Four ways Christians are getting the gay debate wrong.

Yesterday, basketball center Jason Collins became the first professional American athlete to come out as gay while still active in a team sport.

As soon as the news broke, the religious debates started. Christians expressed their disapproval; Christians came to his defense; people accused one another of being bigots or sinners. It happens every time, and as a Christian, I find it incredibly frustrating.

Shortly after the news broke, for instance, ESPN anchor Chris Broussard came under fire for the following comments:

BROUSSARD: Personally, I don’t believe that you can live an openly homosexual lifestyle or an openly—like premarital sex between heterosexuals. If you’re openly living that type of lifestyle, then the Bible says you know them by their fruits. It says that, you know, that’s a sin. And if you’re openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality—adultery, fornication, premarital sex between heterosexuals, whatever it may be—I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ. So I would not characterize that person as a Christian because I don’t think the Bible would characterize them as a Christian.

As I’ve been following the debate over the last 24 hours, I’ve been struck by how often I see Christians make the same mistakes over and over.

Here are four ways many American Christians are getting this whole thing wrong.

1. Equating “being gay” with “having sex.” If an unmarried person tells you they’re “straight,” would you assume that they’re having sex? Probably not. Most straight adults are having sex, but not all of them are. The same is true for gay adults. In his coming out article, Jason doesn’t say anything about his sexual beliefs or practices; he says only that he’s single. Why, then, does this suddenly become a debate about the morality of gay sex, with comparisons to sexual behaviors like “fornication” and “adultery”?

I grew up in a Southern Baptist church with strict beliefs that people shouldn’t have sex outside of marriage. When I finally, tearfully admitted (after years of trying to avoid it) that I was attracted to guys instead of girls, I found myself on the receiving end of lecture after lecture about how being gay was a sin “just like adultery or premarital sex.” But I wasn’t having any kind of sex at all. Being gay isn’t like adultery or premarital sex, because being gay isn’t a sex act. Even if I never have sex, I’m still gay.

2. Using that (assumed) sex act to define us as people. It’s one thing to believe gay sex is sinful, but it’s quite another to define gay people and our lives by that one act. This is where that devious word “lifestyle” creeps in. (I’ve explained before on the blog why I hate that word.) Even if Jason Collins is having sex, that doesn’t mean he’s living a particular kind of “lifestyle.” Do all sexually active straight people live the same lifestyle? Was Billy Graham’s lifestyle the same as Howard Stern’s?

My friend Marty mentioned on my podcast this week that the words “gay lifestyle” are typically a euphemism for “having gay sex.” But by using the word “lifestyle,” you end up defining gay people’s lives entirely in terms of that sex. Notice how Broussard stumbles in that video clip when he tries to apply the same terminology to his other examples: “I don’t believe that you can live an openly homosexual lifestyle or an openly—like premarital sex between heterosexuals.” It’s as if he started to say “an openly ‘premarital sex’ lifestyle” and then realized that made no sense. Because if two straight people have sex before marriage, people might call that sinful, but no one would refer to that as their “premarital sex lifestyle.” We view it as one particular act, not a definition of the entirety of their lives.

(Also, just as a side note, I get Broussard’s point about the need for Christians to repent of sin, but considering that research says 80% of young unmarried Christians have had sex, I’d be a little reluctant to make blanket statements about who is or isn’t a Christian.)

Jason Collins

3. Treating gay people as symbols of a culture war instead of as human beings. Jason Collins is a person. By his own admission, he’s been through a lot of struggles in figuring out who he is and whether to talk about it publicly. But it often feels that when someone like this comes out, many people on both sides view them as just a symbol for us to celebrate or bemoan, so that we all must rush to express approval or disapproval.

I wish, instead, that Christians’ first reaction to news like this were to want to understand, to ask questions like “Why would a Christian in a decidedly anti-gay field feel the need to identify himself as gay? What brought him to this point? What obstacles did he overcome? What has his experience been like?” These are the questions of a compassionate person, one who is willing to put the other person’s humanity first.

Maybe people don’t think of those questions as much when the person coming out is a celebrity. But when I came out to the people I knew personally, I had the same experience. People were quick to condemn me and only rarely took the time to ask me questions about why I felt the way I did or what had brought me to that point in my life. It’s as if, when you come out, you cease to be someone’s friend and become only a representation of an issue.

4. Assuming that being gay is a choice. Who you date, marry, or have sex with is a choice. Who you are attracted to isn’t. “Being gay” only refers to who I’m attracted to. It’s not something I chose, and it’s something many of us were, frankly, afraid of when we first realized it about ourselves.

But over and over, I see Christians talking about being gay as if it were something one could choose to be or not to be. In a Christian Post article this week, Jason Collins was described as “the first active athlete in professional sports to speak about his lifestyle choice” (emphasis mine). What “lifestyle choice” do they mean? On another website, a Christian commenter echoed many when he wrote that “I do not see how anyone can argue with what Broussard said: Living as an open homosexual is open rebellion to God.”

I hear these kind of statements every day. But think about it for a moment. If “living as an open homosexual” is rebellion against God, what choices do I have? I’m already gay; I can’t change that. I could choose to lie and not to be “open” about it, of course, but I don’t believe in dishonesty. Other than that, the only way I could avoid “living as an open homosexual” would be to stop “living.” I don’t have to tell you where that kind of thinking leads.

Is that what the commenter intended? Of course not. But that’s how the message comes across, day after day, to gay people across the country and around the world.

Let me be clear: I think everyone has a right to their moral views, even when they disagree with mine. We Americans can disagree on the morality of gay sex just as we can disagree on the morality of eating meat or drinking alcohol. We Christians have disagreed for centuries on theological questions from the makeup of the Scriptures to infant baptism to transubstantiation. But this isn’t just about a moral disagreement; it’s about how we treat one another and how we talk about one another. If we Christians can’t show more love and willingness to listen, it won’t change one person from gay to straight, but it will turn a lot of people against Christianity.

That’s why I wrote TORN. That’s why I write this blog. That’s why I do what I do. Hey church, are you listening?