Established in 1988, October 11 was selected for National Coming Out Day (NCOD) because it is the anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. NCOD is a day when those in the LGBT community publicly display their pride in being gay – whether through parade or wearing symbols such as a pink triangle – and encourage those who are considering coming out to do so.

The purpose of this post is to ask the question: How should churches that hold to a biblical sexual ethic prepare for NCOD? The answer that will be proposed is: more pastorally and personally than polemically or politically.

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An important preliminary question would be: Why has “coming out” been seen as necessary? The answer, at least in part, would seem to be: there has been no safe place to talk about unwanted same sex attraction (SSA).[1] Neither church nor culture, until recent years, provided a context where someone could talk about the experiences of unwanted SSA without changing one’s identity.

Imagine you attended a church where your life struggle was never mentioned as an area to receive care, and, if it was mentioned, your struggle was the adversarial portion of a culture war commentary. How would your week-to-week experience of church be different? This is the experience of those who experience unwanted SSA in our churches.

Coming out is often an act of defiance against the sentence of solitary confinement that comes with having a struggle where there is no context to find support; like gasping for air when you’ve been relationally suffocating. Think about your local church: if someone experienced unwanted SSA – and they do – who would they talk to, where would they find support, what quality of honest friendship is available to them?

In too many churches the unfortunate answers are:

  • Who? I don’t know.
  • Support? Probably not; if it is not clear who to talk to, where will support be found?
  • Quality of Friendship? Things would get “weird” when someone got honest.

To the degree that we (the church) have offered silence and isolation to our brothers and sisters who experience unwanted SSA, can we be surprised or upset that they declined our offer to be sequestered?

Conversely, the culture has said “come out” (i.e., identify as gay) and you can be known. The result is that individuals get caught in the middle of a culture war. Their first conversations result in a strong social pressure to choose sides. Who has said “We care about you, the individual, and are willing to care for you as a person instead of allowing a subject to dominate the conversation?”

With that in mind, I want to provide some initial (far from comprehensive) ministry suggestions for churches in anticipation of NCOD. We will consider three audiences: the individual, parents, and friends.

The suggestions are worded as the introductory remarks, whether to an entire sermon/lesson or transition to a new point, made in the week or two preceding NCOD. Since NCOD is intended to provide social support and this support is often most tangibly felt in academic environments, high school and college students, or their parents would most benefit from hearing their church discuss this topic and having recommended resources for next steps.

For the church member who experiences unwanted SSA:

“This week our culture will celebrate National Coming Out Day. Often the church has thought of homosexuality as purely a political or moral issue. While ethics and politics are needed, this can result in us missing the person who is struggling. Churches need to recognize we have members who experience unwanted same sex attraction and, to you, it feels like you are alone, even at church. This is a primary reason National Coming Out Day was felt to be necessary in the LGBT community. People felt like they had to live in isolation and shame. If you are here and that is how you feel, we want you to know that you don’t have to choose between isolation and publically identifying as gay. We want to be a church that helps you understand what it means to honor God in the midst of an experience of unwanted same sex attraction.”

Prior to making this kind of public statement, you would want to make sure your fellow pastors and key leaders are prepared to care well for those who entrust their struggle to you.

For the parents of a child who comes out as gay:

“Parents, you are often forgotten in this struggle as well. Navigating the confusion of a child who confides a struggle with same sex attraction or identifies as gay brings many difficult questions and emotions. Parents in our church may face this themselves or have the opportunity to walk alongside another family. We want you to know you do not have to struggle alone either.”

For the friends of someone who comes out as gay:

“Finally, many – hopefully all of us – will have the opportunity to befriend someone at work or school who struggles with unwanted same sex attraction or identifies as gay. The expectation from our culture is that we, as Christians, would be harsh and judgmental. For many high school and college students who don’t experience same sex attraction, the absence of a caring response by the church for their classmates has become a significant reason for them to doubt their faith. As a church, we want to equip you to ‘defend your faith’ in a way that ‘cares for the individual’ to whom you are giving a defense. This is why we’ve provided a list of resources, books, and study groups that can help us each grow where we need to on this subject.”

Most of this post has focused on caring for fellow Christians who struggle with unwanted SSA. I believe we will think better on this subject if we begin with this assumption. But we also need to think about representing Christ well the LGBT community who do not view the Christian faith as a good thing.

It is helpful to realize that the anger coming from the LGBT community coming toward us (the church) is, at least, two-fold. First, we have often not treated those who struggle with SSA in a God-honoring manner. We often have not lived up to our calling to love those who have opposing views to our well. When we fail in this way, those we hurt are right to be angry. This is where we can and must do better.

Second, there is anger because we believe a gay lifestyle or identity is out of step with biblical sexuality. However well we do at correcting the first cause of anger, it may not change the offense for those whose anger is rooted in the second. But if we continue to neglect the first concern, it will only reinforce that the second conclusion is rooted more in tradition and personal preference than God’s design.

We will have lost not only the ability to be a redemptive voice with our LGBT neighbors, but also for those in our culture (and church) who have taken the time to be their friends.

Here are additional suggestions for preaching or teaching on homosexuality and thinking through how safe your church would feel to a member or guest who experienced unwanted SSA. I hope this brief post has been helpful in allowing you to think through how NCOD can be an opportunity to care for many who are hurting in silence in your congregation.

[1] I use the phrase “unwanted SSA” for two reasons. First, very few people choose SSA. In my ministry I have yet to come across someone who wanted to be gay. Every individual with whom I have spoken would prefer to avoid the social stigma and have the possibility of having shared biological children with his or her spouse.

Second, I believe it is helpful to distinguish the experience of SSA, the activity of homosexual behavior, and the identity of calling oneself gay. Our sense of attraction exists on a continuum (hence the B in LGBT) and is one factor among others to consider in choosing what lifestyle or identity an individual will embrace.

This articled was originally posted on The Gospel Coalition site on October 8, 2016.

If this post was beneficial for you, then consider reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Sex and Sexuality” post which address other facets of this subject.