“I know in my head what Scripture says about homosexuality, but in my heart I sometimes struggle with that because I see students who are quite happy being gay. How do I reconcile these two?” 

At the end of talking to 140 ministry interns, that’s the question someone asked me. It was June, in hot Atlanta, where the Student Outreach of Harvest USA spoke to Reformed University Fellowship interns about how to help college students with sexual struggles. They had all participated in RUF ministry while they were students and were now working with RUF as graduate interns. Ahead of them was a ministry with a student population in the thousands. These kinds of questions were the ones they needed to know how to answer.

The struggle this intern had is the same that many in the church face today, especially among our youth. Our society has normalized same-sex relationships, and it’s becoming easier to accept it and go with the flow. The biblical position on sexuality is now the one that looks out of place. RUF is a solid, evangelical student ministry organization, and yet as we travel to speak to lots of student ministers we see how they are wrestling with the impact of today’s swiftly-changing sexual mores. Their struggle shows how much they care about trying to connect the power of the gospel to the lives of those who are embracing our post-Christian culture.

The entire day was designed to address big questions like the one I got. Here’s another one: Why do we, as Christians, struggle with sexuality so much? Aren’t Christians supposed to be different? 

Good question. The answer is that sexual struggles and sin don’t just happen by themselves; they’re connected to something deeper. We must look to the underlying factors that drive our behavior—the hidden motives of the heart. Even Christians struggle with a multitude of idols, good things we want in life that become things we feel we cannot live without. At some level we begin to believe God cannot meet the desires of our heart, and we turn to find life outside of God. We all need to know our own idols in order to effectively turn from them.

Another question these student interns will face: How can I help a student who keeps falling into sexual sin? Here we advised the interns to move towards sexual strugglers with empathy and compassion, in the same way that Jesus moves toward us. Good accountability relationships will be important for the struggler but ought to be grounded in grace and not legalism. Real change is not just about behavior, working hard to live differently; it’s finding life in Christ, where turning from sin is a response to God’s amazing grace to sinners.

Here’s the final question the RUF interns must answer today: What’s wrong with sexual behavior that is consensual and doesn’t hurt anyone? This is the post-modern justification for any and all sexual behavior (and is, frankly, what causes the struggle the student intern was talking to me about).

Here we tried to help the interns understand the worldviews that drive this postmodern understanding of sex, where truth is found only in your own personal life experience, and your sexual desires define the core of your identity. In contrast, the Christian worldview is that personal experience is not objective truth, but God’s Word is, and that Word tells us about our broken condition and of our desperate need for God. God has designed our sexuality for purposes greater than our own appetites, and love, without a moral standard, is too easily twisted into self-centeredness, even when two people want the same thing. Mutual self-centeredness as a core principle is brokenness, not health. But God’s love, when lived out in a marriage relationship between a husband and wife, displays a growing other-centered love that finds life in giving, as Christ demonstrated for us on the cross.

Cooper, my Student Outreach colleague, and I walked away from our time with RUF with a deepened sense of how today’s students are bombarded with an anything-goes sexuality that looks appealing but does not bring about the life God has for his creation. This necessity of our mission to equip churches to proclaim the goodness of Christ and his design for sexuality to emerging generations was only strengthened during our time with them.

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!

Updated 4.28.2017

This article first appeared as a religion column in the Philadelphia Daily News with the title “Churches that don’t acknowledge homosexuality build a difficult barrier.”

Twelve years ago, Oprah Winfrey interviewed J.L. King about his book, On The Down Low, which documented multitudes of black men who regularly engaged in sex with men.

Often husbands and fathers, they do not identify as “gay,” but they do live secret and radically disjointed double lives. In fact, King pointed out that African-American churches are “unrealistic about the number of men leading double lives.”

Recent accusations about a well-known Southern minister in a mega-church of African Americans have brought this discussion back into the limelight. King cites blatant hypocrisy: ministers who condemn homosexuality from the pulpit, then have sex with men in the pews.

His concern is that the church all too often condemns homosexuality rather than admits its presence among members and leadership. The picture King paints is that church leaders often mistakenly convey the message that this is something that happens “out there” and not “in here.”

Yet anyone can struggle with same-sex attractions and homosexuality, regardless of race and ethnicity. It is part of the human predicament. In a sense, it’s a subcategory of the major human dilemma. What is at the essence of the greater human dilemma? Just this: the Bible says that we react to confusion, life’s circumstances, hurts, disappointments, and pain by developing plans and strategies to make life work apart from God. We all develop approaches to life that say to others around us, and to God as well, “I have a plan for my life—don’t you get in my way.”

This is the nature of sin, which extends to what we do with our hearts and bodies, sexually speaking. How we handle sex reveals what we believe about God. Our use or misuse of sex always reveals whether we’re living lives of submission to God or rebellion. For all of us, then, one of the key questions of life is whether we’re willing to call God “boss” and let him meet our needs his way.

The white church is also hesitant to admit that its members experience these kinds of problems, as well as the propensity to live double lives of hypocrisy. Yet homosexuality seems to be a more hidden reality in African-American, Asian, and Latino churches. Perhaps the white church has just lost its sense of shame; that is, it has lost an awareness that something is terribly wrong, while African-American and other ethnic churches still hold on to some appearance that, biblically speaking, same-sex attraction is not a good thing to be open about or celebrated.

I don’t know how many black churches have become pro-homosexual. This is not a bad thing, but avoiding the real struggles that people experience is.

Keeping silent about these struggles puts those in the African-American church in a bind. The barriers to admitting the truth and seeking help consequently remain very high. These barriers must be broken down in the African-American church. This can happen only when these real heart issues and problems are discussed openly and honestly. That’s also when people who struggle with same-sex attractions might be encouraged to talk about it sooner so that they can understand how much God cares and longs to meet them in the midst of their secret struggles. The pop psychologist Dr. Phil is right on here. He often states boldly and frequently on his TV show, “What can’t be admitted can’t be changed.”

A passage from the Bible, I Thessalonians: 4:3-5, states, “This is God’s will, that you abstain from sexual immorality; and that each of you learn how to control his own body in holiness and honor; not in lustful passion. . . . ”

Admittedly, these are hard words to take in, especially in our ‘sex is my own business’ culture. But they are also life-giving words that transcend race and ethnicity. In this sense, God’s words to us are truly multicultural in nature.

Updated 5.10.2017

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