Before getting into the substance of this essay, I want to mention how little I care for much of the terminology I’m going to use.
As a Christian humanist, there are two sources for my view of human beings: The image of God in creation, and the image of humanity in the incarnation/resurrection of Jesus. I am resistant and reluctant to speak of human beings through other identifiers, such as race or sexual preference. For example, I don’t believe terms such as “black” or “gay” accurately communicate what is most important about a human being.
A person who is sexually attracted to the same gender or has participated in sexual activities with the same gender is exactly what such sentences imply. It is wrong to use terms that imply those labeled are defined by their actions or feelings. It is a particularly postmodern twist to assert that someone’s identity should come from a label assigned by a group.
We are persons made in God’s image; persons for whom Jesus was incarnated, sacrificed and raised. These identities should dominate in all our understandings of human beings. To use other labels runs a serious risk of dehumanizing those we should be treating with the same respect as Jesus himself demonstrated and embodied.
I know some of my readers are going to have a volatile reaction to this essay. Be certain that I will not tolerate any derogatory or hateful expressions in the comments.
What do gays and lesbians hear when they listen to evangelicals?
1. They aren’t there.
Many evangelicals speak about gays and lesbians as if they are not present in church or ministry gatherings.
The number of persons in society who would be reasonably classified as homosexuals is a controversial discussion. Numbers range from 15% to 2%. While there is reason to doubt the research that provided the much-quoted Kinsey number of 10%, my experience tells me that the real number may be closer to the number of people who, at one time or another, define themselves as primarily sexually oriented to the same gender. In my work with young people, I’ve been continually convinced that the number is perhaps 3-5%, and in my culture, I’d defend that as accurate. In other geographic and cultural settings, such as urban or university areas, I would be more inclined to the 10% number.
The important fact is this: There are no places in evangelicalism–whether over coffee in a university setting or in church in a small southern town–where we can afford to act or speak as if homosexuals are not present. They are, and most of us know this.
Recently, a student who had been at our ministry for six years came out while at college. I was not surprised, but I had not suspected. I was reminded that sexual identities are in flux during some phases of life. Other people are in a struggle regarding sexual identity that they cannot acknowledge. Seldom do any of us correctly predict the person, like my former student, who “makes a decision” after he of she is safely out of range of evangelical influence.
So we cannot speak and act as if homosexuals aren’t there.
2. Their sexual orientation is entirely chosen.
Despite the fact that no intelligent person would make the case that heterosexuality is entirely chosen, it is common to say this about homosexuality. The fact is that human sexual attraction is a highly complex mixture of factors and no one, most certainly not a preacher, is going to make authoritative pronouncements on why someone is attracted to the same gender in any situation.
The likelihood that sexual attraction contains unchosen factors such as genetic predisposition and early psychological orientation is high. While social and experiential factors are also influential, we can’t assume that every person experiencing homosexual attraction is able to follow a prescription of change with equal success. Like so many other human behaviors, a person convinced it is wrong to be sexually attracted to a person of the same gender needs a network of support, encouragement and acceptance. This kind of support begins with a compassionate understanding that some aspects of sexuality just “are,” and won’t be explained away, prayed away or cast out in an exorcism. They will be lived with.
3. Gays and lesbians are the political enemies of Christians.
The development of political activism among Christians is a two-edged sword. One of the negative edges is the tendency to see persons and groups through the lens of political preferences first, in terms of politics secondarily or not at all.
Gays and lesbians who find themselves in the midst of evangelical Christians will hear about the “homosexual agenda” being put forward as a genuine threat to the well-being of families and children, and a special threat to Christians. What are the chances that gays and lesbians hearing this threat announced are involved in the political actions described or even are sympathetic to them in any way at all? Very small, especially in most places.
The politicization of homosexuality is a real phenomenon that most homosexual activists would like us to understand and appreciate. But the church preaches the Gospel, and it is unwise to politically demonize those who need to hear the message because some members of that community are politically assertive.
4. Gays and lesbians must change (and want to change) their sexual orientation, not just pursue chastity.
A few months before he died, Christian writer Henri Nouwen stated that he was homosexual in orientation, but had always lived in chastity. This honest admission certainly caused some Christians to take a moment and think carefully about what they actually believed. Isn’t it necessary for homosexuals to change their orientation, become heterosexuals and be attracted to the opposite gender before they can be Christians?
The answer, of course, is no. Like every other sinner, sexual sinners of every kind are invited to repent and believe in the Good News. No specific results of that repentance can be assigned to a schedule or scorecard. Repentance is an imperfect struggle for all of us, especially those of us who struggle with sinful addictions and life-dominating sins.
The church must be a place where sinners are forgiven, not given a list of demanded changes. Christ himself is the Lord of sanctification. The goal of purity and chastity is hardly achieved by any of us, and it is unfair and unbiblical to assign special conditions to the repentant homosexual.
5. Gays and lesbians do not consider themselves to be Christians, and those that do are not really Christians.
Many evangelicals, apparently operating on the stereotype that all gays and lesbians are hostile to Christianity, consistently say that gays and lesbians cannot be Christians.
Certainly one of the dilemmas that I feel most personally in presenting Christianity is the responsibility to invite all persons to repent and believe the Good News. At the same time, I would not say less than scripture says about the Kingdom of God and sexual sin.
Unrepentant gays and lesbians who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior present a dilemma for evangelicals. Most evangelicals, like myself, believe the teaching of scripture is clear in regard to the subjects of marriage and sexuality. Most of us do not believe these teachings are culturally conditioned, but reflect basic Trinitarian sacredness in the entire area of sexual relationships.
On the other hand, evangelicals like myself also understand that many gay and lesbian Christians read the scriptures differently than we do, and have a serious and sincere personal faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. It is nothing less than heart-breaking and painful when these values come into conflict in regard to our relationships with individuals for whom we have personal respect and affection.
I would not be a member of a church or a denomination that compromised in any way on Hebrews 13:4 or the sacredness of sexuality as a reflection of the Trinity. Nor would I want to be associated with those who rejected the professions of faith of genuine fellow Christians. It is a painful and presumptuous thing to refuse to recognize a fellow sinner as a Christian. We should be extremely reluctant to do so, even if we find ourselves being accused of being too gracious by some and too narrow by others.
Like many other evangelicals, I have no resolution to this issue. I will be offensive to gays and lesbians when I interpret what I believe scripture teaches. I will be offensive to many evangelicals when I consider gay and lesbian Christians my brothers and sisters.
Speaking only for myself, gays and lesbians–like all of us who are accountable to God for the gift of sexuality–will hear both sides of the Biblical message.
6. The reporting of sexual scandals involving gays and lesbians is done with an unmistakable agenda.
One of the inevitable results of the information age is that anyone who wants to know the worst behavior of any group can gather that information easily. If one chooses not to be judicious and cautious with such information, it is possible to make every member of a group guilty by association.
The kinds of associations made in the minds of already biased persons regarding the likelihood of homosexual persons molesting children, for example, are often irresponsible and slanderously unfair (especially in comparison to the behavior of upstanding, churchgoing heterosexuals.) It is wrong to make these associations.
For example, saying that some gays somewhere have hundreds of sexual partners has little to do with the behavior of gays that I might know. As a statement of statistical truth, it cannot be applied in a determinative way to any individual. The average preacher is well aware of the extremes of sexual sin that probably occur among heterosexuals, but few would find it as easy to speak about internet porn addiction as promiscuity in the gay community.
What this says to the gay community is simple: evangelicals aren’t interested in the truth as much as they are interested in an emotional response. There is an agenda to how we process such facts and stories into communication. I have pointed out a similar agenda in the reporting of the priest sexual abuse scandals in comparison to heterosexual sexual abuse among evangelical youth ministers and and clergy.
7. We don’t get how hard it is to be gay among evangelicals.
I really can’t add anything to that. It’s been a long journey for many of us to get past what our evangelical/fundamentalist environment gave us permission to say and think about other human beings as long as we could attach “homo” or “queer” to the sentence. It was shameful, and I’m grateful for those who have helped me get past that kind of sin to repentance and a love for those Jesus loves.
My words and the words of many other evangelicals have made it more difficult for some gays to hear the Gospel. I hope I can repent of that error better in the future. Just in inappropriate humor alone, I’ve got plenty to answer for.
8. The culture war more than the Gospel.
Undeniable. And many evangelicals like it that way and are ready to redefine evangelicalism into a culture war movement to remake moral life. The “protection” of children from the aspects of the culture they despise, oppose and fear is becoming the main business of many evangelicals, complete with accompanying rhetoric of revival, end times conflicts and spiritual warfare waged against, among others, gays and their supporters.
If you believe in a Jesus-shaped spirituality and the Grace Story more than the “I’m Good” Story, the choice of the culture war over the Gospel is a disastrous development.
One last note that is very important.
Many evangelical young people no longer share the attitudes of their parents and grandparents toward this issue. If you don’t know that, you aren’t paying attention. I am not talking about the all evangelical young people or the most conservative of them. I am talking about a significant shift in attitude that has come about, like it or not, by a lifetime of exposure to a far more visible, vocal and self-defining gay community.
These attitude changes may not go so far as to include reinterpretation of the Biblical teachings on sexuality and marriage, but they will have tremendous effects on the attitudes of younger Christians, new churches, political involvement and the overall view of how we deal with the issue of sexuality. I cannot see the concern, for example, for changing orientation as a requirement of repentance continuing into future generations with anything close to the same support.