It’s helpful first of all to establish what different people mean by ‘homophobia’. For example, LGBT equality charity Stonewall has changed their definition of homophobia from this in 2016:
‘The fear or dislike of someone who identifies as lesbian or gay.’ 1
to this in 2020:
‘The fear or dislike of someone, based on prejudice or negative attitudes, beliefs or views about lesbian, gay or bi people.’ 2
These are two quite contrasting definitions. We’ll consider different parts of them in turn;
Fear, dislike and prejudice
There is absolutely no justification for Christians or churches to treat LGBT people any differently from anyone else. The Bible is clear in calling us to love and welcome everyone (1 Peter 4:9; Romans 15:7). The gospel is for all of us, whatever our sexualities (1 Corinthians 6:9-11; John 3:16; 2 Peter 3:9). Some same-sex attracted people have a great experience of Church but sadly, churches have often failed to welcome LGBT people. Many who experience same-sex attraction have felt unable to share their feelings for fear of being misunderstood or – even worse – rejected and condemned. Sometimes hurtful language has been used, or homosexuality has been spoken of as if it’s the biggest sin, or gay people have been spoken about as being a problem.
Fear, ignorance and misplaced concern have often made life difficult for same-sex attracted people like me in church. A friend of mine became a Christian out of a lesbian lifestyle and wrote an email to a church that she was hoping to join. She didn’t get any response so she sent a follow-up to which she got the curt reply ‘You’re not the sort of person we want in our church.’ This shocking and offensive attitude is a far cry from the way Christ-followers should behave.
I remember when I’d only been a Christian a few weeks and some people wanted to whisk me away for some sort of intensive ‘healing’ of my sexuality. I thought it sounded a bit weird and spoke to a trusted Christian friend who wisely advised me not to go.
Fear, ignorance and misplaced concern have often made life difficult for same-sex attracted people like me in church.
Sometimes, people are trying their best and are just not well-informed or equipped enough. I remember a friend thinking that if he said a quick prayer over me, I would never experience same-sex attraction again! I really appreciated his care for me, even though he was a little naïve.
Benign misunderstanding has been much more prevalent than hostility in my experience. I have been in the Evangelical church for 24 years now and that experience has been overwhelmingly positive. I have been loved, supported and encouraged every step of the way. I have had church ministers who have come to me to check their sermons when they’ve spoken about sexuality. I’ve been invited to share my story at lots of churches and Christian conferences. I’ve had friends walk through the painful and dark times with me over many years. I’ve been able to learn how to do friendship well as it’s been modelled by those around me. If it hadn’t been for Christian community, I would have had a very lonely and difficult life.
I’m also really grateful that the churches I’ve been in haven’t compromised their teaching on sexuality and I’ve heard the same call to radical discipleship as everyone else. The teaching that sex should only be had in a marriage between a man and a woman is hard for everyone. So is the teaching that we should die to ourselves (Mark 8:34-35), love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) and stop being angry with other people (Matthew 5:22). But all these commands are life-giving and from a God who truly loves us.
Negative attitudes, beliefs or views
The second part of Stonewall’s definition contains a troubling assumption. Organisations like Stonewall would claim that it is intrinsically homophobic to hold the view that same-sex sexual activity is wrong. This reinforces the common view that to disagree with someone is to hate them.
Love of people and approval of their behaviour are often conflated as we can see from this statement:
‘The LGBTI Mission is campaigning for the full acceptance and affirmation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people within the Church of England.’ 3
All churches should warmly welcome and unconditionally love everyone, but what they mean here is that in order to accept LGBT people we need to embrace revisionist theology and discard orthodox teaching on sexual morality. This is a huge mistake and not a loving thing to do for people like me.
It is actually an expression of love to speak truth into people’s lives and point them to Jesus.
It is actually an expression of love to speak truth into people’s lives and point them to Jesus. We need to be careful that we don’t expect people to change their behaviour before they have received new life in Christ, or give the impression that becoming a Christian requires a prior change of moral behaviour rather than repentance and grace. But we do need to be clear about what is good for us and not good for us. It isn’t loving to encourage someone to carry on doing something that alienates them from the God who loves them.
So, is the Church homophobic?
To return to Stonewall’s definitions, we need to be honest and admit that there is sometimes fear, dislike and prejudice within the church towards LGBT people. All Christians continue to wrestle with sin and we all sometimes get things wrong. We need to pray for individuals and churches who express fear or dislike of LGBT people, be gracious and seek to gently show them a better way. We need to take seriously Jesus’ teaching to love those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44).
What about negative beliefs? Christian teaching on sexuality certainly isn’t homophobic. It’s deeply challenging (for all of us), but God’s blueprint for human relationships and sex is designed for us to flourish in our relationships with each other and with him. Many of us who are same-sex attracted ourselves will happily affirm that orthodox biblical teaching on sexuality is good and life-giving.
The encouraging news is that more and more churches are supporting same-sex attracted Christians to live our Scripture’s good teaching really well. Hundreds of church leaders have attended our LOCAL courses around the country to understand how they can better support those in their congregation who wrestle with issues of sexuality. Many more have worked through our audit so that they can become more biblically inclusive. And it is heartening that millions of ordinary Christians love their LGBT friends and seek to walk the path of obedience side by side.