02 May 2014
Living biblically with same-sex attraction
It’s quite rare for one particular topic to dominate both parliament and the Church. But in the debate over the government’s introduction of same-sex marriage, which came into law in March, it’s important the Church doesn’t become a place where those battling feelings of same sex attraction feel isolated; but instead a place where leaders can provide committed pastoral support.
Evangelical churches are starting to do better at dealing with this issue. In September 2012, there was an interview with Vaughan Roberts – vicar of St Ebbe’s Church in Oxford in Evangelicals Now in which he talked about his struggle with same-sex attraction. That was followed in November last year by the launch of the Living Out website.
The idea behind Living Out was to share stories and answer complicated questions about same-sex attraction, as well as help church leaders understand the topic more so they could help those in their congregations battling the issue. Such a website also gives a voice to the very public debate – in and outside of the Church – that there is a credible and biblically faithful way to live for those with same-sex attraction.
Two of the faces behind Living Out are Sam Allberry, a church leader in Maidenhead, and Bristol church leader Ed Shaw. For Sam and Ed, experiencing same-sex attraction has led to a decision to remain celibate.
Speaking five months after the launch, Ed Shaw, associate pastor at Emmanuel Church, Bristol, said he felt the need to launch Living Out as part of a response to how the homosexuality debate in the Church was developing.
“People who are same-sex attracted were not being given a plausible, alternative script to follow and were just hearing from the world outside.
“Increasingly for some evangelicals, the alternative script to follow is one of going with your sexuality and expressing yourself in a same-sex relationship.
“We’re not a pastoral support group but what we are trying to do is get our stories out there and present this alternative script.”
There have been 5,000 visits to the Living Out website a week.
Emails to the website, Ed added, have been frequent with feedback including comments about “how great it was hearing that it was possible to live life and flourish in a way which doesn’t reject what the Bible teaches about sex and marriage”.
“Some of these are from people experiencing same-sex attraction who haven’t spoken to anybody else about it,” Ed said.
While admitting that “cultural trends are going against the Church”, Ed added that for some struggling with the issue, “all they seem to hear is a negative view of how the Church interacts with people who are same-sex attracted and we ought to show that there is a positive experience and it is possible to do what the Bible says and flourish.
“That’s a challenge for the Church because we haven’t been very good at it, but Living Out is all about trying to get people to see it is possible.”
How would he describe his struggles?
”The most accurate way for me to talk about myself is to say I experience same-sex attraction; that helps people to understand my sexuality but also doesn’t create a misunderstanding either.
“If I say I’m gay most people in the world around would think I’m on the lookout for a guy to settle down with; it’s not a particularly helpful term and so defining it as experiencing ‘same-sex attraction’ is a more helpful way and gets people to think a little bit more.
“I’m reluctant to attach my sexuality to my identity because I think my identity is as a child of God and united in Christ, rather than my sexuality.”
Allberry agreed and said website feedback had shown it was a good idea.
“When we first came up with the idea of Living Out we wanted Christians experiencing same-sex attraction to have some worked-out examples of what living with that faithfully might look like.
“We also wanted to be a resource to the wider Church on how to understand issues of sexuality and to present something of a Christian perspective on homosexuality that those outside the Church might find helpful and compelling.
“I think it’s increasingly important for us to be able to hear the voices of Christians who experience same-sex attraction and yet who hold to the Bible’s teaching that such feelings are not to be acted on.
“The idea that two people loving each other is all that matters is the oxygen we breathe living in the West.
“To have received so many messages of support from fellow evangelicals around the world indicates the site is encouraging them to keep holding to the Bible’s teaching.”
In Vaughan Roberts’ interview with Evangelicals Now, he admitted there were a growing number of Christians he knew struggling with same-sex attraction who had been tempted to move away from the conservative understanding of marriage between a man and woman.
The reason why people do that, Ed says, is because of how difficult the struggle can be.
“People change their mind because they think it’s too tough a call to follow rather than because they’ve changed their mind on what the Bible says. There are now enough people to go to who make it easier to change their mind on what the Bible says.”
There were two other important issues to consider, Ed added..
“The whole big picture story of the Bible is really clear that sex is for marriage between a man and woman – that is a massively clear statement it makes in lots of different cultures and contexts.
“There’s not any ambiguity, it’s really clear all the way through. In no other culture has the Church had a different view, which suggests this is not just a case of ‘getting with the culture of the day’.
“On other issues like baptism or church governance, for example, churches might disagree on and there might be ambiguity. But when it comes to same-sex attraction, Christians have always agreed, and it is just a few people over the last 50 years who have disagreed.”
He added: “One of the massive lies of society is that you can only be intimate if you’re having sex. But the Bible teaches intimacy is to be found in all sorts of friendships including in the church family.”
Jonathan Berry, aged 46, is director of True Freedom Trust (TfT), a confidential Christian support and teaching ministry. It believes any sexual relationship outside of heterosexual marriage is incompatible with biblical teaching and offers support to those who experience same-sex attraction but hold a traditional and conservative view on the issue.
Jonathan was in a long-term gay relationship before coming to faith in Christ aged 24, at which point he felt convicted to leave his partner. After training at Bible college, Jonathan was pastor of a church in east London for 10 years before joining the TfT.
Brought up in a church-going family and yet someone who started to experience same-sex attractions from the age of 11, he described how crucial it is to have support from the Church.
“There was no one I felt I could turn to – not my parents, not my friends and certainly no one at church. The only times that I’d ever heard Christians talking about homosexuality were always in very condemning, harsh, judgemental ways.”
Jonathan – who believes attitudes among Christians are slowly changing – is passionate about his belief that the gospel is good news for gay people and good news for Christians who may not feel comfortable with the label ‘gay’ but struggle with same-sex attraction.
Living Out has also received endorsements from across the church spectrum, including Mike Pilavachi, Terry Virgo and New York pastor Tim Keller.