#SorryNotSorry: What U.S. Christian Denominations Teach About Homosexuality

Billboard, found in Long Island City, Queens. Credit: rdispatches on Instagram.

The massacre of 49 individuals in an Orlando gay nightclub on June 12 has ignited a fierce and ongoing public debate about whether anti-LGBT laws and rhetoric lead to violence.

Yesterday’s New York Times lists some of the more horrific statements made by Christian pastors, like Tempe, Arizona’s Steven L. Anderson, whose only objection to the tragedy was that “they should have been executed by a righteous government.”

Both conservative religious figures and politicians have offered their condolences to survivors and family members of the Pulse victims, but LGBT activists and allies have countered that those same figures and politicians, through their support of religiously-based discriminatory legislation and teachings, have helped create and maintain the culture of hatred and fear that breeds attacks like these.

“While most Christians would never kill someone because of their sexual orientation, most churches have still caused deep, lasting pain in LGBT people’s lives,” wrote Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian. “It is legitimate to be angry not just at the shooter, but also at all those who have caused you to feel afraid and ashamed of who you are. Unless you’ve long been a vocal advocate for LGBT people, you’ve likely contributed to that suffering—intentionally or not.”

How much has American Christianity contributed to that suffering, whether through explicit or tacit rejection of queer lives? While most Christian leaders have denounced the shooting, Rebecca Barrett-Fox (who has contributed to RD) commented: “[Conservative Christian leaders] don’t really believe that these people had a right to be peacefully doing what they were doing, partying at a gay bar.”

And in fact the teachings of many denominations, religious bodies, and churches in the U.S. explicitly consider homosexuality to be, “condemned,” “[a] disorder,” “an abomination,” “aberrant,” “deviant,” “sinful,” that it “does violence to the human spirit and distorts God’s intent,” and other similarly unyielding expressions of disapproval.

While we can’t overlook statements of compassion and solidarity from conservative Christians in the wake of a tragedy like Orlando, it’s also important to remember, particularly at moments like these, that such public statements don’t tell the whole story. So, in the hope of telling more of that story, RD set out to assemble the stated beliefs of several of the largest Christian denominations and bodies in the United States, which we’ve listed below. Included with each is the percentage of members who believe homosexuality should be accepted by society, as reported by Pew.

Please note: It’s crucial to state up front what this list is and is not. It’s not an argument for direct correlation between a denomination’s teachings and opposition to homosexuality among all of its members. The largest denomination in the U.S., Catholicism, demonstrates that that’s clearly not the case. So it’s not a description of what individual American Christians actually believe. These are the doctrines and teachings. In some cases decisions on these and other matters are left to local entities or individual churches, while in others—most notably in the Catholic Church—that isn’t the case. What this list is is an effort to clearly lay out, in the wake of an American tragedy, what the largest religious bodies teach with regard to homosexuality.

Roman Catholic Church

Members (as of 2010): 68,202,492

According to a 2006 Guideline for Pastoral Care released by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, any sexual act taking place outside the bond of marriage is morally wrong. While the church does not consider homosexual attraction or “inclination” to be a sin, “homosexual acts” are considered to be “contrary to the will of God,” “contrary to the natural law,” and “incompatible with the Christian life,” according to the guideline.

“Homosexual acts also violate the true purpose of sexuality,” the guideline states. “They are sexual acts that cannot be open to life. Nor do they reflect the complementarity of man and woman that is an integral part of God’s design for human sexuality. … Under no circumstances can they be approved.”

70% of members believe homosexuality should be accepted by society.


Southern Baptist Convention (Evangelical Protestant)

Members (as of 2010): 16,136,044

According to the SBC’s position statement on sexuality, “homosexuality is not a ‘valid alternative lifestyle.’” Although “the Bible condemns it as a sin,” it is not “unforgivable,” and homosexuals may seek redemption, according to the church. Under the SBC’s bylaws, any church that acts to “affirm, approve, or endorse homosexuality” is not in cooperation with the Convention.

30% of members believe homosexuality should be accepted by society.


United Methodist Church (Mainline Protestant)

Members (as of 2009): 7,774,931

In 2008, the United Methodist Church resolved to “strengthen its advocacy of the eradication of sexism by opposing all forms of violence or discrimination based on gender, gender identity, sexual practice, or sexual orientation.” However, according to its 2012 Full Book of Discipline, “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” “Self-avowed practicing homosexual” ministers are not allowed to be ordained by the church.

At their 2016 quadrennial conference, Methodists gathered in Portland to consider whether gay and lesbian pastors should be ordained and whether same-sex couples should be able to marry in the church. By a narrow margin, the delegates voted to appoint a commission to study the issue, leaving the two open questions for another day.

60% of members believe homosexuality should be accepted by society.


Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon)

Members (as of 2010): 6,157,238

According to the LDS website, “the church’s doctrinal position is clear: Sexual activity should only occur between a man and a woman who are married. However, that should never be used as justification for unkindness. Jesus Christ, whom we follow, was clear in His condemnation of sexual immorality, but never cruel. His interest was always to lift the individual, never to tear down.”

While it includes numerous reminders that the Church’s position “neither constitutes nor condones any kind of hostility toward gays and lesbians,” it also notes that: “Because the Church believes that the sacred powers of procreation are ‘to be exercised only between a man and a woman lawfully wedded as husband and wife … any other sexual relations, including those between persons of the same gender, undermine the divinely created institution of the family.’”

Like the Catholic Church, LDS distinguishes between “same-sex behavior” and “same-sex attraction,” the latter of which it does not consider to be inherently sinful.

36% of members believe homosexuality should be accepted by society.


Church of God in Christ (Historically Black Protestant)

Members (as of 2010): 5,499,875

In a 2004 statement, the COGIC said “homosexual practices of same-sex couples are in violation of religious and social norms and are aberrant and deviant behavior. We believe that these unions are sinful and in direct violation of the law of God in that they are a deviation from the natural use and purpose of the body.”

38% of members believe homosexuality should be accepted by society.


National Baptist Convention (Historically Black Protestant)

Members (as of 2010): 5,197,512

On its website, The National Baptist Convention USA Inc. says it has no “official” position on any issues with regards to homosexuality, in keeping with the polity’s mission not to make any authoritative statements on behalf of its constituency. However, it states: “if you were to take a poll of traditional, missionary Black Baptist Churches, it is very safe to say that you will find a majority of them:

Against homosexuality/lesbianism as a legitimate expression of God’s will.

Against ordaining practicing homosexuals/lesbians for any type of ministry in the Body of Christ.

Against, but permits persons guilty of illicit acts of a heterosexual nature, for example, adultery and fornication, to continue in the practice of ministry in the Body of Christ (with the proper accountability measures, i.e., censure, repentance, counseling, etc. in place).”

54% of members believe homosexuality should be accepted by society.


Jehovahs Witnesses

Members (as of 2010): 1,184,249

Jehovah’s Witnesses consider homosexuality a sin. According to the denomination’s website, “The Bible condemns sexual activity that is not between a husband and wife, whether it is homosexual or heterosexual conduct. This includes intercourse, fondling another person’s genitals, and engaging in oral or anal sex.”

16% of members believe homosexuality should be accepted by society.


Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (Mainline Protestant)

Members (as of 2010): 4,274,855

As a national church, the ELCA has no official stance on the acceptability of homosexuality. In a 2009 statement adopted by its Churchwide Assembly, it recognized that some members might view homosexuality as a sin, some view homosexuality as a reflection of a broken world, and others believe that “the neighbor and community are best served when same-gender relationships are lived out with lifelong and monogamous commitments that are held to the same rigorous standards, sexual ethics, and status as heterosexual marriage.”

73% of members believe homosexuality should be accepted by society.


Assemblies of God (Evangelical)

Members (as of 2010): 3,030,944

The Assemblies of God deems “homosexual behavior” a sin because it is “disobedient to scriptural teachings” and “contrary to God’s created order for the family and human relationships.”

In August 2014, the General Presbytery of the Assemblies of God adopted the following official statement:

“We believe, in light of biblical revelation, that the growing cultural acceptance of homosexual identity and behavior (male and female), same-sex marriage, and efforts to change one’s biological sexual identity are all symptomatic of a broader spiritual disorder that threatens the family, the government, and the church.”

26% of members believe homosexuality should be accepted by society.


Presbyterian Church USA (Mainline Protestant)

Members (as of 2010): 2,675,873

As of June, 2014 the Book of Order now reads that marriage is defined as a covenant “between two people, traditionally between a man and a woman.”

Individual churches vary in their policies, but the PCUSA is “generally LGBT affirming” and has a strong pro-LGBT grassroots movement led by More Light Presbyterians, according to Believe Out Loud, an online Cristian LGBT network.

65% of members believe homosexuality should be accepted by society.


African Methodist Episcopal Church (Historically Black Protestant)

Members (as of 2009): 2,500,000

Homosexuality “clearly contradicts [their] understanding of Scripture” and same-sex unions are “contrary to the will of god”

61% of members believe homosexuality should be accepted by society.


Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (Evangelical Protestant)

Members (as of 2010): 2,278,586

According to the LCMS, “homosexual behavior” is prohibited in both the Old and New Testaments as “intrinsically sinful” and “contrary to the Creator’s design.”

56% of members believe homosexuality should be accepted by society.


Episcopal Church (Mainline Protestant)

Members (as of 2010): 1,951,907

“Every member of the LGBT community is entitled to the same respect and dignity as any other member of the human family,” Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said in a January 2014 statement.

“Our advocacy work continues to build support for the full human rights and dignity of all persons, irrespective of gender, race, national origin, creed, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability or inability,” she said. “To do less is effectively to repudiate our membership in the human community. No one of God’s children is worth less or more than another; none is to be discriminated against because of the way in which she or he has been created.”

83% of members believe homosexuality should be accepted by society.


American Baptist Churches USA (Mainline Protestant)

Members (as of 2009): 1,310,505

In 1992, the American Baptist Churches USA General Board affirmed a one-sentence resolution on homosexuality: “American Baptist Resolution on Homosexuality”: “We affirm that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” In 2005, the board added the same language to its official identity statement.

54% of members believe homosexuality should be accepted by society.


United Church of Christ (Mainline Protestant)

Members (as of 2010): 1,058,423

The United Church of Christ does not view homosexuality as incompatible with Christian teachings. Since 1972, the church’s Open and Affirming Coalition has advocated for the UCC LGBT community.

82% of members believe homosexuality should be accepted by society.


Presbyterian Church in America (Evangelical Protestant)

Members (as of 2010): 341,482

According to the PCA, homosexuality is a sin and “not an acceptable alternative lifestyle. “Practicing homosexuals” are unfit for ordination or membership in the church, according to official church policy.

“Any heterosexual or homosexual behavior or relationship that does not conform to God’s design does violence to the human spirit and distorts God’s intent for men and women,” according to PCANews.com.

49% of members believe homosexuality should be accepted by society.


National Association of Evangelicals*

Though not technically a church, the NAE represents 40 denominations across approximately 45,000 churches (including the Presbyterian Church in America and Assemblies of God, mentioned above).

In a 2012 booklet called “Theology of Sex”, the NAE wrote that “homosexual activity, like adulterous relationships, is clearly condemned in the Scriptures.” Unlike race, gender or national origin, homosexuality is not an inherited condition, but rather a deviation from God’s plan, according to the NAE.

“Although some homosexual individuals may exhibit some positive characteristics, homosexual activity does not fall in line with the fundamental purposes for sex.”

36% of evangelicals believe homosexuality should be accepted by society. (Pew doesn’t offer data for the NAE in particular, so this correlation should be read more loosely than the others.)

*While it’s not a denomination, and although its own literature stresses that “it cannot be said that the NAE in any way serves as an authoritative—or even well-known—factor in the secular or religious lives of the vast majority of evangelicals in the United States,” the NAE has been included to ensure that America’s 70 million white evangelicals are represented to some extent. Without the NAE, which claims to include roughly 30 million evangelicals, the above list would only include 22 million, or less than a third. 

**Special thank you to Josef Sorett and Jennifer Leath of The Center on African American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice at Columbia University for their assistance.