Building bridges: My interview with Justin Lee, founder of the Gay Christian Network (part 2)

This is the second part of the interview I conducted with Justin Lee, the founder and chief executive of the Gay Christian Network in the United States, which has thousands of members and hosts an annual conference.  Following on from the huge amount of interest generated by last month’s review of his book, Unconditional: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs-Christians Debate, 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.  The second installment of the interview will be published later this week.

You can read the first part of Justin’s interview here.

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6.  A question I struggle with is whether it is possible for straight Christians to comment on how gay people should live their lives without sounding judgemental?  How valid can my views be not fully knowing what it’s like to be gay?

This can be very tricky, and it’s something many Christians struggle with. I don’t think you have to be gay in order to have an opinion on same-sex marriage or the morality of gay sex. As a Christian, of course you’re going to have views on these things. But I think there are two important things to keep in mind as well.

One is that gay people are used to hearing Christians tell them, over and over again, that they’re sinning. Adding one more Christian voice echoing that same refrain isn’t likely to do much good. What gay people really need is to hear more compassionate Christian voices focused on affirming their humanity first and foremost. That doesn’t mean a Side B Christian (one who thinks that gay sex is inherently morally wrong) has to change his views, of course. When Jesus intervened in the case of the woman being stoned for adultery, he wasn’t condoning adultery. He simply recognized that what she needed was more compassion, not more condemnation.

The other thing to keep in mind is that it can be very easy to make pronouncements about how other people should live without really understanding the challenges they actually face. Let’s say you believe that because I am gay, I should commit myself to lifelong celibacy rather than entering a relationship with a guy. I can respect that as your theological view. (Even some gay Christians share that view.) But rather than stopping there, I’d hope that you’d work hard to get to know me, to understand my story, and to consider all the challenges I’d face as a celibate gay Christian. How would I get my needs for love and intimacy met? How do I deal with the loneliness of being single or the prejudice against me because I’m gay? Who would take care of me if I am someday unable to care for myself? With all the time the church has spent talking about whether gay sex is sinful, it has spent relatively little time thinking about what its role should be in helping to address these practical questions, to provide community and support to the gay Christians in its midst. If the church only expresses opinions without offering the supportive follow-through, it comes across as unfeeling.

7.  Are there certain things that straight Christians have a habit of doing that really irritate you as someone who is gay?

The thing I find most troubling is when people make assumptions about me or lecture me without getting to know me as a person. As soon as they hear I’m gay, some Christians think they already know what my theological views are, or whether I’m having sex, or what my life must be like, and they are quick to quote Bible passages at me or tell me why being gay is a sin. Instead, I wish they would take the time to ask me about my story first and get to know me for me. They might be surprised that I’m not the person they imagined me to be.

In the end, friendships can only last if people are willing to accept that they are going to disagree on some things. Suppose, for example, that you eat meat and your best friend is a vegetarian who believes that eating meat is morally wrong. Surely you would be respectful of her views, and you wouldn’t ask her to change her views to suit yours. But if she constantly harassed you about your dietary practice, so that you couldn’t enjoy time with her without hearing another lecture about your sin, I imagine that in time, your friendship with her would suffer or disappear entirely. That’s how it is for me as a gay Christian. I know that some of my Christian friends disagree with some of my views, but if they constantly bring it up and try to change my mind over and over again, it’s difficult for us to have a healthy friendship.

8.  In your book you’ve criticised the practice of ex-gay therapy.  There’s currently a debate going on in the UK about how ethical these therapies are and whether they should be banned.  The argument mainly concerns whether people should have the right to take part in this type of therapy if they choose to, irrespective of their effectiveness.  Do you have any thoughts on whether restriction of ex-gay therapies would be a positive move, or is it more a case of educating people on the risks and success rates?

That’s a difficult question. In general, I prefer to advocate for people’s freedom of choice on almost every issue. But there are limitations. Our governments do regulate the claims advertisers can make and the products companies are able to sell, particularly in cases where people’s health is at stake. If a company comes out with a new medicine, but scientific tests prove that it is ineffective and dangerous, we would expect the government to take it off the market. If ex-gay therapy were a pill, it would certainly have been banned years ago, based on the studies that have been done about its lack of effectiveness and the real damage that has been done to people.

But a lot of this also has to do with what the therapy is or isn’t promising. I believe it is unethical for someone to promise that they can change people’s orientation through therapy, turning gay people straight. Many years of attempts have shown that therapy can’t promise to take away a gay person’s same-sex attractions or give them opposite-sex attractions, even though a gay person can choose to marry a member of the opposite sex (though I don’t advise it). On the other hand, therapy can help people work through questions of sexual addiction, inappropriate sexual behaviour, feelings of inadequacy, past abuse, or other related issues. It’s just important to realize that this doesn’t turn gay people straight.

9.  There is currently an equal marriage bill going through the UK parliament, which looks like it will probably be successful.  President Obama has also spoken of his support for equal marriage.  How much of an issue is equal marriage beyond civil partnerships on the forums of the Gay Christian Network (GCN) and is there a general consensus regarding it?

The Gay Christian Network  has members on both sides of the marriage debate. Some of our members are Side B gay Christians; they are attracted to the same sex but believe it would be wrong for them to act on those feelings. Others are Side A, including many who are in monogamous relationships and would like for marriage to be equally recognized for gay and straight couples.

To be honest, though, most of us don’t spend very much of our time at GCN talking about marriage laws. Our goal has much more to do with building bridges and helping Christians to be more loving and supportive of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people both inside and outside of the church.

10. Where do you feel God is leading you at the moment with your work, especially with the GCN?  Do you have any idea what lies ahead?

In a world that has become very polarized around these issues, I’d like to be a voice of compassion and reason, talking to people on both sides about how they can better understand and reach out to those who disagree with them. That’s what I’m working to do with GCN, with my speaking engagements, and with my book. I’m going to keep doing that as long as I can. If I can be that bridge for people, I’ll be happy.

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A very big thank you to Justin for spending the time answering my questions.  His 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.



Categories: Church, Homosexuality, Interviews

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15 replies

  1. Excellent pair of articles Gillan! Thanks.

  2. Gillan, your contribution to this debate has been very positive and helpful and this interview only serves to add to this for which many thanks. Really must get around to buying a copy of Justin’s book.

    • Thanks Matt. There has been so much negativity around this whole area that it feels right to do what I can to make space for some honest dialogue. Justin is working very hard to build bridges and I wanted to give him a chance to talk about his experiences to hopefully make us all think a bit harder and realise that even though there is much disagreement between those in the church over homosexuality that there can still be reconciliation and mutual respect.

      I definitely recommend reading his book. it’s a very easy read, but also very challenging.

      • Have you read Living It Our by Rachel and Sarah Hagger-Holt which touches on similar issues? If not I recommend it but I am biased as they are dear friends of mine!

  3. I go with this. The whole debate has been sadly destructive, bringing discredit to both sides. Justin Lee throws a human light on it, from a personal position of straddling what is obviously an uncomfortable fence. Justin is entitled to be understood as much as anyone else.

    As he points out, the human reaction to controversy is to take sides. Side A and Side B oppose one other. Each should be entitled to its views, but where is understanding and compassion to be found?

    Justin cites the woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-12). This is a rare situation of someone who was brought to Jesus forcibly, not of her own volition. She must have been terrified. Yet Jesus, by his very presence, brought shame and conviction upon her religious accusers and chose to spare her life. But as Justin rightly says, he did not condone her adultery. His parting words to the woman were “Go and sin no more”. He would not have said that if it were not possible for her to change her ways. We can only guess the effect that such an encounter would have had on her. Just to have met the real Jesus could change a life forever. It still can.

    I totally believe in right from wrong, but the judgement is God’s alone and condemnation should certainly not be ours to impose on anyone. Jesus came to save sinners and that includes me!

    • Richard, when you say “Just to have met the real Jesus could change a life forever. It still can,” it sounds like you are implying that a gay person who meets Jesus will change their orientation. As someone who is gay, I heard the message growing up that if you just have enough faith, you won’t be attracted to men. The reality of my attraction was used as evidence that I didn’t believe. It’s a nice little circle designed to shame and encourage me to lie.

      After years of deception, shame, and self hate, I realized my world view was not working. I remember the day I fell to the floor in tears and prayed, “God, I’m leaving everything I have believed. Thinking of my attraction as sinful is only causing me pain. Right or wrong, I need to accept myself as I am.” That day I discovered GCN. It was my God moment. God said to me, “Finally, you have accepted yourself as I made you. Now, I can show you the path forward.”

      Since that day, I see the presence of God in my life so much more, and the deception, shame, and self hate have gone. This is my testimony. Many gay people think I’m crazy for believing God is working in my life. Many Christians think I’m crazy for believing God can be present in gay relationships. Meeting Jesus has helped me to ignore the crowds and follow that still, quiet voice of the Spirit.

      • Thank you for your interesting account Martin. 21 Jan thread on this topic includes brief reference to my personal encounter with Jesus, as well as Richard’s in response to me.

        In between times I’ve been considering this issue. So may I ask how you see, or what do you believe, your path forward to be? Do you yet know the destination our Father has for you? Also, how would it fit in with a scriptural understanding? I’d appreciate your further thoughts in due course. Thanks

      • Martin, I am sorry, but for some reason your reply did not flag up and I didn’t know you had written. I would like to reply to you and I promise I will. But today is hectic and I hope you will be patient! It will happen, because I believe God hears your heart-cry.

        • Martin, I totally understand the vicious circle that you describe from the message you heard when you were growing up. The real good news has to be far better than that! No man can wrestle himself free of any sin in his heart, which expresses as inclinations that he may at best be able to curb, but not eliminate. Jesus spoke hope and reality into such things when he said (Mark 10:27), “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible.”

          May it never be said that a homosexual cannot come to God. Every single one of us can only come to God exactly as we are, as you discovered when you cried out in open despair. It is a complete deception that we have to put ourselves right first. If that were possible, Jesus would not have been necessary! It is the measure of God’s love, that he beckons each one of us, despite our sins and shortcomings. I have no doubt that it was your God moment, putting you in touch with people who rightly dare to believe that they matter to God, though they are gay. But do not think that this is the complete answer – God is far bigger than that! This is only the beginning for you. He will show you the path forward, just as he says, but the path he shows you will not stop short of his fullness, which is a far better place than you can presently imagine.

          Any man who seeks God will naturally want reassurance and comfort, but one must be careful not to put constructions upon what God says. Your prayer was heard because you accepted yourself as you really are before him. It is entirely understandable that you think it was God who made you the way you are. That is exactly how it feels to you, but God is God and he cannot create or send sin, against His own word. What Oliver says (below) is absolutely right. The Bible makes it clear that mankind’s problems entered him as early as Genesis chapter 3! Yet Jesus promised “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed”. And he was speaking about being released from sins, including sexual ones, which take us by the throat and keep us prisoner.

          Enter Helen! What she says is true too. It is impossible for us to imagine what a face-to-face encounter with Jesus must have been like, for the woman about to be stoned. It was not just his forgiveness but also his holiness, which would be enough to change the woman’s life forever, by her own resolve and determination, which she could never have found otherwise. Let us hope that she stayed faithful to that.

          However, subsequent to Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was given, it got a whole lot better, as the full outcome of Jesus’ death and resurrection was poured out upon his faithful followers and many more. Suddenly, the wonderful promises of Jesus made sense and came true for them, right here on earth – no longer by directive (although that remains in God’s word) but by inner naturalness, from being made into entirely new creatures. As Paul puts it, “The old has gone, the new has come. All this is from God” (2 Cor 5:17-18). It is a supernatural miracle, no less that the heart transplant prophesied by Ezekiel (11:19 & 36:26). For it is from the fallen heart that sin comes. There is no better, or more fundamental place to be made new, than to be given a pure heart, in tune with your creator, and indeed your own creation.

          So do be encouraged Martin (and hopefully Oliver too). You are on a journey! Follow the way God shows you, listen to your tears and keep praying openly. You are precious to a wonderful God who is willing to prove to you that he is far bigger than you realize!

    • Jesus, in extending grace and mercy to the woman, it can be presumed, was offerring her saving grace, i.e. salvation/redemption. It is in the nature of redemption that God saves FROM a life of sin TO a life of freedom to follow Christ & choose not to sin; and although no-one is perfect this side of heaven, & we all slip up, a lifestyle no different from before we were saved suggests we were not saved in the first place.

      So, “Go and sin no more” is a command to turn from a life of adultery; that if she is able to carry it out gives proof that God has made her a new creation and saved her.

      So also, if a gay person is genuinely born again of the Holy Spirit and of Christ, they should be able to turn from this life of sexual immorality, and ‘proove their repentance by their deeds’ (cf Acts 26:20), i.e keep sex for biblical marriage of 1 man + 1 woman; or be celibate.

      I know it must be hard on a human, earthly, sensual level, but: Do people want earthly pleasures more than they want Jesus??

      ‘If anyone would come after me,he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’. Luke 9:23

      ‘Set your mind on things above,not on earthly things’.Colossians 3:2

  4. A gay ‘Christian’ is an oxymoron. “Do you not know that men who practice homosexuality will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Corinthians 6:9) Preaching that homosexuality is acceptable is dangerous. The church must call sinners to repentance and homosexuality is a sin. It’s not kind to refuse to warn them that God is just and will punish sinners unless they repent. It’s kind to show them to Jesus, who can heal and save all sinners.

    • Amen!, couldn’t agree more!

    • Oliver

      People who say they are gay are not making a statement about their sex life. Just as a man who states that he is “married” is not inviting anyone to think about or comment on his private life.

      Gay simply means same-sex attracted. So yes – a person can be a gay Christian.

  5. You ask “How would I get my need for love and intimacy met?” Answer: JESUS CHRIST!
    – Those of us who belong to Christ (as opposed to those who don’t) are currently betrothed to the Lamb, Jesus Christ. However, when he comes again, and renews the heavens & the earth, we will then be married to Him.

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