Same-Sex Sexuality & Christianity, part 4: Pastoral Care

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1. Supporting Christians with Same-Sex Attraction

The fact of Same-Sex Attracted Christians in the Church

Over the years I have been surprised multiple times in my networks of Christian acquaintances where people have ‘come out as gay’. Usually, they have kept secret their sexuality until after they have left their church.

Openness about same-sex attraction has not often managed to go together with remaining in a church.

Because of this, it is wise to assume this is something that someone in your church is struggling with. This means being careful in the way we seek to affirm biblical truth about sexuality and humanity. It is important to consider the pressure that same-sex attracted Christians are under. Sensitivity to this struggle is a must. The burden of shame often felt is made heavier by a real or perceived need for secrecy, as well as by the sense of living a ‘double life’ as they seek support that they aren’t getting in their church.

If this is you, please do reach out to someone who has both pastoral and theological wisdom to seek support. It may not quite be the case of “A burden shared is a burden halved”, but the sharing may well provide the relief and support that makes the struggle manageable.

Since Christians with same-sex attraction often don’t find the support that they need in their church communities, they find it in other places which affirm their attraction as something that can and should be expressed in physical actions.

Three further matters make it more difficult for same-sex attracted Christians to remain in their churches:

A widespread church culture which promotes and expects normal family values and fails to value and affirm singleness. Singleness is a relationship status that is not taken seriously as a long term or permanent possibility, and one that people find themselves in for a variety of reasons – inability to find a suitable partner, contentedness with being single, divorce, death of a partner/spouse, or lack of attraction to the opposite sex.[1]

The failure to differentiate between actions and attraction, and the failure to differentiate between attraction, behaviour and identity (this was discussed in part three of this series).

The polarization between the church and rainbow community doesn’t help here. Christians keeping their attractions secret will no doubt feel caught in the crossfire of Christians who are angry at the advocacy of rainbow sexuality, making it hard for them to seek the support they should find in their church communities.

Consider some of the most common questions that Christian teenagers with same-sex attraction ask: [2]

  • Why do I have these feelings?
  • Am I really a Christian?
  • Will I go to hell?
  • Do I have to be single forever?

These kinds of questions should help us recognise the immense struggle that Christian teenagers face when met by unexpected attractions – with their limited life experience and theological understanding.

What are their Usual Options?[3]

  • “Gay to Straight” – to change their sexual attractions, if possible.
  • “Gay and Celibate” – to face the prospect of a lifetime of singleness.
  • “Gay and Ok” – to assimilate their theology to accommodate their same-sex identity.
  • “Gay and Goodbye” – to simply leave the church.

Other options can emerge. Sexual orientation is not always permanent, or total. Some people find attraction to a particular member of the opposite sex, and still have a general attraction to the same sex, of greater or lesser intensity, that may be permanent, sporadic, or past. Relationships built on this basis have been done, albeit with unique challenges for these couples.

Counselling might help them to make sense of their feeling, set them in a broader perspective than they currently have, and become aware of options on how they might deal with them. Mark Yarhouse has useful resources on sexuality and faith and is a practising counsellor as well as a doctor in psychology. There is a chapter in his book Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors, and Friends that addresses and advises parents of teenage children for this. I have written a summary of Yarhouse’s book here.

Conversion Therapy

[See also discussion on the 2009 report by the American Psychological Association on sexual orientation change efforts in the final section of this article.]

‘Conversion therapy’ is usually unhelpful, largely due to unrealistic expectations. From what I have heard and read, shifts in attraction or orientation do happen on occasion. However, in addition to the infrequency of such ‘successes’ is the warning that such practises also direct hope in the wrong direction – the practice is critiqued on theological grounds.

Greg Johnson recounts in his forthcoming book Still Time to Care how American evangelicalism shifted position on this issue in the 1970s. Iconic evangelical leaders of the mid twentieth century upheld the importance of care for Christians who were attracted to the same sex, rather than fixating on the need to ‘cure’ them. Johnson names Billy Graham, John Stott, Harold Ockenga, Chuck Colson, C. S. Lewis, Francis Shaeffer, and Carl Henry among others. But during and after gay rights movement and the AIDS crisis in the 1970s-1980s, the small number of ‘ex gays’ whose sexual orientation had changed became the justification for many churches expecting Christians to be cured of same-sex attraction, and distracted from the need to provide care regardless of orientation.[2]

[See also Greg Johnson’s article See What Comes After the Ex-Gay Movement? The Same Thing That Came Before. | Christianity Today.]

The theological issue involved in this centre around our understanding of the current (fallen) human condition, the present work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christ’s people, what has been promised for the future and the nature of the Christian life in terms of personal holiness. God has not promised freedom from temptation or from inner struggle. Our hopes in this will be met at the resurrection where our selves will be renewed. There is no promise for this in the present. Until then, the Apostle Paul’s experience in Romans 7:7-25 can instruct and encourage us. Mature Christian identity will rest primarily in its commitment as a disciple of Jesus, regardless of sexual orientation. The result of this will be less desperation to take away struggles, less shame because of struggles, and acceptance that struggles with unwanted desires and inclinations is part of present human experience, particularly for those (i.e. Christians) who recognise that life as we experience it is not life as it ought to be.