This post is the potentially irritating kind that identifies a problem without offering a solution. It’s more diagnosis than prescription—in fact, after offering a prescription for the first half of the post, I spend the second half diagnosing why that prescription may not work—and I’m writing it both so that gay Christians might benefit from the solace of shared experience and so that non-gay people might better imagine how to support gay Christians.
It’s a bizarre time to be a gay Christian if you’re connected at all to conservative circles. Only recently has a gay-affirming sexual ethic gathered momentum on a broad level, and gay Christians who once received a conclusive answer from other Christians about homosexuality now encounter ambivalence when they seek to determine God’s will for their lives. That ambivalence can be soothing when it provides much-needed space to ask questions and give words to emotions that have long felt unutterable, but that ambivalence can become maddening when it sends gay people on a seemingly endless journey to determine what they believe and whether they’re prepared to handle the consequences of those convictions. (The Marin Foundation’s other summer intern actually just wrote about her own journey with questions here.)
When gay people do verge on a conclusion, others often expect them to hold their belief loosely or remain perpetually uncertain. For example, it’s not uncommon for a gay person abstaining from same-sex relationships to face questions that call their beliefs into doubt: “So, have you changed your mind yet? Do you really think you can live your entire life as a celibate / in a mixed-orientation marriage?” Gay people who believe same-sex relationships are not sinful face similar questions: “Do you ever fear you’re wrong and actually disobeying God? How do you think you and your partner would handle it if you came to believe your relationship was sinful?” These questions often come from a place of good intentions, and doubt and uncertainty play an essential role in the life of every believer who transitions from accepting the beliefs they’ve inherited to owning and practicing their own beliefs. I’ve even asked similar questions on this blog before, and I think Christians must remain open to the possibility that God’s Spirit could change the direction of someone’s life in a big way.
Nevertheless, what a gay person believes about same-sex relationships has significant implications for their life, and I’ve witnessed how dwelling too long in uncertainty can cripple the spiritual lives of gay people, especially as they begin owning and practicing their beliefs. The stakes, of course, are high, and prominent voices affirming same-sex relationships have altered the conversation for gay people from, “Do I abstain from same-sex relationships, or do I risk being wrong by seeking a same-sex partner?” to, “Do I risk being wrong by seeking a same-sex partner, or do I risk being wrong by placing unnecessary restrictions on others and depriving myself of how God might form me through the practice of same-sex marriage?” The sense is that there’s no longer a risk-free option to which uncertain gay people can default.
[Side note: A friend and I recently noticed how gay people involved in more established, historical traditions that emphasize submission to church authority, like Catholics, rarely seem to face this same uncertainty about what they ought to believe—not because they’re unthinking or uncritical, but because they’re confident in church teachings and trust the church will support them in their obedience. Those Christian circles with more diversity of belief seem more apt to engender the anxiety I’m describing.]
Furthermore, countless influences complicate the decisions of gay people trying to discern which voices matter the most: what Christians have historically believed, how conservative scholars interpret scripture, how progressive scholars interpret scripture, what someone’s particular church or family teaches, what popular culture values, what messages we receive from our culture’s most cherished stories (like films and novels), what psychological research suggests, what someone senses God communicating to them personally, what someone feels in their heart and—let’s be honest—pants, etc., etc., etc. Gay people often end up reaching a point of obsession with the big question, with the result that their relationship with God pivots on anticipating an answer. When they do settle on an answer, it may be more like ducking into an escape pod to manage anxiety—”I just can’t take this uncertainty any longer”—than it is like accepting an invitation into deeper, more mature relationship with God.
My prescription: I think the remedy to the neurosis of being a gay Christian in the tumultuous storm of our particular historical moment is immersing oneself into relationship with God, because sexual ethics (regardless of whether they seem, at face value, more or less permissive) ultimately ought to be a means of drawing us into closer relationship with God and conforming ourselves to God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will. Separated from relationship with God, sexual ethics on either side of the fence have the potential to become idols, with those abstaining from same-sex relationships doing so from a place of smug self-righteousness, or those pursuing them doing so from a place of selfish carelessness.
But this produces a major crisis, and this is where I start the second diagnosis. Two thousand years of Christian history have taught us developing a relationship with God requires two basic components that seem to be non-negotiable. The first is spending time with God through spiritual disciplines like solitude, silence, and scripture. The second is interacting with a consistent group of other Christians through participation in a local church, an intentional faith community, a religious order, or some other body of faith. Neither of these works without the other, but in my experience, both of these can be problematic for gay people.
First, many gay people struggle to maintain any sort of steady rhythm of spiritual disciplines as a means of pursuing a personal relationship with God, and I suspect it’s because many gay people struggle to believe God loves them and genuinely desires relationship with them. This has certainly been the case for me. I’ve believed as long as I can remember that God loves every person, and I’ve never lacked confidence in saying, “Yes, God loves you. God loves everyone.” For a long season of my life, though, I didn’t know how to answer the question, “But Brent, does God love you?” I’d pause, I’d waver, and I’d attempt to hide behind my blanket statement: “God loves everyone.” You know as well as I do that affirming, “God loves everyone” is entirely different from affirming, “God loves me,” and the reason I equivocated was that my intellectual assent to the reality of God’s unconditional love did not translate into any sort of emotional, gut-level confidence that God loved me. You’ll notice I’m not saying anything about approval or sanction of certain behaviors. Before I even had the chance to get to those questions, I struggled mightily to believe God loved me: that God was for me rather than against me, that God was interested in me and actually cared about me, and that God desired a relationship with me as an individual. My perception was that my experience of being attracted to other men was a permanent obstacle that precluded me from God’s love. If God did love me, it was because God had to, and God did so begrudgingly.
In my case, getting toward a place where I believed and felt God’s love for me involved a few processes. I had to learn that God was fundamentally gracious, that any relationship I might develop with God originated with God and not with my ability to think or feel a certain way. I also had to receive unconditional love from other humans, as this writer recently described. So long as I was closeted, I could believe my coming out would prevent others from loving me, and the reality of what actually happened when I came out dispelled that myth and suggested maybe God actually could love me, too. If you’re in a place where you don’t feel in your gut that God loves you right now, it’s extraordinarily difficult to convince yourself to spend any time on relationship-builders like solitary prayer or dwelling in the Bible. I don’t mean to say spiritual disciplines should only happen when you feel particularly loved, because I think the practice of disciplines is a primary means by which God communicates that love to us and forms us in steady, long-term, foundational ways. In my case, though, I floundered in my attempts to maintain regular times of pursing God, and I suspect it’s because I imagined myself a suitor writing unrequited love letters to an uninterested recipient.
Second, gay people often struggle to find communities of faith in which they feel they belong. In some cases, it’s because they’re nursing severe wounds from Christians who have acted thoughtlessly or maliciously, and the very thought of spending time with a group of Christians comes across as unsafe. In other cases, it’s because being gay puts you in a minority—a minority that feels especially small in the church—as far as your experiences are concerned, and existing as a minority in the context of a majority group can be frustrating or tiring, even when that group is genuinely compassionate. I’ve said before there are many more similarities between straight Christians and me than there are differences, and I never want to over-emphasize the ways we’re dissimilar. Unfortunately, those pesky differences often rear their heads in ugly ways, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to lean into relationships with people who don’t seem to understand or empathize with vital parts of your experience.
Sometimes, though, gay people do find communities of faith in which they feel a strong sense of belonging. I say this with confidence because I’m fortunate to be part of such a community. Although my being gay puts me in the vast minority in my church, I feel heard and understood because people have intentionally listened to me. There are two kinds of conversations I have with other people about my sexuality, and both of them have a place. The first is conversations about sexuality—these are conversations in which the other person wants to learn about my perspective as a gay person, wants to expand their understanding of homosexuality and sexual minorities, wants to grow in their ability to show compassion to other gay people in their lives, maybe wants to do work on theology and scripture related to sex and marriage. The second is conversations about my sexuality—these are entirely different and feel much more pastoral. These are the talks where I have the opportunity to express what’s on my mind: my fear, my delight, my doubt, my faith. As I said, both conversations have their place, but I think the reason I feel so at home with my church is that we spend more time in the second kind of conversation. I don’t feel like the token gay person, and I have space to express my intensely personal reality with people who are also being vulnerable and expressing their own intensely personal realities. This, in turn, makes me feel safer expressing myself to God, and it allows me to hear God’s words through the voices of my fellow Christians. Nevertheless, this isn’t the case for sexual minorities in many churches: they do feel like the token gay person, or they find that every attempt to express themselves leads to an unhelpful discussion about theology of sex, or they pick up on undercurrents of the kind of “Please don’t talk about that part of you” homophobia that assures them they’re not welcome.
In summary: I think a personal spiritual life and participation in a faith community are both essential for relationship with God, and I think relationship with God is necessary for gay Christians trying to navigate a culture (even a Christian subculture) filled with a wide spectrum of attitudes about same-sex relationships. The problem is that gay Christians often struggle to maintain a personal spiritual life or participate in a faith community, and I think the harm that absence does to someone’s relationship with God presents itself in anxiety related to the question of whether same-sex relationships are sinful. So, I’d like to open the floor for comments related to a few specific questions: If you’re a gay Christian, how have you successfully or unsuccessfully maintained a relationship with God, and how has that affected your beliefs about same-sex relationships? If you’re not a gay Christian, did you identify with any of the crises I described, and what insight would you offer? Finally, how can non-gay people better support gay Christians?