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Christian Perspectives on LGBT

2011 January 27
by Julie Clawson

So a friend recently asked my opinion regarding the differing views churches hold about LGBT people. Since most people seem to think churches’ stances are limited to the either/or of complete rejection or full acceptance, I thought it was helpful to reflect on the more nuanced opinions that are out there. I’ve decided to post the list of views I came up with below. But first I need to state a few disclaimers and warnings.

I want to post this list to see what other options the readers here might have to contribute. The point of this is not to argue which view is right, but merely to list what views are held by church. Also, I’m writing as someone who has not personally experienced the pain and struggle that typify many LGBT peoples experience with the church. I don’t want to ignore that pain or that in discussing churches’ views I am discussing things that have affected the lives of real people, but I’m only trying here to give a snapshot of what I’ve seen. I’ve also left out the views on the extremes – i.e. the Fred Phelps hatred and the anything goes tolerance – to focus on views that I’ve had experience with in churches. So here’s my 2 cents…

Group 1. This group thinks all forms being gay are a willful choice to sin against God and the Bible. While they might not use hate speech like Fred Phelps, they generally won’t allow gay people to attend their churches. If they do, they insist that they repent and seek a cure for their sinful choices. Often this group tries to hide the existence of gay people in culture as well. They fight libraries that have children’s books about two mommies, they see a gay agenda in the media if a gay person shows up on a TV show, and oppose gay marriage as an endorsement of sin. If they know anyone who is actually gay, it is generally only someone who has been treated of their problem and now asks for continual prayer that they won’t fall back into sin. To them the Bible is clear and easy to understand in its condemnation of same-sex relationships since (in their view) people don’t interpret the Bible, it simple speak the truth for itself.

Group 2. The second group would still say that being gay is unbiblical/sinful, but they would be more nuanced and loving in that assertion. They may or may not see being gay as a choice, but they will generally admit that it is something that goes so deep in a person that they cannot willfully choose not to be gay. So while they might say that being gay may not be a choice (and therefore not wrong in and of itself), for them acting on gay desires is always wrong. So while they love and accept people who have the condition, they condemn gay sex, gay relationships, and gay marriage. So there are churches where people who openly identify as gay can attend (although they are always known by that label) and they might even be allowed to serve in some non-leadership positions in the church (but generally never with children). Like hetero singles, they are constantly encouraged to keep pure but have the harder struggle since they know that they will never be allowed to find love without slipping into sin and being rejected by their church community. There is generally much outreach in these communities to get practicing gays to join this “accepting” community where they have support to stop practicing.

Group 3. The third group generally believes that being gay is a condition and not a choice. They may or may not believe that practicing being gay is biblical or not, but what they believe about that matters less than the fact that they know they need to be loving and accepting of all people. Gay people are God’s beloved just as hetero people are, so the church should love them just as God loves them. The discussions here are generally about rights and justice. The language is that all people should be granted the same benefits of civil society no matter who they love. So gay marriage is supported and any discrimination whatsoever is fought against and condemned. Some in this group would still speak against gay promiscuity, just as they would hetero promiscuity (which is part of why they support gay marriage). They understand that the Bible has been used in hurtful and hateful ways against gay people in the past and they want to move past that. They might have read some alternative interpretations of the few Bible passages that seem to condemn same-sex relationships, but they may or may not be convinced by either interpretation. Since they generally know and are friends with gay people, they are okay with the ambiguity of biblical interpretation because they see being in loving relationship as being far more important than dogma.

Group 4. In the fourth group I would place those that have devoted the time to digging through scripture and history and have decided that there is nothing unbiblical about same-sex relationships. Their decision generally isn’t based on cultural-pressure or a sense of tolerance, but the conclusion of a serious wrestling with scripture. They are often told that they are unbiblical and just want to support sin, but often they have very strong doctrine based on the Bible and Christian tradition (although it often is more of an ancient or postmodern interpretation than modern evangelical). They will be advocates for the gay community when needed, but since their theology doesn’t see gay people as other, they often don’t see people first by that label. They often have a hard time finding churches where they fit in as many churches either still see gay people as somehow inferior or make the entire church’s identity about including gay people. While many people in this group devote themselves to wrestling honestly with the whole of scripture, there is a portion who knew they had to try to figure out the gay issue in scripture and so that is the extent of their wrestling. So while they have intellectually resolved that scripture does not condemn gay people, they still might hold to “biblical” ideas of sexism and racism because they were taught such things when they were younger. So it is hard to classify this group as liberal or tolerant, they are simply those who are willing to wrestle with scripture and conclude that there is no need to condemn.

Do these groups seem accurate? What other perspectives would you add?

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21 Responses leave one →
  1. Robin Wallace permalink
    January 27, 2011

    I would add at least one further group, Julie—people who are afraid to share their beliefs about this issue publicly because of the reaction they suspect they would get, and who therefore keep silent when the topic comes up, even if they may squirm internally. Such people are not necessarily cowards; they may simply be highly invested in a church or religious community in a way that they find deeply meaningful and satisfactory – except for this one issue, on which they keep silent in order not to put everything else at risk.

  2. January 27, 2011

    Thanks for this post, Julie.

    I would add another, as well — those who have not made up their minds on the issue. From my experience they are (almost always) heterosexual, often raised in the church, may not have many close LGBT friends/family and thus not taken the time or energy to decide what they believe on the issue, or wrestle with scripture enough to make a decision. Most often, they attend churches that hold similar to the Group 2 view.

  3. Arthur permalink
    January 27, 2011

    Agree with Kate – large space between Group 2 and Group 3. I have met many who are continuing to question, partially accepting of certain LGBT, and especially family of LGBT, but not yet convinced of the choice vs condition question. This group may be as accepting of the person as Group 3, and usually are large enough that the restrictions from Group 2 are less obvious or nonexistent.

  4. January 27, 2011

    Here’s another perspective on groups. I counsel many in the GLBT community, both Christian and non. At a recent Gay Christian Network conference these categories were offered:

    Side A: Those who believe that gay and straight relationships are equanimous before God and man, and that gay marriage is the same as heterosexual marriage. They do not believe that being gay is a mere act of the will or sinful choice, but rather, it is the way in which they were born. The Christians in this category have done a lot of biblical research and study such as the passages in Leviticus and Romans that talk about homosexuality to try to understand what they might actually mean. (There is a lot of room for dialogue here – the word “homosexuality” was not used in translations of the the biblical text till the mid 18th century. Some of the words hold the idea of exploitation, particularly of older men using young boys, or victors in war raping the losers as an act of shaming. There is no word in either the Hebrew or Greek that connotes “orientation”).
    Also, because they are Christians, this group believes that the same level of commitment, faithfulness and integrity is required in relationships as it is for straight couples.

    Side B: Sex is only for male and females in the context of a marriage relationship.
    Gay Christians who are in the group believe that they are called to be celibate.

    Side C: This was not mentioned by the GCN for reasons below. This is the side that reflects those who have experienced a movement or change from gay to straight. This is highly controversial because much psychological harm has been done by some “ex-gay ministries”, who have a stance that is is God’s will that everyone be changed to straight because to have same sex feelings is a manifestation of idolatry. (Not all of those ministries are so hard nosed but there were many at the conference still licking their wounds.)
    The reality is that some people do change and find themselves without same sex feelings anymore after personal growth in therapy. But that is a small percentage and cannot be demanded of everyone. Nor can it be concluded that those who don’t “change” are defective or have failed. Some people end up forcing their feelings underground to try to conform to what is expected (and to avoid being shamed) and that is always harmful. We know so little of how an orientation develops. There’s stages/needs of human growth and development, nature, nurture, a child’s own interactions and perceptions of the world, pre-birth factors, genetics, hormones, ad infinitum, that to prescribe a “treatment” is unrealistic at best, harmful at worst. That being said, I do know of people personally who have moved from SSA to “straight” and though the ones who are genuine are in the minority, I feel their stories must be respected as well.

    The real topic of that recent conference was grace and the reality that Christians (because of Jesus) have a history of coming alongside and embracing outcasts. I guess that’s your group 3. :-)

    Most of these folks have encountered the groups you describe. There’s those whose bible teaching cannot allow them to reach out in love to those whom they view as sinners even though they believe in reaching out to sinners (I never understood that contradiction), those who are truly homophobic and then there are the Fred Phelpses who are simply off the charts. But on the left side of things, there are also those who are so defensive about the issue that they cannot tolerate Side B or Side C above.

    The remarkable thing about the conference I was just at is that they all made space for each other, even with very different beliefs. Honestly, I believe that was the Spirit of Christ there.

    I just have to add that for some it was the first time in years that they had opportunity to worship with Christians in a big group because they were not allowed in church. It was heart-wrenchingly beautiful.

    Great discussion! This is a crucial one for these times. I look forward to hearing more.

  5. January 27, 2011

    Ellen, I think the two groups you list sum up the positions nicely. Yet as others have mentioned here, there are many people who refuse to think through the issues or live in fear of speaking their opinion (or perhaps of even coming to one). So that’s why I focused on the on the ground practice of churches – practice isn’t always rational or well thought out. And I appreciated your point about how people do change. Many of my bisexuals are often rejected by gays and lesbians because of the assumption that one is either born gay or not. Sexuality is a lot more complex than that, and I think we are only just now allowing ourselves to understand that complexity.

    • Robin Wallace permalink
      January 27, 2011

      Julie, I would just add that churches are complex too. As my first comment suggested, it may not be helpful to think in terms of a particular church holding a particular view. Most churches I’ve observed directly contain the whole spectrum, and not everybody is “out” about where they stand. It is individuals, not churches, who can be placed in such groups, IMO.

    • February 3, 2011

      Absolutely, Julie. Sexuality is very complex and the categories I list are not fully adequate because there are many more expressions within humankind. And yes, I have also seen the strife between bisexuals and gays/lesbians as well as anyone whose type or experience of sexuality threatens the belief system or experience of another. But this can occur across the board in any of the church groups you describe.

      There *is* another type of church, however. Group 5! In Denver, there is a church with evangelical roots called Highlands Church (highlandschurchdenver.org) which is openly welcoming and affirming of anyone regardless of their sexuality. The founding pastor is a straight married man; his co-pastor is a gay woman in a committed relationship. They strive to move beyond the “issue” so that they can get on with the outworking of the gospel, such as caring for the poor, etc. Another is an Emergent/Evangelical Lutheran church which is also queer welcoming and affirming (houseforall.org). This is where I attend. They also do not maintain this issues as the main issue or focus. Everyone is integrated fully and so are free to be all about the gospel. Both of these churches are quite amazing and I am very glad to call them my friends.

  6. January 27, 2011

    What about Christians who agree that the Bible might actually condemn homosexuality, but don’t actually care because they don’t consider the Bible to be inerrant and believe that this is one of those places where the Bible is wrong?

    • January 28, 2011

      I was going to suggest that group as well. There are a number of pro-gay churches and Christians for whom the question of the Bible’s opinion on the matter is largely irrelevant since they don’t assume that every part of the Bible is absolutely normative anyway, or because their primary source of religious authority is based somewhere other than scripture. It’s not an “anything goes” extreme, it’s just an approach to Christianity that doesn’t make “what does the Bible say” the main issue.

  7. John M. permalink
    January 28, 2011

    A pretty fair description of the most common points on the continuum, I’d say. As an Episcopalian, my own church has some parishes at the really conservative end and others at the really liberal end, and everything in between. Seems that the more gay members there are in a parish, the more likely the hetero members are to lean Left… it’s far less easy to think of someone as “living in sin” when I see them every week being a better Christian than I am.

  8. January 28, 2011

    I appreciate this post and the discussion it’s starting/continuing, but I have to say, as a gay Christian, it gets ever so tiring to be an “issue”. I hope we can create another group in the Christian community at large (let’s be optimistic and pretend one exists). It would be a group where people were able to live in the tension between their different understandings of scripture and sexuality and could stop treating gay Christians any differently. I’ve noticed that many (conservative) Christians feel a lot of anxiety when asked to think about the overlap of LGBTQ people and the church, because they feel the need to know exactly what the right “answer” is, as well as the right response to take, and without that perfect certainty, there is a fear of getting it wrong. And without figuring this out one way or the other, they feel paralyzed. I want us to be people capable of living in that very uncomfortable place where certainty is not so close at hand, so we just have to love each other in the meantime. You know, like Jesus suggested.

    One can hope, right?

    • January 28, 2011

      Thanks for sharing that perspective KP. I know the church we were planting up in IL aspired to be the kind of community you describe. We didn’t have an “official position” on homosexuality and didn’t force the issue. We welcomed people of all opinions and just made respect and love for each other, despite any disagreements, the primary requirement. It’s amazing how well it worked actually. I think our church here in Austin also aspires to maintain the same loving tension.

      • a sojourner permalink
        February 4, 2011

        Mike, I don’t know if you can or will answer this, but… just what church in Austin do you commune with? I’m an Austin-ite who left The Church entirely a few years ago, in large part because I couldn’t stomach the way Christians treated my gay friends. Over the past year, I’ve rediscovered my faith, and I’ve also discovered that the fundamentalists and evangelicals don’t hold a monopoly on Christian thought, but I’m still having trouble finding a spiritual community that prioritizes love over “issues.” Can you point me in that direction?

        • February 4, 2011

          Mike and I attend Journey Imperfect Faith Community. Like he said, it is a tension for some there, but the emphasis is on loving everyone.

  9. Michael permalink
    January 28, 2011

    Drew C and Mike C above beat me to it. I’m in Group 5, who doesn’t expect the Bible to be the last word on subjects like homosexuality (or human migration, or age of the earth) because it was a premodern document and we have learned new things in 3000 years. “Love God and neighbor” is the abiding Christian principle.

    • January 28, 2011

      I never thought I’d find myself in this camp back when the big shift began for me, but I’d say this is precisely where I’m leaning. I think adding in this particular group (with its nuances) would be helpful.

  10. January 31, 2011

    I don’t have anything to add (the comments before me have well covered any additions I could make) but just wanted to say, as a partnered lesbian, a Christian, and a woman in seminary to become (God willing) a pastor, this is just a lovely post. I agree with KP that it’s tiring to be the “hot issue” of the day – but I’m so very happy that when I read the comments, I didn’t find that I had to be on my guard. Almost always, when LGBT people are mentioned in “Christian” blogs, I feel that I have to read the posts & the comments with my back against the wall, prepared for condemnation (either outright or cloaked). It’s quite nice to read a post and comments written by thoughtful and compassionate individuals. Thank you all for being a blessing.

  11. February 4, 2011

    I find it odd that in all this you have concentrated everything on what Christians think of gay people.

    Let’s take another issue on which Christians hold widely differing opinions – war.

    There people ask “What is your attitude towards war?” or “What are the different Christian attitudes towards war?” and not “What are the different Christian attitudes towards soldiers?”

    Are there debates about whether the church accepts soldiers?

    Yes, you find the group 1 people, who picket military bases and want to ban war toys for children, and you find the group 4 people who are probably military chaplains. But the debate is not couched in terms of how you accept the people so much as what you think of the behaviour.

    Why the difference?

    • February 4, 2011

      Steve – I think there are conversations about the church’s view on war (and books for that matter). I was asked this question in such a general context and replied as such. Accepting soldiers as people is something even those of us opposed to war do. At the church we pastored, we saw this when one week we prayed for a young man who was leaving to join the air force and the next week a young woman who was leaving to join the Soulforce Equality ride. There were people in the church who opposed war and who thought that being gay was sinful, but we still asked God to protect and bless them both. But I have to add that when someone’s actions involve hurting and killing others there is a different conversation happening. Loving someone while still opposing how they harm others is a fine line because there is very little room in our society to oppose killing in war. We are taught to either turn those people into heroes or oppose them, we don’t have a rubric for how to love people who kill when we oppose the killing.

  12. Karl permalink
    February 14, 2011

    Hi Julie,

    It’s been a long time; I’m sorry to see I am late to this thread. I’ll offer a comment because I’ve read a bunch on this issue as a result of being in the Episcopal Church during the Gene Robinson ordination/same sex blessing battles, and there is a group I don’t see fairly represented.

    I would add a group of people whose behavior fits most of what you say in your category 4 but contra those in 4, their time devoted to seriously wrestling through scripture and studying history has led them to decide that the Bible forbids homosexual sex. I’m talking about people like Gary, Duke NT professor Dr. Richard B. Hayes’ gay friend from his Yale undergrad days, whose story Hays briefly recounts here at the beginning of his chapter on homosexuality in “The Moral Vision of the New Testament” :

    http://www.corningmennonite.org/gaymatter/gary.htm

    Like Gary, after hopefully reading through the current canon of the movement advocating the acceptance of homosexuality in the church, they “came away disappointed, believing that these authors, despite their good intentions, had imposed a wishful interpretation on the biblical passages. However much [they] wanted to believe that the Bible did not condemn homosexuality, [they] would not violate [their] own stubborn intellectual integrity by pretending to find the arguments persuasive.”

    Despite (or perhaps because of?) reaching that theological and moral conclusion on a principled basis when they were ready to conclude otherwise and not as a result of internal bias, fear of the other, or pressure from their subculture, these people don’t see gay people first by that label, and are willing to fellowship with a practicing gay person just as much as they fellowship with an unmarried hetero couple that is living together or other people who are unapologetically in the grip of some other one of the “7 deadly sins.” Basically, their beliefs on the morality of gay practice are closer to those you describe in your category 2 (though more nuanced and informed), while their attitude and treatment of non-celibate gay people is closer to that of those in your group 4. You may scoff at the idea that such a group exists, but it does. A minority group perhaps, maybe no larger than the actual size of your category 4. But it’s there. The real rub comes when the issue of ordaining someone comes up, or performing a marriage. Then, the desire that we not see people through this lens and not be all about this issue, bumps up against the fact that we have to decide whether we can in good conscience proclaim God’s blessing on this union. At that juncture, as a result of their “no” vote people like Richard Hays and his friend Gary often unfairly get lumped in as haters or fear-mongers along with the worst representatives of your groups 1 and 2, despite the fact that in spirit they may be much different and the fact that they reached their stand through an honest, principled study of scripture and history.

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