Friday, March 04, 2011

How Can Churches Move Forward On The Gay Issue?

I make this post with a good deal of hesitation. My goal is not to stir things up, but to push all of us Christians to be the kind of community that Christ envisioned. These thoughts are my own, and if you have anything to add, I'll gladly hear yours. I just think we've got to be deliberate about how we move forward on this.

Several months ago, I was still having my blog feed to my FB account. Ironically, though my blog is much more accessible publicly, I get a lot more response to my posts by people on FB. I wrote one article, speaking out against Obama's efforts to promote and celebrate homosexuality, which I see as the deterioration of morality. This led to a very involved discussion among me and my friends, and in the end, it left me feeling unsatisfied. Since most of my blog readers are a good deal more civil than some of my FB friends (sadly, it's the ones who agree with me with whom I've had the most issues), I opted not to share my blog on FB any more. I don't regret my stances, but there are several things I wish I would have worded differently. Sexual preferences are an intensely personal issue. I had made up my mind not to post any more on the subject, yet it keeps on being a very relevant issue that I'm thinking about.

Just this week, a group of anonymous people claiming to be current and former Harding students published a work called The State of the Gay at Harding University. For several reasons, I'm convinced that there may have been some outside organization involved in this (it is both too professional in some ways, and too out of touch with Harding's environment in other ways). I decided to bite my tongue about the whole thing, until I got a call from a close friend at Harding who asked a challenging question: "Mark, I understand what the Bible teaches. I agree that it's unambiguous about extramarital sex being against the will of God. But we've also got to be realistic. There are going to be gay people around us. There just are. What should our churches be doing? How do we move forward?"

Now there, in my mind, is a productive conversation to be had.

What I want to do with this post is to try and explore some ideas about what Christians need to be doing in a world that is increasingly accepting homosexuality as normative. Let me first reference two things:
1. Albert Mohler's excellent article on the cultural factors that have produced the current mindset.
2. Cole Yoakum's post that really started helping me think about this in some ways I hadn't before. I don't agree with Cole on all aspects, but he's moving in some good directions with his thinking.

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I invite anyone and everyone to weigh in on this conversation, but based on how I see things, here are my suggestions for what we should do.

1. The Church needs to understand Her own identity as a redemptive community.

We should be a place for people to find rest for their souls. A place where broken people find a better purpose. I know that God delights in displaying his strength through our weaknesses.

When you read of Paul's experiences in Corinth, he says in I Cor. 6:9-11:
9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. 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.
Roman culture embraced homosexual practices, and even considered male friendship to be the highest form of love (See Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, p.70-76). In every culture, the church has to articulate and embody Christ's vision for a better community. In Corinth, this vision certainly incorporated those inclined towards fornication, homosexuality, greed, alcohol, or dishonesty. Paul says, "That's what some of you were!"

I think in approaching the issue, we should begin with the question, "How can God take what is broken in this situation and use it for his glory?" Our goal for everyone should be redemption, because redemption is what we seek for our own souls. The Church should be a place where everyone has a chance to use what they are for something better than their own empowerment.

2. We should spend more energy promoting virtuous living, rather than merely condemning sinful living.

If there's anything I've learned from my dialogue with people on gay-related issues, it's that we have been loud and clear about how Scripture condemns homosexuality. Gays know we believe they are doing wrong. Though there are some efforts on the fringes to reinterpret Paul's writings, these are very recent and innovative approaches that have arisen because of a cultural agenda. Billions of Christians over thousands of years have had no trouble understanding the text to mean what it says.

That having said, we all have passages that make us uncomfortable. As I watch Blu-rays on my nice HD television, sitting on my leather sectional, I personally don't enjoy reading passages that suggest I should not be so worried about accumulating earthly treasures. Why? Because I'm guilty of materialism. In America, we hardly even consider passages about fasting or self-denial. Nobody likes being confronted with their own shortcomings.

If our only approach to homosexuality is to say, "It's a sin!", then can we blame them for not wanting to show up? We don't preach against materialism or gluttony with nearly the passion that we do against homosexuality. Why? Because it's easier to condemn what we don't struggle with.

Though I'm fully convinced that all sexuality outside of marriage is sin, I think we can make the sinful aspect a component of the larger message, which should be about virtuous living. Jesus did this.

If you read through the sermon on the mount, Jesus will repeatedly address an issue, but rather than sticking with the legal right/wrong component, which he doesn't neglect, he takes it in the direction of "What kind of people should we be?"

Rather than merely not murdering people, we shouldn't even be overly critical of them, or call them names.
Rather than merely not cheating on our spouses, we should be people who don't even think about that sort of thing.
Rather than looking for 'Scriptural' reasons to divorce, we should be people who work actively to keep our vows and enrich our marriages.

You get the idea.

In terms of sexuality, rather than saying, "We're the 'Not Gay' Community!", wouldn't it be more productive to be a community that works hard at having self-control? That's relevant, whether you're gay or straight, and it targets the very same areas. Pornography and lust are huge problems in our culture, and all sexual temptation comes down to self-control. Am I wrong?

I am not suggesting we take the Osteen approach of refusing to talk about sin. I am suggesting that we acknowledge sin for what it is, but focus more on what it is to be like Jesus. Let's be truly virtuous people, rather than people who just sin a little less than the world does. It shouldn't surprise us that the world doesn't live like Christians, because they aren't Christians.

3. Let's think more deeply about how a person's non-attraction to the opposite sex might be used in God's service.

With homosexuality, many people just can't get past the 'gross' factor. Whether people are gay because of nature or because of nurture is really irrelevant. Some gays have changed their preferences with treatments, but others have tried treatments without successes. The fact is, like it or not, there will be some people whose attractions are only to their own sex.

Paul spoke candidly in Romans 7 about his own struggles with his body's inclinations. No matter how much he wanted to be one way, he discovered that he was another way. If you read these verses through a variety of lenses, whether it be sexual preferences, gossip, greed, etc., they ring very true, don't they?

Rather than ostracize people with homosexual urges as thoroughly unfit for service, could God use them for something nobler?

Cole's article really caught my attention on this point:
Their same-sex attraction might even set them in a very good position to do work and ministry in the Kingdom that straight people would have a problem with. Housing for young women, prostitute ministry, strip club ministry, really reaching out to single moms. These are works that are 1) neglected, 2) rocky terrain for married men to walk on and 3) especially hard for single straight men. An area where there is no temptation is the place you need to be!
Those were some entirely new ideas to me, and you may or may not care for those particular ones. But could there not be some merit to looking for ways to turn a weakness into a strength?

4. We need to reclaim a worldview that values single people.

After all, this is the clear teaching of I Corinthians 7. Ideally, everyone could stay single, dedicated only to God. Paul is happy for people to be married, and sees the value in the marriage relationship, but in the end, he really does consider it a more virtuous thing to be single.

I've felt badly for so many young people I've known who didn't have much luck or interest in the opposite sex. I've seen them berated by friends and family, "What's wrong with you? Can't you find a husband/wife? When are you getting married?" They'll set them up with random people on dates. It's as if we're ashamed of single people, or something is wrong with them.

On a side note, I think it's ridiculous how many churches will refuse to even consider hiring an unmarried man as a minister. It's a sad state of affairs when Paul himself would have a hard time getting a job at a church. Yes, they may be susceptible to temptation, but could you honestly tell me that lots of married men are not every bit as susceptible to the same temptations?

What if a lack of desire to be married was viewed as an inherently virtuous thing? What if our singles were treasured, rather than pressured? If we are going to expect gays to live a celibate life in order to be part of the church, it is important that they can feel loved, cherished, and respected in this way of living.

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I don't pretend to be an expert on how to handle all of this. What I do know is that sooner or later, we're all going to be confronted with how we're going to work with the gays in our own communities. Let's plan well, prepare well, and be sure that all people have the opportunity to experience the love of Christ, regardless of what roads they have traveled to get to where they are.

Your thoughts?

12 comments:

  1. Really well said. I like your points about the value of single people and the value of weaknesses-as-strengths. I think another step the church needs to take in moving forward is to have a clear doctrine and teaching on the sin of hatred. The church needs to be the first in line pointing out the tragedy that is Westboro Baptist Church. They are sad, hate-filled people trapped in their own world of sin. Hate is never a Jesus-response and it's not alright for people to co-opt Jesus name in the pursuit of hate.

    The church desperately needs to hear this. I recently had coffee with a lesbian who shared with me that she had spent time in seminary, but was asked to leave when she came out. That wasn't the most hurtful part of her journey though, since then she has visited dozens of churches and filled out contact cards asking for a place to connect as a gay person. She has yet to receive one response in any form.

    The church needs to know how to respond - in love and grace.

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  2. Thank you Mark for attempting to tackle such a subject and not just doing it in a judgmental manner. You raise some very good points and approach this well.

    www.dalejenkins.com

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  3. I gotta echo James here - we've got to make sure that we stress to those who are already in our churches that hatred is every bit as bad as any sin that anyone outside of the church may be committing.

    It's a hard line to walk, but it is necessary to find the balance between telling someone that what they are doing is wrong while who they are is still someone loved and treasured by God. And since so many members of the LGBTQ community (in my experience) don't make any distinction between their sexuality and their identity, that's going to be VERY difficult in a lot of cases...

    But then, so is Christianity in general, so I guess it's nothing new...

    The biggest thing we have to focus on is Love. Love keeps no record of wrongs, but Love is definitely aware of wrongs. We can't become permissive of sins that ultimately destroy lives just because we Love people, but we've also got to make sure that our Love for them tempers our condemnation of the SIN while we embrace the SINNER into the fold of Christ's body.

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  4. Thanks to all of you for weighing in. I think, like it or not, we're going to need to do a lot more talking about this in the near future. I pray that our love can show through, despite our temptation to act otherwise.

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  5. We should have been talking about this for years now because whether we realized it or not there have been people in the pew who struggle with this but are too ashamed to admit it because we single this one out.

    It has been eye opening to me to have counseled with people who struggle with this sin and then realize they have been in Bible classes I have taught for quite some time. It makes me cognizant of how I present things and to do so with firmness about what the truth is but not in a way that could be considered unloving or inconsiderate.

    I think your way forward is healthy. The more we discuss it the more effective we will be as congregations in helping people understand where we stand and why rather than just understanding where we stand.

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  6. I am new to your blog, through Matt, and I just wanted to say that I, too, appreciate the way you handled this blog post. I tried my own hand at it but I don't think I succeeded very well. :-) I have had this exact topic over and over again among my friends and it's something that many of us are concerned about. I really appreciate your realistic and practical ideas, as well as your emphasis on humility and kindness instead of condemnation.
    Brianna

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  7. I just posted some thoughts in response to yours over on my blog. Thanks for starting this conversation.

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  8. Take a look at Hebrews 9:28.

    ...so Christ was sacrificed once "to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him."

    After telling the readers that Jesus came and died and was raised and exalted, the author says Jesus will come again to "bring salvation to those who are waiting for him."

    Perhaps we would do well to invite the lost into salvation and redemption rather than trying to argue them into judgment and condemnation.

    After all, holy living doesn't matter much until one is standing on holy ground in the kingdom of God.

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  9. Beautiful comment, Christine. Great to hear from you.

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  10. Well said friend. Interesting take on one's desire of the same sex. I've heard and read studies about the "being born this way" argument but haven't cast it in light of Romans 7. I've come to realize it's nearly impossible to argue against someone who believes they were born that way...I was born with with a desire towards women and Satan tempts me with those who are not my wife, but I still have the choice to act. I thank God for his grace that covers my sin to the degree as someone tempted with homosexuality. My sin is no better than theirs. If the church refuses to reach out to sinners, we've lost our purpose so where does that leave us?

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  11. I just wanted to repeat everyone else and say that I really appreciated the comments and tone of your post as well.

    I personally believe it is acceptible to God for them to be with a committed partner in a marriage, but that's another issue. It is crazy how often we harp on this issue while ignoring the condemnation of greed, etc. Anyway, well done.

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  12. Thanks again to everyone for weighing in. I tried to have a constructive tone, and you've all been gracious to continue that in your shared thoughts. May God give us wisdom and discernment as we all wrestle with how to move forward.

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