So my challenge is this: If you identify as a follower of Christ who believes that all same-gender romantic relationships are sinful, can you at least acknowledge that that teaching has caused a lot of damage in the lives of real people—probably even people you know—and can you prove to me that you're not indifferent to that reality?
If, in fact, you are indifferent to that reality, then we have very different ideas about what it means to follow Jesus. But if you are not indifferent to that reality, then show me the fruit. Most of what I hear from the church on these issues is a deafening silence–even from people who I know to be full of love and care for all types of marginalized people—even from people who I know to be full of love and care for me!
I'm unashamedly "Side A" now—I believe that God does, in fact, bless same-sex relationships. However, I'm willing to live with honest disagreement, and if I see evidence that my non-affirming friends are willing to concede that the church is utterly failing those of us who identify as LGBTQ, and that they're willing to begin to right that wrong, I could be really passionate about helping them to find ways of staying true to their beliefs while working to change the message of the church and Christianity to bring real Good News, even to LGBTQ people!
If my non-affirming friends are willing to concede that the church is utterly failing those of us who identify as LGBTQ and are willing to begin to right that wrong, I could be really passionate about helping them to find ways of staying true to their beliefs while working to change the message of the church and Christianity to bring real Good News, even to LGBTQ people!
Personally, I feel incredibly fortunate to have never contemplated suicide, never faced rejection from my immediate family, never been bullied or teased because of my attraction to men. However, I have many friends for whom these situations are daily reality. And though my rejection has been fairly mild, I grew up in hidden personal torment—believing that I couldn't be gay, because I was a good Christian and my attractions were incompatible with Christian faith.
I couldn't tell anyone the struggles I was going through, because I would be labeled, teased, have my faith doubted. And I had tried so hard to change! I had prayed so much and cried out to God to change me. The only thing I knew to do was to try to trick everyone and hide who I was for as long as possible—and it mostly worked.
By the time I came out, I had lived with straight privilege for so long and had gained enough respect from the church community that some people actually still believed that my faith was real. Some started to question their earlier assumptions about gay people. Some quietly distanced themselves from me—being very polite to me, but greeting me less enthusiastically when they see me. My home church has stopped inviting me to lead music every time I come home (something that they had done every time I traveled home previously). I'm mostly loved and supported by a wonderful community of friends and believers in my circles, but I notice the places where the love and support has dropped off simply because I'm Side A gay. My story is nothing compared to a lot of my LGBTQ friends, but I've still been hurt by the church and by those who say they follow Christ.
So how can a non-affirming Christian start to share Good News with LGBTQ people? I have a few suggestions/challenges:
- Assume that there are LGBTQ people in your church. It's highly likely that there are, whether you know it or not. Be cognizant of that in all of your conversations about anything LGBTQ-related. Your youth are paying attention, and learning whether church is a safe place for them to bring their whole selves, or whether they need to fight who they are and hide who they are. "My church doesn't believe in gay people" may sound silly, but a lot of people believe it. They think they can pretend that this is an issue that they don't have to confront directly because it's "out there."
- Don't do anything to pressure people to come out. If they haven't come out yet, they probably haven't found the safety to do so. Do everything in your power to make sure your church and community are safe places for people to be honest about who they are—when they're ready.
- If someone you know, particularly a younger person, comes out as LGBTQ, reach out to them and let them know you care about them. Provide a place of safety for their questions and struggles.
- Don't be afraid to have real, honest conversations about differing beliefs on homosexuality. It's incredibly painful to me to be at the center of an issue that divides churches, denominations, family, and friends, but it's even more painful that so many people are afraid to even open up the conversation. Literally, people's lives are at stake when the church ignores this conversation. But too many seem indifferent to that fact. I understand the fear of being led astray or having your beliefs challenged when you're so convinced that you're right. Please try to acknowledge that people of good faith have wildly divergent views sometimes, and trust that the Holy Spirit can guide us, if not to uniformity, at least to unity. Whether from a place of affirmation or non-affirmation, please try to avoid saying, "I don't even know why we're having this conversation!" Those of us at the center of the debate can feel very hurt by that assertion.
- Pray. Pray from a place of humility. Pray for unity. Pray for guidance, both individually and corporately. Don't pray for others to see things your way—pray for all of us to see things God's way.
- Start with love. That sounds trite, but, after all, it is Jesus' first commandment. And it's always where Jesus started. Don't start the conversation with, "But Jesus said 'Go and sin no more!'" He did say that, but it's not where he started. In every interaction, with every person, Jesus started with love.
- Listen. Seek out and read/hear stories of people you know and people you don't know. When you know someone who comes out as LGBTQ, approach them with compassionate curiosity, not condemnation. You don't have to compromise your beliefs to understand how they may have faced rejection by the church. It's not your job to judge or convict them, but to love them and to do your best to understand them. Only when you've really tried to understand what they've experienced will you be able to speak Good News in a way that they'll be able to receive it.
- Don't try to compare someone else's same-sex attraction to your struggle with lust, or some other sin. It's not the same thing. If you don't understand how it's not the same thing, refer to my previous suggestion/challenge.
- Avoid saying things like "Well, we're all sinners, so…" While I understand the intent of trying to identify with another person in that way, it diminishes the depth of their experience and immediately reminds them that you believe something in the core of their identity is inherently sinful.
- This one is going to stretch some of you. If you ever happen to get invited to a gay wedding, then you're an important person in the life of the couple—and you should go. Staying home to protest the wedding won't convict them that they're living in sin; it will just show them that your personal piety is more important to you than your care for them. Chances are, they already know how you feel and what you believe, and they've taken the chance and invited you anyway, because they love you. But whether or not you go, please don't feel the need to write a letter to explain, excuse, or disclaim.
Please try to acknowledge that people of good faith have wildly divergent views sometimes, and trust that the Holy Spirit can guide us, if not to uniformity, at least to unity.
So, there are a few suggestions. But I really am serious when I say that I want to challenge you to show me that you're not indifferent to the real pain that the church has caused in the lives of so many who are hurting. I would love to find some common ground! If you believe that all same-sex romantic relationships are wrong, this article is not meant to change your mind. I simply want you to show me that you care. Tell me how you're speaking out and acting out love to those who carry a lot of pain because, for them, the church has failed to be a source of Good News.
Matthew Hunsberger grew up in the Mennonite faith and chose to follow Jesus in that particular stream when he was baptized into the church at age 14. It's a stream he has to continually re-choose every day, it seems, especially in the last six years when he started coming out as gay, and particularly in the past three years when his specific beliefs about faith and sexuality began to reconcile with each other. He is also an Oriented to Love alum. This article originally appeared on his blog, Hope & Pain, and is reproduced here by permission. This article is also available in Spanish.