“Why are Christians so homophobic?” my friend Justin asked me bluntly, as we were chatting through some of his objections to Christianity. When I was growing up, the challenges centred mainly on the interplay between science and religion, with arguments against God’s existence propagated through books like ‘The God Delusion’. But things have changed. I no longer find as many people arguing this way in conversations about faith. Instead, it’s much more common for people to be put off the gospel because of the Church’s attitude towards gay people.
So is Justin right? Are Christians homophobic? Well, before we go any further let’s be clear what we mean by homophobia. The dictionary describes it as ‘dislike of or prejudices against homosexual people.’ Some go beyond that description and say that all Christians who uphold biblical teaching on sex and marriage are bigoted homophobes. But clearly, believing the teachings of Christ doesn’t, in and of itself, make you homophobic. In fact, it could be argued that when we desire people to live as God intends them to live, we’re expressing Christian love. Does that settle it then? Justin’s wrong – end of story. Well, not quite.
We must be honest and admit that, historically, local churches and a number of individual Christians have certainly been guilty of homophobia. From the unkind and dehumanising jokes and gestures within the church youth group to the harsh and condemning words from the pulpit, Christians have often missed the mark. Tragically, many gay people I talk to have had brushes with Christians in the past and been put off by unhelpful comments or prejudicial attitudes. Others have simply been made to feel unwelcome when they’ve attended a church, leading them to conclude that clearly God doesn’t love gay people.
As a Christian who experiences same-sex attraction but holds to biblical teaching on sex and marriage, I’ve certainly heard the odd comment from believers that has made my stomach churn. Sometimes it’s been insensitive and judgmental conversations about politics and legislative change, or unhelpful preaching – yes I’ve even heard “it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” But on the whole, my church experience has been very positive. And God has blessed me with a number of loving friendships within a very welcoming and accepting community of believers.
I don’t know what your particular church might be like in terms of its witness to gay people, or its support of believers who face same-sex temptations. But my sense is that many Christians and many local churches need to work much harder at cultivating a loving community free from homophobia. Wherever genuinely homophobic words, attitudes or actions exist, we need to purge them from our churches. Here are two major reasons why:
Homophobia harms our gospel witness
Homophobia needs to be rooted out because it hinders and chokes the gospel message that we share with gay people. How can we reach out to gay and lesbian people with good news, if we haven’t done everything possible to eradicate the unkind jokes from our youth groups, or the trite and simplistic preaching from our services, or the angry political commentary from our conversations?
The simple truth is that many gay people don’t believe that the gospel is good news for them because of their past experiences with Christians. Something is seriously wrong when our attitudes, speech or political talk become a barrier to the gospel. Now I accept, of course, that many people – however they define their sexuality – reject the gospel because they don’t want Jesus to be Lord of their lives. But we need to do everything possible to ensure that people aren’t shunning Christ because of the behaviour of Christians, rather than the content of the gospel message itself.
As Christians, we know that the gospel really is good news. Indeed, it’s the “power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Notice that Paul writes everyone who believes; there are no exceptions and no exclusions. Gay people are not excluded from the scope or the reach of the gospel; it’s good news for them too. Our God who loves to save, wants them to have an opportunity to hear the gospel, to repent and to believe in Jesus Christ.
And it’s this power of the gospel that transforms people, rather than moralistic teaching. Jesus didn’t come into this world to protest against the lifestyles of sinful people (that’s every single one of us by nature). No, scripture teaches us that “…God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). Our churches can scupper evangelistic efforts when we don’t lead with the gospel, but instead expect people who aren’t Christians to live like Christians. What possible motivation is there to do so until they have encountered Jesus Christ?
So how will your church respond to the gay or lesbian couple or the transgender person who attends a Sunday service? Will they experience the warmth and love of God’s people? Will gospel grace open the door to share gospel truth? John describes Jesus as being “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), but sadly as Christians we’re often full of truth but lacking in grace. So we start perhaps with a desire to let the gay couple ‘know where we stand’ on same-sex issues, rather than allowing God’s word and Spirit to convict them of their need (everyone’s need) of Jesus Christ.
Homophobia is a barrier to good discipleship
Fighting homophobia isn’t only important for our gospel witness, but also for our discipleship of Christians who experience same-sex temptations. Hurtful and flippant words hinder our efforts to disciple these believers, by making them feel unloved by the church, or even by God. I’ve spoken to many Christians with same-sex attraction who experience loneliness, isolation and despair, and feel unable to be honest about their struggles in the face of careless speech and prejudicial attitudes.
Ostracising language or judgemental comments can also give the impression that the temptations these Christians face are somehow worse than others. So rather than sharing their struggles, they’re much more likely to battle in secret. Developing a hidden life is one of the most unhelpful things that a Christian facing these temptations can do.
A church that combats homophobia is one that helps to break down the shame that many have felt and bottled up, often for a number of years. Such a church will help people to realise that they don’t need to fight these temptations in isolation, but can do so with the support of a loving family of believers. Members of a church like this will be better equipped to obey the exhortation in 1 Corinthians 6:18 to ‘flee sexual immorality’ (any and all sex outside of heterosexual marriage) than those who are struggling in secret.
Let’s resolve, then, to rid our churches of homophobia. To gently challenge it wherever it exists. Because from the pastoral conversations I’ve had, it is still a problem. And if we fail to kill off homophobia we won’t truly reflect Christ’s love to the world. As a result of which, both our evangelism and our discipleship will suffer. Now, of course, if homophobia no longer exists, people like Justin may well find a different reason to reject Christ. Alternatively, they might actually be more open to hearing the gospel message. And Christians who experience same-sex temptations will be much better placed to resist them, knowing that their church family is for them rather than against them.