Is The Church Homophobic?
Do you have any phobias? Are you ever claustrophobic – disliking small spaces? Or do you experience arachnophobia – a fear of spiders? Or do you struggle with nyctophobia – a hatred of the dark? Or are you perhaps homophobic – afraid of people who say they are gay or lesbian?
There’s rightly not that much shame in confessing to those first few phobias – you might just experience some gentle teasing from friends and family. But there is rightly a lot of shame in admitting to that last phobia – some expressions of it are now against the law.
Homophobia is defined by the LGBT rights group Stonewall as “the fear or dislike of someone who identifies as lesbian or gay.” It’s internal attitude that sadly often spills out in abusive language and behaviour damaging other human beings – all just because they are sexually attracted to their own sex.
Such homophobia used to be the default attitude of many individuals and institutions in this country. Lesbian and gay people were socially mistreated and legally persecuted for centuries - all because of who they fancied or had sex with. Sadly not all homophobia is lost in the past either: some men and women continue to be physically and emotionally harmed today and a number have responded by tragically taking their own lives.
As a man who has consistently been attracted to some men ever since I fancied anyone, I hate such genuine homophobia. I experienced some of its verbal forms at school and that discouraged me from being open and honest about my sexual feelings as a Christian teenager. It is still sadly still around in many people and places today. I want to do all that I can to help get rid of it.
But the two contexts in which I have never experienced fear or dislike because of my sexuality have been my Christian friendships and church families. Yes sometimes insensitive things have been said, but I have never received any abuse because of my sexual feelings. Instead my brothers and sisters in Christ have gone out of the way to show me that they support me and love me. I’ve been reduced to tears by their loving concern for me - not by any hateful condemnation.
Which is odd because one of the biggest things that kept me from being open and honest with them was being told by the world around me that Christians would be homophobic. As a result I sadly wondered if my Christian friends might reject me; I wrongly feared losing my job as a church pastor. Nothing has been further from the truth – my friendships have grown, I now have more opportunities to pastor God’s people than ever before. I stupidly let the prejudices of non-Christian people isolate me from God’s people. I ignored the wonderful track record they had of looking after me whatever I thought, said or did. For me, the Christian church has never been homophobic.
I wish my experience was universal. But – sadly – it isn’t. There are many parts of the worldwide church where admitting being attracted to the same sex will see you labelled as an unbeliever and much worse. There are churches in the UK where the language used exposes a deep-rooted dislike and fear of people like me. The Living Out charity I’m a trustee of exists to help change this and ensure that every Christian church in the UK is a place where gay and lesbian people can find understanding and care. I’d urge anyone reading this article to encourage their church and youth leadership teams to engage with the resources we provide – especially if you have noticed genuinely homophobic attitudes and actions in other Christians. At Living Out we want Christian churches to be safe spaces where you can find friends you could trust to talk anything through with - because you know they’ll love you whatever.
But as we seek to do this we’re often falsely accused of homophobia because we do our work from a position of believing our loving Father God asks his children not to get married to, or have sex with, someone of the same sex. “Homophobic!” is the immediate accusation thrown at us by anyone who doesn’t really understand what the term truly means.
But churches like mine, that ask members and leaders like me not to have sex with another guy, are not doing that driven by a fear or dislike of my sexuality but out of their love for God and me. They have become convinced by God’s Word that this is truly the best way for me to live my life as a child of God, as their brother in Christ. They know this will be hard for me, as other things about following Jesus are hard for them, but they love him and me enough to say and do challenging things. In fact one of the things that most convinces me that my Christian friends and church really love me is their track record of saying things I often don’t want to hear.
We need to watch accusing people of false homophobia in a way that discourages anyone from honestly talking about Jesus and his definition of marriage being between one man and one woman (Matthew 19:4-6). Genuine homophobes should be silenced, but we are doing people harm if a wrong definition of homophobia means keeping secret what Jesus says about life in all its fullness with him.
This article has been written by Ed Shaw, a trustee of Living Out, a group of Christians who experience same-sex attraction and seek to bring out into the open the questions and dilemmas that gay Christians often face.