Between Creeds and Criticism. A Blog by Nick Quient.
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
"Ask a Gay Christian. . ."
Rachel Held Evans interviewed Justin Lee, director of the Gay Christian Network. Its a very respectful dialogue with some hard questions and answers. Below:
Last week I introduced you to Justin Lee, the director of The Gay Christian Network (GCN), a nonprofit organization serving lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Christians and those who love them. Justin is also the director of "Through My Eyes," a documentary about young gay Christians, and the co-host of GCN Radio, a popular podcast on issues of faith and sexuality. He blogs at Crumbs from the Communion Table.
Hundreds of questions rolled in from a wide variety of perspectives, with the top three questions “liked” over 100 times. Justin certainly rose to the occasion, answering your questions thoughtfully and humbly. I hope you find his responses as helpful as I did.
From Justin: Hello, everyone! I'm honored to have this opportunity, and I'm so grateful to Rachel for making it possible. Thanks, Rachel!
As soon as I read through the questions Rachel sent, two things were immediately obvious to me: First, you guys are passionate about this issue and have a ton of great questions! Second, some of the questions were really long. Yikes! I don't want to bore you all to tears, but I also know that short, bumper-sticker answers to deep questions aren't very helpful. So I've tried to be concise, I've edited a few of the questions for brevity, and I'm committing right now to stick around here for at least the next week to keep answering questions in the comments.
From (reader) Justin B.: Before you came to peace with your sexual orientation, did you ever try to "cure" your homosexuality, whether through prayer or some type of program? I'd also be interested in hearing more about your story, such as when you first discovered you were gay, how long you waited before you told people, that kind of thing.
This is the perfect question to ask, and it's a question I think we Christians should be more in the habit of asking the people we encounter in our lives: "Tell me your story."
Why was the woman at the well so impressed with Jesus? It was because he knew her story. That alone made her eager to listen to him and bring others to do the same.
Our God is a personal God, and as the Body of Christ, we have an obligation to represent God by taking an interest in people's lives and stories. Right now, the church's reputation (especially in the gay community) is that we're a bunch of holier-than-thou jerks who are quick to preach and dole out advice but slow to take an interest in people. That's a reputation we need to reverse. Yes, we are called to take moral stands on issues, but we ought to be known first and foremost for our love.
My story is long, but here's the short(ish) version.
I grew up in a loving Christian home, accepted Christ at a young age, attended a Southern Baptist church, and generally had a pretty awesome upbringing.
From the time I was young, Jesus Christ was—and continues to be—#1 in my life. My relationship with Him was life-giving in every sense of the word, and that's why I considered it so important to live out my faith. I got the nickname "God Boy" in high school because I was the Bible-toting goody two-shoes Christian who didn't smoke, drink, curse, have sex, or shut up about God!
My view of homosexuality was this: God created male and female for each other. Our bodies were designed to fit together in that way, and the Bible made it clear that while sexuality was a gift from God, using our sexuality in ways that were outside of God's design for it was a sin—whether that meant premarital sex, adultery, or homosexuality. My pro-gay friends called me a "homophobe" for this view, but I didn't hate or fear gay people; I simply believed that they were making a sinful choice with their lives, and that by speaking out in a loving way, I could call their attention to it and help bring them back to God. That's what we're supposed to do as Christians, right?
I, of course, wasn't gay. At least, that's what I thought.
But I did have a secret I was going to take to my grave.
Like other guys my age, when I'd hit puberty, I had begun to experience sexual attractions. No surprise there. But one thing was different: while all of my guy friends were starting to notice girls for the first time, I was starting to notice guys.
At first, I didn't worry about it. I figured this was just part of the process and that my attractions would eventually switch to girls. But they didn't. Instead, the feelings just kept getting stronger and stronger. Even if I could make it through the school day without thinking about guys, I'd go to bed at night and dream about guys. I'd wake up each morning feeling dirty and disgusted with myself.
Straight guys, do you remember what it was like to be 16 years old with raging hormones, completely unable to get your mind off of girls no matter what you did? Well, that was my life too, except it was my male classmates who made my hormones go wild, not my female classmates.
As you might expect, I was horrified by this. I couldn't tell anyone, and I didn't know what was wrong with me. It got to the point that I was crying myself to sleep, night after night, begging God to take away these feelings.
It wasn't until I was 18 (and dating a beautiful girl I had no attraction to whatsoever) that I finally realized there was a word for people like me: "gay."
Even then, though, I was convinced it was a phase. I was sure that God didn't design me to be gay, so I looked into every Christian ministry I could find that offered to help gay people become straight. I was completely convinced that an "ex-gay" ministry, combined with therapy and prayer, would help me become attracted to women and put these other feelings behind me. After all, God can do anything!
The hard truth was that it doesn't work that way. Yes, God can do anything, but that doesn't mean God does do what we expect. I met so many people who had faith to move mountains and who had prayed and struggled their whole lives to become straight, but their attractions had still never changed. Even the national leaders and "success stories" of these change ministries privately admitted to me that they hadn't become straight. Yes, some of them had married a member of the opposite sex, but the "happily heterosexual" face they showed to the world was not the reality. I heard more tragic stories behind closed doors than I can possibly convey.
As I turned to my church and the Christians I respected most to get their support, things only got worse. Christian groups kicked me out or turned their backs on me when they learned that I was gay, even though I told them that I didn't want to be and that I hadn't even acted on my feelings! I learned that that one magic word, "gay," had the power to make Christians turn unkind and uncompassionate without even realizing they were doing it. That was the realization that led me to create a safe space on the internet for people who want to live out their faith and explore these difficult questions, even if they come to conclusions that are different from my own. That's where The Gay Christian Network came from.
From KMR: When you first realized you were gay, what verses in the Bible did you struggle with the most? And how did you reconcile them in order to find peace?
There are a handful of passages in the Bible that directly address homosexuality in some form, and all of them are pretty negative.
In Genesis 19, the residents of the wicked city of Sodom threaten to gang rape two foreigners (actually angels in disguise). They don't succeed, but that threat of male-male rape is why we have the term "sodomy" today.
In Judges 19, an almost identical story takes place in the town of Gibeah. Again, a (male) foreigner is threatened with gang rape, but in the end, the crowd rapes and murders his (female) concubine instead. The ending and other context suggests that Sodom and Gibeah probably weren't gay cities, but did use threats and violence to intimidate foreigners.
In Leviticus 18-20, the death penalty is prescribed for a man who "lies with a man as with a woman." This is part of a set of rules given by God to Moses to keep the Israelites set apart. Some of the rules we Christians still follow today; others we don't.
In Romans 1, Paul is making an argument that all of us are sinners in need of grace. As an example of the folly of turning from God, Paul references a group of people who turned from God to worship idols and engage in "shameful" and "unnatural" behavior including gay sex. Some scholars view this as an indictment on cultures that fail to condemn homosexuality in any form; others argue that Paul is making an obvious allusion to the orgy-like rites practiced by the fertility cults of his day.
Finally, in 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10, Paul offhandedly uses an obscure Greek term when listing groups of sinners. Some scholars have translated it as "men who have sex with men," but others scholars dispute that translation. Adding to the confusion is a second term that appears in only one of those passages. The new NIV argues that these two terms should be taken together to refer to active and passive partners in male anal sex; the 1980s NIV translated the word as "male prostitutes"; and other Bibles and scholars have all sorts of different opinions.
All of these passages address sexual behavior, so when I first realized I was gay, none of them seemed relevant to me. I was attracted to the same sex, but I wasn't sexually active and I didn't have any plans to be. My plan was just to find a way to become straight so that I could be attracted to a woman and get married.
Once I discovered that it was unlikely I would ever become attracted to women, I realized with despair that this meant I would have to be celibate and alone for the rest of my life. I was willing to do it if that was God's call for me, but the idea of being alone my whole life was a scary, sobering thought. Some people deal well with that; I'm not one of those people.
It made me wonder: what was God actually condemning in these passages? Was it the relationship itself that aroused God's anger, or was it just the sex? Could God approve of a loving, non-sexual but committed relationship between two people? As I studied these passages, another question arose I was almost afraid to even ask: Was it even possible that these passages were condemning issues of the day like idolatrous orgies and temple prostitution, and not loving, Christ-centered relationships at all?
I wrestled with that question for a very long time. On one hand, it's easy to see how each of those passages actually addresses an issue other than committed relationships. On the other hand, I couldn't deny that all of the passages that explicitly mentioned homosexuality did so in a negative light. Then again, if we say that commandments for women to wear head coverings or be silent in church are culture-bound and don't apply anymore, isn't it possible the same could be true in this case? If so, how do we know? If not, how do we know? Are we all just reading the Bible to confirm what we already believe?
In the end, I decided that I needed to be consistent in my approach to the Bible: whatever standards I used for deciding this needed to be the same standards I would take to other issues. I spent years prayerfully studying how Jesus and the New Testament writers used Scripture, what the Bible has to say about the nature of sin in general, Jesus' teachings about the law and the Sabbath, Paul's teachings on sexual morality and marriage, and how the early church resolved controversial issues of their day. The more I studied, the more convinced I became that we Christians had applied a different standard to the homosexuality texts than we had to other Scriptural texts, and that condemning Christ-centered relationships solely based on gender was actually inconsistent with biblical teaching.
This conclusion shocked me, and I recognize I'm still in the minority, albeit a rapidly growing one. Some of my very close friends have prayerfully come to the opposite conclusion, so I don't pretend this debate is at all settled. I can honestly say, though, that after all this prayer and study, I am fully convinced of my position, and I believe that my approach to Scripture now is far more consistent than it was before.
I suspect that this will point spark hundreds more questions: What about Adam and Eve? What biblical passages support gay relationships? Couldn't this approach be used to justify any sexual sin? There's way more to talk about than I have space for! A few years ago, I wrote some initial thoughts on the subject, and I'll be writing more about this on my blog, so hang onto those questions!
From Karl: Is it possible in your view for someone to disagree with you - to believe that the Bible consistently teaches sexual activity is intended for heterosexual marriage only - and for that person to not be a bigot, homophobe, motivated by ignorance or fear?
Absolutely! Some of my best friends disagree with me on this issue. I recognize that we are all fallible human beings, which means that either (or both) of us could be wrong, but that doesn't mean we aren't sincerely trying to seek the truth.
There are bigots who use religious language to justify their hatred, but that doesn't mean that anyone who has a view I disagree with is a bigot. There are also many compassionate, loving Christians who sincerely want to be able to give their blessing to their gay friends' relationships but are unable to because they believe the Bible forbids those relationships. I absolutely respect that.
The same is true on the other side. There are many people who claim they believe the Bible but haven't really made any attempt to see what it has to say on the subject; they're just content to have any excuse to do what they want. But I'd hope that anyone who knows me can see that I am not one of those people. I am sincerely seeking to do God's will with all my heart. If I am wrong, I am sincerely wrong. I'm not just looking for excuses.
All of us, on both sides, need to be willing to assume good motives for those we disagree with. We don't have to agree with each other to make a genuine attempt to understand each other.
From Laura: As a theology student, I often have real problems with the theology I find in gay-affirming writing, teaching, and churches. Phrases like "I deserve to be happy" and "If God made me this way why should I be ashamed?" really don't jive with my theological convictions. Do you feel any major theological tensions between orthodox faith and the rhetoric of the community of gay Christians? And if so, how do you go about correcting theological error in a community that is already so wounded and vulnerable because they have grown up battered by "biblical" teaching?
This is a really great question.
I, too, get frustrated with a lot of gay-affirming theology. A lot of it is poorly thought-through and doesn't reflect a Christian outlook.
For example, I hate the argument that "God made me this way [attracted to the same sex] so it can't be a sin [to have a same-sex relationship]."
That's a terrible argument. As Christians, we believe that we have all kinds of inborn temptations and desires that are wrong for us to act on. Just because someone is born with a certain desire doesn't mean it's automatically okay for them to follow through on it.
I actually do believe that there are great Bible-based arguments for the church to support people in committed same-sex relationships. This, however, is not one of them.
(By the way, I should point out that there are many, many gay Christians out there with really strong Christian theology, so the theology you've read doesn't reflect us all.)
The reverse is also true, of course. I hear lots of people on the other side make equally poor arguments, such as, "People can't be born gay, because the Bible says homosexuality is a sin." That's just the same terrible argument in reverse, and it ends up with well-meaning Christians accusing gay people of being liars when we say we didn't choose to be gay. That only pushes people further away from the gospel and makes the church look like it's in denial.
Your second question is where it gets especially tricky. You're absolutely right that a lot of gay people are incredibly wounded, having been theologically "battered" over and over by misguided Christians. I cannot possibly convey how much damage Christians have done to our own cause by approaching the gay community in hurtful ways.
This damage, then, makes it very difficult for churches to offer even appropriate and loving correction—the kind we all need. Have you ever seen a dog that's been abused its whole life? They run and cower in the corner if you even try to approach them to pet them. A lot of us feel like that when dealing with conservative Christians, frankly.
At this point, the best solution is for Christians to err on the side of being loving when dealing with people who have been abused by the church. Often, you'll have to bite your tongue on the theological error and focus on building relationships. That correction may be necessary, but it will have to come from people who have built the necessary trust first.
As a gay Christian leader, I view it as part of my responsibility to talk about those hard things our community doesn't want to face. People can accept those challenges from me in a way that they might not from someone else. But we still have a long way to go, and the only long-term solution is for the church to get its act together and learn to approach this issue far more lovingly than we have.
From Katy: My cousin, whom I love, is a gay Christian…He flaunts his sexuality. His Facebook profile oftentimes has pictures from parties or Halloween where he is in underwear or something else skimpy. If I posted pics of myself dressed that way, it would be considered raunchy and inappropriate, but it's accepted for him to present himself that way. When I have brought this distinction up with people, I have been told it's part of the "gay culture" but I don't buy that. So what’s your view, as a Christian gay, of sexuality? Is sex just for "marriage" because you are a Christian?
You didn't say how old your cousin is, but my guess is that this is something he'll grow out of.
I don't believe that the standards for sexual behavior should be any different for gay Christians than they are for straight Christians. I grew up believing that sex is something you save for marriage, so even after I realized I was gay and came to a gay-affirming conclusion from the Bible, I still decided I would wait until I met the right person and got married before having sex. Not all Christians (gay or straight) believe in waiting until marriage, and studies show that even those who do believe in it, usually fail to live up to their own standards. But my point is that the standards ought to be the same.
(By "marriage," by the way, I'm referring to a commitment before God, whether or not the government recognizes it. C.S. Lewis said that there should be a distinction between civil marriage and church marriage, and I agree.)
Of course, I know a lot of gay and straight Christians who behave in ways I wouldn't approve of. I do think this is a bigger issue in the gay world, though, and I believe that just shows how important the church is in our lives.
Let me explain what I mean.
One of the church's functions in society is to offer boundaries. Why don't we just go around having sex with anyone we want to? Partly because of the influence of the church. When it functions as it should, the church offers us reasonable boundaries to help us live holy lives. We say to young men, for instance, "The sex drive you feel is normal, and I know at times it can feel overwhelming, but don't let it control you. It may be tempting to have sex with pretty girls now, but it's far more fulfilling to wait."
Do all the straight young men wait? No. But the church sets the expectation.
Sometimes, though, the church gets it really wrong. When a young man is gay, the message he gets isn't to wait until the right time; it's that there will never be a right time. Not only that; he's told that his sex drive itself—not even lust but just the temptation he feels—is a horrible sin, something that may condemn him to hell even if he never acts on it.
Kids who hear these messages feel trapped. They've been made to feel that they're condemned even if they follow all the rules, and many grow to hate themselves.
What often happens, then, is one of two things. Either they internalize the shame and become depressed and withdrawn, or they rebel against the shame, coming out and in many cases making their sexuality the core of their identity for a while.
You know those gay people who can't stop talking about being gay? The ones who always have to be front and center in the pride parade wearing a hyper-sexualized outfit and shouting loudly about how proud they are of their sexuality? Often, this is their way of rebelling against many years shame. The good Christian boy who comes out and suddenly is on Facebook in his underwear may well be trying to escape from the years of shame you never even knew he felt. That's not always the case, but it often is. Once people have fully reconciled themselves and grown confident with who they are, they rarely post underwear pictures on Facebook.
There is, though, a very sex-obsessed gay culture out there, and it grew largely out of that kind of rebellion in the 60s and 70s. Just like straight Christians need the church to offer moral guidance about sex that is different from what the world offers, gay Christians need that too. If most churches won't welcome them, some gay Christians end up turning to a secular gay culture to see how they should live, and that really needs to be the church's responsibility.
From Ellie: Do you know any homosexual Christians that have chosen to remain single and celibate? How well do they seem to cope with that? What would you advise a person who is gay but believes that homosexual relationships and activity would be wrong?
Yes! I know plenty of them!
The organization I run, The Gay Christian Network, has two theological "sides." We call them "Side A" and "Side B." One side supports gay Christian marriage, while the other side encourages gay Christians to remain celibate.
It's an incredibly challenging path. Incredibly, incredibly challenging. But it is, of course, the best option for a gay person who believes the Bible condemns gay relationships, and I know people who are committed to it and thriving.
We at GCN believe it's vital that we welcome those people and offer them support and fellowship so they don't have to endure the journey alone. The broader church, sadly, has all too often failed to offer any kind of support for them. I would like to see that change.
From Dawn: Given all the nasty rhetoric that has been aimed at the LGBT community -- and in that sense, at you personally -- by Christian and Christian political leaders, what is it about Christianity itself that's so compelling that you haven't been turned off completely by so many of its messengers?
One word: Jesus.
The church is human, and we make mistakes. Sometimes we don't represent God very well at all. But Jesus represented God perfectly as the incarnation of God. He loved the people his culture didn't love, he interacted with people he wasn't supposed to interact with, and he refused to distance himself from the people others called "sinners." Jesus' harsh words were aimed at the religious leaders of his day who, in their zeal for correct doctrine, were pushing people away from God. He didn't run for office or yell at sinners through a bullhorn. He loved, healed, and fed people, and then he let them beat him and hang him on a cross.
That's my God.
From Alise: Hi Justin! Been a fan for a while, since my best friend Tina turned me onto your site. Thank you for the safe place that you have for LGBTQ Christians. Your site was part of my journey toward gay affirming and I'm thankful to you for that as well. My question: Can a church that is not affirming still be welcoming to an LGBTQ Christian? What kinds of actions would make you feel more welcome, even if the church still believed/taught that gay relationships are sinful?
Thanks for the kind words, Alise!
I think whether a church feels "welcoming" depends a lot on the person being welcomed. I can say whether I feel welcome in a particular church, but that doesn't mean someone else will.
Personally, I would not feel welcome in a church that teaches that I chose to be gay (I didn't!) or that condemns me simply for admitting I'm attracted to guys. However, I have felt welcomed in so-called "Side B" churches that condemn gay relationships but still welcome gay people and encourage them to remain celibate. Many gay people would not feel welcome there.
I disagree with the "Side B" viewpoint, but I used to agree with it, so I totally understand where it's coming from. Since I'm single at the moment, it doesn't really affect me whether or not a church I'm attending condemns gay relationships. What I care about the most is whether I agree with the church's theology on major issues and whether the church understands that I didn't choose to be gay and is ready to fully welcome me as a gay Christian.
However, suppose I meet an amazing guy, fall in love, and want to commit my life to him? Then it would be a lot trickier. Would I continue attending a church that teaches that the most important relationship in my life is an abomination to God? Would they even want me there? I know many gay couples in that situation, and many others who wouldn't even consider a church like that out of respect for their own relationship.
Even the church I've described, though, is rarer than I'd like. Many, many churches still teach or imply that gay people choose to be gay or that we could become straight if we just prayed enough or had the right therapy. That's the quickest way to make me feel unwelcome.
The quickest way to make me feel welcome? Listen to my story and be my friend.
Terry asks: As the parent of gay son who has left the church, what advice can you offer me as to how I can encourage him to relook at his beliefs in Jesus and the church?
Tami has a son in a similar situation, adding: At this point, he has returned to a faith of sorts, but has no use for "the church." We are at a loss for how to encourage him in this area because "the church" varies from un-accepting to just plain mean. Would you have advice for how we can better love and support our son in the area of growing in his faith?
This is a really tough one because of the battering problem I mentioned earlier. I find that most Christians are totally unaware of how mean the church can be to gay people, and so they don't know that they need to do anything to fix it. As long as it's not fixed, it's going to be hard to give gay people a reason to come back to the church.
(Incidentally, if you would like to know more about why I say the church is so mean to gay people, check out this documentary. I promise you won't look at the issue the same way again.)
One possibility is to consider getting involved with a group of gay Christians. My organization has aconference each January that brings a number of gay Christians along with their parents and/or friends together in a nonthreatening atmosphere of worship and fellowship. People tell us every year that it helps re-energize their faith, and there are lots of 20- and 30-somethings, so Tami, your son should feel right at home. (You didn't say how old your son is, Terry, but I'm sure he'd feel right at home too!)
There may also be groups of gay and affirming Christians in your area. GCN has local groups you can connect with through our message board, but there may be other groups and/or affirming churches in your area where he might feel welcome. Feel free to call our office and someone on our staff can help you find something in your area if you can't find it online.
If your son is resistant to any kind of Christian fellowship right now, my advice is not to push it. Give him time, and keep him in prayer. He may need time to process his frustration with the church, and God doesn't stop pursuing us just because we're not in a church on Sunday morning. As a parent, you might even decide to get connected with an online or offline fellowship of gay Christians yourself, just to better understand the community; this would surely get your son's attention! In the end, of course, he'll have to make his own decisions, but we can do our best to make the church a more welcoming place for when he's ready.
From Adam: Will you accept our sincere apology?
You mean for asking so many tough questions? Only if you'll accept mine for writing such long answers!
Seriously, I appreciate the question, though I'd be hypocritical to say "yes" and not acknowledge that I, too, said the very same things in the past. I hurt people with my words when I thought I was being loving, so now that I have a new perspective on it all, I completely understand when others say the things to me that I used to say to the gay people I met. (I guess I deserved it!)
I owe an apology to all the people I've hurt, and I of course offer my unconditional forgiveness to anyone who may have hurt me. We all make mistakes, and we're all trying to stand for what's right. It's just that sometimes we don't have all the facts even when we think we do.
So let's stay in conversation even though we don't all agree. There are many more things I could say, and I know there are many more questions out there. I'll do my best to answer them here and on my blog over the coming days and weeks.
Thanks, everyone, for your fantastic questions! And please, keep in touch! In addition to the blog, you can find me on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. I get to do this kind of stuff for a living, so I'm happy to help any way that I can.