Ever since I was a kid, eons ago, I have been a long-time reader of the National Geographic magazine. So I was both intrigued and concerned when the January 2017 issue, “Gender Revolution,” arrived. How would the story on gender and transgender be told: with an objective analysis or a subjective slant? The front picture gave more than a hint: on the cover was an elementary-aged transgender girl, with the caption reading, “The best thing about being a girl is, now I don’t have to pretend to be a boy,”
I got my answer. I found myself looking at that picture and feeling much sadness. I couldn’t help but think that this young child is still “pretending,” but is now being encouraged to exchange reality for fantasy.
I don’t want to criticize National Geographic for producing this issue. After all, gender and transgender issues are in the forefront of our news and culture. National Geographic writes about all sorts of people and culture groups, and this is a story that fits in their purview. Christians should not ignore these stories of children and adults who feel out of sorts with their own gendered bodies. There is something to be learned in all this.
But the information presented in the magazine, from the main article to the sympathetic photos and stories of transgendered youth, seems designed to leave the reader with the conclusion that almost every news story today proclaims: that biology has no essential connection to what gender is, and we can be whatever we want to be regardless of the anatomy with which we are born.
That’s a deeply mistaken notion. But what’s most tragic is seeing where this has led—that we let even the youngest children make life-altering decisions that will lead them to steadily transform and even mutilate their bodies, with parents and other adults encouraging them onward. Our hearts should feel for how these children struggle with their sense of self, but we should grieve even more for the kind of help they are being offered.
The National Geographic main article, “Rethinking Gender” by Robin Marantz Henig, is the one to read carefully. It is well-written and presents itself in a measured tone, and that is what makes it all the more uncomfortable, if not disturbing. Unless you carefully read what it is saying and what is subtlety not being said, you might walk away thinking, yes, science is indeed showing us that what we believed about the connection between gender and biology—the normative gender binary—has been all wrong.
But that is not what the article proves at all. And you’ve got to read it carefully to know that.
Here is just one example:
The first part of the article describes the complexities of being born intersex. There isn’t anything new written here, but the brief summary is excellent in describing how very complicated this is for the child, their family, and their social unit. These are difficult situations for parents, doctors, and the children involved to sort through, and we should give wide leeway to acknowledge the tough decisions that have to be made here.
Intersex conditions have long been seen by the medical establishment as disorders of sex development. In other words, something has gone wrong in the fetal development of the child. A Christian worldview sees intersex conditions in the same light, placing it within the biblical story of the Fall, where the introduction of sin brought about brokenness in all things, including our bodies.
But in a post-Christian culture, energized by an increasingly aggressive LGBT agenda, intersex conditions are now being seen as evidence of multiple genders, as normative as the binary view of gender once was.
Henig then makes a leap from intersex to transgender, slipping in a paragraph that mentions Caitlyn Jenner becoming a trans woman. Here’s the paragraph:
As transgender issues become the fare of the daily news—Caitlyn Jenner’s announcement that she is a trans woman, legislators across the United States arguing about who gets to use which bathroom—scientists are making their own strides, applying a variety of perspectives to investigate what being transgender is all about.
Step back and notice what has happened here. Henig has linked here the complex issues about intersex conditions to someone being transgender. The reality is, these are two very different things. Jenner’s transformation has nothing to do with being born intersex. The phenomenon of transgenderism is quite distinct from intersex complications. This unwarranted (and virtually unnoticeable connection), if not challenged, will leave the casual reader thinking the two are related, and that science is finally coming to understand, through its research, a new understanding of gender.
As we at Harvest USA said in our recent magazine, Transgenderism: The Reshaping of Reality, we do not see this issue as discovering new things about gender. This isn’t enlightened thinking at all, but rather it is “nothing short of an assault against God, and God’s authority to create people in his image, ‘male and female.’” Transgenderism is a radical redefinition of what it means to be human, and the implications are likely to bring tragic results.
How did we go from ongoing generational discussions about gender expression (or roles) to encouraging children to alter and even mutilate their bodies to fit into those roles?
Henig casually drops hints that, indeed, something more than science is driving this phenomenon. At the beginning of the article, she writes about a 14-year old girl questioning her gendered body: “She’s questioning her gender identity, rather than just accepting her hobbies and wardrobe choices as those of a tomboy, because we’re talking so much about transgender issues these days” (emphasis added). Did you catch what is being said here? So much of what children are struggling with is how to fit into cultural roles of gender, many of which change from one generation to another. How did we go from an ongoing generational discussion about gender expression (or roles) to encouraging children to alter and even mutilate their bodies to fit into those roles?
What is driving the issue of transgenderism and its acceptance is not scientific research (note: let’s not as Christians oppose legitimate scientific inquiry into this issue), but a dominant culture which has persistently deconstructed and disassembled gender and gender roles for more than half a century. In a materialistic worldview that refuses to see, much less accept, a divine plan for how we should live, we now arrive at truth by means of our own individual stories and experience. This personal-truth-for-me culture is seen in a photo of a six-year-old boy who describes himself as “gender creative” and who, the caption says about him, “is very sure of who he is.”
A six-year-old who knows with certainty who he is? Childhood has always been observed as the journey in which young boys and girls wrestle with who they are, and eventually emerge into adulthood with a clearer understanding of themselves and the world in which they will live. Now we think children are wise enough to short-circuit that process by more than a decade.
The real difficulties these children experience will not be fixed by encouraging them to pretend to be what they are not, and especially to put their bodies at the mercy of hormone-altering drugs and surgical knives. Walt Heyer, a former transsexual, says in his recent commentary of National Geographic’s issue on gender, “Like others who elect to live the transgender life, I painfully discovered it was only a temporary fix to deeper pain… if National Geographic truly wanted to explore the complexities of gender change, they would have included stories of people who discovered that living the transgender life was an empty promise.”
Of course they didn’t, Walt. It’s not the cultural stream the world is swimming in right now. It’s all further evidence that the world we now live in is a modern version of ancient Israel: no truth, no design, no shared meaning or purpose. We’re left with conflicting opinions on how to live that give us no clear path forward. “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25).
“What’s wrong with changing your gender if your body is sick—if your body is wrong for you?”
How’s that for a question to answer? The question’s larger context was this: If you’re sick, you go to the doctor and get help. If you lose your leg, you get a prosthesis. If you’re depressed, you take medication. So what’s wrong with changing your gender if your body is sick, if something is wrong with it?
Ellen Dykas and I went to a coffeehouse talk for young adults at Calvary Church in Souderton. Calvary has a terrific discussion event called Living Room Tuesdays, where, according to their website, “these meetings are meant to be a safe place for young adults to discuss issues, ask questions, and learn how the Bible directs us to respond to these issues.” As John McCants, the Pastor of Young Adult Ministries (who, BTW, is totally in sync with this age group!) said to us, “We’ve got to get Christians thinking well on these subjects. We don’t want to be stupid!”
So, yes, it was a safe place to open up and talk about transgenderism. But what came through was the fact that this is, indeed, a very hot topic. And one rife with confusion, courtesy of our culture’s pervasive post-Christian views of gender and sexuality.
After an hour of interactive discussion with John McCants, we took questions. Lots of questions. Questions that really couldn’t be answered with a simple yes or no, do this or don’t do that. Wisdom questions and conscience questions, particularly about how to intersect faith with living our Christian lives “out there” in the marketplace.
Then, near the end of our time, came the question at the top. Upon hearing it, I recognized the cultural mindset behind it. If someone feels this way, then why do Christians find fault with it, especially if, for them, it might be a life or death issue? There are lots of things we fix or change in life, so why shouldn’t transgenderism just be another one?
Our churches need to get these cultural issues on the table for discussion, to air them out, and to help people see the wisdom of God’s design in making men and women his image bearers.
Lurking behind this individualistic framework is our culture’s insistence that truth and reality are arrived at from my own personal experience. And if there is no God, then who I am (identity) and what I do (purpose) are entirely up to me.
Tragically, it’s a mindset that has infiltrated the church. While Christians should respect people’s life experiences, we must also be a people who believe that who we are and what we are here for is determined by God, who has put into place both design and boundary lines so that we might live well.
I couldn’t go too deep into a cultural worldview discussion at that point (we were wrapping things up after two long hours!), but this is what came to my mind. I acknowledged the deep struggle someone might have with aligning their biological sex with their sense of gender, but more foundational than someone’s distress is this issue: Does God have a primary claim on who we are, or are we in charge of choosing whatever seems right for us?
Then I said: Since when is being male a disease to be cured? Since when is being female a medical condition that needs intervention? If there are no biological complexities involved like intersex complications, why would you do this to an otherwise healthy, normal body? Why do we intervene in other “body dysmorphic” issues like anorexia but not this one?
With someone who is literally starving but believes she is overweight, we properly locate where the struggle is: The person’s mind and heart, which has become influenced by self-destructive impulses, erroneous beliefs, and cultural distortions of what a body should look like.
Why would we not do the same with a gender-confused person? We need to help that individual live well within his or her “assigned gender,” to learn that being male or female reflects the image of God and his purposes for our lives.
There’s more to be said about the issue of transgenderism, but Calvary Church in Souderton, PA is on the right track. Our churches need to get these cultural issues on the table for discussion, to air them out, and to help people see the wisdom of God’s design in making men and women his image bearers.
Go to this link to see the videos on this discussion, as well as follow-up videos from the second time we had a similar discussion at Calvary.
19 Dec 2016
A pastor calls, wondering what he should do. A married woman in his church is beginning to look like a man. Over several months her changed appearance has made it increasingly clear that a slow but significant transformation is happening. But neither the woman nor her husband has asked for help. No one in the congregation has said anything publicly, though people are beginning to take notice. Hence his confusion. What should this pastor do?
For a church to help someone with gender confusion, they must first see a real person in distress. When we get down to the level of the individual, this becomes not a cultural battleground but a person who is struggling. Yes, our culture has made transgenderism the issue du jour, but the person in front of you is like a lamb without a shepherd. In everything you do, help her come to the true Shepherd who will gently guide her.
So, if someone in your church is struggling with gender confusion, we need to do more than proclaim adherence to Genesis 1 and 2 to resolve his or her dilemma. Yes, good biblical teaching on sexuality is necessary. We must not abandon the anchor position that Scripture gives us: God created humanity as male and female, and those two genders are who we are as unique, individual persons. Living out our given maleness and femaleness is an essential part of what it means to be human.
But we also live in a Genesis 3 world. Ours is a world that is broken, resembling God’s original design but increasingly showing deep cracks in how God’s image bearers reflect his image. Men and women have struggled with sexuality and gender for countless ages, so this isn’t anything new.
What is different now, however, is how the culture has turned reality upside-down, insisting that the individual decides what is real and true, rather than the individual conforming to reality. But those who wrestle with their gender identity don’t think they are trying to be rebellious. Rather, they are confused, desperate, and fearful, trying to make sense of their pain. The distress they feel is real. The world’s solution seems more hopeful, a better “fit” to their struggle, so they embrace the post-Christian script that gender is essentially pliable.
What is our advice on what this pastor could say to this woman? How might he speak a message that could give her hope—maybe enough hope to grasp why God has called her to live as a woman; maybe enough hope that she can begin to see herself living congruently with her femaleness; and maybe enough hope for a future that would help her choose to slow down and reverse the transition process she seems to be pursuing?
What do we say? Here are five broad principles this pastor and a church can pursue:
Affirm and recognize how hard this is
Affirm the likelihood that this struggle has been going on for some time. Recognize that this is not a superficial battle and that she and others are trying to make sense of what they experience. Ask good questions so that you can begin to grasp what her life is like and why she feels so strongly that she needs to transition to the opposite gender. When did you start feeling this way? When do you feel it most strongly? What makes you feel most desperate? Get to know her; listen to her stories that are shaping her. Listen carefully.
Understanding biblical truth, and then applying it to our hearts, is a journey, so expect this to take time.
Carefully teach and seek mutual involvement
Communicate to her that deep, persistent struggles grow stronger when we contend with them in isolation. As someone who attends your church, ask if she would allow you to keep speaking into her life about this. You want to hear her thoughts but you also want her to listen as you share a biblical perspective on gender and sexuality. Keep in mind that she has come to hate parts of herself, so communicate in a way that helps her question what she believes about gender rather than trying to convince her with an argument. Questions like, If God has designed every detail of your life from the beginning (Psalm 139), how do you view God if you insist on transitioning? What makes you hate parts of your body when God loves the very body he gave you? What would need to change if you began to accept the body you were born with? Do you know what Scripture says about what it means to be a man or a woman? How is that different from what you believe?
Understanding biblical truth, and then applying it to our hearts, is a journey, so expect this to take time.
Good teaching is rarely, if ever, the sole factor that encourages someone to move in the right direction. Our words, combined with our loving presence, are what people in pain need. Being involved also means connecting her to the body of Christ. You could assist her with Christian counseling, help her find an older and wiser woman as a mentor, involve her in appropriate ministry, pray with her, etc. It is in the body of Christ where we grow. Here, among those who will encourage her, she will learn to accept and grow into the gendered body God gave her. Walk with her for as long as it takes, through all the successes and failures that will be a part of her journey.
Help her to grasp that our life, which includes our body, first belongs to God
Patiently teach that believers in Christ have a deeper foundation for their identity than those in the world. We do not have the right to be autonomous, self-determined individuals, creating identities and lives that fit our felt needs. We are unique individuals, but we first belong to the One who gave us life and redemption. Being made in the image of God includes our gendered body; who we are and how we relate to God and others flows through and is shaped by the body we are given at birth. The body is not like a piece of clothing we can change; we are “ensouled bodies,” bodies into which God breathes life. The body he has given us is essential to our identity.
An identity grounded in Christ seeks his purposes above all else. Orienting ourselves around Christ allows us to reflect on the secure identity that he offers, rather than frantically trying to discover or fashion an identity for ourselves. Grounding who we are in Christ gives us the means to fight and grow increasingly free of internal desires that first confuse and then enslave us.
Teach a biblical view of perseverance in the midst of suffering
Acknowledge that some life-situations are chronic, persistent, and will not be completely resolved in this life, like many chronic disability circumstances. We are called to persevere faithfully in certain situations, to discover in and through the struggle that God’s grace gives all of it meaning, purpose, and daily strength to live, grow, and even to prosper (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).
Call her to bring God into the heart of the situation
Bringing God into the heart of the situation is absolutely necessary because this is a spiritual issue too. Her gender distress has another element of struggle, beyond what she or others think about this issue. And it is this: To go against God’s design and purpose (and reality itself) brings about increasing confusion and pain. Searching for healing is not necessarily wrong, but pursuing solutions that violate God’s intentional design and purpose is rebellion against him. Bringing God into the center is to move toward obeying him, even when it is difficult.
Obedience involves repentance, a daily practice that slowly brings about change and joy. This is accomplished not by focusing on behavior, but by helping her see her heart, the place where she still seeks to find her own solutions. Help her see that obedience is not just keeping a set of rules, but rather the means to experience following Christ as a life-affirming direction. But be careful about what obedience looks like. We are not calling her to live out gender stereotypes, but for her to embrace being a woman who lives that out in ways that honor God, which can look uniquely different than our preconceptions.
We could say a lot more here. But speaking into these broad categories might open doors to effectively help someone wrestling with gender confusion to seek God’s help to be who God has called him or her be.
22 Nov 2016
I’ve come across some interesting and informative web posts that are good reads and worth your time! Every so often I’ll try to send to our website readers a few articles, columns, or reports that can help you stay on top of current cultural trends in sexuality and how to respond with biblical wisdom and compassion. Just a heads up: Not everything will be from a Christian perspective, nor will it always reflect what we think and believe, but if it has critical information or a careful perspective we should know about, I’ll post the link.
This is a long read, but well worth it! The New Atlantis Journal published its September 2016 issue entirely on sexuality and gender issues. The New Atlantis Journal
1. You can read this issue online, or you can download it as a PDF file. Drs. Lawrence Mayer and Paul McHugh write a summary of medical and social science research related to sexual orientation and gender identity. The report already has made a big impact.
Here are two sentences from it:
“The understanding of sexual orientation as an innate, biologically fixed property of human beings—the idea that people are ‘born that way’—is not supported by scientific evidence.”
“The hypothesis that gender identity is an innate, fixed property of human beings that is independent of biological sex—that a person might be ‘a man trapped in a woman’s body’ or ‘a woman trapped in a man’s body’—is not supported by scientific evidence.”
The New Atlantis is not a Christian journal, so it is important that this study rebuts the cultural/political mantra that sexual orientation and gender dysphoria are biologically caused. In other words, the issue is not settled as many proclaim. While some of its conclusions do not entirely align with Scripture’s view of sexuality and gender, it is, nevertheless, a careful examination of issues of causation and care for those who live with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria.
2. On the issue of gender and transgender, Dr. Robert Gagnon has a blog post responding to Dr. Mark Yarhouse responding to Gagnon’s response to Yarhouse’s Christianity Today article. I hope you were able to follow that.
How the church should respond to men and women with gender dysphoria is pastorally critical regarding faithfulness to Scripture in what it says and how we help those who struggle to obey Christ. Yarhouse and Gagnon are believers who care deeply about the gospel and how the church should apply it to people struggling with same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria. Our Transgender Resource Page already has links to Yarhouse’s CT article, as well as Gagnon’s first reply to that. Transgenderism Resources
Here’s the second round of their online conversation about pastoral care of someone dealing with gender dysphoria.
Mark Yarhouse’s article in First Things: Understanding Gender Dysphoria: A Reply to Gagnon
Robert Gagnon’s reply: The Yarhouse Rejoinder
We appreciate both these men, and what they bring to the conversation on sexuality and gender. The more our society embraces secularism, the more complicated it will be for the church to help its victims. If you’re wondering where Harvest USA leans on this complicated transgender issue, we side more with Gagnon. We should be pastorally sensitive in helping the individual, patiently walking with that person, willing to flex with them in their struggle to follow God, but not in a way that affirms or encourages what is delusional in their struggle. There are some boundary lines that we believe would be wrong to cross in how we help someone.
3. Here’s a short read. Tim Keller posts a thought experiment about how one’s culture influences and shapes what we think and believe. “The Gay Anglo-Saxon Warrior.”
Our culture is constantly pressing in on us to “be ourselves,” and that all-important search to “find ourselves” is discovered internally, by how one feels. But our feelings are a blind guide to life. Cultural voices that call us to live in ways that entice us to disobey God are echoes of the original voice in the Garden, “Did God actually say….?”
Here are a few sentences to entice you to read this short excerpt from a book Keller wrote: “What does this thought experiment show us? Primarily it reveals that we do not get our identity simply from within. Rather, we receive some interpretive moral grid, lay it down over our various feelings and impulses, and sift them through it. This grid helps us decide which feelings are “me” and should be expressed—and which are not and should not be.”
We are getting an increasing number of requests from parents, pastors, friends, and others in the the church for good, biblically sound resources to help understand and address issues of transgenderism. There’s a lot of good stuff scattered around the web, and we’re trying to collect some of them into a Resource Page. http://dev-harvestusa.pantheonsite.io/transgenderism-resources/
The Resource Page is being updated as we come across more articles, sermons, blog posts, etc., that we believe are helpful from a gospel perspective. So check back from time to time. Just click the link to the page above. We hope what we have gathered will help you think biblically and compassionately.
Standing in front of a crowd of young Christians at an urban church, John Freeman, Founder of Harvest USA, talked about the need for faithful believers to live with sexual integrity according to the Scriptures. A young man interrupted him with, “You must be kidding! You can’t expect us to live like that today! It’s not possible! ”
While taken aback by the interruption, John thanked him for his honesty and proceeded to tell the crowd, “Yes, God expects that from you. He will give you what you need to live like that. Your life will be much richer for it.”
Two thousand years ago, the apostle Paul stood before a group of believers and delivered much the same message. His letter to the church in Thessalonica hints that Paul received similar pushback.
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, ESV)
If the church today is going to help her people live faithfully, we need to follow Paul’s example in two ways. First, we must not retreat from proclaiming the importance of living within God’s design for sexuality. Second, we must go beyond proclamation to actively teach people how to walk in sexual integrity. Both of these must go together, or the church will fail in her duty to be a redemptive community where men and women grow into the character of Christ.
Paul proclaimed that how we live with our bodies matters, and our struggle to live faithfully in these bodies is a battle God wants us to fight.
The importance of living with sexual integrity is stressed seven times by Paul. Seven times he says, in essence, that our sexual behavior reveals our spirituality—that how we live sexually is a barometer of our faith.
Verse 2: For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. Here Paul reminds the church of his past instruction to them, instruction that was not mere personal opinion.
Verse 3: For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality . . . Here Paul links personal growth in faith with sexual integrity.
Verse 4: . . . that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness . . . Paul hints here at how hard this can be, and that we need to learn to do so.
Verse 5: . . . not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles . . . Paul exhorts them to not live like those who base their relationships and life on fleeting and changeable desires and emotions.
Verse 6: . . . that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things . . . Sexual sin can deeply harm another person, and the Lord will not ignore selfishness and injustice.
Verse 7: “For God has called us . . . in holiness . . .” Sexual integrity is a specific call for all believers.
Verse 8: . . . whoever disregards this, disregards . . . God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. Again, Paul says this is not his personal opinion and that God has given us help, the Holy Spirit, to enable and empower us to live faithfully.
“No one escapes sexual struggles and sin by dealing with it alone.”
Paul’s emphasis counters cultural messages we hear about sex today. We hear that sex equals life, that a life lived without sex is tragic, and that our sexual identities define the core of who we are as human beings. But even for those who resist this cultural siren song, just living in this sexually-saturated world makes sexual integrity incredibly difficult.
Does it encourage you to know that this was difficult for first-century Christians also?
The situation in Thessaloniki existed at other churches as well. In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul addressed incest, prostitution, sex outside of marriage, sexual promiscuity, distorted views of sex within marriage, and same-sex attraction. But in the face of stark cultural differences (and, yes, probably protests from newcomers to the faith), Paul upheld the gospel on this matter. He didn’t flinch in saying how important sexual integrity was, even as he saw them struggle to attain it.
But Paul was not merely reinforcing the Old Testament moral law about sexual behavior, nor adding new rules to the early church. Yes, God’s moral law was not overturned in the new covenant, but now there is a far bigger picture to comprehend in Christ: Jesus has brought about a new creation through his life, death, and resurrection. Living in increasing holiness demonstrates that we are a part of this new life; we are part of a new creation bringing about God’s Kingdom on earth. Therefore, God wants us to see something in this struggle for sexual integrity. He wants us to depend upon the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus has given to us, to empower us to fight this battle, and he wants us to know that he embraces us even as we struggle.
The New Testament tells us there is no ideal, pure church. A faithful church will be one where strugglers are present, because Jesus came to save sinners. The church is where Jesus invites us to take his yoke and learn from him (Matthew 11:29). Learning takes time, progressing through stages of growth and maturation, with numerous detours of struggle and failure. But change and growth will come as we more fully grasp in our hearts the message of the grace and truth of the gospel.
But we will never get beyond this reality: A healthy church is not one without problems; it’s one where problems are addressed openly, with the gospel.
Today, some use ever-present sexual struggles as evidence that we need to rethink what the Bible says about sex. But what is unpopular now was unpopular then. God is still calling his people to holiness with their sexuality, according to his design. We are to pursue obedience even when we struggle—especially as we struggle. It has always been a fight worth fighting. To ignore this part of shepherding God’s people is to ignore what the entire New Testament thought was important—that how we live with our bodies matters.
But Paul goes beyond merely telling us that this is important. We need more than just words of expectation and exhortation.
So, beyond just telling believers that they need to live in a certain way, we see Paul willing to step into their struggles. Growing in sexual integrity requires the church’s involvement with strugglers.
Paul hints at this in the first verse when he introduces the subject of fighting for sexual integrity: Finally, brothers, we ask and urge you. . . that as you received from us. . .
Do you notice something in Paul’s appeal? This is not the language of command or a rebuke that says “Just stop it!” He does not simply tell people to do the right thing. Instead, he uses relational language. Paul addresses them as brothers and then appeals to them, We ask you and urge you. Why is Paul speaking this way?
We find the reason for his approach two chapters earlier.
But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8)
For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2: 11-12)
You see, Paul knew these people. He loved them like a parent (like a mother and a father!). He knew his children because he spent time with them. He knew the fight was not easy, so he was willing to share his life with them. His presence with them went beyond just talking; his presence patiently walked with them as they learned to control their sexuality in order to honor their Savior.
The way to fight is in relationship. No one escapes sexual struggles and sin by fighting this battle alone. Sexual struggles and sin live in secrecy; they are killed by openness. Sexual sin lives in fear of other people; it dies when we are honest with God by being honest with someone else about our struggles.
“Something more than words of expectation and exhortation are needed.”
The church becomes a presence with strugglers when she acknowledges that no one has it all together. The church becomes a place of safety and hope when it is honest about the struggles Christians face and about the love and tenderness that Jesus has toward broken people. There are four ways a church can cultivate and live out that truth.
One, we need to be real about all of our struggles with sex and sexuality
Let’s get honest. The church, like all of us, works hard to look good on the outside. When church leadership doesn’t specifically name the struggles people wrestle with, then people stay hidden, and no one receives the crucial help they need.
A woman once told a Harvest USA staff person that she was visiting a church where everyone dressed up and looked good. They weren’t a bit like her; she came from a tough background. She had struggled for a long time with addictions, both sexual and substance abuse. But just as she began feeling like she was wasting her time attending this church, she came across a notice in the church bulletin: “Do you struggle with sexual sin of any kind? We want to help and walk with you as you find increasing grace and freedom in Christ. We all need help with these struggles. Call _______ to speak in confidence.”
The simple honesty of those words captivated her. She decided to stay at that church, because their honesty about the Christian life displayed their dependency upon God for the grace to live openly.
Two, we need to become un-shockable about our struggles
The attitude a church takes either invites or hinders openness. Steve Brown of KeyLife Network says this beautifully: “I don’t care where your mind has gone, what you’ve watched on the Internet, with whom you’ve slept, what direction your desires have gone, how hard you’ve struggled and failed, whom you’ve hurt or how ashamed you are. The good news is that, first, you haven’t surprised the God who gave us (this) ‘jet sex engine’ and, second, he’s not angry at you but will show you a way to live in the light. ” 1
Being un-shockable means that we don’t shame people to motivate change. That doesn’t work anyway. Being un-shockable means that we aren’t surprised by the depth of people’s sin either. If Jesus called Paul to himself, a man who decades after his conversion still called himself “the worst of sinners,” then we can also call men and women, no matter the depth of their sin, to find grace in Jesus as they live in our churches.
Three, we need to speak more of the “why” than of the “what” of sexual faithfulness
We need to go beyond merely saying what Scripture says: we also need to clearly articulate why God’s design for sex is good, why it makes sense, why it really is good for individuals, families, and for society. Simply knowing what the sexual boundary lines are is not enough—we need to articulate why we should live within these boundary lines.
This is the way to answer the young man who said sexual integrity was impossible. We’re not saying it’s easy, but we are saying learning to live within God’s gracious boundary lines—even when that might mean a celibate life—produces profoundly good fruit and, yes, even joys in that kind of life.
Four, we need to be lavish givers of mercy
Sexual struggles can go deep and persist for a long time. I love the story in Luke 7, in which Jesus eats at the house of a religious leader who is shocked when “a woman of the city, who was a sinner” (a prostitute) stands behind Jesus, weeping, then covers his feet with her tears and pours a jar of expensive perfume over his feet.
The Pharisees were shocked that Jesus allowed this sexually sinful woman to draw near to him, to even touch him because she was so defiled.
Jesus wasn’t shocked or offended. He did something that shocked the Pharisees even more—he forgave her and honored her embrace of him. Jesus understood that her embrace came as a result of her experiencing forgiveness, of being shown undeserved mercy.
Only when the church ministers out of brokenness and forgiveness can we love others mercifully. God’s forgiveness of us levels the playing field. Helping one another toward sexual integrity then becomes a shared experience of grace.
One more thing about this story. Jesus was honest about this woman’s struggles: “her sins are many.” That’s a challenge to the church. Many of us don’t like to get our hands dirty with people who have a long history of sexual struggles. But if we increasingly love like Jesus, then we’ll see more strugglers in our churches and we’ll love them well.
When the church is real about sexual struggles, when she calls people to biblical faithfulness, and when she steps into the battle with strugglers, then the gospel will shine even brighter to a world which so needs it.
- Steve Brown, Foreword to Hide or Seek, When Men Get Real with God About Sex, by John Freeman (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2014), xii.
Feel free to comment on this article. You can also contact Nicholas at [email protected].
27 Jan 2016
Check out the companion video blog of Bob Heywood, where he talks about his struggle with pornography. Then, look at the steps in this blog on how to address your own struggle with pornography.
Acknowledge the reality of your sexual struggles and sin
Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (ESV). When we conceal our sins from others, our struggles become harder and deeper. In denial, we often hide our sin even from ourselves because we do not want to admit we are weak or in need. The first step out of an addictive sinful behavior is to stop denying it and admit to yourself you caught in an enslaving sin pattern (see Galatians 6:1).
Confess your sin to God
In addition to Proverbs 28:13, I John 1:9 says much the same thing: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” It’s hard to admit your brokenness, so focus closely on what this passage says: God is faithful to forgive us, and in Christ we are not just shown mercy, we are also made clean from the very stain of sin.
Confess your sin to someone else
Isn’t confessing to God enough? No, because faith in Christ is not just about me and him, it includes those whom he has also called to follow him, his body, the church. Recall one of the most powerful things Bob said in the video: He needed friends in the church to gently and lovingly pursue him, and he needed to be honest with them about his struggles. Reflect on James 5:14-15: “And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
Repent of your sin—which means turning from it and rejecting it
Repentance is more than feeling sorry for yourself because of your struggles. To repent means you will seek to do “whatever it takes” to turn from your sin, even if it is costly to do so. Repentance depends on being honest before God and crying out for his power to change, and then actively “putting to death” the idol of sin—again and again, no matter how long it takes—that is enslaving you. Read the whole chapter of Colossians 3 for Paul’s argument on what repentance looks like.
Seek assistance through accountability
The power of secret sin is its secrecy. Confessing to someone else dispels that power. The Bible encourages us to confess to others and to both help and be helped by others in the body of Christ (again, Galatians 6:1-2; James 5:16). Find someone of the same gender as you with whom to be fully honest with and who will keep you accountable for what you think, say, and do. Do this often, even daily if necessary.
Destroy all pornography in your possession, limit and/or remove your Internet access, and eliminate access to people, places, and things which tempt you
Romans 13:14 states we dare not “make provision for the flesh.” Do not keep open any option to sin. Don’t toy around with anything that keeps this temptation right in front of you. Sin is serious because, as Jesus said, it is an enslaving master; it will control you (look at John 8:34). Be honest with your accountability partner(s) and let them help you close off any and all access to pornography and other sexual sin temptations.
Put yourself under the spiritual direction of a mature Christian
Find someone of the same gender as you who is more mature in the faith to meet with you regularly and discuss your struggles. A more mature Christian may be able to help you see the deeper dynamics of your heart and how you are responding to circumstances and to the deeper desires and longings of your own heart. For a more thorough overview of how our internal heart desires impact us, read the blog series on 1 Thessalonians 4.
Make amends—where possible—with individuals you have harmed
We are called to a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18). Do this wherever possible, unless contacting the person would cause more harm—such as in cases of sexual abuse. In those situations, seek professional assistance.
Focus on learning more about Christ and his character, love, and sacrifice
Only a growing love for Christ will eventually push out your love for sin; therefore, you need to focus on him. Too much focus on your struggle will only serve to increase your self-centeredness. Balance self-reflection with learning more of Jesus.
Find ways to serve others instead of yourself
Crowd out sin by occupying yourself with serving others. Serve where your gifts are, but avoid situations that might actually increase temptation.
Continually repent of your deeper sins
The older the Apostle Paul became, the more aware he was of his sinfulness (1 Timothy 1:15). As you grow in Christ, you will see deeper areas of your heart that give energy and power to sin. Keep repenting and thank Christ that his sacrifice is sufficient for even the deeper sins of your heart!
One family’s story about being caught in the middle between family and faith, finding hope and strength with other parents in Harvest USA’s Parent Support Group
Click here for Chris’ article, “Caught in the Middle Between Family and Faith,” about the impact on parents when a child comes out.
We were directed to the ministry of Harvest USA from a counselor shortly after finding out about our child’s struggle with same-sex attraction. Like many parents hearing such news for the first time, we were confused and shocked. We felt like our lives had been turned upside down. We didn’t know where we should turn for help or what we should do.
What do we “get and give” while being a member of this support group?
We learn a great deal about God, about ourselves, and about what our children are going through. It was so hard at first to comprehend that one of our children could be struggling with their sexuality. We wished that our child’s sexual identity could change with counseling or reasoning from God’s Word. We came to understand that simple or easy changes were not going to happen, but in the fellowship of the group we are reminded that God is sovereign over us and our child, that he is in control, and that our world is not collapsing around us. God is our deep comfort, and one way he does this is through our brothers and sisters in the group.
We feel connected; no longer alone. We are able to talk with other parents as well as get God’s perspective as we look into his word. To be hurting in isolation is so painful. To have other brothers and sisters in Christ come alongside and share their stories and experiences with their own children gave us hope and strength during a difficult time.
We feel safe. The group is a safe place to cry, to be able to release our feelings, and to not feel like we’re the only ones dealing with such feelings.
We pray and are prayed for. It feels good to know that others are praying for us and our child, and that we could pray for them too. Praying for others in the group and coming alongside them helps us to get our attention off of our own child and to engage with others who need prayer and support too. In the entire group experience, but especially during prayer, we come to live out what Paul said in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”
We learn how to love with Christ’s love. The staff at Harvest USA has helped us see how God wants us to respond to our children and how we should engage the culture on this issue with compassion and truth. We’ve gained new insight into how to demonstrate God’s grace and love to our children.
We are changed. God has used this group to change us as parents. Scripture teaches us that God uses everything that happens to a believer for his or her good. Our struggle with our child’s same-sex attraction has deepened our love for our children and has made us more sensitive to this issue that is so much a part of our culture today. We have learned that we all struggle with sin and that sin originates from idols that we hold dear to us. Same-sex attraction is no different from any other sin; it originates in our hearts. Understanding the frailties of our own heart and also our child’s heart helps us to respond to our children and our culture as Christ would.
We find God to be a deep refuge. The Parent Support Group at Harvest USA is a refuge, a conduit of God’s grace in a culture struggling to understand and deal with sexual identity as God intended it to be. As it says in Nahum 1:7: “The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble; he cares for those who trust in him.”
To find out how a Parent Support Group can be started in your church, or if you want to consider joining ours in Philly, contact Chris Torchia at [email protected].
For more support for parents and churches, contact Brooke Delaney at [email protected] to find out how your church can host our “Shattered Dreams/New Hope” one-day seminar.
04 Nov 2015
This is the third of three posts that explore the connection between porn and personal and social injustice, and what steps the church needs to do about it. The first post is here, and the second post is here.
As pornography becomes increasingly accepted as a part of cultural life today, we will continue to hear more stories about the impact of sexual brokenness in the lives of individuals, families, and even in the wider society. Christians will not be exempt from this brokenness. The church needs to begin moving along four fronts in order to stop the drift and to begin healing the damage.
One: Acknowledge that the problem exists—in the church
As stated repeatedly, take action about the porn usage epidemic in your church. It exists. Remember, it’s a secret sin, so it won’t come easily to the surface. By admitting that Christians struggle with sex (it’s not just a problem “out there”), we give people hope that God’s gift of sexuality can be used for good. Acknowledge that we all struggle with this powerful gift, and that help is readily available for strugglers.
Teach about biblical sexuality to all age groups of people in the church. Don’t just focus on the negatives—teach about sexuality in a positive way, because Christians today especially need to hear a compelling apologetic about why God’s design for sexual expression is for our good. Pray for and seek out men and women leaders to start and lead support groups for sexual strugglers. Contact us at [email protected] and we can help you get started on all of this.
Two: Begin to take action on injustice issues
The evangelical church can no longer be silent on social issues like the commercialization of sex and sex trafficking. Scripture repeatedly talks about God as a God of justice and mercy, and that his people should reflect to the world what God is passionate about. Isaiah 1:16-17 is only one of countless passages that direct us as God’s people to actively do justice and bring restoration to the broken.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause. (ESV)
Consider organizing a church committee or team that explores and teaches on justice and mercy issues. Ask God to develop in you and your church a heart of mercy to those who have been abused, mistreated, and manipulated into sexual sin. The scope of the problem is enormous, but don’t get overwhelmed. Start small; start locally. Look for local resources to get involved in rescuing those who are abused and trapped. Shared Hope International is a good, national resource to start. VAST (thevast.org; Valley Against Sex Trafficking) is an excellent local resource in the Philadelphia region.
Three: Start talking to youth—especially to boys and young men
Of all the demographics in the church, none is more critical to reach than our youth—but especially boys and young men. Why? Because our youth are almost universally immersed in looking at porn today, and they are being frightfully impacted by it. New research is showing how porn usage is shaping the minds and hearts of young men, “rewiring” their brains toward aggressive and dysfunctional sexual behavior and addiction. We need to reach this generation of boys and young men in particular in order to stop the demand for sexual trafficking that is growing around the world.
But don’t forget young women, as well! They, too, are buying into the lies of the world when it comes to sexuality. The youth in our churches today know little about God’s design for sex and are increasingly abandoning the Bible’s teaching on sexuality morality. And the major reason for that is the church’s failure to talk openly and give a compelling reason for following God in this area of life.
Four: Learn how to help by focusing on the heart—not just stopping behavior
Finally, it’s not enough to simply talk about the dangers and the personal/social implications of pornography and sexual brokenness. There are reasons why men and women get hopelessly ensnared in sexual sin, as both offenders and victims. All of our biblical teaching on sexuality must aim for the heart, where sinful behavior starts (Matthew 15:18-20).
Helping a sexual struggler means learning the unique contours of his or her heart. When we see the broken idols that we live for, the idols that promise life but deliver destruction, and when we see them in the light of God’s mercy toward us in Christ, then deep repentance and transformation begin to take shape—moving outward from the individual to family, church, neighborhood, and even to the far reaches of society itself.
28 Oct 2015
This is the second of three posts that explore the connection between porn and personal and social injustice, and what steps the church needs to do about it. The first post is here.
Pornography is the vehicle that drives lust forward, and porn spins a destructive message through its images, a message that dehumanizes, objectifies, and enslaves—both the viewer and the ones who participate in its production. It does so in three primary ways.
- Porn disconnects sex from relationships—Its subjects, usually women, become mere objects for sexual pleasure and/or a commodity for sale.
- Porn disconnects sex from love and respect—This especially has been shown to lead to aggression and violence toward women; many point to a “rape culture” on college campuses that some say is connected to the widespread usage of pornography among male students.
- Porn disconnects sex from human dignity—Today, perversity knows no bounds when it comes to pornography.
While this is admittedly an extreme example, Ariel Castro, who imprisoned and sexually abused three women in his house in Cleveland for more than a decade, said at his sentencing, “I believe I’m addicted to porn. . . to the point where I am impulsive, and I just don’t realize that what I am doing is wrong.”¹ As James Conley mentioned in his analysis on how pornography is reshaping the mind of American men, he says, “Ariel Castro’s addiction is no excuse for his actions, but it points to a deep and sobering reality: Free, anonymous, and ubiquitous access to pornography is quietly transforming American men and American culture.”
Nowhere do we see more of the destructive and dehumanizing effects that pornography produces than in prostitution and sex trafficking. The image of the happy hooker, as seen in Julia Robert’s Pretty Woman, is a Hollywood lie. The vast majority enter prostitution—and other commercial sex enterprises like strip clubs, erotic massage, escort services, the production of porn movies, etc.—because of complex social, emotional, and economic reasons. Divorce, abandonment, abuse, drugs, mental illness, and poverty have long been the broken social fabric that propels women into such activities. And sex trafficking is even more damaging, where through the use of manipulation or force, a person—frequently a minor—is trafficked for sex, oftentimes kidnapped, and transported for such acts far from their home environment.
It is imperative that Christians look below the surface of sexual sin to what may be driving its use in the lives of those in it. So many porn actresses and actors, prostitutes, and others who work in the sex industry are there because of other major brokenness issues in their lives. It is inaccurate, unhelpful, and judgmental to merely condemn those in it apart from seeing and understanding the numerous factors that contribute to it. On the Shared Hope International website (sharedhope.org), which is a Christian organization working to help victims of sex trafficking and eradicate the demand for it, a young girl named Robin tells her story about her descent into prostitution, a story that is not uncommon:
I became alcoholic after my first drink at 14 years old. Gradually through my adolescence, I began experimenting with other substances, and they became more important to me than school. After miserably failing almost two years of college, I dropped out. I had just turned 21 before I met the man who sold me a dream. The dream turned into a nightmare, and the nightmare lasted six years. In those six years I was prostituted up and down the I-5 corridor from Seattle to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Honolulu, Hawaii. . . I was 21 years old when my pimp walked into my life and, because I was an “adult,” I always carried the guilt and shame for “choosing” this lifestyle. . . Telling my story and backing it up with truths, rather than misconceptions about prostitution, allowed me to heal. (Survivor Story: Robin’s Journey to Redemption and Restoration,” March 7, 2013, http://sharedhope.org/2013/03/07/survivor-story-robin/.)
Pornography also fuels the demand for such sexual services. Far from quenching lust and reducing sexual exploitation (as many proponents of pornography contend), it radically distorts sexuality and relationships. Pornography feeds the mindset that contributes to abuse, exploitation, oppression, and victimization.
True, not everyone goes from viewing pornography to buying sex. But we must see the deeper connections that viewing pornography facilitates. Participating in the “business” of just looking at pornography keeps the industry going. Whether the pornography is free, paid, professional, or amateur, people are being used. As prostitution was once erroneously called a victimless crime, pornography is equally not a victimless activity. Somewhere along the line, somewhere in the complex web of sexual distortions that pornography weaves among its viewers, the dignity of men and women made in the image of God is increasingly defaced. Viewing it, engaging in it, contributes to the entire system of broken sexuality throughout the world. Those looking at porn are “served” through the oppression of many.
Somewhere along the line, somewhere in the complex web of sexual distortions that pornography weaves among its viewers the dignity of men and women made in the image of God is increasingly defaced.
While it is beyond the scale of this article to lay out everything that ought to be done, there are a few steps you and your church can take to do justice, and to bring healing to those caught in the fabric of sexual brokenness. We’ll look at this in the next post.
¹ James D. Conley, “Ariel Castro’s Addiction,” First Things, August 2013, http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2013/08/ariel-castros-addiction.