(This article was originally published by Tom Pugh on Transparent in November 2018)
Three years of dedicated time researching and thinking through the situation of sexual minorities in The Church has given me several observations I think are worth your consideration.
I write this out of concern for the mental health of gay people in connection with Christianity and out of a desire to carve out a home for us in and amongst God’s people. But primarily I want to see gay people given the resources they need to make Jesus known with their lives, to have stability, solidarity and confidence from which they can declare Jesus’ sufficiency and supremacy.
MOVING GAY CHRISTIANS FROM A POSITION OF SUFFERING, TO ONE OF FLOURISHING
Though gay people in western culture, by and large, have bounded towards a position of flourishing in the last decade or so, same-sex attracted Christians are still locked down by shame and ambiguity. By ambiguity I mean questions about how life is going to look in the long-run, about what terms should be used to define one’s experience, about how to feel towards that inner reality, about how a gay Christian should relate to either sex, about what might happen should one start opening up about their orientation. Basically, what place does my sexuality have as someone in Christ?
Of course, at this point in time, there has been no shortage of information regarding this minority in The Church. People are generally much better equipped to address the same-sex attracted individuals sitting in their pews. Great! And yet we should not become complacent just because we know how to say and do some of the right things by our gay sisters and brothers.
I think part of the reason why our same-sex attracted spiritual siblings are still generally withdrawn and fearful is because our main approach is to stoop down and meet them in their suffering: offering pastoral care, recommending counselling, support groups etc.
That’s all fine and good. Let’s not forgot that “gay” was used as a derogatory term on a very regular basis by many Australians (including Christians) up until not that many years ago. Certainly, when I was growing up I heard it used as such by my peers and family. So there is absolutely a place for meeting the gay Christian in the damage and shame that they might carry.
But here’s the thing, if we only provide help in suffering, we’re not actually offering the chance to thrive; we never spell out how it would look to be in a position of flourishing. In fact, we’re sending a message that the gay person is acutely broken and exclusively inhibited from whole-hearted, integrated life in God’s Kingdom.
If we help same-sex attracted Christians move from a state of vulnerability towards a state of flourishing, then we have a) enriched The Church (more on that in the last few paragraphs) and b) we have given those individuals a much healthier environment in which to make thought-out decisions about their lives.
This, I believe, is the necessary next step we must take.
WE NEED MORE PEOPLE TO REPRESENT SEXUAL MINORITIES IN THE CHURCH
Part of this next step places the onus on same-sex attracted Christians.
There are vanishingly few Australian Christian people who are willing to stand up and talk, in a public setting, about their experience of being gay or same-sex attracted. I can count the ones I know on one hand, a hand that might be suffering some missing digits.
I’m very conscious that I can’t represent the entire same-sex attracted community in The Church, not fully. I do my best to be honest about my own experience and I do my best to talk to as many of my same-sex attracted brothers and sisters as I can, letting their stories shape what I emphasise when I speak. But one person can capture only so much nuance.
For a greater extent of flourishing to be made possible we need a weightier load of proof regarding the Christian life for gay people and their presence in The Body.
Gay people in the church don’t fit with the prevailing narrative of how Christianity is expected to look. Until we have a stronger story to attach ourselves to – where we have dignity and honour, visibility and presence, a valid expression of The Gospel out of our sexuality – it’s going to be increasingly difficult, in our modern culture, for same-sex attracted persons to stay in The Church.
My friend Mitch (one of the people you could count on that wounded hand I mentioned), says,
“We can’t blame The Church for not knowing what to do with us if we’re not prepared to come out and help them. There’s a challenge for us to be more open with our stories at great risk. The Church needs our help.”
You’re openness can be for the betterment of our wider spiritual family.
HOMOPHOBIA IN THE CHURCH
How do you measure a mentality across as large a demographic as Christianity in Australia? Effectively, you can’t, and you should be sceptical of anyone who claims they can definitively do so.
Anecdotally speaking, I would not say the Australian Church is a homophobic place. Since I came out on a large scale about 2 years ago, I have found that The Church very much wants to hear from people like me. I’ve been met with warmth, gratitude and affirmation about my willingness to be candid about my sexuality. I’ve not encountered any outright homophobia directed towards me, and since I’ve been very open in front of thousands of conservative Christians, I think that means something.
But I do know people who have experienced alienation from their Christian families and churches as a result of coming out. I hear about insensitive or clumsy comments that have left people with lasting hurt. I have heard parents ask, “why would God allow my child to be gay?” as though God has afflicted that family with a marked curse. I’ve heard sermon after sermon where gay marriage is presented as a cautionary tale of what happens when society turns it’s back on God, as though it didn’t turn its back on God however many millennia ago. I know people who have been injured by the ideals of Reparative Therapy. I’ve been asked how we can prevent children from developing a homosexual orientation.
All this is to say that bad attitudes can be located, and a disproportionate suspicion of same-sex attracted individuals sadly does exist to the detriment of us all.
Here’s a clear example for you. One pastoral support group has floated the idea of organising a retreat for same-sex persons for the purposes of providing an extended time of sharing and empathy, specific pastoral care and encouragement from the Bible. But, you might not be surprised, a concern that has been voice by more than one is that it’s risky to put a collection of gay individuals in the one place together because what if they fall into bed with each other or something along those lines?
Sure, it’s risky. But only as risky as going to church each week with a bunch of sinners with whom you could start an affair or lie to or envy or want to murder.
Our propensity towards sin and the failings of others in the past shouldn’t stop us from pursuing holiness, encouragement and unity. Meaningful connection between humans is always risky and yet always worth striving for. Even if it so happened that I or any other evangelical gay Christian seriously messed up in the area of sexual purity (pray that it won’t happen), that would not then change this pressing need for coalition and solidarity.
Some questions I think The Church needs to address of itself: are we really being biblical? Or are we just being conservative? Are we doing discipleship? Or do we just want people to fit our preconceived framework? Are we being consistent in our treatment of people? Or are we instilling shame by giving special condemnation to one area of human fallenness?
THE VALUE OF GAY PEOPLE IN THE CHURCH
As I said earlier, establishing an environment in which same-sex attracted Christians can flourish is for the enrichment of the entire church. So how would that enriching look?
1) At this point in history, sexual minorities are a massively important demographic. For the purpose of our mission to bring the Gospel to all mankind, we need to have a clear, lived sub-narrative into which we can invite our gay neighbours. Gay Christians should be at the forefront of our declaration of The Gospel to the gay community because they embody the truth, goodness and power of Jesus’ work in the lives of such individuals.
2) Within the walls of The Church, the faithful same-sex attracted person is a positive ingredient in our communal sanctification. Our existence has forced the Church to confront its hypocrisy, the ways in which it has succumbed to worldly culture, and it’s thin understanding of itself as the Body of Christ.
Sexual minorities have played an integral part in our recognition of where we need to change. We’ve brought around something of a retrieval of central gospel truths: the nature of truly costly discipleship (Mark 8:31-9:1), of familial Christian community (Mark 10:29-31, 1 Cor 12), the importance of openness (1 John 1-2:11), and the hope of God’s promises being fulfilled in making us whole (Col 3:1-4).
Gay Christians are a gift from God for the refinement of our understanding of The Gospel and its manifestation in our lives. To the parts of The Body that we have thought of as weaker and unpresentable, God has given special honour so that there is no division. We cannot say to our gay sibling that they are not needed because God has made them indispensable (1 Cor 12).