According to a 2013 Pew Research Survey, 73% of LGBTQ Americans believe evangelical churches are unfriendly toward their communities. And, to be honest, who can blame them?
In 2004, Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a margin of 60% to 31%. By 2019, the margin has flipped – 31% of Americans oppose same-sex marriage, while 61% support it. In that same time period, “white evangelical Protestant” support for same-sex marriage increased from 11% to 29%.
(For comparison’s sake, in 1958 only 4% of Americans approved of interracial marriage).
Millennials and Gen Z are far more likely to accept and affirm same-sex relationships than older generations (a trend that’s highly unlikely to reverse).
Cultural proximity plays a huge role in this seismic demographic shift. Younger people are more likely than their parents and grandparents to have friends, coworkers, classmates, and family members who identify as gay, bisexual, or queer.
To affirming Christians, the growing cultural acceptance of same-sex relationships is indicative of God’s ongoing redemptive arc for humankind. And for non-affirming Christians, the same reality is clear evidence of a wayward generation in open rebellion of God’s will.
Will reconciliation ever be possible between these two fiercely ideologically opposed groups? Can the two sides learn anything from another? Or are they destined to remain locked in mortal combat?
Note: This is the third entry in a three-part series exploring the relationship between gay Christians and the Evangelical Church. If you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend reading Episode One (“Gay Christians and the Church”) and Episode Two (“Gay Christians and the Bible”) before tackling Episode Three.
Love Will Tear Us Apart
On May 24, 2019, Bethel Church launched CHANGED Movement and an accompanying “#OnceGay” hashtag. Alongside Hillsong and Passion, Bethel – a megachurch network based in Redding, California – is one of the largest and most influential Christian brands in the world.
With “Changed [sic] Is Possible” as the tagline, Bethel’s CHANGED Movement presents Christianity as an “alternative” to the LGBTQ+ lifestyle. The website features a sleek design, photos of attractive millennials, and an online storefront where you buy t-shirts and a tabletop collection of “#OnceGay stories.”
Some critics were quick to point out that the ministry’s “Changed Is Possible” slogan and #OnceGay hashtag were eerily similar to Exodus International’s “Change Is Possible” mantra and #ExGay social media push.
In his op-ed “The Ex-Gay Christianity Movement is Making a Quiet Comeback,” Christian writer Jonathan Merritt writes,
“Some prominent Christians are quietly trying to resurrect ex-gay Christianity, and the new incarnation is hipper and perhaps more evolved. Yet beneath the cosmetic tweaks sits the same message that has damaged many lives over many decades: If you’re a Christian with same-sex attractions, change is both possible and necessary.“
Following considerable pushback, Bethel posted a statement on their Instagram saying “God loves all people, LGBTQ+ and straight. The message of CHANGED has never been ‘All Must Change’,” which only served to muddy the waters for conservative and progressive Christians alike.
The world the modern Ex-Gay Movement finds itself is a lot different than the world of its previous iteration. As cultural stigma fades, new research has shed light on the complexities of sexual orientation through the revelation that fluctuations in sexual orientation can be a natural part of sexual development for some people.
For example, studies seem to indicate that female sexual orientation is slightly more fluid and less fixed than the sexual orientation of males. More women than men self-report as bisexual, and nearly 84% of all people who identify as bisexual end up in “straight” relationships.
(It should be noted that research on sexual fluidity is fraught with all sorts of self-reporting errors, gender stereotypes, and cultural biases. It’s possible men are simply less likely than women to admit to feelings of same-sex attraction).
However, evangelical Christians shouldn’t take this information as incontrovertible proof that someone’s sexual orientation can be changed. Nor should it be used to push the fallacy that every Christian who experiences same-sex attraction is bisexual. Ideally, it’d lead to an acknowledgement that sexual identity is more complicated and nuanced than many Christians would like to admit.
Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. It’s simply a more compelling and dramatic narrative to have someone experience a “full conversion” than acknowledge the existence of varying degrees of bisexuality.
No matter how stylish or trendy the marketing rollout, Ex-Gay ministries (or any other program that treats same-sex attraction as a mental illness to be “cured” or reversed) will always reap more damage than any perceived “benefit.”
David – who I interviewed in Episode One and participated in Exodus International – said: “Ex-Gay ministries highlight success stories while downplaying or ignoring the testimonies of those who failed to change – of which there are far more. And, trust me, most of those people leave broken, wanting nothing more to do with Jesus and Christianity.”
Interlude III: Ryan
“I was the kid in Sunday school who knew all the answers,” Ryan said. “Growing up, I’d rather miss school before church. And, if my parents weren’t feeling up to it, I’d walk to church on my own.”
Born in the midwest, Ryan was raised attending a conservative church. It was the type of environment where the pastor was fired for acknowledging the existence of pornography from the pulpit.
“I was pegged as the ‘religious kid’ by all my teachers and classmates,” Ryan said. “People were convinced I’d grow up to be a pastor.”
Ryan became a representative for his denomination’s youth organization and ascended to ranks. He spent his summers attending church camps and serving on mission trips. He was even allowed to preach a few times on Sunday mornings.
However, Ryan’s commitment to his local church served as the perfect foil for his lack of romantic curiosity in grade school. Or, at the very least, his involvement provided ample distraction from being distracted.
“I didn’t connect with girls in high school, but I considered myself a little nerdy so I’d withdraw in mixed company, ” Ryan said. “I really didn’t understand why people had so much trouble not having sex their girlfriends.”
One Is The Loneliness Number
Non-affirming gay Christians occupy a complicated space in the queer cultural landscape.
The mantra of modern secularism is succinct and persuasive: Simply be true to who you are, and anyone who stands in opposition to that ideal is wrongheaded (or evil). But for gay Christians, the path toward self-acceptance and affirmation is also channeled through the lens of their faith.
Some gay Christians will decide they can affirm their sexuality while remaining devoted followers of Jesus. And others will come to the conclusion that God desires for them to commit celibacy. It’s a highly personal and consequential decision with ramifications that’ll echo through every facet of a person’s life.
And it poses some serious questions about how conservative and progressive Christians will respond to the needs and fears of non-affirming gay Christians – especially those who choose to pursue a celibate lifestyle.
In Torn, affirming gay Christian Justin Lee writes,
“Without church help in determining how to handle the challenge of celibacy, some gay Christians have had to do their best to work things out on their own. If churches are going to teach that gay Christians must be celibate, then at the very least they must provide ongoing, tangible, support for them in their journey.”
For obvious reasons, celibacy has fallen out of favor in mainstream Christianity. Entrenched in a culture of dating, marriage, and childrearing, a lot of in-house church ministry is focused on fostering, supporting, and preserving the traditional family unit.
Therefore, most churches talk about celibacy only as it relates to the “waiting period” prior to marriage or as a default lifestyle preordained for gay people. It’s rarely presented as a lifelong “calling” for straight Christians – despite being advocated by Jesus and the Apostle Paul.
In this type of environment, it’s no wonder celibacy is often perceived as, at best, an unfortunate outcome or, at worse, a divine punishment – either for the straight person unable to acquire a spouse or the gay person with no real choice in the matter.
If single Christians over a certain age tend to feel like second-class citizens in the Church, imagine the level of loneliness a single and gay Christian must experience sitting in the same pew. And, unlike straight single Christians, gay single Christians don’t often receive the benefit of an intentional community of people who understand and relate to their journey.
Celibacy is a noble – and difficult – path. And Scripture makes it clear that it’s not for everyone. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus describes it as a “gift” that should be “accepted only by those who can accept it.”
Does your church honor and support members of the congregations who have committed to a lifetime of celibacy? Is lifelong celibacy ever presented as a serious lifestyle option for anyone other than those who experience same-sex attraction?
And, perhaps most damning, does your church even portray Jesus as someone who is worthy of sacrificing romantic and erotic intimacy, or is He merely a conduit to achieve those aims for straight congregants?
To preach celibacy as a requirement for gay Christians and not provide a support system isn’t just irresponsible, it’s downright cruel. This truth applies for all Christians – straight or gay – who believe they’re called to celibacy.
Embracing and supporting Christians who have committed to lifelong celibacy doesn’t need to come with the prerequisite belief that all gay Christians must adhere to the same path. Affirming Christians should respect and honor their gay and straight celibate siblings in Christ.
But should non-affirming Christians be held to the same expectation of grace and understanding when it comes to their interactions with Christians in committed same-sex relationships?
Because, though the language has softened over the years, the prevailing attitude among most evangelical Christians is that gay Christians who abandon lifelong celibacy to pursue a committed same-sex relationship have damned themselves to Hell.
Interlude III (Continued): Ryan
At the close of his senior year in high school, Ryan applied and was accepted at a college in the South. Seeking a livelier social scene than what he’d left behind, Ryan joined a fraternity.
“I poured myself into that frat like I had my church back home,” Ryan said. “I partied, drank, and basically tried to convince myself and everyone around me that I was really into girls.”
Like most guys his age, Ryan occasionally watched pornography and made out with girls he took out on dates. However, he found his late-night rendezvouses motivated less by lust and more by obligation, and after learning about the prevalence of sex trafficking victims in the porn industry, he soon gave up the habit – for the most part.
“After that, if I did happen to watch porn, it’d be gay porn,” Ryan said. “I still didn’t think of myself as gay, and I rationalized it by telling myself people in gay porn were less likely to have been trafficked than women in straight porn.”
However, struggles with pornography are common fixtures in collegiate ministry (especially among men), and Ryan remained fiercely committed to his faith, with the expectation that some form of ministry work would always be a part of his life. After completing his undergraduate degree, Ryan went overseas to do missions work with a small team of missionaries.
“It was overseas that everything blew up in my face,” Ryan said. “I don’t know if it was being in a foreign environment, or being with people I didn’t know very well, but it was the hardest year of my life. I couldn’t escape the reality that I was gay, and I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone.”
After a year overseas, Ryan returned to America scared and broken.
“Most of us just assume marriage and kids is what the future has in store for us,” Ryan said. “And, in a moment, all of that is gone. I didn’t want to think or say the word ‘gay’ because I knew it’d make it real.”
With My Whole Heart
A long time ago, a man and woman were placed in a Garden and told by their Creator to “be fruitful and multiply.” And it’s within this simple yet endlessly complex mythic tale that most people and cultures have found themselves emulating throughout the epochs of civilization – whether they realize it or not.
In recent decades, we’ve come into possession of a broader understanding of human sexuality. Unlike our ancestors, we know not all people have a choice when it comes to their sexual orientation.
And with that new information, we come to a crossroads.
Is a Biblical view of marriage dependent on complementary genitals or a couple’s ability to produce offspring? Or is there something more profound occurring when two people decide to knit their lives and souls together before God?
In her powerful essay written for CounterPoint’s Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church, Biblical scholar Megan K. DeFranza writes,
“A Christian theology of marriage recognizes that humans are made for communion and that our sexuality brings us into particular relationships which, because of sin, need to be governed by public vows which hold couples accountable and enable communities to support their unions and arbitrate when vows are broken.”
And while “naturally occurring” sexual desires aren’t always indicative of “morally righteous” sexual desires (just as any human impulse shouldn’t be validated or affirmed solely on the merit of its existence), Christians stand to reckon with the compelling evidence that a monogamous same-sex relationship between two consenting Christian adults affords the same opportunities for Christ-like sanctification as a heterosexual marriage.
Through the trials, tribulation, and lessons learned through covenantal faithfulness, perseverance, and forgiveness, all Christian marriages aim toward the same glory – a beacon of light that reflects and points others toward the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In “Same-Sex Complementarity: A Theology of Marriage,” Eugene Rogers writes,
“Marriage…is for sanctification, a means by which God can bring a couple to himself by turning their limits to their good. And no conservative I know has seriously argued that same-sex couples need sanctification any less than opposite-sex couples do.”
Same-sex relationships can be unhealthy, abusive, self-serving, and sinful. But, then again, so can straight relationships. And, also like straight relationships, same-sex relationships can be motivated and defined by Christ-like devotion, service, and love.
And while the odyssey of gay Christians will always be a minority experience, it may come as a shock to learn that 48% of those who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual also identified as Christian.
In a cultural moment marked by increased religious and political polarization, gay Christians are in a unique position to bridge ideological gaps while powerfully testifying to the unconditional love of our Creator.
In Torn, Justin Lee writes,
“When it comes to sharing our faith, we have more credibility because of what we’ve been through, and we know the reasons many people outside the church are so resistant to our culture’s version of Christianity. If Christians in our culture are killing Christianity, the gay Christians just might be the ones who are able to save it.”
God’s always had a tendency to meet people where they’re at and little by little draw them forward to a greater understanding of dignity, respect, and inclusion. In the Bible, people’s minds are constantly being blown as they learn that God’s plans for their family, tribe, or culture are so much wider and grander than they anticipated. And this (sometimes painful) process of drawing us forward continues to this day.
Throughout history, Christians have been periodically challenged – by advances in science, human and civil rights, or gender equality – to reconsider our “clear” interpretation of Scripture or reflect on our preconceived notions of the Divine’s will.
Gay teenagers are one of the most at-risk demographics for suicide. Compared to heterosexual youth, LGB youth are 5x more likely to attempt suicide. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults “who report higher levels of family rejection during adolescence” are 8.4x more likely to report having attempted suicide, 5.9x more likely to report high levels of depression, and 3.4x more likely to use illegal drugs. Despite only 5% of the U.S. population identifying as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, nearly 40% of homeless youth served by homeless shelters identify as LGBTQ.
If our theology leaves so many shattered lives, broken hearts, and dead bodies in its wake, can we really consider it “good theology” without sacrificing some of our humanity?
Interlude III (Concluded): Ryan
Seeking a change in scenery, Ryan moved to another state to pursue a higher degree at a university. In an effort to reign in his fears and anxiety around his sexuality, he began seeing a Christian counselor, but he found the sessions unhelpful and lacking. Meanwhile, he plugged into a small church recently planted in the area.
“I kept my struggles with same-sex attraction a secret because I didn’t want it to define who I was in my new community,” Ryan said. “But it just reached a point where I couldn’t keep on pretending.”
Ryan came out to his pastor a few months later. While holding to a traditional view of marriage and sexuality, Ryan said his response was “so genuinely accepting and loving.”
“I really didn’t feel judged at all,” Ryan said. “He got me connected with a group of married men in the church who also struggled with same-sex attraction. I grew more comfortable telling people about my sexuality.”
Despite his newfound relief and freedom, Ryan experienced some pushback from his Christian community. In one instance, a roommate admonished him for using the word “gay” to describe himself – even though Ryan had committed to celibacy. He also noticed male friendships tended to drift apart when he told that person he was gay. And people would casually make hurtful and misguided statements like, “Well, you only have to meet one girl!” as an encouragement to not “give up” on the possibility of marriage.
“There is a furious lack of compassion from the greater Church in this conversation,” Ryan said. “Part of it is fueled by identity politics and the Church’s desire to win the ‘Culture War’ – whatever that means. But I think a big contributing factor is the fact that the proliferation of the nuclear family is the only way a lot of churches know how to tell people how to be good Christians.”
Ryan admits that he’s not 100% sold on the affirming or non-affirming position. In between finishing his graduate degree and working for his church, he finds time to read the latest theological takes on homosexuality and Christianity – from both sides.
“I’ve exhaustively researched this issue, and I’ve found both the affirming and non-affirming sides lacking in logical or academic rigor,” Ryan said. “It’s extremely frustrating, and I fear that any decision I make on the matter for myself will be biased.”
While he believes he’s reached a point where he can separate homophobia from someone’s non-affirming stance, Ryan frequently feels like an outsider and exile from both communities related to his identity.
“No one wants to hear from the gay Christian who isn’t sure if he wants to be gay or not,” Ryan said. “Conservatives view me as toeing the line on heresy, and liberals see my uncertainty as damaging to other people. I feel caught in the middle of this toxic ‘You’re part of the problem if you disagree with me‘ culture.”
Today, Ryan describes himself as “cautiously non-affirming” and remains committed to lifelong celibacy. However, he acknowledges the possibility that may not always be the case but said that any life decision on the matter would be motivated by a desire to glorify God.
“I’m genuinely seeking to find God’s will on this matter as it applies to my life,” Ryan said. “In the interim, I’m pursuing Scripture and trying to live graciously. But, to be honest, I’m just tired of living in a state of ambiguity.”
Exitlude III: Kaleidoscope
A friend once described the process by which someone changes their mind on a big issue similar to the way in which a miner cracks a large boulder. The man stands atop a house-sized rock and pounds a single stake into it with a heavy hammer. On the outside, it looks as if the boulder remains unscathed. But, on the inside, a spiderweb of fractures cleave through the boulder’s innards like a shock of lightning. The boulder is ready to break.
I can think of multiple cracks and fissures in my own journey, from friendships and books that challenged my preconceptions, to stirring pieces of media and art that transported me to different worlds.
One of those is the song “Rejoice” by 23-year-old singer/songwriter Julien Baker.
Baker grew up in an evangelical household in Tennessee. She knew she was gay from a young age, and she wrestled valiantly against drug addiction and abuse.
And her song “Rejoice” is a worship song unlike anything I’d heard before.
To this day, I can’t listen to “Rejoice” without my eyes flooding with tears.
As a heterosexual male, I never had to worry about coming out to my parents. I never had to wonder if my sexuality would affect my employment viability or career opportunities. I never felt shame or fear as I held the hand of someone I loved in public.
It’s very telling that the three gay men I interviewed for Life In Technicolor – despite (or maybe because of) being active in Christian communities – asked me to change their names to hide their identities.
After being burned out of traditional models of church for the better part of a year, my wife and I visited an affirming church. It was one of those mainline protestant churches that’s been affirming since the 1970s. They have a woman pastor, and some of their congregants marched in the Civil Rights Movement with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
There was zero stage production, no unified branding, and a refreshing lack of marketing jargon. No one seemed to care if I was entertained or if they were “relevant” enough. The pastor shed real tears from the pulpit and hugged the necks of everyone who came down for communion.
The congregation represented a cross-section of humanity that reached across racial, gender, and class divides. We worshipped alongside gay couples and their adopted children, the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick, the downtrodden and the disabled.
It was a kaleidoscope of unconditional love – a place where “Everyone is Welcome!” wasn’t just a slogan slapped on a website, but a promise seared into the very heart of a community.
The experience at that church brought to mind a quote by Henri Nouwen, a Dutch theologian who wrestled with his sexuality for his entire life:
“To be chosen as the Beloved of God is something radically different. Instead of excluding others, it includes others. Instead of rejecting others as less valuable, it accepts others in their own uniqueness. Our minds have great difficulty in coming to grips with such a reality. Maybe our minds will never understand it. Perhaps it is only our hearts that can accomplish this.”
I know some of my readers would consider that church a den of sin and would rather see those gay couples divorce and commit to celibacy than have their “lifestyle” affirmed in a place of worship – and I know that because that used to be me. But while my own journey isn’t without its false starts and missteps, that’s just not a place I can get to anymore.
I’m not at a place where I can answer every question or rejoinder (and I never will be), but the more I’m becoming okay with that.
From private messages I received, I know several gay Christians have been following along with Life in Technicolor.
To those special readers, I want to leave you with a quote by theologian Frederick Buechner:
“The grace of God means something like this: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are here because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.”
Gay, straight, bisexual, and/or celibate, God knew you before you were born and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. You’re not an abomination. You’re not an affliction to be cured. You’re not a liability. You’re a beloved child of God. And no one should be allowed to take that relationship away from you.
Don’t give up on Jesus. Open and affirming faith communities exist. And they’re vibrant and wonderful. And we need you. The Body of Christ isn’t complete without your presence. Along with your story. And your voice. And your courage. And your gifts. And your art. And your passion. And your perseverance in the face of unimaginable odds. And your heart.
An invaluable resource was CounterPoint’s Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church for an academically accessible and thoughtfully written debate between four Biblical scholars. Also of help was the NIV First-Century Study Bible, NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, and Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People.
God and the Gay Christian – Matthew Vines
Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate – Justin Lee
UnClobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality – Colby Martin
Bible, Gender, Sexuality – James V. Brownson
“The Bible was ‘clear’…” and “An Evangelical’s Response to Homosexuality” – Rachel Held Evans (Blog post)
“Homosexuality” – Frederick Buechner (Blog post)
Blue Babies Pink – B.T. Harmann (Blog series)
LGBTQ – The Liturgists (podcast)
People to Be Loved – Preston Sprinkle
Good Faith – David Kinnaman
What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality? – Kevin DeYoung
Is God Anti-Gay? – Sam Allberry
Jesus and the Gay Community – Jon Tyson, Church of the City (sermon podcast)