Expectations of Perfection

As LGBT Christians in our late 20s and early 30s, we’ve seen many differences in the way people are urged to develop healthy senses of sexuality. Throughout our own journeys in uniting faith and sexuality, we’ve observed time and time again the way many Christian traditions assert that if an LGBT person is sincerely a Christian, then he or she simply will not make any mistakes in the area of sexual morality. This line of thought might come from a belief that it’s adequate to tell a faithful, LGBT Christian to avoid every appearance of evil and give no further counsel.

Why might cisgender, heterosexual Christians expect LGBT Christians to be perfect? Perhaps these expectations come from cisgender, heterosexual Christians trying to get their heads around the idea that “Yes, it is possible to be a gay Christian.” People willing to extend a gay person the benefit of the doubt at times draw what seems to be a razor-thin line that differentiates the “good” gays from the “bad” gays. “Good” gays don’t have sex. When some conservative Christians draw these lines, anything less than perfect abstinence falls short and is understood as evidence that the Holy Spirit is not at work in the life of that gay “Christian.” Here, we see indications of a bit of neo-Pelagianism creeping into the forefront: a faithful gay Christian should be able to provide ample evidence of faithfulness because that person is capable of reigning in his/her sexual energies.

An unhealthy obsession with perfection enters because the LGBT person trying to live a faithful life in the Church zooms in on doing whatever it takes to prevent sexual sin, no matter how extreme. This kind of expectation puts insurmountable pressures on LGBT Christians and leads many of them down the road of questioning their commitment to Christ, their suitability to be in a church community, and their right to continue to draw air. LGBT Christians live on a spiritual fault line where one action has the potential to separate them from the Church. The expectation of perfection creates indescribable fear where they can become terrified to talk with their spiritual mentors, dreading interactions as one would dread a terrorist attack. LGBT Christians can develop practices of rehearsing their parts of the conversation when approaching spiritual direction, if they go at all.

To cope with this pressure, LGBT Christians can acquire a lexicon of various code-switching phrases to try to discuss sexuality safely… but may consistently feel under attack when a member of the clergy decides to read more into that choice of words than the person intended. For example, if the LGBT Christian is talking about concerns involving a close friend, some spiritual directors might assume the person has a sexually active relationship without ever asking if this is the case. Additionally, we’ve noticed that many spiritual directors are more comfortable with particular lexicons. These spiritual directors might encourage people to say they “experience same-sex attraction” rather than saying that they are “gay” or “lesbian,” sometimes going so far as to tell them, “Identifying as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ is denouncing your identity in Christ!”

Expectations of perfection may also emerge because many providers of pastoral care tend to view sexual sin as a type of sin that is around forever and must always be carefully contained. Some of this attitude may stem from how Christian traditions emphasize purity and virginity, especially when encouraging youth to wait until marriage before having sex. Any sexual sin in an LGBT person’s life can lead to extreme consequences within his/her faith community. Once as a young college student, Sarah sought counsel from a priest about how to develop a healthy relationship with a woman after they had experimented with some above-the-waist touching. The priest provided a stern directive that Sarah should never speak to this woman ever again and avoid her in every situation possible because Sarah’s salvation was at risk. Within the same week, one of Sarah’s heterosexual male friends sought advice from the same priest after engaging in sexual intercourse with his girlfriend. Sarah’s friend later told Sarah that the priest’s counsel was simply, “Obey the Church’s teaching that sex is reserved for marriage, and avoid situations like this one with your girlfriend in the future.” When LGBT people have spiritual directors bellowing over them that failure to be perfect endangers their salvation, it should come as no surprise that LGBT Christians can become so focused on trying to be perfect that they begin to hate themselves for being human.

Cisgender, heterosexual people can (and should!) encounter a lot of grace in navigating questions around sexuality, gender identity, and gender expression. Most LGBT Christians are not so fortunate. Part of adolescence involves exploring, finding yourself, and figuring out how to get up when you fall down. No one expects a teenager to have instant control over the hormones raging through his or her body, and everyone can acknowledge the need for gracious support as young adults work to discover themselves in Christ. There’s a certain collection of behaviors that we tend to associate with people at different stages in sexual development. It’s good to match our words of advice with a healthy understanding of a particular person’s likely stage in sexual development. LGBT people need to be afforded the same courtesy as cisgender, heterosexual people. To expect LGBT Christians to prove their faithfulness over and over and over (and over….) again by remaining without sexual sin is to tie up heavy burdens on people without any willingness to lift a finger to help them manage the load.

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14 thoughts on “Expectations of Perfection

  1. I found you both through Morgan Guyton, and I’m glad I did. Thank you for this. Ironically, this subject has been on my mind lately, and I was going to write up a post much the same as you have so eloquently stated and framed the issues here. Thank you for your courage, honesty, and vulnerability.

  2. My thoughts exactly. Although you want to encourage purity, in order to achieve it we will all make mistakes along the way especially at different stages and times in our lives. I was recently in a hot conversation along these lines and the disappointing result of the conversation was that this subject can cause knee jerk reactions and offense. I think in some cases it causes hurt and a setback to those who are struggling with celibacy or young people going through adolescence. I think this is why many people are afraid to share their experiences and be open for risk of condemnation. This post has some really good take aways .

  3. I think it comes down to the fact that many Christians believe gay sex is a sin. Now it’s not enough to say “I won’t have gay sex.” According to Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5, if you’ve even thought about it, you’ve already had sex with the other person in your heart (haha that just sounds weird). For the straight person, sex before marriage may be a sin, but someday it will be ok, so they’re allowed to look forward to that day. If they make a mistake, it’s bad, but life goes on. For the gay person, it will NEVER be ok, so why put yourself in a situation that will lead to temptation? You’re basically just willfully walking into sin. If gay sex wasn’t seen as inherently sinful, I don’t think there would be the double standard.

    Also just wanted to say that I love the blog, and I really appreciate your collective perspective. You both have really challenged and encouraged me as I try to figure out life as an LGBT Christian 🙂

    • Hi Charleigh! Thanks for commenting here.

      I think, in some Christian traditions, gay sex stands a part as an issue onto themselves. Many cisgender, heterosexual Christians tend to associate “being gay” with “engaging in sexual relationships with people of one’s same sex.” There’s no appreciation for what sexual orientation might mean, so these people are quick to pronounce that there is no such thing as a gay Christian.

      Regarding the Matthew 5 argument, I see this argument as being very much in response to James Brownson’s argument. James Brownson is writing within a particular Christian tradition, and many of the response pieces to Brownson’s argument are within this same Christian tradition. For my part, I think that sexual ethics has put too much emphasis on the sexual act (asserting that it has only one rightful place with one rightful person) rather than a broader view where our sexuality is something given to us by God to draw us into relationships (intentionally plural) where we can learn to love. I’ll likely be writing more on this topic in future posts.

      We’re glad you’re here, and we look forward to hearing more from you. -Lindsey

      • I definitely agree with you. There’s a lot more to “being gay” than just sex. Not gonna lie, I’m a virgin, but I know that I’m gay. If I were to die never having sex, I would still be totally gay.

        I look forward to your posts on sexual ethics. That’s one of my viewpoints that is really evolving right now, and I like to hear different perspectives.

  4. On the one hand, I agree completely.

    On the other hand, I still agree completely, but I wonder if it might boil down to something simpler. For some Christians, could the impetus behind requiring perfection of LGBTQ people simply be that they’re convinced that sinning in a gay way really is that much worse than sinning in a straight way?

    • Hi LJ, I’m not seeing much of space between the ideas that “Gay Christian is an oxymoron,” “Gay sexual sin is its own kind of sin that blocks someone from participating in the Kingdom of God,” and “No real Christian should ever be tempted to have sex with someone of their same sex because that’s just icky.” From my perspective, all of these statements fall in a similar category of cisgender, heterosexual Christians who expect LGBT Christians to be perfect (and at times, perfectly quiet about their LGBT status). If I’ve totally missed your question, could you let me know? Thanks, Lindsey

      • I’m not going to say you’re missing anything; my observation may simply be unfounded. It may also be a question of different denominational traditions. In my tradition, people say that “all sin is equal before God” while maintaining informal rankings of which sins are worse than other sins.

        In this context, for example, take a sin like gluttony. That’s practically not a sin at all. You eat too much at the church potluck, go home, take a nap, repent – maybe – and then rinse and repeat at next month’s potluck (or maybe at dinner the next evening). At the other end of the scale, consider a sin like murder. That’s an area where – in terms of action – perfection is pretty much expected. Now, of course, we tend to emphasize the “if you look at someone to lust after them” command and de-emphasize the “if you’re angry with someone” command, but let’s not get bogged down in details right now. 😉

        Now I have a confession to make. In the last paragraph, I misled you by implying that murder was at the other end of the informal sin scale (I’d call it the ISS, but that acronym is already taken). In reality, murder is somewhere in the middle along with the other “serious” sins like adultery and fornication. The scale actually goes higher, and at the far end, you’ll find “homosexuality” all by itself. Never mind that they couldn’t give you a meaningful definition of what that word means, but this tradition hasn’t been known for its intellectual prowess (I don’t want to give it away too easily, but a really smart guy once wrote a book in which he said that “The scandal of the ____ mind is that there is not much of an ____ mind.”).

        Keep in mind that I’m not saying any of this constitutes a correct understanding of the nature of things. It’s just where my tradition appears to have landed in their understanding, at least for now.

        • Thanks. I think I get where you’re coming from. It seems like so many people generate their “sin scale” where the “sins I struggle with” are at one end and “sins OTHER people struggle with” are the other end. Many people have been so angry that they could see themselves with the potential to kill someone, yet many cisgender, heterosexual Christians find it absolutely beyond the pale to think about having sex with a person of their same sex. Their own susceptibility informs the sins they are willing to treat with compassion. Best, Lindsey

  5. Hey, just want to clear up something…as I understand it, cisgender is not just a term reserved for heterosexual folks. It’s for those who believe their gender identity matches their sex they were born with. So, technically, if you are gay, lesbian, or bi and believe your gender identity matches the sex assigned at birth, you are cisgender. Using cisgender to describe heterosexual folk is accurate, but it can also be used for LGB folks too. Obviously, transgendered folk believe their gender identity does not match their sex they were born with. Just wanted to make that distinction. Another great post!

    • Hello! Thanks for the comment. There is an important overlapping set. People who are BOTH cisgender AND heterosexual have had a decided monopoly on being able to define what “faithful” living looks like for LGBT people. In our using the phrase “cisgender, heterosexual Christians” we’re actually trying to speak to this overlapping set. Many LGB people would identify themselves as cisgender and a good number of T would consider themselves to be heterosexual.

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