Growing up, I used to believe that the most serious, committed Christians were the ones who could give unambiguously clear-cut answers to controversial questions. I saw nuance as a form of wishy-washiness. Black-and-white moral questions needed black-and-white answers, I thought. If someone asked a question about the morality of homosexual relationships, for instance, and someone else began their response with “Well, it’s complicated...” I would have been quick to jump in with, “No, it’s not complicated. It’s wrong. The Bible forbids it. God condemns it. That’s all you need to know. Truth isn’t relative.”
I still believe in Ultimate Truth. I still believe God has the final word and that the Bible is morally authoritative for us as Christians. But these days, I also believe a lot of things truly are complicated. These days, I’d argue that the most mature, thoughtful Christians are the ones who aren’t so quick to jump to conclusions. They look for the complexity. They listen before they speak. They consider the specifics of the situation, not just a general moral principle. They aren’t afraid to say “It’s complicated,” or “I don’t know,” or “I was wrong.”
With that background in mind, I don’t want to just jump directly into a “yes” or “no” response to the question of gay relationships. Instead, I’d like to begin with an “It’s complicated” coupled with an “I was wrong.”
In this article, I want to look at three major ways I got this question wrong in the past, and where I believe correcting those mistakes should take us as a Christian community.
Mistake #1: I treated gay people as an issue instead of as people.
Growing up, I didn’t have any gay friends. As far as I was aware, I didn’t know any gay people.
I grew up in a Christian home with devoutly evangelical Christian parents. I accepted Christ at a young age, and as far back as I can remember, I understood my relationship with Christ to be my number-one priority in life. A friend in high school nicknamed me “God Boy” because I was the Bible-toting goody-two-shoes Christian who didn't smoke, drink, curse, have sex, or shut up about God.
For me, “homosexuality” was one of a number of issues I believed Christians ought to take moral stands on, along with other controversial topics like abortion and evolution. I had read enough about these issues that I knew what my position was on each one, and I knew how to argue against the things people on the other side might say.
My view of homosexuality was simple: God created male and female for each other. Our bodies were designed to fit together in that way, and the Bible made it clear that using our sexuality in ways outside of God's design was a sin—whether that meant premarital sex, adultery, or homosexuality.
My job as a Christian, I thought, was to stand up against homosexuality and (lovingly) tell gay people why they were wrong.
My heart was in the right place. I wasn’t a homophobe, even though some of my friends called my view homophobic. I didn't hate or fear gay people; I simply believed that they were making a sinful choice with their lives, and that by speaking out in a loving way, I could call their attention to it and help bring them back to God.
My heart was in the right place, yes, but my approach to the topic was all wrong. It was issue-based, not person-based.
I remember the first time I met someone who told me she was gay. I didn’t even wait to hear her story before launching into a mini-sermon about why she was wrong. I quoted Bible passages about sexual immorality, I talked about marriage as a God-ordained institution for one man and one woman, and I told her with confidence that she could be straight if she trusted God. Foolishly, I thought I knew more about homosexuality than she did.
I had spent a lot of time thinking about the Bible’s stance on the issue of homosexuality, but I had spent very little time thinking about the actual day-to-day lives of gay people, asking why they had decided to call themselves gay, what their life options were, and how words like mine were coming across. I intended to be loving, but because I was more focused on speaking than on listening, I failed to come across as loving.
It was easy for me to ignore the personal side of the issue, because it wasn’t personal for me.
Until it was.
I had a deep, dark secret I had never shared with anyone: From the moment I hit puberty, my attractions had been for guys, not girls. For years, I believed it was a quirk of adolescence that I’d grow out of. But even though I considered myself straight and dated girls, the feelings didn’t change as I got older. They only got stronger. Eventually, I was crying myself to sleep every night, begging God to give me attractions to girls instead. Even then, I didn’t see any connection between my secret and the issue of homosexuality I was preaching against.
It never occurred to me that I might be gay; I was a Christian! It wasn’t until I was 18 that I finally made the connection, realizing that when people said “gay,” that’s what they meant: someone with exclusively same-sex attractions. (That is how I use the word today.)
Still, I was convinced it would change. I was sure that God didn't design me to be gay, so I pursued every avenue and every ministry I could find to help me become straight. After all, God can do anything!
The hard truth was that it doesn't work that way. Yes, God can do anything, but that doesn't mean God always does what we expect. Despite my prayers and efforts, God didn’t make me straight. Even if I never acted on my feelings, I was still gay.
And though my orientation didn’t change, my perspective did. This wasn’t an issue anymore; this was about my life.
Over the years, I’ve met thousands upon thousands of Christians in the same situation, and in 2001, we formed an organization: The Gay Christian Network. Nearly all of us had been misunderstood and even wounded by our fellow Christians who thought we had “chosen” our orientation or assumed we were living a particular “lifestyle.” We all knew what it felt like to be treated as issues rather than as people.
Today, I work to help other Christians avoid making that mistake.
Mistake #2: I treated a complex set of questions as if it were only one question.
Christians are not monolithic; we disagree with each other on many things. Years ago, an organization called Bridges Across the Divide came up with terms to describe one of those disagreements.
Christians on “Side A” believe that God will bless a consummated same-sex relationship for those who feel called to one.
Christians on “Side B” believe that sex is reserved for heterosexual marriage alone, and that there is therefore no situation in which it would be appropriate for a same-sex couple to be sexually intimate.
The Side A/Side B disagreement is an important one. Essentially, it’s a disagreement about sexual morality. Is there ever an appropriate time and place for a gay couple to be sexually intimate? Side A says yes. Side B says no. For Christians, sexual morality matters—and for gay Christians, this question is important because of what it says about how we can live our lives in a manner pleasing to God.
But this isn’t the only question. It’s not even the most important question.
As a gay Christian, I’m more concerned with bigger questions about my future that aren’t about sex. Can I have romance in my life, for instance? And where is my place in the church? What is my vocation? What does my future look like? If I’m single for the rest of my life, what happens when I get old? Who will take care of me?
As a church, we have bigger questions, too. We need to do more than just tell people not to have sex. We need to be talking about how we can love the gay people in our midst—and the broader LGBT community—how we can provide them support, understanding, unconditional love, and sanctuary.
Too often, we’ve tried to answer all of these questions by simply pointing to the question about sex and letting it stand for everything else.
That’s what I did when I was growing up. When I thought about the issue of homosexuality, I considered exactly one question—what does the Bible say about same-sex sex?—and lumped everything else under that same umbrella. After coming to the conclusion that the Bible condemned gay sex, it didn’t even occur to me to consider the question of gay romance as a separate issue. Nor did I spend any time thinking about what a Christian vocation for gay people might be. And how did I think the church could show love to the gay community? By telling them that their sex lives were sinful, of course. Essentially, I had boiled all the questions facing gay people and the church down to a single question about sex. With that question answered, I didn’t think I had any more thinking to do.
Until, of course, I realized that I was gay. Then there was a lot more thinking to do.
Mistake #3: I tried to interpret Scripture in a vacuum rather than in the context of real people’s lives.
I don’t have space in this article to get into a discussion of all the biblical passages that have been applied to gay relationships and the Side A/Side B debate. But that’s okay; other people were asked to write their articles about the Bible, and I’m happy to cede that portion of the conversation to them.
I do, however, want to say something about how we interpret the Bible in general.
It is tempting, in this conversation and in many others, to find Bible passages we can quote, take them at face value, and let that be the end of the conversation. That’s what I did at first: “Here’s the passage. The Bible is clear. That settles it.”
But history shows us that that sort of approach has often led us astray.
Church historian Mark Noll reminds us that during the Civil War, for instance, the biblical arguments made for keeping slavery were much more convincing than the arguments for abolition. After all, slavery enjoys a consistent witness in Old and New Testaments and plenty of specific passages allowing it and requiring slaves to obey their masters. Christian abolitionists appealed to broader biblical themes of love and freedom, but according to Noll, the idea that an anti-slavery spirit of the law could trump a pro-slavery letter of the law “was not only a minority position; it was also widely perceived as a theologically dangerous position.” So much so that Moses Stuart, “widely recognized as the nation’s most learned biblical scholar” according to Noll, said abolitionists “must give up the New Testament authority, or abandon the fiery course which they are pursuing.”
Our history shows us that when hurting people’s lives are involved, a compelling Scriptural argument in the abstract is not enough. What matters is not just that we interpret the Scriptures, but how we interpret the Scriptures. We must interpret them within the context of real people’s lives, not in the abstract or in a vacuum.
In Luke 14, when Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, the Pharisees are incensed—you’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath! Jesus responds, “If your son fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you pull him out?”
The Pharisees’ theology begins with the abstract: Is Sabbath work forbidden in Scripture? Yes. Is healing work? Yes. Therefore healing on the Sabbath is forbidden—and now we apply that conclusion to this man in front of us.
Jesus’ approach begins with the person: Here is a hurting person in front of me. What does he need? How can I help? Ah, but it’s the Sabbath. Let me now take this man’s unique situation to the Scriptures—and when we do that, we can see that the purpose of the Sabbath law is to honor God, not to cause this man to suffer.
This seems to be Jesus’ general approach to the Scriptures. In Mark 2, he points to the Old Testament story of David and the Bread of the Presence. God’s rule had been unequivocal: No one but priests could eat the Bread of the Presence. But David was hungry and had no other food. What should he have done?
The Pharisees’ approach would have begun with the rule (“only priests can eat this”) and applied it to David (“you aren’t a priest, so you can’t eat this”). If he had complained of hunger, perhaps they would have reminded him that following God requires sacrifice, or encouraged him that God would provide some kind of nourishment in the future in recognition of his faithfulness.
Jesus, however, begins first with the needs of the actual human being: David was hungry. He needed food. And the only food available required breaking the rule. So he broke the rule, and Jesus approves of this. Not only does Jesus approve of David’s actions, he suggests that the Pharisees should take this same approach to other biblical rules like the Sabbath. According to Jesus, God wants people to come first, not rules.
This doesn’t mean that Jesus was “soft on sin”; quite the contrary. Often, he encouraged people to hold themselves to even higher standards than the law did. But Jesus’ approach to sin and Scripture was nuanced. He didn’t just look at a rule or passage in a vacuum; he looked at people’s hearts, motives, and situations in deciding how to interpret and apply Scripture.
An approach like the Pharisees’—interpreting the Scriptures in a vacuum, without regard for people’s unique situations—leads to the kind of legalism that misses the forest for the trees. It leads to the kind of coldness that could tell a parent to leave their child in a well on the Sabbath, tell a battered wife she must stay with her husband because the Bible doesn’t list abuse as a justification for divorce, tell a slave they must stay with their master because there are Bible passages that clearly say so, and tell a gay person that they can never have romance in their life because “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” All of these arguments seem to have biblical justification. But I believe they all take the wrong approach to Scripture.
So what does all this mean?
If we look at “homosexuality” as an abstract issue, a single question about sexual morality, it’s easy to find biblical arguments to condemn same-sex sex, then simply refer back to those arguments when questions arise about same-sex romance, gay identity, or the place of gay people in the church. This approach feels logical and consistent, but it offers gay people very little guidance about how to live as Christians; it only tells them what not to do.
It is also the same approach that led previous generations of Christians to condone slavery, require silence and head coverings for women, or demand that adult Gentile men be circumcised. All of these arguments seemed logically and biblically consistent, but in the end, I believe they were wrong in every case.
Instead, I believe we must take Jesus’ approach, maintaining a high view of Scripture while interpreting it carefully within the context of real people’s lives. That means we must consider gay people’s stories and experiences and recognize that this isn’t one single question but rather a complex set of questions about how gay Christians should live and how the church should treat them.
When we do that, here’s what I think we’ll see:
1. There is a set of Christians for whom heterosexual romance is not a realistic option. They don’t have a choice between being gay and straight; their choice is between having a same-sex romance and having no romance.
This does not necessarily apply to all people with same-sex attractions, but it is undeniably true of a significant portion of them.
2. The Bible acknowledges that intimate human companionship is a deeply ingrained need for many people.
After creating Adam, God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone,” and then created a romantic partner for him. God didn’t simply expect Adam to be content with God alone, nor did God expect Adam to be content with a friend.
Of course, celibacy also has a long history in the church, but it is definitely not for everyone. Even Paul, who was celibate himself and praised celibacy for others, remarked that “it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” Paul seems to have regarded marriage as a less-than-ideal state, but even he recognized that asking everyone to abstain from marriage would prove too great a burden.
3. Although the Bible praises self-sacrifice, both Jesus and the early Christians were very concerned about the dangers of putting too many burdens on people.
In his blistering attack on the Pharisees’ approach to morality in Matthew 23, Jesus said they “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” and “tie up heavy burdens and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”
Paul, likewise, repeatedly sided with Christians who wanted freedom to follow their consciences and against those whose interpretations of Scripture created significant obstacles to people coming to Christ. On the hotly debated question of circumcision, for instance, he wrote, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
The early church apostles and elders also struggled with how to uphold moral standards in a way that didn’t overburden people (Acts 15). Their ultimate decision was to write a letter outlining only four simple things for people to avoid, giving them “no greater burden” than that.
4. If we do not give gay people a reasonable path to human intimacy, we are not only overburdening them; we are standing in the way of people coming to Christ.
If we oversimplify the question of gay relationships as just one of “sexual immorality,” it’s easy to dismiss it entirely—the Bible is clear in condemning sexual immorality.
But if we look through the lens of burdens we’re placing on people, there’s a much bigger issue at stake: We aren’t just asking people to wait on sex, avoid promiscuity, or stay faithful to a spouse; we’re potentially denying a whole group of people any option for the kind of human intimacy the Bible itself says people shouldn’t be denied.
As burdens go, that’s a much greater burden than circumcision or the kinds of rules Jesus criticized the Pharisees for. It is one of the greatest emotional burdens we could put on any class of human beings, and in so doing, we are pushing them and their loved ones away from Christ.
Considering that James’s argument for the simple rules in Acts 15 was “that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God,” this seems worth a serious reexamination.
5. For all these reasons, at least some form of same-sex romance needs to be on the table.
Side A Christians (those who support marriage for same-sex couples) would obviously agree with this. But even those Christians who take a Side B stance on sex ought to be able to at least advocate for some form of nonsexual intimacy for gay people.
After all, although there are (hotly debated) Scripture passages addressing same-sex sex, there are no passages that criticize any form of same-sex romance. Unfortunately, there’s been disappointingly little conversation about the topic in evangelical circles.
I know of a number of gay people who have formed some form of intimate, nonsexual partnership as a way of staying true to their Side B beliefs while still having the human intimacy they need. There are challenges with this arrangement, of course, but it strikes me as a significantly healthier option than enforced singleness for all gay people.
These sorts of relationships may go by many names (“nonsexual romance,” “covenant partnership,” “intimate friendship,” etc.) but they offer a kind of intimacy—and perhaps a special kind of commitment—beyond what a normal friendship would offer.
6. Ultimately, marriage offers the healthiest and most stable form of romance.
I know this is where Side B Christians will not be able to continue with me. Marriage necessarily involves sexual intimacy, so if you believe that the Bible unequivocally condemns all same-sex sexual intimacy, you won’t be able to take this final logical step with me.
However, I am convinced that marriage is a good and stabilizing force in romantic relationships, and that is no less true for same-sex couples. The commitment of marriage is not about sexual immorality; it is about self-sacrifice and fidelity. It is, I believe, an inherent moral good that points us toward Christ.
My belief on this point is partly dependent, of course, on addressing what the Bible has to say about same-sex sexuality. I have addressed this in my book, and others will be addressing it in these dialogues, but I recognize that for many Christians, it will feel like the missing puzzle piece in this paper. What I will simply say here is that over many years of study, I have come to view those passages in much the same way I view passages requiring slaves to obey their masters and women to remain silent in churches, passages which meant something quite different in their cultural context than they seem to mean today, and which would have a disastrous impact on people’s lives if we were to apply them today without understanding that context.
7. Whatever our views on marriage, we must continue to listen to and support one another.
This is a difficult question for many Christians. We cannot afford to let it continue to divide us or to dehumanize people. We need to hear one another’s stories and hearts, so that even if you and I disagree with one another, we can both accept that the other is sincerely seeking to do what they believe God is calling them to do.
Ultimately, I believe the church must give gay people the opportunity for the same marital commitment and intimacy that straight people have—not because of anything cultural, but because it is the right thing to do in following Christ. But I also know that many of my brothers and sisters in Christ will disagree with me. My commitment to all of you is that I will continue to listen, to dialogue, and to seek the best in you even as we disagree. I hope that you will do the same.