Yesterday, basketball center Jason Collins became the first professional American athlete to come out as gay while still active in a team sport.
As soon as the news broke, the religious debates started. Christians expressed their disapproval; Christians came to his defense; people accused one another of being bigots or sinners. It happens every time, and as a Christian, I find it incredibly frustrating.
Shortly after the news broke, for instance, ESPN anchor Chris Broussard came under fire for the following comments:
BROUSSARD: Personally, I don’t believe that you can live an openly homosexual lifestyle or an openly—like premarital sex between heterosexuals. If you’re openly living that type of lifestyle, then the Bible says you know them by their fruits. It says that, you know, that’s a sin. And if you’re openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality—adultery, fornication, premarital sex between heterosexuals, whatever it may be—I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ. So I would not characterize that person as a Christian because I don’t think the Bible would characterize them as a Christian.
As I’ve been following the debate over the last 24 hours, I’ve been struck by how often I see Christians make the same mistakes over and over.
Here are four ways many American Christians are getting this whole thing wrong.
1. Equating “being gay” with “having sex.” If an unmarried person tells you they’re “straight,” would you assume that they’re having sex? Probably not. Most straight adults are having sex, but not all of them are. The same is true for gay adults. In his coming out article, Jason doesn’t say anything about his sexual beliefs or practices; he says only that he’s single. Why, then, does this suddenly become a debate about the morality of gay sex, with comparisons to sexual behaviors like “fornication” and “adultery”?
I grew up in a Southern Baptist church with strict beliefs that people shouldn’t have sex outside of marriage. When I finally, tearfully admitted (after years of trying to avoid it) that I was attracted to guys instead of girls, I found myself on the receiving end of lecture after lecture about how being gay was a sin “just like adultery or premarital sex.” But I wasn’t having any kind of sex at all. Being gay isn’t like adultery or premarital sex, because being gay isn’t a sex act. Even if I never have sex, I’m still gay.
2. Using that (assumed) sex act to define us as people. It’s one thing to believe gay sex is sinful, but it’s quite another to define gay people and our lives by that one act. This is where that devious word “lifestyle” creeps in. (I’ve explained before on the blog why I hate that word.) Even if Jason Collins is having sex, that doesn’t mean he’s living a particular kind of “lifestyle.” Do all sexually active straight people live the same lifestyle? Was Billy Graham’s lifestyle the same as Howard Stern’s?
My friend Marty mentioned on my podcast this week that the words “gay lifestyle” are typically a euphemism for “having gay sex.” But by using the word “lifestyle,” you end up defining gay people’s lives entirely in terms of that sex. Notice how Broussard stumbles in that video clip when he tries to apply the same terminology to his other examples: “I don’t believe that you can live an openly homosexual lifestyle or an openly—like premarital sex between heterosexuals.” It’s as if he started to say “an openly ‘premarital sex’ lifestyle” and then realized that made no sense. Because if two straight people have sex before marriage, people might call that sinful, but no one would refer to that as their “premarital sex lifestyle.” We view it as one particular act, not a definition of the entirety of their lives.
(Also, just as a side note, I get Broussard’s point about the need for Christians to repent of sin, but considering that research says 80% of young unmarried Christians have had sex, I’d be a little reluctant to make blanket statements about who is or isn’t a Christian.)
3. Treating gay people as symbols of a culture war instead of as human beings. Jason Collins is a person. By his own admission, he’s been through a lot of struggles in figuring out who he is and whether to talk about it publicly. But it often feels that when someone like this comes out, many people on both sides view them as just a symbol for us to celebrate or bemoan, so that we all must rush to express approval or disapproval.
I wish, instead, that Christians’ first reaction to news like this were to want to understand, to ask questions like “Why would a Christian in a decidedly anti-gay field feel the need to identify himself as gay? What brought him to this point? What obstacles did he overcome? What has his experience been like?” These are the questions of a compassionate person, one who is willing to put the other person’s humanity first.
Maybe people don’t think of those questions as much when the person coming out is a celebrity. But when I came out to the people I knew personally, I had the same experience. People were quick to condemn me and only rarely took the time to ask me questions about why I felt the way I did or what had brought me to that point in my life. It’s as if, when you come out, you cease to be someone’s friend and become only a representation of an issue.
4. Assuming that being gay is a choice. Who you date, marry, or have sex with is a choice. Who you are attracted to isn’t. “Being gay” only refers to who I’m attracted to. It’s not something I chose, and it’s something many of us were, frankly, afraid of when we first realized it about ourselves.
But over and over, I see Christians talking about being gay as if it were something one could choose to be or not to be. In a Christian Post article this week, Jason Collins was described as “the first active athlete in professional sports to speak about his lifestyle choice” (emphasis mine). What “lifestyle choice” do they mean? On another website, a Christian commenter echoed many when he wrote that “I do not see how anyone can argue with what Broussard said: Living as an open homosexual is open rebellion to God.”
I hear these kind of statements every day. But think about it for a moment. If “living as an open homosexual” is rebellion against God, what choices do I have? I’m already gay; I can’t change that. I could choose to lie and not to be “open” about it, of course, but I don’t believe in dishonesty. Other than that, the only way I could avoid “living as an open homosexual” would be to stop “living.” I don’t have to tell you where that kind of thinking leads.
Is that what the commenter intended? Of course not. But that’s how the message comes across, day after day, to gay people across the country and around the world.
Let me be clear: I think everyone has a right to their moral views, even when they disagree with mine. We Americans can disagree on the morality of gay sex just as we can disagree on the morality of eating meat or drinking alcohol. We Christians have disagreed for centuries on theological questions from the makeup of the Scriptures to infant baptism to transubstantiation. But this isn’t just about a moral disagreement; it’s about how we treat one another and how we talk about one another. If we Christians can’t show more love and willingness to listen, it won’t change one person from gay to straight, but it will turn a lot of people against Christianity.
That’s why I wrote TORN. That’s why I write this blog. That’s why I do what I do. Hey church, are you listening?
A mom writes:
My teenage daughter recently told me that she is bisexual. I told her thank you for sharing such a huge fact with me and for trusting me and that I am honored by her trust. I told her I love her and that God loves her and she will never be punished for loving someone. How do I continue to support her as she moves forward in life, knowing that at some point she will be met with negativity and persecution? She hasn’t told her father, and he will not be as supportive. Thanks for your answer.
Thanks for a great question!
I think you’re doing exactly the right thing already—letting your daughter know that you are a safe person to talk to about what she’s going through, and that you appreciate the trust. This is so critical, because whatever may come her way in the future, good or bad, if she knows she can talk to her mom about things, she’ll be much better off than if she thinks she has to handle everything on her own.
Having a teenager is difficult for any parent, because all teens—gay, straight, or bi—are attempting to find their own place in the world and assert their independence. That leaves parents having to walk a fine line, trying to give appropriate guidance and discipline without alienating their teens as they grow into adults who will make their own decisions in life. And that’s not counting crazy hormones added into the mix.
For parents of gay or bi teens, whatever your theological views, it’s important to be able to offer healthy guidelines about behavior (curfews, parties, dating, sex) just as you would with a straight teen. But it’s also very important to reaffirm your love for your child and let her know that you love her just as she is—sexual orientation and all.
This can be the most difficult for parents on “Side B” (those who believe sex should be reserved for heterosexual marriage). I can’t tell you how often I hear from teens who feel like their parents disapprove not just of particular sexual behaviors, but of who their children are. That’s not the message the parents want to send, but it’s the one the kids are receiving. As a result, the parents lose any influence over their kids’ choices, because the kids already feel alienated.
Thankfully, that’s not what you’re doing. My advice to you is to keep those lines of communication open. Make sure she knows she can talk to you about anything, and that you’re genuinely interested in how she’s feeling. If she has questions or negative experiences, listen to what she has to say about them. If she gets a crush on a girl, let her talk about it. If she gets a crush on a boy, let her talk about that too. Her self-identity may change with time, or it may not. But if she has a mother she can always count on to be compassionate and lend a listening ear, she’ll be in a much better place to handle any of the negativity or persecution she might encounter in life. And you’ll be in a good position to offer parental advice now and in the future.
Also, if you’re looking for a resource that explores what it’s like to be gay or bi and Christian (besides my book, of course!), the Gay Christian Network has a DVD called Through My Eyes that is all about the experiences of gay Christians in their teens and twenties.
Readers, do you have great advice or resources to share? Tell us in the comments!
You guys! The TORN paperback is here, and it’s so cute and little! It totally plays the iPad mini to the hardcover’s iPad—or, heck, you could buy the ebook and actually read it on an iPad. Or all three.
The paperback looks the same in front, but the back is different:
And here they are, side by side. (Do I sound like a proud papa yet?)
I love them both! But I admit to having a special fondness for how the larger hardcover looks on a shelf and how it feels to hold it in your hands. So if you’ve been planning to swing by your local bookstore at some point to pick up a hardcover of TORN for yourself or someone else, you may want to do that now, because they may not continue to stock the hardcover once the paperback comes out.
TORN hits stores in paperback on May 14.
(Oh, and guess what else is about to come out? You might have heard me speak about it in the past, so make some noise in the comments and I’ll be listening as you give voice to your guesses. Ahem.)
My Mother’s Reaction When I Said How Happy I Am That Books Like Torn By Justin Lee Are Being Published
I don’t know who this “lifeinreligiouspublishing” person is, but I like them already. ;)
Yesterday, I posted a piece inviting people to put themselves in the shoes of a Christian with conservative views on sex (what we call “Side B”) who discovers himself or herself to be attracted to the same sex and must endure the challenges of living a celibate life.
I have a number of friends in this situation. They are gay (some would prefer the term “same-sex attracted”), but they believe it would be wrong for them to act on their feelings. And I know from my conversations with them that they have many challenges to endure, including a lack of understanding or support from both sides. Their conservative friends mistakenly think they could “choose” not to be gay, and their liberal friends just push them to change their theological beliefs.
My goal was to write a piece about their challenges, to give people a sense of what it might be like to be in those shoes and encourage folks on both sides to be more compassionate and supportive. That’s tough, because I’m speaking to a very broad audience, some of whom don’t understand much about the situation, so I had to squeeze a lot of information into one blog post.
Let me just say, it’s difficult to write about nuanced issues on a blog, because you don’t have a lot of space to explain yourself! In the internet world, people just glance at a long post and respond with “TL;DR.” (That’s “too long; didn’t read,” an abbreviation for people who apparently find even four words too long to read without a shortcut.)
So I chose to write a story about an example person, loosely based on the lives of some of my friends, to invite the reader to imagine being this person and struggling with some of the related challenges, needing more support from the church.
A lot of you really loved this piece! I got lots of “thank you” emails from Side B gay Christians who said I gave voice to the very struggles they’ve been experiencing, and a lot of other people wrote to thank me for giving them a new perspective.
Of course, I don’t think I’ve ever written a piece that didn’t get some criticism, and this one was no exception. While most of the Side B gay Christians who wrote to me told me that they loved the article, a few wrote to say, “Wait, it’s not all negative! You made us sound sad and pathetic, and we’re not!”
Okay. First of all, to those of you who thought my depiction of a person who comes home at night to frozen dinners and TV is “pathetic,” ummm, that’s totally my life, you guys.
Beyond that, though, yes, absolutely, there are many happy Side B gay Christians in the world with fulfilling lives. Not everyone struggles with depression and loneliness, and even for those who do, it may not be the defining characteristic of their lives. The image I painted yesterday wasn’t intended to represent everyone; it was just intended to be an example of what one particular person’s life might be like. And considering how many people have told me that I hit the nail on the head for them, consider that it may be your neighbor’s story if it’s not your own.
“But why focus on the struggles?” some of you might ask. Well, consider the purpose of writing something like this. I wanted people to think about the need that they’ve never seen before, need that many of us may be reluctant to express, because we’re so used to a church culture where people act like they’re fine even when they aren’t. This is especially true for people who feel misunderstood by both sides; they may be reluctant to say that they’re hurting, because they don’t want people to use that against them. (“I told you so! Now if you’d just do what I say…”)
That’s not just a Side B thing. As a Side A gay man, I have a hard time expressing my own struggles, because I know a lot of anti-gay folks out there might use them to hurt me more rather than to offer support. Nor is it just a gay thing; I know a lot of Christians who are afraid to share their doubts, loneliness, and other struggles, because they want to paint an image of the “joyful Christian life,” even when it’s not what they’re feeling at the moment.
Is it possible to be celibate and have a happy, fulfilling life? Most definitely! For some people it comes naturally, and for others, it’s an effort, but it’s still very much within reach. Single people (I say this from experience) have lots of time to focus on other things in life—volunteering, helping others, exploring the world, trying new things, making friends, etc. But for those of us who desire intimate companionship and don’t have it, there are challenges, too, and if we don’t talk about them, people won’t know when we need their understanding. I know this as a single person who does plan to get married someday, and if I know it, then I know it’s even more true for those who have committed their lives to celibacy.
It’s a delicate balance. No one wants to be the person who’s always complaining, and of course we should focus on the positives, not the negatives. But in this case, I know a lot of wonderful, dedicated Christians in this situation who have experienced tremendous pain and yet never complain about it. I wanted to take an opportunity to complain on their behalf, and to say, “Hey, this isn’t easy. These folks need our support. Let’s give it to them.”
And I stand by that.
It’s story time, everyone! Today we get to take a journey through someone else’s life.
One of the things I love doing on my blog is looking at things from different people’s perspectives. Sometimes I address my posts to conservative Christians; other times I address them to the LGBT community. Today we’re going to be looking at things from a perspective many people forget even exists—the Side B gay Christian.
If you’re new to this blog, you should know that I sometimes use terminology from a now-defunct organization called Bridges Across the Divide. They used the terms “Side A” and “Side B” to refer to different moral views on gay sex.
Those on Side A support consummated gay relationships.
Those on Side B believe that sex should only be between a man and a woman.
I grew up on Side B and eventually changed my mind to become Side A. I have friends, followers, and readers on both sides (and some who are undecided).
But for today’s post, we’re going to look at everything from a Side B perspective. So, to all my Side A readers, it’s time to put on our Empathy Caps and imagine the world as if we were Side B. (If you just absolutely cannot stand to do that, you might consider skipping today’s post.)
Now while my Side A readers are getting their Empathy Caps situated, I’m going to ask my straight Side B readers to get yours out too. Because we’re not just going to look at the world through Side B eyes; we’re going to look at it through the eyes of a Side B person who experiences same-sex attraction.
If you’re already same-sex attracted and Side B, you might not need your Empathy Cap, but hey, it never hurts.
Okay, everyone ready? Got your caps on? Here we go… powering up Empathy Caps…
* * *
And here you are, looking at the world through brand-new eyes.
In this life, you are a Side B Christian. Your faith in Christ is incredibly important to you—the most important thing in your whole world, in fact. You want to do anything you can to please God, even if it means sacrificing of yourself.
But you’re also human. You have normal human needs, insecurities, fears, worries, joys, sorrows, and the rest of it. Sometimes you feel lonely. Sometimes you strain to hear God’s voice. Your church family is a big support to you in these times, imperfect though it may be.
There’s one thing your church family doesn’t know about you. When you hit puberty and all your friends started becoming attracted to the opposite sex, you didn’t. You began feeling things for other people of the same sex as you.
You don’t know why you have these feelings, though over the years you’ve imagined a thousand different scenarios to try to explain it. Did something happen to you as a child that you don’t remember? Is it because you didn’t always get along with your dad—or because you were too close, or not close enough, with your mom? Were you too sociable with the opposite sex as a kid? Were you not sociable enough? Or is it just something about how your brain is wired, maybe even from birth? You don’t know, but this is the only reality you’ve ever experienced. You have no idea what it would feel like to be attracted to the opposite sex. Every time you’ve ever felt those “butterflies,” it’s always been for someone of the same sex as you.
You try going on dates with members of the opposite sex, but you feel nothing, and you feel bad lying to the other person, telling them you find them attractive when you honestly don’t. You’ve tried your hardest to see what your same-sex friends see in certain members of the opposite sex, but there’s just nothing at all alluring about them to you. Not a single one.
As you think about your future, how are you feeling right about now?
Gradually, it dawns on you that you’re “gay”—but here’s a problem. All the other gay people you’ve ever met or heard of are Side A. They date people of the same sex. They fight for same-sex marriage. They embrace their sexuality as something good or at least neutral. You’re not like that. For you, it’s something terrible. It’s a flaw. A disease. You believe strongly that God has restricted sex and marriage to one man and one woman, and that’s what you want for yourself—except that you have no opposite-sex attraction whatsoever, and you hate yourself for that. You feel trapped.
You’re lonely, too. Who can possibly relate to your situation? You’re always afraid of being judged—by fellow Christians for your attractions (they think it’s something you chose), and by fellow gay people for your theological views (they call you self-loathing and deluded).
Think about that. Seriously, pause for just a bit and think about how you’d feel in this situation. Who would your friends be? Who would you trust with this information? And how are you holding up so far?
Eventually, you decide it’s time to be honest with your church family. You know you need their support. You’re terrified to tell them, but you do so, expressing it primarily in terms of an “ongoing temptation” that you’re struggling with. You cross your fingers and hope for the best.
At first, they’re surprisingly positive about the whole thing. They affirm you for your honesty and transparency. They offer words of encouragement about how Christ is sufficient in all things. They remark that everyone struggles with temptations, and though yours may be different, they love you no matter what.
Encouraged by your church, you get into therapy to change your attractions, but you eventually discover that your attractions still don’t change. Though you pray daily for a miracle, so far, you’re still very much attracted to the same sex and not at all attracted to the opposite sex. You believe it would be wrong for you to pursue a relationship with someone you have no feelings for, and you believe the Bible forbids a relationship with someone of the same sex, so for now, you commit yourself to celibacy.
You also meet others who have been through the same thing, and discover that there’s a good chance your attractions will never change. You might be alone forever.
Sit with that for a moment. How does that feel? You’ll never have a spouse. Never have kids. Never have sex. Never have a family of your own. Take a few minutes to contemplate that this is how the rest of your life will be.
You keep reminding yourself that the Christian life involves sacrifice, and you put on a brave face. You try not to let it get to you as your Christian friends date and get married. The support you got from them begins to fade as they spend more time on their own families. They’ve moved on from your “problem.” You understand. But it’s lonely at your place, night after night, with just the TV and frozen dinners. You hear stories of gay people who’ve embraced their sexuality and seem very happy. You want that, but you’re trying to stay strong in what you believe. You hear other stories of people who’ve become straight (at least that’s what some people say) and gotten married. You want that, too, but it doesn’t seem to be happening for you, despite all your faith and prayers.
From time to time, your church holds you up as an example of a powerful testimony because of your celibacy, and you find yourself thrust into the spotlight in a way you didn’t expect. Every time that happens, you feel a rush from the adulation, tinged with the sting of hatred from the gay community.
But the adulation wears off faster than the sting does. You feel a certain temptation to become a public spokesperson on this issue, because at least you could keep the adulation coming in, but that’s not really you. And sometimes you feel bitter, like you’ve come to represent a political issue in the eyes of your fellow Christians, but you don’t feel very known by them personally.
You’re also not sure how to identify yourself when people ask. Should you call yourself a “celibate gay Christian”? A “Christian who struggles with same-sex attractions”? Even just finding words to explain your situation feels like a political statement, which is the last thing you want. You just want to feel less alone.
What would you call yourself? Would you understand it if someone else in the same situation made a different choice? How would you feel if people made faulty assumptions about you on the basis of the words you chose?
No matter what you call yourself, you find that a lot of people in “the world” are constantly judging your choices. You get lumped in with the label “ex-gay” even if it’s a word you’ve never used for yourself. You get accused of being personally responsible for the trials of many gay people. You’re called a liar, even if you’ve always been completely honest about what you feel. And you’re constantly told that you’re foolish not to give in to your “natural” desires. Non-Christians ridicule your faith—even more than they did before you came out—and more liberal Christians are constantly trying to get you to go to a gay-affirming church and embrace your sexuality.
You remind yourself over and over that the Christian life involves persecution and ridicule, and most of the time, you’re pretty good about not letting it get to you. But there are some days when it’s really tough. Sometimes you doubt yourself. Sometimes you just want to sit down and cry. It’s lonely to be where you are, and you wish more people understood what it was like.
When you express these feelings to some of your Christian friends, they make casual but hurtful remarks about how you just need to “work on your relationship with God.” Do they think you’re not already doing that? They seem to believe that as long as you’re focused on God, you won’t ever feel lonely. But you can’t help but notice that these same people invest a lot of time in their own romantic relationships, and even God Himself said that it wasn’t good for Adam to be alone in Genesis.
Some days, you deal with all of this pretty darn well. You have a great prayer life, you study the Word, and you feel productive in your job. But you’re only human, and on those darker days, you feel more alone than ever. Maybe you consider abandoning the Side B thing and just finding a same-sex partner—or at least a one-night stand, though you know it wouldn’t really be fulfilling. Maybe you consider trying to marry someone of the opposite sex, even though you don’t believe it would be fair to them, and you know people who have done it who seem to be going through much of the same stuff you are.
At times, you find yourself echoing the lament of a celibate Side B Christian I quoted in my book TORN:
My experience with a lot of churches is that they will say, ‘Gay people should be celibate,’ but then leave you out in the cold to figure out what that means.
Yet when you express these feelings to the Christians in your life—if you can get a moment in between time with their spouse and time with their kids—they offer trite platitudes about “giving it to God” and how “Christ is sufficient” and how your “reward will be in heaven.” You do believe these things, but right now, you need something more concrete and tangible. When you say so, your Christian friends look puzzled, remind you not to backslide, and then go back to spend time with their boyfriends and girlfriends and wives and husbands and kids.
Meanwhile, every night, it’s you, your TV, and your microwave.
* * *
So… how are you feeling right now?
As you’ve been putting yourself in these shoes, have you had some thoughts about what this person should do?
If you’re Side A, you’ve no doubt been thinking that this person should just abandon their Side B views and become Side A. But remember, for the moment we’re looking at this from the perspective of someone who deeply, deeply believes that Side B is right. They can’t just change this belief at will, even if they might like to.
What other options do they have? Perhaps you’ve considered that they should find a close friend in a similar situation—someone to share a close, intimate, but non-sexual relationship with, a sort of “special friend” to help address their loneliness without violating their beliefs. Well, some Side B gay Christians have done just that, but it frequently earns them condemnation from other Christians, who have referred to it by terms like “diet homosexuality.”
Perhaps, instead, you’d suggest that this person find a community of others in the same situation—other same-sex-attracted Christians with Side B views, for support and camaraderie. Well, that’s why the Gay Christian Network exists and why there is a Side B community there, but again, many Christians offer condemnation here because they fear such a community would open the door to temptation.
In reality, while everyone’s experience is different, life can be very challenging for a celibate Side B gay Christian. When you understand that, it’s not a surprise that people in this situation often end up, in a moment of weakness, looking for a one-night stand online or something similar. It’s not that they’re hypocrites. They’re just lonely. And the church has historically been very bad at offering the real support these folks need.
So if this little exercise in empathy was helpful for you, especially if you’re a straight Side B Christian, consider reevaluating how you and your church approach this issue. If our Side B churches spent less time arguing about gay marriage and more time actually supporting those in our midst who need love and support, this would be a completely different world.
Oh, and you can take off your Empathy Caps now.
Actually, on second thought… leave ‘em on. They might do us all some good.
Follow-up post: Following up on the Empathy Cap exercise.
This week, an article in the Atlantic by my friend Brandon Ambrosino has been getting a lot of attention. Brandon wrote about being a gay student at Liberty University, making the case that he was shown more love than he expected on this conservative Christian campus, even though he knew many of the people he encountered didn’t agree with his homosexuality.
(Here’s a link to the article, but be forewarned: it contains explicit language and some adult content.)
As you might guess from his writing style, Brandon’s audience is largely on the progressive end of the spectrum—folks who believe there’s nothing wrong with being gay and that the environment on Christian campuses like Liberty is not only homophobic but sexually repressed as well. (“What’s wrong with a little sexual exploration in college?” they might ask. “Isn’t that part of what college is for?”)
But for conservative Christians, Brandon’s story raises other questions. Even if they agree that no one chooses same-sex attractions, there’s no question that some of the behavior Brandon describes in his article goes beyond the sexual ethic of a school like Liberty. So while some Christians might criticize Brandon merely for being gay, others might criticize him not for his orientation but for doing things like cuddling in bed with another man in his underwear. After all, they’d argue, Liberty wouldn’t allow straight male students to cuddle in bed with women in their underwear!
In any case, a number of conservative Christians have been asking why Brandon doesn’t tell stories of Liberty professors calling him to repentance. Has Liberty gone soft? Is the church failing to take a strong stand against sin?
I suspect Brandon was “held accountable” by folks and merely left those stories out because he wanted to focus on something else. But here lies the problem for so many conservative Christians. If you disagree with someone like Brandon, or someone like me, it’s like walking a tightrope, isn’t it? If you’re too critical, you run the risk of being just another Christian jerk, piling on like I discussed in my last blog post. But if you’re not critical enough, you run the risk of being accused of failing to take a stand on sin. You can’t win!
The trouble is that Christians have a (not undeserved) reputation for being hurtful and unkind to gay people. There hasn’t been a lot of grace in Christian conversations about homosexuality, and many gay people have been through significant trauma and pain at the hands of Christians.
This has left many of us gay folks hypersensitive to criticism. You know how it feels when you’ve been sunburned, and even the tiniest touch hurts like the dickens? Well, that’s how it can feel to be a gay person who’s been hurt by Christians over and over again; the tiniest hint of disapproval can burn. When Christians fail to recognize that, they come across as far harsher than they realize.
But at the same time, if you honestly believe that I’m committing a sin, especially in a Christian environment, don’t you have a certain obligation to hold me accountable? If this is what would be expected for any other Christian, why should I get a pass because I’m gay?
So it’s a tightrope. Throw in some winds of cultural change, and I dare you to keep your balance. One misstep and you could destroy a friendship, harm a person, or damage the church’s reputation. Good luck!
This is why so many pastors, parents, and other Christians find themselves torn. They want to be good friends. They don’t want to be like the crowd of Pharisees, ready to stone the adulterous woman. They don’t want to pile on when they know someone has been emotionally beaten up by other Christians. But they do want to hold their fellow Christians accountable to live holy lives, especially when they’re in positions of authority where such accountability is expected.
So how do you do it?
My answer is simple. You get to know the person. You get to know their story intimately. You make the effort to see the world through their eyes—to know their past, their pain, and the reasoning behind their current decisions. Only then, once you’ve come to fully understand what they’re going through, will you be in a position to make informed decisions about what they need, be it more support, more accountability, or whatever else.
See, the biggest problem is that so many people try to cut corners here. They issue their response before taking the time to truly understand the other person. They misread the situation, and they end up failing to offer accountability where it’s needed, or—far more often—failing to recognize the person’s pain, and ending up piling on criticism when support and encouragement was needed instead.
There’s no blanket rule here. The only way to make an accurate assessment of what I need from you is to get to know me so well that you know my story, my feelings, and my fears.
“But that takes a lot of work!”, some people will say.
Yes, it does. Who told you the Christian life was easy?
P.S. I’ve just interviewed Brandon about his story for my weekly podcast, GCN Radio, and he had some really interesting things to say about this. Watch for it this Friday on the GCN Radio page.
Related post: Loving them into hell?
The other day, I posted about why “speaking the truth in love” isn’t an excuse for theological debates. I said that real love needs to be evident through grace, not just trying to make me agree with you.
One of my Facebook friends responded with this comment:
I have been told that by loving people and not telling them the truth I am loving them into hell. Then they told me some famous Christian artist wrote a song saying that. It just made me feel like poo.
If a Christian singer said it, it must be true!
After I stopped my inner child from giggling at the word “poo,” I thought about this. Many of you may have been subjected to the same pressures. But I think this person’s friend has it all wrong.
Some of you will no doubt want to respond right away by pointing out that you either don’t believe in a literal hell or don’t view it the same way this person’s friend does. I don’t really want to get into a debate about hell, though, so for the sake of argument, let’s say that this person is right that gay sex is sinful and that hell is a place of eternal torment for people who die without repenting of their sins and giving their lives to Christ.
Well, if that’s true, then I can tell you right now that the American church—particularly those conservative and evangelical segments of it, like the ones I grew up in—has already developed the most effective strategy I can imagine… for sending gay people straight to hell.
Yeah, I said it.
What many people would consider “loving me by telling me the truth” I would call “constantly harassing me with Bible passages and arguments about sin until I’m sick of listening to anything they have to say.”
“Wait, that’s not fair,” some Christians might say. “I’m not constantly harassing you. I only bring it up sometimes.”
True, maybe you don’t bring it up constantly, but you are one of many Christians I know, all of whom think they’re only bringing it up “sometimes”—to the point that I have to listen to it… ALL. THE. TIME.
Imagine waking up with a large, very noticeable zit on your face. All day long, as you interact with people, one person after another takes the opportunity to say, “Hey, did you know you’ve got a big zit?” It’s a bit uncomfortable when the first or second person mentions it, but by the tenth person, you’re ready to bite someone’s head off:
“Yes, I know!!!!! Shut up about it already!!!!!!”
On the other hand, what if you have food in your teeth and no one bothers to tell you? You might be a bit embarrassed, but you’d surely be grateful for the friend who loves you enough to (privately) tell you the truth: “Hey, there’s a bit of spinach in there. Also, your zipper’s undone.”
The key is knowing the difference. When you “share the truth in love,” are you the lone person offering a new perspective? Or are you just piling on?
When it comes to gay people in our culture, I can guarantee you that you’re piling on. There is not a single gay person in the United States—no matter how many affirming friends they have, and no matter how liberal an area they live in—who hasn’t already heard time and time again that many Christians believe them to be abominable. If people get irritated about being reminded of a silly pimple, how do you think they feel about being reminded that others believe they’re going to hell?
I know I find it painful. And I’m a Christian who actually cares about this stuff, so if I’m sick of it, you know my agnostic, atheist, and other non-Christian friends are ready to pull their hair out. (I have an advantage in that my hair is already out.)
It’s no secret that I don’t think being gay is a sin or that gay relationships are sinful. But if you do, and you’re concerned about my eternal destiny, a strategy where you keep your emotional distance and regularly remind me of your disapproval isn’t going to change my mind. If anything, it’s going to make me less likely to believe anything you say, and less likely to be interested in being a Christian.
“Tough love” is a good strategy sometimes. But this isn’t an intervention for a drug addict, and if you don’t see the difference between drug addiction and being gay, you haven’t spent very much time listening to gay people.
The irony, you see, is that the person who is supposedly “loving me into hell” by just being my friend and showing me the grace and love of Christ is the person I’m much more likely to listen to when it comes to big decisions in my life.
But in the end, if I don’t ask them for their opinion on the issue, it ultimately won’t be because they were too loving. It’ll be because I’m so sick of hearing the ungracious messages from the “truth-telling” crowd.