For many Americans, all they've heard is that Christians are "anti-gay." The recent passage of amendments in California, Florida and Arizona defining marriage between a man and a woman and the large support those measures drew from churches haven't changed that perception, and perhaps made it worse.
But few, if any, especially in the media, have given the public the "whole story" about churches and their persistent efforts to protect what they believe is God's definition of marriage.
"I’ve not seen any attempt [by the mass media] to understand or communicate the real concern of Christians concerning gay marriage," said Bob Stith, who heads the Ministry to Homosexuals Task Force in the Southern Baptist Convention – the largest Protestant denomination in the country.
And Christians haven't been much help either.
"Too many Christians have cooperated with this by emphasizing more of what we’re against than what we’re for," Stith commented, concerning the gay marriage debate.
But much of that "whole story" includes love.
Former homosexual Melissa Fryrear educates thousands of Christians every year on how to respond to the issue of homosexuality in a "Christ-like" manner.
Director of the gender issues department at Focus on the Family, which hosts Love Won Out conferences, she says she has been accused of being anti-gay because of her beliefs.
"I'm not anti-gay because I'm a Christian and I'm a heterosexual evangelical Christian," said Fryrear, who became a Christian and came out of homosexuality over 15 years ago. "I'm pro-biblical sexual ethic. I'm pro-God's created intent for sexuality" – that being marriage between a man and a woman.
"That's what I'm for, so anything that falls outside of that falls out of God's intent," she highlighted.
"It's not what I'm against, it's what I'm for," she added, noting the nuance.
Still, it's a tough sell for many gay rights supporters, especially the thousands that marched last weekend in protest of the passage of gay marriage bans in three states. Hundreds stood in front of churches with protest signs.
Some opponents of California's marriage amendment, or Proposition 8, went as far as releasing blacklists (antigayblacklist.com) of those who made monetary contributions to support Proposition 8. The list includes the names of individuals, businesses, Christian ministries and churches and how much each donated.
Proposition 8 opponents are now preparing to defend same-sex marriage in court after California's Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to hear multiple legal challenges against the amendment. The high court had ruled in May to legalize marriage for same-sex couples and an estimated 18,000 gay and lesbian marriages were sanctioned before the Nov. 4 vote.
Meanwhile, proponents of Proposition 8 are also readying their arguments as the state high court agreed to allow them to intervene as defendants in the case. Arguments will be weighed beginning next month.
But while the legal battle rages on, Christians have been given the opportunity to clear up misunderstandings and boldly share their faith, some say.
"If people misunderstand Christianity or misunderstand God's truth, here is an opportunity for us to try to articulate those correctly and to demonstrate those rightly," said Fryrear of Focus on the Family.
That means, defending God's design for sexuality and doing so in a spirit of grace, humility and compassion, she explained.
"People think that Christians are intolerant or bigots or hate-filled. This is an opportunity to say that's absolutely not true," she added. "The very essence of God is love. In ways unbelievers misunderstand Christianity and the messages of Christ, this is an opportunity to actually live it out by showing love. That doesn't mean condoning behaviors outside God's created intent for sexuality."
Fryrear celebrated this year the 10th anniversary of Love Won Out conferences and testified that many gay advocates who attended the event were surprised not to have heard messages of hate but only of love and grace.
The ministry's goal is to model after Christ, and balance "grace and truth," she said.
Also hoping to clear up misperceptions and get the "whole story" across, Stith of the SBC said it is imperative for Christians to at least seek to communicate that "it isn't just that we believe gay marriage is bad for Christians, the culture at large, etc. But it is ultimately bad for homosexuals if we really believe God has something different in mind for them. This is true for anyone who desires the fullness of joy and peace that God wants them to have."
"Whether someone is living with another person outside the marriage covenant, is a serial adulterer, or engaging in premarital sex, they cannot experience all that God wants them to have," he continued. "Our motive should not be simply to deny gay marriage but to hold out the hope, the promise and the fullness that God wants all people to know."
Homosexuality has emerged as a major issue confronting churches in the recent decade. And Stith has been part of a growing effort seen among churches to inform, educate and encourage Christians to reach out and show compassion in response to homosexuality while affirming biblical truth.
Responding to claims that the church views homosexual behavior as a bigger sin than anything else, Stith simply stated, "When the culture continually argues for the acceptance of homosexual acts, the church is called to respond to that ... [and] to speak the truth of Scripture."
"If it seems that we devote an inordinate amount of time addressing that it is because an inordinate amount of time is given to promotion of homosexuality."