This is the fourth in a year-long blog series by Lindsey Snyder about what pastors and parents need to know to better minister to gay Christian women according to a traditional biblical sexual ethic. This two-part post explores the challenges parents and pastors face due to shifting views in metropolitan America about morality, gay people, and women. Please note: Location makes a difference. Some of these shifts may not have taken place in small, conservative towns.
“I was watching this movie with my parents and there were two women kissing,” eleven-year-old me exclaimed, flabbergasted. I was hanging out with two of my friends, mulling over a scene from the movie Anger Management.
“They’re gay,” observed one friend.
“You know… like, two women who want to date each other are gay.”
“That is not a thing,” I laughed, truly befuddled.
Thus began my first introduction to the concept of “gay.” I remember seriously arguing with my friend that there was no such thing as gay people because I had never heard of them before… oh, the irony!
Much has changed from the time I was a teenager to what many teens experience now in peer groups, churches, media, and society at large. If even I, a young adult gay woman, am surprised by how much has changed, I can only imagine the whiplash parents and pastors of high schoolers experience today. Generally, there has been a cultural mindset shift towards sexual freedom, and that is particularly complex and multilayered for gay Christian women.
In this post I want to explore the ways culture is rapidly changing and how that impacts ministering to gay women according to a Biblical, traditional (historic) sexual ethic. The root causes of these changes can be seen in three ways: shifting views about morality, shifting views about gay people, and shifting views about women. These three layers are not independent of each other. Rather, they compound, causing multi-faceted difficulties for women navigating their sexuality. After reviewing these cultural shifting sands, we’ll conclude with practical responses for pastors and parents.
Shifting Views about Sexual Morality
Know Your Sexual Sin History
American culture has a dramatic, politicized sexual history. We go from one moral pendulum swing to another in the span of only a couple decades, and then back again. The 1940’s and 50’s were anchored in traditional sexual ethics. In large part, this was due to the media and government. The politics of the Cold War introduced the concept of the nuclear family as the bedrock of society and capitalism (Women in the 1950s (article) | 1950s America).
Even as the traditional ideal prevailed, the rigidity of heteronormativity and chastity were not upheld. A bubbling dissatisfaction of the status quo gradually rose to prominence in the 60’s; termed The Second Sexual Revolution. On May 9, 1960, the birth control pill, which became a symbol of sexual freedom, was approved by the FDA (Hills, 2014). Though teens of the 60’s were not having more sex than previous generations, they were becoming more willing to have it with acquaintances or strangers (Hills, 2014). With whom and how to have sex slowly became an indiscriminate, private decision, not a matter of national conscience (Hills, 2014).
Disturbed by the rise of immorality, Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, a political organization priding itself in purporting conservative social values, in 1979. This environment birthed purity culture, the ex-gay movement, and many other (incomplete at best, destructive at worst) sex education materials that made their rounds through churches across America. Christians in the 80’s and 90’s relied on shame and empty promises of finding “the one” to hold back teenagers from sexual sin.
In the United States, there is an undeniable link between changes in attitudes towards sexual morality and a decline in traditional religious authority (Scott, 1998). Still clinging to the teachings of the now-defunct Moral Majority, in the early 2000’s churches still guided moral norms. The most grievous sins, many were told, were sexual sins. Or, if you were in churches like mine, the unending silence testified that sexuality didn’t even exist. In sum, for Christians growing up in the 2000’s, sexuality was forbidden or silenced. Under this backdrop, we had front-row seats to the public moral downfalls of dozens of revered Christian leaders. Pastoral hypocrisy and exploitation caused mass confusion and distrust. As a result, religious authority has lost much of its influence. Respect for biblical teaching has essentially been made irrelevant to today’s culture by hypocritical Christian teachers.
Thus, we come to the present day, where. as New York Times Journalist Rachel Hills writes, “Love is no longer a prerequisite for sexual intimacy; and nor, for that matter, is intimacy a prerequisite for sex. For people born after 1980, the most important sexual ethic is not about how or with whom you have sex, but open-mindedness.”
Though hardly anyone can live up to an ideal, when ideals change, lifestyles change. Scripture teaches that Christians should reserve sex for a lifelong Christian marriage between one man and one women. That used to be the ideal of the general population. In today’s world, the ideal is sexual liberation. Anything is fair game, so long as there is mutual consent and you are being true to yourself. Our culture values independence and self-interest over interdependence and selflessness. To sacrifice happiness is seen as archaic and unnecessary. We constantly hear things like: “be your own person,” “don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t be,” and “you deserve to be happy.” Cheating on a spouse is still frowned upon, but deciding it is best to divorce your spouse when your affections turn elsewhere is often tolerated if not praised in our society. When these are the prevailing messages, it makes sense that kids growing up today are making vastly different decisions regarding their sexuality than past generations.
Views within the Church have also Shifted
In my opinion, one of the Church’s greatest failures in sexuality conversations has been to ignore the goodness of sexual desires in men and ignore the mere reality of sexual desires in women. This failure has led to painful results and an over-correction by abandoning historic sexual ethics in churches.
In church communities, men were viewed as sex machines and women were seen as princesses waiting for their prince to come sweep them off their feet. The Church of the 1990s and early 2000s built their theological foundation of sexual morality on shame, suppression, and empty promises. They claimed that we all just need to wait for “the one” that God will bring into our lives, and (once married) we will then have incredible sex and romance. Being fed either silence or empty promises idolizing romance, sex, and marriage . . . is it any wonder that after years of disappointment, shame, and crushed dreams, we are now seeing a rebellion from historic sexual morality? Moreover, conservative Christians who did speak about God’s design for sexuality often did it so poorly that their teaching ended up being an argument against it.
Churches in the 90’s and early 2000’s primarily taught truth without grace. Leaders hammered the six Bible verses condemning homosexuality into the minds of congregations, and hearts that needed compassion were served shame instead. People were frequently taught lies that complete healing from same-sex attraction was guaranteed if you just had enough faith.
For other churches during the same time period, silence was the preferred strategy (or non-strategy) in regards to teaching about sexual morality. I can attest to the fact that silence led to many more years of suppression and shame than I would have experienced otherwise. Neither silence nor permissiveness is God’s best for us.
Today, many churches are becoming gay-affirming, favoring grace over truth. Pastors see the real damage truth without grace has caused. Often fueled by a desire to remove barriers for people to come to Christ, truth has become an ever-shifting line in the sand to accommodate culturally relevant progressive/revisionist sexual ethics.
Shifting Views about Gay People
Not only have views on morality in general shifted, but so has society’s perceptions of gay people. In many ways, these changes have been a welcome pushback against oppression! In other ways, it has only added to the burden of gay Christian women trying to live out a Biblical traditional sexual ethic.
Americans Changed their Minds about Gay Marriage
When I had my first undeniable physical attraction to another girl in 2006, the percentage of people in our nation who thought homosexuality should be accepted by society hovered at about 50 percent. By 2017, that number grew to 70 percent. A significant majority of Americans now believe that homosexual behavior should be accepted by society. Among Christians, the percentage is lower, but still has grown in favor of acceptance. When I was fifteen, 44% of Christians wanted homosexuality to be accepted in society. Ten years later, that percentage has shifted to a slight majority of 54% of Christians.
One benefit of these changing attitudes that every Christian should be able to embrace has been decreasing homophobia. Homophobia is not helpful for anyone. It was primarily my internalized homophobia that kept me suffering with my attractions in silence for years.
Pros and Cons of Representation in Media
One of the biggest influencers that shifts public opinion is media’s portrayal of gay people. Long gone are the carefully sanitized, heteronormative, patriarchal portrayals of families as portrayed in sitcoms like Leave it to Beaver or I Love Lucy. When the 90’s came around, gay characters appeared in minor roles, but were often portrayed unfavorably or neutrally. I remember when I first watched the movie Fried Green Tomatoes as a 13-year-old, I saw some of myself in Idgie’s friendship with Ruth. When Ruth kissed Idgie on the cheek, I saw the pain and longing for more in Idgie’s eyes and startlingly saw myself there too. Though the lesbian themes were toned down in the movie’s adaptation of the book, this was the first portrayal of a lesbian character I had seen in a framework that was not homophobic; it spoke to the tension within me and was both relieving and terrifying. In my childhood, seeing the briefest glimpse of the reality of same-sex-attracted people even existing quenched a little of my internalized homophobia in ways my church never did.
Today, media is not so subtle about bringing gay characters into major plot lines. Modern Family portrays two married gay men in a positive relationship. Recent hits like Empire, Grey’s Anatomy, and This is Us all contain plot lines normalizing lesbian and gay attractions and relationships. One 2018 study of popular TV shows found that “gender identity and sexual orientation accounted for 24 of the 118 depictions of all sexual and reproductive health themes (20%) in minor, major and multi-episode storylines.”
In some ways, gay representation on screen as mentioned above has helped Christians like me know that I am not alone in my attractions. Here’s a good example from the 2020 miniseries Little Fires Everywhere, but don’t watch unless you’re ok with spoilers. Scenes like this one decrease shame and increase feelings of acceptance, love, and the hope of belonging.
The downside for Christians holding to a historic sexual ethic is that media does not only normalize the experience of having attractions to the same sex, same-sex relationships and experimentation are also encouraged by media. There are no celibate gay Christian representatives in movies or TV series. Though I’m impulsively drawn towards media with gay main characters, it is rarely a good idea for me to watch. When I do, it often results in me awakening my fantasies and living vicariously through the characters, justifying to myself that at least God should be cool with me doing so, since I won’t actually be doing that in real life. I then more often than not proceed to sink into a place of bitterness and sadness, the happy images of same-sex romantic love re-playing in my mind.
When I was an impressionable, angsty teenager, I did not see any representation of gay people, but neither did I see strong affirmations of gay romance and sex. Teens today can feel more solidarity and comfort in seeing gay people like them on screen, but they also see the affirmation of gay marriage and sexual relationships in ways that feel irresistible. Neither extreme is particularly helpful for same-sex-attracted Christians who want to obey and thrive in God’s teachings.
From Behavior to Identity
One of the major shifts over the years that has sparked so much confusion and debate is the shift from focusing on sexual orientation to focusing on sexual identity. Researcher Peter Hart-Brinson explains, “If one imagines homosexuality as an identity, like race, then extending equal rights to same-sex couples is logical, moral, and just. By contrast, if one imagines homosexuality as a behavior, then it does not logically follow that the institution of marriage should be expanded to accommodate same-sex couples” (Hart-Brinson, 2016).
Today, educators, thought leaders, counselors, and many organizations are trained in sexual identity-appropriate language, sensitivity, and LGBT+ allyship. Though Equip believes that it is good to use LGBT+ terminology to connect with culture and to acknowledge our attractions as a part of our experience, there is no denying that the initial shift of viewing homosexuality as a behavior to that of an identity has moved the entire topic from a morality conversation to a social justice conversation. I believe that this makes the case for historic sexual ethics much more difficult to communicate without getting immediately shut down and labeled as oppressive and backwards.
As this shift has continued, sexual identity has become decoupled from sexual orientation. Individuals with one set of innate attractions (sexual orientation) may identify even more broadly as a reflection of a professed philosophical freedom to explore beyond their preferences. This is particularly true for those who identify as polyamorous or pansexual, sexual identities defined exclusively by an openness to more, regardless of sexual orientation. A city in Massachusetts recently recognized polyamorous relationships in domestic partnership policy. More cities are sure to follow. Considering our history, we needn’t be shocked by this societal shift.
We’ve only been through two of the three categories of cultural shifts and there is already so much to consider. As you ponder these societal changes, can you see the layers of factors impressing upon the faith of teen girls who happen to be attracted to other girls? In part two, we will delve into how culture’s views about women in particular have changed. Then, we will discuss ways pastors and parents can respond.
Want your church to become a place where gay Christian women thrive according to God’s wisdom? Contact us today at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out the training our partner churches get.
Hart-Brinson, P. (2016). The Social Imagination of Homosexuality and the Rise of Same-sex Marriage in the United States. Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, 2, 237802311663055. doi:10.1177/2378023116630555
Hills, R. (2014, December 02). Sexual Revolution Then and Now: Hook-Ups From 1964 to Today. Retrieved July 09, 2020, from https://time.com/3611781/sexual-revolution-revisited/
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2018, February 12). Moral Majority. Retrieved July 09, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Moral-Majority
Women in the 1950s (article) | 1950s America. (n.d.). Retrieved July 09, 2020, from https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/postwarera/1950s-america/a/women-in-the-1950s
Samuel L. Perry, "Addicted to Lust: Pornography in the Lives of Conservative Protestants."
Really important sociological study on the negative effects of shame, for men and especially for women. Although mostly about pornography, it has implications for broader issues of sexuality.
Thanks so much for reading and for pointing to this resource! Sounds like a very interesting article.