I’ve mentored scores of young people in the last dozen years and I knew this to be true; Most young people, even Christian young people, roughly under 35 are making how Christians treat LGBTQ+ people the litmus test of whether or not they want to be associated with any church. They aren’t rejecting Jesus, or the gospel but most want no part of any church that doesn’t accept LGBTQ+ people and same sex marriage.
So, four months after the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal in the U.S. in 2015, I found myself attending a conference on human sexuality at a local Christian college. The speakers ranged from Justin Lee, the founder of www.gaychristian.net to others who had doubts if homosexuals could even be Christians. Why at 65, tackle this subject?
I could see this would be the issue that would split families, churches and denominations, so I felt compelled to try to get this right. Closer to home, we have 20 grandchildren, six were heading off to college soon, and I wanted to be able to dialogue with them intelligently, biblically and graciously on this subject.
I grew up in the church like many men and women my age, to some degree, homophobic. But after studying this topic at length, in spite of the Sunday School stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, I don’t think I got my homophobia from the Bible. Yes, God clearly prohibits same-sex, sex. But he is equally and adamantly opposed to any heterosexual sex outside of marriage as well. But then why did I have such a negative, visceral response to gay people most of my life?
I think that came more from my dad, my time in the military, Boy Scouts, and for every young man I knew, being gay was the worst thing that could happen to you and it just felt un-natural and foreign to me, having knowingly rarely met a gay person.
I’ve mellowed a lot over the years, but not enough. So here I was at this conference surrounded by LGBTQ+ people, their families, students and others, some like me, curious and clueless. After most sessions, the Holy Spirit would prompt me to ask a self-identified LGBTQ+ person out to coffee or lunch. “I’m an elder in a large conservative church and I don’t want to argue theology with you. I just want to hear your stories of growing up and coming out to your family and your church. I suspect we Christians were not kind to you and I’d like to learn how we could do better without compromising what we believe the Bible teaches.”
Searching for a church to belong
Their stories were almost universally painful. Most had some family members completely rejected them. And it was clear from the people at their church who couldn’t even look them in the eye anymore once they came out that there was no future for them in their church. “Evangelicals think Christians who are LGBTQ+ leave and go to liberal churches just because they’re fine with gay marriage. That’s not entirely true. Even if we’re committed to sexual purity, we leave because we know we’re unwanted and will never be able to use our spiritual gifts there. How many open, but celibate, LGBTQ+ people are engaged in ministries at your church?” they asked me, knowing the answer. Gulp.
Most LGBTQ people haven’t rejected the church. The church has rejected them.
After months of these meetings and research, I found my theology largely unchanged, but my grace, compassion and understanding had. Profoundly.
It led me to co-writing an eight-week study for small groups in churches entitled, "Leading Your Church to be as Gay-Friendly as the Bible Teaches." My co-author was Laurie Krieg, a woman who grew up in my church, who unbeknownst to anyone besides herself, experienced attractions to the same sex. She is now married to Matt and is in what is called a “mixed-orientation marriage,” and they have three children and lead a ministry helping to bridge the gap between LGBTQ+ people and the Church. Laurie has not lost her attraction to women but she’s committed to her best friend Matt, her marriage and her purity. You can find out more about her ministry and podcast at www.lauriekrieg.com
Even though I wrote this study trying to help churches become what I call “gay friendly”, most LGBTQ+ people can’t imagine the evangelical church ever being gay-friendly, and many older evangelicals can’t imagine why we would even try making churches gay friendly. (I understand the term “gay” can feel loaded, and I will explain why I use it below.
So, here’s my hope for this blog. If you identify as a conservative Christian, I hope that for the sake of your children and grandchildren, you'll learn to be more understanding and compassionate with LGBTQ+ people and their families, without feeling like you need to abandon the church’s historical understanding on human sexuality and marriage. You truly can do both: hold to truth while loving generously.
On the other hand, some of you may be reading this, and you are baffled why we are still talking about this. “Of course, we should be LGBTQ+ friendly! Love is love!” All I would ask of you is to pause and consider this; “Did I come to my conclusions by starting with the biblical texts and asking what they truly mean? Or did I reach this conclusion because I just want to love my LGBTQ+ friends?” It is my hope for you that you engage all sides of the biblical arguments while working on forgiving the rest of us for our truly sinful lack of grace and love for LGBTQ+ people. (At the end of this conversation there are some resources for you to investigate further if you are willing to engage them.)
Are these two groups really that far apart? The first group holds to the truth they read in the Bible but often have a serious lack of love and grace for LGBTQ+ people. Then there are Christians who are leading with lots of love, without seriously studying what God appears to say about the subject. Both groups have a lot to learn. It’s complicated. So, here we go!
Not All LGBTQ+ People Are Alike
Just like not all heterosexuals are alike, neither are all gays. I’ve met gay people who are trying to faithfully follow Jesus and gay people who want nothing to do with him. Some are committed to celibacy because they believe same-sex sex is wrong. Others are married to someone of the opposite sex, even though they still experience same-sex attraction, or identify as transgender or bisexual.
To be sure, there are many who are loud and proud, but it’s a mistake to assume all LGBTQ+ people fall into this camp. There are also many who are silent and scared, right in your church, possibly afraid of you because of how you or others talk about “them”. It’s simply wrong to assume there is a singular gay lifestyle. What does that even mean? We never talk about a “straight lifestyle”. Billy Graham and Vladimir Putin, were, or are both straight, but nobody would ever think they have similar lifestyles!
Unless you’re very familiar with this topic, we can’t have a thoughtful conversation until you learn the language. So, let’s talk about language beginning with some simple definitions.
While many versions of the Bible use the word homosexual, today that term has a lot of baggage and implies both a life of sin and a person who has adopted a gay identity (even though neither may be true). It would be like going into the Apple store and asking for a floppy disk. Saying “homosexual” shows your age and lack of awareness of this conversation. Using that word with LGBTQ+ people is going to shut a conversation down.
The word gay simply describes someone attracted to the same sex and not to the opposite sex. Some gay people believe that gay sex is totally fine, while others think it’s a sin. In itself, gay doesn’t mean “having gay sex” or “married to a person of the same sex.” It just means “attracted to the same sex.”
Same-Sex Attraction (SSA)
Same-sex attraction (SSA) is similar to gay. It means, “I am attracted to the same sex.” However, using the term “SSA” or “same-sex attracted” is almost always exclusively used by Christians to describe unwanted same-sex sexual attractions. But non-Christian LGBTQ+ people often have a visceral reaction to the term because it sounds like experiencing attractions to the same sex is a mental illness, like being bipolar.
This is an umbrella term for anyone who doesn’t identify with or feels some sort of discomfort with their biological sex. However, (1) transgender is not the same as gay. Gay refers to sexual attractions while transgender refers to the gender someone identifies as. And (2) if someone identifies as transgender, it does not necessarily mean they have had, or even want a sex change (i.e., sex reassignment surgery or hormone replacement therapy, or both). For example, a female friend of mine was born female but identifies as transgender. This doesn’t mean she has transitioned or even identifies as a man. When she says, “I am transgender”, she means, “Mentally and emotionally I don’t feel comfortable in the body I have biologically. I feel like I’m living in the wrong body”.
This acronym stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer. (The term Queer used to be terribly offensive word, but no longer is. Although I’d still suggest straight people not use it.) I’ve added a plus sign (+) at the end of it to acknowledge many other terms that are sometimes attached to this (growing) acronym, such as Intersex, Asexual, Pansexual, and many others. In our conversations, I’ll use LGBTQ+, or “gay” as shorthand for people who experience same-sex attractions or discomfort with their biological sex (e.g. gender dysphoria), or are simply “non-straight.”
Affirming and Non-affirming
These are the common labels Christians use to describe what they believe about same-sex marriage. Those who are affirming (including both gay and straight Christians) believe that God is fine with, (and therefore affirms) monogamous same-sex sexual relations and marriage. Those who are non-affirming (gay or straight) believe that by definition, marriage is the union of a man and a woman and any sex outside of marriage, gay or straight is a sin.
You may be rolling your eyes that we’re wasting all this time and energy on language. After all, isn’t this just a cowardly attempt to be politically correct? This isn’t the only conversation where language matters. If after an abortion a doctor said he simply “discarded a fetus,” many Christians would protest and say he “killed an innocent unborn child.” The fact is, language matters, especially if it needlessly offends, minimizes, or confuses.
Is Same-Sex Attraction, or Simply Being Gay, a Sin?
Most theologians believe the Bible teaches that simply being LGBTQ+ isn’t a morally culpable sin. In other words, on Judgment Day, Jesus will not condemn LGBTQ+ people for simply having unwanted, non-straight sexual attractions. To be sure, all gay and straight sexual desires have been distorted by our sin nature and if we act on them in ways the Bible prohibits, those are morally culpable sins. Had Adam and Eve not sinned, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.
Born That Way
“Of course it’s not a sin for LGBTQ+ people to have sex, or get married if they are born that way!” you may be thinking. If God created people gay, they should be allowed to express their love within the context of a consensual, monogamous, sexual relationship or marriage. Right? There are several problems with this line of reasoning.
While God the Creator gives life in the womb, every human since Adam is born into a fallen, sinful world where things “aren’t the way they’re supposed to be.” God didn’t make us that way. People are born with all sorts of biological, mental, and emotional traits that aren’t naturally aligned with God’s will. Just because some people are naturally angry, lustful, prideful or prone to alcohol or drug abuse is not an excuse the Bible ever accepts for acting out these natural desires. In fact every law or prohibition in the Bible is God’s attempt to put boundaries on the way we are, because of sin, and to move us closer to his original ideal. If your spouse or significant other cheated on you, my guess is you’d never buy their, "That’s just the way God made me'' argument.
But are people actually “born gay?” Without getting caught in the weeds, the best scientists who have studied the question of orientation say that it’s not that simple. There’s most likely a complex blend of nature (biology) and nurture (environmental influence) that shapes same-sex desires. In fact,The American Psychological Association says,
No findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles.1.
A major study on sexual orientation by Johns Hopkins University came to similar conclusions. 2. Keep in mind, these aren’t conservative Christians trying hard to prove the “born this way” argument wrong. These are just scientists doing good scientific research.
Can’t They Just Pray It Away?
It’s shocking how many Christians believe that if a Christian still experiences same-sex attraction, it means they just haven’t prayed hard enough. Is that true of your private sins and temptations? How many of your longstanding temptations have gone away through prayer? And is that what Jesus promised us: A temptation-free life?
Let me say it again for those of you in the back of the room, I’ve never met a Christian LGBTQ+ person yet who grew up hoping to be gay or to experience gender dissonance. There are many, perhaps most, non religious LGBTQ+ people who have no problem with being gay and who fully embrace it. However among Christians this is almost always an unwanted attraction. They may choose to act on it some day, but they didn’t choose to be gay or trans! Most grew up scared to death, hoping and praying somehow, they would grow out of it because they knew how difficult it would be coming out and being rejected by many family and friends.
Now, forgive this imperfect analogy, but it may help to build a bridge: There is a reason alcoholics still say they’re alcoholics even if they haven’t had a drink in twenty years. It’s because the desire to drink is always there, even if they don’t act on it. We’d applaud an alcoholic for being twenty years sober. We wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) say, “Well, if you’d just pray harder, you’d have no desire to drink.” Has God ever answered those prayers and taken away completely the desire of some to not drink? Yes. But for whatever reason, that’s the exception, not the rule.
So let’s not blame LGBTQ+ Christians for not being able to pray it away. The good news isn’t “God can make you straight,” but by the power of the Holy Spirit, God is expecting all of us to be sexually pure.
What is Marriage?
When non-affirming Christians debate the ethics of same-sex relationships, they typically start by talking about the so-called “prohibition passages” like Leviticus 18:22 or Romans 1:26, 27 and others.
If you want to understand how non-affirming Christians respond to the arguments affirming Christians are putting forth to justify their position, I'd urge you to read a Pastoral Paper written by Dr. Preston Sprinkle entitled, "15 Affirming Arguments: And 15 Responses," found at www.centerforfaith.com on the Resource page.) While you may not agree with all of his conclusions, Preston is a serious scholar and president of The Center for Faith, Sexuality and Gender, the Church’s most trusted resource for information on human sexuality, based on Christianity’s historical understanding on marriage and sexuality.
However, in this reading let's address this question. “How can a church say they are loving and gay-friendly and not accept and affirm same-sex marriage?” We believe that's the wrong question.
Obviously in the U.S. same-sex couples can legally get married. But just because the law allows it, does the Bible? To answer that we have to answer the most important question; What is marriage? Non-affirming Christians believe sex difference in a biblical marriage is integral to the answer.
We see this in Genesis 2 – the primary and foundational passage on the basic ingredients of what God considers marriage. After surveying all the animals and not finding a suitable partner, God creates Eve from Adam’s side (sometimes translated “rib”), which elicits a passionate response:
“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh! She shall be called ‘woman’, for she was taken out of man.” Genesis 2:23
The main things being highlighted here are sex difference and equality. Eve is equal to Adam since she is human, but different from Adam since she is a __________. However you fill in that blank is essential for your view of marriage.
The very next verse says:
“For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Genesis 2:24
This verse is like “the John 3:16” of marriage verses. It’s been quoted in almost all Christian marriage ceremonies for thousands of years and even in Judaism when writers are looking for a quick statement about marriage. Notice – and this is super important – the connecting phrase “for this reason” links sex difference and equality to the Bible’s primary and foundational statement about marriage in Genesis 2:24.
For this reason. What reason? Sex difference. Marriage (2:24), by definition is the union between two sexually different persons.
Jesus himself re-affirms the sex difference when talking about marriage. In Matthew 19, he tells the Pharisees:
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female ’(Gen 1:27) and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4-6
Jesus again uses the connecting phrase “for this reason” in his quote of Genesis 2:24. But instead of linking it to Genesis 2:23, he connects the marriage passage back to Genesis 1:27: The Creator “made them male and female” – an even more explicit statement about the importance of sex difference.
And lest you think this definition of marriage is the creation of old, white, straight Evangelical, or Catholic men, every major world religion and all cultures, Asian, African, Native American, regardless of their religion since the beginning of time have understood marriage was between a man and women. Yes some cultures allowed multiple wives, but that’s still male and female. It is literally only in the last 50 years or so that that idea began to be seriously challenged. Non-affirming Christians haven’t moved the goal post. Christian are simply being consistent with the Bible and in lockstep with all other major religions on this issue.
If you’re in the affirming camp, you may be asking, “So what are gay Christians supposed to do, live all their life celibate, lonely and childless? That feels very unloving, unkind and very gay-unfriendly”. That question is very understandable, however faithful Christians have always understood that God’s decrees, or wisdom trumps our personal feelings on all matters of faith and life. God’s commands aren’t aimed at gays. God also expects straight unmarried Christians to be celibate as well. I’m simply pointing out how both the Old and New Testaments describe marriage. To read some robust answers to this incredibly important questions, please visit to www.gregorycoles.com, a friend and author of Single, Gay, Christian, to discover how he and many others have flourished gay, single and celibate.
Rethinking How Christians Should Live Out The Gospel With LGBTQ+ People
Just like all churches have straight men and women who are sexually pure, others living with their girlfriends or boyfriends, still others divorced or married and fighting, the church addresses each of these people and situations differently. Thoughtful, biblical churches are doing the same in addressing these general groups in most churches.
1. LGBTQ+ non-Christians
Our primary goals for LGBTQ+ men and women who are not yet Christians should be to love them unconditionally and introduce them to Jesus – not correcting their behavior! Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 5:12-13, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside of the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those on the outside.”
Why is it we’d expect LGBTQ+ people who aren’t Christians to understand and live by the truths of Scripture when they don’t have the indwelling Spirit that would enable them to do just that? Without salvation through Jesus Christ, their sexual behavior is the least of a non-Christian’s problems.
It’s reasonable to assume that LGBTQ+ non-Christians may not have much interest in coming to your church. So, maybe the place to begin is by inviting them into your home and begin building redemptive relationships with them. Love your gay boss, be generous toward your lesbian co-worker, invite Bob and Frank over for a barbecue. Forget trying to get these friends to your church for now; just love your neighbor and win the right to introduce them to Jesus.
2. SSA Christians who are single and celibate, or are in a heterosexual marriage, or hope to have a heterosexual marriage.
Christians ought to embrace every celibate, gay or SSA Christian as a brother or sister in Christ. This includes SSA Christians who have failed, have confessed and repented of their sin, and desire to live sexually pure lives. We do the same for straight people who have failed and repented, right? If that’s the case can you think of any reason why anyone in this group is not morally qualified to be an elder, pastor or worship leader?
We as a church appear to have far greater patience with our own, more familiar sins, while inadvertently driving away those who experience same-sex attraction trying to live faithful to the Bible. Why is that? I think it’s because we Christians tend to vilify the sins we’re least likely to commit.
3. Affirming LGBTQ+ Christians
Most gay and straight affirming Christians believe having promiscuous sex outside of marriage is wrong. However, they believe the Bible does not prohibit same-sex marriage or lifelong, monogamous, loving relationships.
It’s important to remember that affirming LGBTQ+ Christians don’t think they are being disobedient to Scriptures. They simply believe that the church has misinterpreted the Bible, and that we are only now beginning to understand what God was trying to tell us all along.
Frankly, we should be more concerned about affirming straight Christians who affirm same-sex marriage being in positions of leadership in your non-affirming church, than gay men and woman who hold to a traditional biblical sexual ethic. The church splits I’ve observed over this issue, have largely been led by strong, straight, affirming people.
The truth of the matter is that most affirming Christians will not find your church gayfriendly at all if you hold to the church’s historical understanding on human sexuality and marriage. Nevertheless, this should be the goal of every true follower of Jesus;
If LGBTQ+ people and their families ever leave our church over theological differences, that should make us sad. But if they left because we were unkind to them, that would make Jesus sad.
4. Straight Christians Who Are Wary Of Loving LGBTQ+ People
Almost every church has members who were raised as I was. They may not be overtly unkind, but they just “know” loving LGBTQ+ people is a slippery slope that ends in San Francisco and with their church going liberal!
I hope you agree that what you’ve been reading isn’t going liberal, rather it’s going loving. If you do, then you have the responsibility to be the thought leader in your church, or with your friends, to help educate them. If you or the church doesn’t, your church will never be safe for gay people, or their families trying to love them. And I can’t imagine Jesus anything but sad over that. At the end of this chapter are some resources that can help you educate your whole church.
I was recently asked to draft a letter expressing how a church might respond to the question; Is Your Church LBGTQ+ Friendly? Here was my response:
The honest answer to that question is that our church aspires to do more than be friendly. We want every person who walks through our doors to feel welcomed and loved. Gay or straight, rich or poor, all races, ex-cons or judges, single, divorced, married or widowed.
Here’s how we hope to do that, by introducing you to the radical love of Jesus, if you’re not yet committed to him, and living out the love of Jesus to each other and the world, as God instructed us. But here’s where it gets a bit complicated.
The Bible is more than a book of wise teachings and ancient history. It is the Constitution for all true Christians. It introduces us to God’s love, his will for all humans and his plan for this world. Like any loving parent, God not only loves us and teaches us how to love one another, he also gives us boundaries to keep us from hurting ourselves and others – the “thou shall” and “thou shall not’s.”
Humans, even Christians, like all children, don’t like rules or boundaries. We like them when they are convenient and helpful for us, but not when we believe they are interfering with our happiness. And like all families, we have people in our church, who are loving, kind and obedient and others who are struggling with serious sin in their lives and others who are behaving badly and just don’t care.
So, getting back to your question, “Is your church LGBTQ+ friendly?” Here’s the honest answer. Some of our people are. Most of our younger Christians who’ve grown up with LGBTQ+ friends will be welcoming without any reservations. And you’ll find our pastors and staff warm and willing to help you in any way they can. However, we have other members, who still have not figured out how to love LGBTQ+ people all that well. As a church, we’re trying to do better, but some are trying harder than others. That’s just the truth.
However, there’s another way some LGBTQ+ people may not feel like we’re all that friendly. Our church believes the Bible teaches, all sex outside of marriage is a sin, gay or straight, and that biblical marriage, by definition and design can only be a union of one man and one woman. So we have straight people who attend our church, who are living with their girlfriend, or boyfriend, or who are single and having sex. We have divorced people. We have straight married couples who are fighting and treating each other badly. We have LGBTQ+ people who are celibate, some who are not and others married to someone of the opposite sex. In other words, not everyone who attends our church is a saint! But, we try to do our best to help everyone to flourish as God intended and all are welcome here.
But, we have a different standard for people who are, or wish to be actual members of our church and engaged in ministry. First, every person who wishes to be a member of our church must have accepted Jesus as their Savior and Lord, asked his forgiveness for their sin and have pledged their highest allegiance to him, over all other relationships, loves or passions.
We also have a church Constitution which details how we’ve agreed to function as a spiritual family. We have both gay and straight people who wish to join our church, who after reading how we interpret the Bible, particularly regarding human sexuality, gender, divorce and marriage, chose not to join. That saddens us, because we feel unfriendly to them. That’s not our intent. We’re just trying our best to honor God by being faithful to the Bible. We simply don’t have the right to turn a blind eye to behaviors, or relationships that we believe God prohibits. So everyone is welcome to attend our church for as long as they want without being a member, but if you chose to join our family here, our Constitution and the Bible will have to become your constitutions as well.
If you are LGBTQ+, or a family member is, we invite you to call one of our pastors, have a cup of coffee and let’s get to know each other better."
So, where do you begin? Resolve today that you will call an openly gay person, ask them out for coffee and just get to know them. When appropriate ask them to tell you their story and just listen. To listen well, is to love well. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak.” James 1:19
Note: Most of the ideas in this chapter were developed by and used with permission from Dr. Preston Sprinkle, president of The Center for Faith, Sexuality and Gender. www.centerforfaith.com The Center has many valuable resources to help you and your church love LGBTQ people well.
If you wish to introduce others to this topic, I’d suggest purchasing Grace/Truth Small Group Leaders Kit in the Resources page at www.centerforfaith.com.
1. How would you describe your feelings toward LGBTQ+ people prior to this conversation and how did you come to that position?
2. What did you learn that was totally new to you, or you now understand better?
3. If you attend a church, would you describe it as friendly to LGBTQ+ people? Why, or why not?
4. Do you believe being LGBTQ+ was an unwanted attraction by most young people raised in a church? If they are now fine with same-sex sex, or marriage, what do you think changed their mind?
5. If you attend church when is the last time your pastor taught you to be more kind and understanding of LBGTQ+ people?
6. Do you believe the Bible teaches, or at least allows same-sex marriage? What verses, or biblical passages helped shape your opinions?
7. Do the views expressed in this Conversation feel loving and kind? If not, why not?
8. Prior to reading this chapter, how had you come to your views on LGBTQ people? Had you studied this topic extensively, or did you adopt your position largely from your peers?