How Churches Can Better Support LGBT+ Christians

A celibate gay Christian on how traditional churches fail to provide a space for lgbt+ people to thrive.

It always feels a bit strange how the primary reason anyone reads anything I put on the Internet is that I’m a Christian who also happens to be gay who also happens to be celibate — a decently rare trifecta that somehow makes my rambling slightly more intriguing.

You can imagine my frustration that it doesn’t translate so well into ‘real life,’ since “Hm, yes, but have you considered the fact that I’m a celibate gay Christian?” hasn’t managed to get me even one discount at any local cafés. (Yet. Philippians 4:13, y’all.)

Anyway, since this is the Internet, let me tell you a little about what it’s like being a celibate gay Christian . . . who is also white, male, educated, socioeconomically privileged, living in Los Angeles, addicted to hunting down new music, attempting to pursue systemic justice with integrity, finite (so they tell me), in-process, and distressingly prone to not answering emails in any way that could be described as ‘punctual.’

All those qualifiers are important because one thing I have found as a ‘celibate gay Christian’ is how little that phrase actually communicates about my life. So it tells you I’m attracted to guys and that for religious reasons I’m not romantically pursuing said guys, but it doesn’t say much about what makes me come alive, what sustains me and urges me through each gray-scale or technicolor day.

And this is, I think, a part of the problem: in a conversation as complex as the one surrounding faith, sexuality, and human flourishing we are too easily trapped by shallower questions or disagreements that prevent us from moving forward in more constructive ways.

Since I was recently informed that I am in fact just one human being (and since I wrote a previous draft of this that ended up being way too long), I will be primarily addressing Christians who claim to hold a more traditional sexual ethic, talking about how my current church home has created a space in which the traditional sexual ethic feels coherent, and in which celibacy seems not only sustainable but good. I will then use that as a springboard to discuss why I think other ‘traditional’ churches are failing to provide a space in which lgbt+ people like myself can thrive.

There will always be more to say, more nuance that should have been included, but I’ve only had one cup of coffee today so, really, you should just be impressed that I’m managing to use punctuation in a recognizable way.

Don’t have gay sex can’t be our one job

So.* I belong to a predominantly Latina urban church for which the pursuit of justice in its city is simply a part of its daily existence. When I first stumbled into the sanctuary a year and a half ago, I had no idea that I was about to become knit into the fabric of a community that was so inextricably tied to its immediate surroundings. Despite being small and hilariously underfunded, my church is a source of transformation in a context riddled with systemic and personal brokenness (like, you know, everywhere).

When I joined, I simply became a part of that redemptive movement. This is an enormous blessing, because — believe it or not — I really want to proclaim the gospel through ministry and advocacy. (And, as a white dude brimming with privilege, learning how to do this in a way that doesn’t reinforce inequality can be a challenge!) I want to be a Christian, and I want my church to urge the congregants on in our shared vocation of pursuing justice for the marginalized (which includes a sizable portion of the church population itself).

Often lgbt+ Christians are treated as if we have one job this side of Jesus’ return: don’t have gay sex. But, as Eve Tushnet so quotably stated, “You can’t have a vocation of no,” of only avoiding something. We need something to live for, and let me say that Christianity never makes more sense to me than when I am witnessing or participating in a Christian community that is unified toward imitating and proclaiming Jesus’ liberative gospel.

Although I talked to the pastor right at the start about my sexuality, the most pressing questions posed to me were instead concerned with how I was going to get involved in church life. That said, my experience as a sexual minority has not been ignored, and I am (with my consent) used as a resource both formally and informally to help the church serve its community better. There is definitely a range of beliefs throughout the congregation, as well as some trenchant ignorance about lgbt+ people, but the support I receive from leadership and friends has ensured that I don’t feel unsafe or threatened by any possible reactions.

It is far from perfect, but this community has become my home in a city I never expected to live in, much less fall in love with, and I am so grateful for everything I’ve learned.

3 suggestions for ‘traditional’ churches

But here’s the thing: I’m one of the luckier ones. I know a lot of lgbt+ Christians,** and a majority of them are either still mostly closeted due to fear of backlash or are out and experiencing a level of anxiety and distrust from their church that withers the soul. This should not be the case.

So here are three (way-too-brief) suggestions for churches that want to embody a traditional sexual ethic:

1. Be intensely concerned with the pursuit of justice in your context.

This is a foundational and universal mandate for all Christians. Christianity is not a static constellation of doctrinal statements (although doctrine is important!), but a dynamic Christological narrative that draws us into itself — it has purpose and movement and power.

The possibility of being single my whole life, especially since I’m not particularly ‘gifted for celibacy,’ started to seem far more viable when I began to envision a future proclaiming the gospel while fighting against injustice alongside a familial community, rather than a future fighting against Netflix’s automated episode queue alone in a dark apartment.***

(Also, and I wish I could say more about this, if a church ‘takes a stand’ for the traditional sexual ethic because it ‘cares about the future of this country’ and yet is largely silent on the blights of racism, socioeconomic exploitation, environmental degradation, abortion, misogyny, ableism, the prison-industrial complex, etc., then it merits every leaden ounce of the label ‘hypocritical.’)

2. Preach the ‘traditional sexual ethic’ in a way that catches up the whole congregation.

We shouldn’t be preaching this solely to members who are sexual minorities. Most ‘traditional’ churches seem to ignore the very real pain suffered by lgbt+ people at the hands of Christians or church communities, and any true articulation of the traditional sexual ethic must begin with an examination of how that particular church must change to become a community in which celibacy is not a social death sentence.

3. Maintain open (but not suffocating) communication with lgbt+ members of the congregation.

Don’t assume their primary ‘struggle’ or preoccupation is with their sexuality (although it might be). One of the most marvelous realities of Christian community is the process of congregants discerning their respective vocations and learning how those vocations might bless the church and the surrounding community, and it should go without saying that lgbt+ people are no exception to this vivifying movement of the Spirit.

These are obviously just a start, but it is hard for me to overemphasize how important it is for Christians to lay down the weapons of the ‘culture war’ and pick up once again the humble cross of Christ through which love and justice were and are offered to a weary world.

For the sake of the gospel, we have to do better

It continues to amaze me how hard celibate lgbt+ people have to work to find space in churches that claim a more traditional sexual ethic. The social burdens experienced by sexual minorities in these communities vary widely, but usually include increased scrutiny and suspicion, painful comments from congregants who may or may not know about one’s sexuality, reduced ministry possibilities (e.g. I was once stripped of an internship and prevented from helping with a youth group because I wasn’t trying hard enough to be straight), insanely exhausting language policing,**** and at times, the general ache of being single in a culture that over-valorizes marriage and romance to the detriment of the church’s calling to be family.

I’m not sure how churches decided that the best ‘defense’ of the traditional sexual ethic is to place excessive burdens on those trying to abide by it and then fail to provide the support structures that would make such an ethic intelligible and healthy . . . but, well, here we are.

I believe the traditional sexual ethic is beautiful and good — I try to live according to it for a reason! — but I also believe that the way churches have approached the topic of human sexuality has largely failed to do any justice to the scope and nuance of the doctrine and has, in fact, done injustice to countless people who should have found a home and family within the church, and this requires sincere repentance.

I’ve been fortunate to experience what it’s like to live in a community that is working hard to get the traditional sexual ethic ‘right,’ which makes the blistering failures of so many churches all the more upsetting.

For the sake of the gospel of Christ and the sake of the world that God so loved, we have to do better.

* 50 points to Ravenclaw if you guess which work of literature I (accidentally) imitated.

** Y’all . . . like, a lot. When Frozen came out on DVD, you would not believe what my Facebook feed looked like.

*** Both of these futures, of course, involve an obscene amount of cats.

**** I have no intention of disavowing lgbt+ language — as some Christians demand — so long as lgbt+ people continue to suffer injustices. The recent SCOTUS ruling hasn’t changed the fact that queer and trans people of color face life-threatening violence and lgbt+ youth experience disproportionate levels of homelessness, among other tragedies. The embedded links in the body of the post are to some of the innumerable responses that have been written to challenge the ‘label policing.’

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Matt Jones
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  • Christina

    I want to encourage you in your vocation and all that you are doing! It’s a tragedy that traditional churches are so difficult to navigate and I thank God you’ve found people for discipleship and support, as well as people to work alongside with for a greater cause. I hope the church’s public witness transforms into something like this in the future! May you be an agent of grace where it is desperately needed 🙂

  • Jack Heller

    You accidentally imitated BEOWULF as translated by Seamus Heaney. However, I have the unfair advantage of being an English professor, so . . . or, So. I am willing to forgo those 50 points to whatever it is.

    • Matt Jones

      50 POINTS TO RAVENCLAW! Take them! You are exceptional, as is Heaney’s singular translation.

      • Jack Heller

        Thank you, by the way, for your insights.

      • Jacob Swanson

        Jack beat me to it. I would have asked that you award the points to Hufflepuff instead, but I suppose Jack won them fair and square.

        Thanks for this, Matt. I miss your writing and your Harry Potter references. You give me such hope… or, rather, point me back to the things that give me hope. You are a gem!

  • AnotherJosh

    Another pitfall that churches would do well to avoid is the “saying hateful, untrue things about the entirety of the LGBT population” pothole (now that one will throw your suspension out of whack!). If you wish to present a traditional sexual ethic in a loving way, unless you can do so without flipping out about the sky falling every time the government gives LGBT people a bit of protection against discrimination and quoting some ridiculous statement from Franklin Graham, the Family “Research” Council, or Focus on the Family, you’re not going to get far with the LGBT people in your midst. I, for one, if I were visiting your church, would not give you a second chance.

  • Hilary

    What happens when this doesn’t work? I’m asking, sincerely no snark no sarcasm, what happens when a celibate gay or lesbian person falls in love with that special someone they want to grow old with, of the same sex? How conditional is this love and acceptance on being celibate – if you came to church with a boyfriend, what would happen? Would they still love you? Rejoice that you found him, as you have no doubt rejoiced in other straight people finding that someone? Or would you be shown the door?
    Please answer me, I need this conversation with someone. I need to know how truly conditional this whole ‘they’ll love me if I’m celibate!’ thing is.

    • Ryan M.

      While I’m not the author of the article, and nor am I homosexual, I’ll nevertheless try to answer based on how I’d react if someone I knew at church was in that situation. In many ways, the “love and acceptance” you ask about depends on how you’re defining “love and acceptance”. I wouldn’t shun someone who entered a relationship with a same-sex partner, but nor would I celebrate it with them. If they needed help, I’d still be there for them. If they wanted to catch up some time for lunch and chat, I’d be there without a second thought. Heck, if they needed relationship advice, I’d probably try to help them figure things out. And, if the relationship fell apart, I’d be there for them to talk to and to offer a shoulder for them to cry on. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t condone nor celebrate the relationship, because I’d feel obliged to call a sin a sin.

      There’s this thing that the Western world has done, where it essentially sees males and females as basically the same except for a few relatively minor details, mostly external/biological. Because of this, the idea of males and females being substantially different is dissolving, and any systems that used to distinguish between the two are being redefined as looking at just people rather than people of specific genders. Where it was once seen as meaningful to distinguish between a relationship consisting of one categorically male person and one categorically female person compared to relationships between two people of the same category, such distinctions have dissolved and a relationship between two people is basically all that now remains. This leads to statements such as your, “Rejoice that you found him, as you have no doubt rejoiced in other straight people finding that someone?” The thing is, this isn’t how Christianity has traditionally seen gender (as far as I can tell, the author of this article is Roman Catholic, and hence falls into the traditional side of Christiantiy); the male and female distinction remains meaningful to orthodox Christians. So, relationships aren’t assessed on just the basis of whether they’re between two people, they’re also assessed on what type of people are involved. As a result of this, different types of relationships are treated differently.

      While it’s not a perfect analogy, this is somewhat akin to the prohibition on Christians entering into a relationship with non-Christians; I would celebrate a relationship between two Christians, but would neither condone nor celebrate a Christian friend entering a relationship with a non-Christian, no matter how happy it made them. The reason for this is that there is a significant categorical difference involved; it’s not just about whether there are two people in the relationship, it’s about where the ultimate allegiance of each of those people is placed. In the case of genders, the two genders were created differently for a purpose, and a union of the two is fundamentally different in nature from a union containing two people of the same gender/sex.

      If you were coming to my church and you were my friend, that wouldn’t be affected by you bringing along a same-sex partner. While I wouldn’t go on about it endlessly, I’d make sure to clarify with you that I considered it wrong, even though it wasn’t going to affect how I treated you. I’d probably ask you questions about your Biblical stance on the issue and try to discover what convinced you that such a relationship was Biblically permissible, and I’d probably question that stance (although, if you had no interest in having the conversation, I’d still go on trying to love you as best I could regardless). I’d be concerned for you, not because I thought you were damning yourself via the relationship (I have no doubt that, when I stand before God to be judged, I’ll discover things I was doing my whole life that I never even believed were sinful, and I trust that God’s mercy extends to such sins), but because seeing any sin entrenched in someone’s life is saddening when you care about them. I don’t know whether that combination of behaviour would lead to you continuing to feel loved and accepted; I’d hope it would, but feelings are defined based on results, not intentions.

      As one last point, you seem to suggest that celibacy is something that can work or not work. Celibacy isn’t about not feeling attraction or “falling in love” (one of my most hated terms, but that’s a rant for another day); celibacy is about breaking the connection between such feelings and the actions based upon them. Celibacy doesn’t make the feelings go away, although there are mental strategies that can help diminish the attraction you have to a specific person; celibacy is about deciding that, for one reason or another, you will simply choose not to have any romantic relationships whether you want them or not, because there’s something more significant to you than having a romantic relationship. It’s well understood by most people that, if you “fall in love” with someone who is married, the right thing is to simply not act on that attraction. It may be difficult not to act on the feelings, and it may feel like a lost opportunity, but there is a bigger principle at play than just the fulfilment that comes from having a romantic relationship. Celibacy is taking that same decision out of the context of a single instance and applying it to all of the romantic relationships one could potentially have.

  • Ralph A Jansen

    There are no LGBT Christians, just like their are no Christian witches, Christian Satanists, etc. There should only be *former* LGBT, former witches, former Satanists, former thieves, former murderers, etc. And Christians must remember that we were all once such as these. (That was Paul’s way of saying we should never look down on unbelievers, because we once were unbelievers.) You say you are chaste. I thought the way of life was heterosexual, homosexual, or chaste. (Note the words heterosexual and homosexual speak of action, not thought. That is why it is said that homosexuality is a choice of who you sleep with (carrying through the action).

    So don’t say you are LGBT, say you were former LGBT (as Christ seems to have freed you from the action that constitutes homosexuality), and as such you understand the situation of those who are LGBT, even if you have no part in it anymore. You have thoughts and temptation, but you don’t act on them. They (apparently) have no power over you. This, I would say, gives you a unique perspective on the life of an ex-homosexual Christian. (you will notice that no one in scripture says they are whatever their sin was prior to salvation. They speak of what they *were*. Paul, who once killed believers, but no more. He may have thought about what he did, but it was not longer who he was. It gave him a unique testimony that he used. He would say, look at who I was, now see who I am. Paul, a hater of Christianity, who zealously persecuted and executed Christians. Now, it’s most ardent supporter, who preached Christ wherever he went. So, one could testify on what one once did/was, but now by the power of Christ there is freedom. Sure, there are thoughts every now and then, but through Christ they have no power over me.

    Don’t identify with sin. Highlight that it is behind you as a Christian. You left your old life behind. Use it to testify of the power of Christ on the life of an unbeliever/believer. (It doesn’t matter who we were, it kind of got left behind at the cross. Not that it is missed or anything.)

    • Matt Jones

      Hi Ralph. I’m not sure what ‘old life’ of mine you are referring to. I’ve never even held hands romantically with anyone. I describe (not define, describe) myself as gay simply because I’m attracted to men, which is the common understanding of the word. People who are attracted to the opposite sex are still heterosexual even if they aren’t in a romantic relationship, and it’s the same for gay people. I understand the word can be freighted with meaning for some people, but I’d encourage you to read through the various links provided in the post on the topic; they should give a more in depth explanation.

      • Ralph A Jansen

        I would say that that makes you chaste not a homosexual. (Even sociologists do not mark someone as homosexual unless they have actually had intercourse with someone of the same sex.) One does not have “knowledge” in the sexual realm until they have intimately (biblical variety) known someone. (Think Adam and Eve.) When one hasn’t had sex, you are a virgin (speaking hetersexual at the moment). Kind of frowned upon by carnal, wordly heterosexuals everywhere, thought process/female attraction notwithstanding. In full outlook, you are technically neither homosexual/heterosexual if you are a virgin. The Bible speaks of this, but I haven’t been able to find those particular verses as of late. (Hinges on the word “know”)

        I think that there is a lot more to this whole area that psychobabble has managed to make unclear. People live differently in many areas of life. Even thought processes aren’t the same, even if there is a central cord that may be considered “normal”. The range of possible thoughts in any area is huge. if you never act on thoughts, (lust is a whole other concern), I don’t think God sees you as gay/homosexual. With Sodom and Gomorrah, it appears that it is the action that is condemned/an abomination to God.