Rescuing the Gospel from “Christians vs Gays”

tornI recently read Justin Lee’s spiritual memoir Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs Christians Debate, and like its predecessor, Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting, I found Torn to be exceedingly helpful, a must read.

A spiritual memoir, Torn unfolds and unpacks Lee’s spiritual journey as it relates to his understanding of (his own) homosexuality. Justin relates how he grew up in a conservative Evangelical home, the process of his coming to the realization that he is gay, and his venture toward reconciling those two identities, having been taught they were mutually exclusive and that “ex-gay” programs were the solution.

After a lengthy dating relationship with a girl in high school that had all the marks of precious friendship, but no sparks of romantic love (on his part), Justin comes to accept his homosexuality and begins his search for guidance from the church about how to move forward.

He quickly encounters the “ex-gay” movement and believes he has struck gold. Like many young gay and lesbian teenagers discovering that their sexual orientation is different from “everybody else’s,” Justin wished for nothing more than to be able, with God’s help, to change his desires. So he signed up.

It didn’t take long before Justin realized that “ex-gay” ministries weren’t all they were hyped up to be. They handed out shallow, one-size-fits-all narratives about “what causes people to be gay,” narratives that simply did not fit into Justin’s actual experience being gay — he was never sexually abused; he had a close relationship with his father and a healthy relationship with his mother… Similar to Wesley Hill’s experience and that of the majority of LGBTQ folks, none of the supposed “causes” of homosexuality were true in his life, despite all the various logical gymnastics the leaders and other members attempted in order to force it to fit.

Not only were their origin stories untrue, so were their “results.” To his deep disappointment, Justin saw how the vast majority of ex-gay members weren’t ex-gays. They were men and women who still yearned for romantic connection with members of their own sex and had little to no desire for members of the opposite sex. They might have been celibate, but they weren’t ex-gay.

Furthermore, Justin became troubled by these “ministries'” willingness to harm heterosexual women by exhorting gay men to marry them even though they had no desire for their wives. If these women suffered loveless marriages, they were “suffering for Jesus.” Ex-gays never came out and said this directly, of course; but their unmindful negligence toward women derived, in part, from their unspoken but indelible bottomline: anything is better than homosexuality.

When Justin realizes that no one in these ex-gay ministries has actually “switched teams,” he comes to understand that identifying as “ex-gay” when you still find yourself attracted to members of your own sex is disingenuous. As a young man devoted to following Christ, Justin knows he cannot call himself “ex-gay,” that doing so would be a lie.

Therefore, as a gay Christian, Justin finds he no longer fits in (is welcome) among conservative Christians, all of whom insist he identify as (“become”) “ex-gay.” He is not welcome in the church where he grew up. Student ministries on his college campus quote Leviticus at him and demand he go to ex-gay groups then ban him when he tries to talk about why they didn’t work. None of the Christians in his life, except his parents, listen or try to understand. They are too entrenched in the one-dimensional, gay-vs-Christian theology.

Despite all this, Justin holds on to his faith in Christ, his high view of Scripture, and his heart for the church. Many have cursed the church and the Bible for far less. Justin never does.

And because of this, Justin’s alienation is not one-sided. He isn’t welcome among Evangelicals, who consider his un-acted-upon sexual impulses to be “unrepentant sin.” But, though welcome, neither does he really fit in among secular gays on his campus — in part because many in the gay community (understandably) reject the religion that has rejected them and in part because Justin is still recovering from his own gay-vs-Christian (these two don’t mix) upbringing.

Justin has a heart for reconciliation, something that his deep experience of alienation no doubt strengthened. His long struggle to reconcile his own identity as both gay and Christian would eventually lead him to establish the Gay Christian Network, a community and a resource for all gay Christians and their allies — both celibacy advocates and marriage advocates. Justin is particularly gifted at bridging these kinds of divides. The more I read his writing (which you can do here at his blog, “Crumbs from the Table”), the more I have come to appreciate just how uninterested Justin is in advocating his particular position.

Like Wesley Hill’s Washed and WaitingTorn is vastly important because reading Justin’s story is like becoming his friend. We listen to his life and we gain better understanding — of “the other” and ourselves. Its firsthand story helps dispel the secondhand misinformation about gay men and women that continues to stubbornly poison the church. It provides a home and haven, a fellowship and connection for other gay Christians who find themselves perpetually alienated.

Torn closes with a vision for a path forward, how we can rescue the Gospel from the Culture War and re-cultivate the soil in the church so that it is hospitable for it’s gay brothers and sisters: specifically by rejecting ex-gay ministries and promoting celibacy, and how both sides (even theological gay marriage advocates!) can, and must, do that better. Torn presents cases for both Side A and Side B theology (and practice), and lets the reader decide. Because, again, advocating his own position is not Lee’s primary goal, unity is. 

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  1. Mark Boone
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