This post is adapted from a presentation I gave at my church about Intersect, our fellowship for non-straight congregants. You can hear more about Intersect in our podcast episode on Church Inclusion.

Here’s the realization that got me into ministry: apologetics is not enough.

We have to win hearts, not arguments.

I see a frustrating number of churches asking the question, “How can we lovingly, graciously, even empathetically prove we’re right?”

I see a frustrating number of books trying to answer the question, “How can conservative Christians rest assured that their beliefs on same-sex marriage don’t need to change?”

No matter how you dress up these questions, they’re apologetics questions. If you know the answer, you might be able to win a few arguments. But will you win hearts?

If we want to win hearts, we have to ask better questions.

How do we win hearts? We win hearts with good news.

I want people in my church community to ask themselves, “What is the good news for LGBT+ people in our marriage ethic — that is, our teaching that God designed marriage to be between one man and one woman?”

Why should I, as a gay man, want to believe it?

I hate to use consumeristic metaphors, but how are you going to sell it to your lesbian neighbors or your gay coworker?

I hope this question keeps them up at least one night! It’s certainly kept me up a few nights.

In other words, the task in front of us is to demonstrate in real life, in real lives, in real flesh and blood, that what we believe Jesus calls us to is good. How does this calling lead to more thriving than the alternative?

This is the true apologetic.

If we can demonstrate that, I think we’ll find ourselves spending a lot less time debating Romans 1 or the meaning of arsenokoitai.

The Not-Good-Enough-Questions

This brings me to a bigger-picture concern: the “Not-Good-Enough Questions.” The shallow apologetic question above is one of these.

Eve Tushnet calls out a similar Not-Good-Enough Question in this blog post. She draws from her extensive work in crisis pregnancy centers, caring for women who are torn between having an abortion or carrying their baby to term:

“Crisis pregnancy centers exist in part because Christians asked one question, which in fact we counselors were trained to ask abortion-minded women: ‘What would make it possible for you to imagine having this baby?’

Why aren’t we asking gay people that?

We are asking all these obnoxious questions, like, ‘How can we proclaim our beliefs without you guys thinking we’re bigots?’, but we never ask, ‘What would make it possible for you to imagine living this teaching in a way that’s hopeful and loving, not despairing and pointless?'”

Reframing the question from “How can I change you?” to “What would make it possible for you to join me?” is powerful.

Can we identify some other Not-Good-Enough Questions? Now that I know what to look for, I’ve noticed a few floating around theologically conservative circles:

  • How can we “love the sinner but hate the sin”?
  • How can we minimize the damage done (whatever you suppose that to be) by the legalization of same-sex marriage in the US?
  • How can we minimize the impact and influence of LGBT culture on the next generation?

What if, instead of asking these questions, we asked:

  • How can we love the sinner and hate our own sin (which is closer to Matthew 7:3-5)? That is, how can I live an authentic, confessional life that makes much of Jesus’ grace and model/extend that grace to my gay friends?
  • How can we create a truly radical counter-culture in our church that meets human needs better than the surrounding culture (so as to meet the quite legitimate needs for which non-straight people are seeking fulfillment in marriage)?
  • How can we raise our children to engage in many different cultures winsomely, finding whatever is true, beautiful, or necessary in each one, and leveraging all the goodness they can find in order to connect with people in that culture and point them toward the Gospel?

How much more impactful would our work as the Body of Christ be if we engaged with non-straight people inside and outside our churches along these terms instead?

The false binary of change vs. truth

A parting thought: one reason the Not-Good-Enough Questions aren’t good enough is because they bring along with them the presupposition that the church is fine as it is and doesn’t need to grow or change. I’ve tried to reformulate the questions to let go of that presupposition.

I think many theologically conservative Christians have gotten caught up in a false binary that says it is either true that (A) we’ve misinterpreted the Bible and we should affirm same-sex marriage, or (B) our interpretation of the Bible is sound and therefore no action is required.

We decide that (A) isn’t the case, so therefore under (B) no action is required. All we can do is dig our heels into Truth, and if no one cares, well, that’s on them.

However, I want our churches to get out of the habit of that logical leap from “we are confident in our traditional interpretation of the Bible” to “we are not called to anything beyond what we’re doing now.”

I don’t think that’s correct. We need to be winning hearts, which means reifying the Good News behind the truth we teach, which means building space in our communities for non-straight people to thrive, which means asking questions that open us up to discovering the ways we need to change and grow.

I won’t be surprised if these new questions are met with friction. Letting go of that presupposition threatens our pride and promises a call to real hard work and real sacrifice.

But isn’t that what it looks like to follow Jesus?

Will you join me?

What are some other “Not-Good-Enough Questions” we’re asking LGBT+ people? Why do you choose to live under a traditional sexual ethic?

About the Author

  • I still have the fear of walking in to church because of past experiences. My fear is largely unfounded as most of the people there have been loving and grieved with me as I mourned the loss of my first love (who happened to be a guy). I try to not focus on the guy who calls me ‘that sodomite’. The church needs to denounce such people and to be a hospital for the sick in their souls, not a place for ideology, a place of love and not condemnation.
    My first church was such a place and I walked away for twenty years. I only came back after a near death experience. I often wonder what would my reaction would have been if this new church had been like the old…

    • Amen to the church needing to be a hospital for the sick more than a museum of ideology! My heart breaks about the man who calls you “that sodomite.” I’m torn because on the one hand, that has no place in the church. But on the other hand, it shows sickness in his soul, too–and I just said the church needs to be a hospital for that. I guess it’s the same way with any sin. There is no place for, e.g., gossip in the church–but if you don’t have any gossips in the church, are you reaching the right people? The same could be said for any number of things, greed, lust, racism, homophobia. I hope that people in your church community can confront him about his attitude and model for him a better way to embody Christ.

  • Seems to me that we are focusing our attention upon the wrong “problem” here (and thus, the wrong questions), while also forgetting that we all are humanly “broken” beneath the same problem… WE ALL NEED A SAVIOR!, whether personally/individually struggling with homosexual sin(s) or not!
    The Bible also clears up the burden of the responsibility for a witnessed-to individual, by reminding us that no one (none of us, present or future) comes to Christ unless the Spirit of God draws them.
    The only “question” we ultimately need to be challenging any witnessed-to individual with, is this one:
    “…But who do You say that Jesus is?”
    Now I’m not at all suggesting by these comments that the Body of Christ doesn’t need a lot of work to better understand the people who do struggle with these particular sins, in order to present the Good News of the Gospel in ways that personalize it to their present state of mind (and deception). But weren’t we all deceived at one time?
    The key to winning souls is not in finding the right questions, but in the challenge of the Great Commission itself which calls upon us who do know the truth, to be willing to form real relationships with people, to love them with the love of Christ, and to model the Gospel in front of them. If we can all learn to do that, then it is the Holy Spirit himself who also takes up the role of convincing and convicting each individual of their own sin!
    People do (and will continue) to reject the Gospel, whether they struggle with homosexual temptations and desires or not. For me, it was not any “question” that I was ever asked, but a growing inward conviction that I was a sinful man, and I needed to seek Jesus on his terms, rather than upon my terms. Once I did so, He also kept his promise to me that says he will indeed be found by such as those who earnestly seek him.
    My prayer is that we be a light to such who seek him out, and not any sort of hindrance to them through our own inability to truly “love” a lost human being. Because, except for the grace of God… such were we all, and such would we all still be!

    • You’re right, following Jesus is not a lifestyle choice (e.g., “I think I’ll get into yoga,” or “I’d like to move to New York City.”) that we are trying to sell to non-believers–but if it’s not emotionally compelling (let alone plausible), are we missing something? Nor do we bargain with non-believers (“If we do XYZ will you follow Jesus?”), but if we don’t ask these kinds questions, is it possible our churches are getting in the way of the Spirit’s work without us realizing it? Is it possible we’ll miss seeing ways our churches can better fulfill their role as the Body of Christ?
      I have not proposed that evangelism is as simple as finding the right magic bullet question. The work of the Spirit is necessary and (when He wills it to be, I suppose), sufficient. What I have proposed is that patterns of thinking many of our churches have been in are not helping accomplish what we are called to, and I have proposed some alternatives. These will not fix everything, but will I hope expand our collective imagination for how the church can do the work it’s called to in the world.

  • Ryan-
    Thanks for the great post! This is a topic I have given much thought to as well. I have lamented with friends that I didn’t believe I had something “better“ to offer Q friends, at least in a temporal sense (especially if they were in a relationship).
    That is, until recently. I am beginning to think that table fellowship – sharing lives within the intimacy of homes – can be a way to cultivate such community/intimacy, making our way of life more desirable and winsome. The church building plays an important role through corporate worship and ministry, but my experience shows that the home/table plays a special role. (It helps that I have a home and possess the gift of hospitality).
    My friends and I have been hosting weekly meals at my place since December, creating a space for those who are hurting, broken, lonely, and who are yet to follow Christ. I have invited my first non-believing Q friend recently, and have hopes of inviting others. I believe one can only stand by a fire for so long before being warmed by its heat.
    Praying we can all be agents of growth/change in this area. We can use our unique lots in life to bless the greater body!
    I look forward to more discussion on this topic, and learning from y’all.
    (Loved your use of reify)

    • Benjamin, I agree with your comments! Rosaria Butterfield has the same thoughts on this. What if, rather than engaging in a moral war over the internet with people (where there is zero moderation or accountability), we instead invited people to talk things through over lunch in our home? People need to see that we are real people who live real lives and have real love and concern. That cannot always be in the church setting, because people are afraid of it. To gain someone’s confidence, we are going to have to be willing to be human and vulnerable.

    • Ben, thanks so much for reading, and sharing about your rhythms of table fellowship and hospitality! I think sharing lives within the intimacy of homes, as you describe it, is an essential element of embodying Christ as the church. A warm meal and laughter can open up people’s hearts in a way that apologetic debate won’t.

  • RYAN. This post is FIRE.
    You have articulated some of my frustrations with churches (and myself) that I haven’t been able to put into words well before. That being said, I have lots to consider…. you have created fuel for several journal entries and wandering thoughts.

    • Thanks for reading Kevin! Looking forward to reading whatever this leads to for you!

  • Such a great post Ryan! It can indeed be hard to reach the Side A crowd and bring them back into the church let alone the traditional sexual ethic. Its difficult because sadly Christians have done much of the harm around the issue and continue to do so. I will say that I think we’ve successfully created a radical new counter culture that is making its way into the church. I’ve seen it grow and its really exciting to be apart of. Its going to take a lot of work to make it more visible but I think it will be successful.
    I think the big thing that conservative churches need to do is stop approaching the issue from a socio political culture war perspective. A lot of the super conservative critics of the Side B movement are ranting and raving like its still 2004 and still see the issue from an “us vs them/liberal vs conservative” perspective which really needs to stop. The gay marriage political debate is over, so these churches really need to focus on loving people.

    • How far do we take that line of reasoning, Eugene? Should the churches give up the struggle on other issues of moral concern just because the political debate is over? Does being concerned about the disintegration of morality in society honestly preclude one from focusing on loving people? I don’t personally see the two as mutually exclusive.
      While I do not excuse the misunderstanding and the wrongs committed by a lot of the churches along these lines, I also completely get why there is still the “us vs. them” mentality. There is a militant opposition to truth, and there always has been. So it is not all on the church’s side, and it is definitely not all the church’s fault. This goes all the way back to the Garden.

      • “Does being concerned about the disintegration of morality in society honestly preclude one from focusing on loving people”
        I would not guess that being concerned about the disintegration of morality in society (if indeed society is on a trajectory from Moral to Immoral, which is a presupposition that I don’t see as a given) is what Eugene is criticizing. Eugene, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but the criticism here is when churches do in fact let their concern over moral standards eclipse their love and compassion for people, which is especially prevalent when concern turns to fear.
        There may be a militant opposition to truth and the historical baggage around this may not all be the church’s fault. But my point is that letting our rhetoric be dominated by, e.g., litigating these issues, is not how we accomplish what we’ve been called to.

        • Well, I for one certainly agree that one cannot win a spiritual battle through political means. The work of the church is spiritual, and the battle we fight is not against flesh and blood, as Paul says In Ephesians. Too many people act like it IS against flesh and blood, and they act just as bad as the militant ones on the other side of these issues.
          There’s so much more I could say about that. 😉
          I just think we need to be careful that we don’t let “love” and “dialogue” eclipse truth. Love and dialogue are the means of communicating truth, not the replacement. The gospel is good news, but it is often not convenient. The claims of Christ upon us involve taking up the cross and mortification of the deeds of the body. At the end of the day, no one can follow Him without losing his own life to find it in Him.
          Personally, I probably err more on the side of caution when dealing with people, rather than going full-throat at them. Christ is a personal Savior, and reaching people is a personal endeavor. Learning how to communicate the truth in love is important. But the hard sayings of Jesus are still just that–hard sayings–and, sadly, many who hear them will walk away from Him. At the end of the day, may I be found to be a faithful witness.

    • Yes, I see YOB as a good example of how we can build new types of communities to help non-straight folks thrive, which is important for embodying the goodness that Jesus calls us to!
      I agree that the sectarianism arising from (and/or also fueling?) the culture war has done immense harm. We need something better in order to win hearts.

  • It seems like folks think LGBT people come from some place else. I would ask how gay & lesbian children growing up know they’re loved, accepted, and at home in their church rather than see it as a place to escape.
    When people get to know us, their perceptions start to change. When people get to know lesbian & gay couples, their perceptions change. I have an image in my head of fortress churches with closed gates to keep things shut out. At the same time the Holy Spirit is at work. No matter how tightly we close ourselves off, the Spirit finds its way in. While I don’t always agree with everyone here, I appreciate getting to see the Spirit at work in your lives as you share God’s love. I pray that I remain open to the same life-giving Spirit.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! I like your question about how gay and lesbian children can come to see the church as a refuge and home, and not a place to escape!
      I once heard Eve Tushnet, whom I quoted above, speak about how she grew up atheist, and when she converted to Catholicism as an adult, people would ask her, “How on earth did you, as a lesbian, convert to Catholicism? Isn’t it a stuggle to believe that God loves you and accepts you?” She says she would find herself telling people, “Well, I didn’t grow up in the church, so I don’t have a lot of that baggage.” She then goes on to ask, isn’t that messed up? And what would it take to reverse that for the next generation? What would it take for the next generation to say, “Well, I grew up in the church, so I never really struggled to believe that God loves me and wants me for His Kingdom.”?

  • Ryan, my brother, you are a thinker. I’d love to chat with you over a cup of joe. I get your thought process on this. I guess my question to you would be where there is scriptural support for this line of thinking?

    • I appreciate that, Kirk.
      I am drawing mainly from the broad strokes I see in Scripture about the Good News having good implications for us in the here and now. Here are some individual passages that come to mind as formative to that larger image, in no particular order:
      – Mark 10:30, Luke 18:30
      – John 10:10
      – Matthew 22:31-32
      – Zephaniah 3:14-20
      – Psalm 27 (especially v13)
      Hope this helps.

  • Ryan,
    Thank you for this post. I think you are right. The church has created a false dichotomy. And we need to ask how we can love people well and ask better questions, rather than assuming everything is okay.
    What you describe in terms of repeating the same narrative ( the church is fine) is where I find my own family. My mom, and my mother and father in-law put sexual minorities in a box on the outside of God’s plan and will (so long as they remain as they are. And that includes me. My mom doesn’t think I am in sin exactly… but she prays, (sometimes at length, while I am in the room, without asking) that God would “completely heal” me. To her, I am broken and holding back on God. If I just trusted and gave everything over to God, he would take away my attraction to other men.
    My mother and father in-law think that I am courting temptation and disaster by talking to other LGBTQ+ people… even those ascribing to a Side-B ethic. If I draw attention to and talk about my attractions, especially with others who experience the same, “won’t that make it worse?” They see my attraction as an addiction. I am like an alcoholic hitting up the bar. I am not drinking… but I am a fool for doing what I do.
    If they do this to someone they know and love, and who is living out the prescribed narrative (married to a woman and not acting on his attractions), imagine how they feel about other LGBTQ+ people?
    As a pastor, I am trying to make my church a safe place for all people to know they are loved, to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to be a place where they can thrive within the Kingdom of God.
    I choose this ethic because I believe it is what Scripture teaches. And I feel like I am thriving in the community I have found. I believe that Jesus has come to give me life, and that it is “life to the full” (John 10:10).

    • Thanks for reading, Ben. And thank you for sharing your experience with your family. It sounds frustrating and hurtful, but it sounds like you’re resolved to patience and grace, and I love that.
      Living in fear of your sexuality and other people with a similar experience is definitely not a good news approach! “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Fear isn’t part of our Good News!

  • Thanks for such a thoughtful post Ryan. I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but Intersect sounds awesome. Someone said a good question is better than the best answer. My takeaways from your post are that good questions open things up, they open doors; and it sure would be better if the questions we’re asking and the things we’re saying helped people further along on their journey. The questions that penetrate someone’s heart create openings for light from God and are the ones that can lead to life. It’s not a point you’re making here, but I wonder if we’re often not asking ourselves the right questions.

    • You’re welcome, Bluzhawk! I love what you say about good questions opening things up. Likewise, questions with limiting premises lead to limiting answers. To your last point, I agree–I think often the questions we ask ourselves could stand to be reframed. I remember I used to worry a lot about “How do I see God?” (i.e., do I see him rightly?) But my relationship with Him radically shifted for the better once I started to dwell instead on “How does God see me?”

    • Well, I certainly wouldn’t counsel anyone to do anything to make a church (especially mine) happy! Goodness knows I’ve done and said things in the course of doing what I think is right that have made some people in my church unhappy. I would counsel anyone to believe in Christ crucified and raised again, and receive the salvation offered freely thereby, which is not predicated on any of their actions or “lifestyle changes” or whatever. From there I would counsel them to carefully and patiently study scripture and determine what Jesus is calling them to, which may be quite costly. Salvation costs nothing, but following Jesus will cost you everything.
      That being said, I do not take it as a forgone conclusion that Jesus will call a person in that situation to divorce. I think there are more options than that. And I hope you notice and appreciate that I would counsel them to care and patience in determining what Jesus is calling them to. If I found out my church leadership were counseling a person with children to get a divorce, I would tell them to chill out! What’s the rush? Do we not have time to find a way to raise the children well, without upending their lives? Is someone going to Hell if we don’t figure this out in five minutes? No, my gut tells me this is a false dilemma rooted in fear and we don’t need to make decisions out of fear. There are surely more options than present themselves immediately, and we can be patient and wait for the good God who loves us to show us a good way forward.

      • What other options would you envision, Ryan? The marriage isn’t biblical. Wouldn’t some sort of separation be required due to the fact that the relationship is fraught with temptation to sin?
        And I agree, this has nothing to do with making a church happy, but rather satisfying the claims of the Gospel upon our lives.

        • I have premised that the other options might take months and months of prayerful discernment to discover–I hope you’ll excuse me for not being able to come up with any on the spot! And this feels like something we won’t receive without concrete need. We may not know what’s at the top of Moriah till we get there.

      • I think that is a pretty fair and open minded answer, considering the source and location. We have several gay couples with kids, as well as many single guys and girls who are on the LGBT spectrum at my church. (and so do MOST churches if they were honest and would open their eyes instead of scaring the crap out of anyone not hetero forcing them to stay in the closet)
        Just wondered what your take is on us gay people actually BEING in your churches and living our lives as we are called to individually instead of aligning with the current status quo or traditional paradigm.
        Thanks for giving me a straight answer that makes sense and not some garbage script parroted by those who don’t or won’t think for themselves. God knows we have enough of that around here and at home.

        • There can be a tension between individual discernment of calling and community discernment of calling, and I’ll admit I don’t have many answers about how one should navigate that tension. However, I think both sides (traditional Christian leaders/communities, same-sex-coupled people) will be called to give more than they’d like.

    I LOVE this post. I cannot express how much I adore this. For real — this is everything. It is amazing and awesome and absolutely what so many need to hear in this day and age. Thank you for sharing this. Praise God for what He is doing in you and through you right now.

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