Psalm 133:1 says, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” This psalm of ascent was written by David and sung with fellow believers on pilgrimages to Jerusalem. It is a beautiful thing to be reminded of the grace God has bestowed upon me. I cherish every moment when someone reminds me of my value in Christ.
But local church has been a place of so many conflicting feelings for me over the years. Growing up, I would probably never associate “dwelling with fellow believers” with “joyous,” or “united.” I was a young, gay Christian. I would associate worship services with “exclusion,” “fear,” and “shame.” I know that my experiences don’t exist in a vacuum. I take ownership of the fact that I’ve dwelled in shame, and often chose to hide from being known by fellow believers. However, I also know that unhealthy messages about homosexuality have been shared repeatedly from both the pulpit and from members—messages that reinforce shame, and exclusion.
Kill the shame.
Shame is the biggest antagonist that keeps gay Christians in the closet and away from the church. You’ve probably heard all the reasons for this and all of them are true. Over the years, the LGBT+ community has been characterized by the church in demeaning ways. The church has not spoken the truth with grace to the LGBT+ community. And beyond speaking about theological truths, the church has adhered to this cultural value system that ranks sins from worse to better.
Homosexuality has been deemed one of the worst sins of my generation, and in turn the church’s LGBT+ members have been cut off like a cancer.
The message for me growing up has been that somehow my wrestle with homosexuality is worse than the sexual struggles of my straight brothers and sisters. The struggle of pornography for straight men, for example, has been normalized in the church, but my confession of viewing gay pornography is “worse.”
For straight members, the message I hear after confession is “Yeah, I’m there too. I hear you brother. Grace upon grace.” What is heard for a gay member’s confession is “Man, I have no idea what that’s like. I can’t imagine what you must be going through. Continue to walk with the Lord, and pray that these things can be put to death.” I see straight members go out of their way to align their lives in support of one another when someone sins seem menacing, but gay members must settle for a sympathetic pat on the back from a distance.
I feel this pressure to compensate for my “extra” sinfulness. It’s worse for me to slip up than my straight brothers and sisters because I have the extra layer of “gayness” to make up for. Here’s my thought—all sin needs to be tackled with the same intensity, sexual or otherwise.
If we are actually going to abhor all sin, we can’t keep ranking them. It’s time we encourage all members to pursue grace and truth wherever they are at.
Rejecting the sin-based value system that reinforces that gay members are somehow more sinful and less valuable will mean reminding all members that we are all sinners united by grace, and gay members will need to hear that more frequently.
I’ll start—gay member of the church, you have value and bear the name of Christ; reject any message that tells you that you are less than a son or daughter of God.
Fight the fear.
The church does not actively acknowledge the power of fear. Gay Christians aren’t only made to feel less-than; they are afraid. If you can get past the church’s shaming, you have to be ready to jump the hurdle of fear. But fear is often too high a barrier to clear.
Fear of rejection keeps me from being known by others. Fear of exclusion keeps me from connecting to communities. Fear that all that shaming is right keeps me from trusting God and clinging to the truth of the gospel. I have thought to myself, several times, that my confession of homosexuality could put me in the way of emotional, spiritual, or even physical harm. I’ve seen the gay community attacked, ridiculed, mocked, demeaned, and belittled. I’m not eager to jump into the negative schema the church has built for the LGBT+ group.
My confession puts me in harm’s way. The most common response is that I “shouldn’t” be scared because the church is “here” for me. There have been moments I’ve experienced the closeness of the church, but the church as my protector? No, that has not always been my experience.
Telling gay members that their fear is unfounded and to simply trust the church with their story disregards a lifetime of feeling excluded and rejected. Let’s cut through the façade—fear is real.
For the gay Christian to feel safe, the church has to validate that their fear is real and then offer the reassurance of safety for her members. And the offer of safety can’t be a sound bite.
My fear doesn’t wane when I’m offering a scripted dialogue about how “I have not been given a spirit of fear.” I know what the Bible says about fear, but I need to experience that truth in grace before I can readily cling to it. There are people that operate within the church out of a paradigm of rejection and disconnection, and it is not enough to simply ask these members to suddenly operate out of trust and vulnerability. More than speaking truth to these members, demonstrate grace.
Some of my most treasured memories with Christians are moments when I’ve been able to share my story, and the other person simply listens. There is no attempt to fix my hurt or rescue me—I am simply heard, seen, and accepted. Being known and accepted by another person is restorative—it breaks my automatic response toward fear of the harm people can cause, and carves out a new path toward connection because I know some of them won’t hurt me.
Safety isn’t a one step process either. One positive, restorative experience will not break down a negative paradigm that has been built up over a lifetime. It takes a genuine, safe, accepting connection over a long period of time for restoration to take place. The best way to combat fear is not to dismiss it, but to enter into it and provide a new, healthy experience.
Banish the exclusion.
Continued cycles of fear and shame can only offer death and disconnection. Finding the grace of safety and encouragement offers life and it should provide continued connection. For that to happen, once a safe place is established in the church, we have to encourage inclusion.
James 2:16 says, “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” It is one thing to tell fellow members that they are cherished and their stories matter, but it means very little without the practice of inclusion. Gay members can feel safe on their very lonely mountain.
I have had fellow Christians tell me my testimony matters, and in the same season back away from me because they feel uncomfortable with me. I had one experience where I was being considered for a ministry position, and I decided to be vulnerable with my story. I shared with my interviewer the story of my same-sex attraction and my walk with the Lord. What I heard the interviewer say is “Thank you for sharing. That means so much. Blah blah blah,” but what I experienced with him was shutting down. His body language changed, the room felt tense, and he told me that he would have to weigh my story into his decision making process. I didn’t get the job, needless to say.
He verbally communicated one thing (“go in peace”), but did nothing for my “physical needs”—what good is that? To me, that communicated exclusion and rejection.
Church culture has a type. And I hate seeing favoritism showered over people that fit into a “box.” More so than not, I’ve seen the straight, white male acclimate to the church much easier than gay, female, or brown-skinned brothers and sisters. What does that really communicate about the grace that is preached?
Read Part One
If I am preached to about God’s grace and my new identity in Christ, but am constantly overlooked for ministry positions because of my sexual orientation, that tells me that the church views my sexual identity in higher regard than my adoption into the family of Christ.
I long for the day when we are actively bringing up gay members in the church, and encouraging their service and leadership.
The end is advocacy.
I pray one day our churches will be advocates for gay Christians. When people choose to speak malice or spread ignorance about the LGBT+ community, I want to see the church defend her members. When someone says something completely inappropriate about gay people, I hope that my communities and friends (regardless of if I’m present or not) would speak up and say, “That’s not okay.”
LGBT+ members don’t have a platform in the evangelical church, we rely on those that do have a platform to advocate for us. That’ll start with changing our church culture to see gay Christians as redeemed by the blood of Christ and acknowledging their equal worth and value in the body of Christ. This journey of integrating gay members into the church will not be perfect, but I pray that the church would faithfully and graciously pursue this journey, regardless of the discomfort. I hope we don’t ever keep silent about any member of the church, and continually practice acceptance and inclusion for those that have been brought into the family of Christ.
Cover image by Mitchell Hollander.
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