This week marks the second anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, in which the majority opinion states that the right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples according to the 14th amendment. Recent Pew Forum research indicates that support among Americans for same-sex marriage has grown from 31 percent in 2004 to 55 percent in 2016. Most notably, the percentage of those who identify as Christian (whether evangelical, mainline Protestant, or Catholic) who have also come to accept same-sex marriage has increased at nearly identical rates as the general population.
As Christians debate homosexuality in the context of our current culture, the church—like the rest of our country—is experiencing growing division and is now sharply polarized over an issue that few of us discussed at all 15 or 20 years ago. Groups on both sides of the debate often fall short in balancing the age-old tension between law and grace. Progressive Christians have to complete some relatively impressive theological gymnastics to work around the Bible’s consistent prohibition of same-sex activity and relationships, and hyper-conservative Christians have yet to explain how disowning children or rejecting fellow parishioners with same-sex attractions can possibly fall under Jesus’ instruction to love our neighbors as ourselves.
So how can we better hold law and grace in an effective tension that allows us to maintain our convictions and also show love toward those who do not?
This question is of particular significance to me as someone who grew up struggling with same-sex attraction and found no safe place to confide and sort out those feelings. From early on, I was drawn to other women in a way that felt different. Any appearance of “boy craziness” in middle school was generated to fit in with my friends and was overwhelmed by the desire to have an exclusive “know and be known” relationship with another woman. My need to talk through those feelings was preemptively crushed by my belief that homosexuality was close to being an unpardonable sin—worse than any other form of sexual immorality. The message I heard from my childhood church was clear: Same sex attraction marked me as “other,” which meant that I could never please a God who proclaimed this desire and confusion as an abomination to himself.
All this changed when I began undergraduate work at a small Christian college. There, I was introduced to a progressive Christian community that not only talked openly about homosexuality but also celebrated it as another expression of love given to us by an inclusive God. As a woman who increasingly identified as gay and felt called to ministry, it was an intoxicating combination. Going from silent condemnation to the other extreme—active encouragement to express my “true self”—left me more confused about my identity, my relationship with God, and my relationship with the church.
In the end, both legalistic condemnation and progressive license left me seeking more contentment and completeness than either could offer. One group had fallen short of acknowledging the genuine nature of my feelings and the other had overlooked the very real conviction I held about human sexuality by explaining it away as “residual guilt from my legalistic childhood.”
In the last decade or so, some of this conflict in the church has been softened as conservative Christians have begun listening to brothers and sisters such as Sam Allberry, Rosaria Butterfield, and Wesley Hill, who voice nuanced opinions on faith, identity, and same-sex attraction. Their work offers life-giving grace for those of us who grew up with an incredibly binary understanding of sin and sexuality. They’ve also helped me put specific words to the needs I have that can and should be met by my Christian community.
In my walk toward understanding exactly who I am in Christ, both progressive and conservative friends and family have spent equal time being encouraging and frustrating. Accordingly, here are five suggestions for how you can be a faithful friend to those of us who are same-sex attracted and support a scriptural view of marriage.
1. You don’t have to understand the struggle to be supportive.
One of the most helpful things my best friend told me when I began sorting through my faith and sexuality was, “I don’t understand at all what you’re going through, but I’m here and I love you.” If the discussion of human sexuality is new to you, that’s okay. Don’t try to be an expert who always offers advice. Sometimes we just need a sounding board and faithful prayer warrior. Understand, too, that sexual identity extends beyond our physical nature. “Sexuality isn’t about what we do in bed,” Butterfield says. “Sexuality encompasses a whole range of needs, demands, and desires. Sexuality is more a symptom of our life’s condition than a cause, more a consequence than an origin.”
2. On the flip side, take the time to learn about the struggle—and the person struggling.
Be willing to challenge and possibly discard your stereotypes, judgments, and preconceived notions concerning same-sex attraction. Read works by someone who holds a view of homosexuality that is different from your own and then work through the questions that will inevitably come up. However, being versed in opposing arguments is not the same as being open to all arguments and interpretations. “Accompanying others and listening to their struggles with Christian teaching does not mean being open to all possible conversations,” says Jean C. Lloyd, who gives ideas for how to provide safe places for our same-sex attracted brothers and sisters. “While the world calls you ‘closed-minded,’ to be open to all ideas is actually hubris and folly. Read Psalm 1 and ask: In whose counsel are you walking?”
3. Make sure you aren’t expecting more (or less) from people than Jesus does.
When Jesus said in Matthew 11:28–30, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” he was expressing an important paradox—that the law gives freedom. When my more progressive friends attempt to encourage me to “be true to myself” and to express love in the way that “God created me to,” they are not actually freeing me from legalistic bondage as they intend. So if you lean left on this issue, understand that your “blessing” to embrace same-sex attraction actually places a greater burden on us than the one Jesus gives us in our celibate devotion to him. His command to love and obey him is a light and easy burden, and I have found more peace, joy, love, and contentment by keeping all of my relationships rightly ordered than I ever did in seeking to fulfill my own desires in a relationship with another woman.
By contrast, if you are more conservative in your convictions, understand that seasons of struggle with sexual identity are not necessarily a tumble into sin or a lack of faith on our part. Like any other Christian, some seasons of life are simply harder than others, and the burden feels heavier as we learn to press more deeply into Christ. In those moments, you can faithfully fulfill the call of Galatians 6:2 to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
4. Be an advocate for people who are same-sex attracted.
Yes, this applies even to those (like me) who firmly hold to the conviction that same-sex relationships miss the mark of God’s good gift of intimate, committed, exclusive sexual relationships. The best example in Scripture is the account of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery in John 8:2–11. While the Pharisees wanted to debate doctrine, Jesus wanted to minister to the image bearer thrust before him in a most vulnerable state. He was quick to defend her from her attackers and instead challenged them to care for their own hearts first.
However, once the stones had been dropped and the accusers had left, Jesus did not simply send her on her way. He told her to “go and sin no more.” So advocating for people means defending them from attacks of both external and internal forces. Although it’s important to advocate for us by condemning hateful and homophobic comments and actions, advocacy also involves being a mentor, an accountability partner, and a prayer warrior. If you know someone—especially a teen or young adult—who struggles with same-sex attraction, go out of your way to intentionally speak words of life and affirm her in the giftings God has given. Spend time with her in the Word, and also spend time praying for her. Make an investment.
5. Remember that marital love is not the highest form of love.
Friends who have lamented on my behalf the fact that I’ll never “find love” (if I continue to believe same-sex relationships are sinful) have overlooked the love and fulfillment all single Christians can find in the community of the church. No one is guaranteed a marriage relationship, and my natural inclinations make it even less likely that I’ll enjoy a heterosexual marriage. However in Scripture, marriage isn’t described as the highest expression of love—rather it’s the expression of the mystery of Christ and the church. The highest love is agape love, not eros love, and agape is available to all, which means God isn’t withholding the best of himself from single Christians. He offers all of himself and his love to all people.
Furthermore, my understanding of God and the work of the Holy Spirit allows for the reality that a heterosexual marriage relationship is a possibility for me. My choice to faithfully live as a single Christian doesn’t mean that I have a lifelong sentence to solitude. If a godly man comes alongside me on this journey, sees me for who I am in all of my strengths and weaknesses, and desires to serve the Lord with me, I wholeheartedly believe that he who gives us the “desires of our hearts” will shape and mold my heart to embrace that relationship.
And if that doesn’t happen? Then the body of Christ is here, showing love, support, and sacrificial community to me.
Ultimately, God is still good. And he is still enough.