Ultra-Conservativism in the Church as being detrimental to the faith of LGBTQ Christians

Today, we are featuring a guest post from Patrick who shares a bit of his personal story and describes how a certain type of conservative approach to discussing faith and sexuality can cause serious harm. Patrick shares his story using language of “struggle with same-sex attraction.” This is very different from how the two of us experience our sexualities, but as we have stated before, we believe it is very important to create space for LGBTQ (or SSA if you prefer) people to use language of their own choosing when describing layers of identity. It is important to state upfront that the writer of this post is not promoting an ex-gay ideology or advocating for any sort of orientation change efforts. We believe that all stories are important, and regardless of preferred terminology, we hope that all our readers will learn something from Patrick’s story. As with all guest posts, the ideas and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of A Queer Calling.

A guest post by Patrick

First off, I want to thank Sarah and Lindsey for the chance at writing a post on their blog. I am very honored to share my thoughts and reflections here! Secondly, I want to always say, for anyone in the church reading this post who struggles with same-sex attraction, you are not alone, and not all priests and ministers are your enemy or are ignorant of your spiritual needs and sexual desires.

I should start with a brief summary of my own life. I first realized that I had same-sex attraction when I hit puberty around 11 years old. I had had ‘friend’ crushes before that- since I was 9, and had also had same-sex lust when I was 10- but I never put together lust for a single person and a ‘friend’ crush together until I was 12 years old. By the time I was 13, I knew I was gay, even though I didn’t quite know what ‘gay’ was. I thought maybe I’ll just like girls later- but I could never find myself lusting for women, even after I had seen pornography featuring only women. It was when I was 15 that it finally dawned on me that to be ‘gay’ was not Christian (as I had known it). I had heard my quite right-leaning uncle condemning my own half-sister’s lesbian relationship, and later that year- I remember reading in the bible for the first time in Leviticus where it condemned gay relations, calling them an ‘abomination’. I thought my life was over. That day I was convinced I was going to commit suicide because God wouldn’t accept me as who I was.

While I did not pursue suicide, thinking it was too awful for my family to bear; I kept my secret to myself, and only came out as ‘bisexual’ when I was 17 because of social pressure. I became Orthodox while I was in college (and still in the closet) and had to detail this part of my life to my priest through my life’s confession as I was being received into the church. While he did indeed not judge or condemn me, he did challenge me to make my life less about my sexual orientation and more about my personhood in Christ. I had gone back into the closet in college only to come back out again when I was leaving school, this time through friends that wanted to help me understand my orientation, and through my priest when he started seeing that keeping this secret was making me dangerously mentally unstable. He encouraged me to come out to my family and friends, to develop good relationships with men, and to be celibate- something I wasn’t sure was possible to do at the time. I thank God for him, as I’m not the only person he has saved from the brink of destruction by going out of his own comfort zone to listen to our emotional and spiritual needs as it relates to sexual orientation. While my struggle has *not* been easy, I know it is what I must do for my life. It is my cross to bear, and I thank God for that, as it is how I am being more conformed to his image.

I have found through my own personal experiences in the Church that there is as much diversity in thought and practice as there is in most denominations, in how we frame political and ideological lines in our faith. Liberals, conservatives, and all in between, are found at the chalice each Sunday morning, desiring to draw close to receive the body of Christ and taste the fountain of immortality. The Church is the Church, on behalf of all and for all, the saints and sinners alike. We are all sinners in need of God’s grace, and if anyone should mark iniquities, who should stand? Only God the Father is good. We live our whole spiritual lives following him in his Son, in hopes we too can share in his rich inheritance He has left for us in His goodness. This is the end goal for all Orthodox Christians- a sanctified life in Christ wherein we are saved- no matter who we are or where we are when we begin the race.

I love all members of the Church as best I can, seeing them as co-strugglers. I love them as brothers and sisters in the faith. However, I find it disconcerting when any group takes it upon themselves to proclaim moral superiority above the whole body of believers- as have certain politically ultra-conservative Orthodox Christians. We are all free to have opinions about any number of things, but we are commanded to firmly proclaim the truth in love and abide by the rules and traditions of our faith. We are all to encourage each other to fight the good fight, but to do so in love. I see very little of this happening when some take it upon themselves to be the absolute moral authority of the Church, disparaging those whom they see as lesser, and proclaiming they are not fully Orthodox. I have seen this first hand- when it comes to the issue of homosexuality and gay members in the Church. When these issues are discussed, some ultra-conservative Christians feel the need to reinforce the law to the T– sans grace, speaking only about what the canons say regarding these topics, and using the Church fathers as a backbone of their arguments.

I understand many find it tough to begin to frame conversations on spirituality and sexuality in the Orthodox tradition, without it ending up as an absolute ultimatum of a choice between marriage and monasticism. There is not historically much mention of any other choice besides these that was considered holy and venerable, and this does not help us in the modern day where sexuality is seen as a whole identity in addition to, or rather than just part of that of Christianity. The idea of a sexual identity other than heterosexual is foreign to Orthodoxy- this much is true. But the reality is that this is the world which we find ourselves. We have to be able to formulate an ethical answer to these issues that addresses the needs of the faithful who do find themselves struggling with a sexual identity that is not along heteronormative lines. But as we do this, a core group of people in the Church who want nothing more than to erase that conversation and diminish the life experiences of those who struggle, does not help in any way. The idea that an Orthodox believer could choose to be celibate and able to discuss their sexuality with others, is therefore scandalous to some of the more hard-line Orthodox. When these two groups cross it is an ugly fight of polemics.

What I have found is that many of my fellow believers are more apt to have this conversation about a third way- such as my priest- and some are simply not able to move past a mental block that does not positively allow the notion of any sexuality beyond heterosexuality. I do not blame them. This does not fit comfortably into their worldview- a worldview that only admits the possibility that Orthodox could either be straight or celibate. It is cognitive dissonance, and I do not begrudge any misunderstanding. But, I must raise my voice again when anyone brings it upon themselves to proclaim judgment and diminish another’s interpersonal struggles and validated experiences. I would say that these conversations need to be had not for the sake of writing off those struggling with same-sex attraction and sexual identity by quoting a canon or saying of the Church Fathers, but in a thoughtful, loving way. There is a way to approach these things in love and with concern, but flat out judgment, based on personal opinion and experience is not that way.

Rather than being life giving, this proclamation of judgment about supposed behavior does two things- both of which, are painfully detrimental to the spiritual lives of both sides involved:

  1. In diminishing the person’s life experiences and emotional needs, it creates further mental crisis where it likely already exists, and
  2. It assumes that we have the right to say that another’s sins are worse than our own, which is pride in its ugliest fashion.

What this proclamation often communicates to LGBTQ+ people struggling with homosexuality and same-sex attraction is that there is no hope in finding solace in the struggle- there is no help for them among their fellow Orthodox Christians, and no one who will listen and understand. This proclamation communicates that their struggle is not valid. Rather, it is nothing more than a mental condition brought on by x and y condition. It is not a cross to bear for one’s salvation, but instead it is nothing more than a fluke that must be eradicated for the sake of one’s faith and place in happy society. These assumptions do nothing but drive those who cannot will away their sexuality to develop a worse mental state than what existed before, and causes them to cope with their pain by turning to alcohol, drugs, promiscuity, and in the worst cases, suicide.

The amount of suicides committed and the stories of those men and women who couldn’t ‘change’ their orientation are enough to tell that we have utterly failed to love people who are struggling with same-sex attraction, through failure on the parts of many, to separate the struggler’s sexuality from their humanity. But the truth is that what people who identify as gay, trans, and queer of all persuasions want more than the acceptance of their sexuality is rather the acceptance of their humanity. They are no less human for their struggles. However, a clear bastion of our faith wants to paint them as otherwise lesser, not Orthodox, mentally ill, etc. But what we need to do instead is to help LGBTQ+ folk realize that they too are equally human and deserving of equal worth (without getting into political aspects of ‘equality’). Even if ultra-conservative Christians are unable to validate all the struggles of LGBTQ+ people, we can and should enhance the conversation so that at least the experiences of LGBTQ+ Christians can be heard. This is the only way for both sides to meet their emotional and spiritual needs without a political war zone erupting. How this conversation will proceed, I do not have the answer for. But I can say it will begin by listening.

Only when LGBTQ+ people are able to encounter Christ personally, peacefully, and are surrounded by a community that is positive, encouraging, and supportive, will they be able to actually ford the waters of celibacy. Our faith makes it clear that genital expression outside marriage is a sin- and that all those not in a Church-sanctioned marriage must work against the carnal lusts of the flesh. This is the end goal for all persons regardless of orientation, and it cannot be argued against. Only through the support of a positive community can LGBTQ+ persons struggle against the flesh, find peace, and a positive vocation for their lives and faith paths. They may even choose to be monastics, or be married in a heterosexual relationship for the sake of having a family, but they cannot make this choice with others disturbing their peace by proclaiming that their orientation is invalidated and their emotions a sign of mental illness.

In closing, I want to leave this post with a quote from a dear friend and sister in Christ:

I think doctrinally orthodox Christians- to the extent they are guilty of this, need to stop thinking (that) believing the right things will get them into heaven. You can be perfectly orthodox in theology and go to hell. Right belief is necessary, but not sufficient- you have to live the life. People of all political stripes have to remember any political party you choose will have planks that no Christian can get behind. Who cares if someone calls you a liberal or a conservative? The issue is fidelity to Christ. I have gone on extensively over the years about right doctrine. But if you have right doctrine, and that doesn’t translate into the way you treat the poor, your enemies, strangers, people of other races, etc…then I would suggest something is amiss.

I cannot agree more. If you have true faith, you will know it by the Fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance- against which there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23). Let us all cultivate these Fruits of the Spirit and proclaim love, joy, and peace to all truly, in Christ Jesus, the author of our lives. Amen.

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