A few important disclaimers, before we begin:
- This will be a series of posts, and I ask that you read all of them before making any final judgments.
- I pastor at an evangelical church that teaches that the only biblical confines for sex for the Christian is in a marriage between a male and a female. This has been the clear teaching of the Bible and church history since the church has existed, although some are attempting to challenge it now.
- I think there are many things that many churches have done right in response to the growing prevalence of homosexuality, but I wanted to focus first on areas where we haven’t been as helpful (to practice Jesus’ instruction of pointing the finger at yourself before you point it elsewhere.)
- Regardless of holding fast to a biblical view of sex and marriage, our church has become a sort of haven for same-sex attracted men and women. We have sought to become a fiercely welcoming, loving and gracious place for the same-sex attracted, providing a safe place for people where there is no fear of condemnation or judgment.
- Many of these same-sex attracted Christians in our church would claim the term “gay” to varying degrees, many have committed to lifelong celibacy in light of following God’s design for sexuality, some have gone on to happy heterosexual marriages, and others have left our church.
Several years ago we were a young church full of young people, and we started having people come talk to us about unwanted sexual attractions that they’d been battling secretly for years. We didn’t know the best way to handle it, but we knew one thing: that the fear and trepidation with which people came to us broke our hearts.
Many were coming from religious backgrounds where they felt like they could never speak of such a thing without risking permanent judgment and ridicule. We knew that the gospel creates the freedom to be aggressively honest about ourselves, so we preached that relentlessly and sought to practice it when people braved that openness.
We began to gather information from other Christian leaders and ministries that proved helpful, but the real change that happened in our church family came when a young man moved to our city for a graduate program who was a mature, same-sex attracted Christian who’d been walking this road for decades.
To protect his identity, we’ll call him Tom.
I met Tom for coffee after he’d visited our church one Sunday, and he began to share his story with me. He’d felt attracted to other guys since being very young, but also was very attracted to following Jesus and became a Christian at an early age. As he grew in his faith and studied the Scriptures, he saw that while he could do nothing to change who he is attracted to, that acting on his desires was not in line with God’s design for human flourishing for Christians.
Throughout high school and college he continued to mature in his faith and he began to consider that following Jesus may mean never marrying. He had moved overseas for several years before he moved to our city, and he sat there in the coffee shop and asked me what our church’s stance on homosexuality was.
I told him that we believed Scripture prohibits same-sex relationships for Christians, but that we also wanted to be a safe place for people who feel like they can’t talk about this issue in church and have felt judged and excluded. The problem was, we really didn’t know how to become that.
I didn’t know at that time that Tom would essentially teach our church family how to be that over the next several years. I didn’t know he would basically start a thriving ministry to same-sex attracted Christians in our city.
As he continued to talk about his story, he framed the entire homosexuality discussion in a different way than I’d ever heard before. He used the example of feeling at times like he’s Frodo from The Lord of the Rings, and he’s tasked with taking the ring up to Mount Mordor, and sometimes it is so difficult and disorienting he can hardly stand it, but that the reward in Christ (both now and at the end) is far worth the amount of pain he is experiencing.
He also said something that put the entire discussion into perspective that I will never forget. He had just moved from teaching in southern China near the North Korean border and had met many North Korean Christians who had fled to China for their lives.
He said, “I’ve known people recently who were literally martyred for their faith in Jesus. People that were frozen to death because of their commitment to Christ, people who were eaten alive by rats. All because of the reward set before them, like those in Hebrews 11. If those Christians can give their very lives for Christ, I think I can handle being single for a few more decades until I get to spend eternity with Him.”
Needless to say, I left that meeting in tears.
A few years later, and largely due to Tom’s openness and willingness to meet with and share his story with anyone who wanted, we had a growing number of people who had come out to us and wanted to explore what following Jesus as a same-sex attracted person looked like. All throughout this time we preached family, family, family—grouping people into what we call LifeGroups to actually do life together as believers, to practice the “one another” commands of the New Testament (love one another, serve one another, confess your sins to one another, etc.).
Week in and week out we preached that married, single, whatever—our most important identity was that we are “in Christ” and have been made permanent family with one another. So instead of just smiling awkwardly at one another on Sundays, let’s actually model what Scripture teaches and be the church together.
These same-sex attracted Christians found themselves in the midst of these groups of Christians, and over time many found the courage to brave their stories with their groups. The responses were gracious, gospel-centered and filled with many tears. Many found a safe place to talk about these issues in a religious setting for the first time in their lives.
But we wanted to continue to equip and encourage these believers, knowing the difficult roads ahead of many of them, so one year we took a group of them to an Exodus International conference. We knew that there had been some unhelpful things that had come out of the so-called “ex-gay” movement in the past, but were under the impression that those things were past and that the current focus of the ministry was on providing a safe place for Christians to talk about anything and a doctrinal focus on Jesus being the great reward. Like any other conference we knew that biblical discernment would be needed, but we took a chance on it and took a group there.
I don’t think I have the time or space to adequately describe what I experienced during those days. I went into it a little hesitant, not knowing quite what to expect. I left feeling like I’d witnessed something holy, like I’d walked on hallowed ground and had a front row seat to a beautiful people worshipping a beautiful God. People that were, in one of the most literal ways I can imagine in our culture, living out Luke 9:23 and taking up their heavy crosses and following Jesus because He’s worth it.
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
Again, I’m sure there are many things that Exodus and other ex-gay ministries have done in the past that have been harmful and unhelpful. I’ve heard some horror stories. But what I experienced at this conference was nothing more or less than what the church is designed to be. Speakers who stood up and said, “Jesus is enough. He is our great reward. He is worth it, and we can follow Him together as a family.” I walked away encouraged, strengthened, challenged. I watched people worship and laugh together and shed tears with one another and I couldn’t help but do the same. Jesus looked so very beautiful in the faces of the people there.
But the saddest moment of the conference came when I met a new friend. I won’t say his name, but he was an older man who attended a large evangelical church in the South. We met during a break and stuck up a conversation. We swapped names and I asked about him, then he asked about me. When he found out I was a pastor, he said “So you are attracted to men?”
“No,” I said. “I’m just here with a group from my church to support them.”
I wasn’t ready for what he did next. I saw my response register in his eyes, and he immediately started weeping. Just standing there, a blubbering mess, crying in front of me.
“I’m sorry, did I say something wrong?”
“No, no,” he said. “It’s just…you’re a straight pastor? And you’re here, at this conference, with a group from your church?”
I nodded, still not sure where he was going.
“Thank you!” he blurted out, stepping toward me and wrapping his arms around me in a huge bear hug. Tears started to drop from my eyes at this point, and I hugged him back.
“Thank you for being here. I would give anything to have a pastor who I could talk to about this.” With a broken heart I invited him to move to Columbia to be family with us. I told him we’d love to have him and that he would be more than welcome.
Silence & Self-Righteousness
We drove away from that conference and as we all talked, one thing kept being repeated: “It seems like not many people have what we have.” Out of all the people we’d met and talked to at the conference, few of them were a part of a church family where they felt fully known and fully loved, where they had spiritual relationships that they would call “family,” where they felt comfortable even sharing about their sexual orientation.
It felt like most of them were adrift on spiritual desert islands, trying to sustain their spiritual vitality but with little to no help because they felt they couldn’t actually talk about what was really going on with them. It felt like this bi-yearly conference was the stand-in for the church in their lives, their only source of support and true Christian community. We drove away heartbroken, and grateful for what the Lord had created here, mostly from using my friend Tom.
I couldn’t get over the fact that this para-church ministry was filling the shoes of the church for so many people, because many churches across our country aren’t being the church when it comes to this massive cultural issue that is crushing people. They are resorting to silence or judgment or disdain, trampling the very people that need help most.
And then a little while after that trip, I learned that the ministry was closing it’s doors. This was not a huge surprise due to the embattled nature of the history of the ministry, but it crushed me nonetheless. It felt like a large group of new friends I’d just made had their life raft yanked away from them.
We’ll talk about this more in depth in the third post of this series, but what makes me even sadder is, in the years since, seeing many leaders in the so-called “Side B” movement change their stance on same-sex relationships. And while different leaders have expressed different reasonings for doing so, I have gotten the feeling that much of it is due to sheer exhaustion and despair over hurting people that don’t have the support they need to stay on Side B and follow Jesus even in celibacy.
The arguments have been laced with the feeling that it’s just too hard, that they don’t want to see people hurt anymore. Like a white flag that says, “We tried, but it was just too hard and we didn’t have enough help.”
Because so many fighting this fight don’t have a church where they can be aggressively honest about where they are and still be loved. Where they can have deep, intimate, family-like relationships with other believers who know everything about them and still love them with a pure, gospel-centered love. Where they can be trusted with the same leadership roles of those with heterosexual brokenness.
Many churches across our country are right about their theological convictions about homosexual behavior, but very wrong in their application of silence and self-righteousness for sinners who are broken in different ways than the norm.
Church, if we are ever going to be a light to the growing number of people who identify as gay and lesbian, we are going to have to repent of our silence and self-righteousness. Repent of treating this issue like it’s a special class of sin. If you will not enact church discipline with an unrepentant heterosexual person in sexual sin but you will for a homosexual person, shame on your inconsistency.
The gospel says that we are more wicked than we’ll ever know but more loved than we’ll ever imagine. That means there is no place for secrecy, silence or self-righteousness with any sin issue people face. Our righteousness has been carried out in God, so we can freely walk into the light without fear of condemnation (John 3:19-21).
If we are ever going to be a light to our friends who have homosexual orientations, we will have to trade our slant-eyed scowls for tears.
If we are ever going to be a people of good news, we will have to trade our distant silence for warm invitations for dinner and gracious, humble conversations.
If we are going to be the church we’ll need the the truth of Jesus to be spoken not with an air of superiority, but with broken hearts and a confounding grace.
(These topics will be explored much more in depth in the coming weeks, so please stick around.)