Christian leaders often have similar questions when they begin working with Equip to make their churches places where gay people could thrive according to a traditional sexual ethic. Here’s how Equip Executive Director Pieter Valk answers the top ten most-asked questions. The questions are in no particular order.
1. How can we winsomely share God’s wisdom for sexual stewardship for all people?
God created us for intimacy in the context of family. God enjoys intimacy in the context of family, and He has made us in His image for those same things. Because He made us, God knows what’s best for us and He has revealed that to us through the Bible and the Church. God says there are two best paths for enjoying intimacy in the context of family: singleness for the Lord or Christian marriage. And He’s pretty specific about the best ways to do these.
Singleness for the Lord is a giving up of romance, marriage, sex, and children to use the time and energy you would have used raising children to heal our communities. Christian marriage is a lifelong union between a Christian man and woman with an openness to raising children. Both are calls to enjoy family in the body of Christ. Both are about embodying the gospel, but in different ways.
Better yet, while singleness for the Lord and Christian marriage are equally good and beautiful, God knows which one will be best for each of us. He wants us to seek His preference, to open-handedly offer both of these possibilities to Him and then seek the path He wants to give. Why is this the way God put the world together? I don’t know. But I’m convinced this God exists, that He knows what’s best for me, and that He’s revealed His best to us through the Bible and the Church. These two paths will lead to the truest intimacy, the deepest meaning, the most life-giving family, and the most satisfying purpose. If we want the best—the most the world has to offer—and we trust God, we should make decisions about our sexual stewardship based on God’s wisdom.
A note to Christian leaders: What do you notice? I didn’t say anything about gay people, gay sex, or gay marriage, but I provided all of the information a person would need to discern my beliefs about sex outside of marriage, Christian marriage, gay marriage, divorce, etc.
2. How can we invite gay Christians who are unsure about sexual ethics to follow God’s teachings?
First we need to recognize the challenge. Christians have done a poor job talking about God’s wisdom, and an even worse job making good on our promises. Many grew up hearing that gay people were bad, dirty, and disgusting. They heard that gay people go to Hell merely because of who they are attracted to. They heard gay sex compared to beastiality or pedophilia. Gay people are kicked out of their homes, beaten, and murdered. As a result, gay teens are five times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.
On top of that, our churches hold gay people to the high standards of sexual stewardship in the Bible, but they look the other way when straight people bend or break the rules. Most of our churches never talk about sexuality, leaving straight people to talk about gay people in problematic ways and leaving gay people wondering whether their churches are safe. Our churches don’t teach parents how to talk to their kids about sexuality, so gay teens wait five years on average to share with a parent or a pastor—five years of makings sense of their sexuality without parents or pastors. When those teens do meet with a pastor for help, they are pointed to a therapist who thinks they can make gay people straight. And none of our churches are places where gay people could actually thrive—with reasonable effort—in singleness for the Lord or in the complexities of Christian marriage with someone of the opposite sex. To put it frankly, none of our churches are places where gay people could actually thrive according to God’s teachings.
At first glance, it makes sense why a historic sexual ethic is often rejected by gay people. It doesn’t seem fair. It hasn’t had great results. But there’s also bad results of rejecting God’s teachings. Many gay Christians I know who adopted a revisionist sexual ethic lost their faith within a couple of years. I don’t wish this on them. I wish every gay person had a life-giving union with Christ, regardless of their beliefs and actions. But I’ve consistently seen that adopting a revisionist sexual ethic often leads to a loss of faith. Not because God is punishing them in some way, but because one must twist the Bible or throw it out altogether to believe in a revisionist sexual ethic. Once we believe that the Bible and the Church can’t tell us who God is, what’s the likelihood that the God we want to exist is even real?
Even if Christians have done a really poor job of loving gay people, that doesn’t make God’s wisdom about our sexualities any less true. If a God exists, if that God has revealed Himself to us through the Bible and the Church, and if that God knows what is best for us, then a historic sexual ethic is true. Yet if something is true, it should be good and beautiful. And it’s not right now. Why? It’s not because gay Christians aren’t trying hard enough. They are some of the most faithful people in our churches.
No, it’s because the Church is doing a poor job embodying that truth. Churches have got to do what it takes to be places where gay people could actually thrive according to a historic sexual ethic. Until then—until a historic sexual ethic isn’t just true but it is good and beautiful in experience—it will likely take a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit or a rock-bottom, painful experience in a gay person’s life to convince them to follow a historic sexual ethic.
So for now, focus on Jesus.
You could say something like this:
“Focus on Jesus, because God understands your pain, the hypocrisy of the Church, much better than I do. Ultimately Jesus suffered more pain than any other human, and His suffering—at the hands of religious elites—was more unfair than anything anyone else has experienced. Jesus gets it. He wants to lead you with love—tough love sometimes, but love—because Jesus gets it. He is patient, and I’ll try to be patient too. No matter what you believe or what kind of relationships you’re in, I will continue to meet with you if you want to, pray with and for you, ask you questions, share with you what I understand about Jesus, and remind you that God loves you and wants you to have the fullest life.
“In the meantime, I’d encourage you to steward your sexuality according to a historic sexual ethic, even if you aren’t convinced of it, because while it will be a difficult path, I’m convinced the other paths will be even more painful and unsatisfying. But I completely understand if you choose something different. And regardless, can I encourage you to lean into intimate friendship with other people in our community? Even if you’re dating, can I encourage you to let friendships provide some of the companionship you need? Can I challenge you to take risks by asking for what you need? And when those friendships provide what you need, could I invite you to see that as God providing the companionship you need through the body of Christ?”
3. How do I respond when someone comes out to me?
Respond with honesty that new information—particularly information that has been a significant part of a person’s life—always leads to seeing someone differently, but that you see the person more fully and not as lesser. You can also respond by honoring the individual’s courage for sharing his or her story.
4. Do people choose to be gay, or are they born gay?
I want to be clear upfront: I never chose to experience same-sex attraction, and those of you who are straight never chose to experience opposite-sex attraction. People do not choose their sexual orientation. Now to the second question: Are people born gay? Before we go further, let’s reflect on why this question is so important. Commonly, if we knew that people were born gay, many would assume that God intended people to be gay. And if God intended people to be gay, He must support those people following their God-given desires for monogamous relationships with people of the opposite sex. So are people born gay?
Scientific study of twins where one twin is gay, lesbian, or bisexual found that 52% of male twins were both gay¹. However, as the study was replicated, that number oscillated over time from 48%² to 65.8%³ and then down to 11%⁴ and 7.7%⁵. If the development of same-sex attraction were genetically determined, this number would be 100%, so the findings suggest that same-sex attraction is not genetically determined but may be genetically predisposed, as the frequency of same-sex attraction is higher among twins where 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 irregular hormone levels and same-sex attraction, but those studies have been similarly inconclusive. The consensus of scientists across the spectrum is that both genetic/biological and environmental factors contribute to the development of 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 genetically determined.
But even if we became convinced that sexual orientation is genetically determined—if some flood of new research outweighed consistent results from decades of sexual orientation development research—even if that were the case, that doesn’t 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 are 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 are how God made 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) neither does anyone choose to be gay (to experience same-sex attraction).
5. Did God make me gay?
You may wonder: Does God make people gay? Does God give people over to a “depraved mind” of same-sex attraction as a result of sexual immorality and idolatry? Does God just allow same-sex attraction to develop? Or did God play no part in the development of same-sex attraction?
Romans 1 teaches that same-sex sexual desires are unnatural, that they are broken and contrary to God’s first intentions. God doesn’t not intend for anyone to experience same-sex attraction or to engage in same-sex romantic or sexual relationships. Experiencing same-sex attraction—me finding other guys physically attractive and desiring romantic relationships with them, being gay—is a result of the Fall. When Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, their sin led to a domino effect of brokenness. The introduction of sin bent all of the ways God had perfectly designed and ordered this world: to an extent that this world around us, the people around us, and even ourselves are not how God first intended us to be. I don’t believe that when God first imagined me being born into a perfect world, He expected me to experience same-sex attraction. But because I was born into a broken world, one of the ways I was affected by that brokenness is that I gained these attractions. Yet being gay—experiencing same-sex attraction—is not a sin. It is a brokenness, a temptation to sin, but God doesn’t hold my attractions against me. God does not send people to Hell merely because boys are attracted to boys or girls are attracted to girls.
We also do not choose who we are attracted to, but clearly we are gay, so at the very least, God allowed it. So if it’s not what God intended and broken, but God allowed it and it’s not His will to change it for the vast majority of people, how is that fair? More generally, why does God allow painful things to happen to any innocent people? In order to preserve our capacity to choose, God refrains from protecting us from the consequences of our decisions and the decisions of others. Would God have preferred to block the consequences of those sins of others and protected me from the pain this brokenness has caused me? Yes! But preserving their capacity to have real choice and humankind’s capacity to have real choice is even more important to God, because it means our love for each other and our love for God actually means something. He allowed the consequences of the sins of others to remain, He allowed me to develop same-sex attraction.
Many may not find that explanation satisfying, but ultimately I am comforted by God’s promise in Romans 8:28. God has been faithful to redeem my enduring same-sex attraction. My faithfulness has glorified God, and following His wisdom has led to truer intimacy, deeper meaning, life-giving family, and more satisfying purpose.
6. Will you try to make me straight?
Scripture does not promise permanent relief from any temptation in this lifetime. Plus, limited high-quality research demonstrates that 96% of people who participated in sexual orientation change efforts experienced no change in their same-sex attractions, and even these results were from self-reports that cannot be verified. Moreover, scientific studies have demonstrated that sexual orientation changes efforts increase the risk of suicide attempts by an alarming 92%. There is no proven combination of spiritual disciplines or counseling to bring about change. Do miracles happen? Sometimes. But praying for change with any level of expectation is dangerous.
The likelihood of your attractions changing even a little are the same as you 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, become a millionaire, or your same-sex attractions change? The frequent harm of ex-gay programs outweighs 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, I would caution an individual from seeking to change their attractions. It’s a brokenness, but we don’t choose who we are attracted to, and there is no formula for changing it. It is better to ask God how He wants to redeem our broken sexualities for our good and His glory.
7. Where is God in all of this?
For many gay people, we felt shame before God about our sexuality at an early age. Then we tried to hide our sexuality from God so that we felt less shame. Next, the Bible and prayer were used as weapons by Christians trying to make us straight. And then, when we realized that we did nothing to bring our sexual orientation about, we couldn’t do anything to change it, and God didn’t respond to our pleas for Him to change it, we were angry at God for allowing us to be gay and not relieving us of this burden. All of this combines to leave gay people feeling like God is far away. They desperately want to feel close to God, but they don’t know how to anymore. How can we care for gay people in this space?
We can reassure them that God is not surprised, and He sees them as valuable (Psalm 139). Reassure gay people that they don’t have to become straight for God to love them. We are all broken and accepted before a gracious and merciful God who will never abandon us.
Invite them to be honest with themselves and God — God can take it. Honestly sharing with God how we feel toward Him is intimate, even if our emotions are misplaced. Plus, avoiding emotions toward God that we think we aren’t supposed to feel can become a barrier to intimacy with God.
Shame is Satan’s primary weapon in many experiences that involve secrecy and particularly those that are sexual in nature. Respond to that shame by helping the individual identify and reject shaming messages they tell themselves and hear from others. People may find relief from shame when they share their stories with others.
Invite God back into the conversation carefully. It is of utmost importance to strike the right balance between encouraging a personal relationship with Jesus, encouraging Bible reading and prayer, and not doing further damage or causing more shame. For some LGBT+ people, this might mean patiently waiting for the Holy Spirit to heal old wounds caused by others who wielded Scripture and prayer as weapons. For others, it may mean finding non-threatening ways to include Bible reading and prayer in their lives.
This could mean using corporate prayers that are read aloud together during community group. An LGBT+ person may feel disconnected from private prayer, perhaps having been assured countless times that God would heal them through prayer. When He didn’t, prayer became a reminder of their failure to pray hard enough or God’s failure to act. Corporate prayer may be a way for LGBT+ people to engage in prayer safely.
This could mean avoiding “God is my friend”-type music. For someone who has been convinced that God is disappointed or disgusted with them because of something they can’t control (their sexual attraction), God isn’t a friend. He’s more likely perceived as an angry giant. Instead, churches can choose music that leans on theology or corporate lament or praise instead of emotion-driven appeals.
This may mean that God doesn’t “speak to” everyone when they read Scripture and that not everyone will benefit from a “personal devotion” or “quiet time.” We can be OK with Scripture being used to learn about God’s character and the way He wants us to live. Not everyone will find a personal meaning in Scripture that fits their exact circumstance and walk away from Bible study feeling that they were “fed” or “filled.” Offer these Christians other ways to engage in Scripture and deepen their understanding of the character of God that isn’t dependent on emotions.
Of course, we hope that Bible reading and prayer eventually lose their shame-producing capabilities. We want gay people to think of God as a loving brother and hear His voice. But for many LGBT+ people, that’s not the reality right now. And it may never be. So we can get creative with our discipling efforts.
8. Can I call myself gay?
Particularly in conversation with LGBT+ non-Christians or when first meeting LGBT+ Christians, choose to mirror their terminology as an act of hospitality. Instead of letting language be an early barrier to conversation, ask them what words they use to describe themselves, ask what those words mean to them, and then choose to use those words with those definitions in conversation. This doesn’t mean you’re affirming their use of that word or that definition. Rather, you’re choosing to defer to them in that space so that you can focus on much more important topics.
Conflation of attractions, orientation, identity, and behavior is often a source of disagreement about language. Instead, distinguish between the four different aspects of sexuality. Distinguish between his or her attractions for the same sex, orientation (seemingly fixed and lasting attraction to people of the same sex), identity (cultural identification with others who experience same-sex attraction and their cultural experience), and behavior (characteristic expression of that culture, engaging in same-sex romantic or sexual relationships, etc.).
Next, create a space for Christians to use the word “gay.” The reality is, both the word “gay” and the phrase “same-sex attraction” are unclear and carry baggage. There is no perfect term for ministering to LGBT+ non-Christians, gay teens in your church, and straight culture warriors in your church. I choose the word most effective with gay teens and then make clear what I mean. Why?
Gay teens are five times more likely than their peers to attempt suicide. LGBT+ youth who are religious are 38% more likely to attempt suicide than their non-religious LGBT+ peers. Gay teens from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their LGBT+ peers from non-rejecting families. 54% of gay people who grew up in the church have left. Using words like “gay” and “LGBT” are most effective with gay teens.
Regardless of how hard you try to shelter your children, these are the words they will hear friends and the media use to describe people who experience same-sex attraction. So if you try to communicate with teens about this subject using only “same-sex attraction,” you would likely be confusing or irrelevant at best, or seen as hateful at worst. If you set up a false dichotomy that a gay teen can either identify as gay or be a Christian, you are adding to the gospel, and Paul has strong words for those who add to the gospel. If you force gay teens to use terms that no one in their generation uses instead of using language that is definitionally neutral, you are much less likely to be effective. If a teen who will one day realize they experience same-sex attraction grows up hearing most of the world name that experience as “being gay” but you only use “gay” in a derogatory way that is mutually exclusive to God’s love, you have set that teen up to adopt a progressive sexual ethic, reject God all together, and/or contemplate suicide.
All of us use more than just the word “Christian” to describe ourselves. All of us identify around things that won’t continue in full into the New Heavens and New Earth.
I think it’s also important to distinguish between using the word “gay” phenomenologically versus ontologically. I am using “gay” phenomenologically, not ontologically. When we define something phenomenologically, we are naming something based one one’s experience or what it appears to be. In contrast, when we ask who a person is ontologically, we are asking who they are innately, by design. When I use the word “gay,” I am not saying that I or someone else is ontologically gay. I am not saying that I am a fundamentally different person or that God designed me to be gay. I am merely noticing that I am attracted to other people of the same sex, and using the word “gay” is, in my opinion, the best word to describe that experience.
Finally, when I use the word “gay,’“ I am ultimately taking advantage of an opportunity to share the gospel. I say, “I am a Christian. I am gay. And I am convinced that God calls all Christians to celibacy or Christian marriage with someone of the opposite sex, including me.” With this, I communicate that I am a child of God, first and foremost. Jesus, and Jesus alone, sits on the throne of my life. And I experience same-sex attraction. That has significantly impacted my journey and how I see the world. It has connected me with others how have similar experiences. And I think I have something to offer the Church particularly because of my experiences. For those reasons I identify as gay to identify with others with similar experiences. I use the word “gay” to identify with people, not to identify with sin.
9. What do I do with my loneliness?
First ask, “What do you really need? Do you really need something sexual or romantic?
“Or do you need someone to talk to, someone you know will be home when you get home, someone to celebrate with, someone to hold you when you cry?” Often when we describe what we really need, its rarely something exclusively romantic or sexual.
Next, normalize having intimacy needs and needing other people. If Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, needed the angels to attend to Him in the wilderness and begged His disciples to stay up with Him and pray with Him before He was taken away—if our Savior was a human with intimacy needs, it’s okay for us to have needs, it’s normal.
Then recognize that if we don’t meet our intimacy needs in healthy ways, our broken flesh will reach out for unsatisfying and destructive alternatives. Therefore, proactively meeting our intimacy needs in healthy ways is an important part of taking care of our temple. As Christians who reject spirit-body dualism, we need to embrace that taking care of our body is just as important as taking care of our soul. So our intimacy needs aren’t something to be ignored, they are something to be fulfilled.
Next, we can point out that same-sex attractions are unmet needs for healthy same-sex intimacy that have been sexualized. This doesn’t mean that if I meet all of my intimacy needs today, I won’t be gay tomorrow. But I have seen that when I’m getting what I really need—healthy friendship with other men—my desires for something romantic or sexual are easier to dismiss. So encourage those you disciple to seek out healthy relationships with safe friends. My life got better when I stopped ignoring my loneliness and started meeting my needs in healthy ways with deep friendship. And to this day, if I am struggling with lust, instead of shaming myself, I want my first response to be asking myself whether I have been meeting my intimacy needs in healthy ways (usually I haven’t). I think some of this question isn’t just, “What can I do with my loneliness today?” But also, “How do I keep from being lonely in my 40s, 50s, and so on?” To answer that, let’s move to the last big question.
10. What future can I hope for?
For gay people like me who have been stewarding our sexuality according to a historic sexual ethic for some time, particularly in celibacy, this is our biggest question. We can white-knuckle our way through celibacy for a couple of years, but after awhile, it’s exhausting to walk out a vocation with often little support from our church, family, or friends. Plus as we age, our friends get married, have kids, and don’t have time or space for us in their lives. We’re tired of hearing pastors tell us, “Jesus can be everything you need,” when those pastors don’t live that life. Those pastors have a spouse and kids to go home to every night. So, what future can gay Christians hope for?
All people are called to a lifetime of sanctification and sexual stewardship, whether they are gay or straight. An individual should not focus his or her long-term goals on eliminating same-sex attraction. Instead, we can encourage those we serve to expect to gain understanding of their same-sex attraction, manage their temptation, and find true fulfillment in intimacy with God and His family and meaningful work to redeem Creation—opportunities no less available to those who experience same-sex attraction. Obedience to God’s teachings about sexual stewardship and surrendering our brokenness to God will bring increasing goodness in our lives (Jeremiah 7:23).
In terms of our relational vocation, God invites everyone to celibacy or marriage with someone of the opposite sex. At churches that have become places where gay people can thrive according to a historic sexual ethic, both Christian marriage and celibacy are equally good and available to those who experience same-sex attraction.
But therein lies the problem. I’ve never met a church where gay people can thrive—with reasonable effort—according to God’s wisdom for sexual stewardship. If we’re being honest, most of your churches aren’t places that can offer gay people much hope right now. The best way you can answer this question is by being honest. For most of you, an honest answer is, “I wish this weren’t the case, but our church has been doing a poor job of supporting single and gay people for decades. I wish I could promise you that that will get better soon, but I can’t. The cross you’ll bear will probably be more painful than many of your peers. I am sorry. The world is not supposed to be this way. Our church is not supposed to be this way. So I personally give you permission to hold my feet to the fire on this. Don’t stop reminding me that things must be different, and quickly.”
Don’t be afraid to apologize for the sins of the Church, confess on behalf of the church. You don’t need to apologize for your beliefs, but you can apologize that the Church hasn’t done enough to be a place where gay people could thrive with reasonable effort according to a historic sexual ethic. And finally, after you apologize, affirm their need for committed, intimate family. Ultimately, they want hope that they will find family. God has created each of us for family. Yet most gay people have had a hard time finding it. Help them find family.
Check out Equip’s Virtual Course, featuring a 16-video series with customized handouts for pastors and parents, for in-depth answers to these questions and more.
¹ Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1991 Dec;48(12):1089-96. A genetic study of male sexual orientation. Bailey JM1, Pillard RC.
² Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1993 Mar;50(3):217-23. Heritable factors influence sexual orientation in women. Bailey JM1, Pillard RC, Neale MC, Agyei Y.
³ Archives of Sexual Behavior. June 1993, Volume 22, Issue 3, pp 187-206. Homosexual orientation in twins: A report on 61 pairs and three triplet sets. Frederick L. Whitam, Milton Diamond, & James Martin.
⁴ Genetic and environmental influences on sexual orientation and its correlates in an Australian twin sample. Bailey, J. Michael; Dunne, Michael P.; Martin, Nicholas G. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 78(3), Mar 2000, 524-536.
⁵ Opposite-Sex Twins and Adolescent Same-Sex Attraction. Peter S. Bearman and Hannah Brückner. American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 107, No. 5 (March 2002), pp. 1179-1205. Published by: The University of Chicago Press.