This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 4 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
“Lily” was crushed. She had told just one member of her church her secret, and that member warned her that if anyone else found out, she would probably lose her position teaching the youth. She thought she was doing the right thing, that trusting a member of her church family vulnerably in this way was a step of mature growth and accountability, but now she was worried she had ruined everything. What was this secret, so potentially harmful that she would be warned to hide it?
Lily experiences same-sex attraction.
The variety of reactions to that sentence is dizzying. For people who follow Christ and experience sexual attraction to people of their same gender — like Lily and myself — navigating it all can feel as dangerous as driving on a crowded interstate. A big part of that dynamic comes from the reality that same-sex sexual relationships and lust are sin, and the presence of samesex attraction is a result of the Fall, which was caused by willful human rebellion against God. The Bible everywhere affirms that God created sex to be enjoyed only in the one-flesh union of a husband and wife. It begins in the Garden and continues despite the Fall through the Old and New Testaments. It culminates in the image that sex was designed to point to the great Husband (Jesus) receiving His Bride (the church) in the new heavens and the new earth, finally clean from sin (Rev. 21 and 22). When same-sex sexual acts and lust are mentioned, it is always in prohibition (cf. Lev. 18:22; Rom. 1:26–27).
So the task of the Christian who experiences same-sex attraction is to put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit (Rom. 8:13) — a task she shares with all believers. Yet this task is not so simple, because the church has been in the habit of viewing same-sex sexual sin as more deviant than heterosexual sexual sin. And just as confusing, some taking the name of Christ have abandoned His Word and declared this sinful behavior to be blessed. There are indeed many unfortunate road-bumps on the highway of discipleship.
On this highway are people unable to separate the issue from the person, perhaps suspicious that real Christians could even experience such temptation. Their brand of caution paradoxically becomes danger. What I mean is that they are so fearful of sin infecting the church that they believe or insist that heterosexuality is the only correct outcome for a redeemed same-sex-attracted Christian, viewing even committed robust celibacy with doubt.
Also on this crowded highway, behind and ahead are cars alternately breaking and speeding up as they come to terms with a desire to be both compassionate and faithful to God. They see concerns on both sides, and their honest searching of how to relate to this important topic can create difficulty in their wake.
And then there are people zipping and zooming in and out of lanes, wondering out loud if the Bible really says anything about homosexuality at all. Love is love, right? Jesus only wants us to be happy and fulfilled. And that’s only within the church; admitting that we experience these attractions while actively seeking to die to ourselves out in the world looks pathetically slow and dangerous.
The confusion isn’t limited to those like myself. Many straight Christians feel the danger of this road, too. They don’t want to contribute to the chaos, yet aren’t sure what to do. They owe more to their neighbors, family, and church members than that, and they know it.
Which brings us back to Lily. As the church body, what does it mean to be a safe place for her, and others like her, who experience these attractions and also want to live under Christ’s authority? In answering that question, it is helpful to point out what it does not mean.
First, being a safe space for the same-sex-attracted Christian doesn’t mean we condone someone taking the name of Christ and then not obeying His Word — we don’t condone a revisionist interpretation of Scripture that says that God blesses monogamous same-gender sexual partnerships. Occasionally having this conversation can create that confusion; perhaps it is the use of the word safe, or the unfamiliar idea of someone being willing to admit that this is something they deal with.
But let us be clear: God’s positive vision for sex and marriage is displayed vibrantly in the Bible from end to end as something built exclusively for opposite-sex spouses covenanted together before Him. It is not arbitrary or cruel that anything outside of that design undermines it. We don’t get angry that our cars don’t run on laundry detergent — they were designed to run on a viscous liquid, yes, but a very specific one. If we put detergent where petrol is needed, we damage the car, no matter how good our intentions are. If we use sex and marriage outside of their design, it’s no wonder that they are unable to fulfill the good functions God designed for them.
God also holds out a vibrant vision for New Covenant unmarried life within His family, so that every Christian has a place to experience sanctification, mission, and love (cf. 1 Cor. 7). We have a responsibility to each other to call out sins and to be called out of our sin that so easily entangles, for if we live according to the flesh, we will die. It is never “safe” to condone sin.
Second, being safe doesn’t mean we don’t talk to our non- Christian friends about what the gospel means for sexuality. We can be afraid that sharing God’s words about sex will sound crazy and off-putting, and turn them off from ever wanting to hear more about the gospel. But let’s not forget that God’s view on how we should conduct our life in general is crazy and off-putting to the flesh. Who wants to die to themselves daily? Never mind celibacy — the fact that you still could be disowned and killed for the faith is real in many parts of the world.
But let’s also not forget that the gospel is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, and that the totality of what He has called humanity to, inclusive of sex and gender, is good and for our good. We can trust Him because He has proven Himself trustworthy. When we communicate the beauty of Christ and what He has done, the Spirit can move in the most unlikely ways for the most unlikely people.
Being safe simply means that those who experience same-sex attraction and want to live in obedience would be able to speak without fear of judgment about their reality, so that they can receive the support we all need in our walk of faith. To that end, here are three ways we can begin to be safe people in our churches.
Don’t Assume Anything about Anyone. There are people in your church right now who are dealing with these feelings. If they are in a conservative church, the odds are that they are hiding this part of themselves.
Human beings like to be normal. This means that most nonstraight people in conservative churches don’t look or act any differently than other members of the church. Because they’re committed to the Bible’s sexual ethic, there’s little about their outward lives that might reveal this inward battle. You would have to be told. But the church has not been safe for those who experience same-sex attraction. Ugly assumptions are made and spoken; misunderstanding and suspicion have abounded. Therefore, so has hiding. Sometimes it has meant people leaving the church entirely.
Your friend and Bible study partner who is married with three kids might experience same-sex attraction. The single guy who serves faithfully with the hospitality team might have known since he was little that his desires were different than the other boys. The elder’s wife who is every lady’s shoulder to cry on may weep privately about this very thing that just won’t go away. I know because I have met all of these people. So start by recognizing that these temptations are in the church already. After all, 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 teaches us to expect that Jesus’ community will include this population.
Don’t “Out” Anyone, but Create Space for Them to Disclose. The solution to hiding isn’t to drag someone out against her will. This is such a tender place, a source of much anxiety for Christians, that handling it roughly can spook us away from the honesty that would bring healing. You legitimately may want to make sure not to say something hurtful to a person who experiences same-sex attraction in your church, but you also may realize that you don’t know automatically who in your church does experience that! Thus, fear of hurting someone by accident may cause you to start running through your member directory, trying to figure out who if anyone it could be. Resist that impulse if it arises. There is no way to know without self disclosure from the person, except gossip, which shouldn’t be trusted. Redirect your fear into education.
Your responsibility is not to know perfectly all the temptation patterns of all the members of your church. Your opportunity is to become a safe person for disclosure. Ask the Spirit of God to help you identify false stereotypes you may be retaining and turn to Scripture for a complete understanding of sexual sin and how to confront it biblically. Read a good book such as Messy Grace (WaterBrook, 2015) by Caleb Kaltenbach, or explore the website of the ministry Living Out. Repent and confess anything the Lord brings to mind.
In your language at Bible studies, in one-on-one conversations, or any church context, discuss what you are learning with humility and honesty. You don’t have to know it all to start a conversation about how your church can be a safe place to be imperfect, to be growing all together toward more perfect holiness. You may be the key to other straight Christians recognizing ways they have been unsafe in the midst of trying to hold on to the Bible’s truth about sexual morality. You may become the first Christian that a brother or sister has ever been able to come out to about their same-sex desires, simply because you have signaled your desire to be safe.
Be Ready for Disclosure. The scariest thing might be when someone tells you that she is same-sex attracted. What a powerful moment, with the explosive potential of a firework — or a bomb. If someone comes out to you, recognize that this took incredible courage on her part and that you were chosen because you seemed trustworthy.
The first thing you should do is look your friend in the eye and thank her for her trust, affirm that you love her, and remind her that Jesus loves her. Give her a hug and reach for her hand.
The next thing you should do is listen. When she gets to a pause, ask her to tell you more — literally, you can use the phrase “Tell me more”! When did she first know? What has her experience been like? Has she been wounded by the church?This is not the time to run a theological litmus test or to demand perfection. This is a time to bear each other’s burdens in love — perhaps a burden this Christian has been shouldering silently for decades. Ask her how you can serve her, and don’t make assumptions.
Nate Collins writes in his book All But Invisible that if churches were to become safe and empowering places of discipleship for all, he suspects “that gay people might experience Christianity and the traditional sex ethic as more livable than many even dare to imagine.”1
Transforming the church into a place where same-sex attracted believers can get the support and encouragement we need to thrive holistically and holy in Christ will not happen overnight. You cannot change the whole church, nor should you try. But you serve a God who casts out fear with love; you worship a Savior who came that we may have life to the full; you are filled with the Spirit who makes all things new. In His power, you can minister compassionately toward people and remain faithful to God’s Word. Let us move forward in Him.2—Rachel Gilson
Rachel Gilson is director of theological development for Cru Northeast. She holds a BA in history from Yale College and is completing her Master of Divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
- Nate Collins, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 104.
- An earlier version of this piece appeared for The Gospel Coalition as “How to Be a Safe Space for the Same-Sex Attracted,” on January 31, 2018, https://www.thegospelcoalition. org/article/safe-space-for-ssa/.