Saturday, March 19, 2016


Christians and Homosexuals: Love and Sin

Recently I spoke on a topic I have studied for about two years—the division between Christians over same-sex marriage. My perception of the event was that the tone became negative when one person repeated the words “homosexuals” and “sin.”

Although my hope was to encourage discussion about differing views, I found myself attempting to present other perspectives on the issues. On reflection, I experienced the power of emotion behind the words homosexual and sin compared to words about loving one’s neighbor. Although it was said that “God loves homosexuals,” it appeared to me that the message of sin overcame the message of love.

I might be wrong of course, it's only my perception.

In years past, before Christians really dealt with issues of discrimination against persons who identify as LGBTQ, sexual minorities were disparagingly labeled “homosexuals.” If I heard anything at all, it was some message of condemnation—these were people guilty of some special kind of sin.

In some cases, Christian messages have changed in recent years.

As society began to show respect for sexual minorities. And as more and more Christians revealed they too were a sexual minority, many Christians changed their stance. Most Christians I know want to be loving toward all persons.

But Christians do not want to be on the wrong side of God. In particular, fundamentalist Christians do not want to affirm or even tolerate sin. Tolerance is another one of those emotional trigger words.

For fundamentalist Christians, same-sex marriage is a double-barreled problem-- same-sex relations are sinful and same-sex marriage violates the view that biblical marriage is between one man and one woman. It’s not just an intellectual thing- it’s an emotional thing.

Any challenge to the conservative view appears to evoke a strongly felt need to defend one’s position. Any attempt to consider the views of other Christians is seen as an attack on what God has said.

Identities in Conflict

What I think I perceive among Christians is an external representation of the inner struggle reported by sexual minorities. 

Externally, Christians have a spiritual identity, which they vocally defend against threats to that identity. For fundamentalists, that spiritual identity includes strong beliefs about sin, sex, marriage, and the reality of hell among other things.

The strong beliefs are linked to God’s authority based on an interpretation of select biblical texts. It’s the same strength of conviction that has caused families and churches to split.

Externally, progressive Christians have not been as forceful as have fundamentalists. Finding it difficult to engage discussion, progressives remain silent or move on. If they are heterosexuals, neither their spiritual nor their sexual identities are under attack.

As I listen to the concerns of LGBT Christians, I hear identities in inner conflict. Those with a strong spiritual identity who grew up in conservative Christian homes and churches express the stress of having a part of their identity identified as sin. In the conservative view, their desire for love and marriage must be abandoned if they are to avoid sin. In contrast, heterosexual Christians only have to channel their romantic and sexual desires toward their spouse –they don’t have to deny a fundamental aspect of their identity. (Of course we know heterosexuals have a hard time controlling their sexuality but they don’t have to give it up.)

The odd thing is, fundamentalist Christians don't bother with mundane things like adultery, divorce, and remarriage anymore. The battle cry is "homosexual-sin."

Homosexual, homosexual, homosexual- like a verbal yellow star to mark them as unclean.

Sin, sin, sin- constant condemnation

“Love the sinner and hate the sin” hollows out love leaving a disingenuous ring.

Theology aside, the language of Christian love is often conditional.

Among Christians, fundamentalists control the boundaries of Evangelicals. Fundamentalists make the rules for Evangelicals to live by. Evangelicals remain in the closet--some under fear for loss of employment. I see no spiritual home for sexual minorities in Evangelical Christianity. Not yet anyway. Perhaps that will change.

Sadly, I suspect many LGBT Christian youth are spiritually homeless. Others have homes but are hidden in Christian High Schools and Colleges where their hidden identities are continually exposed to shaming until they can find a way of escape.

So where will the survivors go? Who welcomes sexual minorities? If it’s not too late, they’ll find a progressive Christian home. A place where God's love shines forth.

Others will go where Christians must hide in closets.

It's a hard thing for Evangelicals to show God's love to sexual minorities when they look through lenses of sin but it's different when the look through lenses of godly love.


Learn more in the book: A House Divided

Book Website A House Divided

Facebook  Page Geoff W. Sutton

Twitter  @GeoffWSutton 

Website: Geoff W. Sutton

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Identities in Conflict: Sexual and Spiritual

Recently I was invited to give a talk to Christians in a graduate counseling program. The topic was "Sexual Identity and Sexual Orientation," which fits with a chapter in my new book, A House Divided. I was glad for the opportunity because I think its important for Christians to understand what sexual minorities are saying and how different Christian groups understand what sexual minorities are saying.

I think it's really important for Christians to understand that sexual identity and spiritual identity are often in conflict within conservative faith communities.

Our sense of self--who we are-- consists of several identities. For example, people might identify themselves based on their marital status (married, living with, single), career type (teacher, electrician, counselor), or parental status (mother, daughter, grandfather).

Two major identities are spiritual and sexual

Identities are multiple and they are not static. We continue to reshape our identities throughout our life.


Most of the people in the world identify as religious or spiritual. The largest religion is Christianity with about 2.2 billion people identifying as Christian. Of these, most are Catholic (about 1.1 billion). For some, their specific faith group is highly important. Others may say, "I'm spiritual but not religious."

Spiritual identity is not static. Although some continue with a child-like faith through much of their life, others grow in their understanding of God and their relationship to God. I've seen youth from fundamentalist homes treat Jesus like a special friend. It's a bit strange to see girls relate to Jesus as a boyfriend--heterosexual guys can't relate like that.

Intelligent Christian youth who attend a Christian liberal arts college will find themselves questioning their faith just as they learn to question other beliefs and ideas. You can't teach young people critical thinking skills and expect them to consider faith off-limits. Identities can change as many youth want to leave the embarrassment associated with implausible interpretations of their faith.


The second major identity, sexual, requires some negotiating for sexual minorities. Heterosexuals may be happy to respond "male" or "female" on a survey. But some may think in terms of gender rather than biological sex. When young men describe the good looking women and the young women assess the local selection of men, it's easy to identify as a man or woman.

But what if you aren't attracted to people of the opposite sex? What if you are attracted to women and men? What if you think of yourself as more like a person of the opposite sex from your biological sex? Sexual orientation is part of sexual identity. The sex of those we desire to be with informs our identity.

Sexual identities develop as people integrate their experiences with their own thoughts and feelings. It's easy to identify as a woman or a man when there is a close match between one's biological sex and the cultural expectations for people of that sex. But struggles arise when a culture does not support differences.

Many Christians with same-sex attraction have tried to fake being straight.  Some married opposite sex partners and had children but did not feel they were true to themselves. "Living the lie" is an expression I'v heard from sexual minorities who hide their sexual identity.


Spiritual and sexual identities overlap in their formation for many. Thus, the normal struggles of youth can be exacerbated when they do not have a supportive culture to deal with either or both identities if they are different from their local culture. For example, Christian youth who question their faith and experience same-sex attraction within a fundamentalist church, community, or school may not find a supportive person who will listen to their struggles.

For some, inner conflict becomes unbearable. Survivors resolve their struggles in many ways. Spiritually, it's a no-brainer to understand that sexual minorities must leave conservative churches if they want to remain a Christian and live openly as a non-heterosexual. Some of course, drop their faith and join others based on their gender identity.

Even as Christians are divided on how to respond to the needs of sexual minorities, some sexual minorities experience inner divisions when they feel forced to choose between spiritual and sexual identities.

Conservative Christians who want to be loving and kind toward sexual minorities sometimes ask two things. One, change your sexual identity and two, remain celibate unless you marry someone of the opposite sex. Unfortunately, the harm done to so many sexual minorities based on change efforts has resulted in a public outcry to end the abuse-- even among Evangelicals. Change therapies have a poor record of success and a long-record of harm.

As far as celibacy goes, it has a long history of failure regardless of sexual orientation. Most people "burn" with sexual desire. Only a minority of humans have little interest in sex.

Sadly, some youth do not resolve the conflict but live in distress for years, perhaps decades. And as we know, some end their lives. Conflict resolution is critical to the personal health of sexual minorities. See this CDC link for more about suicide attempts and violence among LGBT youth. There's also suggestions for being helpful.

I must say that I was surprised that by the end of the talk many in the room were weeping. Memories of people in pain came to the fore. Despite a conservative faith, the focus was on people in conflict and their stories.


Learn more in the book: A House Divided

Book Website A House Divided

Facebook  Page Geoff W. Sutton

Twitter  @GeoffWSutton 

Website: Geoff W. Sutton

Sunday, March 6, 2016


Yesterday My wife and I saw the award-winning film, Spotlight. We both came away shocked and disturbed. The actors did a superb job at evoking a strong emotional response to the outrageous behavior of church and community leaders who covered-up child sexual abuse in Boston. The damage to human lives is horrendous.

For me, the timing of the film is ironic. Two days ago I reviewed proofs on my new book A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures. The book represents two years of work examining sexuality in the church from the perspective of moral psychology. I aim to promote open discussions of healthy Christian sexuality. But I also wrote about sexual abuse because it would be irresponsible to ignore it. As Spotlight illustrates, sex abuse happens in the church and a lot of people get seriously hurt.

Spotlight Lessons for Christians

There’s so much that could be said about sex-abuse scandals in churches. Here’s a look at six lessons using a moral framework of six dimensions derived from the work of Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind ) and his colleagues.

1. Care vs. Harm

We expect churches to be in the business of caring about people—not just souls but wholes—as H. Norman Wright says. In Spotlight we find a common practice of caring more about one’s colleagues than about the damage done to the victims and survivors. The message of the Christian gospels directs attention to the social outcasts during the time of Jesus’ ministry.

Our moral impulse is to care for the young and vulnerable. Children do not survive without parental care. Righteous anger naturally rises when we see harm done to children. It’s a perversion of morality to turn the care-harm focus on an organization rather than the people an organization ought to serve.

Estimated percentages of child sexual abuse in the U.S. are
27% for girls and 16% of boys. 

See “Nature and Scope…”

2. Equality and Justice

The film shows the lack of justice accorded those who suffered deeply from child sex-abuse. A friend of mine, psychologist Ev Worthington, often speaks about the problem of the “justice gap.” We all have an innate sense of injustice. We are motivated to close the gap—to seek justice. Anger fueled vengeance seeks to right the wrongs in society. And sometimes it’s personal as seen in the film. I felt angry. Anger is a good thing when destructive people and their unjust systems are dismantled or reformed.

3. Oppression and the need for freedom

Following the publication of the sex abuse scandal, the Boston Globe was inundated with phone calls from area victims. The breaking of the sex-scandal was like blowing up a dam. People in chains to memories of sexual violence came forward. The silence of churches and organizations is oppressive. Silence can prevent victims from becoming survivors. Christian attitudes toward ethnic minorities and women are two other examples of religiously justified oppression. Faith ought to set people free. Too often leaders of faith keep people in chains.

Silence can prevent victims from becoming survivors.

4. Respect for Authority

A society cannot survive if the participants do not respect legitimate authority. Religious and political leaders are human beings who often act out of self-interest. Sadly, religious leaders often hide behind a cloak of godly authority. It’s as if to attack clergy or the church is to attack God.

It’s always been that way. Christians fret about the deteriorating morals of society. Unfortunately, many religions have lost their historic claim to moral authority. The scandal revealed in Spotlight is one massive example of the importance of holding leaders accountable in any organization that wants to have a moral voice.

5. Loyalty vs. Betrayal

In Spotlight we see efforts to encourage people to be loyal to the home team. Loyalty to Boston and the Catholic church is a virtue. Don’t destroy the works of good people because of a few “bad apples.” It’s interesting that the film focuses on numbers as if a quantifiable critical mass of bad priests is needed before one feels justified to “betray” the church.

Loyalty is indeed a virtue. But where one’s loyalty lies is important. Christians, and all moral people, are continually tested to determine whether their loyalty lies with their church/religion, pastor, political party, nuclear family, extended family, school, and so forth. At times, the ties that bind us to others must be broken. Spotlight shows what can happen when misplaced loyalty reinforces destructive church practices.

6. Purity vs. Degradation

The church has often portrayed sex as dirty and unclean. Shining the Spotlight on the filthy frocks in the church reveals dirt instead of the moral purity expected of its leaders. Sexual purity remains a focus of many Christian groups who periodically rail against premarital sex and pornography.

The film, Spotlight, evokes disgust. Disgust over sexuality provokes the desire to be clean. We find the behavior of the priests and the church disgusting. Disgust moves us to protection. Disgust can be a good thing. But we must protect those who have been hurt not an organization that perpetuates harm.

As long as churches are led by people, problems of uncontrolled sexual behavior will persist. The people who govern any organization ought always to be disgusted about “cleaning up” their organization. But churches must focus on those who have been hurt by the actions of their leaders. People who have been sexually abused often report feeling dirty. I once heard a woman say of the Christian leader who abused her, “I felt like trash- a piece of paper that he wadded up and tossed in the trash.”

Read more about Sex and Christian morality, in chapter 6 of A House Divided
Facebook Page:   Geoff W. Sutton

Twitter   @GeoffWSutton

Website: Geoff W. Sutton


To learn more about the problem of child sexual abuse, see the Catholic Church report on the abuse of minors for the period 1950 to 2002. It is available from the USCCB.

Link to a 2002 Spotlight team report at the Boston Globe.

Clergy Sexual abuse is not just a Catholic issue. Newsweek story 7 April 2010.

The story behind the movie, Spotlight at the Boston Globe.