Editor’s Note: This post has been adapted from sermon content delivered at Living Hope Communty Church on October 28th, 2018.
I was a young seminarian having dinner with a gay couple of 30 years.
To provide a little context, my aunt, a follower of Jesus who works in the entertainment industry, had this bad habit of talking about me with people I didn’t know.
So when my wife and I had gotten married almost 10 years ago, unbeknownst to me, she had excitedly shared about our newlywed status to her gay friends.
Surprisingly, they invited her to invite us over for dinner and unsurprisingly, we accepted the invitation for free food.
The 3 of us drove over to their place and were greeted with amazing hospitality. We arrived to fresh made hors d’oeuvres and enjoyed an incredible meal. They told us stories, made us laugh, and asked us questions about our future plans. But towards the end of the evening, without prompting, one of the men began to share with us his personal story.
He shared that he had grown up in the church where his parents were heavily involved, but also that he had began experiencing an attraction towards men during his adolescent years. He detailed how he had prayed and asked God to take it away. He began to get very emotional.
Wiping away his tears, he shared how he had prayed so earnestly for so long, begging God to take away those feelings. But he also shared the disappointment that those feelings were never removed. He concluded by sharing how much he loved being part of the church while he was young.
We thanked him for sharing his story.
How does your church talk about homosexuality?
What would a gay person or someone who experiences same-sex attraction conclude about Jesus, the Christian faith, and the church if they attended your church for a while?
Though almost 10 years removed, that dinner scene had left an indelible mark on me because of his painful recollection of his past struggle in reconciling his same-sex attraction with his Christian upbringing.
He had concluded that God’s greatest desire for him was the complete removal of homosexual desires.
He believed he needed to be converted - converted to heterosexuality, and he came to this conclusion either on his own, but more likely through the influence of his church’s explicit teachings and implicit church culture.
Which makes me wonder - had he had grown up at the church you or I attend, would he have come to a different conclusion? Would he have a different view, a more holistic view of God’s desire for him?
From my limited observations, here are some unhelpful ways churches can pursue this topic, with a few solutions for consideration.
A FEW UNHELPFUL WAYS
1. Never Talk About It
Some churches never address the issue of homosexuality.
Sure, the topic of homosexuality is often polarized or politicized, and no, the Biblical role of the church isn’t to address every topic under the sun.
But doesn’t silence ignore the prevalence of this issue in the actual lives of people who attend churches? Arguably every person in the church is affected by same-sex attraction (SSA) either through relationship (friend, co-worker, family) or personal experience. So isn’t this a discipleship issue?
If the goal of the church is disciple-making (fully formed followers of Jesus Christ), doesn't this include equipping and training people to have the mind of Christ (Biblical thinking) so that Christians can know the will of God in every spheres and circumstance (obedience)?
But when churches say nothing, they communicate the message that this topic is not important, or that we’re afraid, without communicating the ways Christians can wisely love others.
2. Speak with Tone-Deaf Simplicity
Some churches speak swiftly with oversimplified categories as if Christians have cornered the market of truth on this topic, when in reality, we may not understand this issue as much as we think or ought to.
For example, some Christians use the term “homosexuality” as a junk drawer term to categorize anyone and everyone - from the person in a gay relationship, to the person who experiences SSA. But this looks ignorant at best.
Counselor and Psychologist, Mark Yarhouse in “Homosexuality and the Christian” outlines 3 different distinctions or tiers of how homosexual desires are understood.
(1) Attraction (SSA) is a momentary experience of desire for the same gender (“I felt”) (2) Orientation is to "experience same-sex attraction that is strong enough, durable enough, and persistent enough for them to feel that they are oriented toward the same sex.” (“I feel”) (3) Identification is the embracement of a gay identity. This is where the individual chooses not to only accept, but celebrate their identity through their same-sex orientation (“I am”) (which makes the popular Christian phase “Hate the sin, but love the sinner” offensive).
It’s not helpful when Christians exercise little nuance.
3. Make It the Issue Above Every Issue
Does the Bible mention homosexuality? It does.
But the Bible mentions a whole host of other topics and issues as well.
But most importantly, the Bible is not an encyclopedic compendium of issues, but an amazing redemption story of cosmic proportions about God’s heart for human flourishing, how we’ve screwed it up, and how he’s purposed for reconciliation and restoration.
So it’s a little weird when a church talks about homosexuality as if it’s the holy grail of transgressions. It reek of hypocrisy with a freshly squeezed cup of no self-awareness.
It’s like that guy you run into on occasion at Starbucks who’s trying to show everyone how he mapped out the date of Christ’s return and how a political leader is the anti-Christ. He’s missed the point.
Kevin DeYoung, in “What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality” writes, “….if we think the big takeaway from this Big Book is the rightness or wrongness of homosexual activity, then we’ve managed to take a sublime narrative and pound it into a single talking point.”
4. Offer a Fragmented “Cure"
If the church’s message for someone experiencing SSA is anything along the lines of - “God will cure you of your homosexual desires” that is not only an incomplete message, but one I find dangerous and deeply offensive.
It’s offensive because that’s not the same message Christians give to one another when they struggle with inappropriate heterosexual desires.
More importantly, that’s not the core message Jesus gave.
The message Jesus gave was not that he would simply “cure” us of our desires, but that we would have a greater freedom - the freedom to deny ourselves of that which subverts our well-being by picking up our crosses, and following Him by the grace of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Could God take away certain desires? Of course, he could. But possibility is not the hope of the Christian faith, but assurance of a greater freedom (self-denial), in a greater relationship (Jesus), for a greater flourishing (Kingdom).
5. Prescribe a Personal Journey, Without Communal Invitation
What’s a more powerful invitation?
"You can get in shape. You can do it.”? Or “Let’s do it together. We got your back”?
The latter. Why? Because it expresses unity and solidarity.
But can you remember the last time a pastor, leader, or anyone in your church encouraged anyone experiencing SSA to walk together as the Body of Christ?
But when churches exhort people towards solidarity with one another on issues like idolatry, depression, or gossip, but not SSA, they communicate that SSA is not a safe topic for discussion in the church body.
A Few Solutions for Consideration
1. Capture a Posture of Humility
What if churches started to admit that maybe we’re not as informed about this subject as much as we think we are or ought to?
For example, when it comes to locating where exactly the feelings of SSA come from for an individual, the data is inconclusive.
According to the American Psychological Association, “There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons…much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.”
In other words, theories of nature, nurture, or conscious decision-making fall short.
So what if Christians said, “Yeah, we’re not exactly sure why someone experience SSA. Sure, The Fall account (Gen 3) has something to do with, but that’s no different for the Christian who also experiences his or her own unique desires and attractions on account of the same Fall”?
Some may think this demonstrates a lack of conviction, but I can’t help but wonder if this a healthier posture for the Christian.
Besides, doesn’t humility catalyze a greater potential to quickly listen, slowly speak, while desiring to learn, which are always advantageous to the one who practices them?
And isn’t this a more credible witness for the world? Humility is refreshing and breathtaking for those who witness it.
2. Consider the Heart of the Matter
How would you answer the question: “What does the Bible say about homosexuality?”
Have you ever considered how Jesus would answer this question?
I think he would answer it the same way he answered 1st century religious leaders when they asked him about divorce (Matt 19:1-6): Not by intially addressing the issue directly, but by first backing up, panning out to demonstrate the greater and higher ethic with its divine intentions.
In other words, he would first paint a picture of God’s intended design so that every other issue may become crystallized under the umbrella of “what ought.” In doing so, the “what ought nots” find their proper place in light of prior established “what oughts.”
Here’s what I mean: When we back up and zoom out and see what’s ultimate, we find a beautiful love story of redemption being worked out by the Creator of the Universe.
And central to this story is the blaring good news of unthinkable union of two distinct “like-opposites” where the God who is divine, holy, and perfect enters into relationship with sinners who are human, broken, and imperfect.
But what portrays and displays this glorious union of like-opposites?
According to the Bible, this glorious union is illustrated by an earthly parable and metaphor of the one-flesh union of human marriage (Eph 5:22-32).
But what creates and achieves this human one flesh union?
The coming together of two distinct human like-opposites - male and female (Matthew 19:4-5).
In other words, much like how distinct elements such as oxygen and hydrogen create water, God’s template of design for the one flesh union occur on account of the union of two distinct elements in male and female, which ultimately exists to serve as a picture of a greater union of distinct like-opposites.
Eve Tushnet, in an article for The Atlantic called, “I’m Gay But I’m Not Switching to a Church that Supports Gay Marriage” makes this very point when she writes, “Marriage, as the union of man and woman, represents communion with the other in a way which makes it an especially powerful image of the way we can commune with the God who remains Other.”
Notice, how once the picture pans out to demonstrate the big picture, we see so much more than just “ought not” but we “ought not” within the beating heart of God’s desire for human flourishing, which is punctuated by God’s incredible plan for reconciliation and union.
Therefore, in light of this great story, it’s not difficult to see how homosexual practices would be classified as sin which would break God’s heart - much like how unlawful divorce, or a heterosexual marriage where a man is unwilling to sacrificially love his wife like Christ loves the church, or where a wife is unwilling to submit to her husband out of reverence for Christ, or like how a dating couple sleeping together outside of marriage, or how the enjoyment of pornography, would be sin.
Christians need to get to the heart of the matter: God’s desires and God’s intentions, and God’s plans, from which other issues then become clear, rather than merely focusing on an issue.
But in order to achieve this, we need to use the telescope of redemptive history rather than the microscope of homosexuality.
3. Champion a Complete Gospel that Demonstrates a Beautiful Jesus
When I look back at that dinner, it breaks my heart that that man’s conclusion of what it meant to be a true Christian meant to be “cured” from his feelings of same-sex attraction.
But in light of the big picture of redemption, we know God’s goal for someone with SSA is something far greater than experiencing heterosexual desires, but greater conformity into the image of Jesus through the pursuit of holiness!
Isn’t this concept central to the Christian life? That whether we experience same-sex attraction, inappropriate heterosexual desires, feelings of jealousy, envy, or pride, we take up our crosses, deny ourselves, and follow Him, becoming more like Him?
The hope of the gospel is not the immediate removal of our struggles and attractions (which will come in glory), but the power, grace, and ability to live like him, with love for him and others in the very midst of temptation.
The message is not that we “upgrade” ourselves but deny ourselves. We get to switch out self-expression for something far greater: God-expression.
Yes, this is a great cost. But the great cost is met with a far greater gain: We get Jesus. And Jesus is that beautiful!
Isn’t this a more complete picture of the gospel? Isn’t this more accurate to the radiating picture of Jesus in the Bible?
4. Cultivate Safety through Corporate Normalization
Christopher Asmus is a married man and pastor who experience SSA.
In his article, “Satisfied in the Arms of Another” he encourages those experiencing SSA to walk with a church and find accountability.
But I wonder if the onus is also on the church to speak of SSA in a way that normalizes the topic so that people can openly share with their community.
See, there are things that people can share in our churches because these things have become normalized in our churches.
This has happened because the pastor has talked about it, because someone who has struggled or experienced something has shared their story, and because leaders have discussed at the leadership table for intentional culture shifts.
In other words, further normalization will require intentionality on the part of the church as a whole to take steps to create a culture of safety where people can share and be honest.
And I believe this will only aid and strengthen the church in the discipleship making process.
I understand that this is a difficult topic for churches. We want to be faithful to God. We want to stand for truth. We want to love.
And it’s hard to tie it all together well.
Every church is still in process and it’s imperative for us to be in prayer for ourselves, our churches, and our leaders.
But as we’ve considered the various ways our churches speak on this topic, there may still be a deeper burning question yet: How do you personally feel towards the LGBTQ community? Like, honestly?
Would you see a person experiencing SSA as a God-imaged human being who needs the same grace you do? Or would you find them to be gross, or slightly worse than you?
As Christians who can be eager to give grace and truth, we must remember that the original use of that phrase was not used as a prescription but description. In the original phrase, Jesus is not giving, but is embodying grace and truth (John 1:14). Jesus was fully truthful and gracious it says.
Maybe before we try to engage in conversation or critique our churches for its weaknesses, what if we were honest about what’s really going on underneath? Consider. Ponder. And if necessary, repent, confess, and move in the right direction.
If you’re a church leader, would you prayerfully consider taking a small step towards leading your people to better love and engage people with SSA?
No, the church does not exist to give opinions about every single issue under the sun. Yes, I agree, the Biblical role of the church is to worship and adore Jesus by faithfully carrying out the great commission to make disciples of all the nations.
But precisely because that is true, isn’t it worth equipping and training your disciples to have the mind of Christ thereby embodying the same graciousness and truthfulness of Jesus?
Because it’s entirely possible that there may come a day when someone in your church finds him or herself having dinner with a gay couple.
And I hope that happens more often for Christians.