Theological arguments for and against same-sex relationships have often featured in Premier Christianity in recent years.
This ongoing conversation among evangelicals about homosexuality was overshadowed by the tragic suicide of Lizzie Lowe in autumn 2014.
According to an inquest in December, the 14-year-old took her own life because of her struggle to reconcile her faith with her emerging sexuality as a gay teenager. It also emerged that her church would have welcomed and supported her had she shared her struggle.
So perhaps the time has come to ask a pastoral question: Are local churches – whatever their theology of sexuality – doing enough to support same-sex attracted Christians in their midst?
Steve Chalke is a well-known church leader who publicly voiced his support for committed same-sex relationships two years ago. He wants to encourage Christians of different views to continue the dialogue at the Open Church conference at Oasis Church Waterloo in April. Sean Doherty is one of the founders of Living Out, a support network for same-sex attracted Christians who want to abide by historic Christian teaching on sexuality.
We invited these two significant but opposing voices in the conversation to respond to the question, ‘Is the Church failing gay Christians?’
Two years ago in this magazine I made a suggestion. I encouraged the Church to engage in a compassionate, respectful and honest conversation about our attitude and response towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and transsexual (LGBT) people; a respectful dialogue that might lead to our churches becoming beacons of inclusion.
MANY EVANGELICALS BEMOAN THE ‘CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE’ AND YET FREELY ADMIT THEY ARE PART OF IT
I wrote not just about why I believe the Church needs to affirm and support same-sex, lifelong and monogamous relationships, but also on related questions around our wider attitude towards LGBT people. This includes: barring them from serving on leadership teams, refusing them believer’s baptism, banning them from taking Communion, denying them involvement in children’s or youth work and even asking them not to attend church services any more. Those decisions often force LGBT people into a world of either dishonesty or rejection. I explained that I was passionate about these issues because people’s lives are at stake, and that numerous studies prove suicide rates among gay people, especially young gay people, are comparatively high.
Much of the response was predictable. ‘While Chalke frets needlessly about lives being at stake, true gospel preachers are concerned that souls are at stake,’ wrote one blogger. Some concluded that I had abandoned biblical faith. Others suggested I had not been listening to the conversation that had already taken place. ‘Steve…demonstrates no awareness of and no engagement with either scholarly or popular positions, on either pastoral or biblical matters.’
Many, however, were more thoughtful. Church leader and theologian Steve Holmes wrote: ‘I agree profoundly with Steve in his concern that our pastoral practice in this area has often been appalling, and needs to change...his diagnosis of a real and urgent problem is spot on…[He] names a pastoral scandal that we have swept under the carpet for too long.’ However, Holmes concluded: ‘I think Steve’s proposed solution is not the right one – I do not think it can be justified biblically, and I do not think it will work.’
That’s why we need to talk.
BEHAVIOUR FOLLOWS BELIEFS
Stupidity, as the saying goes, is doing today exactly what we did yesterday and expecting different results. There is an elephant in the room and we need to acknowledge it.
We won’t produce radically different pastoral outcomes just by trying a little harder. To argue this is to suggest that our churches are filled with indifferent, or at least insensitive people, and that if we could just get them to make more effort – and supply more and better ambulances at the bottom of the pastoral cliff – we could solve the problem.
It is our theology that conditions our attitudes and responses. Our behaviours are, in the end, linked to beliefs. If our pastoral practice is driving people into despair, even to the point of taking their own lives, you don’t have to be an Oxbridge ethics professor to work out that there is something wrong with the theology that informs it. That’s why we need a conversation about it – and the underlying assumptions it is built on – as well as its pastoral outcomes. History, in my view, will remember us as either the first generation to grasp this issue or the last to bury our heads in the sand and ignore it.
CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE
Some have pointed to the fact that few other evangelical leaders have publicly stepped forward to support me. In truth, over the last two years I’ve spoken with large numbers from the UK and around the world who bemoan the ‘conspiracy of silence’ that exists around the issue of sexuality, and yet freely admit that they are part of it.
Their reasons include the fear of losing employment, funding, membership and friendship. I don’t blame them. I’ve found the searing heat of personal attacks and vilification hard to bear at times. Someone from an evangelical church wrote to me: ‘The real meaning of the word gay is simply this – GOD AGAINST YOU!’
Even for Open Church, the public conversation on the Church and sexuality I am convening later this year, several invited speakers – some with views different from mine – have declined to take part because they are worried that even being seen to talk about the issue might lead to ‘damaging publicity’ for their institutions.
Last autumn, Lizzie Lowe, just 14, hanged herself in a park near her home in Didsbury. At the inquest it became clear that she had spoken to friends about her struggles with her sexuality.
In a statement from St James & Emmanuel, the church Lizzie was part of, the clergy team explained that it had emerged following her death ‘that part of her struggle was a battle to reconcile her faith with her emerging sexuality’. In this case, no blame is being levelled at the Church – she would have been completely accepted had she shared her struggle with them – nevertheless, she ‘didn’t feel able to do this…the barrier was still too high to cross’.
Sean Doherty of Living Out (and my conversation partner later in this article) has reflected that: ‘People can have a particular sense of shame and wanting to hide this from God…I think secrecy is common in lots of parts of the Church.’
So, why the secrecy?
WE NEED TO TALK
On the website (stjamesandemmanuel. org), Lizzie’s church leaders made a brave and courageous statement: ‘In the light of this tragedy it is now incumbent upon the PCC and the wider Church to prayerfully reflect on, and examine, our theology, systems and our culture so that we can do all we can to prevent a tragedy like this from ever reoccurring.’
And, in my view, this is not simply an issue for individual congregations. It is time for the Church as a whole to find the courage to take a look at its dominant, and all too often poisonous, cultural and theological assumptions, and engage in a more honest and open conversation.
Whatever our theology on sexuality may be, we must break the silence and let LGBT people know they are fully loved by God. As Steve Holmes has stated: ‘My most passionate prayer for the discussion Steve has begun is not that we agree on my conclusions, or his, or anyone else’s, but that we might together find ways to make our churches countercultural communities of love where every person may find true human intimacy and God’s healing grace.’
I have been openly gay (or same-sex attracted) in church for more than 15 years, since I was 18. When I came out, Christians went out of their way to show me love and acceptance. I was nurtured and entrusted with responsibility. I chose not to act on my orientation, instead opting to live by what I believe to be the biblical view of sexuality.
Just over a year ago, some friends and I launched livingout.org, telling our stories of being accepted and welcomed, and showing that living biblically as a same-sex orientated Christian is plausible and fulfilling.
We have received thousands of emails from gay and same-sex attracted people all over the world. I’ve had the privilege of meeting and becoming friends with many, and offering pastoral support and encouragement to some. Many have had positive experiences like mine. Some thank us for publicly sharing stories like theirs, which are rarely heard. Many are delighted to discover that they are not alone.
Like me, many choose to live out what the Church has always taught about sex, namely that it is a good gift from God that is only for marriage between a woman and a man. Most are single and celibate, which is challenging but can be very fulfilling. A few, like me, have (to their surprise) ended up married to someone of the opposite sex.
THE CHURCH NEEDS TO BE MORE WELCOMING, BUT SHIFTING ITS THEOLOGY IS NOT THE WAY TO DO IT
You might not read all their stories on a website or in a magazine. But the story for us is that the Church is not failing us. Thank you, Church, for the times you get it right.
Thank you, Church, for the ones you love and accept. Thank you, Church, for trusting us with real ministry.
I just wish I could end here.
These are not the only emails we get. The Church has not failed me and many others, but it has failed some.
Believing that sex is only for marriage between a man and a woman is not homophobic. That is about sexual morality, not sexual orientation. But there is some real homophobia in the Church.
Some behaviour you might find anywhere: making jokes about gay people, using words like ‘gay’ pejoratively and treating us with suspicion. But there can be specific Church forms of homophobia too: pressurising us to change our sexual orientation (although people who want to seek change in their orientation should be free to do so, and some find that their sexuality does change); saying that gay people will go to hell; not permitting us to work with youth or children (assuming gay people are more likely to be predatory or paedophiles); and holding us back from ministry roles.
When the basis for this is our sexual orientation, rather than what we do about it, it is homophobia. I know people who have been treated in these ways even when they were celibate, and all the more in need of affirmation and support.
Where these behaviours exist, they can cause a great deal of undeserved shame for gay Christians, not because of anything they have done, but at the fundamental level of who they are. For some, such shame has led to mental health and other problems, and in some cases even suicide (though I am not claiming this to be the case with the tragic death of Lizzie Lowe). In this way, the Church has failed some gay people, and may God have mercy on us for it.
SILENCE IS NOT GOLDEN
A more subtle way that we fail gay people is silence. We sometimes receive emails from people who have not experienced overt homophobia but are still scared of being open about their sexuality in church. They don’t know how they will be received because nobody ever mentions it.
It would be much better for them if church leaders proactively spoke about sexuality, whatever their view. Some church leaders are silent because they do not want to offend or hurt vulnerable people. Others are scared that they will be seen as homophobic. But even well-intended silence creates uncertainty.
A simple way for church leaders to show that homosexuality is not shameful is by publicly inviting gay or same-sex attracted people to be open about it, and to assure them of a warm welcome and true acceptance if they are. They can explain why they think that same-sex activity is sinful (and I think they should), but also teach against the sin of real homophobia. I recently met with Sally Hitchiner, a prominent leader of LGBT support organisation Diverse Church. She is personally in favour of same-sex marriage but believes that silence is more harmful than teaching the classic biblical interpretation in a sensitive way.
The Plausibility Problem Ed Shaw (IVP)
Is God Anti-Gay? Sam Allberry (The Good Book Company)
God and the Gay Christian Matthew Vines (Convergent Books)
Unconditional: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs-Christians Debate Justin Lee (Hodder & Stoughton)
Love is an Orientation Andrew Marin (IVP)
Another way the Church fails gay Christians is a lack of teaching on and support for singleness, especially compared to the provision for married or engaged couples. Marriage can be hard, but singleness, can be harder. It is unfair to call single people to sexual abstinence without doing our bit to practically equip them for such a calling (Matthew 23:4).
AN HONEST WELCOME
There is a final way that the Church often fails gay people, and that is by watering down the biblical vision for sexual holiness and human fulfilment in a misguided attempt to be more welcoming. The Church does need to be more welcoming, but shifting its theological ground is not the way to do it.
The Church asks many people to be sexually abstinent. This includes people who have never married, those whose spouse is physically unable to have sex, and divorcees, widows and widowers who have not remarried. Ironically, it is somewhat homophobic to think that gay people need a different rule from everyone else, as if we are less capable of sexual holiness than straight people. We are all fallen people in need of God’s forgiveness and the power of God’s Holy Spirit to help us resist temptation.
So, please don’t fail us by mistreating us, remaining silent or by not giving us really good pastoral support. And please don’t fail us by not calling us to live a life of radical purity and obedience to Christ either, because this is the best and most fulfilling life there is.
UK support groups
diversechurch.org.uk supporting LGBT young Christians with a range of views on sexuality
livingout.org supporting same-sex attracted Christians who want to live out a traditional biblical view on sexuality
acceptingevangelicals.org an open network of evangelical believers who support faithful same-sex relationships
truefreedomtrust.co.uk a support ministry that holds to traditional biblical teaching on sexuality