A teen who happens to be gay sits in a church youth group of friends when the LGBTQ subject comes up.
Eyes look down.
A few make nervous jokes.
Some voices are affirming. Others are not.
“I don’t get it.”
“Love the sinner; hate the sin.”
This last one is perhaps the most dangerous. It allows one to accuse another of sin while at the same time telling one’s self and others they are being loving. The youth pastor attempts to provide a sincere explanation that “their” same sex attraction is no different than “our” desire for other sexual sin.
Meanwhile the kid’s eyes search for the closest exit, having now inferred that they aren’t included in God’s kingdom.
This kid has no agenda. They have no part in the Christian culture wars of the last few decades. They are not trying to stir the pot or rebel. Most of these students are not even sexually active. This is not an “out of control lust.” They just know they have an attraction for whom they have an attraction. They’re figuring out who they are.
Their attraction and identity is hugely complicated, and multiple studies have confirmed that it’s not a “lifestyle” or “choice” any more than heterosexuality is a lifestyle.
What room is there for the gay kid?
I posed this question to a youth pastor last year. We were discussing the very practical issue of LGBTQ+ kids that attend youth groups at church. How do we welcome them? How do we love them? Though we didn’t completely agree, it was a respectful and needed conversation. It’s a complicated issue and very sensitive for many. In past decades, most kids who would identify as LGBTQ+ would stay in the closet at least until they left for college. Nowadays, coming out is happening earlier and earlier. For some, there is no closet.
This reality is not going anywhere, and the modern evangelical church is not handling it well.
Many church leaders have the conviction that the Bible teaches that all homosexual acts are sinful, even in marriage. Their resulting policies are varied. Some are transparent about their objection in an attempt to abate the “rising threat of sexual impurity” among believers and in our culture.
Most are more passive, hoping the subject doesn’t come up and that gay believers stay quiet, asexual, or perhaps don’t show up to church at all. Thankfully, it is now widely acknowledged that efforts to change sexual orientation through “therapy” or “praying the gay away” is destructive. The now infamous Exodus International organization whose president, Alan Chambers renounced the efforts to convert homosexuals, now sees these efforts as fruitless and even harmful. Studies show that lesbian, gay, and bisexual teens are twice as likely to have attempted suicide than their heterosexual peers.
Some faith leaders want to minister to gay believers and help them find peace with their sexuality and God through celibacy. Although some LGBTQ+ people have the conviction to practice celibacy (just as some straight-identifying people do), that conviction is far from a mandate that all LGBTQ+ people must be celibate. Some pastors are hesitant to reveal this view, because it drives away members that don’t share this conviction. Again, many pastors believe that the LGBQT identity doesn’t exist or is something to be put away; many believe it’s simply a sexual predilection that’s part of their “brokenness.”
Let’s widen the question a bit.
A gay man has been coming to church for years, keeping his personal life quiet and hidden from the rest of the congregation, fearing rejection. Some ask him, “When are you going to get married?”
A transgender man visits church just once. Few talk to him. He receives the unspoken message from the church: “We don’t know what to do with you. Please leave.”
A lesbian woman has embraced her sexuality and has the conviction to stay celibate. The few with whom she has shared this never bring the subject up again. She struggles daily, and seeks others with whom she can share this struggle. She doesn’t feel there’s a place in the church for her.
For all of these individuals, they are keenly aware that who they are is objected to, at least by some in the church. And so, they drift from the faith community and perhaps from God.
This is not the case of all churches, but a majority of mainstream, evangelical churches are in denial about this reality.
I am a child of God, a follower of Jesus. This is my most important identity. My LGBTQ Christian neighbors are fellow children of God and siblings in Christ. This is where our unity lies.
But I’m also a white, heterosexual man. When I became a believer, I didn’t stop being a white, hetero man. I just prioritized those identities in light of my identity in Christ. Even though I became a new creation, I didn’t ignore other aspects of who I am. I submitted them to my identity in Christ. My sexuality shouldn’t rule me, but our sexuality is a part of who we are. It’s not the center of my identity, but it’s definitely a part of it.
Ironically, the church is over-focused on sexuality as much as the LGBTQ community has been accused of over-focusing on sexuality. Sexuality is a secondary issue compared to the central issues — the persons of God and the means of salvation. By secondary, I don’t mean unimportant. Many churches have made the LGBTQ conversation a litmus test for being a believer. In effect, they have unwittingly added to the gospel and have placed a burden on believers that God did not create.
But there is hope.
What if we, wherever we land in this discussion, embraced each other as Jesus modeled for us? What would it look like if we focused on the person and work of Christ — his life, death, and resurrection — versus seeking who should be left out of God’s kingdom? What if we loved each other as Christ commanded? What if we didn’t cut off relationships from those that disagree, and rather talked about it. Instead of ignoring the topic or creating a hard policy of complementarianism, what if we humbly came to the scripture, acknowledging that different believers have different Biblical convictions. Talk about it from the pulpit, in small groups, and in classes, presenting reasonable, Biblical arguments on both sides. Invite people with opposing views to reasonably discuss the issue, modeling Christ’s love and acceptance. Sadly, this is unlikely to happen in today’s climate, but it is something for which to strive. There is power when believers can unite in Christ, in spite of differing on this issue, but not ignoring it.
What if we engaged?
Perhaps 60% of anyone at your church has a close friend or family member that identifies as LGBTQ+. That means you probably know someone in the LGBTQ+ community. At the very least, we need to be careful with our comments, examining our hearts and prejudices. Please know LGBTQ+ people don’t need your correction or judgment. Like all humans, they need your unqualified love.
There are kids, teens, and adults at your church that are LGBTQ+. They’re wondering if there’s a place for them. And more will be coming. Or maybe they won’t. Not because they aren’t seeking Christ, community, and Biblical truth, but because they’re tired of being rejected. They’re tired of looking for the exit.
How will we do this better?