(This is the second in a series of eight readings and discussion questions, that make up “Leading Your Church to be as Gay-Friendly as the Bible Teaches.”)
It surprises many traditional evangelicals that the term “same-sex attracted” or “gay Christian” isn’t an oxymoron. There are people who believe that you’re either a Christian, or same-sex attracted, but you can’t be both! That’s a myth we’ll deal with in this discussion.
Something we said in Discussion One: An Introduction about the terms we will use in this book bears repeating: 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 in fact neither may be true). Therefore, in this discussion, we will most often refer to Christians who are attracted to a person of the same gender as same-sex attracted or SSA. “Same-sex attraction” is a descriptive term that gives us the freedom to describe a person’s temptations without labeling them with an identity or making assumptions about their sexual activities. When we use the term LGBTQ or gay, we are referring most frequently to non-Christians (but they can be Christians) who have taken on the identity of a lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender, or questioning person.
How many men and women experience SSA? Dr. Mark Yarhouse is recognized as one of the foremost Christian researchers and psychologists in the field of sexual orientation. He says the following about the percentage of men and women who experience same-sex attraction:
A percentage of teens will experience same-sex attraction (4-7% of teens and maybe 6-8% of adults) and some will experience strong, persistent attractions in such a way that they would say they have re-oriented to the same sex (about 1-3%). Most with this orientation will end up adopting a Gay identity, but not all of them (and most of the SSA students we surveyed at Christian colleges did not adopt a Gay identity at the time we surveyed them). Most of those who do identify with same-sex orientation engage in some same-sex behavior as an expression of their identity. But again, not all of them do.
A study by the Williams Institute at UCLA says 3.5 % of adults in the United States self-identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and 0.3% identify as transgender. The percentage of men and women who engage in same-sex behavior is 8.2%, and 11% of Americans have at least some level of same-sex attraction. Whatever the actual numbers are, neither those numbers nor the activities of SSA individuals change the reality that these men and women are image bearers of God, are important to him, and therefore must be important to us.
Changing your worldview on SSA individuals
Not all SSA individuals are the same, just as not all heterosexuals are the same. Your church most likely has heterosexual men and women who desire sexual purity. Some are married. Some are not. You may also have heterosexual adulterers, singles having sex before marriage, men and women struggling with lust, and men and women addicted to pornography or erotica—all of it completely hidden from the church. When these sins are revealed, the church treats each of these categories of heterosexual sins differently. We don’t cut those men and women off from fellowship just because they have made sinful choices. Those who repent but continue to struggle receive our support, prayers, and are counseled and forgiven.
Likewise, the church’s approach to responding appropriately to LGBTQ/SSA individuals must also be tailored differently for various categories of those who experience SSA:
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 to correct 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.”
The Scriptures tell us that, without being born again, nonbelievers cannot render to God pleasing behavior without the Spirit. “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14. Why is it then that we’d expect non-Christian LGBTQ people to understand and live by the truths of Scripture when they don’t have the indwelling Spirit that would enable them to understand the Scriptures?
Without salvation through Jesus Christ, sexual behavior is the least of an unbeliever’s problems. We must love them into the Kingdom first, and then allow the Holy Spirit and Scriptures to guide them into all truth. We need to welcome these men and women into our church alongside every other spiritually lost person, then trust that God will lead them through a process of sanctification, just as he has each of us in the church.
It’s reasonable to assume that LGBTQ non-Christians may not have much interest in coming to your church. If this is the case, perhaps 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.
No matter how you show them hospitality, the point is to ask yourself how you view LGBTQ men and women. Do you see this group as the enemy, or as spiritually lost individuals like you and I once were? There should be no doubt that Jesus would be hanging out with LGBTQ men and women, just as he did with sinners of every type, and therefore would expect his followers to do the same.
Additionally, a good litmus test to see if your church is ready to receive LGBTQ individuals is to ask whether a gay couple could attend your service and feel comfortable. (That’s a good litmus test, in fact, to consider for any group not already accepted in your church.) Would the couple see grace or judgment in the eyes of their pew-mates? It’s possible that, like most churches, your church has some work to do.
2. SSA Christians who are single and celibate, or are in a heterosexual marriage, or are pursuing a heterosexual marriage. Christians ought to embrace every unmarried, 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. Can we agree that drunkenness is a sin? Do we not also agree we ought to forgive and cheer on the alcoholic who stumbles occasionally? Looking at heterosexual pornography is a sin, but serious Christians stand by those who struggle with it—often for life. What about those who are greedy? Or those who put anything before God (idolatry)?
We also need to recognize that most Christians with a same-sex attraction will likely continue to struggle with it in some capacity, just as all Christians struggle with certain sin temptations in some capacity. However, because we as a church appear to have greater patience with the more familiar, acceptable sins, we are driving away those who experience same-sex attraction or identify as LGBTQ, as well as setting a poor example to non-Christians outside of the LGBTQ community.
One of the reasons is this widely held myth: If Christians who are attracted to the same sex had enough faith, this attraction could be “prayed away.” It’s only their unwillingness to change that keeps them from temptation and freedom. We ought to strongly encourage Christians tempted with same-sex lusts to cry out to God to deliver them from those desires, but we should encourage it with the same fervor as those struggling with heterosexual lusts. Additionally, the church ought to offer help to anyone wanting a loving counselor, true to the Bible, to come alongside them to gain freedom from sinful sexual behavior and to help them navigate toward their true identity in Christ. (Later, we will discuss the pros and cons of reparative therapy, which is an attempt to change a persistent homosexual orientation to a heterosexual orientation.)
Some people possess a same-sex attraction that is simply a part of their psychological makeup. They can refrain from acting on it, but it’s unlikely that they will ever completely lose it any more than you, if you are heterosexual, will lose your temptation toward heterosexual lusts, or if you are a recovering alcoholic, completely lose your desire for alcohol. The truth is, a permanent, total change in orientation is highly unlikely. However, even if we fail to lose any or all of these natural tendencies to sin, we all need to acknowledge sin as sin, repent, and take up our crosses again and follow Jesus—whether or not our desire to sin ever disappears (Matthew 16:24).
Mixed-orientation marriages (MOM) There is a subset of SSA Christians who may already be in your church. These are fellow believers who wrestle with same-sex attraction and yet are pursuing an opposite-gendered marriage or are already married to a heterosexual spouse. This is often called a mixed-orientation marriage, and it is far more common than the church recognizes. Many young Christians hide their same-sex attraction from their girlfriends or boyfriends and enter marriage still hiding their secret, hoping marriage and family will “fix” them. There are also couples who enter marriage fully aware of the challenges, and agree to pursue holiness and oneness in marriage despite the tendency of one of them toward same-sex attraction.
We ought to encourage married and dating SSA individuals to “come out” confidentially to a Christ-centered and mature counselor, spiritual leader, mentor, or pastor, and, eventually, their spouse/girlfriend/boyfriend (if this has not already been done). Tenderness and compassion should be taken when approaching these marriages or dating relationships. One or both parties are often plagued by shame, and navigating the unique trials these couples face can be difficult. If and when an individual decides to share their struggle with SSA to the church or some smaller group within it, the church ought to accept them without judgment as fellow Christians who struggle with sexual temptation.
A mixed-orientation marriage is not for the faint-hearted. They are also not a “fix” for SSA. Mixed-orientation marriages face challenges that not all couples are fully prepared to accept or live with, but it is a fulfilling, biblical option for some.
3. Individuals who have not experienced a lifelong same-sex attraction, but have fallen into same-sex behaviors or relationships. This third group consists of both Christians and non-Christians who may not have experienced same-sex attractions their entire lives, but who for a variety of reasons have allowed themselves to participate in same-sex behaviors. Some, particularly students, are simply experimenting with this form of sexual expression because it is trendy and cool. Others, desperately looking for love, learn to overcome their initial fear, misgivings, and even revulsion with same-sex intercourse in order to be loved and accepted by another human being. (Some in this group may have attractions to both genders and therefore identify as bisexual.)
In any case, the longer these behaviors continue, the more likely it is that these individuals will begin to self-identify as LGBTQ, and in time may grow to solely feel attraction toward those of the same gender. However, that does not always mean they were born with a same-sex attraction.
Within this third group, the church ought to address each of the following subgroups differently:
For non-Christians: Love them into the Kingdom by introducing them to Jesus, like we would any non-Christian. Sin management should not be our first focus.
For Christians who are heterosexual in identity but are now experimenting with same-sex sexuality: They must be reminded that those behaviors are sinful and be counseled on how to resist their temptations.
For Christians who have given their hearts and bodies to someone of the same sex and perhaps even now self-identify as LGBTQ: We will attempt to guide them into understanding that this is not who they are. Rather, that they have mistakenly and sinfully identified as such because of sin. Our goal should be to have them gain a new, biblical understanding of the nature of their sin, repent of it, and pursue the goal of returning to holy sexuality as expressed either in celibacy or in the context of monogamous marriage with someone of the opposite sex (even if some measure of SSA persists).
4. Transgender, Bisexual and Questioning Christians Transgender. Christians ought to have great sympathy for transgender people. And it’s important to understand that being transgender is not the same thing as having a same-sex attraction. Transgender individuals experience a conflict between the gender they were born with physically and the gender they most identify with emotionally, mentally, and sexually.
Mark Yarhouse, a respected Christian researcher on the subject, says, “Gender dysphoria and transgender issues are not about having sex or an attraction to the same sex; they are about an experiential mismatch between one’s psychology and one’s biology.” 
The reason transgender people are often characterized as being homosexual is because they are often attracted to someone of the same biological sex. However, this is only because they mentally, emotionally, and sexually identify as someone of the opposite sex. Yes, this can be confusing, even to some transgender men and women.
Furthermore, transgender individuals do not follow other people’s ideas or stereotypes about how they should look or act, which causes some Christians great discomfort. They may dress in a way that seems to contradict their gender. The truth is, most transgender individuals genuinely feel very confused about their identity—particularly as children and adolescents. However, this gender confusion is not a choice they make. Therefore, we do not believe that simply experiencing any form of gender confusion is, in and of itself, sin. However, neither do we believe that this blurred self-perception is God’s intent for humans; rather, it has its roots in the Fall.
We urge any Christian transgender person to meet with a grace-filled, wise pastor or Christian counselor before attempting by surgery or hormones to alter their bodies to conform to their mental sexual identity.
Bisexual. Bisexuality is defined as the romantic, emotional, and/or sexual attraction toward people of both sexes. Men and women who identify as bisexual see it as the lens through which they view the world—it is both a romantic/sexual orientation and often an identity statement. So, even if he or she is married to or dating someone of the opposite gender, they do not see themselves as straight, but as bisexual. The same would be true if he or she were married to or dating someone of the same gender; they do not become gay or lesbian, they remain bisexual.
While having attractions to both genders may not be a personal choice, a person’s behavior is. Our church holds to the position that a bisexual person may remain single and celibate, or else marry (and therefore only have intercourse with) someone of the opposite sex physically from themselves. Doing so does not eliminate their same-sex attractions, but it does meet biblical standards.
Questioning, Queer (Q) and Non-conforming. We know it’s hard to imagine, but there is a growing number of primarily younger men and women who are questioning whether they feel male or female themselves, or have any consistent attractions toward other genders. There are others who are going back to what was once was a derogatory term, but now prefer to be called queer meaning “different” or “other,” and not transgender or straight. Both those who call themselves questioning and queer are the “Q” in the acronym LGBTQ.
There is yet another group of individuals who are considered non-conforming. These individuals simply do not conform to other peoples’ ideas or stereotypes about how they should look or act, based on their sex assigned at birth.
At this point, it would be easy to either throw up your hands in confusion or to get angry. But this is the world we live in. We’re not asking you to fully understand or even accept it. What we are asking is that you begin educating yourself and begin preparing your heart to love these men and women (often boys and girls who are very confused themselves), and their families.
If you think that all the attention the church is spending to address these issues is a waste of time or is an attempt to dignify and accept non-biblical attitudes and actions, just sit down with a parent of an LGBTQ child or young adult and ask how that experience has been for them. If any member of our church hurts, we should all hurt, even without a complete understanding.
5. Affirming LGBTQ Christians who believe the Bible does not prohibit same-sex marriage or lifelong, monogamous, loving relationships. It’s important to remember that affirming LGBTQ Christians do not 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 the Bible was trying to tell us all along. (More about this in Discussion Four.) Paul, inspired by the Spirit, knew this questioning would happen: “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear,” he says in 2 Timothy 4:3.
Christians have been leaving churches over theological differences since Pentecost. For affirming Christians to leave your church for theological reasons, while regrettable, is their choice to make. What is not acceptable and even sinful on our part is if they were driven away because they were treated unkindly or unfairly.
However, if an affirming LGBTQ Christian chooses to remain in the church, but they begin or continues in a same-sex, sexual relationship, the church ought to treat them just as they would any heterosexual engaging in a sexual sin prohibited in Scripture.
Church discipline is almost always thought to be unkind and unfair by those who come under it (Hebrews 12:11) But in all cases, our consciences must be clear before God that the leaders of the church conducted themselves fairly and gently–extending as much grace as the Bible instructs.
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. —Galatians 6:1-2
The opportunity before us In this discussion guide, we try to make the case that some LGBTQ men and women ought to be fully accepted and integrated into the body of your church, given appropriate opportunities to serve, and invited as genuine friends into our homes. It’s not only the right thing to do (and what Jesus would do), but younger Christians will begin to notice the change. It will begin to soften their hearts toward the church and help them revise their perception of the church’s homophobia. Above all, we believe this is the will of God for the Church.
In what way(s) is it helpful for you to see homosexuality as a struggle as opposed to an identity?
How has thinking about LGBTQ/SSA individuals in the groups we identify in this chapter changed your thinking on homosexuality?
If an LGBTQ couple came to your church next Sunday, how do you think most people in your congregation would receive them?
How would you treat that same couple differently based on this discussion?
How do you feel about a same-sex attracted individual being in a mixed-orientation marriage? If that individual has been sexually pure in their marriage, do you think their spouse has biblical grounds for divorce? What if they knew about their spouse’s SSA prior to marriage? What if they didn’t? Would you encourage them to stay married?
Why is it the church will stand by an alcoholic who occasionally “falls off the wagon” and asks forgiveness, but finds it difficult to offer compassion to a still-struggling SSA individual who falls into temptation, and confesses and repents of it? Is there a difference between the two?
Discuss in your group how confusing and difficult it must be to have a body completely different from your mental and sexual identity.
If your son or daughter came out to you as being LGBTQ, how would that be received by your church and friends? Would you personally feel a level of shame? How would you feel if you found out your son was sleeping with or living with his girlfriend—or your daughter with her boyfriend? Would you feel the same emotions? Would your friends react differently? Why?
Recommended Reading: We strongly encourage every pastor, leader, and Bible teacher in your church to read Same-Sex Attraction and the Church, by Ed Shaw. In this beautifully written, theologically conservative book, Shaw does what we’ve not seen any other writer do as well: He manages to place us inside the mind and into the life of a same-sex attracted man who has pledged himself to purity. Shaw still wrestles with SSA. Through this lens, he will help you understand just what an SSA person needs from your church. Shaw’s book is the first book we’d give a Christian experiencing SSA. It could offer hope.
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. Yarhouse, Mark A. Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013. Ebook section 2023.
. Gates, Gary J. How Many People Are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender? Los Angeles, CA: Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law, 2011. The Williams Institute. UCLA, Apr. 2011. Web. williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Gates-How-Many-People-LGBTQ-Apr-2011.pdf
. See: Throckmorton, Warren. “The Jones and Yarhouse Study: What Does It Mean?” Patheos. Patheos, 27 Oct. 2011. Web. www.patheos.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton/2011/10/27/the-jones-and-yarhouse-study-what-does-it-mean/. See also: Belgau, Ron. “Honesty about ‘Orientation Change.’” Spiritual Friendship. WordPress, 01 Feb. 2014. Web. spiritualfriendship.org/2014/02/01/honesty-about-orientation-change/
. For an overview of the key characteristics and dynamics of mixed-orientation marriages, see Jill L. Kays & Mark A. Yarhouse, “Resilient Factors in Mixed Orientation Marriages: State of the Current Research,” The American Journal of Family Therapy 38, (2010): 334-343.
. Yarhouse, Mark. “Understanding the Transgender Phenomenon.” Christianity Today. 08 June 2015. www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/july-august/understanding-transgender-gender-dysphoria.html