“The Church is Homophobic”—True or False?

Simone Weil once scribbled down the following “method of investigation,” as she called it: “as soon as one has arrived at any position, try to find in what sense the contrary is true.” Ever since I first read that sentence, I’ve wanted to get it tattooed on my forearm—or at least placarded prominently over my writing desk.

Weil’s “method” explains the appeal to me of my favorite kind of writing—the kind that takes a too-neat, too-tidy narrative and shows how I’ve settled for more simplicity than is warranted. I loved, for instance, this sentence from a book review I read a couple of days ago, LaVonne Neff’s take on Jeanne Murray Walker’s The Geography of Memory: “These are my roots, Walker is saying: … my family’s fundamentalist church, full of answers and rules but also full of love.” As soon as Neff evokes the image of a  “fundamentalist church” that we were expecting, she immediately prevents us from holding onto it in any straightforward way: this was a church full of care and warmth, in spite of the narrowness.

Always saying “it’s complicated” can be a bad thing. But it also helps to guard against hasty generalizations that could prove to be genuinely harmful to people.

Here’s what prompted this.

I was recently reading my friend Sean Doherty’s testimony of his involvement, as a man who experiences same-sex attraction, in various evangelical parishes in the UK. Sean’s story is deeply encouraging, insofar as it includes sentences like this: “At university I said I was gay, and I never experienced homophobic treatment from other Christians…. [L]ove and acceptance was my consistent experience…. I found the church to be a deeply supportive and affirming place. I was nurtured, given responsibility in ministry, and encouraged towards ordination.” That is a wonderful story that needs to be told. And Sean’s main point—that “homophobia” and “traditional Christian belief about marriage and celibacy” aren’t equivalent—is one that needs spelling out, as Sean does: “[L]ove and unconditional acceptance of gay people does not require approval of same-sex sexual activity…. [M]y experience has convinced me that this prejudice and mistreatment does not come from believing what the Bible says about marriage and sex.”

But—to complicate matters!—I worry about the unintended effects of this approach. For instance, let’s say you’re an eighteen-year-old kid, gay, and, so far, not out to any of your fellow Christians. And let’s say a Christian friend of yours who’s also gay assures you, “My experience in various churches has been overwhelmingly positive. And the reports you’ve heard about homophobic Christians are greatly exaggerated.” Maybe that advice will be the final push you need to tell your story to your friends at church. But it could just as easily backfire, causing you to reject the church altogether, when your experience turns out to be decidedly more negative than your friend’s.

What we need are three-dimensional stories—stories that highlight the successes and the failures of our churches, without downplaying either one. The culture wars tempt us toward one-sidedness; if we’re on the conservative side, we want to deflect the charge of homophobia, and if we’re on the liberal side, we want to expose the dangers of fundamentalism. But the truest stories rarely lend themselves to such strategies, and defensiveness is never the best, or most effective, apologetic approach.

(On the apologetic issue: I often think about a line from Paul Griffiths’ review of David Bentley Hart’s rejoinder to the “new atheists”, in which Griffiths criticizes Hart for insisting on Christianity’s innocence in some of the mass slaughters of the twentieth century: “This isn’t seemly. Better to have quietly noted the size of the corpse-piles, about which no one can reasonably disagree, to have repented of whatever degree of Christian complicity there might have been in producing them, and to mourn.”)

My own story is full of good and bad. I’ve written elsewhere about the remarkably sensitive—albeit profoundly uninformed—pastoral guidance I received at the church I attended in college. I’m still grateful for those experiences that helped me find the courage to speak truthfully about myself and learn to rely on friends and spiritual directors. And yet, shortly thereafter, I had an experience that was utterly disheartening, at a different church. It was a place I knew well, and where I was known. I had come out to one, but not all, of the pastors, who had assured me that I had his support. On a couple of occasions, before coming out publicly, I had preached at a couple of Sunday services at this church. But when it became widely known that I was gay, the lead pastors removed the audio recordings of my old sermons from the church’s website, and one prominent family ended up leaving the church, telling the pastors that they hadn’t gone far enough in distancing themselves from me in the wake of my coming out. (This family felt that simply having same-sex attraction, even while remaining celibate, was enough to disqualify someone from Christian ministry.)

Soon thereafter I moved to England to start graduate school. Through a lot of emotional ups and downs, largely relating to my sexuality, the pastoral staff of my church provided constant and specific encouragement. I was not only cared for privately, when I needed frank conversation and guidance; I was also entrusted with public ministries (preaching, teaching, praying, etc.). By then my book was out, so everyone knew about my sexual orientation. No one, however, gave a hint that it somehow placed me in a spiritually compromised position, or that it formed any kind of barrier to my full inclusion in the church’s life. And many of the church members were eager to talk with me explicitly about singleness, loneliness, hospitality, friendship—the kind of things I needed and wanted to talk about with them. Whenever I imagine the church really being the church, I usually picture my church in England. I felt honored, welcomed, and wanted there.

I could go on in this vein for some time. And yet there are other, sadder stories too. I was recently with a respected Christian leader, who has said publicly that he appreciates my witness as a celibate gay Christian, who, while sitting next to me at lunch, told a crass joke that mocked the effeminacy of particular LGBT people he knew. I’m not sure he thought of how this might sound to me—surely he must have?—but it underscored to me, one more time, why I won’t say, “The church isn’t homophobic.” That judgment is just too black and white. What Alexander Solzhenitsyn said about the individual is also true of the church as a gathered community: “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, not between classes, nor between political parties, but through every human heart.” The church, along with each believer, is, in the Reformation slogan, simul iustus et peccator—simultaneously righteous and sinful.

Again, I could go on. Currently, while I’m being encouraged by my priest to think about pursuing ordination, I am hearing from friends of mine who, in the last couple of years, have lost their jobs at Christian institutions for coming out as gay and celibate.

Contradictions and complications abound. Where does this leave me?

To return to my hypothetical eighteen-year-old gay Christian, I’d want to say to him that the church is indispensable. You can’t be a Christian without getting your hands dirty by joining the visible, institutional gathering of Christ’s followers. And, by grace, you will no doubt find more acceptance and love than you anticipate. You will, in the same community, find misunderstanding, callous disregard of your experience, petty insecurity that prompts people to make hurtful remarks, fear that leads people to give you a wide berth, and much else besides. What will keep you there, in the end, won’t be the measurable progress the church makes in abandoning its ignorance and prejudices. Such progress may or may not come in the visible ways you want it to, on the timetable you hope it will. Instead, what will keep you coming back to church is the promise of Christ that he has bound himself to this people, to this proclaimed Word and to this bread and wine. I won’t tell you the church isn’t homophobic, but I’ll try long and hard to convince you that the church is the place where Christ wants to love you.

25 thoughts on ““The Church is Homophobic”—True or False?

    • When I was writing this post, I had in mind Gabriel Blanchard’s definition: “I am defining homophobia as injustice against persons who are homosexually attracted, for no reason other than their being homosexually attracted. I propose to take the following for granted: that there are people who are, largely or exclusively, homosexually attracted; that there is such a thing as injustice; and that injustice can be directed towards them for that reason.” See here: http://mudbloodcatholic.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/an-appendix-to-raw-tact-catholic.html

  1. Hello Mr. Hill,
    I am that 18 year old bisexual Christian, that is dedicated to the church. I really appreciate your writings on SF and in your book (I am currently having my pastor read it). I have come out to my parents, brother, and at least half of my church and have gotten pretty mixed reactions. When first coming out to leaders of my church I was met with love and acceptance and promised that they did not see me any differently or lesser because of my orientation (which was/is a fear of mine). However, the people in my life that know in detail about my attraction to other women still openly make crass LGBT jokes, use ‘gay’ as a derogatory term, and act in other ways around me that I would think they would see as hurtful or naive in light of knowing my story. Some have even made comments that as soon as I decide to trust in God enough or as soon as I stop wanting to be gay then God will make me straight.
    Fortunately I believe in the church and its good in a greater capacity than these comments may hurt me so I continue to go and grow along side these people.
    It is always nice to know that there are others out there who relate to my story and are willing to talk about these subjects. I have two questions for you. First of all, how can we show other Christians that being gay in itself is not something lesser or to be looked down upon and mocked? Also, I have been accused of not wanted to be straight or refusing to let God ‘heal me’ because I (through reading the works of authors such as yourself) am willing to and find a sort of freedom in declaring my self as gay or bi. I am told that my orientation is something I should hide and deny, while I see it as an opportunity to help others who are in similar situations to mine. I am also met with scrutiny when I stand up for loving and respectful treatment of the LGBT community. Is there anything we can to to shift the focus of the church from homophobic-like responses to loving and supporting responses, while not compromising convictions. Sorry that this is such a long response.

    • Good questions, Patience, and I’ll leave them to Mr. Hill. I just wanted to encourage you and say that I am also a gay celibate Christian. Be encouraged! As I’m sure you already know, God loves you dearly! It helps me in my daily battles just to read posts like yours and see a passion in the hearts of fellow brothers and sisters to serve Christ! Blessings to you my sister!

  2. I deeply appreciate your words about the complexity of the Church, and the danger of a single story.

    To throw more complexity into this issue, and to speak from my own experience, I wonder if part of the issue here is language. To use an extreme example, xenophobia and racism are not the same thing. Someone can be horribly racist towards a certain people group without being afraid of them. Someone can see another race as fundamentally less-than, or as barred from opportunities we all share by merit of their skin, without being afraid of them. Someone can even be racist and kind, as some slave holders were to their slaves, while still believing on principle that they were lesser. We have no corresponding complexity of language for bias against homosexuality, and the word “homophobia” is woefully inadequate. When many Christians say they are not homophobic, they are probably telling the truth. That does not mean they still don’t experience, consciously or unconsciously, a bias against gay people, be it very small or very large.

    The presence of kindness does not mean the absence of bias. Sometimes they go hand in hand. Yes, the obviously unkind words and actions in the church hurt, but the kindness that is under-girded by bias against gay people can hurt just as much. I think many gay people experience the pain of it, while also suffering from the inability to express what is hurting them. Because, after all, the people are still very kind to them, and the dissonance can be very painful.

  3. I think there is an historical factor here as well. when I was in seminary back in the early 80s the debate centered around whether a gay person could be a pastor or church leader if they agreed to remain celibate. Some of the larger, more liberal denomination elected to ordain gay men as long as they promised celibacy. However, since they were choosing celibacy for the wrong reason, the result was that these men eventually worked into positions of influence and changed the stand of their denominations on the subject of sexuality.

    I’m not sure the Church is homophobic as much as it is simply 30 years behind the current situation. Today there is little reason for a LGBT person to choose celibacy aside from a personally held, firm belief that God ordained sex for marriage between and man and a woman only. So a celibate gay person today is probably choosing celibacy because they honestly believe this is God’s vocation for them and that celibacy itself is a worthy calling. The openly gay celibate young person of today is very very different than the openly gay celibate person of 20 or 30 years ago.

    But the Church is still 3 decades behind reality and doesn’t know what to do with this sense of sexual integrity among her young adults. So the Church is conflicted about how to handle the subject.

    I wonder, also, if this is not what is driving men like Ruse. He and his followers do not realize there are many young people who long to serve God, long to be genuine about their sexual orientation and, at the same time, honestly do uphold the Church’s teaching on sexuality at a level far far deeper than the majority of their straight peers. He is still stuck in the 80s and addressing a situation which no longer exists.

    And so Church leaders do swing back and forth between compassion and an anachronistic homophobia that creates fear of even the dedicated celibate members of the Body.

  4. Thanks for the encouraging words, Dr. Hill! This reminds me, as did your book, that while the Church is not a perfect place, it is loved and used by God (well, much like each of us as individuals), and to remember, on those days when we’re sitting in Church feeling like we just aren’t being treated like we should (intentionally or not), that God loves His Church, and wants us to be just as merciful and loving to its members as He is to us, even when they are not being very kind to us (just as He loves us when we tend to stray).

  5. Love the idea of a 3-dimensional story. So useful in all of life. Thank you. There is too much neatness, and I see so little of the neat in real life.

  6. “Love and unconditional acceptance of gay people does not require approval of same-sex sexual activity,” is true only if your draw a very neat distinction between desire and deeds, the former being neutral, the latter clearly sinful. I’m not certain this is very traditional and many conservative Christians will refuse to see desire for something sinful as morally neutral. I’m not sure I would, though I don’t see same-sex activity as sinful.

  7. Take Simone’s advice. You all come across as rather conservative Catholic Christians and you already have problems. Try to imagine how the church comes across from non-catholic perspectives, hearing prelates describe your mates as the dark cavity in this vortex that is the culture of death, seeing catholics in their hundreds of thousands demonstrating in the streets against your basic rights (and not just marriage, here in Europe), militating along Muslim countries at the UN against including sexual orientation… I could go on, but yes, the Catholic church is homophobic. It has not used against any other thing it sees as sinful even a fraction of the energy and none it has spent against pretty much any extension of gay rights or liberties.

  8. Dear Wesley,

    A fellow pastor recommended this website to me, and I have been interested to read your articles, as I read your book a number of years ago. I am an evangelical Christian but also am single, gay and celibate, and have been a curate in the Church of England for 6 months now. All these things are a challenge to me at times. I find Sean Doherty’s testimony that the church response to his situation was positive encouraging, but my experience was not as positive. I have received a wide range of responses from Christian ministers when I talked about my sexuality to them: one who said at a job interview that “people like me either changed and got married, or fell away from God” (I didn’t get the job, even though I was the only candidate); another theological college tutor asked me at interview “why did I want to enter a firestorm in the church of England by becoming a vicar given that I had same-sex attractions”, as if it was my fault, and at college one of my pastoral tutors when I talked about my sexuality told me a salutary tale about two gay Christians he had known at college, one of whom had ended up in jail, by way of warning me. Thankfully, I have spoken to other evangelical Christians who have been much more affirming and loving towards me when I shared with them, but the most common responses I have got have either been confusion, pressure to keep my sexuality a private affair and not to “identify” as gay, or a strong eagerness to change or heal me through prayer and reparative therapy, which has often not been helpful.

    Mark

    • I want to say thank you for sharing this, Mark. Sadly, your anecdotes require absolutely no imagination for me to believe them. I have been part of very similar conversations myself. And I think these stories need to be told. If we’re ever going to move into healthier ways of speaking to and relating to one another, we have to acknowledge how far we still have to go to get there.

  9. Thanks Wesley. It has certainly been my experience that I have had a vast range of Christian responses when it comes to talking about my sexuality. The challenge has been that in the evangelical circles I was raised in, Christians seemed to divide into confident subgroups that were eager to tell me “this is why you are gay in this is what you have to do to fix it” (get therapy/stay celibate/stay accountable/embrace it/keep quiet and it will go away). So I tend to shy away from people whom I ask for prayer support and quickly want to give me solutions instead. At present, I don’t know what will happen to me long term about my understanding of homosexuality and relationships, I’m just looking to the more down to earth practical things of everyday life (how to make friends in a new city; who to trust and share with; how to talk to my mum and dad who are in denial about my sexuality and struggle to talk to me about it).

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  11. I think there is a certain amount of culpable cluelessness that can come in to play in how people relate to, in this case, homosexual persons. I think this is sometimes what is happening when people who know of someones sexual orientation still say things that are hurtful. I am married to a man who is essentially bisexual. He told me about this before we were married, but after that we pretty much didn’t talk about it until this last year.

    I know that I’ve said things over the years that were hurtful without meaning to hurt. Part of it was that I really didn’t (and truly still don’t) understand this part of him. I also didn’t think about it. It was one thing out of many about him, and a one thing I would rather ignore (as it is more comfortable that way). So I said things that hurt either because I didn’t realize that what I said might hurt a person with same-sex attraction or because I didn’t remember that my husband was such a person. I am still responsible for my speech and need to be sensitive and loving to my husband, so I am culpable for what I say and do.

    One example would be that I honestly thought that same-sex attraction was something that would go away as a person stopped “feeding” it (through actions) and drew closer to Christ. All of my (very limited) experiences confirmed that. From that place of ignorance, I stood in a perfect position to hurt as continuance of the attraction looked like lack of faith and virtue. Years of loving this man have helped me learn otherwise.

    I hope that I am decreasingly culpably clueless. I am learning, mostly by my husband telling me when I what I say or do is hurtful. Please be patient with us (the clueless in your lives).

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