Homosexuality and the Church Leadership Crisis

Homosexuality leadership crisis

Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, retracted his recent statements to Religion News Service in which he said that homosexuality “is not a right or wrong thing.” The 84-year-old former Regent College professor clarified: “I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman.”

Some are questioning the clarity of Peterson’s retraction, fearing he reversed course only to maintain book royalties for his estate. Whatever the case, it doesn’t change the rapidly growing trend of evangelical leaders shifting their biblical position on marriage and sexuality.

Homosexuality, an issue that has traditionally been preached against or avoided altogether, has become a senior leadership crisis. Some think this crisis is rooted in a powerful “gay agenda” changing social views—and even theological beliefs among Christians. After many years of working with those from the LGBT+ community, I have come to the conclusion that while concerning, these shifts are not the source, but the fruit of a different crisis that we have ignored for decades: The mistreatment of LGBT+ people.

To make matters worse, social media has accelerated this process and revealed a generational divide. When homosexuality comes up in conversation, people over 50 may think “sinful.” Those under 30 likely think “mistreatment of people” or “injustice.”

Many will ask, But the gay agenda has tremendous power—what injustice?

A brief glimpse into LGBT+ history

In studying LGBT+ history, we find systemic victimization.

In the 1940s, thousands of homosexual men were placed in Nazi concentration camps. Many were murdered. Nearly 49,000 British men were prosecuted for homosexuality. Forced castrations and shock treatments were common.

During the 1960s and early ’70s, television raised the visibility of gay people. Similar to social media today, young people seeing “other people like me” felt it must be safe to come out to family. Thousands were rejected. Many were disowned. Gay communities across America mushroomed in growth over the next few decades, becoming a safe haven for banished people. No wonder the song “We Are Family” is so huge in the gay community.

When the first wave of the AIDS crisis took a heavy toll in the early 1980s, countless gay men were left to die in hospice settings without a visit from family. One nurse told me of a gay man in his final days of life. She called to inform his parents, but they responded, “We don’t have a son.” Seeing that this man was blind and partially deaf, she held his hand and said: “Mom is here. I love you.” The man breathed a sigh, gently smiled and passed away. Many families never claimed the bodies of their children.

Many of us remember Matthew Shepard, the 22-year-old University of Wyoming student who was tortured, tied to a fence and left to die in 1998. In 2010, there was a cluster of LGBT+ suicides that highlighted the ongoing tragedy of anti-gay bullying and assault. Others recall Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old Rutgers University student who jumped off the George Washington bridge after being outed online in 2012.

The history of LGBT+ people is filled with rejection, persecution, imprisonment, torture and murder.

One of my friends, Garett, was granted U.S. citizenship after receiving threats against his life from within his home nation. He said, “I have same-sex attraction, but I don’t plan to act on these desires. Yet because I am effeminate, it is assumed that I am guilty of homosexuality. I could be charged with a crime.”

There remain nations where gay people are incarcerated—or even sentenced to death.

Unfortunately, this injustice continues on today

On June 12, 2016, 49 mostly-LGBT+ people were murdered in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. When evangelicals were encouraged to visit Orlando to offer memorial candles and sympathy cards, many thankfully answered this call. But some asked: What would it say about our beliefs if we go?

Some of us cannot even grieve the murder of LGBT+ people without worrying we might be condoning sin.

Without minimizing this horrific massacre, let’s consider another tragedy.

Kevin is a 15-year-old evangelical from Chicago. When he turned 12, he realized he was gay. After suffering years of bullying over perceptions about his sexuality, he dared not tell anyone. Only weeks prior to the Pulse shooting, several boys in Kevin’s youth group created an Instagram account in his name. They posted gay pornography to this fake account, effectively outing Kevin to his school, neighborhood and church.

While most bullying occurs outside the church, we should never cover it up when it happens in the church. Being humiliated so publicly could have easily cost Kevin his life. Thankfully, he is alive, but he told me this: “I love Jesus, but I will never go to another youth group.”

Research demonstrates that LGBT+ teens continue to experience elevated rates of teasing, bullying and even assault. They remain 2 to 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual peers.

During the culture war years, some argued, If they weren’t gay, they wouldn’t kill themselves. But research tells a different story: bullying and family rejection are the key factors driving higher suicidality. When family rejection occurs, LGBT+ youth are up to 8 times more likely to attempt suicide.

I recently met 20-year-old Dana just as she was being disowned by her parents. And while we may assume something like this would occur in the Deep South, Dana actually lives in Boston. Who ends up being a “refuge and shelter” for her? Sadly, her only financial support is coming from her secular university which made the decision to provide her an intern role with housing to prevent her from being homeless.

LGBT+ people can still be bullied, condemned and even disowned by family. Studies indicate that 20 percent to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT. Nearly 42 percent succumb to survival sex, a form of sex trafficking where youth must trade their body to access shelter and food.

LGBT+ people may possess rising social power, but life is not always safe for them.

A missional path to the marginalized

Like other groups that have been marginalized and made to feel inferior or unsafe, I believe the approach we need to take with LGBT+ people is a missiological one. Rather than placing impossible demands upon vulnerable people from a comfortable distance, we need to become better missionaries. We need to understand the importance of proximity: taking Jesus to people where they are, as they are. We also need to see vulnerability and begin to identify and serve unmet needs.

No mission agency merely “sends” someone out into a mission field to care for a marginalized people group. This calling requires preparation and training. We gain important insights when we put ourselves in the footsteps of LGBT+ people. In this article, we began this process by looking at the vulnerable history of LGBT+ people. In the next article, we’ll continue the process by looking at the experience of growing up LGBT+ and learning how language mistakes damage trust. Applying this missiological framework will yield more effective outreach and relational care.

The life of Jesus gives us a great missional model to follow. Jesus is not shocked by sinners. He engages people whom religious leaders reject. In doing so, He is called a heretic, demonic and worse. Yet He goes! This same love of God is what compels missionaries to take Jesus to marginalized peoples across the globe.

If you’d like to learn more about how your church can reach the LGBT+ community in your area, consider attending Posture Shift in Indianapolis, Denver or Boston (more info at postureshift.com). Also, take advantage of Lead Them Home’s special offer and receive a free excerpt of Guiding Families of LGBT+ Loved Ones.

Previous articleWhat About Sex Before Marriage?
Next articlePastors Need to Slay the Significance Monster
Bill Henson
Bill Henson is a church consultant with over a decade of experience mobilizing evangelical leaders' relational engagement of LGBT+ people. He is founder of Lead Them Home, creator of the nationally acclaimed Posture Shift seminar, and author of Guiding Families of LGBT+ Loved Ones. Bill and his family are members of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.