Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Love is a Battlefield: Some Theological Thoughts on Same-Sex Attraction and the Church

photo credit: mtsofan (Creative Commons)
Same-sex attraction and gay marriage.

If there is an issue that is more divisive among the North American church, I'm unaware of it. It divides generations, denominations, church bodies, and families. The issue has fallen into the "which side are YOU on?" category, causing people to either make passionate and polarizing stands for one side, or shift uncomfortably in their seat and dodge the question.

President Obama is now the first standing American president to openly endorse same-sex marriage. Regarding his own Christian faith in the matter, Obama said this:
“The thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the golden rule — you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated,” he said. “And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids, and that’s what motivates me as president.”
In the same week of Obama's announcement, North Carolina passed an amendment to their state constitution banning same-sex marriage by an overwhelming majority. Pastor and evangelical leader Andy Stanley also found himself under fire by conservative voices after using a gay couple's story as a sermon illustration, spawning numerous passionate responses from both sides of the aisle. Rob Bell's recent approval of same-sex marriage furthered the divide between evangelicals while the Supreme Court weighs the case for gay marriage regarding California's ban.

A brief glance at all the social networking sites--Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.--reveals that the conversation surrounding sexuality and same-sex attraction quickly becomes a shouting match, with neither side really open to listening or rethinking their paradigm or position.

The tone of this conversation can neither be militant nor meek, regardless of which side one finds themselves. Militant fundamentalists and militant GLBT both can take on a posture of combativeness and judgment that can be more motivated by being right than by being loving. However, it simply will not suffice to ignore the issue or offer shallow proposals of "can't we all just get along?" Churches--and particularly, youth ministry leaders--must know how to respond with a posture of grace and truth, or any good news we share will be drowned out by the noise of anti-homosexual sentiments or anti-Christian polemics

Particularly in youth ministry, we must have a healthy and Jesus-y response. As recorded in David Kinnaman's unChristian, when asked by the Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “anti-homosexual.” For an alarming 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. An entire generation--my generation--is growing up in a culture where gay rights is portrayed as the 21st-century-equivalent of civil rights and womens' rights. Rachel Held Evans wrote this post about the generational differences regarding last year's North Carolina amendment:   
As I watched my Facebook and Twitter feeds last night, the reaction among my friends fell into an imperfect but highly predictable pattern. Christians over 40 were celebrating. Christians under 40 were mourning.  Reading through the comments, the same thought kept returning to my mind as occurred to me when I first saw that Billy Graham ad: You’re losing us.
I’ve said it a million times, and I’ll say it again...(though I’m starting to think that no one is listening): 

My generation is tired of the culture wars. 

We are tired of fighting, tired of vain efforts to advance the Kingdom through politics and power, tired of drawing lines in the sand, tired of being known for what we are against, not what we are for. 
In this regard, I wholeheartedly agree. The culture wars--like most wars--will only lead to casualties and bitterness on both sides. Instead of a cultural engagement strategy of legislation, Christian bumper stickers, and "take back North America" rhetoric, perhaps an incarnational response is required. Jesus transformed culture by moving into the neighborhood and embodying grace and truth, revealing the glory of the God who created and transcends all cultures. As ambassadors of the kingdom who have been given the message of reconciliation, followers of Jesus must lead the charge for justice and grace, elevating the conversation to a level beyond shouting matches and social media rants. We also must teach young people how to make wise and loving choices regarding issues of sexuality and same-sex attraction, moving beyond the confusing messages of culture to the guiding theological truths found in Scripture.

Theological questions relevant to this issue:
  • What is a person? What is my theological understanding of anthropology? How did God design human beings, and what does it mean to be fully human?
  • What is the interconnection between identity and sexuality?
  • What does God desire for human sexuality, and do I trust that God's desires are best?
  • What is marriage? What are the theological, cultural, and legal definitions of the term, and how do I reconcile each definition with the others?
  • What does it mean to "love your neighbor as yourself" in this issue? How can I best love my gay and lesbian neighbors? How can I be good news to a member of the GLBT community?
  • What does it look like to live in community as the body of Christ, to encourage and exhort and offer grace?
  • What are the unhealthy biases and predispositions I bring to the table that could blind me to loving other people?
And some practical responses for interaction in conversations:

-Never use anti-gay rhetoric. Ever. Using words like "fag" and "homo" in any form are completely inappropriate for a follower of Jesus in any context.

-Avoid using extreme blanket statements. Saying that the church ALWAYS judges others, or that one's sexual desires and behaviors could NEVER change is simply unhelpful and untrue. There is more nuance and subtlety and mystery in the world. Let's not cover it up with a black-and-white blanket.

-Read a lot of well-thought-through and Scripture-filled books. Not just the stuff you agree with, regardless of your position. Find great books on both Christianity and the GLBT community from a variety of perspectives. Here is the best book I've read on the subject of Christianity and the gay community: Love is an Orientation, by Andrew Marin.

-Social media and strong opinions don't mix well. If you can't actually sit down with a person and have a thoughtful and encouraging discussion over coffee or a meal, then don't blast them with your 5-paragraph-long comment on how their position in the issue is completely and utterly wrong. Changing your profile picture or cover photo or sharing a meme will not make you a more loving person. If you need to, practice the discipline of self-control and restraint, of not always having the last word on the subject. (I realize the irony of writing this in a blog post, which is a social media setting. If you disagree with me, let's have an actual conversation about it. I'll buy the coffee.)

-Believe the best in people. Choose to view others in the best possible light. Don't assume their motives or run every statement they make through a filter of judgment. View people through the lens of grace; you'll see everything more clearly that way.

-Pray. Pray for the North American church. Pray for the GLBT community. Pray for peace and wisdom and clarity and love, real love, 1 John 4:10 sacrificial love that we celebrate this week at Easter. God help us. We need it.

I have friends and family who are gay. I love them in the name of Jesus. I hope they know it. I hope they see it in me and my family. I hope to always maintain a posture of both grace and truth, embracing both and allowing Jesus to pour His grace/truth through me and spill out onto my gay and lesbian companions. I'm not perfect at this, but I hope to grow in grace.

Maybe this issue doesn't have to be such a battlefield. Perhaps one day we'll beat our swords into plowshares and our Facebook comments into words of encouragement. Maybe one day we can hold hands in solidarity by the reaches of grace, recognizing that Christ is in the process of renewing and redeeming all things.

What do you think? Share your loving and thoughtful response in the comments!


  1. It's always great to read your words of wisdom Joel, I will be keeping these points in mind, and I think everybody ought to read this and give serious thought to the points you make.

  2. "There is more nuance and subtlety and mystery in the world. Let's not cover it up with a black-and-white blanket." I like that phrase....