Written By Ng Chee Boon, Singapore
Ng Chee Boon is a Millennial with a passion to see the Church present good news to same-sex attracted people. He is actively serving in his local church in the areas of community engagement, missions, bible teaching, and youth.
My first close encounter with a gay person was back in my pre-university days, when a classmate expressed his feelings for me. I had no idea how to respond except to discourage any further advances (or false hopes) there and then.
Looking back, I realized what a big step it took for my classmate to come out to me—and how inadequate my response was.
Now, many years later, I find myself researching more deeply into Christians’ attitudes towards LGBTQ. This is a pressing issue of our time, and if we follow mainstream and social media reports, we might easily think that the natural Christian response is to frame the LGBTQ issue as a “threat”. That is, to portray the matter primarily as an issue of “marriage and family under attack” (which is indeed an important issue), but sometimes fail to recognize the fact that there are individual lives and hearts involved.
Our biblical convictions compel us to not condone homosexual behavior. But if our focus is on the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ, shouldn’t we first consider how “they” are a mission field—people who need the Lord just like you and me? More than that, have we considered that there are people with same-sex attraction (SSA) who are family—members of the body of Christ? Even in our local church?
Along the way, I’ve been privileged to hear stories of various Christians who experienced SSA. One is a pastor’s kid. Another shared about how he ignored God for many years, but God broke through into his life and moved him to start reading the Bible, break up a long-term relationship, and even attend cell group for the first time.
Two others, a guy and a girl, shared about their struggles with sexuality and how they press on in their walk with God even though they do not feel it safe to share with most people in their church. Another young man talked about his church-hopping as he searched for a place where he could get help. There are many more stories.
My heart is so uplifted by these brothers’ and sisters’ perseverance in the face of challenges. At the same time, however, I am burdened by my belief that the Church can do better—much better—in offering the help, healing, and hope that is available in Christ. I have heard gay men and women complain about being ostracized by churches. Many keep their SSA secret, for fear of how their family and friends will react. I have also seen the anguish of parents whose child came out to them.
What, then, can we the Church do to reach out to those who experience SSA? Here are some pointers which I’ve found useful through my research and my interactions.
Before I continue, let me explain some of my use of terms. First, I use the terms “gay” or “same-sex attracted” somewhat interchangeably, without assuming the extent to which these individuals have acted on their SSA. Second, I am aware that SSA is just one facet of the LGBTQ collective term. While I focus on SSA here, I know that more will have to be said concerning transgender issues and persons.
1. Recognize that same-sex attracted people are in the church.
Just because we don’t know of anyone struggling with SSA in our local church doesn’t mean there aren’t any. In my church alone, I personally know two; but the actual number, according to my pastors, is higher.
There are other churches with dozens. I have even heard of one church where almost anyone who experiences SSA will tell their cell leader. They also have staff who are same-sex attracted. What this means for the rest of us is this: Take heed to how we talk about it in our everyday conversations. Let’s be careful not to offend our fellow brothers and sisters through careless remarks we make—whether it’s those that poke fun at those who experience SSA or those that marginalize them—so that we don’t make church an “unsafe” place for them.
2. Be clear about the ultimate “why”.
This is a question of purpose—what do I ultimately desire for my same-sex attracted friend, as I do for anyone? I believe it is that he or she may come to Christ, and live life in abundance as members of the kingdom (and the family) of God, as much as possible on this side of eternity.
People who experience SSA, are first of all, persons. They are made in the image of God, and therefore worthy of dignity and respect. We have much to learn about how to better relate to them as persons, and we need to repent of ways in which we have excluded them from the grace and love that is in Christ. Our challenge is to do this while affirming the orthodox view of biblical gender and sexuality, and that we too are sinners saved only by God’s amazing grace.
We need to relate to them and to present Christ to them, not just because there are public laws and social norms at stake, but because they are individuals who need Jesus. We are all sinners, and need to be saved from our idols and our brokenness.
At the same time, we should also note that the rest of the world is watching. How the church speaks and relates to people who experience SSA can play a decisive role in shaping people’s perception of the gospel—especially among Millennials.
3. Recognize that SSA is a very personal thing.
One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to treat SSA merely as an issue or a theological problem. The truth, however, is that SSA is a very personal matter for many, whose sexuality may be an important part of their identity. We need to also remember that when people who experience SSA are called upon to follow Jesus, it inevitably comes with costly implications. This calls for a pastoral spirit on the part of the one relating to a person who experiences SSA (or anyone for that matter). This also means that there are no cookie-cutter solutions—we have got to meet each person where he or she is, and learn to understand their life story.
4. Help our same-sex attracted friends to feel safe in church.
Until this happens, we will not get to speak to those issues in the person’s life. Let us not single out homosexual sin as if it is the worst of evils. If you are strong on this, be strong too on adultery, divorce, and extramarital sex. Be stronger still on pride, spiritual pride, and idolatry.
Are we doing our part to forge a church culture where people do not pretend to be sorted and well, but where people can be honest and open about their brokenness and vulnerabilities in all their forms? I was challenged when speaking with a pastor in Singapore. After he and his wife decided to become very open—in his words, “verbally naked” about their own sin struggles—quite a few members in his church came out.
For sure, it will take amazing grace to be that kind of church. We will have to overcome the norms of this world and learn to be really open and vulnerable about our brokenness. How can we expect someone to feel safe to come out to us if we ourselves are not honest with our own struggles?
And after a friend has come out on SSA, what next? Will we be willing to walk with that friend or family member, to help him or her stay on a path of spiritual growth? It could well be a difficult and long journey, but perhaps along the way we will discover for ourselves what it really means to be like Jesus.
5. Speak the full counsel of God.
My views of homosexuality are not shaped definitively by the so-called “clobber passages” (specific portions of the Bible that talk about homosexuality). These passages are important, but more decisive for me is the warp and woof, the overarching story of God in Scripture.
I am reminded of what English pastor and author Vaughan Roberts, who himself struggles with SSA, said: “Don’t talk about sex without talking about marriage, without talking about creation, without talking about redemption and new creation.” The full counsel of God points to Christ. In Him, all things hold together. So let’s speak in such a way that we are always trying to draw the person’s attention to Jesus.
I think it’s important to keep this in mind because it is so easy to let our identities and our values become centered on things other than Christ. Gender and sexuality are important but they are not the core issues; God is. When our Lord Jesus met the woman at the well, He didn’t start by pinpointing her faults. Rather, He started by offering Himself, the spring of life.
I know of a former gay-activist turned evangelical who devoted his life to ministering to the emotionally and sexually broken in the church. At a leader’s training, he shared about how his sexuality used to take up a large part of his identity. But when Jesus came into his life, the importance of his sexuality gradually shrank relative to Jesus who came to fill up more and more of his self-identity.
6. Create a culture that opens the door to a flourishing life in Christ.
There are a good number of same-sex attracted Christians who, based on their conviction of God’s Word, have chosen the path of celibacy. Will they all come to a point where they would seek marriage with a member of the opposite sex? I don’t think so.
If this is true, I hope we can appreciate what these Christians might feel if we keep touting marriage as the highest, most important form of relationship. While we are keen to strengthen the foundations of marriage and family, we need to be sensitive about whether we are inadvertently excluding others. We also need to actively explore other paths by which these Christians can experience deep relationships and intimacy. The same goes for singles and others who for some reason are not married and cannot (or do not) entertain the prospect of marriage.
Can Christians be good friends with others of the same gender without sexualizing it? This is a problem of the world’s culture. Ever since the sexual revolution, we have tended to sexualize everything. But it was not always so, and it need not be so. Dr. Wesley Hill, an American Bible scholar who struggles with SSA and who wrote about it in his moving memoir, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, speaks refreshingly and affirmatively of the unique gifts and contributions that same-sex attracted persons can offer to build the church, especially in the recovery of friendship. For someone like Wesley, spiritual friendships* are a critical means for enjoying relational intimacy as a celibate gay Christian. Can church communities provide such depths of friendship so as to enable all persons, whether married or single, to flourish?
7. Finally, speak with radical acts of mercy.
Demonstrating love and compassion is not conditional on the recipient’s holiness or level of agreement with you. I think of C. Everett Coop, a former Surgeon-General of the United States. He was unequivocal about his conservative biblical stand on homosexuality, yet he was feted by LGBT people, because he did so much for AIDS education and for AIDS sufferers.
I think of a Canadian friend who serves at the Bissell Centre in Edmonton, Canada, which ministers to the homeless. She told me that a disproportionate number of homeless young people in her community are gays who have been kicked out of their homes. Her ministry reaches out to them without discrimination. Can we hear of such stories among Jesus followers in Singapore?
We (myself included) have much to repent of, and much to learn. But let’s start talking about this and strive to be a gospel community, by the amazing grace of God.
*For more details, read Wesley’s other book, “Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian”.