14 Feb 2019
There probably isn’t a more controversial passage in the New Testament than Romans 1. Pro-gay advocates refer to this passage, and five other passages in the Bible, as “Clobber Passages.” Those who advocate for gay marriage in the Church explain away Paul’s argument condemning homosexual behavior, while traditionalists lean in on it with a glaring spotlight.
But I would argue that both sides are not seeing clearly here.
I want to sound a note of caution about how we use Romans 1. Romans 1, particularly verses 26 and 27, is rightly recognized as an important text in the church’s discussion of homosexuality. So what’s the problem?
It’s this: it is dangerously easy for the effect toward which orthodox or traditionalists use this passage to be the opposite of what God intends. Even we can use the passage wrongly.
When we read Romans, we hear it in solidarity with the original audience. It is a letter to Christians about the gospel. After his greetings and other introductory matters, the Apostle Paul sets the trajectory and agenda for the remainder of the letter in verses 16 and 17—the apparently foolish gospel which is the power of God to salvation, salvation offered to both the Jews and the Greeks the same way: by faith. This is ultimately what he is arguing in the whole letter. It forms the broadest context.
To begin his argument, Paul broadens his view. He starts in verse 18 by talking about “all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” He’s talking about the world here. Paul’s scope here is much wider than the church—wide enough to include Fox News, CNN, Ellen, Jimmy Fallon, China, the E.U., North Korea, New York, Venezuela, Planet Fitness, Lady Gaga, Snapchat, Walmart, and on and on. This is our culture, the world’s culture, the diverse mass of humanity descended from Adam.
That’s the point—fallen views make sense in a world with no divine reference.
What does Paul have to say about this broadest category of people and culture? He says that the judgment of God upon them is visible; he uses the word “revealed” (1:18). In other words, it’s on display. How so? In three ways.
First, God’s existence and humanity’s accountability to him is obvious to everyone who can perceive anything (1:19-20). Second, everyone—the great mass of humanity and culture—has decided to deny God’s existence and make created things ultimate (1:21-23). Third, God lets fallen humanity develop and live out the worldview that flows logically and inevitably from that fundamentally flawed starting point—(1:24ff).
This is where Paul brings in homosexuality. Why? The reason is in the answer to this question, “What sort of conclusions flow logically and inevitably from a worldview in which all of nature is disassociated from God?” The answer: ironically, all sorts of “unnatural” conclusions.
Ironically, but inevitably, when humans make nature merely “Mother Nature” and not any kind of creation, they redefine and manipulate “nature” according to their desires, resulting in conclusions that are patently un-natural. Remember, Paul is speaking about, but not to, the broader world here. He is not speaking to that broader world where these unnatural conclusions are held forth as truth; of course, they would not agree that their views are patently unnatural.
That’s the point—fallen views make sense in a world with no divine reference. But to those who have been called out of atheistic or agnostic darkness into light the unnaturalness is clear. And to those to whom it is clear, Paul’s point is this: isn’t all this exactly what one would expect in a world opposed to God? God lets denial of his existence play out to its obvious consequences. Of course! No wonder Paul shines a spotlight on the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality. (Cue the traditionalists at this point saying “Amen!”)
Oh, but wait.
Paul continues his list of the consequences of a God-less worldview. As his list continues, we begin to hear some things that are a little less obviously “unnatural.” We still hear “Amens” now and then, but they are more subdued, less confident. We still see some easy consequences to condemn: “evil,” “murder,” “haters of God,” “heartless,” “ruthless.” But mixed in are, “covetousness,” “strife,” “deceit,” “gossips,” “boasters,” “disobedient to parents.”
Yikes! The thought that ought to be whispering in the minds of Paul’s Christian audience—in our minds—is, “Uh… if these are the outworkings of a God-denying worldview, and their existence is a sign of God’s judgment, then how do I account for these things in my life in spite of my claim to know God?”
That is exactly what Paul intends you to think. It should be troubling. It should be jarring.
If we, as Christians, are smug as we approach the end of Romans 1, we are missing the point. And if we are really committed to missing the point, we stop at the end of chapter 1.
But Paul didn’t put any chapter break here. In fact, the first word in what we call “chapter 2” is, “Therefore….” Here is the conclusion of his argument: “…you, oh man, have no excuse.”
If we, as Christians, are smug as we approach the end of Romans 1, we are missing the point.
No excuse. Bam! We are brought full circle back to verse 20 of chapter 1, where it was said of the God-denying world, “they are without excuse.” At least when they do these things it is a logical consequence of their worldview. But if we do them—and we do—it proves something that should stop us in our tracks and terrify us. It proves that what is wrong with us is so bad that we too continue to rebel against God while claiming to acknowledge him.
What, we should ask ourselves, is worse—to live in godless ways consistent with an atheistic worldview, or to live in godless ways in betrayal of a professed acknowledgement of God?
What is the application here? How should this affect us? It should bring a deep humility that precludes judgmentalism.
I am not saying that Romans 1:26-27 means anything different than we’ve always thought. My caution is this: if reading Romans 1 leaves you feeling anything but uncomfortable, humbled, and convicted—in short, in desperate need of mercy—you are not reading it correctly.
And if all of us do not hear Paul’s message correctly, we are ill-prepared to understand the gospel and to help others do so as well.
01 Nov 2018
I’m addicted to porn. I’m a sex addict. I have a porn addiction, but I’m now free for the last ten years. The word addiction is everywhere in our culture today. We live in an unprecedented age of ways and opportunities to become ensnared in life-dominating, destructive behavioral patterns. Whether it’s pornography, alcohol, drugs, gambling, or internet-gaming, we continue, as a society, to expand our list of what we would classify as addictive disorders.
But is the word addiction—and for that matter the label, porn addiction — really helpful when discussing habitual patterns of sin? Our culture has largely bought into the notion that if you have an addiction, you have a disease. I heard on the radio an advertisement for a local recovery center, and the opening statement said, “If you are struggling with addiction, you have a disease, it’s not a lapse in judgment.”
Many people latch onto the idea that an addiction is a disease because their behavior feels outside of their control. It’s become a monster they can’t contain, and it’s destroying everyone and everything they hold dear. It feels like someone or something else is in the driver’s seat of their lives.
Many people latch onto the idea that an addiction is a disease because their behavior feels outside of their control… that is the very nature of what sin does. Sin is enslaving. We reap what we sow.
But the church needs to slowly and carefully examine whether the word addiction and the anthropology it espouses is in line with Scripture and God’s revelation of who we are as human beings in a fallen world.
When it comes to the arena of sexuality, at Harvest USA we find some helpful things that this word captures for people’s experiences, but we also see how this language points people in a false direction about the true nature of their problems and where to find the solution.
I want to focus on 3 things about how a disease model of addiction can be helpful in explaining habitual sexual sin patterns.
- The addiction model highlights what it feels like not being able to stop.
That is the very nature of what sin does. Sin is enslaving. We reap what we sow. Research shows that the habitual use of anything that is highly stimulating reshapes the brain, creating a powerful neurological process of cravings and rewards that require greater and greater stimulation.
And the Bible affirms this. Paul says in Ephesians 4:19, “They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” (ESV) That last phrase, “greedy to practice every kind of impurity” is also translated as “a continual lust for more.”(NIV 1984). Sowing into sexual sin only creates greater and greater discontentment, and our brains and bodies feel that lack of satisfaction, and we easily believe the lie that maybe next time I’ll finally find relief from pain, loneliness, or boredom. But it only creates deeper enslavement. Pastors need to understand that when a person comes to them for help with a 30-year struggle with pornography, simply telling that person to stop it and pray more is insufficient for the momentum this sin has in their life.
- The addiction model captures the insanity that comes in a moment of temptation.
When someone has been captured by a desire to feed yet again into their enslavement, they lose all sensitivity to the consequences of their actions. They understand that just one more time might cost them their job, their family, even their lives, but in that moment, the pleasure that is offered in sin is worth losing everything to get. This is so helpful in practically setting up boundaries to keep you far from temptation because people recognize that they can’t be trusted with easy access to sin.
I tell men all the time that there is no such thing as a point of no return. No matter how deep they’ve gotten into a moment of sin, the door of escape is still available to them in Christ.
Werewolf movies get this right. In his right mind, the human man begs his family to tie him up in chains because he knows once that full moon appears, he will do things he will regret if he is not chained up. While we know as new creations in Christ that we are no longer slaves to sin to obey its passions, our new freedom in Christ does not imply an immunity to strong temptations in our lives.
I tell men all the time that there is no such thing as a point of no return. No matter how deep they’ve gotten into a moment of sin, the door of escape is still available to them in Christ. But sanctification does not mean we live life on the cliffs of temptation. A mature believer has learned that in a moment of temptation, truth and reason can feel impotent and of little value when pleasure is so viscerally offered, and this should keep us humble and aware that it is utterly foolish to play with fire and expect not to get burned.
- The addiction model highlights the need for a zero-tolerance policy on sin.
When someone clicks on a pornographic website, they’ve already made multiple concessions with sin. Perhaps they were committed to not being online certain hours of the day, but they broke that rule. They also committed to staying off certain sites that are portals or triggers to sin, like a particular news site, but they justified it because of a story they really wanted to read. People often stay stuck in habitual patterns of sin because they aren’t willing to obey Jesus’ command to gouge out your eye or cut off your hand if it causes you to sin.
Many people want to simply manage their sin and just keep it at a functional level. Too many Christians are content with allowing pornography to be a part of their lives, as long as it doesn’t get too “out of control.” And too many Christians actively trying to stop looking at pornography are not willing to take the radical steps necessary. Christians need a zero-tolerance policy with sexual sin.
The church needs a sober understanding of the epidemic of entrenched patterns of sexual sin that are present in the lives of people in our pews. People feel stuck, they are on the brink of hopelessness, wondering if change is really possible. And the addiction model captures sin’s danger and people’s despair. But it’s not enough, and labeling sin as nothing more than an amoral disease is far less than what Jesus offers us. Stay tuned for more thoughts.
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.
This article first appeared, in edited form, in Haven Today’s web blog, www.haventoday.org.
In the summer of 2013, a Supreme Court decision regarding same-sex marriage moved the historic, orthodox Christian view of traditional marriage further to the sidelines. Then, in June 2015, that view was completely taken off the field. Marriage was redefined in our country. Two years ago John Freeman wrote the following, and what he said then remains highly relevant today. Then, as now, we remain firm in our belief that our Sovereign Lord will still use what feels like (and is) a defeat for his glory, as he continues to draw all peoples to himself.
As the Supreme Court struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and the referendum of Proposition 8 in California, it certainly seemed that the tide of our culture would continue to steadily move in the direction of the acceptance of gay marriage. So, what now? How are followers of Jesus Christ, and the church, to think about and respond to the recent decision by the Supreme Court? It is crucial that the church as an institution and individual believers respond well. John Freeman, Founder of Harvest USA, thinks that the best response of the church now is to do the following six things:
1. We should not lash out in anger or be afraid
A fight-or-flight response is normal when overwhelming events occur. But both of these instinctual responses are unhelpful and unproductive. My wife has often told me, “John, when you speak or react out of fear or anger . . . bad things come out of your mouth.” She is usually right. Admittedly, we may legitimately fear where this decision will next take our nation; and we may legitimately be angry over how God’s design for the institution and function of marriage as it has historically benefited society is being hijacked. But we need to keep this in mind: As believers, our true citizenship is in heaven. We must think and act like those whose world has been impacted but not devastated.
I think a more productive response would be that of grief. We need to be grieved at what happened, grieved at the state of the culture, and grieved at how blind people are to the truth of God’s Word and its continuing relevancy for all of human society. We see in the New Testament two ways in which God responds to those who resolutely turn away from his Word. We see Jesus weeping over Jerusalem and her refusal to turn to him as their shepherd (Matthew 23:37-39), and we see in Romans 1 that God, at times, “gives over” (allows) people and society to do what they want to do. Both these pictures are poignant displays of what is wrong with the world: that mankind has torn itself away from God’s shepherding hand and rebelliously set out on its own path. The prodigal son is in all of us.
But just grieve? Doesn’t seem very productive or helpful. It feels so powerless! Yes, it can feel that way, but we need to remind ourselves that the “weakness” of the church is how the power of God is best displayed. It is in that weakness, the weakness of grieving over those who refuse to be shepherded by Christ, that compassion is worked out in our hearts, leading us to love the shepherd-less and for the world to see that we love them.
One way we do this is by not lashing out at the LGBT community. They are not our enemy. The tendency is to see significant political and legal changes such as this as coming from a monolithic force bent on overturning everything. The reality is a bit more complicated. The LGBT community is wide and diverse, and includes those who are secular and those who are religious (even those who claim to be evangelical). It is when the church fails to see this complexity that it has responded to change in terrible and hurtful ways, from when Jerry Falwell twisted Ellen Degeneres’ name to when the church mischaracterizes the gay community in order to have a recognizable “target” to oppose.
For the church to live out the gospel, for it to be the witness to the truth and mercy of Christ, we must not see “them” as the enemy, but rather as men and women who, while throwing off God’s law and calling it freedom, nevertheless are made in God’s image and need to know the real freedom of submitting to God’s will. We need to recognize that there are names and faces attached to this issue, real people, many of them our neighbors or colleagues. An “us” vs. “them” mentality is fear-based; it does violence to the gospel and to us, and it refuses to recognize the humanity that must shape this issue. When we think like this, we fail to recognize that, at one time, we, too, were “them,” people who did not follow the gospel, living for self and following the ways of the world (take note of Ephesians 2).
But we were shown mercy, not because there was anything intrinsically good inside of us, but because God in Christ loved us and showed us mercy.
Another reason not to be angry or afraid is because. . .
2. We need to remind ourselves that God is still on the throne . . . neither slumbering nor sleeping
Although decided in the private chambers of the Supreme Court, this has not happened out of God’s sight. He is the God who knows all and sees all. This is beyond our rational understanding, but by faith we believe that God remains in control over all things, even over the decisions made by man and society that veer away from his wisdom. To respond with anger or abject fear is to forget this.
Why God has allowed the societal acceptance of homosexuality and the (increasing) legalization of same-sex marriage to be so prominent today will remain a mystery at some level. Why he has allowed it to split churches, denominations, and families must also be trusted to his providence. We only know what Scripture does tell us: that this is a broken world, a world where his image-bearers are in rebellion against him and his intentional design for creation. So, in one sense, we should not be surprised. There is nothing new under the sun here. Has there ever been a human society outside of the garden that has not trended in this direction?
We must, as his followers, trust in him at all times, especially when it seems that ungodliness has the upper hand in our society. The courage of faith is when we trust him, especially so in turbulent and darkened times. To continue to follow God when the world thinks we are foolish and it would just be easier to capitulate is to ask God for more faith! He will give it. Remember that faith, even as small as that of a mustard seed, can withstand much adversity and be a force for change (see Luke 17:5-6, in the context of vs. 3-4).
It is by that courage, a courage rooted in God still being a control, and faith that refuses to bend to the latest worldly trends, which moves us to. . .
3. Boldly and gently proclaim the ultimate destructiveness of ungodly actions
While many will celebrate this decision as the advancement of an enlightened society and a triumph of inclusiveness and tolerance, the reality is that actions made in opposition to God’s design carry with them significant consequences. Several years ago noted pastor, teacher, and author James Boice said, “It’s God’s world, not our world. Although we may want to rewrite the rules, we can’t, because it’s God’s world. And sin is destructive, whether or not we admit or agree, it’s still destructive.” In other words, behavior has consequences, even if we don’t fully know now what that will look like.
By removing the definition of marriage from its historical and God-designed nature as being between one man and one woman, how long will it be before other forms of “marriage” will become acceptable and even legal? Many groups deride such speculation as being a consequence of this decision, but history has shown time and again how boundaries are burst open once critical lines have been crossed. And what about the impact on children as we move into social territory that is completely new to human society? To say that there will be no negative consequences when the most stabilizing force for society continues to be upended—that of an intact family of a husband and wife and children—is naïve.
These are important matters that society must wrestle with as it moves further in this uncharted direction. Christians must not shrink from engaging these issues. But we, as Christians, must be careful how we talk about these things. It is one thing to say that actions and behavior that move away from God’s design for human flourishing are ultimately destructive; it is another thing to say that every action and every behavior apart from God’s design will end poorly. We have seen this in the liberalization of divorce laws over the past few decades and in the rise of children born out of wedlock. These two social happenings are tearing families apart. We are learning more and more about the widespread destructiveness to society and to children of such broken family structures. But that does not translate into every single-parent family being an ongoing catastrophe. Many children have grown up with only one parent and have grown up well. But overall, society has suffered when people tear themselves away from the anchor of God’s wise counsel.
What this means is this: We have already—and this will rapidly continue as same-sex marriage is increasingly accepted—embarked on something that is historically very new to human society: children being raised in same-sex families as an acceptable norm. We do not know the cumulative effects of such a new family design. We must wait for evidence of its effect on society and children. But we must also avoid simplistic and sweeping generalizations that erroneously paint distorted and false pictures. We will continue to insist that gender matters in families, that God intended marriage to be between a man and a woman, and in that context a child grows up and learns what it means to be male or female, a man or a woman, a husband or a wife, a father or a mother; but saying this does not mean that good parenting is exclusively the domain of heterosexuals. The fact that God is the one who created marriage and defined it as the establishment of a new family structure (Genesis 2:24) where mothers and fathers are fully engaged in the raising of the next generation is not something to simply discard and say that the gender of a particular parent is irrelevant.
In short, the issues we raise—both within the church and in the marketplace of society—and the ways we speak about them, based on our belief that God’s design for marriage and family is best for society, must be intelligent and complex. We must not be afraid to see the evidence unfold as marriage morphs into newer forms or wrestle with that evidence as we continue to argue for the ways of God over the ways of man.
We live in a broken world, but it still remains a world that God so loved that he sent his only Son, so . . .
4. We must not avoid our calling: to engage the culture and all people with the truth and mercy of the gospel
Even as culture goes off the rails, and we seem powerless to stop it, we’re not off the hook from engaging the culture and actively loving people. Although we may want to retreat and go into self-protective mode, we must not. The church did not do so as the Roman culture descended into greater ungodliness and injustice. The downward spiral of our society and the increasing celebration of what is explicitly forbidden in God’s word make our sharing the gospel more important than ever! The gospel is the only hope for a broken world and fallen hearts. As I already noted, for this reason the church must not attack and demean gays and lesbians because of this issue. The gospel is a message of hope for everyone; not a platform for condemnation and ridicule. The gospel will only be heard through the words and deeds of his people. People are loved into faith and belief, not argued into it.
This will translate into major challenges for the church as society legalizes same-sex marriage. Church leadership must now begin to think through what would be wise and practical ministry to people who, for example, come into the church as a same-sex couple with children. What are the ways the church needs to welcome them while maintaining biblical fidelity? And what if a couple comes to faith and begins to wrestle with what Scripture says about their relationship? In what direction does the church counsel them—and their children? Divorce? Splitting the family apart? Or something else that tries to maintain the integrity of God’s Word while practical gospel ministry unfolds with the family? The truth and mercy of the gospel—a tension that must always be held in dynamic balance—will need to be fleshed out in these types of situations, and we will be undoubtedly stretched. But we need to start thinking about this now.
We must also begin discussing a subject about which we have been much too silent on. . .
5. We must begin relevant and effective preaching and teaching about why God’s design for sexuality is best
The silence of the church on many issues has contributed to the emergence of movements that have been detrimental to mankind. It can be argued that the church’s failure to preach and teach about why God’s design for sexuality is good, relevant, and functional (even in a broken world) has created a vacuum for the acceptance of same-sex relationships. The church has said “No!” for too long as its main message on sexuality and now needs to say “Here’s how,” or “Here’s how God’s design for sexuality remains the best venue for people and society to flourish.”
The church also needs to get honest. Honest about its people who struggle with their sexuality. For the sake of appearances, or because of the fear of not knowing what to do, churches have ignored those in her midst that are falling deeper and deeper into the morass of sexual sin. The church can no longer condemn sexual sin “out there” while at the same time not admitting or helping those who are struggling believers. After all, aren’t redeemed lives the best testimony of the power and love of God—redeemed lives that are honest about continuing struggles but display a relentless gospel grace to follow Christ where ever he leads?
God is always at work, always, so. . .
6. “Keep calm and carry on” as God’s people and his church
During the bombings of World War II, people in Britain felt that the world was falling apart. “Keep calm and carry on” became a common phrase on billboards and posters as a way to encourage the British people. We need to follow this advice as well. How do we “keep calm and carry on” when we see everything around us in a downward spiral and decay? We lean on and trust in the Rock of our salvation, who is still with his people while we continue to carry out his kingdom work.
We must not let these things have more power over us than they really do. And, thankfully, we still live in a country that gives us the freedom to speak and make our concerns known. We must not be cowed into silence in speaking about further societal consequences and about the future of religious liberty, two major issues embedded in this controversy. But, again, we should not place our faith in any human political or legal structure as our ultimate protector or savior. Jesus said that his kingdom was “not of this world”—neither is ours. The mission of the church continues. The church cannot be either dismissed or destroyed. It remains God’s vehicle of redemption, worked out through his people. That mission will endure until he returns. So let’s keep calm and keep carrying on with the mission and the message that remains the hope for every person in the world.
To hear more about how to think pastorally in communicating the gospel with gays and lesbians, John has a chapter, “A Missional Response to Homosexual Strugglers in the Church and the Gay Community,” in Reformed Means Missional: Following Jesus into the World, published by New Growth Press. Go to www.harvest-usa-store.com for a copy.
Ed LeClair, the Development Director for Harvest USA, attended a denominational conference at the invitation of the moderator and another pastor within the denomination’s more conservative contingent. We wanted to tell you about his journey so that you get a sense of how we proclaim a truth-and-mercy response to the divergent views that many within the church proclaim today.
We attended one denomination’s conference at the request of the conference moderator and the pastor of a church in the denomination’s “conservative camp.” They knew that the LGBT organization which exists within the denomination would be represented and would be presenting some workshops. Some more conservative pastors wanted to see a biblical witness to sexual issues also represented.
Prior to attending, a post appeared on our Harvest USA Facebook page. A member of the denomination expressed his opposition to our presence at the conference and urged the moderator to disinvite us. He saw us as an organization engaging in “spiritual and emotional violence” toward gays and lesbians because our biblical position on homosexuality was not affirming. We responded to his letter, replying that we are not hateful toward gays and lesbians, but rather call all people (not just gays and lesbians) to live within God’s design for sexuality, affirming that there is no place for violence and hatred within or surrounding this subject. Following this post, we began to notice on the web that some others within the denomination were upset at our attending.
So, I went to the conference with some trepidation. Frankly, we are used to this at Harvest USA, but it is never easy to be disliked, attacked, or have our message distorted and maligned. We have come to expect this in an age of “tolerance,” when anything short of total affirmation is chalked up as bigoted and hateful. How did we get to the point in our culture, in which the mere expression of different positions is considered completely unacceptable and, in the name of “tolerance,” virulently shut down and dismissed?
Having all this hanging over me, it was a wonderful relief on the first day to engage with many people who stopped by my exhibit table to say they were happy to have us there representing God’s Word. Many expressed concern for my well-being and said they would be looking out for me. Looking out for me? Someone reported to me that, at a previous conference when the issue of homosexuality came up, fights broke out. During this year’s conference, there was a team of “Reconciliation Ministers” who roamed the convention floor in pairs, on the alert for any signs of trouble developing. They all made it a point to assure me of their immediate support if I should need it. It’s always good to be looked out for!
Shortly after the conference began, the leader of the LGBTQ organization approached me to talk. The exchange was tense at first. She explained her reasons why she did not want our representation here. She cited instances of people, particularly young people, being “harmed” by ministries such as ours, which in some cases led to depression and even suicides. She expressed her concerns about “reparative therapy,” in which she believed we engaged, and also a concern about how we counsel parents whose children self-identify as gay.
As I listened, it became clear that her perception of our ministry is typical. I clarified our position on reparative therapy—we never engage in it, primarily because the gospel is not a foundational part of this therapy. We never advise parents to shun their children who profess same-sex attractions or identify as gay. I spoke about the countless number of men and women who have come to Harvest USA over the past 30 years, who desired to follow the long-held, orthodox interpretation of the Scriptures regarding their sexuality, and they needed help. Far from harming them, we gave them hope! I stressed that our mission and our methods are steeped in the mercy and truth of Jesus Christ, and that we have long been advocates of opposing disrespectful or hateful intent towards gays and lesbians.
As we talked, I shared about my own long struggle with homosexuality and the hope I encountered when I first came to Harvest USA. Gradually, the tension began to subside, replaced by a growing trust and respect between us. She even invited me for dinner with some of her friends, and I gladly accepted!
For the remainder of the conference, there were cordial and pleasant exchanges coming from most of the people aligned with the LGBTQ group, while a very small number of them chose to ignore me altogether. Over breakfast one morning with a pastor who firmly aligned himself with their position, we ended our meeting with an appreciation for one another, in spite of the differences between us. But I also encountered angry people who were upset by our very presence and our scriptural position. I was told several times that I should pack up and disappear, that the world and the church were moving in a different direction, and that our message was no longer relevant. These were sad and painful encounters. I could only silently pray for them as they quickly moved away from me after their short outburst. Standing for scriptural truth and authority is not a walk in the park!
Overall, it was a wonderful opportunity to attend the conference, for several reasons. Chief among them were the dialogues I had with a number of people who had held a narrow view of Harvest USA and a great dislike for us. While the dividing issues are still there, I believe some of the hostility and misconceptions in these encounters were diminished by respectful words and acts of kindness, which I strove to display—and so did many on the other side as well. I was also appreciative of the opportunity I had to meet many fine people, have good conversations, and, in particular, directly minister to a number of people wanting to share stories of their own pain and struggles with sexuality. To God be the glory!
A third reason why we may change our minds on what Scripture has historically about the acceptability of homosexuality has to do with the company we keep. By this I mean, consider what you are reading, seeing, and viewing in today’s media. I’m not advocating we turn off the TV or stop reading articles and books that take positions different from our own, but we need to be careful that those positions may alter our view—not because of their reasoning, but because of the status of the person writing the material.
One author I have always enjoyed for his devotional work is Henri Nouwen. During the last years of his life, however, Nouwen’s theology openly shifted not just regarding homosexuality but also regarding the uniqueness of Christ and his work as the only way to God. Only after his death did some of the reason for that shift become apparent: Nouwen himself secretly struggled with same-sex attraction. Couple that with dabbling in eastern religions, and Nouwen began to shift his own views. It wasn’t so much his own wrestling with Scripture that brought about this positional shift; it was what was going on in his own life. But Nouwen’s status, huge and imposing in the Christian world, had and still has a powerful impact on those who read him.
Who we listen to really does matter. Again, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t read anything that differs from our own viewpoint, or anything that differs from an historic Christian doctrinal position. We need to have our own positions, and the historical Christian position is sharpened by interacting with how the current culture is thinking. But we also have to be aware that when someone we admire begins to shift his or her position on what the Scriptures say, that can have a significant impact on us. We can be swayed not merely on the basis of a reasoned argument, but because we don’t want to look “out of step” with people whose thinking we have admired.
Have you ever been swayed to a different position than what the Scripture has historically taught (on anything) because someone you admired or respected took a different position?
Last week we looked at the strong and intense cultural pressures that are attempting to sweep all faith and all religion out of the marketplace of life. But there are other powerful reasons why many Christians today are changing their minds on homosexuality.
One major reason people give in is because of their own personal struggles or the struggles of someone they love and care about. Dealing with same-sex attraction is not easy, especially so in this culture of ‘anything goes’ sexuality.
There is no quick fix; there is no easy formula that will result in change. Obedience to Christ and his word is a tough path to walk for many, and the struggle can go on for years and years. To struggle against something so life-dominating is wearisome.
That goes for lots of things: addictions like substance abuse or alcohol or gambling; chronic depression; anger or bitterness over what life has dealt you. The way out is not to just give in and allow yourself to be defined by life-dominating behavior; it never is.
Unresolved personal pain that accompanies a poor theology of suffering and sanctification can also cause one to question God’s word. An inability to understand what it means to struggle with sin—as opposed to struggling against sin—leads to despair in the face of continued temptation. Add to this an inability to understand the powerful force of our sinful nature, and the stage is set for eventual compromise. Around Harvest USA, we often say, “The heart wants what it wants when it wants it.” This is its nature! Knowing how to face this reality is crucial.
Personal struggle or pain is very often the driving force when someone changes his or her mind on long-standing Christian doctrine. “Doctrine is life,” as Martin Luther once said, so one’s understanding of doctrine is not something that stands apart from the stuff of life that hits us all the time. Pain and suffering pushes into doctrine—as it should—but life needs to be informed and understood by doctrine, not the other way around. When one’s sociology informs one’s theology, we then live in a world where anything goes—and Scripture eventually gets turned on its head and made to say what it clearly doesn’t.
Where does your own pain or the suffering of someone you care about press upon you to alter what Scripture says? Do you understand the difference between “struggle with sin” as being distinct from “struggling against sin?”
What causes someone to change his or her mind on long-standing Christian doctrine? I recently ran into a woman from my church who, knowing my profession, told me that she was now unsure if Harvest USA’s position on homosexuality was helpful or biblical. She wondered if perhaps this was God’s gift after all. Who are we to tell someone their feelings about their own sexuality are wrong?
The encounter really shook me. I know this person. She is no novice to the faith. She knows the gospel. She has been in my church for more than a dozen years. I wanted to engage her in a conversation about why she no longer believes the historic doctrinal position on sexuality, but she wasn’t interested in dialoguing about it. She only wanted me to know that she now feels the “old” way of thinking is judgmental and mean-spirited. Then she walked away.
There are a number of reasons why someone like my church friend would be willing to change his or her mind. For one thing, we live in a culture that is actively engaged in confronting and dismissing truth found in the Bible. Religion is now viewed as oppressive, the reason for why we experience wars and interpersonal conflict today. If someone really wants to be free and follow his or her heart—well, religious belief is the obstacle that needs to be swept aside.
The Bible and what it has historically said about same-sex desire is swept up in this cultural tidal wave. To believe something that contradicts acceptable cultural norms is to appear dated, judgmental, and oppressive to people who want to live out their sexuality any way they please.
Even ordinary Christians buckle under this cultural pressure. Do not underestimate the cultural forces that moves and influences us, even to the point of adopting unbiblical positions. Particularly with this issue, the pressure to give in and change our minds is incredibly high, maybe the highest it has ever been. Increasingly, the historic, long-standing position of the church on homosexuality is under attack in the media, in our institutions, in our traditions, and even within the church itself.
Do you find yourself having a hard time resisting this cultural pressure? Do you find that it would just be easier to change your mind and be free of the pressure and the potential ridicule that other people might heap on you? Sometimes people change their mind not because of new evidence or persuasive reasoning, but because they are tired of not fitting in.