“Can I validate my LGBT friend’s pain if I believe in a traditional sexual ethic?”

Often, we receive questions from people who hold a traditional sexual ethic and are wondering whether it’s possible for them to validate the harm LGBT people have experienced within the Church and maintain their current beliefs. Many of these queries come from people who have taken the time to educate themselves about LGBT Christian issues, where they consider what other messages they might be sending if they show any signs of solidarity with an LGBT person’s experience of pain. Recently we received the following question from one of our readers:

“When I go to work almost every day a nice young man comes in. We talk some because I think he doesn’t have any family and he likes hanging out there at the restaurant where I’m a server. He told me he is gay and his church has treated him badly. He gets sad about it and it looks like he’s about to cry sometimes. I want to give him a hug and tell him I love him and God loves him, but I’m worried if I do that he will think I am ok with his sex life or him getting married, and I really think those things are against the Bible. But it’s against the Bible too if I don’t show him love and I don’t know what to do. He said I was the only Christian he ever trusted and I think it’s awful how some Christians were yelling at him when he was a boy. I don’t know what to do. Do you have advice?”

We think this question raises an extremely important issue for all Christians to consider. Because postures towards the LGBT community are often politicized, many straight people who are kind to LGBT people get labeled as “liberal” while many LGBT people associate the words “conservative” and “traditional” with “mean and nasty.” This particular reader does not have a modern, liberal sexual ethic but wants to treat all LGBT people with respect, kindness, and dignity. In short, this reader wants to love all people as Christ loves them.

We’ve heard much advice offered to others in our reader’s shoes. Most of the time, the advice goes something like this: educate yourself about LGBT people. Go to a meeting of a local gay organization. Search the Scriptures for yourself to discern what they might actually be saying about God’s heart for LGBT people. Read books that offer arguments in favor of gay marriage within Christianity. Consider that perhaps this encounter with your gay friend is an invitation to change your views on homosexuality.

There is merit in the customarily given advice, as numerous LGBT stereotypes run rampant in Christian traditions. Many people like our reader have followed all of the suggestions and and returned to their original position: they believe that same-sex sexual intimacy is outside of the boundaries God has set for Christians. From the perspective of these folks, the question becomes, “Now what? I’ve searched the Scriptures and explored my Christian tradition more fully, but I am convinced more now than ever of my traditional sexual ethic. Am I being duplicitous when I give my gay friend a hug and tell him ‘God loves you’?”

Our post today is directed to straight people who hold a traditional sexual ethic and are also committed to seeking God’s heart for LGBT people. We understand that you probably feel lost amidst all the politicization, and we commend you for reaching out to initiate this conversation.

We’d like to begin by reminding everyone that even if someone identifies with a term like lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, it’s impossible to tell immediately if that person is having sex, is in a relationship, or is interested in marrying a person of the same sex. You don’t know anything about someone’s sexual ethic until he or she decides to tell you. LGBT people are just as diverse as straight, cisgender people. There’s considerable variation in how LGBT people even look at the questions, a diversity that only increases when LGBT people start to live out their answers. When offering empathy to your straight friends, do you consider agreement on sexual ethics a prerequisite? Most likely, you don’t. And most likely, not all your straight friends hold to the same sexual ethic as you.

Our next bit of encouragement is to think about what it means to you to hold a traditional sexual ethic. Is your traditional sexual ethic about living out what you believe fully, or is it more about establishing yourself as being “right” so you can look down on others who are not living according to that sexual ethic? We acknowledge that many Christian traditions use a traditional sexual ethic as a yardstick by which to judge the world at large. We’ve heard far too many churches teach that the only “loving” approach to an LGBT person is to sit down with him or her and “share” some verses. Might it be possible to read Romans 1 differently while still maintaining a traditional sexual ethic? Take heart, and know that it’s good and proper to hurt with the hurting. Never forget the words of Jesus who answered the question of “Which is the great commandment?” with “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Offering empathy, support, and encouragement is indeed one manner of loving your neighbor as yourself.

As a final bit of advice, we suggest that you ask yourself “How would I want a Christian friend to respond if I shared with him or her that I was feeling hurt by the Church?” When the question is posed this way, many of us experience a knee-jerk towards a response of “Please listen. Ask questions. Give me space to share my story.” So many of us carry around all kinds of hurt. It’s next to impossible to predict what has caused the hurt in the first place. Chances are extremely high that an LGBT person has been hurt by something other than a church’s refusal to bless a same-sex marriage or a church’s disapproval of same-sex sexual activity. Many LGBT people have been subjected to Christian speakers spouting outright lies when teaching on homosexuality. Even when LGBT people have been hurt by their churches’ refusals to bless a same-sex marriages, there’s often much more to the story than, “I don’t agree with the traditional teaching and I want my way.” How have you experienced pain within your faith communities, current and past? What does it look like when another Christian hears and validates your own story of being hurt, even if they haven’t had the same experience? Model the response you would like to see others give to you when listening to how an LGBT person has been hurt by the Church. Seriously, we can’t recommend listening highly enough.

There’s no reason that a person with a traditional sexual ethic should feel unable to validate the pain experienced by LGBT people in the Church. Show interest. Ask questions. Be present. And do inquire to see if the person you’re conversing with would like a hug. If the answer is “Yes,” then let Christ use your arms to enfold your new friend in a hug. You don’t need to agree on sexual ethics (or morality in general, or theology broadly) in order to provide this kind of care and support to another person. After all, God gives us opportunities to show this care so that we learn to extend God’s love to everyone we meet.

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