As a young, gay Christian activist, Matthew Vines considered it a victory just to get into a room at a conservative Christian university here with four influential evangelicals who disagreed with him over what the Bible says about homosexuality.
He ended up in a polite, heartfelt three-hour debate last month over Scripture passages about topics like celibacy, eunuchs, slavery — and the connections between sex and marriage.
“Every single system you have within your body — whether it’s your respiratory system, your excretory system, your muscular system — can be completed as an individual,” said Sean McDowell, a professor here at Biola University and a well-known Christian author and speaker. “But there’s only one system in which male and female have half and become a united whole, and that’s in reproduction.”
But God intended marriage to be about more than “plumbing,” Mr. Vines argued: “Marriage ideally should be about permanent, mutual, self-giving, self-sacrificing love.”
As acceptance of same-sex marriage has swept the country and as the Supreme Court prepares to release a landmark decision on the issue, a wide variety of evangelical churches, colleges and ministries are having the kinds of frank discussions about homosexuality that many of them say they had never had before.
Youth ministers and chaplains are studying how to respond to students struggling with their sexual identities. Governing boards are re-examining their policies on allowing openly gay people in Bible studies. And pastors are preaching and writing about, rather than ignoring, the recent books arguing that the Bible can be read to support same-sex marriage.
Few are dropping their opposition. But aware that they are seen by many as bigots, some evangelical leaders are trying to figure out how to stand firm without alienating the rising share of Americans — especially younger ones — who know gay people and support gay rights, or who may themselves come out as gay.
“Because this is such a relatively new thing, pastors and church people want to know, ‘How do we navigate this, and how do we navigate this well, without doubling down or capitulating?’ ” Glenn T. Stanton, the director of family formation studies at Focus on the Family, said in a telephone interview from the organization’s headquarters in Colorado Springs. Focus on the Family is a large ministry that helps set the social and political agenda for evangelicals, who make up about one-fourth of the nation’s population, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2014.
Mr. Vines says he has held about three dozen meetings all over the country in the last year with evangelical leaders who oppose his ideas. Some of the gatherings have been public and high profile. He spoke at the Q Conference, a prominent showcase for evangelical thinkers, in Boston in April — an appearance denounced by some conservatives.
But most of his meetings have been private. He has talked with small groups of pastors in Phoenix and Nashville and shared his story over coffee or lunch, often one on one, in places like Atlanta; Chicago; Orlando, Fla.; Portland, Ore.; and Greenville, S.C.
He also visited the campus of Focus on the Family in February, at the invitation of Mr. Stanton, and talked with more than 20 staff members about the psychic and spiritual damage inflicted on young gay Christians by ministries like Focus. The organization kept the encounter quiet until now because it did not want to be perceived as wavering in its stance.
Mr. Vines, 25, is hardly the first or the most scholarly evangelical to make these arguments, but when his book, “God and the Gay Christian,” was published last year, it received a lot of attention and proved to be both calling card and lightning rod.
He wrote it after he dropped out of Harvard; went home to Wichita, Kan.; came out to his parents; and studied Scripture and biblical exegesis on homosexuality. The book prompted a nearly instant rebuttal from the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
“If we accept his argument,” Mr. Mohler wrote, “we cannot do that without counting the cost, and that cost includes the loss of all confidence in the Bible.”
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