Following on from the huge amount of interest generated by last month’s book review of Unconditional: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs-Christians Debate by Justin Lee, I thought it would be a good idea to contact him to ask for an interview. Justin is the founder and chief executive of the Gay Christian Network in the United States, which has thousands of members and hosts an annual conference. Justin kindly agreed to answer my questions exploring issues that gay people face within the church. Because he answered my questions in so much depth, I’ve decided to split the interview into two parts in order that they are more manageable.
1. Hi Justin. Thank you for writing your book. I’ve found it a thoroughly interesting and inspiring read. Why did you decide to write it and how would you judge the response you’ve had to its publication?
Over the years, I’ve heard from so many people who feel torn in one way or another by the conflict between the church and the gay community. (The North American title for the book, in fact, is Torn.) We live in a world where gays and Christians are often seen as two warring parties, especially as political debates about same-sex marriage pit church leaders and gay activists against one another.
But the refrain I keep hearing from Christians across the political spectrum is that that’s not what they want Christianity to be known for. As Christians, we want to be known for showing God’s unconditional love to everyone we meet, and Christians frequently write to me to ask how they can better understand and love the gay people in their lives and turn the church’s unloving reputation around.
I’m in a good place to address that issue, because this is a very personal issue for me. I grew up in a Christian environment which was decidedly anti-gay, only to discover (to my horror) that I was gay myself. I learned first-hand what it’s like to be on both sides of the debate, and today I run an organization which works with Christians on both sides – to find ways to bring peace, understanding, and unconditional love to the table even when we don’t always agree.
The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive. I’m getting a lot of emails from people who tell me that they read the book and then passed it to friends and family members who disagreed with them, and that it helped both parties to understand one another better and improve their relationship. As an author, that’s an exciting thing to hear.
2. As I read your book, I was left wondering at times why you didn’t give up on the church or even your faith because of your experiences as a gay person within the church. Has this got any easier, or is it still an ongoing challenge?
It’s an ongoing challenge, unfortunately. Every time I walk into a new church or Christian environment, I get nervous, because I don’t know exactly how they’ll respond to me when they find out I’m gay. Some environments have been very welcoming, and others have been openly hostile. Often, I meet Christians who want to be loving but are a bit uncomfortable with the whole subject, and so they unintentionally say or do things to push me away, usually without realising it.
I’m used to it by now, but experiences like that do make an impact on one’s faith over time. I’m not sure why I’ve been able to hold onto my faith when so many others I know have walked away from the church, but God has been very good to me, and I strongly believe in the church’s ability to be a force for good in the world. I want to help make that happen.
3. Homosexuality is such a big issue in the church currently. Do you think this is always going to be the case, or do you see signs that lasting bridges can be built and reconciliation take place?
I think homosexuality is the ‘issue of the day’, but I see bridges being built already, and I think we will find a way to resolve the tension and move forward. The church has been around for 2,000 years, and in that time, we’ve handled many, many hot topics, from debates about circumcision and food in the early church to more recent debates over slavery, divorce, contraception, and gender roles. Every age will have its controversies, but the gospel is eternal.
I do think, though, that it’s important for us to resolve these tensions as quickly as we can (even as we continue to disagree), before the church’s reputation is damaged beyond repair for an entire generation.
4. When it comes to acknowledging differing views on whether God blesses same-sex relationships, I think the way you use 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) in your book is incredibly helpful. Almost all of the churches I know (mostly evangelical) are firmly in the Side B camp, but do you think it is possible for a church to hold both sides simultaneously? I know within the congregation of my own church, there are a range of views. Can a church leadership say for example that it will teach along the lines of side B principles, but welcome gay couples as they are without expecting them to change, without being accused of double standards and contradicting itself?
I think it’s possible, yes. Side B churches (those who believe gay sex is sinful) can still welcome gay couples just as they are. After all, unless you are following the couple into their bedroom at night, how can you know whether they are violating that particular belief? No one pulls aside every straight couple to find out if they’ve had premarital sex or if they disagree with any other church teaching. In my experience as a gay Christian, the biggest reason many gay people feel unwelcome in churches has to do with the attitude toward them more than theological disagreements.
With that said, it’s also true that many gay couples would choose not to attend a church that teaches that their relationship is sinful. No matter how welcoming a Side B church is, that doesn’t mean all gay people will feel welcome. But I firmly believe that all churches, whether on Side A or Side B – or somewhere in between – ought to be thinking about ways they can better minister to the people who walk through their doors, including gay people and others who have traditionally been treated as outcasts. To do that, they’ll need to have a better understanding of gay people’s unique needs and experiences. That’s not a contradiction or compromise; it’s how Jesus treated people, and it’s something the church needs more of.
5. You talk about the need for constructive on-going dialogue in your book between Christians and the gay community. Given the history of hostility between the two. It almost seems like an impossible task. Can you think of some examples of where you’ve seen success in this area?
Last year, my organization sent me on a speaking tour at universities in the most evangelical regions of the United States. At each stop, we brought local gays and Christians into the same room for compassionate dialogue. Instead of a debate, I asked people on both sides to think of the things they wish they better understood about the people who disagree with them – not the things they wanted to teach, but the things they wanted to learn. What resulted was some amazing conversation. Non-Christians asked Christians to explain why the Bible was so important to them. Straights asked gays to share more about what it was like to realize they were different. As heartfelt questions were asked and moving stories were shared, the tone of the dialogue changed. People began to make friends with the people they had previously seen as enemies. Condescension and hostility were replaced with humility and love. It was a beautiful example of what this conversation looks like when we do it the right way.
Baptist minister and author Dr. Tony Campolo is another great example of this. He believes that marriage ought to be limited to the union of a man and a woman, but his wife is a supporter of same-sex marriage. The two of them have given numerous talks in which they explain how they understand the Bible differently and why they disagree, but also how they can continue to love one another and respect one another’s faith in spite of the disagreement. The key, I believe, is a humble heart and a focus on the humanity of the other person, rather than seeing him or her as an ‘issue’.
Justin’s book, Unconditional: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs-Christians Debate is published by Hodder & Stoughton and can be purchased from various book retailers including Amazon, here.