A heartbreaking twenty-year regret. I saw something and hesitated. A summer’s day walk through a park led me by a parked car. A glance gave me a brief view inside the car to notice a man and what looked like a young child. Something felt off; when the man looked over, and we locked eyes, I froze internally but kept walking. I hadn’t seen any obvious wrongdoing, but his face and a subtle alarm going off in my heart rattled me. Scared and confused, I rushed to the neighborhood police station and reported what I’d seen and was told a car would be sent out.
A twenty-year regret that I did not approach that car leads me to pray occasionally for the now-adult-child, just in case a vulnerable child was hurt that day.
A disturbing fact that should motivate Christians toward vigilant, courageous action is that sexual misconduct and abuse of power happens even among us. To us. By us. It’s not only those “out there,” like the child in the car, who need protection, but all those who are vulnerable within the church.
Four Steps Churches Must Take
This is a deeply troubling, potentially overwhelming topic, so consider the following four steps as your church’s starting point for being a sexually faithful church. At the end of this article, there are a few resources to further guide your church.
Acknowledge that the horror of sexual abuse has happened to many people in your congregation, and they come into the Body of Christ with deep scars and wounds. See them; they are there. Your ministry needs to take their stories into account as you pastor because trauma does not disappear into the past. Those with abuse histories are especially vulnerable to being abused again.
Acknowledge, also, that abuse can happen in your church, particularly by those in leadership. It’s terrible, but true, that sexual predators target faith communities. Why? Christians are often naive, quick to trust, ignorant of this problem, and churches generally offer easy access to children.1 Abusers find the church to be a refuge for their evil deeds.
The abuse scandals that have rocked churches share a common thread: the abused were not listened to. Disbelief and cover-up became the way many churches dealt with the allegations. Rather than pursue truth and protect and care for the wounded, leaders covered for their friends, colleagues, for the reputation of their ministry and church.
The result: Broken and bruised children and teens (adults, too) weren’t believed. Lives were further traumatized; the faith of many failed.
Humanity is so utterly devastated by appalling sin that we need radical intervention through Christ. On behalf of the vulnerable, it is God himself who calls leaders to see the broken and respond to them.
Refusing to acknowledge and deal with these kinds of sins is to commit a graver one: turning away from Christ himself who identifies with the oppressed and weak.
“Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me’” (Matthew 25:44-45).
Refusing to acknowledge and deal with these kinds of sins is to commit a graver one: turning away from Christ himself who identifies with the oppressed and weak.
Learn what you need to do to protect your flock. This task may seem overwhelming, but thankfully there are a growing number of trustworthy resources like Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) which provide education and training on subjects like:
- How to develop a comprehensive plan for your church regarding the vetting of anyone who has a role of responsibility for the vulnerable.
- How to recognize the signs of child sexual abuse.
- How to recognize the typical profiles of pedophiles. Most pedophiles know their victims and are winsome, skilled deceivers who can present in church settings as charming, dedicated Christians.
- How to conduct an effective investigation of accusations of abuse, particularly if the accused is a pastor, staff member, or lay leader.
- How to develop policies, communicated and agreed upon by all leaders and staff, to refuse to hide or cover-up any allegations, and hold one another accountable to follow through.
But do more than study policies and procedures. Read stories from those who are survivors of sexual abuse. Talk with those who are willing to share their stories. These first-hand stories flesh out in powerful ways how abuse can happen, what its devastating impact is, and how the church can effectively protect and respond.
PROVIDE COMPASSIONATE CARE
It goes without saying that this is vital for those who have been abused. So gather resources that provide a list of experienced and spiritually mature people, men and women in your congregation that can come alongside those who have been hurt, and professional counselors who are experienced in counseling trauma and abuse victims and for their families who are also profoundly impacted.
Care is needed for the abusers, also. God’s grace goes the full distance to forgive all sin, and to provide healing through his Spirit, including the hearts of abusers. But offenders also need protection from themselves. A compassionate approach to abuse means that the abuser must submit to boundaries, guidelines, and oversight, and any refusal to do so will mean discipline and even expulsion from the church.
LEAN ON JESUS
Finally, to protect the vulnerable, sexually faithful churches need to depend on Jesus to do this. I close with this because, after considering the first three steps, no one can doubt that this kind of ministry is beyond anyone’s ability. We cannot lament what is horrific, confront sins such as deceit, malice, abuse, betrayal, and pride, care for children and adults who have been devastated by the selfishness of others, and deal with abusers from our personal and feeble reserves of wisdom and love. We need radical wisdom and strength from outside of ourselves; we need a Savior and Redeemer, and we have one in Jesus.
“The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” (Psalm 9:9). We cannot be satisfied with saying these words; we must live them out as ones who are called to reflect him.
This article first appeared in the harvestusa magazine Spring 2019 issue. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
“Recommendations for Churches Dealing With Abuse” by Diane Langberg
Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment (GRACE) is an excellent resource for churches
Onguard: Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse at Church by Deepak Reju
1GRACE, “Five Characteristics of Child Sexual Offenders in Faith Communities,” (accessed 10 May 2019).
Ellen shares additional insight in the accompanying video: How Can Your Church Protect the Vulnerable in Your Midst? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
Probably the most significant issue the Church must address is protecting church members from being abused by those in leadership. Story after story after story over the past several decades has shown how women, children, and even men, have been sexually abused by pastors, priests, and other leaders. But it gets worse. When the abuse is exposed, the Church has protected the abusers instead of protecting the abused and making things right. This unspeakable tragedy is what has contributed to increasingly falling church attendance rates.
The Church needs to acknowledge that all Christians struggle sexually in some way. But it must also recognize, and attend to, those in its midst who struggle with same-sex attraction. While the biblical worldview of sex and sexuality does not embrace gay relationships, that does not mean the Church ignores or mistreats those who try to live faithful lives with a struggle they did not choose.
Tim Geiger gives five ways you can walk alongside someone who struggles with same-sex attraction, communicating along the way that he or she is a fellow believer who is loved and valued—by God and by you! You can learn more by reading Tim’s blog, “Loving Our LGBTQ+ Struggling Brothers and Sisters,” and our recent harvestusa magazine where this article first appeared.
03 Jul 2019
We define a sexually faithful church this way: A church that disciples its members in a gospel worldview of sexuality through education and redemptive ministry. The major point in this simple but far-reaching statement is this: For a church to teach, lead, model, and assist its people to live faithful lives within God’s design for sex, sexuality, and gender, discipleship is the key. Discipleship is a subset of the Great Commission, “making disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded.”
This is the mission of the church. Placing sexuality within the context of this mission gives focus and direction to how we address it.
There is another passage that has long been recognized as paradigmatic for the ministry of the church.
“And he gave. . . shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. . . so that we may no longer be. . . tossed to and fro. . . by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning. . . Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up. . . into Christ, from whom the whole body. . . when each part is working properly. . . builds itself up in love.” Ephesians 4:11-16 (ESV)
We see in this description of what faithful ministry looks like a guide, also, to sexually faithful ministry. We can identify in these verses four characteristics of a church that is faithfully discipling its members in a gospel worldview of sexuality. Such a church will be biblically grounded, mercifully honest, humbly led, and ministry minded. Let me briefly describe what we mean by each one.
“. . . no longer. . . tossed to and fro. . . by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning. . . ”
A mom and dad sit in my office, tearfully recounting to me the conversation with their son about his coming out as gay: “Mom, don’t you know, Jesus never talked about homosexuality. Besides, the few parts of the Bible that do talk about it are not addressing someone like me, who was born this way.” They are confused. They sense that what he is saying is wrong, but don’t know what to say or think.
A group of young girls run by me in church. They are singing a song from the latest Disney movie. The chorus urges them to look inside, follow their heart, and believe in themselves.
What do these scenarios have in common? They illustrate that the world around us is discipling us—especially our kids—all the time. It should not be surprising that we are being “tossed to and fro.”
Being biblically grounded means more than settling on the right doctrinal positions. It means giving people the kind of deep and regular teaching that effectively counters the constant barrage of messages they hear in this world. It means biblical teaching on sexuality and gender that does not only focus on “the bad.” It means winsomely communicating the Bible’s message of the beauty and goodness of sex. It means explaining how God’s good design for sex and gender helps us understand him and the gospel.
A church can give all the right answers from the Bible, and yet have no connection to those in their midst who languish in isolation, paralyzed by fear and shame.
But also, it involves teaching about sexuality and gender in the context of an entire worldview. It means identifying the misunderstandings, distortions, and even lies being spread in our culture about what the Bible does or doesn’t say. The “winds of doctrine” that are tossing our churches blow from a rival world. We need to learn to recognize the worldview foundations of our culture’s messages. We need to counter them with the biblical understanding of God, of the nature of reality, of what it means to be human, of what hope we cling to, of what redemption looks like.
“. . . speaking the truth in love. . . it builds itself up. . . ”
He was in his early seventies and had come for help in his fight against pornography. Early in our discussions, two things stood out. He had been struggling with this sin for over half a century, and I was the first person he had ever talked to about it. This, even though he had been in the church his whole life, even an officer at times. These kinds of details are significant. We have found stories like his to be very common. The amount of time varies, but the prolonged period of struggle in isolation is typical. A church can give all the right answers from the Bible, and yet have no connection to those in their midst who languish in isolation, paralyzed by fear and shame.
Talking about sex is scary enough—for people and churches. It is scary because it is so personal. Even exploration of the theological meaning of sex makes us uneasy because objective theological talk always hovers at the borders of our subjective, personal story. People’s stories are filled with failure, pain, brokenness, and powerful shame.
However, keeping our personal stories hidden in isolation and darkness is the problem that hinders us from grasping the gospel that radically changes our lives. Hiding keeps people struggling with these issues from all the help, encouragement, comfort, and life that is offered by Christ through the means of the fellowship of the saints. That fellowship requires openness and honesty. As John writes, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another” (1 John 1:7).
But to “walk in the light,” we all need an environment that is invitingly merciful. People need to know that there is much more to be gained by coming out of isolation than to be feared. Because of the gospel, there is grace, patience, hope, encouragement, love, strength—all the blessings of union with Christ and communion with his Body, the church, are offered to the ones who step into the light through faith. But our nature is averse to faith; we are hesitant to trust the mercy offered to us. So the proclamation of this mercy cannot be lackluster. The mercy of the gospel merits special emphasis because, as fearful sinners, we need assurance that the Savior is for us.
Unfortunately, it is not just our natural fear of exposure that is a challenge here. Some have had experiences in church, or have heard of others’ experiences, which confirm their fears—people shunned, shamed, or clumsily disciplined. But often it is not particular incidents that create a church culture of hiding. It is the unintentional signals that surround every public and private interaction, the social pressure to look good, the emphasis on the external beauty of the public worship, the insistence on the correct doctrine (a good thing, but not the thing), the lack of any visible models of humble confession graciously received, the way “sin” and “sinners” are talked or joked about, the way every discussion or teaching on sex or gender tends toward culture war rather than gospel hope.
A sexually faithful church works to build a culture that is as merciful as Jesus himself. It is his mercy that calls us out of darkness and into the light of the gospel.
“He gave. . . shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints. . . ”
I’ve been in many small group studies, Sunday school classes, and other church teaching events. But one stands out to me from all the rest. It was a Sunday school class for men, hitting many of the typical topics you would expect. One thing made this class different. The elders who led it made a clear commitment to lead in humility. None of us saw them make that commitment, but we saw the results.
So the proclamation of this mercy cannot be lackluster. The mercy of the gospel merits special emphasis because, as fearful sinners, we need assurance that the Savior is for us.
When it was time to discuss any topic, they took the lead in speaking honestly from the heart, freely admitting personal struggles and failures, acknowledging ongoing battles with sin and temptation, and pointing out areas where they still needed to grow in living out the truths of the gospel. It was clear from the start they were not interested in a race to the right answer. The way they modeled humility transformed that class into a place where men were encouraged to make the gospel real at the front lines of their struggles in daily life.
How these leaders lived was as important as what they taught. Leaders need the gospel like everybody else. Those who preach the gospel must also model gospel repentance and faith in their own lives. This means they don’t give the impression that they alone do not need gospel growth when it comes to sexuality. They also need to be honest about the presence of sin in their life, and of their daily reliance on Christ, seeking the power of his resurrection life to put it to death.
For all Christians, this kind of transparency happens in the context of honest and deep friendships of spiritual accountability. But leaders need to seek this kind of fellowship with urgency. The humility this engenders will cause them to deal with sinners (everyone) in their congregation with great gentleness and sympathy. It will move pastors to preach and teach on sexuality not as generals in a culture war but as shepherds mending a ravaged flock.
The Ephesians 4 passage points out that Jesus is the one who gives the church shepherds and teachers. The calling and skills of the leaders are dependent on the gifting of Jesus himself, and that engenders humility. It is a humility that shapes the way shepherds and teachers fulfill their Jesus-given purpose: to equip the saints to fulfill their mission.
“. . . the whole body, joined and held together. . . when each part is working properly. . . builds itself up in love.”
We have a fireplace in our home that we use often, but I am poorly skilled in the art of fire-starting. Almost invariably, my first try to light the fire catches flame quickly and promisingly. I settle back into a comfy chair to enjoy the warmth and ambiance of the blaze. But a few minutes later, the tongues flicker away into smoke, and I’m looking for more used newspaper and a new match.
Ministry, especially in difficult areas such as sexuality, can be like that. At Harvest USA we help local churches design and implement ministry to sexual strugglers. I was recently asked, “When these ministries start up, and then flounder, is there a common reason?” My answer? They flounder because one significant leader either moves away from that church or loses enthusiasm from tiredness or burnout. Lone ranger ministries suffer from instability. The ministry fades like my initial fireplace effort.
Humility. . . will move pastors to preach and teach on sexuality not as generals in a culture war, but as shepherds mending a ravaged flock.
Lone ranger ministry is not the vision God gives us in Ephesians 4. There we see ministry that is broad and deep. The pastors and teachers are not the ones doing the ministry; they are equipping the saints to do it as a “whole body. . . each part working properly.” There is variety in this vision for ministry; not everyone is doing the same thing, but every part is active. And issues of sexuality and gender are essential areas of discipleship for every single person.
A sexually faithful church is discipling its people in all of their varied roles and stations: children, innocent and vulnerable; parents, overwhelmed and fearful; young adults, eager and reckless; singles, restless and anxious; marrieds, disappointed and confused; those dominated by sin, desperate and ashamed; those who think they have no sin, complacent and selfish. To minister to all these types of people, it takes an army of different people, “each part working properly.” It takes leadership that considers the unique needs of every sub-group, equipping the saints to meet these needs. This is especially so in ministry to those who have deep struggles with sexual sin. This kind of ministry needs a team. A church where the work of ministry is spread broadly and deep gains stability and momentum. It “builds itself up.” It becomes a fire that is effective and not easily extinguished.
All these characteristics describe what a sexually faithful church is. Is it possible? Absolutely—it’s God’s design, God’s work, as is written in Ephesians 2:10, “We are God’s workmanship. . . ” We see evidence of God’s working in his church. We see more churches than ever asking for help to teach biblically on sexuality and gender. We see more talking about these issues with grace and honesty. We see pastors humbling themselves, leading in repentance. We are getting requests from churches all over the country to train teams to walk alongside those repenting from and affected by sexual sin. What about your church? Are you eager for Christ to build you up into maturity? Are you willing to be a sexually faithful church?
This article is from the harvestusa magazine Spring 2019 issue. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
20 Jun 2019
Ed was feeling overwhelmed. The couple that just left his office had been there for marriage counseling. The wife angrily revealed in the session that she discovered her husband had been looking at gay pornography. When she confronted him about it, he confessed that it had been a lifelong struggle. She felt betrayed, hurt, and doubtful that someone like her husband could ever change.
That counseling session came on the heels of last week’s revelation that one of the girls in the senior high youth group had come out as transgender and wanted her peers and youth leaders to call her by a male name. And, there was a church session meeting just days prior, where a major topic of conversation was how to effectively discipline a church member who was in an adulterous affair.
As Ed sat in his office, looking out the window, he found himself asking the question: Lord! What do I do?
Ed’s experience illustrates a growing problem many pastors, elders, and other church leaders face: how to respond to sexual and gender-related sin and struggle in the church. How do you minister to the strugglers themselves and help them walk in increasing faith and repentance? How do you comfort and support family members who are directly impacted by their loved ones’ struggle and sin? How do you respond to church members who resist repentance? And, how and when do you engage formal church discipline?
Those actions are all good and necessary. But, they are all reactive. They come into play after the struggle or sin has been exposed and after it has caused so much damage to the lives of God’s saints. And, they constitute only one part of the ministerial responsibility pastors and church leaders face.
The other side of the pastoral care coin (and the more important of the two) is the call for the church to proactively equip its members to walk in accord with God’s timeless, sovereign, holy, and wise design for sex, sexuality, and gender. At a minimum, being proactive helps Christians understand the inherent goodness of God’s created order when the temptation comes to selfishly misuse it. Proactively preparing God’s people for life in the post-Christian, anti-authoritarian, “authentic self” 21st Century goes a long way toward heading off life-dominating struggle and sin in the first place.
Proactively preparing God’s people could have potentially minimized the impact of the painful challenges now faced by those people in Ed’s church. Could proactive ministry have even prevented some of these issues in the first place? Possibly. As Ed silently pondered his question to the Lord, he asked himself: Is there anything I could have done differently so that these people wouldn’t be struggling in the ways they are now? Is there anything I could have done in advance so I wouldn’t be dealing with these broken lives now?
Proactively preparing God’s people for life in the post-Christian, anti-authoritarian, “authentic self” 21st Century goes a long way toward heading off life-dominating struggle and sin in the first place.
To minister both reactively (to those directly impacted by sexual and gender-related sin and struggle) and proactively (to the entire membership of the visible church), the church itself must be committed to a position of sexual faithfulness. At Harvest USA, we call such churches “sexually faithful churches.”
What is a Sexually Faithful Church?
The term “sexually faithful church” might sound a bit awkward. It certainly is one I never heard until we came up with it at Harvest USA a couple of years ago. This term is one that is meant to be a bit abrasive, as it is intended to call Christians and church leaders to action.
Though the term “sexually faithful church” may be new, it is an ancient, orthodox concept. Here is how we define a sexually faithful church:
A church that disciples its members in a gospel worldview of sexuality through education and redemptive ministry.
What does that definition mean? Let’s briefly explore that definition so you have a better appreciation of where we’re going.
A church that disciples. . . A sexually faithful church is one that intentionally and proactively engages in discipleship. Intentional discipleship is how members grow in the knowledge and fear of the Lord. It is taught and lived out in a way that helps church members apply God’s redemptive grace to their lives. Doing so encourages them to grow in their understanding and appreciation of God’s design for sex, sexuality, and gender, to resist temptation, and to increase their active ministry among the community of their fellow believers. Through peer and mentor discipleship, they discover practical ways to apply that teaching to their particular lives and situations and to live faithfully as God’s covenant people.
. . . its members. . . Members at every age level, from young children to seniors, receive age-appropriate teaching about God’s good and wise design for their bodies and desires. They receive biblical, life-changing teaching about proactive accountability and living transparently and interdependently in the Body of Christ. Proactive accountability is a way for friendships to develop where friends are not afraid of sharing their struggles and are willing to ask hard questions when the need arises. Transparency and honesty is the bedrock of solid, godly relationships.
. . . in a gospel worldview of sexuality. . . We use the word sexuality here as a blanket term to refer to sex, sexuality, and gender. God’s people learn that these attributes of created existence and image bearing are theirs precisely because, through the right exercise and enjoyment of them, we not only honor God, but we reveal his wisdom and glory to each other and the world. In a culture that says we are nothing more than the collection of feelings and desires that drive us, to understand and rest in God’s design for sex, sexuality, and gender bestows an uncommon dignity and glory on men and women as God’s image bearers and his servant-kings over his creation.
But our modern culture tells us that a gospel worldview of sex, sexuality, and gender is not only wrong but that it is also harmful to human flourishing. We’re told that teaching a historic gospel worldview on these issues of human personhood is culturally uninformed, out of touch, insensitive, and unloving. A sexually faithful church educates its members to know how to discern the distortions and falsehoods that increasingly deceive Christians into thinking that to love others means never to challenge their worldviews or their behavior. In other words, the sexually faithful church instructs its members on how to compassionately, patiently, and winsomely speak the truth in love to others.
A Special Call to the Sexually Faithful Church
The call to be proactive in discipling God’s people in biblical sexuality must also deal with an issue the Church has not done well with: sexual abuse and the traumatic repercussions that come with it.
First, the church must acknowledge the hiddenness of this sin and work diligently to care for the victims of sexual abuse, recognizing the devastating impact abuse has on survivors. The church should compassionately help and support survivors to heal and to flourish spiritually, emotionally, and socially.
Second, the church must address the issue of the offenders when the abuse is within the congregation. It must not fail to engage the authorities to see that the laws of the state are upheld, in both investigation and prosecution. And then, it must carefully guard the entire church with policies and procedures that protect against further abuse while helping the offenders to repent and grow. Restrictions on offenders are not punitive; they are restorative for everyone.
Proactive accountability is a way for friendships to develop where friends are not afraid of sharing their struggles and are willing to ask hard questions when the need arises. Transparency and honesty is the bedrock of solid, godly relationships.
And third, a sexually faithful church must never shield its leaders from appropriate investigation when allegations are made against them. Careful investigation by those who are not close to the people involved is what is needed to uncover the facts and seek the truth. That will mean getting outside consultation from professionals and a willingness to listen to them and act on their input. Our people need to see this from us. The world needs to see this from us—because one cover-up scandal after another is steadily turning people away from the institution of the Church. How can we persuade people to follow God in this area of sexuality when we misuse it, and then lie about it?
The History of the Sexually Faithful Church
God commanded his people in the Ten Commandments and elsewhere throughout the Law to be sexually faithful. There are numerous New Testament instructions to be sexually faithful; perhaps the most direct of which is Paul’s admonition to “Flee from sexual immorality” in 1 Corinthians 6:18.
But this imperative is more than a bare command. God’s people are instructed, throughout the length and breadth of Scripture, to both obey the Law and to do so in the context of transparent community.
That instruction goes back to the beginning of Israel as a covenant community. During the period when God established the first community of believers under Moses, he made clear the manner through which God’s people were to be trained in the knowledge and fear of God and equipped to live faithfully. That manner was twofold: teaching, followed by accountability in community. Let’s look at each of them in more detail.
Teaching is commanded to take place in different venues and to different audiences. The Law was to be read publicly to the entire congregation during certain public worship observances (Deuteronomy 31:10-11). Parents were commanded “diligently” to teach the Word of God to their children, in all sorts of settings: “talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:7). Living out the instruction of God’s Word, in the most deliberate manner, was to be a way of life in the home.
While the community was to receive the recitation of the Law in public worship and talk about it with their families, they were also commanded to focus on God’s revelation during their “quiet time.” Psalm 119 was written as a celebration of God’s Law as the perfect pattern for life itself. Readers are exhorted to “do as I do,” with reference to the writer’s words: “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways” (Psalm 119:15). And, it goes almost without saying, that throughout the Old Testament there are the specific commands forbidding certain sexual behaviors (Leviticus) and the agony God displays in dealing with Israel’s adultery (see the Prophets).
In the New Covenant, Paul tells his hearers in Romans 12:2 that covenant believers will be transformed in all respects as their minds are renewed through interacting with God’s Word. He says to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:15-16 that being intimately acquainted with Scripture makes us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” and that Scripture makes us “complete [and] equipped for every good work.” In a remarkable passage, Paul implores the church at Thessaloniki to intentionally live sexually faithful lives based on the instruction “you received from us (in) how you ought to walk and please God” (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8).
Whether in the context of the covenant community or the family or alone, God’s people are to remember God’s Word on a daily basis. We are meant to live it out and be utterly transformed by it.
A sexually faithful church educates its members to know how to discern the distortions and falsehoods that increasingly deceive Christians into thinking that to love others means never to challenge their worldviews or their behavior.
This transformation is not for us alone, merely for individual personal growth. We are messengers of the gospel, and the way we live—and that specifically includes the way we live in and with these bodies God has given to us—is so that we will “shine like lights” in a broken world (see Philippians 2:15). This is the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 22:18: “and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
To the extent that we, Abraham’s spiritual offspring, obey the fullness of the revelation from that same Teacher, we shall indeed bless those around us in our families, workplaces, schools, and communities.
A Vision for the 21st Century Sexually Faithful Church
To be sure, becoming a sexually faithful church requires a commitment to culture change in our churches. That commitment occurs both at the organizational level (the whole church) and the individual level (the particular believer). It requires a commitment to participate in a lifestyle of discipleship with other believers.
Culture change means teaching God’s people what Scripture really teaches about sex, sexuality, and gender—and that God, as wise and loving Designer of human beings, is the only Authority on how these aspects of personhood should be enjoyed. The sexually faithful church must help its members learn how to discern theological truth from distortion and to know how to engage cultural lies with confidence. Whether it involves compassionate correction or a more robust rebuke, communicating God’s will on these issues must always be the truth, spoken in love.
Harvest USA will launch the Sexually Faithful Church Initiative later in 2019. In the months to come, you’ll see more and more resources produced by Harvest USA to help your church become, increasingly, a sexually faithful church. We realize that educating and equipping the members of your church to become a sexually faithful church is a process. We want to partner with you to help make it a reality—for the glory of God, and a witness to the world.
This article is from the harvestusa magazine Spring 2019 issue. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
Tim has more thoughts on this topic and shares them in the accompanying video: What Is a Sexually Faithful Church? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc
20 Jun 2019
What if the Church were to increasingly be a place where God’s people were equipped proactively to understand his will and design for sex, sexuality, and gender? Where they were discipled to live in submission to God’s design, because they understand something of God’s wisdom and grace in giving them these good gifts?
That’s what the Sexually Faithful Church Initiative is all about. It’s a movement Harvest USA is starting later this year, because we want the Church to be the place where God’s people not only learn about what behavior God forbids, but where God’s people are discipled and equipped to live faithfully because they understand the character of the Giver and the nature of the Gift. Watch this video from Tim Geiger to learn more. You can also read Tim’s blog “Why a Sexually Faithful Church?” that accompanies this video.
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.
05 Jul 2018
Christians considering “change” and SSA (same-sex attraction) must think in biblical categories. According to the Bible, the allegiance of our hearts is the biggest area needing change. The essence of the gospel is that although we were his enemies, God reconciled us to himself through Christ, not counting our sins against us (2 Corinthians 5:14–21). God initiated relationship with us and that becomes our core identity. “Who I am” is no longer based on my sexual attractions, desires, or behaviors. Increasingly, it’s not on me at all—my life is radically reoriented around him. Ironically, God’s created intent of romantic love is to point to this greater reality, this ultimate relationship (Ephesians 5:31–32). The way lovers (at least while “falling in love”) abandon their self- interest for the sake of their beloved, beautifully reflects (as in a mirror dimly) God’s self-giving love toward us in Christ and invites us to respond similarly.
Second Corinthians 5:14–15 powerfully describes this reality: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (emphasis added). The beloved of God in Christ becomes our identity and the controlling factor in our lives. In Jesus, we find the “treasure in the field,” the “pearl of great value,” and everything formerly prized is counted “as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Matthew 13:44–46; Philippians 3:8).
The opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality—it is holiness. To be holy means to be set apart for God. This is what it means that we are reconciled to him. He is our God, and we are his people. To be a disciple means taking up a cross, willing to lose my life for his sake, believing his promise that in so doing I will actually find abundant life. Thus Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”¹
A Biblical View of Change
The hope of the gospel is that God does what is impossible for us: he gives us a new heart that understands our need for his grace and embraces Christ by faith. The Holy Spirit at work in this new heart enables us to obey. And, as we examined above, obedience flows from affection for God in response to his love for us. Although the new heart we are given when we come to Christ by faith is “instantaneous,” the outworking in our lives is a lifelong process.
The truth is that temptation, struggle, and loss will be a lifelong reality, not just for the SSA struggler, but for everyone who lives in this fallen world. Jesus taught that in this world we would have trouble, but we can take heart because he has overcome the world (John 16:33). Although it is necessary that temptation comes (Matthew 18:7), God promises that all the trials and suffering in this life have purpose (James 1:2–4; 1 Peter 1:6–8). He promises there will always be a way out of temptation so we are able to endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13).
So to speak of change biblically means in Christ we now have the ability to obey God, aligning our life to his will and design. Transformation means we are no longer slaves to our desires. By his Spirit, God empowers us to obey—in the face of ongoing temptation and the tug of our flesh. Listen to how Paul describes this battle: “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:17). As we live in relationship with him, and equally important, as we live authentically with others in the community of Christ, the Spirit of God reins us in and, even though we “want” to continue pursuing sinful activities, his hand restrains us in love as we surrender to him. In fact, the relational aspect of our faith is so important that living in obedience is described as the demonstration that we know Christ (1 John 2:1–5). In other words, when we know him and experience the blessing of that relationship, we obey. Not because it’s easy, but because he is worth it.
God wants to change our perspective on sex. He wants us to learn that all of life, including our sexuality, is ultimately about knowing, following, and glorifying him.
The issue is not whether we are heterosexual or homosexual or any other prefix of your choice. Remember, the opposite of homosexuality is not heterosexuality, but holiness. Ultimately, we are called to be Christo-sexual. We submit our desires and affections to Jesus, learning how to manage our bodies “in holiness.”
¹Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1959/1995), 89.
This blog is an excerpt from our minibook, Can You Change If You’re Gay? by Dave White, published by New Growth Press. To purchase this minibook, and other resources from Harvest USA, click here.
31 May 2018
Juan Carlos Cruz, a Roman Catholic clergy sex abuse survivor from Chile, met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in April 2018. Cruz, who bravely brought his abuse into the light, self-identifies as gay. In a post-visit interview with CNN, Cruz reported what he says the Pope said to him: “You know, Juan Carlos, [being gay] does not matter. God made you like this. God loves you like this, the Pope loves you like this, and you should love yourself and not worry about what people say.”
The Vatican, when asked, would not comment on whether the reported comments from the Pope were accurate as presented. So, the topic of this blog is not about what Pope Francis said or might have said. Rather, the comments themselves, as reported, are reflective of a growing sentiment in the Church today. Whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, evangelical or mainline, more and more church leaders, members, and attendees embrace the concept of “God made me this way” when it comes to people who self-identify as LGBTQ.
But is that statement true? Did God make me this way?
That’s a question I asked myself repeatedly growing up. As an adolescent and young adult, I wrestled with same-sex attraction—and even to this day. Between the ages of six and eight, I was molested several times by Jim, a neighborhood boy. I don’t remember much about those experiences. But I do remember that they made me feel loved, special, wanted. Jim was the first male friend I ever had. He taught me that friendship was expressed through sex. He taught me that I could be someone who could bring him happiness.
He also taught me that I needed to keep secrets. He taught me how to feel ashamed. And in teaching me all this, he opened the door to my being sexually abused by others.
In some respects, my story mirrors Juan Carlos’s. As I struggled as a young man to interpret everything that happened (along with my growing sexual attraction to men) I came to conclude that I must be gay. Why else, after all, would these things have happened to me? What other rational explanation could there be? And like many others, I asked myself, Did God make me this way?
Over the subsequent years, I struggled with depression, self-loathing, and doubt. Deep, suffocating doubt about whether I was really gay; whether I would ever change; whether God made me this way; and whether God loved me.
The answers offered by many compounded my doubt: Two secular counselors I went to in my twenties told me my problem was my religion. Go to a church where they accept you. Men with whom I had sexual encounters told me, Be true to who you really are. Don’t deny yourself the happiness you deserve. A gay friend told me I should question whether or not I was really a Christian, because Christians couldn’t be gay.
And I was forced to agree. I thought I had come to faith as a child. I don’t recall a time when I didn’t know and love the Lord. But there was no way I knew to bridge the gap between what I knew the Lord wanted of me (obedience) and my pitiable record of 20 years of life-dominating same-sex attraction and homosexual sin. How could God love me this way?
Then, the Lord brought me to a place where I had to grapple with 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, an all-too-familiar passage, one I avoided like the plague, especially verses nine and ten. Those verses are the ones that talk about “men who practice homosexuality” not inheriting the kingdom of God. Every time I read through 1 Corinthians I breezed past those verses as quickly as I could, because I didn’t want to hear the refrain of doubts in my mind and my heart.
But the Lord led me to sit with verse 11: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
I sat with it, and sat, and sat, and sat. And I began to wonder: who is Paul writing this to?
Surely, if he were writing to people who no longer struggled with all the patterns of sin listed in verses nine and ten, then verse eleven wouldn’t make any sense. The only reason why Paul would say: “And such were some of you…” was if those in his audience were still struggling, still living as if they had no hope.
Paul was indeed writing to these people, people like me who were still stuck in patterns of sinful behavior. Paul tells us “Such were some of you,” because he’s trying to get us to see that the identity to which we cling can’t define us any longer. It can’t. Because we were washed, sanctified, and justified—new identity-defining words given to us by Christ and the Holy Spirit.
I began to realize God did love me—but not “this way.” He didn’t love my sin; he loved me in spite of my sin, in spite of my continuing struggle with sin.
And I began to learn there is power in realizing that love: gradually living a transformed life. Paul tells us in Titus 2:12 that Jesus “[trains] us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age…” In other words, there’s no way to be in authentic relationship with Jesus without being transformed by his love and the work of his Spirit. We are, over time, becoming people who look and act more and more like Jesus every day.
To Juan Carlos, I say, don’t be deceived, my friend. God doesn’t love you “that way.” As a matter of fact, he loves you so much more that he gave his only Son to become the sacrifice, slain for your sin—so that you would be brought in as a dearly-loved son, someone fitted for uninhibited relationship with the Father. God loves you as a son being perfected, made perfect, made whole.
Pursue God’s grace to rest not in your identity as a gay man, but in your identity as a dearly-loved son of God. One day, your gay identity will be taken away—through repentance or death. On what else will you stand before God?
And to the Church of Christ, I say, don’t give same-sex strugglers the false hope that God is okay with their sin. Lead them to the knowledge that in Christ the power of that sin to rule over them and define them was defeated on the cross. Help these little ones to pursue holiness, peace, love, and joy in repentance and reconciliation with the Father through the Son, instead of glorying in things that will only pass away.
The Church is active in helping men who struggle sexually, but for too long it has failed to see that women are struggling just as much as men do. Dave talks about key steps the church can make to change this, and be the support Christian women need. And read Karen Hodge’s blog on the importance of women’s ministry in the church here. And you can read the entire magazine online here.