Over the years, I have received emails and phone calls asking a version of this question: “Can I come to your church? I’m gay.”
I get these calls particularly around Christmas and Easter, because I’ve been transparent about sharing the experience of journeying with my father over the last 10 years of his life. My dad was both a Christian and a missionary. He “came out” when I was in high school, divorced my mother when I was 15, was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987—and died from complications of that disease in late 2001. While my relationship with my father had its challenges, I was ultimately committed to loving him, being present with him and not judging him, until the end of his life. This clearly isn’t a questionable way for a son to love and support his father; however, it has been regarded by many to be a risky, controversial and spiritually/theologically irresponsible conviction/position to take if that son, like me, is a pastor.
Luke 15:1-2 are my favorite verses in the Bible. These two verses vividly depict the profound compassion of Jesus and His relentless tender love—which regular people simply did not experience in their encounters with the rabbis in that legalistic religious culture:
"Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain thathe was associating with such despicable people—even eating with them." (NLT)
Jesus’ love was such a radical departure from the norm that even the most “notorious sinners” were compelled by something deep in their soul to be around Jesus.
The Church must be a safe place for “notorious sinners”—for people like me and people like you. The Church must be a safe place for people like my dad and so many others who are desperate for Jesus but have been told either directly or indirectly by “religious people" that the Jesus of the evangelical Church in America, along with many American evangelicals, has little time, compassion or love for people who are gay. The Church doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being a safe place for gay men and women who want to explore or pursue a relationship with Jesus.
When asked the question, “Would I be welcome at your church?” my answer has sadly been, “Honestly, you’d be welcomed by many, but not everyone.” I would love for all pastors to have the freedom to say, “Yes! You would absolutely be welcome here just as you are. This is a safe place for you to explore faith and encounter Jesus.” However, many pastors know that saying yes to gay people will likely cost them with those in their churches who strongly disagree with that “yes.” At the very least, it will cost them grief from some in the congregation who will text and email to express their disagreement. Their “yes” will likely cause some to leave their church. Answering yes to this question is courageous; however it may cost more than a few parishioners. It may cost a pastor his or her job. It’s definitely safer to stay away from “gay issues” altogether, unless we’re defining or defending marriage.
Well, it’s safer—but it’s also irresponsible.
Church leaders abdicate their calling when they play it safe on such questions as, “Would I be welcome at your church even though I’m gay?” This question isn’t asked by an issue; it’s asked by a person who matters deeply to Jesus. This question is the cry of every human heart: “Will you love me and accept me, or will you reject me?”
That very question was posed to me by “Mark,” a gay 16-year-old who was suffering in silence as he attempted to determine his identity. There was a battle raging in his soul between his desire to follow Jesus and his desire to engage in gay pornography and relationships with other men—older men who pursued a very vulnerable kid. Because of his guilt, Mark punished himself to the point of experiencing severe depression, and he found himself on the verge of suicide more than once. He had convinced himself that giving into his sexual desires was committing the unforgivable sin, making him an unredeemable failure in the eyes of God. Tragically, Mark’s situation is not unique or uncommon. I have journeyed with parents whose children suffered in silence as a battle similar to Mark’s tortured their souls. One particular kid tragically ended his life, believing he had no other option.
Mark came to me because he’d heard my story. He told me straight away that I was his last hope (no pressure!). I met with Mark every week for nearly a year. It wasn’t my responsibility to get Mark to the point where he was "healed" of his “gayness.” It was my role, my calling, to journey with Mark until he was close enough to God to realize Jesus was pursuing him with relentless affection, mercy, grace and forgiveness.
I spent a year at Mark’s church, which looks really bad on my résumé. However, my résumé will never reflect the profound transformation God was working in the life of that courageous young man. Before we left that church to return home to Seattle, Mark told me I had saved his life and that he was convinced God brought me to that place just for him. Looking back, I think he was half right. God did put us together at just the right time. But only Jesus can transform a life the way He transformed Mark. God was fierce in the way He fought for Mark. That’s what a father does for His children.
“Can I come to your church? I’m gay.”
I was asked this question many times while serving as a lead pastor in a city with a very large gay population and a gay mayor. People in the church often asked me if I thought it was safe to bring their gay friends to church. The sad truth was it wasn’t safe. Knowing that, I posed the question to the church: “Will we welcome, among others, gay people in this church?” As you would expect, the reaction was mixed and emotional. The answer for most people was yes. However, the answer for many others was no—“It would appear we’re condoning homosexuality,” they said. I received emails asking me what our policy would be “if a gay couple held hands or kissed during one of our services.” Others told me it was irresponsible for me to allow gay people to be in close proximity to our children. The most memorable email was sent with the intention of reminding me that “the Bible says something about a millstone and being thrown in a lake for people like you.” The irony of that email was it was sent by the father of a gay son. My “yes” to the question, “Can I come to your church?” was risky, and I knew it might cost me. Still, I refused to let legalism, fear, ignorance and plain hatred keep the church from being an expression of the love of Jesus. My “yes” ultimately cost me my job.
Unfortunately, people like Mark, who are genuinely hoping God will fill the void in their soul often hear this phrase from Christians: “We love the sinner but hate the sin.” I’ve never been able to embrace that statement. It seems to be used solely for the benefit of the one saying it, as a disclaimer so they don’t disappoint God and He doesn’t think they are condoning sin. This statement infers that only the one being called the sinner has sin in their life. This phrase, and the culture behind it, has a way of pushing people, especially younger people, away from the Church and reinforcing their idea that church is not a safe place for them.
On several occasions, Jesus accepted and befriended “sinners” before dealing with their sin. Scripture tells us there is no hierarchy of sin. We have all sinned and fallen far short of God’s holy standard, and the “wages” of any and all sin is death. Yet throughout the years, Christians have operated as though there is unforgivable sin and there are untouchable people. We’ve made homosexuality fit both categories. Yet Jesus forgave the unforgivable and touched the untouchables who’d been cast to the fringes of society by religious people.
We can’t let time and distance cause us to lose touch with the reality that we are the ones Jesus forgave and touched when we desperately needed Him. Should we not do the same for others?
“Can I come to your church? I’m gay."
If not, why? Are Christians afraid of what others might think, say or do? Are they afraid they might somehow disobey or disappoint God by loving and welcoming gay people into their faith communities? If that were the case, I couldn’t step foot in the church—because I am a sinner. It’s not that I was a sinner. I am a “notorious sinner” who is immersed in the grace Jesus sacrificed His life to provide for me—just like every Christ-follower.