Evangelicals Still Struggle with What To Say To Gays

Evangelicals Still Struggle with What To Say To Gays October 17, 2013

At Leadership Journal, part of the shrinking stable at Christianity Today International, there’s an article by Stanton Jones, the provost of Wheaton College. Well, it’s not really an article, it’s an interview Stan had with a gay parishioner. Well, it’s not really an interview, but a made-up interview that Stan didn’t actually have, but is instead a “composite” of many conversations he’s had with gay men.

In the “interview,” a young, gay man asks Stan for some pastoral help in getting through the Bible verses (aka, clobber verses) about homosexuality. Stan toes the evangelical party line, saying that the Bible is clear on this matter and should not be questioned, but that doesn’t make “Todd” a bad person. Traditional hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner stuff.

There’s some other stuff, too, about how he carried out a “study” — which he admits wasn’t scientific, but he authoritatively quotes anyway — of gay persons who wanted to change their orientation. He also trots out the usual evangelical tropes about “society today” and how it says that sex is the only thing that matters, etc. (He’s clearly never seen Pompeiian wall paintings.)

But it really gets cray-cray when he insinuates that gays struggle with depression and suicide, not because they are marginalized and persecuted, but because it’s inherent to their immoral predilection:

“Todd”: My pastor, who does not know about my sexuality issues, asked me to be a leader in my church’s high school ministry. Do my struggles disqualify me? How should I handle this?

Stanton Jones: Let me lay a bit of foundation first. While Scripture teaches that homosexual erotic intimacy is a sinful practice, to generalize from this that the entire person who experiences same-sex attraction is especially sinful by virtue of those attractions is wrong. Homosexual desire is a proclivity to a certain type of sin that God considers significant enough to call an “abomination.” But a proclivity to a sin is not the same thing as committing that sin. Same-sex orientation may not be morally neutral, since it is a “leaning” in a direction contrary to God’s wishes, but in resisting that proclivity and pursuing holiness, you are exhibiting virtue and strength that is admirable.

In many ways the decision decades ago by the major mental health organizations that homosexuality is not a mental illness is right. Experiencing same-sex desires does not itself qualify as a mental illness. But what was wrong about that decision is the false conclusion drawn by many that same-sex attractions (and other sexual variations) are as normal as heterosexual inclination. Further, many make the false claim that homosexual persons are just as emotionally healthy on average as heterosexuals, which is simply empirically not true. Homosexual orientation is consistently associated with higher levels of depression, anxiety, and similar conditions, even if many gay and lesbian persons are not depressed, anxious, and so forth.

So if you embrace the Bible’s witness that homosexual conduct is immoral, and are committed to the pursuit of holiness, as I understand it, you are not morally prohibited from leadership in the church. You are not necessarily a risk in leadership on grounds of mental or emotional instability either. My concrete advice to you is this: Be transparent to someone in your church leadership; tell them honestly of your struggle and of your desire to serve in leadership out of your love for Christ. Establish a clear and effective accountability relationship with a mature elder. Commit yourself to total honesty for the sake of your witness to Christ.

And one more thing: Be aware that the Adversary will attack you and test you in your areas of vulnerability. The apostle Paul says “flee sexual immorality.” As Potiphar’s wife’s dress came off, Joseph got up and out; he didn’t linger to explore the possibilities. Be aware also that sexual temptation is not going to be your only area of vulnerability; seek out before God awareness of all areas of vulnerability.

Let me suggest one possibility. You, like many who experience same-sex attraction, know how others may disapprove and have found ways to hide your desires. So you may have picked up subtle patterns of duplicity in how you live your life. This is why I suggest openness and honesty as a discipline. Commit yourself to careful accountability, expect to be tested, and be ready to pursue support at every turn.

I think we can all agree that this is some bad advice. If you’re gay, don’t tell your evangelical pastor, “I’m a man who feels sexual attraction to other men, but I’m staying chaste. Can I please serve as a leader in this church?”

No, don’t do that.

Instead, find another church.

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  • Being a Christian doesn’t necessarily make a person a jerk either.


  • No, don’t find another church. Be brave, come out to the
    community you’re in, and seek what Christ’s common call for his disciples to come
    and die means for your story. Love hides
    in the most unexpected places. Including churches. Including churches that many
    of us might judge without a trial.

    Yes, evangelicals do still struggle with what to say to
    gays. Often, that struggle is manufactured, culturally bound, and shamefully
    parochial. But that is so far from the whole picture. I have seen remarkable
    love, again and again, from unlikely quarters.

    The answer is not cynical disengagement, it’s speaking up
    with honesty and humility.

    • Craig

      I’ve often wondered about the space for creating loyal opposition within a local, evangelical/conservative church. If anyone has attempted this, I’d love to hear about it.

      How does one avoid simply wasting one’s Sunday mornings being marginalized on the pews while giving tacit support to dogmatic, tightly controlled leadership? To understate the obvious: evangelical churches aren’t known for allowing the effective expression of internal dissent.

    • …why should gay people be martyrs to the same homophobic churches that leads many of them to kill themselves in the first place? That burden lies with straight christians – clean up your own house before you invite others under false pretenses. It is completely reckless to blather on with platitudes about honesty and humility and then accuse others of “cynical disengagement” – real lives are at stake here that outweigh this evangelical zeal for conversion and salvation.

      Honestly, no gay person should get anywhere near a Stanton Jones or Mark Yarhouse or any of these other religious quacks who attempt to justify their religious bigotry in pseudoscience. That is a recipe for depression, self-harm, and suicide. Not to mention the impact on women and kids who end up as collateral damage in this bizarre attempt at repression and denial.

      If anyone deserves punishment for sin, its the self-righteous moral puritans such as Stanton Jones. They do real damage when they condemn gay people for simply trying to live an authentic life, which has little to do with the mechanics of sex and more to with love and happiness. That the like of Stanton Jones are so obsessed with policing peoples sex lives says more about them than it does gay people.

  • Craig

    Or, possibly: stay in your church and practice respectful, conscientious insubordination.

  • Ben von Ullrich

    <- gay person. What u do depends on who you are. If your being gay is more of who you are, ud leave. If your Christian identity is more important, by all means stay and influence.
    My experience is those who subsume their gay self enough to be a strong member of an evangelical church have other coming out and identity recognition issues than just the Christian one. Unless they have allies in the church, coming out in church is too much to bear in a conservative environment.
    So few evangelical churches seem concerned about any one person's needs in things like this, what most do tends to favour the church, not the person. Such has been the gay rights struggle.

    I have known no one who changed their church enough to stay. But I of course don't know everything.
    Yeah, what terrible advice in your post, Tony!

  • Ok; this, and some of the comments here, speaks to my situation. But let’s not be simplistic about it – bearing with each other makes these things complex.

    I’m 45 and gay, and in leadership in my church. And life-long single.

    I’ve recently decided that it’s time to be explicit about being gay, insofar as it matters, and to stop being single, if a good partner comes along.

    Sharing that with others in leadership, they’ve rather agreed that some proportion of the church would find the latter point unacceptable. So, we’ve agreed that I will step down from leadership. And, in the back of my mind, there is the strong likelihood that I will follow Tony’s advice and leave this church, too.

    The kicker is that the church is tiny and struggling. A split would doubtless be almost immediately terminal. I believe I have the courage to force the issue – to stay and come out in this way, and be loyal but dissenting – but I don’t believe that would be the way of love, and it would surely destroy this church. So I think I shall leave as quietly as possible – perhaps to the point of dissembling about “personal reasons” (should that ever be an excuse in a community of brothers and sisters?).

    Deciding to come out in middle age undoubtedly carries complexity. Perhaps some would even characterize my behaviour as selfish. On the other hand, I’m basically persuaded by the premiss that in essence, asking me to suppress part of who I am is not what the church should be doing. So, I’m a little sad, but my conscience is clear.

    Please avoid the trite simplistic answers. Life is seldom like that.

    • God speed, Andrew! Congratulations on the decision to be authentically you.

      Yes, this can get complex, but the freedom of authenticity can be its own reward. As the father of a gay child I will tell you that the hurt inflicted by those who can’t accept same-sex attraction as love, God given and blessed love, within the church is deep and hard to abide – I’m still pissed 20 years later. But Tony gives sound advice which you are accepting. Leave the narrow minded evangelical church and find an Open and Affirming church that will welcome you and your gifts readily and gladly.

      Peace be yours!

      • silah

        Seems you are being encouraged off the narrow road and onto the broad path.


      Hi Andrew,
      Thank you for sharing this part of your life with us here. I have to admit that I am more conservative on this issue and do struggle with uniting being Christian and being homosexual. I recently had a conversation with someone who said to this, “Well there are Christians who are alcoholics too”, which I find so not humble and open to conversation about this, but quick to condemn.

      Can you help me think through this issue? I am open for conversation and do not hold my position as objectively true at all. I see a lot of problems with the way most evangelicals look at it, actually and feel that Jesus may have such a different approach.

      Thanks again.

      • Hi Jim. Yes – I think that likening being chaste and gay to being an alcoholic who doesn’t drink, or a tempted man who somehow avoids adultery, or whatever other analogy there might be, is justly viewed by most people in that situation as offensive.

        I’m not sure how to help you think through the issue, in truth – especially not in a small comments box. I have thought of writing more, on my own blog, but have not yet had time to do so. In any case, much of that would just be a matter of repeating in a less erudite way the things that others have said. If you haven’t read Justin Lee’s book “Torn”, I would commend it – it’s an autobiographical account of a journey from a conservative upbringing to a position of affirming gay relationships (remaining fairly conservative otherwise).

        For me, it’s not only a case of trying to work out what the original authors of scripture were trying to say – through layers of language, translation, and lost cultural reference. It’s also a case of asking why they said it, and whether those contexts still apply today, and what broader lessons we can draw from scripture interpreted as a whole. I call this my hermeneutic of “that was then; this is now” – which is decidedly not an Evangelical position, but is, for example, the only way I was able to satisfy myself of the rightness of involving both women and men in all aspects of ministry. If we’re honest, I think all sorts of scriptural injunctions get interpreted according to that hermeneutic, even though we try to pretend to the contrary. In fact, I think we struggle to do otherwise, very often.

        All of that is of course only tangentially relevant to the question at hand – which may be what you were really asking about. This is surely about how we deal, as a local church, with differences in theology. For some reason, today lots of open-minded Evangelicals would not break fellowship over different understandings of predestination or eschatology – even though these have practical effects on outlook and life – but would do so over sexual ethics. I’m reluctant to break fellowship – especially when I humbly recognise my importance to my local church at this time – but equally, I don’t feel that I am able indefinitely to suppress a part of my innate, God-given, character. I suppose I’d see that analogous to Paul’s suggestion of it being “better to marry than to burn with passion”.

        This note is getting too long, but I should just add a footnote about that “God-given character”, because perhaps it’s the crux: you might want to ask whether being gay is part of the created order, or part of the fall. I suspect that may be a false dichotomy (maybe it’s a question that haunts!), but I’m fairly sure that we have no proper apparatus to answer the question.

        • silah

          To the contrary, the answer is we are to die to self. If you are not living a life of repentance then you have not been born again. “I have been crucified with Christ…it is not I who lives but Christ in me.” Put down your ____ (fill in the blank) and pick up your cross!

        • Gregory Peterson

          I always point out that you can safely operate heavy machinery while under the influence of Gay.

    • NateW

      Thanks for sharing Andrew. I won’t tell you what to do, but will just say to listen to the Spirit of Holy Love. Love led Christ to stay until he was Crucified by his own when the time was right, but before his time had come he slipped away quietly many times when things got heated. As long as your deepest desire and moment by moment decision is to love Christ with all of your self, and likewise your brothers and sisters, you will find yourself on the right path.

    • Thanks NateW and RollieB for responses. Yes – above all these things put on love. If the conversation about church is about “me” and “them” and “making a point” rather than the “we” of brothers and sisters, then the problem is much more profound than the question of whether the church affirms gay people in relationships or not.

    • Andrew, thanks for your honesty. I’m so glad to have you as a reader. You are on the horns of a dilemma, for sure. I talk to lots of people who stay in churches and other institutions because they believe they can change it from within. I am quite dubious that is possible — maybe it is, occasionally, but only with the Holy Spirit’s help. Even Jesus didn’t heal everyone at the Pool of Siloam. He healed one then moved on.

  • ChuckQueen101

    Thanks for calling attention to the Leadership Journal article. Excellent advice.

  • Andrew Dowling

    The evangelical obsession with sex, and seemingly an obsession with gay people having sex, will ensure their continued decline in the developed world. For many Christians like myself we don’t even see why this issue keeps getting dragged out . . it’s frankly childish and derives from the same type of selective inerrancy culture that defended slavery and segregation on “Scriptural grounds.”

  • Steve

    Seems to me that this fella figured out what he wanted to say. Perhaps the title of this post should be, “I do not approve of what this fella said to hypothetical gay man.”

    • Craig

      True, Steve. Evangelicals can boast if dogmatic certainty is a virtue.

      • Steve

        Whether I come to the Progressive forums or the Evangelical forums, neither side is at a lack for dogmatic certainty regarding this issue.

        • Craig

          Does it really come to that? In my own experience, evangelicals come to their stopping points of moral reflection quite a bit sooner. And then–as if their souls depended upon it–they tend to just dig in their heels.

          • Steve

            Both sides have dug in heels. For Progressives to say, “Those Evangelicals have dogmatically dug in their heels” is an exercise in teapots pointing out the color of kettles.

            • Yes, gay people are just as at fault for objecting to their own oppression. Why can’t they be reasonable and agree that they are perverts and damned to hell unless they pretend to be straight – don’t they realize how uncomfortable it makes white straight males? Keep thinking like this – its done so well for evangelicals…

              • Steve

                Peace be with you.

  • Oswald Carnes

    Maybe evangelicals could manage to just shut the hell up for once and listen instead. Gay people have had nothing but “advice” from them; we don’t need any more.