Is Your Church Safe for Those Struggling with a Same-Sex Attraction?

GayChurchSt-8616-650x366It is very likely that your church has someone in regular attendance who struggles with a same-sex attraction.While the prevalence of those who self-identify as gay and/or lesbian in general is fairly low (roughly 3% of the population), the experience of same-sex attraction is actually more common. Not everyone who experiences an attraction to people of their same gender identifies as gay, yet they still experience this temptation. These dear brothers and sisters may be sitting in your pews every week. Is your church prepared to love and care for them? Do they feel welcomed and safe in your congregation? Our churches are safe for these brothers and sisters when we treat their temptations and struggles the way we should treat all temptations and struggles: with normalcy, compassion, and fellowship.

Same-sex attraction is not any different from the host of other temptations with which believers struggle. We treat it differently in the church. Often we treat it with disgust, insensitivity, and drama. Our rhetoric makes those who struggle feel as though they are particularly gross, particularly immoral, and particularly unworthy of the church. Biblical Counselor Michael Emlet has written:

Is same-sex attraction “The-Struggle-That-Must-Not-Be-Named?” In general, the church – that is we! – have done a poor job of creating an environment in which Christian men and women who struggle in this way are able to share their burden honestly and find strength for the journey of faith. (“Five Ministry Priorities for Those Struggling with Same-Sex Attraction,” JBC 28:3, 15)

The way we treat this temptation will directly affect the comfort and safety of those who struggle. If the only way your church talks about homosexuality is in highly politicized terms you are probably creating barriers to confession. Emlet writes, “Too much discourse within the church exists at the political-cultural level and the individual struggler gets left in the dust” (16). If we isolate this sin, single it out as the epitome of sin, the worst of the worst, we will find that many of those in our congregation who struggle this way will carry their burdens silently and alone. Same-sex attraction is a temptation that should be treated with the same normalcy as other temptations. Paul tells us, all temptation is common, so we should act like this is true (1 Cor. 10:13).

This should not be misconstrued to suggest that we accept same-sex sexual behavior. Part of the dilemma that the church has is we don’t understand same-sex attraction as something distinct from same-sex sexual behavior. One may be tempted to act out sinful sexual desires, but being tempted to act them out is not the same thing. We must be able to distinguish between the two if we have any hope of being helpful to our brothers and sisters. The truth is that many faithful Christians who struggle with this temptation confess to harbor all sorts of unhealthy guilt and self-condemnation because of their attractions. Many desperately want to feel differently, to be attracted to the opposite gender, to have any other temptation or struggle. Many have prayed and cried out to God for change but He has not seen fit to take away this “thorn in the flesh.” Emlet notes, “Sometimes we act (and the struggler feels) as if even experiencing a fleeting same-sex attraction is always sin in and of itself” (24). We can heap all kinds of guilt and condemnation on these friends by the way we talk about their struggle. They can’t change how they feel, but they are striving to be obedient to Jesus in spite of their temptations. Compassion allows us to be the most help we can to them.

Finally, real help comes as we focus on long-term fellowship. If our churches are going to become safe places for those who struggle with same-sex attraction it begins as each of us becomes someone who is safe. So Michael Emlet includes in his very helpful article for The Journal of Biblical Counseling a list of “diagnostic questions” we can use to evaluate ourselves. Are you safe? he writes:

Are you honest about your own brokenness and sin, and therefore not surprised about the brokenness and sin of others?

Do you listen more than you speak?

Have you taken the time to learn others’ stories, whether they struggle with same-sex attraction or with other sins?

Do you ask questions that invite deeper reflection and honesty?

Do you avoid simplistic answers to complex problems?

Can you keep a confidence? (17)

A church becomes safe as individuals become safe. Seek to develop genuine fellowship with people. Be honest about your sin and invite them to be honest about theirs. Don’t act shocked or disgusted when you learn that people are just as broken as you. Commit to long-term friendships with people. Same-sex attraction can be incredibly isolating, and for those who don’t experience real change in their orientation there is probably a future of singleness in store for them. This means that our churches need to be places where single people are loved, encouraged, supported, and invited into our families. This is just as true for those who struggle with same-sex attraction. Inviting them into your family allows them to experience just some of what we all long for, deep, meaningful, relationships.

It is increasingly important that the church be a place of safety and love for those who struggle with same-sex attraction. This happens as we cultivate a sense of the normalcy of temptation, compassion for the nature of this struggle, and fellowship with those who struggle. Is your church safe? Are you safe?

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