The last few weeks since the Supreme Court in America approved same sex marriage, and Ireland voted to do the same, there has been a lot of conversation (ok, mainly argument) on all forums and social media platforms. Rightly so. This is a massive shift in society.
Some people have asked me why I have made such a big deal of it, and why I am “pushing” the issue so hard. The reason is simple. I grew up in a very conservative part of the Christian tradition. I was taught that I was part of a chosen group who were going to live in Paradise, and everyone else was hated by God and would suffer for eternity. If you don’t think about it too much, there’s comfort in being part of the chosen. When you apply your mind to it, though, it’s a horrifying mindset. It actively creates “us vs them” divides at every level.
This is not what I see in the life and teachings of Jesus, who stands at the centre of my religion. I see someone who breaks down these “us verses them” divides at every opportunity. He does it across all sorts of lines: race, culture, economic status, politics, religion and sexuality.
So now that the church is confronted by such a radical shift in societal norms, we have an opportunity to re-form our churches too. It’s a key moment in history, and we must grasp it. You probably won’t hear this in your church this week, but you should: “let’s do this now”.
It is incredibly hard for someone who has grown up their whole life not just believing that homosexuality is a sin, but also that gay people are actually disgusting and despised by God to see what is now happening around the world. Acceptance of homosexuality as normal must be incredibly difficult – and for some, a sign of how badly messed up the world is.
It is wonderful to see some of these people beginning to confront their personal distaste of the “gay lifestyle” and argue for a church that should be accepting of LGBTQI people, and welcoming. That’s an important and necessary first step. But it’s not enough. Not nearly enough.
For those who believe that the Bible affirms same sex marriage, we cannot stop and applaud this half way step. It is going to bring more pain and suffering very soon. If you believe that “being gay” is a sin in itself, then you are only going to find pain in a church. And churches that welcome LGBTQI people but still believe that “being gay” is sinful are going to cause deep and abiding harm to people. LGBTQI people who attend those churches will be second class citizens, will be prohibited from leading, serving and exercising their spiritual gifts and calling. They will be broken down, not built up.
At the least, if you want to be welcoming to “sinners”, then you HAVE to distinguish between the orientation to sin and the actual act of sinning. I am orientated to murder and adultery and pride and theft and greed and drunkenness. But the church could (and should) only get involved when I act out on any of these. So too LGBTQI people (if you believe these to be a sin): if they choose to be celibate, then they should be fully accepted as full church members, and be able to fully serve in any position and exercise any gift in the life of the church. They don’t have to stop *being* gay, they just have to stop *doing* gay. (I say this merely to make the point to conservative Christians, rather than suggesting this in my personal position on the issue.)
Having said that, those of us who believe that “doing gay” is not a sin (as long as we stick to the rules around being sexually faithful to your marriage partner) should push even further to make sure LGBTQI people find a place at church that allows them to be fully human – finding love, finding lifelong companionship and enjoying sex. Until this happens, they’re not really going to be free; neither will they be expressing what it means to be fully human, loving and being loved, made in the image of God.
Here’s an analogy. One of the most poignant parts of Nelson Mandela’s life story for me was the few years when he had been moved to house arrest and was negotiating with the SA government. They offered to release him from jail. He declined to accept this until a comprehensive and national solution was found. It’s highly likely that had he accepted a half step to freedom, that the full step to equality of all races in South Africa would have failed – or at least been long delayed. Freedom for all, or freedom for none.
For those who are now more comfortable being “for the gays”, please don’t stop yet. We have to help our fellow Christians continue to walk the journey from “loving the sinner but hating the sin”, to welcoming the “gay sinners”, to affirming a “gay orientation” onwards to celebrating “gay marriage” (which should just be called “marriage”), and supporting and discipling all people who call themselves Christ-followers with no discussion or concern over sexual orientation (while still having things to say about sexual behaviour and abuse – I am not calling for a free for all).
Don’t stop now. Don’t stop here.
There’s still a long path ahead. And don’t be fooled by the untenable positions of “love the sinner but hate the sin”. As long as you still think homosexuality is a sin, it would be better that you sent gay people away from your church to go worship somewhere else – you’re just going to hurt them even more.
Over the next few weeks (months and years) on this blog, I will upload some resources that I hope will help those Christians who are genuinely seeking truth on this issue (the index to this series is now available here). We cannot underestimate the difficulty of changing one’s core beliefs and long-held views. We need to support people and disciple them gently and compassionately. And I hope that I can do that just a little bit. Come back regularly to this site for more resources, links and insights.