By Rebecca Osborn
As the definition of marriage has evolved in Western secular society, Christians who hold to a traditional biblical understanding of marriage have expressed anxiety. We feel threatened when our culture is changing and that our worldview is no longer dominant. This is understandable; change is difficult. But if God is for us, who can be against us? The kingdom of God belongs to God; he will protect it. In being caught up in our anxiety to protect ourselves, we have often missed something massively important: what are the perspectives, experiences, and feelings of those on the other side?
As a traditionalist who has enjoyed the company of more liberal Christians and non-Christians, I have seen LGBTQ people and those who love them express a great deal of pain and anger towards Christianity because they have been harmed. It is our responsibility pastorally and as a community to validate those feelings, to find out where things went wrong, and to discern our culpability. How is the LGBTQ community correct? How have people with different sexual identities been hurt by Christianity?
I would like conservative Christians reading this to better understand the larger picture from the perspective of people who have been harmed, and to consider for themselves personally and in their own churches how they may have been complicit in that harm, so that we can have more authentic and loving relationships with our neighbors.
I am not attempting to represent the LGBTQ community. People who have been harmed have the right to define for themselves how they have been harmed; you should listen to your neighbors tell their own stories. I am writing as an Anglican priest who operates with a traditional understanding of the biblical view of marriage, discerning how to have a compassionate witness in a diverse community.
The Exaltation of Romance
Part of our current context stems from the exaltation of romance and marriage as the ultimate meaningful relationship. In the last hundred or so years, family units have become more mobile, community relationships have fractured, and extended family support and intergenerational connections have broken down. The cultural response to this was to emphasize the extreme importance of the nuclear family. The idea of family crystalized into the idealized nuclear unit, which could not endure the pressure.
As we continue to become more isolated, even friendship between same-gendered people becomes difficult to maintain. It seems that the only way to have a fulfilling connection with someone else, to escape from loneliness and share life with other people, is through a romantic relationship.
It’s no great leap to come to the conclusion that it is impossible to be happy and fulfilled without romantic relationships, the pinnacle of which would be marriage and a family. Neither is it a great leap to understand how the sexual part of one’s identity, which defines the culmination of romantic intimacy, would become massively important. We cannot survive without close, meaningful relationships, but by making romance the be-all and end-all of such relationships, we have exacerbated a problem for our LGBTQ friends and neighbors.
Christianity has been complicit in this unsustainable cultural development. As marriages and families broke down, the response of Christian subculture, especially in the neoconservative 1980s and 1990s, was to further idealize the nuclear family. Many churches and Christian ministries cater largely to the nuclear family. In order to grow in a competitive market, churches compete for the coveted “young family” demographic. Young singles, regardless of orientation, often report feeling left out in their churches unless they are making progress toward the norm of dating, marriage, and family. As our culture lost the ability to connect people in different stages of life, churches often lost that ability too.
Sexual expression also became overblown in conservative circles. Chastity became the most important virtue, culminating in the hyper-anxiety of purity culture and its disproportionate and often damaging effect on young women. Christian culture-making also followed some of the same problematic cultural trends as dominant culture. I read a lot of Christian romantic fiction as a teenager, and while it fell within a parent-approved biblical sexual ethic, it also reinforced the message I was getting everywhere else: ultimate happiness comes from romantic fulfilment.
If romance and marriage really is the highest relational good, we will do anything to get it. That means compromise, and Christians have made exceptions to biblical norms in other cases. In the Anglican Church of Canada in particular, we have drawn almost no boundaries around the normalization of divorce, remarriage, and sex outside of marriage. This makes our opposition to other redefinitions of marriage sound awfully hollow.
Consider the result of this confluence of factors: Christians have agreed with the false idea that relational fulfillment can normatively be found only in romance, marriage, and a nuclear family, and then said to all LGBTQ people, “You can’t have this.”
Homophobia in the Church
We may want to say that we personally are not homophobic, or that our opposition to gay marriage is not about a phobia, but opposition to gay marriage is an inheritance from a Christian past that has a great deal of homophobia in it. We are responsible to acknowledge, own, and apologize for that history if we are to have a genuine witness.
When the AIDS epidemic entered public awareness in the 80s, it disproportionally affected gay men, and was perceived as a gay disease. While many Christians advocated research and compassion, the highly visible “Religious Right” encouraged the perception that AIDS was a divine punishment for homosexuality. Fear of contagion and moral judgment were the main response during the early years, and gay men lost jobs, homes, family, and community as a result. Some Christians quietly helped as they could, as part of care for the sick, but the dominant public message was “You’ve reaped what you’ve sown, so we won’t help you.”
I have heard horrifying stories of Christian parents shunning their gay family members, even refusing to be there for their children as they died of AIDS. There is undoubtedly pain on both sides of that relationship, but shouldn’t the priority be placed on the pain of the person who is actually dying? To the extent that such treatment was justified by Christian teaching and encouraged by Christian communities, this was a terrible failure.
Another example of Christian complicity in a harmful response to LGBTQ issues is that of conversion therapy. For LGBTQ Christians who felt pressure to keep traditional sexual ethics, but also desired the relational fulfilment supposedly only available through marriage, conversion therapy presented a way out. Conversion therapy attempted to change one’s sexual orientation by means of psychological and spiritual therapies. It has largely been condemned as harmful and ineffective. Alan Chambers, the founder of Exodus International, a well-known Evangelical conversion therapy ministry, himself closed down the central ministry and apologized for the harm done. Perhaps as many as 700,000 people in the US alone have been through conversion therapy, more than half of them as adolescents, and it continues on a smaller scale today.
It is well-known that young people with same-sex attraction are particularly vulnerable to depression and suicide. There are many reasons for this, including minority stress among peers. But one enormous factor is the response of parents. I know parents who have taken any number of approaches towards their questioning adolescents, from full support, to denial, to walking that difficult road of giving unconditional love while trying to hold a traditional biblical sexual ethic. Conservative Christian pastors and communities need to be well-equipped and informed to help families love their children.
Finally, the dominant Christian culture has been the opponent LGBTQ people have struggled against in their fight for civil rights. I remember a time when LGBTQ people were not allowed to adopt children, pass on an inheritance to a partner, or have a partner be with them as next of kin or power of attorney when seriously ill. Christians of all stripes need to learn to recognize actual prejudice for what it is. Today it is commonly accepted that all people should have access to civil rights regardless of orientation. We need to remember that from the LGBTQ perspective, marriage is just one more step in a legitimate fight against discrimination.
What’s a Conservative Christian to Do?
As I noted at the beginning, I hold the traditional view on marriage. While this view will not allow me to perform a Christian marriage ceremony between two people of the same sex, I believe that I must still love whoever is actually next to me. I have several suggestions for my fellow conservatives.
First, we need to repent of our fear. The kingdom of God is in God’s hands, and the preservation of our particular organization is not ultimately that important. If we are obedient to God, he will take care of us, even if not in the way we want or expect.
Second, we need to listen to the stories of the people in our communities, especially LGBTQ people and people who love them. If you should receive the gift of these stories, you have an opportunity to enact reconciliation — to recognize wrongs done, express sorrow, and ask forgiveness. As a member of the priesthood of all believers, that is a way you can stand in the gap and share Christ’s love with your neighbors.
Third, we should be listening to what LGBTQ Christians are saying. There is a beautiful chorus of Christians who are committed to keeping the traditional biblical sexual ethic, while accepting that they have a different sexual identity.
One of the most significant things they are saying is that the church needs to become a family toward all kinds of people. Wes Hill, a prominent spokesperson of this movement, provides a fourth point of action: Churches need to rediscover how to foster friendships that are so intimate and committed that they provide the relational fulfilment of family. LGBTQ people know very well that the formation of family is one of the best preventative measures against depression and suicide, and that straight people have the privilege of forming those connections much more easily.
Lastly, we need to repent of our complicity with our culture’s idolatry of romance, and enter deeper Christian friendships. If the church is to have an authentic witness to LGBTQ people, we have to be willing to be the family that we have been saying they can’t have. And that willingness cannot be contingent on an individual’s personal sexual ethic or relational status.
The fact is, we all need that deeper, committed community of friends. The nuclear family is not enough. Requiring that we deepen our ethic of Christian friendship is a benefit to the whole church. This is just one concrete example of how our LGBTQ brothers and sisters are not a deviation to be tolerated, but a gift to be treasured.
It may well be that most LGBTQ people will never feel that traditional Christians are safe to be around unless we fully support their conception of their own rights. That has to be absolutely OK. Being allowed to love anyone is a gift to be treasured. We need to worry less about our future, acknowledge the highly checkered effects of our past actions, and start asking how we can best love our neighbors.
Rev. Rebecca Osborn, thank you for this clear article. I have noticed for some time how our Protestant churches (of whatever kind) seem to be especially plagued by the idolatry of marriage, perhaps due to how monasticism was actively destroyed. It is unsurprising, given this general historical background, that the way celibacy is deployed in our dialogues about queer sexuality is extremely arbitrary–when, if ever, in “Mainline Protestantism” is celibacy sincerely taught as not only virtuous but in fact the highest life to straight men and women? The fact that this is in fact not only the historical tradition (as… Read more »
Thank you for this. There is great humility and repentance in this essay. I hope it is widely read, marked. and inwardly digested by “progressives” and “traditionalists” alike. Re: a slightly outside-the-bullseye point, I have been confronted several times lately by the idea that romantic, sexual love is so potent that it sucks the air out of any other kind of relationship. The monks and, particularly, the nuns that Kathleen Norris writes about in her book ‘Cloister Walk,’ express gratitude that celibacy within community provides fertile ground for deep, deep friendships that simply are not available to most paired people.… Read more »
Is one conclusion to draw from these remarks that LGBT folk ought not to see marriage as a grand prize they are being denied, when in fact it is an estate with its responsibilities and duties, including the raising of children (often submerged in the romanticism promoted of recent)? I get that sins are aplenty and sorrow for them/amendment is in order. But what in fact is the point vis-a-vis the topic de jour: same-sex marriage? I would be surprised if those wishing for this/demanding it will be persuaded it has been overrated and that apologies for mistreatment will be… Read more »
Hi Chris. The relationship to same-sex marriage is simply this: LGBTQ people see our rejection of same-sex marriage as an act of hate. I don’t believe it is, but if I am to have any hope of *them* believing I don’t hate them, I believe we need to repent of the ways we *have* acted wrongly. Also, it’s the right thing to do.
That comes through clearly.
My question is what an LGBTQ reader might conclude reading your article. What I hear is, “don’t make marriage such a high priority,” for lots of reasons of late modernity/culture.
Instead, accept apologies for bad treatment.
I do not believe this is what “LGBTQ people” truly want. Indeed, I regularly read LGBTQ commentary that rejects this line. Marriage is the denied reality and that must be redressed. Anything short of that is unsatisfactory or is a dodge.
I am not sure you understand what you are up against in trying to repent, and then converse with that community. They generally take no prisoners and are not happy with you until you either change your mind or go away. I wish you well, but experience in the Episcopal Church has taught me not to be sanguine about a tolerant, diverse outcome.