This post is the first in a three-part series about gay people, the Holy Spirit, and the Church. Here we explore the harmful ways Christians in the past have used the Holy Spirit as a weapon against gay people. Then we’ll answer three big questions about gay people and the Holy Spirit: Are people born gay or do they choose to be gay? What part did God play in our sexual orientation, and why? Will our sexual orientation change?
When gay people hear a Christian mention homosexuality, the Holy Spirit, and healing, they brace for what comes next. Too often, they have been promised that if they prayed hard enough, the Holy Spirit would make them straight. When their same-sex attractions persisted, the Church weaponized the Bible against them.
God wants to offer something better: a fruitful perseverance in the face of suffering.
How has God invited gay people to steward their sexualities, and what is the Holy Spirit’s role in that stewardship? Perhaps even more importantly: How has God called the Church to love gay people? And how will the Holy Spirit help the Church become a place where gay people can belong and thrive according to orthodox Christian sexual ethic?
Christians have hurt gay people
There’s a lot of baggage surrounding gay people and Holy Spirit. It’s important to unpack and clean out some of the things that get in the way of loving gay people like Jesus would. For too many decades, all gay people heard from the Church was that homosexuality was an abomination, people chose to be gay, if you prayed hard enough God would make you straight, gay people go to Hell, and AIDS was God’s punishment for gay sex. This lead to millions of LGBT+ Christians who lost their faith or committed suicide.
In the most extensive study of LGBT+ people and the Church, Andrew Marin’s Us Versus Us reveals that of the 22.4 million LGBT+ people in the US, 19.3 million (86%) grew up in church. Of those, 10.4 million LGBT+ people have left the faith—that’s 54% of LGBT+ people who grew up in the Church—and their top reasons for leaving included negative personal experiences such as ex-gay programs. At the same time, gay teens are five times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers. LGBT+ youth who say religion is important to them are 38% more likely to be suicidal than their non-religious LGBT+ peers, suggesting that homophobic religious beliefs increase teens’ vulnerability to depression. And gay teens who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than other gay teens. How are these related to “pray the gay away” practices inside churches and counseling centers? The primary solution churches and therapists offered gay people over the past half century was a false hope that anyone’s sexual orientation can change if they try hard enough. They were promised that God is good, He loves them, and He will heal them if they do their part. When that change didn’t occur, their hope for the future and their faith in God collapsed.
That brings up three big questions: Are people born gay or do they choose to be gay? What part did God play? Can orientation change?
1. Are people born gay or choose to be gay?
I want to be clear from the start: I never chose to be gay—to experience same-sex attraction, and those of you who are straight never chose to be drawn to people of the opposite sex. Do we choose how we respond to our attractions? Yes! But no one chose their sexual orientation (a person’s enduring pattern of attractions for the opposite sex, same sex, both sexes, or neither sex).
Now to the second question: Are people born gay? Before we go further, let’s reflect on why this question is so important. Commonly, many argue that if we knew that people were born gay, then we should assume that God intended people to be gay. Then, if God intended people to be gay, He must support those people following their God-given desires for monogamous relationships with people of the same sex. So, are people born gay?
One scientific study of identical twins where one twin is gay, lesbian, or bisexual found that 52% of the time the other twin was also gay, lesbian, or bisexual. However, as the study was replicated, that number oscillated over time from 48% to 65.8% and then down to 11% and 7.7%. If the development of same-sex attraction were genetically determined, this number would be 100%, so the findings demonstrate that same-sex attraction is not genetically determined but is genetically predisposed, at the frequency of same-sex attraction is higher among both twins when one twin experiences same-sex attraction than among the general population. Scientists have also studied hormone levels in the womb in an attempt to discover a relationship between prenatal hormones and sexual orientation. These scientists reached similar conclusions to twins studies: conditions in the womb may predispose an individual to a certain sexual orientation, but they do not determine an individual’s orientation.
Across the ideological spectrum, the consensus of scientists is that genetics, prenatal hormones, and social environment contribute to the development of same-sex attraction. While scientists believe social environment contributes, in part, to the development of sexual orientation, there is no evidence to support common theories that sexual abuse or a bad relationship with a parent leads to developing same-sex attraction.
As a result, we would conclude that no one is born gay: scientific evidence does not support the claim that sexual orientation is biologically determined. But even if we became convinced that sexual orientation is biologically determined—if some flood of new research outweighed consistent past results from decades of sexual orientation development research—even if that were the case, that doesn’t necessarily mean that God intended for people to be gay. God’s intentions aren’t a scientific question; they’re a theological one.
Science can’t answer the question of God’s intentions because none of us are how God made us to be. None of us are born how God first imagined us to be—we were all corrupted at a genetic level before birth, formed brokenly in the womb, and quickly injured by the broken world we are born into. None of us today are how God first intended us to be. So are we born gay or do we choose to be gay? I say neither. More accurately, no one is born gay (genetically determined to experience same-sex attraction) nor does anyone choose to be gay (to experience same-sex attraction).
2. What part did God play, and why?
Did God make people gay? Did God “give people over to a depraved mind”? Did God merely allow people to be gay? Did God play no part in the development of sexual orientation?
James 1:13 teaches us that God does not tempt his children. The brokennesses in our lives that lead to temptation are not part of God’s design. Then Romans 1:26-27 speaks specifically to same-sex attractions. These verses in Romans don’t just point out the sinful nature of same-sex sexual activity. Paul goes further to suggest that same-sex sexual desires themselves are not what God intended—the desires are broken. We are all broken, and none of us displays sexuality in the exact way God first intended; we are all corrupted at a genetic level, and we all grow up in this broken world.
God did, however, allow people to experience same-sex attraction. We cannot deny that gay people exist. So why did God allow same-sex attractions to develop? More generally, why does God allow brokenness to persist in any part of our lives? The question, “God, why do You allow bad things to happen?” is not unique to conversation about sexuality and deserves more discussion than this post can provide.
Ultimately, we don’t know why God allows people to develop same-sex attractions. But we can find comfort in the words of Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” God is faithful to redeem all brokenness for our good and His glory.
3. Can sexual orientation change?
Limited high-quality research demonstrates that only 3-4% of people who participated in sexual orientation change efforts experienced any change in their same-sex attractions, and even these results were from self-reports that cannot be verified. Moreover, Scripture does not promise permanent relief from any temptation in this lifetime. There is no proven combination of spiritual disciplines or counseling to bring about change.
Does God have the power to permanently remove a person’s same-sex attractions and place in them robust opposite-sex attractions? Certainly! But God chooses to do this so infrequently that praying for change with expectation can be dangerous. The likelihood of attractions changing even a little are the same as getting into Harvard, becoming a millionaire, or playing high school baseball and eventually going pro. Would it be wise to pray for those things expectantly?
What happens when your faith in God, your belief that God is good, or your belief that God loves you hinges on whether you get into Harvard, you become a millionaire, or your same-sex attractions change?
There is insufficient research about the effectiveness and harmfulness of sexual orientation change efforts in churches and counseling centers. From the limited research and consistent anecdotal information, the frequent harm of ex-gay programs seems to outweigh the benefits few experience. Moreover, the search for change is unnecessarily risky: LGBT+ Christians don’t need to change their attractions to belong and thrive in our churches according to a traditional sexual ethic. Based on this, it seems prudent to caution individuals, especially teens and young adults, from seeking to change their attractions. Rather, we should ask God how He wants to redeem broken attractions for His glory.
How does the Holy Spirit care for gay people?
So if gay people aren’t promised that the Holy Spirit will change their same-sex attractions into opposite-sex attractions, then what? What are gay Christians promised? How is God calling gay people to steward their sexualities, and what is the Holy Spirit’s role in that stewardship?
We’ll explore these questions and more in the second part of our three-part series about gay people, the Holy Spirit, and the Church. Stay tuned!
Do some leaders or members in your church struggle with these questions? Do they continue to respond to these questions in ways that harm gay people? We would love to help your church become a place where gay Christians can belong and thrive according to a historic sexual ethic. Contact us today at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.