Disclaimer: The following opinions do not claim to represent the views of any person or institution other than the author. The ideas contained in the essay flow from many years of dialogue, reflection, and therapeutic work with gay persons and their families.
The data from solid research is clear. Youth who report same-sex attraction are at greater risk for psychological distress, behavioral disorders, and social rejection including (but not limited to) suicide, substance abuse, bullying, stigmatization, depression, and self-injury (Saewyc 262). If estimates are correct, 3 to 5 percent of young people are gay, and therefore it is highly likely many gay youth in Christian communities are subject to significant suffering and trauma related to their feelings of same-sex attraction, their status as social deviants, and the effects of being stigmatized with the label of “sinner.”
This is not to say that despite these adverse conditions all gay youth are destined to have mental breakdowns, engage in suicidal behavior, or become victims of bullying and stigmatization. Gay youth have shown remarkable resilience in the face of multiple stress factors inherent in living in communities in which one is a member of a sexual minority. That many gay youth move into successful adulthood is due not only to their own resilience, but also to many protective factors some individual gay youth have available within their particular communities—supportive parents, friends, teachers, counselors, and pastors, who mitigate the many negative aspects of being a gay youth. However despite resilience and personal support, many gay Christians remain at risk and suffer from various aspects of what Erik Erikson named “identity confusion” (17). What kinds of responses do we often see in the Christian community?
The Fall 2015 edition of the Calvin Theological Seminary Forum can serve as an illustration of responses (3–16). In writing about “Same-Sex Relationships,” conservative Reformed theologians seem to behave like modern-day “Pharisees and scribes,” busily constructing biblical grounds and justification for assigning actively gay Christians to the category of evildoers and sinners. While neglecting the revealing work of the Holy Spirit through compassion and personal experience in favor of presumably objective/rational analysis, conservative Reformed theologians seem to occupy themselves with finding intellectual arguments for why sinners—in this case gay persons, are outside the law of God and therefore undeserving of full participation in the life of the covenant community.
Claiming to develop a Reformed view rooted in the tradition of John Calvin and taken directly from scripture, these theologians create a view of same-sex attraction that avoids dialogue with alternative readings of scripture and ignores innovations in epistemology and biblical interpretation that offer real hope for inclusion for gay youth. It is surprising to learn, given all we know about the role of context and worldview in human knowing, that an analysis could claim to be “open, honest, and without bias” while failing to account for the authors’ own epistemic interests and presuppositions. Such so-called “open, honest” analysis yields consequences that do exhibit bias; namely, stigmatization, prejudice, and discrimination directed toward gay Christians, dispossessing them of their identity and sense of belonging to the life of the church, the school, and the family. The fruits of this kind of analysis lay bare the deeper purpose—to perpetuate the exclusion of gay youth and adults from participating in the joy of full fellowship in the church, school, and broader Christian community.
On the pastoral side, Reformed Christian responses to the plight of gay youth and other sexual minorities have shifted away from outright condemnation to a focus on self-examination marked by guilt feelings and admissions of failure to “love the sinner and hate the sin.” The ground for this change was laid, for example, in the 1973 Synodical Report 42 of the Christian Reformed Church (609–33) and its distinction between homosexual orientation and homosexual behavior. This distinction, while plausible as an abstraction, creates a dilemma in which gay youth can be affirmed in their identity only as long as they do not act as gay persons. Compulsory celibacy is not a tenable or attractive goal for the majority of gay youth.
While suggesting a softening of attitudes toward gay persons, the 1973 Synodical Report effectively shifted attention away from the real afflictions suffered by gay youth toward the persons responsible for the suffering itself, as if the real problem is how to address the guilt and moral failures of the heterosexual majority in the church. The failure of Christian schools and churches to take real action to create a hospitable and safe environment for gay youth is covered over by platitudes and sentiments marked by expressions of guilt and compassion for the suffering of gay people.
One is tempted to suggest that many Christians exhibit attitudes akin to those who pass by the injured man in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Rather than helping the injured man as the Samaritan does, it as if Christians, like the priest and the Levite, pass by, and then focus on how to assuage their guilt for not offering anything more than expressions of sympathy. Compassion without action shows itself in the long run to be little more than condescending pity and empty sentiment. Consequently, it should be no surprise that rather than being known for hospitality and love, Christians are perceived by the broader culture as “anti-homosexual” (Kinnaman 90).
Given this climate of either outright hostility or empty sympathy, gay youth can find few resources for developing identity and self-respect in the church or school. Instead they frequently turn their back on the Christian faith and deprive themselves of the protection and sheltering of a covenant community, thereby heightening their vulnerability to the many difficulties and negative developmental outcomes well-documented by researchers. To flourish and achieve a successful identity, many gay youth must leave the church and escape from the Christian formation available in Christian secondary schools and colleges.
How can neglect and avoidance of the suffering of gay youth be understood as something other than moral self-justification? The answer may lie in what social psychologists have described in social attribution theory.
Michael DeVries serves as professor of psychology and director of the graduate program in counselling psychology at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.