How can churches be safe spaces for LGBT+ people? That’s been a prominent question in recent weeks. It’s a question we here at Living Out care about deeply – one of the reasons we exist is to help churches to be safe places for LGBT+ people. (It’s why we have put together our Church Audit, for example). And it’s a question that all Christians should care about because we should want our churches to be safe places for all people.
So, what does it mean for a church to be a safe place for LGBT+ people? I think Jesus can help us here. In the Gospels we see Jesus engaging with all sorts of people, even those who might perhaps have felt nervous about interacting with a Jewish teacher who claimed to be God. Jesus seems to be a good model of how to make a safe context for all types of people.
Let’s look at Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4. If there is any situation in which we might assume someone could feel unsafe with Jesus, this is it – a woman who is a Samaritan and who is sleeping with a man to whom she is not married is on her own and she meets a man who is a Jew, is fast becoming known as a teacher, and is making claims to be far more than just a teacher. That sounds like a situation in which the woman could easily have felt very unsafe. And yet, their meeting ends with the woman returning to her town to announce that Jesus might be the promised Christ (John 4:29), with the people of the town inviting Jesus to stay with them for a couple of days (John 4:40), and with many concluding that Jesus is the Saviour of the world (John 4:42)!
How does Jesus go against all expectations and create a safe space for this woman? A few things stick out.
He holds out the promise of the gospel
Jesus starts with the good news: he has something to offer that can bring true satisfaction –water that will quench every bit of thirst and will well up to eternal life (John 4:13-14).
A safe place points us to true fulfilment and satisfaction.
In this, he’s starting by revealing his heart. Jesus’s heart’s desire is to give us what our souls most deeply and truly long for and in so doing, to bring us lasting satisfaction.
A safe place points us to true fulfilment and satisfaction, the sort that can’t be found in the ordinary things of this life, whether good or bad, even, as what follows implies, in sex or marriage.
He shows it’s safe to be honest about our past and our present
When the subject of marriage comes up, the woman instinctively tries to hide both her past and her present. But Jesus knows, and he brings up her past marriages and her present non-marriage (John 4:18). Yet there seems to be a gentleness in the way Jesus does this, and her response confirms this. She doesn’t run away in shame, rather she perceives some of who Jesus is and she recognises that he is someone to whom she can bring the most important of questions (John 4:19-20).
A safe place allows us to be honest about our past and our present.
In this, Jesus is showing that he can cope with us being honest about things in our past and even things in our present. He shows that those things we most want to hide, he already knows, and it is safe to be honest with him about them and to bring them to him.
A safe place allows us to be honest about our past and our present, even the things of which we might feel most ashamed.
He gently challenges sinful behaviour
Of course, when Jesus brings up the woman’s marriages and her current non-marriage, he’s doing more than just showing her it’s ok to be honest; he’s also laying down a gentle challenge to the woman. Jesus never overlooks sin, but he’s also staggeringly gentle in the way he challenges it. He knows that sin is not good for us, and so he’s not willing to abandon people to it, and yet, he is also not willing to beat people up about their sin. We see this again clearly in a later interaction between Jesus and a woman in John’s Gospel. His words to the woman in that story nicely capture his approach: ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more’ (John 8:11).
A safe place is a context in which challenge is brought in love and gentleness.
In this, Jesus is showing us that he doesn’t affirm everything about us as good and acceptable. We should all expect that there will be areas of our lives in which he has a challenge to bring – including, as for this woman, in the areas of sex and relationships. But he is also showing us that there is a right and appropriate way for this sort of challenge to happen – with love and gentleness.
A safe place will be one where we know that not everything we do is good and acceptable and that we are to flee all forms of sin, but it will also be a context in which that challenge is brought in love and gentleness.
He keeps the focus on him
It’s so striking that when the woman goes back to her town, she doesn’t go back racked with guilt and shame and she doesn’t go back with her eyes primarily on herself and what she needs to do. She goes back and talks primarily about Jesus. She speaks of who he is and what he’s done for her (John 4:29), and as a result the town want to know about him (John 4:40), and many choose to believe in him (John 4:41-42).
A safe place will always point us back to Jesus.
In this, Jesus is showing us that we must never let gospel challenge obscure our view of him. Repentance, heart change and behaviour change are important, but they’re only important because of their relation to Jesus – because they make a way for us to be in relationship with him. Jesus challenged the Samaritan woman, but what she went away with was Jesus – who he was and what he’d done for her.
A safe place will always point us back to Jesus, and being in a safe place will cause people to wonder at who Jesus is and to want to tell others what he has done for them.
Becoming a safe place
All of us will find the example of Jesus in John 4 challenging. The fact that he confronts the woman about how she is living is a challenge to those who claim that Jesus affirms any and every expression of our sexuality. The fact that he does this is such a gentle way is a challenge to those who might be quick to condemn others for their sexual sin. And the fact that he keeps the promise of the gospel central and that the woman goes away with Jesus himself at the forefront of her mind is a challenge to all of us. How can our churches become more safe places for LGBT+ people? By following the example of Jesus.