Even though I know several people who are gay, the biggest problem I have when I talk or write about anything to do with being gay or gay relationships, is that I’m not gay. I can’t get close to explaining what it must be like to be gay and especially what it must be like to deal with being a gay Christian. Looking at all the news about gay marriage, gay bishops and most recently whether someone like Steve Chalke can be an evangelical and bless gay relationships, it’s quite clear that many Christians have strong opinions on homosexuality and are happy to let others know what they think. I would probably count myself in that number. I don’t deliberately seek to discuss homosexuality for the sake of it, but with all that’s been in the press, I don’t feel I’m in a position to ignore it. The difficulty is that it is very hard not to come across as judgmental talking about those who are gay when I can’t honestly say I’m able to see things from a gay person’s point of view.
What I would find incredibly useful, would be to have a gay Christian friend I could listen to and talk things through with to get their perspective on things. Recently I’ve been able to get as close as I ever have to achieving that. I’ve been reading a newly published book entitled Unconditional by Justin Lee. When you find a book with the subtitle, ‘Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs-Christians Debate’ endorsed on the cover by Rowan Williams and the well-known US Baptist author and speaker, Tony Campolo, it suggests it might have something of value to say.
Justin Lee is an evangelical Christian who lives in the US who also happens to be gay. The book is essentially his story of growing up as a committed Christian with a deep desire to serve God, but then gradually realising to his own horror (as he puts it) that he was attracted to men. He tells of the dilemmas and traumas that he has faced from his teenage years onwards trying to reconcile his faith and his sexuality and coming to terms with the consequences of not being a straight person in the church.
Lee tells of his initial attempts to act as a heterosexual person, finding a girlfriend and trying to fall in love in the hope that his same-sex attraction would fall away. When this failed to work he then had to face coming out to his family, friends and church. He talks about his experience of ex-gay ministries and his annoyance at not finding the solutions he was hoping for. Various people along the way give him advice and attempt to identify some childhood event or experience that caused him to turn out the way he is. In each case they are unable to provide a satisfactory answer. Lee explains more than once that he was brought up in a loving family with a strong Christian faith. There were no cases of abuse or any other reasons that might have caused him to develop feelings towards his own sex.
This is an honest account of a young man desperate to follow God at all costs. He finds that despite his efforts to get help from Christian leaders, he is repeatedly left feeling that he has been preached at but rarely comes away feeling that he has been listened to. Even though Lee explains throughout the book that he has never acted on his feelings towards other men, he found that just being openly honest about being gay caused him all sorts of difficulties within the church and his Christian groups at university. As I read his story I often was left wondering how he managed to keep his faith through everything he experienced, but rather than driving him from God, these experiences left him more determined to search for answers and build bridges that would allow churches and straight Christians to be more understanding of gay people.
Throughout the book you can see Lee’s struggle to find a community where he is comfortable. He is left feeling deeply uncomfortable when looking on the internet to find other gay people to talk to but instead often finding gay people just looking for sex. His first visit to a gay club leaves him feeling alienated from the secular gay scene. In church circles he hears a lot about ‘loving the sinner but hating the sin’ in reference to gay people in a condescending way that actually isn’t particularly loving at all. Lee quotes Tony Campolo on this point:
‘I am always uptight when someone says… ‘I love the sinner, but hate his sin’. I’m sure you’ve heard that line over and over again. And my response is, ‘That’s interesting. Because that’s just the opposite of what Jesus says. Jesus never says, ‘Love the sinner, but hate his sin.’ Jesus says, ‘Love the sinner and hat your own sin. And after you get rid of the sin in your own life, then you can begin talking about the sin in your brother or sister’s life.”
Being made to feel like a second-rate Christian just because he is unable to choose who he is attracted to is a constant frustration for Lee.
A fair bit of the book is spent looking at the Bible and what it has to say on homosexuality. Given his sexual orientation you might expect Lee to be biased in his approach, but if anything it makes him more careful to not to take sides, wanting to hear what God has to say over what he might like to hear. He gets irritated by those on both sides of the argument who can’t see beyond a single-minded ‘More truth!/More loving!’ stance where their entrenched views blind them to the likelihood that they might not have the whole answer. As he goes through the instances where homosexuality is explicitly mentioned, he is unable to draw a satisfactory answer that is completely clear-cut one way or another. Much of it comes down to the interpretation of the context of the passages and a few individual words.
What Lee does next is to try to fit these passages into a bigger picture. Is there another way to approach this that allows these verses to fit within a Biblical framework that will give a fuller answer? He turns to Paul’s writings for guidance:
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13,14 TNIV)
After a lengthy discourse, Lee summarises what he believes he has learnt:
‘With these standards in mind, it became much easier to interpret Scripture’s difficult passages consistently. Yes, there were slaves in Bible times, but doesn’t selfless agape love demand their freedom? Rules about head coverings and hair length had a purpose in Paul’s culture, but if they had no ultimate bearing on our commission to selflessly love God and our neighbours, then, led by the Spirit, we can safely set them aside today.’
Lee then turns this approach to homosexuality. He mentions Jesus referring to bad trees bearing bad fruit and good trees bearing good fruit. He sees the bad fruit coming out of his church and good fruit coming from some monogamous gay Christian couples and begins to conclude that it is possible for gay people to have Christ-centred relationships that might not be sinful. He is careful to explain that he could well be wrong on this, but what he strongly believes that there needs to be more far more grace in the Church on this matter. The important thing, Lee has decided, is to do his best to live according to what he believes and remain open to God’s leading and trusting in God’s grace if he has made a mistake in his interpretation of the Bible.
While at university Lee posted his story of being a gay Christian up on a homemade website in the hope that those he knew would be able to read it and understand him better. What took him completely by surprise was not so much the overwhelmingly positive response he received as people began to appreciate what he was having to deal with and having their thinking challenged, but rather the numbers of gay Christians who contacted him to let him know they were going through similar experiences to his own. As the number of responses from all round the world increased, he set up a community forum as a way for gay Christians to gather and support one another. This developed into the Gay Christian Network (GCN), which now has thousands of members and hosts an annual conference.
One thing Lee was very keen to ensure right from the start was that the GCN would be welcoming to all gay Christians irrespective of their views on the Bible and whether gay relationships are sinful. He developed this into the concept of ’Side A’ (those who think that gay sex is morally acceptable in the right circumstances) and ‘Side B’ (those who think that gay sex is inherently morally wrong). The attempt to bring together those on both Side A and Side B in the same place with the aim of finding common ground has drawn plenty of criticism, but as Lee puts it, for every one person who has left in protest, ten have joined deliberately because of the GCN’s attempts at bridge building.
Justin Lee’s vision is for this same approach to reaching across the divides to be seen increasingly within the church. He does not think that we will reach the point where Christians will all agree on the interpretation of Biblical texts on homosexuality or on the morality of gay sexual relationships. He would much rather the church came to terms with this tension rather than battling over it and instead look at showing more grace to gay people and be willing to listen and learn from their stories. Christians repeatedly demonstrate how poor we are at being able to dialogue effectively when we disagree. Learning to graciously dialogue is not easy but if the Church is to move forward without the rifts becoming bigger, this has to begin to happen more and more.
This book is challenging, but also inspiring. It looks to find hope where there has been very little in the past. As Lee reveals his story it’s hard not to appreciate how much he has had to deal with and yet through it all God’s love and grace shine through. Tony Campolo is not a supporter of gay relationships and yet describes the book as ‘crucial for the destiny of the church.’ This is a huge statement to make, but as we’ve seen over the past months how churches welcome gay people (or don’t) is so incredibly divisive that he is probably not far off the mark.
If there’s one thing I’ve taken from this book, it’s the power of personal testimony. I’ve often been taught at church that all Christians should be able to give their testimony explaining what God has done in their lives when to opportunity presents itself. What I don’t hear so much of is teaching encouraging all of us to listen to and learn from the stories of those around us. The more gay people are able to tell their stories and feel like the Church at large is interested in them, the more chance we have of breaking down the gays-vs-Christians mentality that has dogged the Church for so long. Lee knows this is a huge issue that can’t be fixed simply or quickly, but his willingness to do what he can to take it on and wrestle with it should be an inspiration to all of us, irrespective of what our own personal views may be.
Unconditional is published by Hodder & Stoughton and can be purchased from various book retailers including Amazon, here.