The following interview is adapted from a Christian Worldview Thinking interview with author Glenn Stanton about his new book, Loving My (LGBT) Neighbor. In this interview, he explains how Christians can relate to our LGBT neighbors with grace and love without compromising truth. The full audio interview is available here.
Glenn, to begin, would you tell us what you do, who you work for, and give us a sense of why this issue is so important to you?
This book came out of the work that I do at Focus on the Family, where I’m the director of Family Formation Research. Basically, I research the family and why it matters. I’ve spent a lot of time studying gender, and because of that, I’ve been going out for the last 15 years or so to debate the issues of same-sex marriage and the nature of gender on secular college campuses. In doing that, I have developed a lot of meaningful relationships with the people that I debate. Many of the lessons in the book come from the mistakes and successes I’ve had in those relationships.
In the book, you list several ground rules for dealing with the LGBT community. What are “the great equalizers”?
Often I hear Christians say, “Oh my goodness, how do I deal with this gay or lesbian individual, my family member, my coworker, or the neighbor next door?” Now, I think the real question is, “How do I deal with people who are not like me, and who don’t believe like me?” That’s the real question, and I have a couple of points to address that. I call these the great equalizers because they’re so very important.
First of all, we have to understand that everybody is a human being, no exceptions. That’s the one thing we all have in common. Every person is of inestimable worth, not one more than another, and everyone is deeply and passionately loved by God.
Christ went to the cross for every one of us. That’s the great equalizer. Unfortunately, each of us is stricken with a terminal illness called sin, and while that sin separates us from God, it doesn’t separate some of us farther from God than the rest. It infinitely separates every one of us from God. Christ is the only way that that we can be made right. Everyone needs to repent of their sin and throw themselves upon the grace and mercy of God. Those are the great human equalizers.
The question to ask is, how do we deal with people that God loves, people who have incredible worth, but are infected by sin — people who need salvation? That’s everyone. So the question of how do we deal with the gay and lesbian individual is the question of how do we deal with anybody. We deal with them as people who are valuable, but tainted by the terminal illness of sin, as people who need Christ and who need salvation. It’s just as simple as that.
How can we build relationships and genuinely understand where the LGBT community is coming from?
Let me put it this way: I’m a Christian, and I work for Focus on the Family. The assumption many people will have is that I’m mean, hateful, and bigoted. I aim to show them the exact opposite. I’m going to ruin and wreck their assumptions about me, not because I’m going to agree with them on everything, but because, in the midst of our disagreement, I’m going to treat them like a real human being that is worthy of respect and dignity. Even in disagreements, I’m going to make sure to demonstrate that to them. I’m going to make it possible for people to say, “Oh yeah, I know that guy who goes to ABC Church down the street, and actually he’s a pretty nice guy.” We don’t have to acquiesce or compromise on the issue in order to do that, and that’s the challenge for us.
There’s a lot of debate over why people are homosexual — is it a choice? Are they born that way? How does that debate affect how we relate to someone who identifies as LGBT?
Try to connect with the person in front of you. What is their struggle? There are different reasons someone might struggle with alcoholism — and I’m not saying that if you’re gay you’re like an alcoholic. Rather, my point is that everyone falls into alcoholism for different reasons. They may be trying to meet different needs. They may have different fears. We can’t just say, “Oh, that’s how homosexuals are.” That’s not how this works. Talk to the individual, and connect with them. Listen to their story. Many times they are really struggling to come to terms with this, and we need to feel a sense of compassion for that struggle.
I think it’s also important to remember that we don’t have to lead off our friendships by making sure that they understand our position. You don’t meet someone at a party and say, “OK, let me establish all the things that I disagree with you about.” You start to talk about things you have in common and the relationship develops. Once you develop a connection, you can then start talking about heavier things, but first, get to know them as a person.
Some people may already be shaking their heads and thinking, “There’s just no way I could do that.” How is it possible to be friends with somebody that we disagree with so significantly?
You know, we let everybody be wrong on something. We don’t ever enter into a relationship by handing out a list of do’s and don’ts. The cohabiting heterosexual couple next door — would you be there for them? You wouldn’t change your position on cohabitation just because they seem nice, but at the same time, you wouldn’t deliver them an ultimatum and require them to measure up before you’ll let them borrow a cup of sugar. I’m not God and I’m not the police. I can’t make them stop. I can try to influence them, but that’s it. My responsibility is to love them as well as I can.
Now, if later on, the gay couple next door comes to you and invites you to their wedding, you can say, “OK, here’s the thing. Here’s what I believe and I’m just not comfortable with that. I love you guys, you’re fantastic, and you can borrow my lawnmower anytime. In fact, I’ll come over and cut your grass for you, but coming to your wedding is a different kind of thing and I hope you can understand that.”
There are a few phrases that you mention in the book that can inadvertently rub people the wrong way as we’re trying to build relationships with them. What are those phrases?
We need to be sensitive any time we’re dealing with anyone who’s different than we are. We need to understand how what we say comes across to them, and try to communicate meaningfully to the other person. We need to talk in such a way so we aren’t unnecessarily offending them. One very common example is the phrase “love the sinner but hate the sin.” Many people can’t separate those two ideas, and to them, saying that we hate homosexuality is the same as saying that we hate the homosexual. We often mean it as a nice thing, but that’s not how it’s received. It’s so important for us to hear and think about how what we say is perceived by other people.
A child comes home and says, “Mom and Dad, I have to tell you something. I’m gay.” How have you seen parents handle that discussion well?
First of all, I have to say that I’ve seen many, many more Christian parents handle that situation well rather than poorly. Here’s what happens: The parents are blown away. They’re shocked by it, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Usually, it takes the individual a long time to come to terms with this. They had to go through a process. Often, when children tell their parents, we expect the parents to get on board immediately. Both the parents and the child have to understand that it’s going to take time to work through something like that.
I hope this goes without saying, but parents should love their children regardless. That’s why my wife and I have told our kids in so many instances, “You know what? I may be very disappointed in some of the things you do, but there is nothing you can do that will make me love you any less than I love you right now.” That’s true especially true for the child who identifies as same-sex attracted.
In the book, you quoted Tim Keller’s response to someone who asked him, “So Tim, I know I’m a homosexual, so you think I’m going to hell?” Keller’s response was that “homosexuality doesn’t send you to hell any more than heterosexuality sends you to heaven.” Often, in this debate, we find people who think that because they have same-sex attractions, all Christians think that I’m going to hell. How do you address that?
That is a hugely important question, and one I see all the time. People will say, “Well, just because I’m homosexual you believe I’m going to hell.” And I say, “No, I don’t believe that.” Then they ask, “What do you mean?” It’s not your particular sin that sends you to hell, it’s that you’re a child of Adam. I’m a child of Adam. We’re all in the same situation, divided from God. I explain the gospel. That being said, we have to understand that in the same-sex attracted person, many times, not all the time, but many times, there is a sense of self-condemnation that they live under. I think it has a lot to do with the nature of that condition. That’s why they say, “Well, you hate me. You’re rejecting me if you don’t agree with me, if you don’t affirm me.” They are living under a sort of self-rejection, self-condemnation. We need to say, “No, no, no … God doesn’t hate you any more than He hates me, and He doesn’t love me any more than He loves you.” You’re not off the hook in terms of what you need to repent of, but neither am I. You’re not a person beyond hope. That’s key.
Is there hope for us to make headway on the battle of same-sex marriage?
You know what? There is. The Supreme Court is not the last word on this. Unfortunately, I do think that we’re going to see about a 30-year experiment with the “same-sex family,” and we’re going to see that it fails miserably. That being said, we need to realize the truth will win out. Truth is a little bobber on a fishing line. You can pull it underwater, but it will always come back to surface. But in the meantime, we need to proclaim the truth, following the example of John 1:14, which tells us that when Christ came, He came full of grace and in truth. We need to interact and deal with this issue, and do our very best to get the equal and proper balance of getting truth absolutely right and getting grace absolutely right. That’s a great challenge and a great opportunity in front of us.