantly be creating spaces to have conversations about sexuality. Not to elevate the topic into some special status, but to honor the sensitivity of where we are in this cultural moment. This doesn’t mean talking about it once and then never again. This means giving space to hear gay people’s stories and to hold the tension with them. Host roundtables and Q&A’s, teach on the subject, create support groups and smaller gatherings for people to be in this together.  Bennett himself is a shining example of this. As a gay man, he’s been given the platform at various churches across the Western world to talk about his sexuality, the scriptures and a path forward. Gay people should never feel shame for coming out to others and acknowledging that they are attracted to the same sex. They should be met with love, compassion, and care. This a must moving forward. As Bennett puts it, “Churches must not leave LGBTQI people in the dark pastorally and theologically about their particular situation.”

On upholding biblical standards

However, the starting point of these conversations should never be from a theologically ambiguous place. There is a standard of sexuality the Bible establishes — or as we put it before — an instruction manual that God lays out. The aim should always be to follow the path he lays out, to the best of our abilities. And when we look outward towards the rest of society, we find this to be true of any organization, company, community or government. There are a set of standards that we follow. When you agree to work at a company, you sign on to the etiquette that they put forth. If you live in a particular country, there are laws you adhere to. In fact, Facebook even has a set of community standards to “outline what is and isn't allowed on Facebook.” Without standards, there is chaos. Without standards, there is no goal we aim for. So if you’re going to be part of a community following Jesus, then Jesus is that north star. Meaning in following him, there are things we do and don’t do.  But in saying that, we also have to acknowledge the painful overemphasis the church has had in the past on the LGBTQ+ conversation. As Gilson put it earlier, “For [those] who grew up in the church in the 1980s, 90s, and beyond, same-sex attraction was largely cast as utter perversion that was actively chosen in order to demonstrate hatred for God.” If it wasn’t conversion therapy, it was the intense concern for making sure that people weren’t living a “gay lifestyle”. The hypocrisy here is cringe-worthy. Do we have the same concern that people aren’t living an angry lifestyle? Or a greedy lifestyle? Or a prideful lifestyle? Are we equally interested in the sex lives of straight people? In recent years, this is where the church has gotten ripped for discrimination against gay people in leadership and volunteer positions. While culture is looking at this from a different lens, and culture shouldn’t in any way influence the standards the church upholds, there is some truth in the claims they are making. Meaning, gay people should never be singled out and told they can’t participate or lead for merely being attracted to the same sex. Nowhere in the Bible will you see a precedent being set that gay people – those who are attracted to the same sex – can’t lead because of their orientation. However, it’s right to think that how they choose to express that sexuality, and from a larger scale how we ALL choose to behave, is important in establishing leaders within a community. The Bible does lay out a list of qualifications for leaders, which includes how they behave. And again, this is not unique to the church, but all types of organizations. Leaders are meant to lead, and set a precedent for others. For some churches, this has become a thorny dynamic recently, but usually it’s because of their own doing. For example, Hillsong Church NYC had a gay worship leader for a long time, who at the time had a boyfriend. But going back to the previous section on avoidance, they didn’t create space to have conversations about sexuality and it caused major confusion. As Josh Cranfield, the worship leader, writes: “Hillsong has every right to believe what they want, but they confuse their audience with general “inclusive” statements… it does more harm than good.. by not being clear about their beliefs on homosexuality, it ends up hurting the same people they claim they are trying to love.” This was a major point of contention in Vanity Fair’s 2023 documentary Secrets of Hillsong. Some churches have been clear in the past, but have done so in a way that creates an unhealthy bias and stigma towards gay sex as a special sin that deserves a category of it’s own. So if a leader has been faithfully trying to follow the way of Jesus, and then has a moment when they slip or make a mistake, they’ve been removed from their leadership position. In this sense, it’s also discriminatory because we haven’t responded the same way to other types of behavior. If a leader slipped into gossiping about another person, were they removed? How about another leader who caved and watched porn? Or someone who was being prideful? Which by the way, is something that God actually does hate (Proverbs 8:13). Leaders must set a precedent and be held to a higher standard, but also seen with the eyes of grace. And we shouldn’t be creating a double standard with gay sexual behavior.  Another caveat is making the distinction from leadership and the general community. As we welcome gay people into the church, the first concern shouldn’t be making sure that they aren’t engaging in gay sex or same-sex relationships. This is the wrong posture, and certainly not the posture of Jesus. Rather than spending time listening to them, getting to know them and welcoming them in the community, we are fixated on trying to change their behavior from the onset. That’s not loving. Again, here we find that same-sex relationships have gotten stigmatized into a special category of their own. We usually don’t operate with the same mindset when it comes to other issues. It is only when we develop deeper relationships with people, where trust, love and care are established, that conversations around accountability are made possible. And this goes both ways, for the straight person and gay person, with whatever challenges are present in their life. To speak into the life of a gay person, they first need to give you the authority to do so and you also need the proximity of doing life with them on a regular basis.

On acceptance vs. affirmation

Increasingly relevant in this conversation is also the distinction between acceptance and affirmation. Our culture has a really hard time with this concept, but it shouldn’t. You can accept someone, even love them deeply, while still not affirm their behavior or choices.  When we look outside the LGBTQ+ conversation, we find this to be true with every relationship. Between parent and child. Between spouses. Between friends. We love them and we care deeply about them, but we don’t agree with all their choices. The problem with this conversation specifically is that sexuality has become so deeply intertwined with identity. So to not affirm my choices would be a basic denial of who I am. Upon further examination, we find this elevated view of sexuality doesn’t make sense universally, as we don’t treat heterosexuality in the same way.  There is so much more to a person than their sexuality. Who you are attracted to is not the truest thing about you. And for followers of Jesus, the truest thing about them is being made in the image of God. As we wrote earlier, this means that we are all born with an “imprint” of God, designed to be a mirror of his love, grace and compassion to the outside world.  This also simultaneously affirms that because we are all made in the image of God, we have inherent worth, that nothing we can do could make us more or less valuable than we are right now. So the truest thing about a gay person is that they are made in the image of God, inherently worthy and loved. Which goes to say you can opt to not affirm someone’s choices, but still affirm their inherent value, that they are worthy and loved. And we must be constantly circling back on this truth.  Nonetheless, if you are a gay person or are interacting with someone who is gay, it may take time to grasp this.  The expectation shouldn’t be that everyone is immediately going to agree on everything as soon as they step foot into a community. Leaders help establish the standards, but we need to leave space for people to go through their own process.

On the power of words

We touched on this in the earlier, but often we could be having a conversation with someone about sexuality and be talking about two completely different things without even realizing it.  How? Words. The tagline in Frank Luntz’s Words That Work is “it’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.” And nothing could be more true when it comes to the LGBTQ+ conversation.  In discussing this topic, you have to understand that words matter and it’s important to define terms. For example, consider the word gay. As we learned from David Bennett earlier, “the word gay does not necessarily refer to sexual behavior, it can just as easily refer to one's sexual preference or orientation and say nothing, one way or the other, about how one is choosing to express that orientation.. [we] need a more nuanced and sensitive understanding when [we] use the word gay.” Since this topic is extremely sensitive and since there is so much baggage attached to church history, many words or phrases have become triggers for people. In his book, Bennett slams the usage of the phrase gay lifestyle, saying there is “no monolithic gay lifestyle”, which he said kept him from “feeling included and understood.” To truly love gay people well, we have to educate ourselves on terms and understand what terminology might come across as judgmental, triggering and condemning. Similar to having sensitive conversations about race, a careless choice of words might come across as microaggressions to a gay person.

On the biblical teachings themselves being oppressive

Some of the awkwardness we feel may come from simply conversing about the biblical teachings on sexuality. If we were to remove the history of toxic church behavior from our memories, we’d still be left with the tension of the teachings themselves. Why? “To specifically deny what your body wants is a scandal in our culture. When pursuing your desire for same-gender sex and romance would publicly mark you as a hero – brave and strong – denying it makes you a villain,” Rachel Gilson writes.  “Do what you feel” is the popular message of modern day-culture. Freedom is defined as being able to do what you want. This is a radical reversal from what Western culture was once built upon. Freedom was self-discipline and self-control, which together form self-mastery. In other words, the ability to do what you do not want to do. “Freedom has been redefined. It used to mean the freedom to want the good, the beautiful and the true and to exercise the willpower to do the good, the beautiful and the true. But now when people talk about freedom, they basically mean the freedom to do whatever the heck they want as long as they don’t hurt anybody,” author John Mark Comer writes. And if we were to really consider it, we find evidence that the old definition of freedom is most empowering. What’s easier – to eat another cookie or to abstain? To pick up your phone for the 100th time today or to resist the urge? To shout at your significant other in the midst of an argument, or to thoughtfully restrain yourself as you gather your thoughts? In all of these instances, amongst thousands of others, the freeing thing would be to not do what you want to. Baked within the ideology of “do what you feel” is the underlying assumption that all desires and urges are good. But not only does the Bible lay out an “instruction manual” from God, it also comes with a completely different perspective on desire.  One of Jesus’s original followers, the Apostle Paul, writes in 1 Corinthians 6, “Everything is permissible for me"--but not everything is beneficial.” All throughout the biblical teachings we find that self-control, whether gay or straight, is one of the highest virtues.  Not to mention that the ideology of “do what you feel” conflicts with the latest science In his book Social, neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman outlines the extensive science in Chapter 9 that supports the idea that self-control is highly beneficial.  He writes, “Our impulses and emotional reactions are essential in guiding us toward desirable outcomes, but they also seem to have a mind of their own and often need to be restrained. Whether it’s avoiding that extra slice of pizza at 2 a.m., not telling your boss what you really think of him, or overcoming the urge to drive on the right side of the road when you are visiting London, your habitual responses need to be put in their place from time-to-time.” Citing the studies he covers in the book, self-control is linked to a higher GPA for students, better decision-making and better relationships. He also talks about the importance of choosing delayed gratification over immediate gratification, which is becoming an increasing topic of conversation in scientific circles as of late.  With this principle in mind, just because we have a desire or impulse, doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to give into it.  And when it comes to sexuality, here's the main question: is there space for those who are gay and choose to deal with it differently?  David Bennett writes in A War of Loves, “I often find there is a progressive bias against celibate gay Christians like me. Some say we can’t call ourselves gay unless we affirm same-sex expression. Pain can block any of us from.. comprehending how a call to celibacy can be joyful, even life-giving. I’m not a traitor to the gay community. I’m just a celibate gay Christian. Is there room for me? Is there a strip on the flag with my color on it?”

On marriage and romance as the ideal

Another reason why the biblical teachings can feel troublesome in our modern culture is because romance is viewed as an essential component for a fulfilling life. We’re led to believe that our lives are incomplete if we’re not romantically or sexually involved with another person. The cultural pressure that comes with being single is real. When you’re young, there’s a social stigma that’s placed upon you if you’re not dating or hooking up with someone. A recent Tinder ad on the NYC subway featured two people hooking up, with the tagline “realizing you’re not dead inside.” As you get older into your 30s and 40s, that pressure heats up around getting married.  Is there something wrong with them because they’re still single? Gay or straight, you know first-hand how discouraging (and problematic) this can become emotionally. While it’s true that human connection is absolutely essential to survival (see: attachment theory), that doesn’t have to be romantically and sexually. Bennett reflects on this saying, “If Jesus was celibate and the ultimate example of human flourishing for all of us, gay or straight, then isn’t it clear that celibacy is not an inhumane sentence for gay people like me but actually a legitimate, and even honorable, choice?” For Bennett (and many others), rich friendships fill the need for human connection. He continues, “when we look at… Jesus… we see that marriage is not [the] ultimate or even the greatest form of intimacy that can be experienced, as if often wrongly communicated by the church and our society at large. Rather the love of friendship is the greatest of loves. Of course, marriage is profound and contains friendship itself, but the point here is a life of celibacy as a gay man does not, as I thought originally, cut me off from the intimacy I was made for.” Modern-day culture is defined by individualism – or the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant. Outside of marriage, serious romantic relationships and your direct family unit, you usually don’t “share” your life with other people in very intimate ways.  When this is the only culture we know, it can be hard to imagine how what Bennett is proposing could lead to a fulfilling life. But this is the beauty of the church, as it was intended to be.  In his 2013 bestseller When the Church Was a Family, author Joseph Hellerman outlines four strong-group values Jesus established amongst the original church, “1) we share our stuff with each other 2) we share our hearts with one another 3) we stay, embrace the pain and grow up with one another 4) Family is about more than me, my wife and kids.” Long before the modern (and sometimes dysfunctional) church became an institution, the church was known in the first three centuries for their solidarity, sacrificial love, compassion, honor, attentiveness and fierce commitment to one another. As a people of every sex, race and age, outsiders marveled at how they loved each other. Alan Kreider, author of The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, adds: “...outsiders looked at the [early followers of Jesus] and saw them energetically feeding poor people and burying them, caring for boys and girls who lacked property and parents, and being attentive to aged slaves and prisoners. They interpreted these actions as a “work of love”...moved by [their] embodied love for each other, people may have asked about the possibility of experiencing this themselves.” If you’ve experienced this type of community first-hand, you know how beautiful it can be. It provides the antidote to the loneliness epidemic we find in our society. And inside the church, that means embracing the idea of “blended families” – meaning we have single people integrated into the homes of married people and those with children. In his book, Hellerman gives an example from his own life. He has a wife and two children, but also a friend who is deeply integrated into their family.  “Margy is a single adult in her fifties who is one of the most delightful, intelligent, gifted human beings I have ever known. We all feel very strongly that Margy is a full-fledged member of the Hellerman family. She shares several meals a week with us, spends her days off with [my wife], and does a whole lot more stuff to spruce up our house than I do. She also joins us on our yearly vacation in the Sierras. Twelve years ago the Hellermans never envisioned being a five-some. Now we cannot imagine life otherwise.”

On options for gay people

Lastly, if you’re gay, you might be wondering what it ultimately looks like to faithfully follow the teachings of Jesus. As you’ve probably caught on, Bennett has chosen to not engage in romantic or sexual relationships. Sam Allberry, one of the other authors we referenced in this book, has chosen that path as well. Others, like Rachel Gilson and Jackie Hill Perry have entered into “mixed-orientation” marriages to members of the opposite sex. When Gilson started to be pursued by the man she’s married to now, naturally it provided conflicting feelings. She had never been in love with a man before and wasn’t convinced that it was even possible. “With a couple friends, I had hours of conversation about the nature of romance, how much attraction countered as “enough,” and what it even meant to be married,” Gilson reflects. She poured over what love means and what’s needed for a lasting marriage. Ultimately she decided to get married, writing, “I didn’t marry because I fell in love. I didn’t marry to make myself straight, or to prove I believed in God’s sexual ethic.. Marriage is beautiful and possible for same-sex attracted people, as long as it is entered into with clarity and freedom.” Note the last two words. Mixed-orientation marriages haven’t had the best reputation in the past, seen as a cover for an in-the-closet gay person, as seen in Netflix’s 2021 film Pray Away. Two of the subjects of the film, John Paulk and Anne Paulk, were the former leads of Exodus International and advocates of conversion therapy. John Paulk eventually came out as gay and the marriage fell apart. So it’s important to highlight here what Gilson is not saying. These types of relationships should never be a cover or a front. Before the relationship even begins, Gilson advocates for full transparency and honesty. If you’re considering getting into a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, both parties should know fully what they are getting into. If there isn’t honesty, the marriage is bound to implode, as we’ve seen with countless examples in the past. Mixed orientation marriages might look unconventional, especially with navigating the sexual dynamics, but many people have stories of success. Regardless of how strong the physical attraction is, ultimately you are choosing to do life with that person. In the Greek, we find four different words for love, all which have different meanings: Eros, Philia, Storge and Agape This helps us understand better how a mixed-orientation marriage could potentially work. As with all marriages, Philia (friendship love) must be a foundational to the relationship. And attraction is not required to demonstrate this love. As one writer puts it: “This type of love is SO important in marriages- you should be each other’s best friends and treat each other as equal partners. When you’re not just their spouse but also their friend, marriage is much more full of fun and laughter. Friends feel great affection for each other and support each other in goals and decisions big and small.” Regardless, a mixed-orientation marriage can be very challenging. If you’re a straight person, you should never suggest this flippantly to a gay friend. As Preston Sprinkle puts it in A People To Be Loved, “if you’re a straight dude, first imagine yourself being married to another dude before you tell your gay friend, “Come on, just friend a sexy woman and it’ll all work out.” And if you can’t imagine yourself taking this path, consider the words of David Bennett once again, “If Jesus was celibate and the ultimate example of human flourishing for all of us, gay or straight, then isn’t it clear that celibacy is not an inhumane sentence for gay people like me but actually a legitimate, and even honorable, choice?” Still, you might be sitting here and neither of these options seem appealing to you.  In his book, Bennett recounts a conversation he had with a gay man, where the man said, “It’s just not fair that as Christians, we have to give up any prospect of a romantic relationship with the person we’re attracted to! Everyone else has the option of marriage. I don’t. I want a family. I want a partner and children. Why can’t everyone else have that and I can’t?” Bennett, having wrestled with the same thoughts and feelings for years, sympathized with the man. But he ultimately changed his perspective, “The lie I believed was that I must have gay sex to be whole. Like many gay people, my outage at the church for denying gay marriage came from the belief that sex is a requirement for human flourishing.” Bennett often speaks of the intimacy he gets to experience with Jesus and the oneness that is felt because Jesus also chose not to engage in romantic or sexual relationships. Ultimately though, as we mentioned before, either the Bible comes from our Creator or it doesn’t. Either there is a blueprint for human flourishing or there isn’t. That’s something for you to explore on your own and decide if it’s something you want to align your life with. A life of following Jesus is never forced upon you and will always be an invitation. In Revelation 3:20, Jesus says: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

FINAL THOUGHTS

We love when Bennett says in his book, “by necessity, the issue of gay marriage requires a complex response.” For the church, it could be argued that there isn’t any other issue today that is as complicated as the LGBTQ+ conversation. As we learned in the opening paragraph, there’s a long and ugly history with the gay community that has the name “church” slapped on it, which cannot be undone. Horrific things have been done to gay people in the name of God. And this must be mourned and repented of. Gay people should have never had to fear for their lives or be treated as less-than simply for having a particular orientation to begin with. In this sense, the gay rights movement has done much good. Moving forward, Jesus followers need to broadcast the real story. The original story. The story that should have always been told, which is that “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” It would be statistically improbable that you don’t know at least one gay person, given they are at least 10% of the population. So there is ample opportunity to make gay people a permanent fixture in our lives. As followers of Jesus, gay people should be invited into our homes for dinner. They should be sitting across the table for coffee on Saturday afternoons.  They should be the fifth member of our four-person family, following Hellerman’s example. And they should be integrated within our friend groups and smaller community gatherings. Spaces need to be created to show we care. We need to give gay people a voice to share their story and to be vulnerable. And what if in the future, the narrative was flipped? What if all we heard in the news, social media and through the grapevine went a little something like this:  No one loves and cares more for the gay community than Jesus' followers? For more resources on sex, click here to visit our Sex Hub.

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