20 Dec 2018
The Body of Christ is a spiritual family. We all need spiritual brothers and sisters, spiritual fathers and mothers, to help us follow Christ faithfully. In other words, we need a bigger, wider family than just the traditional nuclear family in which we were born or into which we now live.
But for those who struggle sexually, they especially need this spiritual family to come alongside them in the journey towards sexual redemption and integrity. For a variety of reasons, many of these individuals cannot look to their family for encouragement, accountability, and street-level discipleship regarding how to live as a Christian, much less how to live sexually-faithful lives!
The apostle Paul begins Colossians 3 teaching God’s people that their new identity in Christ compels them to live set-apart lives, not as isolated individuals but together as brothers and sisters in the household of faith: “If then you [Plural!] have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1).
When I lived in Romania, immersed in culture and language learning, God opened my eyes to the beauty of spiritual family. The Romanian language has many ways of saying our simple English word “you”, depending on the circumstance. What struck my individualistic, American heart was that You (Plural) was used many times in bible passages which address the Christian life. When I began studying my Romanian Bible, passages that I had interpreted for years as You (Singular), (or just to me) burst within me into a new understanding of life together as God’s family.
Biological and nuclear families are indeed significant and a gift designed by God. However, Christians also believe that God establishes an eternal family only between those who are born spiritually through faith in Jesus Christ. He identifies these people as his children, guiding us through his Word regarding life together as siblings in the household of faith.
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born not of blood nor the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. John 1:12-13 (ESV)
Jesus responded this way when his “family of origin” requested his attention:
“Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Matthew 12:48-50 (ESV)
Desmond, one of our Men’s Ministry staff, is a single man whose father died when he was a child. Experiences of sexual abuse introduced him to homosexual activity that confused, yet also intrigued his hurting heart. Though broken and disordered, these sex acts made him feel wanted. By the time he reached his teens, he was prostituting himself to men and spiraling into despair and darkness.
In the midst of deep pain and loneliness, Desmond sensed God calling him back, to turn again to his true life found only in Christ. He responded and began to walk forward slowly in faith and repentance. However, his past didn’t just fade away. He needed help, and God provided men who loved and encouraged him as spiritual fathers by leading, exhorting, and admonishing him to walk in a manner worthy of God (1 Thessalonians 2:10-11). They spoke truth into his life, while living honestly before him. Desmond told me, “The authenticity of these men drove me to realize that no matter where we come from, God will use us; they became brothers in Christ who loved and respected me rather than rejected and shamed me. The healing power of those relationships is hard to express. ”
What struck my individualistic, American heart was that You (Plural) was used many times in bible passages which address the Christian life.
The brotherhood that Desmond experienced produced a redemptive trickle-down effect in his life. He didn’t want to hoard this spiritual blessing but wanted to share it with others who were hurting, alone and scared to reach out for help. Desmond has since invested his life ministering to others, including men who are ensnared in patterns of sexual sin. Many single and married men have benefited tremendously through Desmond being a spiritual brother and father.
You (Plural) is what the gospel is all about!
Leia is in her thirties and has been married for over 10 years. Her kids are under six years old and her biological family lives thousands of miles away. When her husband’s infidelity of many years came into the open, she was devastated, afraid, and wrestled with who to tell. Her parents wouldn’t understand; her guess was that they’d simply say “get out of the marriage”. Her husband demanded that she not go to the church leaders. She felt ashamed to open up to any women, as she had rarely ever heard sexual sin talked about by them.
Leia dug down deep into the Word and cried out to God for help. Eventually she found out about Harvest USA’s support group for wives and welcomed being in a circle of spiritual sisters in Christ who not only shared her pain but also helped her to see Jesus at work in her own heart. Then, when her husband was caught in adultery again, Leia’s group leader urged her to bring their broken marriage situation into the light with a trusted pastor. She took this bold step of faith, even though it went against her husband’s wishes.
What was the result of Leia reaching out to a spiritual father? The Body of Christ got involved in this family’s life; the church lovingly confronted her husband and exhorted him to get serious about repentance. It’s been a long road, but Leia and her family are beginning to heal and move forward in part because the family of God entered in with care.
You (Plural), life in community, is where repentance and freedom from sexual sin begins.
Sister, brother, what about you? You might not have a family of your own, or maybe you do! Regardless, there are boys and girls struggling sexually, men and women all around us who need the family of God to be the family of God. We must grow in a mindset of what Rosaria Butterfield teaches in her recent book, The Gospel Comes with a House Key. Her exhortation is that we open up our homes and lives as pathways to love God and our neighbors with all our hearts.
God’s people, knit together through the deep and wide love of Jesus, will share eternity together. His love gives us confidence to reach out and enfold struggling brothers and sisters into the fellowship of the eternal, wide, beautiful family of believers in Jesus Christ.
This blog post also appears in our Fall 2018 harvestusa magazine, along with other articles for parents and families.
Ellen shares more thoughts on this topic in the accompanying video: How Does Jesus Call Us to Live as a Spiritual Family? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
Sexual strugglers often feel isolated and alone, ashamed of their struggles, and fearful of rejection if they ask for help. But in the Body of Christ, the Church, Jesus opens wide his arms and calls every one of us his brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers. The Church is called to be a family where God does his best work of forgiveness, healing, and transformation.
Ellen has more insights on how the Church as spiritual family can be a catalyst for change and growth in her blog, Living as Spiritual Family. Additional Harvest USA resources that might interest you are the following minibooks: Sex and the Single Girl: Smart Ways to Care for Your Heart by Ellen Dykas and Your Husband is Addicted to Porn: Healing After Betrayal by Vicki Tiede.
08 Nov 2018
In my first blog post in this series, “Porn Addiction?”, I looked at three ways a disease model of addiction can be helpful in explaining habitual sexual sin patterns. The disease model highlights what it feels like not being able to stop, and the insanity that comes in a moment of temptation. It also rightly shows the need for a zero-tolerance policy on sin. These ideas are constructive as we consider how to patiently and lovingly walk alongside men and women who are caught up in years of addictive sexual behavior.
But the church needs to be aware that the fundamental anthropology of a disease model for a porn addiction falls far short of the way God describes humanity’s experience as his fallen image bearers.
Robert Weiss, an addiction specialist, said in a recent USA Today article, “We don’t look at alcoholics and drugs addicts and say, ‘You’re a bad person,’ we say, ‘You have a problem.’”
In the same article, Milton Magness, a sex addictions therapist said, “Most of the people I work with are people with very high morals, very responsible, leaders in their industries; many are even clergy or physicians. And they are involved in behaviors they do not want and repeat them, despite repeated attempts to stop.”
Both of these specialists are seeking to locate the problem of the struggler outside of the person’s will. A disease model sees sexual addiction as a medical problem, not a moral one. And I believe this is a genuine attempt to explain how someone’s life can look so good in some areas while being completely out of control in others.
But the Bible always locates sin in one place: the human heart. This doesn’t mean that environmental and physiological factors don’t play a role in addictions, but the Bible sees every external factor as the context for the desires, responses, and engagements of the heart. In other words, Scripture says the entire person—the body, mind, and heart—works together in all of our behaviors.
But the church must be careful to go beyond helping someone make the right choices; it must also grasp the compromised ability of someone in an addiction to make the right choices.
In 21st century America, we are all spiritually sick, but we desperately want to hear the words that we are not the problem. But Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”(ESV)
The typical secular worldview is that we are good people, but there are external forces that trip us up, causing us to do wrong. The biblical worldview is that these external forces (upbringing, brain chemistry, trauma, to name just a few) do impact our behavior, but there is something more fundamental to who we are that causes our problems. We have a natural bent toward evil; we are fallen.
The problem is our sinful heart, and as I said in my last blog, “sin is enslaving,” and there is only one physician who can bring life out of what was once dead.
For the Christian, God has performed a heart transplant for those who trust in him. In Christ, we have died to sin and have been raised with him to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4). But this definitive transfer from death to life does not mean we don’t still struggle with ongoing sinful desires and inclinations of the heart.
There are two pitfalls we must avoid when helping Christians work through issues of sexual addiction.
The first pitfall is to focus only on moral responsibility. The church has historically helped those with addictive struggles to make good moral choices, focusing on the will. But the church must be careful to go beyond helping someone make the right choices; it must also grasp the compromised ability of someone in an addiction to make the right choices.
But this is the other pitfall, an echo of Adam’s complaint to God: It’s not my fault; it’s this brain you gave me. The culture highlights only the context for the problem (the brain, trauma, family of origin issues, etc.) But the disease model does not account for the wickedness of our fallen hearts. While the addiction model seeks to place the blame on external factors, it misses the complexity of the human heart and its central role in behavior.
The battle against addiction is not won or lost when you are faced with severe temptation, it’s determined by a multitude of choices we make each and every day.
Landing in either of these pitfalls flattens our experience of being human.
So what is a realistic, compassionate, and practical way forward for new creations in Christ who are caught up in sexual addiction?
We must understand that our hearts are engaged in every moment of life. It often feels like a losing battle to addiction because we are only thinking about our hearts in the moment of severe temptation. But what actually matters the most is what is happening in our hearts when we’re not tempted. Despite what is commonly said, men are not thinking about sex every seven seconds.
For the believer, every single day there are moments of clarity and good godly desires that need to be nurtured. The battle against addiction is not won or lost when you are faced with severe temptation, it’s determined by a multitude of choices we make each and every day. These choices include laying aside every weight that hinders us (Hebrews 12:1), like getting rid of unfettered internet access. They also include the good choices to invest time in prayer, the Word, service, and intentional fellowship and accountability with members of Christ’s body.
The resistance to taking steps to fight sinful addictions is a matter of the heart. People’s hearts idolatrously want to maintain at all costs the comfort and pride that their isolated, unaccountable lifestyle provides. That unwillingness to humble oneself before God and others is often where repentance needs to start.
We do have a disease; it’s called sin.
Deliberate choices—daily decisions in advance of overwhelming temptation— to live humbly and intentionally lay the groundwork for ongoing repentance toward God and others. This submission to accountability and radical amputation of avoidable temptations frees a person to begin to examine what they are really living for. How have they rejected Christ as their source of life and satisfaction? What lies are they believing about God’s love for them and their responsibility in living for him? How have they turned other people into objects to be consumed instead of image bearers to be loved?
This kind of deep heart examination cannot happen when someone is isolated and in the throes of constant addictive behavior. The fog of addiction can be too thick to make real progress, which is why the Lord will often allow severe tragedy to enter a person’s life in order for a season of clarity to enter in. The question is, will they use those moments of clarity to humble themselves and seek the real help they need?
Yes, our brains need rewiring. Yes, the fog of addiction needs to be lifted. But all of this happens under the umbrella of heart repentance towards Christ. We do have a disease; it’s called sin. But Jesus, the Great Physician, did not come for the healthy; he came for those who are sick. And he came that they might have life in him and have it abundantly.
Mark shares more thoughts on this topic in the accompanying video: What Can Pastors Do When People Say They Feel Addicted to Porn? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
18 Oct 2018
Just heard it again. Another wives and porn story. A sad and frustrating story from a wife who discovered her husband looking at porn again. She had hoped for the best, believing he had been walking out a path of faith and repentance and was “doing okay” (his consistent answer when she asked him).
But then, a quick slam shut of his iPad when she unexpectedly walked in on him. Porn. Again.
But then the story went from wives and porn to busy church leaders. I celebrated her courage to approach her pastor and ask for help, confide in him about her hurting heart, and to open a window for him to see into a very broken and fragile part of her life: her marriage. Thankfully, he listened, he prayed, and then he told her he’d leave it in her court if she needed anything else.
Yes, this pastor did enter in, he did listen, and he did make himself available for a ten-minute conversation after church. But then he left her on her own.
It’s hard enough for many women to approach male pastors for help, but it’s worse when they do and are given little time and dismissed afterward on their own.
A wife who is sleep deprived and emotionally beaten down will struggle to feel safe approaching a church leader who seems to only have five minutes to spare.
First, let’s be fair and honest. Church leaders are busy and overwhelmed with the needs of the sheep under their care. There are dramatic and complicated things happening in the lives of people in our churches, and pastors are typically on the front line of being asked to help. Pressured by crises and meetings and other commitments, church leaders can come across as disinterested, uncompassionate, or dismissive. Sometimes these perceptions are true, but not always.
In this context of seeking help, a wife who is sleep deprived and emotionally beaten down will struggle to feel safe approaching a church leader who seems to only have five minutes to spare.
Secondly, another more disheartening reality is when wives are under the authority of church leaders who preach an anti-biblical message about husbands who struggle with lust. It’s just what men do. It’s just who they are. Wives need to trust the Lord and get on board with what he wants to do in their husband’s lives. Get behind his recovery and help him however she can.
Of all the hundreds of wives I’ve gotten to sit with, not one of them feel safe (or cared for) in churches where that message (of minimizing the effect of porn use or ungodly sexual behavior) is taught or implied by church leaders.
Third, I’ve read how many wives manifest symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of a husband’s sexual betrayal. It’s important to keep in mind that when wives come to us for help, that the teary or paralyzed or embittered (or all of the above) woman sitting in front of us may not be her true self. Traumatic experiences have the power to reshape people as pain washes over every aspect of life.
“PTSD identifies traumas that don’t seem to fade. Although many difficult events in life such as the death of a loved one don’t really fade, PTSD is used to describe events that intrude into daily life by way of complex emotions rather than simple grief. You can feel numb, you avoid anything that could possibly be similar to the inciting event, you feel depressed and hopeless, or you feel restless, irritable, hyper-vigilant, anxious, and over-reactive. And you can feel all these things at once.”
These are the behaviors and emotions I see time and again in working with wives whose husbands have betrayed their vows by habitually looking at porn or have been involved in an emotional or sexual affair.
Don’t give up, don’t grow weary in well doing when it comes to resting in the comfort of Christ and then offering that same comfort to hurting wives.
Now, imagine all of these scenarios converging. A busy pastor (or a church leader) getting a phone call from a wife who is in the throes of a PTSD-ish response to her husband’s sin. She’s anxious, brokenhearted, unable to accurately form her thoughts, and breaks into sobs with no warning. Her heart has been shattered, her thoughts are a scrambled mess, and most likely she is exhausted. And she’s asking you for help, but she probably doesn’t even know what she needs.
Honestly, it doesn’t surprise me that church leaders, even those who are well-meaning, just don’t know how to engage a wife when she’s in this state. Seminaries don’t train future pastors how to do triage counseling, much less how to walk with a hurting wife over the long haul.
Here’s some steps to help you grow in wise, effective pastoral care for a hurting wife.
- Learn. Read books, blogs (check out our Harvest USA resources!) and articles that will educate you in what sexual betrayal feels like and the impact it has on a wife.
- Ask. Whether you are a woman or man in leadership, ask women to submit anonymous stories about their experience in seeking help. What helped them? What didn’t?
- Teach. Use your platforms of influence (the pulpit, the Bible study podium, the home group, etc.) to teach Christ’s heart for hurting women, including wives betrayed by their husbands.
- Hope. Yes! There is real, transformative, life-changing, and healing hope through Jesus for couples impacted by sexual sin. Don’t give up, don’t grow weary in well doing when it comes to resting in the comfort of Christ and then offering that same comfort to hurting wives.
- Engage. Move towards hurting wives, listen, ask questions, and connect her with others who can encourage her and provide the support and counsel she needs.
Ellen shares more thoughts on this topic in the accompanying video: How Can Church Leaders Help Hurting Wives? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
19 Sep 2018
Much was said about Revoice before the first talk took place in St. Louis on July 27-29, 2018. And much has been said since. As one who attended the conference and engaged with the speakers and attendees, here’s my perspective.
First, let me answer the question some people asked me: why would you attend this conference? Simple; given what I knew about it, I was concerned. Concerned, because the stated purpose of Revoice is provocative: it exists to “support, encourage, and empower gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.” Concerned, because Revoice has the potential to influence many in the Church, leading Christians to rethink their understanding of sex, sexuality, gender, and sin.
As a seminary professor cautioned me many years ago, “Whenever someone comes up with a new understanding of Scripture, it needs to be examined very carefully. You can’t assume that 2,000 years of Spirit-led biblical interpretation has been wrong.” That’s wise counsel in any instance, but particularly in this one. From my perspective, Revoice is calling the Church to reconsider historic, orthodox understandings of personal identity and sin.
That’s serious, and it is a discussion that we must enter into with much prayer and discernment.
The workshops and plenary sessions presented a wide diversity of views from an array of presenters. Overall, the content seemed more an attempt to gather people together under a common banner than to advance one specific idea or concept. While some teaching was commendable, others were not so.
Here is what I found positive. Every speaker I heard stated that acting on same-sex attraction was sinful. This is consistent with the traditional, orthodox understanding of God’s design for sex and sexuality. A second positive message was that marriage is between one man and one woman, for life. Again, an affirmation of the biblical paradigm for marriage.
I also appreciated that many of the speakers asked good questions; questions about how the Church could better care for same-sex attracted Christians. These are questions the Church has not been asking, much less answering.
What are the options for relational and emotional fulfillment for followers of Christ who do not, and may never, consider marriage? How can the Church become a real, vital family for them, encouraging these brothers and sisters to likewise live for others in the Body? These questions, and how we answer them, are not inconsequential. They are difficult ones. They are not issues of accommodation or political correctness. They are about what it means to truly be the Body of Christ.
Now, here were the issues that concerned me. I’ll categorize them under three headings: identity, the Body of Christ, and the nature of change.
Identity. There was a theme throughout the conference calling for those who experience same-sex attraction to self-identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. A great deal has been written about what this means and doesn’t mean, and this post will not have the length to explain the nuanced positions (on both sides). So I will briefly mention two things that struck me about this contentious issue.
First, while Revoice says that using identity language is not saying that sexual orientation is the core part of one’s personhood, it nevertheless is a position that echoes the noise from our culture. Our post-Christian culture says that one’s sexual identity is the deepest core of personhood, hence the multiplicity of words and letters to describe oneself.
The speakers at Revoice would say that using the term is, at best, descriptive; it merely describes an enduring pattern of same-sex attraction. But the concern I cannot shake is that using self-identifying terminology such as this confuses, and in doing so it inevitably gets embedded in the culture’s understanding of gay or the LGBTQ+ acronym. Again, as used culturally, the language proclaims that one’s sexuality is a major, if not the predominant, understanding of human personhood. It is not unreasonable to assume that what is said now as merely descriptive will soon be only understood as a major category of being a Christian (see my comments on the Body of Christ below). That would be a significant error.
But, secondly, using these terms is more than merely descriptive. The historic, orthodox understanding of sexual desires that are outside of God’s design is sin. The speakers at Revoice are nuancing that perspective, calling same-sex attraction a way of looking at and experiencing the world and is only sinful when it is acted upon sexually. This is a significant theological change.
As I heard from my seminary professor, there is good reason to trust two millennia of biblical interpretation on this. Currently, there are passionate debates on whether same-sex attraction apart from same-sex sexual behavior is sin or not. (You can see Harvest USA’s position on same-sex attraction here.) Again, the length of my remarks here about my time at Revoice cannot adequately discuss these arguments.
Nevertheless, it is this issue where the biggest battles are going to be fought. And, as believers, and especially as church leaders and pastors, we need to study this carefully, adhering to Scripture and not human experience.
I’ve discussed some of this issue in my blog post Gay + Christian. My main point was that it is inappropriate for a Christian to self-identify according to any pattern of sin or struggle. Paul proclaims this astonishing news: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). The compelling and controlling power of corrupted characteristics, desires, drives, and compulsions (sin) that used to characterize us begin to fall away in our union with Christ. No prior life, or identity, should redefine who we are in Christ, as Christians.
Revoice must realize that advocating for the use of such terms is not an insignificant thing. It is one charged with meaning, ripe for being continually misunderstood, and one which will encourage those who call themselves “gay” or “queer Christians” to further identify with, or long for, the broken and sinful characteristics associated with those labels.
The Body of Christ. Developing a separate queer culture within the Church undermines the unity of the Church. The seriousness of this issue cannot be overstated.
One of Christ’s chief desires for his Church is that we would be dynamically united to him and one another. We are to be “members [of the Body] one of another” (Ephesians 4:25), joined together by and through the power of Christ so that we might build up the entire Body to become increasingly like Christ, for the glory of God (4:15-16). Creating division or another category of believers within the Church through advocating for a separate subculture (queer or otherwise) detracts from that course.
One of the terms used repeatedly throughout the Revoice conference was “sexual minorities.” Here we find another term being promoted that is embedded in the language of our culture: “minorities,” people being described by their marginal status within the larger power structures of the majority.
What value is there to a Christian identifying as a sexual minority? How does that help him or her? How does it enhance the integrity and unity of the Church? How does it honor Christ? How does it help Christians who struggle with sexual or gender-related sin to walk in repentance? I can’t see the benefit, though I do understand the rationale for some of Revoice’s use of this term.
And it’s this: Brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction or struggle with their sense of gender have often been misunderstood, and at times mistreated, by the Church. The Church has often not been a place of hope and healing for men and women affected by sexual and relational brokenness.
But the answer is not to create a separate queer culture within the Church, where Christians who identify as LGBTQ+ can flourish. If the Church is called to unity, then this is an opportunity for the Church to repent and be increasingly sensitive and compassionate to those wounded by the power and effects of sin—and even wounded by the Church.
We must do better in this regard, for the glory of Christ. Churches must find ways to cultivate and provide appropriate, godly relational intimacy for people who might never be married. We must find ways to value singleness as a calling (as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 7), and include unmarried Christians in the full life of the Church. And, we must resist the longstanding temptation to name same-sex and gender-related sin patterns as worse than other patterns of sin. Our same-sex and gender-struggling brothers and sisters are sinners in need of the same grace as anyone else. No more, no less.
The Nature of Change. One side effect is that such labels tend to stick. It is a lie of the world to believe that same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria is innate and unchangeable. I am not for a moment stating that change in desire or attraction always happens. Many Christians have been hurt by that belief. But such change might happen. It’s a process completely under the sovereign purview of God.
Through taking on a “gay Christian” identity and retreating into a queer subculture, one is immersed in an environment where such change in affections might be discounted or rejected altogether. The camaraderie and connectedness that occurs within the isolation of the subculture can become life-giving. The pursuit of holiness and repentance can be abandoned in favor of relational comfort and companionship.
We live in a day when more people than ever before (particularly those under 40) self-identify as LGBTQ+. According to a 2016 Gallup survey, 7.3% of millennials self-identify as non-heterosexual.[i] That’s a marked increase over prior surveys and a much higher self-identification rate than other age groups in the U.S. adult population.
Now, the experience and feelings of same-sex attraction and gender-dysphoria are not unusual, particularly among adolescents and young adults. For example, one study shows that as many as 10.7% of adolescents are unsure of their sexual orientation.[ii] However, most of these individuals have not adopted a gay or lesbian identity upon entry into adulthood. The reason? They realized as they exited their teen years that they were not primarily sexually attracted to others of their own gender. In other words, they concluded that their experiences of such desires were not determinative.
Here’s the problem in using such labels: The Church will find itself aligning with the culture’s mantra that personal experiences and desires are identifying and determinative (core identities), even when experienced when one is young and still in the process of forming one’s identity and view of life. What hope will we give to young Christians who experience non-heteronormative feelings and desires? They will logically conclude that this is how God made me. And if God made me this way, then there is no connection between same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria and sin.
There’s no need for redemption, no need for change, no need for repentance.
The Church must always hold out the possibility of change for all people wrestling with all sorts of sin patterns. One can’t encounter the living God without being transformed. The transformation begins in the heart, and will inevitably lead to behavioral change. It may not be everything a struggling believer may hope for, but it will be a level of change that increasingly glorifies God and shapes that person into who God calls him to be.
For each Christian wrestling with same-sex attraction or gender struggles, that transformation will look different. Over time, it should include this perspective: that to embrace a gay or transgender identity, and the enticements that come with it, is counter to the new creation that person has become in Christ. If the Church communicates that there is not a need for sanctification in every aspect of the believer’s life, then it mishandles God’s Word and misleads God’s people.
Where do we go from here? The Church must commit to redemptively engage Christians who self-identify as LGBTQ+. The biblical paradigm for such engagement is speaking the truth in love. This is the process that Paul describes in Ephesians 4:11-16: a process in which various members of the Church play a role. It is a gracious process, rooted in the love of authentic friendship, wherein brothers and sisters compassionately confront each other’s sinful attitudes and acts, as well as assist one another towards obedience as they faithfully follow Christ in their struggles. Through engaging in this process, Paul tells us we not only build ourselves up but we also “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” (Ephesians 4:15).
This means that we must be willing to engage each other through authentic friendship. We must labor in love to understand every struggler and their personal history and take the time to prayerfully and thoughtfully help each one understand why they struggle in the ways they do. It means helping them grow in their comprehension of how the Person and Work of Jesus Christ is actually what they need more than anything else.
Responding to Revoice isn’t a single action. It isn’t a blog post, or a sermon, or a pastoral counseling session. It involves the often difficult and time-consuming work of getting to know the stories, the experiences, the joys and fears of Christians who wrestle with same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria. It involves the Church becoming a place of true refuge and help for them, as they grow (alongside the rest of us) into the places the Lord has made for them in his Body.
The Harvest USA website is full of resources you can use to grow in your understanding of how to engage Christians wrestling with all kinds of issues related to sex, sexuality, and gender. Our mission is partly to help the Church become a safe place for those dealing with sexual sin to walk in increasing faith and repentance. Contact us, and ask us how.
You can learn more about same-sex attraction and homosexuality by purchasing our 15-session video series, God’s Design for Sexuality in a Changing Culture, which is perfect for Sunday school and small group settings.
19 Jul 2018
A growing issue in the Church leads us at Harvest USA to leverage the insight and expertise we’ve gained ministering to same-sex attracted individuals for the last 35 years and speak up. That issue is this: should someone identify as a gay Christian?
This issue is related to two questions: Where does a Christian’s identity come from? From our desires and life experiences, or from our Creator and Redeemer God? The second question is this: is the mere experience of same-sex attraction sinful, even if there is no acting upon those desires?
These two questions have a lot of emotion behind them. They are not just theological questions; they are personal questions, questions about people. For the person who lives with same-sex attraction, experienced as a growing awareness over a prolonged period, those feelings seem natural. Because same-sex strugglers never consciously chose same-sex desires while growing up, it might seem reasonable to conclude that he or she was born that way. And for the believer, it might seem a natural conclusion that such desire is part of God’s created order.
So, given the typical life experience of those with same-sex attraction that I just described, what’s the big deal about calling oneself a gay Christian as long as one is following the biblical sexual ethic?
Therein lies the problem. People experience both the saving grace of God and same-sex attraction. How are believers in Christ to resolve the tension of experiencing same-sex attraction, which they never sought or knowingly cultivated, and wondering whether this attraction is innate and connected to identity?
To understand the issue of living with something that is unchosen, we need to start with some basic Christian theology.
The experience of living with same-sex attraction, and the behavior that acts on that desire (in thought, word, or deed) is a distortion of God’s created intent for sex and sexuality. That distortion is the result of the Fall which has corrupted all aspects of human existence and experience.
Scripture asserts that all human behavior comes from our hearts and that our hearts are fallen. This means that every natural inclination of our heart, including our thoughts, emotions, desires, as well as our deeds, is corrupted by sin. All of us are in the same boat, as it were, when it comes to the effects of original sin. Within each one of us is an accumulation of countless desires, thoughts, and behaviors, some we didn’t choose but only discovered over time, and some which we do choose, and nurture, and develop, and act upon.
I think it is helpful when considering same-sex attraction to make the distinction between volitional sin (where someone chooses to respond to temptation by acting sinfully in thought, word, or deed) and the passive experience of same-sex attraction as a manifestation of indwelling sin.
How are believers in Christ to resolve the tension of experiencing same-sex attraction, which they never sought or knowingly cultivated, and wondering whether this attraction is innate and connected to identity?
Volitional sin, by its definition, is a purposeful, chosen action to rebel against God and his will. But the experience of same-sex attraction, as a passive state, can suddenly present itself, unchosen, as a relational, emotional, and sexual desire toward someone. That individual did not decide to be drawn toward that other person; in fact, he or she may not want that at all. But it happens.
That draw is the enduring power of the flesh. It is the “orientation” toward sin; the way that person’s heart interacts with his desires. But if that person does not act on those sinful desires, if he takes the “way of escape” described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:13, then he has actively turned from sin.
In short, the call of the same-sex attracted person who is in Christ is to not embrace an orientation toward sin, but instead to actively cultivate a heart that is increasingly oriented toward being made new, in the image of Jesus Christ.
Now we can turn toward the issue of identity.
Identity is important. Who we are and who we want to become is wrapped up in how we view our relationship to Christ.
Our identity comes entirely from God. We add nothing of genuine or enduring value to it. In Philippians 3:4-11, Paul lists his accomplishments: his well-earned pedigree, which by all accounts he should have cherished as his identity and the basis of his personal value. But instead of cherishing these things, he says: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” (3:8-9).
Paul doesn’t subordinate some aspects of his identity to Christ. He doesn’t say that knowing Christ is one aspect of his identity or even the most important part of it. He says that everything else he would have once turned to for identity and value (his heritage, his birthright, his theological affiliation, his education, his record of obedience) is all rubbish. (The Bible translators were very delicate here; the word translated “rubbish” actually refers to entirely worthless things, like dung.)
In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul tells us about the transformation that takes place for the one who trusts in Jesus. He says, “…if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
Identity is important. Who we are and who we want to become is wrapped up in how we view our relationship to Christ.
This passage is even more powerful regarding identity formation than the Philippians 3 passage. In 2 Corinthians 5, we see a radical wiping away of prior identity, initiated through Jesus’ death and made complete through his resurrection. In 2 Corinthians 5, everything that we’ve accreted to our personal identities, everything that once defined us, has been utterly wiped away by the power of Christ. Through his death, he took us with him into death. Through his resurrection, he has brought us through death into life everlasting. Here and now, we already partake (albeit, for a season, in very limited ways) of the new life we share with him forever. Paul tells us in Romans 6:4 that all this has happened so that we too (just like Jesus) “might walk in newness of life.”
That newness of life is our new identity. That now defines who we are.
Christ died to remove through his broken body and shed blood the power of sin and the power of death from his people, forever. Why would any Christian wish to name him or herself according to a pattern of sinful desire or behavior, such as “gay”? As our friend Rosaria Butterfield asks, why would any Christian want to limit the identity of “Christian” by modifying it with an adjective like “gay”?
Identity defines who we are and who we will become. At Harvest USA, our ministry to individuals with same-sex attraction has shown us the imperative need to define oneself wholly by the work of Christ. A gay identity, at best, is confusing (there are, after all, those who use such a label and espouse same-sex relationships as being approved by God). But a greater danger we have seen is that it can be a slippery slope leading to sexual sin and for some a rejection of orthodox faith.
We at Harvest USA fully and humbly acknowledge that it is typical for the same-sex-attracted believer to experience fallen sexual desire for long periods of time—even a lifetime. For most, it doesn’t disappear. There are no easy explanations as to why that is. This is an area for the Church to grow in compassion, in patience, and in love for its people who struggle with same-sex attraction.
Again, the enduring nature of same-sex attraction should not be confused with the characteristics of personal identity. We encourage Christians who experience same-sex attraction to see that same-sex attraction is part of the fallen nature that is still visible, still palpable through the glorious veil of new life in Christ—yet not determinative.
That’s why Paul exhorts his hearers to “put to death…what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). Believers must put such things “to death” for the precise reason that they are inconsistent with the believer’s new nature in Christ.
There is nothing I could have gained in the past, in the gay life or identifying as a gay man, that could compare with the identity I have now as one who is securely cradled in the Lord’s embrace.
And, we would be remiss if we failed to mention that just a few verses later, Paul exhorts the same hearers to “Put on…compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another…” (3:12-13). The role of the rest of the Church is to be compassionate toward those who struggle with temptation and sin and to bear with them. Our call is to walk alongside brothers and sisters with same-sex attraction, helping them bear the very real burdens they face as they live out their new identity in Christ: finding community, intimacy, friendships, and completion, even as they struggle with feeling at times very different and alone.
And for my fellow believers who struggle with same-sex attraction, I humbly offer this. There is infinite joy and glory in submitting your life, your desires, your very identity to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Paul tells us in Philippians 3:9 that, for him, there is no greater joy than to be found in Christ; to derive all of his meaning, all of his identity, all of his hope from Jesus.
As one who has struggled with same-sex attraction, I know how difficult it is—and continues to be—to daily lay down my own accomplishments, my own identity, and submit myself to the Jesus who, as God, alone has the right to name me and thus give me my identity. This is the calling of every Christian. It’s something we grow into as we grow in faith over the course of a lifetime.
There is nothing I could have gained in the past, in the gay life or identifying as a gay man, that could compare with the identity I have now as one who is securely cradled in the Lord’s embrace. There’s nothing I could gain in the present, as a married man and father, as a minister in the Church, that could compare with knowing that I have not only a King and a Lord but a Brother in Jesus.
All that matters is being in Christ. I realize this requires a leap of faith. But as you leap, I think you’ll find that in Christ, the more you count as rubbish, the more you receive in real identity, real fellowship, real joy.
28 Jun 2018
“Judge not, lest ye be judged!” – Matthew 7:1 is the Bible verse most commonly used to peg contemporary Christians as hypocrites. Those who claim to follow Jesus pass judgment on others as “sinners,” while Jesus stands by chiding anyone who judges.
When we hear this argument made by other students on our campus, how can we respond?
What does it mean to not judge?
Look at Matthew 7:1-5:
“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
Jesus’ words are somewhat difficult to understand. But perhaps we can make sense of them through an example.
Imagine if the Christian student group on your campus were to condemn homosexual behavior publicly, but then the group made excuses when two students were having premarital sex. Something would be seriously wrong. The group would be condemned by their own standard if they were judged the way they judge others.
In the same way, one of the biggest mistakes we can make as Christians is spending our time thinking about the sins of people “out there,” while we turn a blind eye to the sin “in here,” in our hearts. This is Jesus’ first point: Remember that you will be judged by the same standard by which you judge others.
But does Jesus mean to say that we shouldn’t judge others at all? Take a careful look at the story of the log and the speck. Read again what Jesus says. What is his point? If Jesus’ point were that we shouldn’t judge at all, he would say that you shouldn’t take the speck out of your brother’s eye, ever. But that’s not his point, and it wouldn’t make sense if it were. Taking the speck out of your friend’s eye is a kindness to him.
Jesus’ point, as before, is that we will only be able to see clearly to judge our brother (in a good way) if we first examine ourselves to make sure we aren’t hypocrites.
Judging actions, not condemning people
There’s another careful distinction to make when it comes to judging. While we judge people’s actions, we do not condemn people.
The easiest way to understand this is to think about how Jesus treats us. Jesus clearly condemns all sin, all the actions we do that show that we love ourselves more than him. But Jesus doesn’t condemn us—that’s the point of the gospel! Instead of condemning us for our sins, Jesus forgives our sins.
But forgiveness doesn’t mean that Jesus stops judging that our actions are wrong. They are! That’s why our forgiveness cost his life! But forgiveness does let us escape from condemnation for our sins. Jesus still judges our sins as wrong, but he doesn’t condemn us for them.
The same is true for other people, even if they aren’t Christians. Jesus offers forgiveness to all, just as we should tell all people about the gospel. When we bear witness to the truth that certain actions are sinful, we are judging people’s actions, but we aren’t condemning them.
How, exactly, do we judge rightly?
What does this mean for Christians?
- We are no different than others! Even if someone’s behavior is wrong, we cannot condemn the person because we’re in the same boat! We’ve done what is wrong, but Christ forgave us. That person can be forgiven too by trusting in Jesus! He or she can’t be written off as a “reprobate” simply because of a particular sin.
- Remember the positive side to judging. When we talk to people about their actions or others’ being wrong, we should always keep in mind, and mention, if possible, that the gospel offers forgiveness for sin. We are often afraid to share the gospel with people because many people don’t respect religious views. But if we don’t share the gospel, the only thing others will know about Christians is what we’re against.
- Our primary focus should be on our own sins. The sins we should be most concerned about are our own, not others’. If we don’t take care of our own sins, not only will people ignore us when we talk about others’ sins, we may actually find ourselves in the place of the Pharisees, outside of the Kingdom of repentance and faith in Jesus.
- Love for others must motivate us. We must show love to others as we bear witness about the truth. It can be easy to think that sharing truth is in conflict with loving people. Most of us are tempted to do only one or the other. But in fact, speaking the truth is an act of love, and love requires speaking the truth. When we come to others with Christ-like love, we don’t bash people over the head with truth, but neither do we paper over people’s sin.
Our sin is dangerous, and God does judge it as evil. But we must remember in our own lives, and in the lives of those to whom we speak, that God does not condemn a sinner who trusts in Jesus. Though our sin is worthy of judgment, and even condemnation, God offers forgiveness to us, and to all who will believe.
It’s so important for us teach young women that sex and sexuality are wonderful aspects of their created nature, but they aren’t ultimate. To learn more from Tim Geiger on this topic, read his blog, “On Being a Woman: A Father’s Words to His Daughter.”
If childhood sexual abuse (CSA) is part of your story, Penny Freeman offers three suggestions in this video that might help you move forward. To read more on this topic, read Juli Kellogg’s blog, “Sexual Abuse, Brokenness, and Redemption: A Journey of Healing and Seeing.“
In our Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine, guest writer Penny Freeman looks at the stresses of ministry for women leaders, and gives practical ways churches can better support them in the work they do. (You can read the entire magazine issue online: Women, Sexuality, and the Church)
As a 20-something on staff with Young Life, my supervisor gave me a six-page form to fill out that asked me hard questions about life and ministry. The questions were frighteningly personal and, I feared, would expose me as a ministry fraud.
I waited until the last minute to hand it in, confident I was going to be fired. My big reveal? I didn’t have devotions every day. I struggled with depressing feelings. And God didn’t always make sense to me in moments that were hard or disappointing.
My wise supervisor sat me down, listened, and assured me my job and future with Young Life was secure, but she wanted to help me develop and grow. There was a sigh of relief when I found out I was safe under her care. Later that year, at a regional retreat for female staff, I found out that I was not alone. The sharing revealed:
- We all struggled to believe the gospel when hard events were happening in our lives.
- Ministry was rewarding but tended to create loneliness.
- Praying felt difficult to practice.
- We all often lost our tempers.
- We all struggled with “imposter syndrome” and wondered about leaving ministry for “secular” jobs.
- Most women had a counselor or “safe relationship”.
This was the important lesson learned for going forward in ministry: Ministry leaders needed a safe space to be honest about their hearts, their struggles, and their fears.
So, who shepherds the shepherdesses?
Women are working hard in many thriving churches and parachurch ministries as leaders, pastors’ wives, and other support staff, and we should care about their hearts and souls.
Women who are in ministry rarely take care of themselves or have avenues to do so. While caring intentionally for others, many times they run on fumes themselves.
As a female leader, I have been equipped for ministry by the multiple mentors and caregivers who have poured into my life over 40 years. Here are some simple ways people have discipled and shepherded me, enabling me to both function more productively and flourish in ministry.
- Ministry leaders need to practice self-care.
Women who are in ministry rarely take care of themselves or have avenues to do so. While caring intentionally for others, many times they run on fumes themselves. Moreover, most live on shoe-string budgets and rarely have the income to pay for things that might encourage their care. One concrete way to care for a woman in ministry would be to encourage regular time to herself.
Self-care for caretakers should not be optional. Burnout is a real thing. Invest in your female staff members and volunteers by providing movie passes, personal rest days where she can go away and reflect and rest, and any multiple ways she can step away from ministry to do something fun. Although these things may not seem very “spiritual” in nature, they help women gain and maintain a sense of health, enjoyment, and value for self and others.
- Ministry leaders need safe listeners.
Text or call your ministry leader routinely and ask her how you can pray for her. Some of my best supporters are folks I can simply text “PRAY” to, knowing they are safe enough that I don’t have to explain all the details; they know the details of my life well enough to pray.
Spend time to earn her trust and let her unburden her heart on her own terms. Safe listening sometimes means no advice, no judgment, and no well-intentioned prying questions for more information. Just listen and validate your friend’s experience (you can validate her experience without agreeing with everything she says). Finally, be a “vault” listener. What she says stays in the vault (never gets repeated). You are a trusted source of confidence.
Being a safe listener is the only way she will come to you with deeply personal struggles, especially ones involving her sexuality. She may have a husband who she discovers is looking at porn; she might be struggling with that herself. Sexual issues and ministry are an explosive combination! Too many struggles stay hidden until they blow up, for reasons of shame and fear of losing one’s job. Being a safe listener invites others to ask for help and communicates that you will stick with her for her good.
- Ministry leaders need hard conversations.
Our marriages, our kids, and our hearts are targets for the enemy. If ministry leaders fall hard, we potentially take a lot of folks down with us.
If you are a trusted friend, be willing to have hard conversations. Where is she tempted to compromise her biblical values or moral integrity? Is she living within her budget? Is she spending time on Facebook scrolling for old relationships because of marital disappointment? Is she gossiping on the phone about people who have hurt her or looking at websites she shouldn’t? Is she harboring bitterness about events she can’t resolve? Is she dealing with emotional or physical abuse in her relationships?
By all means ask these questions. And don’t be shocked if your ministry friend has far more in her life than you can shoulder; invite her to glean wisdom from others, and from professional counselors in your area. Help her with the cost if she needs it.
- Ministry leaders need encouragement.
Most women ministry leaders walk around with a secret critic in their heads that renders null-and-void any praise they receive. But when they are affirmed in their character, God’s gifting in them, or how their ministry makes a difference in your eyes, they feel encouraged.
Send her to a conference or seminar where she will be fed spiritually and emotionally. Remind her that her relationship with God is more significant than what she accomplishes. Tell her what you see God doing in her, that she is his daughter and reflects him more every day.
These, then, are some concrete ways to watch over the hearts of those women who bear the mantle of gospel ministry. We need to thoughtfully and proactively support these women as they continue assisting others in growth and sanctification.