After a recent conference, a gay friend reached out to me with a heartbroken message: “I thought the yoke of Jesus was supposed to be light.” Some leaders responding to the event, he said, were “making it sound like faithfulness to Jesus either means Jesus changing something that he hasn’t changed yet” or “God really [wanting] me to lie to people and just say that I’m not gay anymore.” He felt like crying, he said.
My friend’s story is just one example of the sometimes-tense relationship between the evangelical church and the LGBT community. He and I and others involved in the Revoice community are part of a growing minority of Christians who desire to be honest about both our experiences of attraction and also our steadfast commitment to live in obedience to the sexual ethic presented in the Bible as God’s design for all people, regardless of attractions or orientations.
The conversation about gay identity is not new, but it has become much more acerbic of late. Following the Nashville Statement a few years ago, an increasing number of denominations have released their own declarations concerning marriage and sexuality.
The Presbyterian Church in America and the Anglican Church in North America have both published committee reports or position papers concerning the use of identification language among sexual minorities who are church members. Meanwhile the United Methodist Church is looking to disunify at their next gathering over affirmation of gay unions by some congregations.
All of this is quite personal to me. Friends to the theological left and right of me have attempted to interact with and understand me as a same-sex-attracted Christian. The public square has been less generous. In the years since I first shared my story, public interaction has become more polarized and absolute in its condemnation of Side B Christians like me and others.
From conservative commenters, we hear that any acknowledgment of same-sex attraction is sinful, and progressive writers accuse us of repressing our sexuality and causing suicidality among LGBT teens. Most of the denominational statements mentioned above conclude that using terms such as “gay Christian” range from “unwise” to “sinful” and claim that using these descriptors makes our sexuality of primary importance in our lives.
However, Side B Christians are not a threat but an asset to orthodox churches.
First, sexual minorities who stay in conservative communities do not want those spaces to become affirming. Quite the opposite, in fact. In the face of isolation or outright rejection, we remain in conservative churches because of our commitment to the faithfulness of Scripture. We are convicted that Jesus is better than sexual fulfillment, and many of us have committed to lifetime celibacy because of our belief in the traditional sexual ethic.
As Greg Johnson writes in Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality, “Certainly, my faith has cost me more than a tithe, but God ’s people have not let me be alone. My narrative was that Jesus captured my heart. He is worth everything.” This is the testimony of gay Christians who remain in churches with a biblical view of sexual ethics. We have weighed the cost of following Jesus with our minds, hearts, and bodies and have found him to be worth the cost.
Second, we stay in the church based on principle, not for abstract political gains in a mostly abstract language war. Again, it’s hard to be a gay Christian in a theologically conservative church. Both in the body of Christ and in the culture at large, celibacy is a difficult commitment to maintain, especially long term. With it comes a loss of dreams and expectations, especially for those of us who were raised in evangelical churches.
At the height of the purity culture movement, I was a high school student terrified by my attractions and wondering when God was going to give me a miraculous healing followed by a husband and kids. Same-sex attraction was condemned as something that separated me from God, no matter how much I loved Jesus.
Instead of finding support for a probable lifetime as a single Christian, I consistently faced people who were well intentioned but determined to just find me a husband. Yet I stayed, despite loneliness, misunderstanding, and conversational homophobia. I stuck it out because of my deep conviction that my life as a celibate gay Christian was just as much a walking picture of the gospel as any of the marriages I encountered at church.
Even today, I experience these same tensions in the church. What has changed, though, are my expectations for how God meets my human need for support and relational intimacy. Instead of longing for marriage, I embrace the deeply connected friends in my life and intentionally cultivate those relationships for a lifetime of love and support.
Finally, our presence is a witness to those both inside and outside the church. A friend once told me that she couldn’t imagine anyone better equipped to talk to Christian teens about living the traditional sexual ethic than a gay Christian committed to celibacy or a mixed-orientation marriage.
She argued that, in a world motivated by the twin mantras of “follow your heart” and “live your truth,” who better to demonstrate a countercultural lifestyle than those who could easily find love and acceptance in both progressive churches and secular culture at large, yet choose to remain faithful to God’s design?
By way of example, a friend of mine recently relayed a comment he received from a teen at his church. The student thanked him for talking to the youth group about his sexuality and commitment to celibacy. “You’re the first person I’ve met in church who is really giving something up for Jesus,” he said.
Statements like this are why we celibate gay Christians declare our sexuality so often and so publicly. We want future followers of Jesus to know that flourishing as a gay Christian is not only possible but life-giving. We want to model what it means to embrace the idea of chosen family and belonging that isn’t inherently connected to sexual relationships. Why? Because the Bible tells us this sort of intimacy and connection is what we’ll all experience in eternity (Matt. 22:30; Mark 12:25).
If we want the next generation to believe that sex and marriage are not the ultimate sources of Christian community, the church would do well to ensure we are not rejecting those whose very existence demonstrates that fact.
Correction: This piece previously included a link and reference to a document that did not in fact represent the views of the Church of the Nazarene denomination. That link has been removed.
Bekah Mason is a mother of two, the executive director of Revoice, and a founding member of the Pelican Project.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.