LGBTQ+ people have been hurt a LOT by Christians. A lot. If we can’t acknowledge that without trying to justify it, we will never re-build the burnt bridges between Christians and LGBTQ+ people.
I was recently in Austin, Texas attending a conference and visiting some friends of mine when another friend of mine back home reached out to me. We’ve known each other for years and he is now a pastor in a local church. He said that he was looking at preaching about the topic of LGBTQ+ people in an upcoming sermon and wanted to reach out to me because he wanted to tackle some unhealthy stereotypes and assumptions that Christians often make about that community, in order to take steps to love LGBTQ+ people better. He asked if I would be willing to make a list of things for him to consider in his sermon preparation. He said that I had come to mind because of my passion and personal investment in this topic, feeling like I had great insight and good posture towards this conversation.
In general, I felt really honored that he thought of me and was willing to ask me. I appreciate churches and pastors who are willing to actually enter this conversation with kindness and intentionality, which is certainly how I feel about this friend. We respect each other a lot and enjoy each other’s company.
However, there was a part of me that felt anxious because I knew his church held a non-affirming position, while I hold a full-affirming position. Most people who know me personally known how deeply I care about this, how it has shifted my family, my friends, how I’ve done my job in the past, and even how I no longer feel comfortable regularly attending churches that aren’t inclusive and affirming of LGBTQ+ people. And yet here I was being invite to participate, in some small way, with a church and with a congregation who doesn’t know me about a topic we will likely disagree in.
I think we are all familiar with at least one conversation where we have the opportunity to engage with someone who holds a different conviction than we do. I could either choose not to participate because I disagree with a non-affirming stance….. or I could work towards building bridges between LGBTQ+ people & their allies and with more traditional Christians. I always talk about learning to find common ground and connecting in our humanity while still holding onto our diversity, and this was an opportunity to do so. This was an opportunity for unity without uniformity. I wanted to trust my friend, that he would represent my words and my heart well. I didn’t want to shut down an opportunity for connection or for learning or increased empathy because I was nervous…..or even because I was being judgmental of people I had never met.
So this is what I sent back to my friend. If you are a Christian who holds a traditionally conservative, non-affirming view of LGBTQ+ people but you are holding the tension of knowing that there has been a lot hurt in this space and you want to learn how to love LGBTQ+ people better, this is for you:
Thanks for letting me take a couple of days to think about what I wanted to share with you. I really do appreciate that you respect my thoughts and wanted my input. When you asked, I was both immediately honored/excited and also nervous. While I’m glad you suggested me making a list of things for you to think & pray about, it still felt hard to condense my thoughts and anxious about how those thoughts will be received when I’m not physically present to represent myself. It’s deeply important and deeply personal for me, a journey that I’ve been on for over a decade, one with LOTS of prayer, reading, research, and relational learning. I’d also encourage you to continue to educate yourself about this after your sermon on Sunday. Preaching one sermon on this “topic” every once in a while isn’t equal to really learning how to love LGBTQ+ people (not implying that’s all you’re interested in, just wanting to encourage you to stay engaged). I’m including some resources at the bottom. Even if they don’t land at the same conclusion as you, I think it’s important as a pastor to be well-read and engaging with other points of view, so I’ll include some of my favorites. Most of them engage with the big questions, Scripture passages, and differences of opinion in ways that I find to be uniting. But here’s what I’ve been thinking:
The most important thing is to come to this conversation with a heart of compassion (actually being moved by other people’s pain, that we let it matter to us) and humility. If anyone is walking into this topic thinking they have all the answers, that should be an immediate heart check. Learning to be better listeners is a skill we ALL need to work on. Even if you disagree, let the pain of LGBTQ+ people matter to you, even if Christians are the ones that caused the pain. There will be a lot of temptation to get defensive, to explain away, or to minimize. Don’t. The first step is to listen and realize you don’t know it all. We all have things to learn from LGBTQ+ people because we all have things to learn from the stories of other human beings because each human being is an image bearer of God. If even this paragraph is frustrating for people, ask them to get curious about why that is and realize they may not actually be as loving towards LGBTQ+ people as they maybe thought they were if frustration or defensiveness is their immediate response. The truth is that God delights in and adores LGBTQ+ people as much as He delights in and adores you.
We need to be aware of the concept that I call “intent versus impact.” It goes along with this idea of having humility, compassion, and empathy. It goes along with what we know about healthy communication and learning to talk through disagreements in relationships. Sometimes our intentions don’t align with our impact. I may say something to someone that I meant one way, either in a positive light or what I thought was neutral, and it actually ended up being negative and hurtful. We all have the capacity to do this. Christians are often oblivious to this when it comes to dealing with the messy, complicated realities of people’s stories, and this is no exception. We’re uncomfortable and so we offer Christianese phrases or Bible verses to try and offer answers, to wrap a pretty bow around things to make it look nicer. We say that we’re “speaking the truth in love” when really we may just be hurtful and judgmental. LGBTQ+ people have been hurt a LOT by Christians. A lot. If we can’t acknowledge that without trying to justify it, we will never re-build the burnt bridges between Christians and LGBTQ+ people. Regardless of Christians’ intentions, the impact has been negative in many ways. It has obliterated people’s hearts. There has been verbal/spiritual/sexual abuse against LGBTQ+ within the church from church people. Getting defensive or trying to minimize that won’t help. Learning to ask ourselves what our impact has been regardless of our intentions is really important.
Acknowledge that if someone chooses to come out to you, it likely is a SCARY thing for them and it is an honor that they took a risk to chose to tell you. Treat it as such. That level of authenticity and vulnerability is incredibly; please protect them in it. If you’re a Christian, they anticipate that you will reject them. That you will offer Bible verses that are often referred to as “clobber” verses (Leviticus, Romans, etc.) and ask them if they’ve prayed about it and surrendered it to the Lord. They expect that you will be disappointed in them. They expect that you will say hurtful things. They have probably spent years trying to pray for God to change them. Many LGBTQ+ people have spent time in Christian therapy, trying to change their sexual orientation or gender identity. In general, they’ve already spent a LONG time considering or engaging in those spaces, so don’t assume this isn’t something they’ve already been dealing with for quite some time. Your job isn’t to offer answers in that moment or phrases you’ve heard regurgitated from church; it’s your job to make that space safe, to remind them that you love them unconditionally, that you’re willing to listen and to learn so you can better understand where they’re at, and that you want to keep doing life together.
The reality is that living in relationship, living in proximity, to each other changes how we engage with this messy topic. Regardless of differences in Biblical interpretation or political conviction, choosing to say “I don’t understand everything about where you’re at, but if this is the reality you’re dealing with, I’m going with you” is incredibly powerful.
Just because you believe that you are right and hold the correct view of Scripture doesn’t give you permission to communicate your views on this topic to LGBTQ+ people at any time and in any way you want. Tact still matters. Kindness still matters. Ask that person “Would you like my thoughts or would you just like me to listen right now?” We don’t have permission to speak into anyone or everyone’s life. It’s not your job to save or fix that person. They’re not your project and they’re not doomed.
Realize that conservative Christians don’t hold the only and final say on God’s truth. There are diligent scholars who fall in many different spaces on this issue. There are Christians who affirm LGBTQ+ people or are LGBTQ+ people who still love God. Who still value Scripture. Who still are drawn to and try to live out the example that Jesus set for us. You may disagree or still struggle to accept that, but they exist whether you want them to or not. So we can argue about the validity of those people’s existence and the labels or truths they’ve named for themselves… or we can elevate the conversation and find unity without uniformity.
Phrases/Words That Are Unhelpful To Say:
-“Hate the sin; love the sinner.” – People don’t actually feel loved when they hear this. So often, once Christians find out someone is LGBTQ+, they act like that’s the only thing they need to know about them. That it is the defining detail of their life. So if we’ve made that the defining detail of who they are, they don’t hear “hating the sin and loving the sinner” as two separate things. They feel like one and the same. Back to that intent versus impact. Christian intent may be to be loving when they say this; the impact is hurtful. So I’d just cross it out of your vocabulary.
-“Homosexuals“: Because this word has been weaponized against LGBTQ+ people and has a lot of derogatory connotations, using the acronym “LGBTQ+” is really an easy way to diffuse some tension instead of telling someone that they’re a “homosexual.” It’s not playing into “the gay agenda”; it’s offering basic respect to another human being to not use a hurtful word that makes someone feel alienated and unsafe. Which leads me into my next unhelpful phrase…….
-“The gay agenda“: First off, lots of people and groups of people have agendas, Christians included. We toss around phrases like “the liberal agenda” or “the conservative agenda” and there is often an air of condescension, while also communicating that we need to fear those ideas. And what that often translates into is looking down on while simultaneously fearing THOSE people. It creates division. It creates a false dichotomy, ripe with caricatures and stereotypes. It hastens us to be ready to either defend or fight, because they’re on the other team. It stokes the fires of us versus them, and that’s so unhelpful. Often what is referred to as the gay agenda is just to have what you have and hold dear. The freedom to be in love, to have a family, to not get worried about being fired from their job, etc. You may disagree with whether or not you want to acknowledge that or support that, but those are human longings and being able to empathize in that is important in humanizing one another instead of seeing each other as the enemy that threatens all we hold dear. LGBTQ+ people aren’t the enemy and they aren’t dangerous. They’re not here to turn your kids gay too. They’re not predators or molesters. They just want things that humans want: love, connection, family, safety, security, and the pursuit of happiness. We need to stop treating LGBTQ+ people like an issue to be solved or eradicated or conquered, and like human beings with a story. Human beings who deserve to be treated with basic human decency and respect. People who deserve to be listened to. People who still have gifts and talents to offer the church.
-“The gay lifestyle”: This is a huge stereotype because not all LGBTQ+ people live the same life or make the same choices. This phrase is often used to point out some people’s convictions that being gay is a choice and that all gays are living lives that are full of debauchery. It implies drinking until you blackout and hook-up culture by having sex with strangers and STDs. Guess where substance abuse and hook-up culture and STDs also exist?…… Among straight people. So instead of using that phrase, which again is an inaccurate stereotype……. What if we just learned about and entered into the life of the LGBTQ+ person in front of us instead of assuming we understand how they live their life? Often, it’s not as dangerous or scandalous as you’ve imagined it to be.
–Not calling a trans person by their preferred name/pronouns: I know so many Christians struggle with this, but I promise you that lives are literally on the line. The rate of suicidal thoughts and attempts amongst trans people is incredibly high. It may make you uncomfortable, but the isolation and rejection and pain that they are processing may make them think that it would be better to be dead than transgender (this reality can apply to gay people as well). You refusing to use that name or those pronouns will not keep them from transitioning and it will not keep them closer to Jesus/off the “slippery slope” (hate that phrase too). It will be hurtful to your relationship and keep you from being a safe place. I know many Christians see it as condoning sin; I see it as because you cannot offer them the basic respect of meeting them where they’re at.
I could go on for quite some time, but I will leave it there for now. If you have any thoughts, questions, or clarifications you are looking for, I would be more than happy to do so.
–Love Is An Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community by Andrew Marin
–Us Versus Us: The Untold Story of Religion and the LGBT Community by Andrew Marin
–Changing Our Mind by David Gushee
–Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays Vs. Christians Debate by Justin Lee
–Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America by Jeff Chu
Conversation between 2 prominent voices on LGBTQ+ issues and the church with opposing viewpoints: http://geekyjustin.com/new-bible-page-and-preston-sprinkle-debate-video/